Cuco: “I feel like people deserve to love themselves”

From humble bedroom beginnings to huge collaborations, Cuco has quickly become one of California’s loudest voices in the psych-indie scene. Now, ‘Fantasy Gateway’ finds him rediscovering himself.

Cuco, otherwise known as Omar Banos, is on the move. Accompanied by faint, faraway noises of city bustle, the effortlessly cool, Inglewood-born Mexican-American artist joins DIY on Zoom just a few weeks after the release of his most ambitious project to date, ‘Fantasy Gateway’.

Cuco’s second full-length project, following on from a series of self-released mixtapes, EPs and his ’Para Mi’ debut (translating as ‘For Me’, a nod to the California native’s beautiful bilingual songwriting capabilities), the ethereal title of ‘Fantasy Gateway’ is an apt and perfect descriptor for the content inside.

On ‘Fantasy Gateway’, Cuco toys with his typically-honed psych-indie sound (reminiscent of Yellow Days and Tame Impala); the album tinged with a hefty Latinx influence and the universal appeal of relatable lo-fi choruses. ‘Fantasy Gateway’ embarks on an effort to tell the story of the last few years; part time-bending love stories (‘Time Machine’), part brooding self-reflection (‘Caution’ and ‘Sweet Dissociation’) and part inter-dimensional gazing (‘Fin Del Mundo’).

The sleeve of the album depicts a blue-scale Cuco donning hypnotic steampunk goggles, with an outstretched hand presenting three curious cartoon characters to the listener. In keeping with the psychedelic themes that run deep throughout his work, this surreal image summates his concept of embracing ‘the worlds in-between’.

“When I was younger, I always imagined a lot of things,” he explains to DIY. “One of those things was this concept of Purgatory and Hell. I always thought that when you pass away, your spirit is free. Hell is being stuck somewhere you can’t leave, and then in Purgatory, you’re a soul wandering the earth. When you finally reach heaven, you can explore the universe as a soul. I correlated that with [lucid] dreaming — where you’re able to take full control. So I created this dream world.”

Although certainly impacted by the isolation of a global pandemic, this isn’t a pandemic album, and in fact, it saw Cuco leave the bedroom-pop tag behind. “I don’t think I’ve ever put myself in that category,” he notes. “I think people more so put me in the category, but I always saw myself doing bigger things. I mean, there are a lot of amazing artists in that category that I came up with, like my friends in Inner Wave and stuff like that. But I think the people kind of made the bedroom pop category. I think we’ve always just made music more than anything.”

Shouting out his producers (Manuel Lara and Andrés Rebellón) for understanding what he was trying to do, Cuco used the time to “write freely without any worries”. Striving to keep things interesting at every turn, both of his producers and himself scatter flecks of production genius on each track, carefully crafting each moment into the album’s sparkling soundscape. Where psych-indie could veer into the bland and insipid mid-album, Cuco offers a verdant palate cleanser that invites left-field collaborator Kacey Musgraves to add her country stylings to ‘Sitting In The Corner’ alongside norteño-specialist Adriel Favela. Paired with a surrealist cartoon video, there is always something fresh, experimental and immediate about Banos’ tracks, moreso than on any previous record — for good reason.

“I think I always want to be able to impact people in a good, positive way that makes them think ‘I want to take care of myself.’”

The record conflated with a paradigm shift in his personal life too, with Cuco opening up to DIY about his newfound sobriety. “I feel like I have grown a lot. I’ve taken a lot of steps to better myself,” he begins. “I quit drinking, I quit certain substances, I’m doing a lot more exercise, [I’ve got] better eating habits, you know? Just things like that really make me feel like I am bettering myself.”

He’s not shied away from discussing these themes in his own previous songs. On ‘Keeping Tabs’ from ‘Para Mi’, he opened with the lines: “I’ve been tripping off the tabs in my room / I don’t know why, baby, but I’m feeling blue”. Realising he could no longer run from his demons was a sobering moment in itself for the artist, having written a majority of his discography to date under the influence, and there was freedom found in this novel state. “In the position I’m in, I feel like I should be enjoying myself, and not destroying my body. I feel like people deserve to love themselves. And I feel like that’s where I’m at with this new stage, but it’s not a temporary stage. It’s something that I want to continue for the rest of my life.”

Previous records he has made under the influence had a distinct wooziness that permeated the vocal lines and spaced-out instrumental interludes, but it’s hard to ignore how much more control he has in both his voice and his songwriting. Reflecting on his darkest moments, he explains, “I think people throw words around a lot, and it’s a bit of a sensitive topic. I have really severe clinical anxiety — I’ve been through like a lot of traumatic experiences, and a lot of traumatic experiences that have been stacked on each other, and I feel like as individuals, we should be taking care of ourselves and each other. Doing it in a way that is very healthy and appropriate.”

“I think there’s also a lot of issues with substance abuse — it’s pretty terrible, especially as somebody who has been addicted to things like that. I think I always want to be able to impact people in a good, positive way that makes them think ‘I want to take care of myself.’”

When looking toward the future, Cuco’s promises more eclectic collaborations (Yung Gravy, BBNO$, Dillon Francis and Clairo have all appeared alongside Banos’ stage name in track credits), more genre-fixed records and a continuation of the worlds he has created for his fans. “I think my albums are gonna be more specific to a genre,” he adds. “I’m definitely working on a lot of psych music, and a lot of ballads — everything’s gonna be able to correspond to its own world. [With ‘Fantasy Gateway’] I wanted to give out this album that had a lot of variety and a song for everybody, but now I want to start coming up with these different types of albums and projects that really give people something to check out because it’s really hard for me to just stick to one thing.”

‘Fantasy Gateway’ is out now via Interscope Records.

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