Interview: Rodriguez


Until 2012, Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez was largely unknown in the United States – but then the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man was released. It turns out that, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music had become extremely popular in Apartheid-era South Africa, at the level of bands like The Rolling Stones. A highlight of the film is the footage of his triumphant first tour of Australia in 1998.

Searching for Sugar Man effectively relaunched Rodriguez’s career, and finally he was appreciated in his home country – over four decades after his original recordings were released. His albums are now considered lost-and-found classics, and he sells out large venues in the U.S. and around the world.

This interview was for a preview article for for the concert by Rodriguez on 5/20/17 at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara. It was done by phone on 5/10/17. (Doug Seymour photo)

Jeff Moehlis: Have you been to Santa Barbara before?

Rodriguez: No, I haven’t, and I’m looking forward to coming.

JM: I think you’ll like it here- you’ll be playing in a beautiful theater that was recently renovated. What can people look forward to at your upcoming show?

R: A band is going to be flown in from London. They each have got individual careers. The bass player and drummer are from the east part of Australia, and the lead guitarist is from London.

JM: I have both of your albums from the early ’70’s. When you were writing those songs, who were your main musical influences?

R: I would listen to radio at night in Detroit, and switch the dial a lot. Guitar is my main instrument, and I listened to the guitar parts. That’s how I picked up guitar. I play by ear – it’s easier to play that way, I think. It was the family instrument. I love music, which permeates the world and the universe. It’s related to everything, pretty much – media, commercials, etc. It persuades people and it assuages people’s feelings. Music, for me, is key.

JM: Detroit had a lot of great music going on at that time. Did you interact at all with any of those artists, or were you on a different track?

R: I think everybody’s conscious of everybody’s music, through the media. Through airplay you learn people’s styles. I don’t so much listen to music as study it. When I hear a tune, I wonder who wrote it, who’s playing, what musicians they’re using, what studio, stuff like that. That’s a different way to look at it from some people who just move around to the music, which is OK. For me, music is either majors or minors, if you know what I mean? And then of course you have feeling, and what kind of music is it – fast music, dance music.

JM: Your albums didn’t catch on in America when they were released.

R: I call them “youngblood”. I’m 74, so I’ve been around the block, pretty much. Who would’ve thought they would last this long? That’s astounding. Through media, through the art form – they just caught on in certain areas, in Australia as well as South Africa.

JM: Had they been successful, do you think that you could’ve handled fame at that point in your life? I bring that up because I’ve talked to musicians who say that if they achieved too much fame too young, they might have made bad choices and not survived.

R: I think that you’ve mentioned a real important point in music and success. Now that there is success, you realize how it can impact a person. It’s like people in sports – they suffer a lot of physical injuries. I think that comes with the territory. But I’ll tell it like this, Jeff. If I played to one person, I’d be out of business [laughs]. You know what I mean?

JM: One name that sometimes comes up in interviews that I’ve done is Neil Bogart, and I know your albums were initially distributed by his label Buddah Records. Did you interact much with him at the time?

R: I met him several times. I got a chance to meet him in New York, and in London, and he blew my mind, man. He moved me through the universe, so to speak. Neil Bogart was very important in the music industry. He was responsible for a lot of things. He brought Paul Anka back, he brought Cher back. Nothing was happening for them at the time, you know? He started Casablanca [Records]. He’s renowned in the music industry. I’m glad you mentioned him, because he’s one of those figures that had a lot to do with a lot of artists.

JM: I know that a big milestone for you was almost 20 years ago, in 1998, when you went to South Africa and had an amazing welcome from the people there. What are your reflections on that experience?

R: I’m hoping to go back this winter. I’ve been there six times. I’ve been to Australia six times. Mark Twain only made it to Australia twice, as I hear. So, yeah, music gets you around. You pick up a lot of culture. I’ve been to France, London, and Sweden, and Namibia which is right on top of South Africa. Music gets you around. I encourage people to do it.

As you said, there are these other distractions which you have to learn how to handle. “He conquers who conquers himself.” It’s part of the journey, as well. So music and this journey have been great for me. I look forward to Santa Barbara, and hearing about what’s happening. It’s interesting – California is legal for herb. Maybe Michigan will follow suit. I’m for the petitioning of that amendment.

JM: I have to ask you about the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Do you feel like it was a pretty accurate reflection of your story?

R: Some people watch too many movies. It was a work of art, I think. It’s a film. It’s a different kind of medium. The director had come to Detroit five times, because I didn’t want to be in the film. So the impressions people get are maybe too much Hollywood-ized, or whatever. But I don’t know what their impression is. The same thing with the music – I don’t know what their impressions are. Most people just listen to music secondhand, on the radio or in movies, things like that.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

R: You’ve got to step out. You have to take your art form out to somebody. It’s a social activity. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to put it down on paper.

You hope that the youngbloods don’t have to take the bumps that we witnessed in history. That’s why I get political, because a lot of youngbloods don’t know what’s happening. I describe myself as a musical politico. I crossed that divide, because politics is in everybody’s life, also.

JM: Where else will you be performing on this tour?

R: We’re going to do the West Coast, and we’re going to do Canada, and we’ve got something happening in Nelsonville, Ohio. It’s going to be my year, you see?


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