AM/PM: Tall Juan
By David Weiner
We first saw “Tall” Juan Zaballa at a small venue in Brooklyn. He wore a nice button-down shirt and bleach stained jeans. He was quiet and calm and carried with him a beer onto stage. Within minutes of his show the 6-foot-4-inch Argentinian rocker had stripped his shirt off, taken two shots of alcohol and began humping a floor speaker.
The pure organic energy that came from the tattooed 26-year-old resonated with each staccato lyric. He describes his short songs as little poems with a sound influenced by the Ramones. His gyrating hips and and sporadic stage movements slightly resembled that of a modern Elvis, minus the goofy outfits and commercial appeal.
Juan has been spending his time at Jizz Jazz Studios with his housemate Mac DeMarco wrapping up his first album between gigs in New York.
We spent the day with Juan at his home by the water looking out at the New York skyline as we watched incoming planes land on the JFK strip. He talked about quitting drugs, tattooing, learning English and strangers showing up at his door.
JUAN: When I got to the US I stopped smoking weed. I moved here when I was 22-years-old. I have a Visa but I can play music only. To me it’s cool as fuck. I’m able to be in America and be a musician. [But] the same way you don’t know Spanish, that’s how I was with English. All I knew was like, “Hello.” If I was smoking weed I couldn’t communicate with anyone. I would get shy. Whenever I listen to Bob Marley I like to smoke, but otherwise I don’t smoke anymore. I get too quiet when I smoke.
POND: Does your family know English?
POND: So they can’t understand your music?
JUAN: No. I have a very different relationship with my family. When I was in Argentina they came to all my shows. I talk to them often on the phone, maybe a couple times a week, but I’m doing my own thing. I could show my parents my music, but I know they wouldn’t like it. It’s not like it would make me sad or the other way around and they like it, but it’s whatever. I don’t do it for my parents. I do it for me.
JUAN: We recorded 16 songs for the new album. Mostly the songs are 1 minute and a half. I’m going to select maybe 11 songs and leave five just to release. I’ll have an 11 song album and 11 songs is going to be 25 minutes. I didn’t plan it that way, but I really like that.
If you start getting bored, it’s already gone. It’s like a little poem with music, a short one. In Spanish it’s called prosa [prose]. It’s like prose with music. Maybe when I learn the language better I will have longer songs, but not even my songs in Spanish are long. I’m not a big writer. People change over time. Who knows in maybe five years I’ll write totally the opposite with 10 minute songs. I can get bored when I listen to songs that are that long.
Tall Juan wanted to hold a "Cacktoose". He used a seashell as an ashtray.
A wild brawl involving dozens of people erupted at a Queens casino, and the melee was caught on cell phone cameras. Video posted online showed angry patrons hurling chairs, brandishing weapons, exchanging punches, running & shouting. Coincidentally Tall Juan was there, and this is what happened.
JUAN: You know what’s crazy about the South American people and about me and my friends or whatever is that when we listen to music in English we don’t understand shit, but we like it a lot. I love the Ramones albums and Marilyn Manson since I was six. You don’t understand the lyrics, but you like the vibe.
POND: When did you first meet Mac DeMarco?
JUAN: I met Mac last year. We started hanging out a little bit then the guys went to Europe and I stayed in New York and Mac was calling me to go to his house in Brooklyn to hangout. He knew that I was looking for a place and he wanted to move too and he said “Hey, you want to move to Rockaway with me?” The first time I heard Mac was when we played a show with him. I didn’t like it much the first time I think. Then I heard more of his shows and we went to Europe together and then I started to like it more. Now I like it a lot and it’s probably because I know him too.
We talk about music, but not about each other’s music. We recorded five songs together and they sounded really good. I like that I like my music. I listen to my songs a lot. Mac was very supportive as Juan Wauters is supportive too. They helped me to record.
In the back of his home is sunroom space filled with guitars, amps and cigarette butts. On the floor was a disheveled bed for guests.
POND: In Mac DeMarco’s latest “mini-LP” Another One, he gives out the address to your home in Far Rockaway. Living together, what has it been like having people showing up to your house?
JUAN: In the beginning it was chill. Maybe a couple guys would come early in the morning for a cup of coffee or something. Then all of the sudden some people would come at 10 p.m. and it’s crazy, like what are you doing here? I don’t like it much, everyone knowing where my house is. It’s kind of weird. It’s hard to be nice to all of those people.
POND: How does he act around everybody that comes through?
JUAN: He’s nice. Some of the people they over stay their welcome and then it’s like “Yo, get the fuck out of here.” It’s hard for him to tell people to leave. That’s not my business. When I feel like they are cool I talk a little bit. Nobody was here in the winter, not even friends. People started coming one month ago. It can be fun. He kinda lost control of the whole thing. He didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal. I think it’s a good way to get press. Not many people do that. Actually, no people do that.
POND: Did he expect a lot of girls to come?
JUAN: No, he didn’t care about the girls. Us, we thought it would be cool the girls would come. Not many girls came, usually guys.
An Argentinian drinking a Mexican beer in front of an American flag and the king of Rock 'n' Roll.
POND: What’s been your craziest concert experience so far?
JUAN: The other day I was playing at this place and I started moving like crazy and having fun. All of the sudden I didn’t know there was a lightbulb on top of me. Like a big round expensive one. I swung my guitar and it shattered the bulb. It was super loud and even when we were playing you could here it. My bass player stopped playing and there was glass all over the place.
JUAN: I started looking all over me and there were these little spikes and I was all cut on my skin and my chest. After that I went to the floor and started walking on my knees on top of the glass. I felt like doing that in that moment. I had the pants. I was playing without the shirt so my whole body was covered in glass and I had little cuts. It was fun, but I wasn’t looking for that and when I finished playing I was like “Fuck, I don’t like this.” It was fun and crazy too.
Juan got his first tattoo when he was 12-years-old. He got caught jabbing himself with a needle and ink, giving himself a stick and poke at around 10 or 11-years-old.
JUAN: When I was 14 I bought a tattoo gun and I started getting into it and tattooing my friends and stuff. Then I started working at a tattoo shop. I was 14-years-old giving people tattoos and the parents would come with their kids and I was the tattoo artist which was super illegal.
JUAN: I go to Stop & Shop once a day. I feel like home when I go there. It’s so cool because you have everything there. They have beautiful girls working there sometimes. I have my love that works there. The last time I went, I had my bike chain and she said “What is that?” I said “The chain for my bike.” She started touching my chain and we started talking.
POND: So that’s why you go to Stop & Shop?
JUAN: That’s only one reason. Then she said that she wants to move closer to my area. She was telling me a little bit about her life. Then she said “You like Juanes?” I was like “Not really, but he’s alright.” He’s playing Madison Square Garden and I told her we should go together if you want. I don’t like the music, but I’d go with her. She said yeah and I said I’d see her soon then I left. Maybe we’ll see her now when we go. I see her pretty often because I go there every day. I forgot her name, but that’s ok I love her anyways.
His love interest wasn't working when we showed up, but he still walked me through the isles and took me to his favorite section, clearance.
Tall Juan has recently embarked on his first headlining tour along the East Coast. He will be premiering a 7'' vinyl for his single, "Falling Down," on September 13th in Brooklyn, NY at Shea Stadium.