Written by Caleb Oldham
On a recent Saturday morning, I went to the Far Rockaways to meet Juan Zaballa, the self-described “classic rock & roll guy” from Buenos Aires who’s gained a reputation around Brooklyn for his high-powered performances as Tall Juan. Whether he’s shirtless, writhing on the floor, or striking exaggerated rock poses, it’s the unembarrassed energy that the musician brings to the stage which has earned him over twelve shows a month and a four week residency at the Good Room that ended on June 3. This, despite the fact that he’s only been performing under his current moniker for the past year.
Off-stage, I met an incredibly kind, hard-working artist who bared very little resemblance to the flailing manic on-stage. After meeting me at subway stop with an umbrella (I had forgotten mine), Juan asked if we could go grocery shopping while we did the interview. So, while wandering the aisles of the local Stop & Shop, I had the pleasure of talking to the artist about his live performance, rock mythologies, and the songwriting process.
Rare Candy: You’ve been playing a lot of shows lately, and each time I’ve seen you, I feel like your set is getting faster.
Tall Juan: Really?
RC: Do you feel like your live show has evolved in the past few months?
TJ: I feel like every time I play with the same band I have to think less and less about the other guys. At the very beginning I was teaching them the songs and I was worried about the way we were sounding. But then I got relaxed. I feel like the tempo depends on my mood at the time. I’m very emotional and if there is something that kills my vibe I play a lot slower.
RC: When you’re up there on stage, you’ve got your shirt off, and that crazed look in your eyes - what’s going through your head?
TJ: It’s just pretty natural and cathartic. I’m a relaxed guy but I have something inside me that comes out on stage, and I take every opportunity to let it out. I’m very comfortable with my instrument as well, which allows me to express myself more with my body. I consider myself a pretty good guitarist, I know a lot of different styles — but when I write my songs I make them simple, something easy to communicate, and it makes it easier for me to dance around.
"I'm playing music that I like to listen to, but I'm not in New York in the 1970s, I'm in New York in 2015."
RC: Is there a reason you use an acoustic guitar as opposed to an electric one?
TJ: I got inspired by my friend Juan (Wauters) — he plays a guitar with nylon strings, and I feel like they sound better. The frequencies are much lower, less metallic.
RC: Were you listening to rock from an early age?
TJ: Yes, very early. I started listening to the Ramones when I was eight or nine years old. My first concert was Marilyn Manson. He came to Argentina in 1997 and I was eight years old and I went to that show. It was like seeing the Beatles at their peak.
RC: Since then have you mainly stuck to rock? Do you have an opinion on electronic music?
TJ: I honestly don’t know much about electronic music. I’m a pretty classic rock’n’roll guy. I mean, I like hardcore, I like Bob Marley, things that aren’t necessarily rock, but it’s all connected.
RC: Do you feel that it’s better to intellectualize music or feel it? How do you balance experiencing music as a bodily response as opposed to a cerebral one?
TJ: I would say that I feel the music first, but then in order to grow and learn I like to think about it. When I was young it was purely about feeling with my body, and now I’m really thinking it through with my head. The thing is in South America a lot of the music we grow up on is in English so it’s only about the way the songs feel and not about what they’re saying.
RC: When you write a song does it come about through strumming or do you have an idea in your head that you feel like you need to channel through a guitar?
TJ: It depends, a lot of the times I just strum, I’m always playing the guitar. In the past I’ve primarily focused on music rather than lyrics. But now I’m writing lyrics first and using the music to express those words. The lyrics have taken on more importance than the music. I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m still growing as an artist. I wouldn’t like to be famous right now, I still need time to develop.
RC: Do you think that the idea of progress applies to music? Do you ever feel like you’re trying to return to something as opposed to moving forward?
TJ: No, I actually had that sentiment when I was a kid. I started out playing power chords, and then as I got better I started playing more complicated music, but I lost a certain feeling I’d had when I was playing those power chords. It was more fun. I’m playing music that I like to listen to, but I’m not in New York in the 1970s, I’m in New York in 2015.
RC: Do you have a favorite rock mythology?
TJ: I feel sad about all of my heroes. There’s not too much myth about people I like, Dee Dee Ramone, Sid Viscious, it’s just sad. I feel bad, but at least it’s a lesson - they died but we don’t have to. To me, in terms of mythology, I’m always amazed at how a band like the Beatles could ever exist. It’s surreal, I feel weird about it. To have one band cast such a shadow, they were from another world.
RC: When did you start performing?
TJ: I played my first live show when I was ten and we were covering Sex Pistols and that kind of stuff. Before that, when I was about six, I started taking acting lessons. When I first got on stage I knew that I liked that place, and when I started listening to rock, and I saw Marilyn Manson I understood how performance and music work together.
RC: Is there theater in your live show?
TJ: Yeah, I like when people get freaked out a little bit. I feel like I lose my mind when I’m on stage, but it’s still me. I’m pretty calm off-stage, but when you get up it gives you the opportunity to play a character.
RC: Do you feel like masculinity plays a role in this character?
TJ: There’s definitely an element of sexuality to it — I suck the microphone when I’m playing sometimes, and I use my hips. A lot of times I’m trying to get a reaction out of the macho audience members, and play with people’s expectations of me, take advantage of the fact that I’m on stage. I used to wear skirts and make-up. My only problem is that I naturally want to be very respectful and gentleman-like around girls, so it makes me second guess myself sometimes. That’s my problem, not theirs. For example I was playing in a band with a girl one time and in the moment I whipped out my dick and started pissing on my guitar like how Jimi Hendrix did with fire. In the moment I didn’t care, but looking back I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, I’m just expressing myself.
Listen to more Tall Juan on his Bandcamp.