“Tall” Juan Zaballa gets heaped with a lot of easy (and lazy) descriptors: an Argentinian-born Latin Elvis. Mac DeMarco’s Far Rockaway roommate and frequent recording partner. Self-deprecating acoustic punk. Rockabilly-fueled throwback to a simpler Ramones-inspired era. But it’s more accurate to view Tall Juan through the lens of another lo-fi balladeer who moved to Queens from South America: Uruguay native Juan Wauters. Zaballa actually earned his “Tall” nickname so the duo’s New York friends could tell them apart (yes, Wauters is in fact much shorter).
Both crash-coursed their way to English proficiency by writing autobiographical songs in their second language, but both have started inching their way back to penning cancións en Español. Both benefitted from high-profile collaborative friendships–Wauters with punk poets The Beets and Tall Juan with slacker-rock demigod DeMarco–that brought them a certain measure of instant indie admiration. Most important, both pursue their particular brand of impassioned garage/folk/punk/pop for one reason: to express what’s in their hearts.
Folio Weekly: You’ve been traveling all over the world recently.
Tall Juan: Yes, I spent three days in Spain before going back to New York after a tour in Japan that followed a European tour.
Wow. Well, we hope those far-flung destinations don’t overshadow your July trip to Florida.
Oh, no. I’ve played many times in Miami and Tallahassee, and once each in Jacksonville, St. Pete, St. Augustine and Gainesville. The Miami shows have been the best, but St. Augustine was really good, too. Even though it was very short—I went for a walk before playing, and when I got back they said, “You were supposed to start 20 minutes ago! Now you have only 15 minutes left.” But it was still fun.
Your debut full-length Olden Goldies, which was recorded with good friend and former roommate Mac DeMarco, dropped in May. Are you focusing on that still?
I have started writing new songs, but yes, Olden Goldies is still very fresh for me–even though I recorded the album more than a year ago, and some of the songs were written up to four years ago. I’d like to start playing newer songs, but to promote the album, the right thing is to keep playing it. With a couple of covers that I like, of course. It’s about 15 songs total.
How did you first discover music?
I started playing guitar around six years old. My parents always had a guitar at their house, and I learned some from my uncle and my dad, including about Argentinian musicians like Luis Alberto Spinetta, who used to have a band in the ’70s called Los Socios del Desierto. As a kid, I really liked Michael Jackson and Marilyn Manson, though.
When did you move to the United States, and did you come to New York to be a musician?
I was born and raised in Argentina and moved to the U.S. five years ago, when I was 23. But I’ve always been a musician–wherever I go, I travel with my guitar so I can communicate with people. In Argentina, though, I was having a crisis–I’m not sure what kind, but I was feeling bad. Very down. My sister lives in New York, so she told me, “Yo, Juan, come spend time with me.”
How hard was the transition from Buenos Aires to Queens?
I don’t know if uncomfortable is the right word, but I didn’t know anybody, and I was feeling sad after leaving South America. It was tough to make new friends since I didn’t know English—none at all—the first year. So it was almost impossible to communicate with people. But in 2013 I started feeling more comfortable, playing more shows and meeting more people.
Why did you choose to write songs in English?
It felt like the right thing to do–and I knew it would help me learn faster. Also, I started dating this girl who didn’t speak Spanish, so I was writing songs in English to communicate my feelings to her. So I guess the only reason at first was because of that relationship. [Laughs.] Now I want to write in Spanish, too–I’m getting more into my own native language, listening to Argentinian bands like Sumo and Bersuit.
Was it hard to hone your performance style while you were going through those struggles?
Yes. My first year, the show was completely different. Then I started realizing what I wanted to do–I found a way to express myself that makes me feel all right. But I know it’s going to continue to evolve. I’m always learning. All I know is, as a kid in Argentina, I used to go to underground shows and leave after watching the bands, being, like, “Oh, man—I want to do this!” I’d get so excited by the energy. I want to keep that feeling rolling by giving people the chance to feed off my energy and passion. Maybe then they’ll go home and do whatever they want: start painting or playing music.
That’s quite an admirable reason to do what you do.
It’s not a mystery–it’s just music. And we have more important things in this world to worry about than a live show. But if you can present it in a positive way and make people excited, that’s very cool.
Final question: How tall are you?
Not that tall. [Laughs.] Maybe 6 feet, 3 inches? Some people meet me and say, “You’re not that tall after all!”