From Backyard Parties to Coachella, Cuco Is Moving Hesitantly Toward Stardom
Graduating from packed backyards to opening slots for Portugal. The Man, the young multi-instrumentalist continues to prove that his Honda is the only thing average about him.
The old Honda CR-V parked outside Pulse Recordings may not look like much, especially next to the Beemers and Audis that otherwise occupy the swanky Silver Lake studio’s parking lot. But it’s about to be famous thanks to its owner, a nineteen-year-old from the nearby LA suburb of Hawthorne (also home, once upon a time, to The Beach Boys) named Omar Banos. Under his stage name Cuco, he’s gone from playing backyard parties to playing Coachella at a speed no Japanese SUV could ever hope to achieve.
On “CR-V,” a track from his latest EP, Chiquito, Cuco celebrates his normcore ride with the kind of anti-flex his growing legion of fans love him for. “I look like a mom in my CR-V,” he raps over trap beats and a cheap synthesizer pitched somewhere between steel drum and Casiotone. “I got no game in my CR-V / I’m so average in my CR-V.”
Inside, perhaps inspired by his lavish surroundings (the owners of the studio, Pulse Music Group, have a client list that includes Ty Dolla $ign, Miike Snow, and El-P of Run the Jewels), Cuco plays a snippet of a track he’s been working on that’s the exact opposite of “CR-V,” with Auto-Tuned vocals that brag, “You know me, I’m a superstar.” “This is dumb as fuck,” he says, cranking up the bass. “It’s just a troll.” It’s two days after his weekend-two Coachella performance, an experience he still seems to be vibrating from. His left leg bounces uncontrollably.
His management team, hearing the troll track for the first time, cracks up. “It’s like your Lonely Island?” someone suggests. “Your Lil Dicky shit?”
“Yeah, dude,” Cuco replies, looking decidedly not like a superstar in his trademark black-rimmed glasses, checkered Vans, and a green crewneck sweatshirt. He’s sitting at a state-of-the-art mixing console the size of a swimming pool, but all he has plugged in is a laptop and a white M-Audio MIDI keyboard that’s probably worth all of ten minutes of Pulse Recording studio time.
“I’m gonna make a B.S. music video,” Cuco continues, still on his Lil Dicky shit. “I’m gonna go anonymous for this. Just put it out.”
He may joke about it, but stardom is definitely within Cuco’s reach. In Southern California, he’s already achieved it. The first time I saw him perform, last July at an LA nightclub called Union, a roomful of about three-hundred fans sang along to every Spanglish lyric of his hazy songs, which mix bedroom dream-pop, R&B, and hip-hop with a heart-on-sleeve romanticism that seems to move Cuco’s mostly young, mostly Latina fan base the way the ballads of Juan Gabriel moved their mothers. After the show, girls lined up to take selfies with him, as giggly and starstruck as Bieber fans.
His manager, Doris Muñoz, says it was that way even when she first saw him playing a house party in the working-class, predominantly Latino suburb of Commerce in February of 2017. “I walked into a backyard of almost two-hundred teenagers singing every single lyric and I was like, ‘What the hell did I just walk into?’” she remembers. Muñoz, who had been pursuing a career in A&R, put her day hustle on hold to build her own company, mija mgmt, around her first and biggest client.
“I fell down the rabbit hole of his music,” she says. “You always say that,” Cuco shoots back as Sadie Birts, who handles the artist’s “day-to-day,” jokes about Muñoz’s newfound obsession: “We’d get in and be like, ‘Bruh, can we listen to something other than Cuco?’”
“I just wanna be my own businessman. I don’t wanna belong to anybody. I want to create my own team, create my own life, create my own enterprise.”
It’s easy music to obsess over. Banos, the only child of Mexican immigrants, has been playing guitar since he was eight and began putting out tracks as Cuco just before he turned sixteen. Since then, he’s become a precocious master of sweetly ingratiating choruses, with a a blown-out, nostalgia-tinged production style that captures some essence of teenage life in Southern California. Synthesizers wash across the mix like sunlight on an overexposed Polaroid; tremolo-drenched guitars and the occasional wistful trumpet (all played by Cuco himself) creep into the corners like lens flare.
“You can make a production sound like shit but make it sound good,” he explains. “That’s what I like doing sometimes: I like making it sound like complete ass but then remixing the whole thing so that the track sounds like it’s fucking warped as shit, but you can still hear what’s happening.”
Atop that woozy, dreamy sound, he croons love songs, though lately he’s been experimenting with rapping, too. He cites Chicano rappers MC Magic and Lil Rob as early influences: “Yeah, that was big growing up. Hip-hop and rap—that was like my everyday thing that I listened to.” Chiquito features a handful of rap tracks, including “CR-V” and “Lucy,” on which Cuco trades verses with his friend and bandmate J-Kwe$t, rapping on the chorus, “I feel like John Lennon / Take me back to 1960, man / I’m feelin’ so trippy.” (Yes, even when spitting bars, Cuco likes to keep it nostalgic.)
“I love using 808s,” he says. “Trap basses and shit. It’s fun what you can do when you put an 808 on like an old jazz progression.”
But it’s still the romantic ballads for which he’s best-known—songs with titles like “Lover Is a Day” and “Amor de Siempre” that ooze teenage heartache. Just as Cuco doesn’t front when singing about his car, he keeps it real on his love songs. There are no corny come-ons, no bedroom braggadocio—just simple, emotional confessions, delivered in a laid-back, sing-song vocal style that makes his entreaties all the more endearing. Without a lady in his life, Cuco seems to say through his music, he’s nothing. “When I’m feeling puzzled, girl, you put me back together,” goes a typical lyric, from “One and Only.” “Every single heartbreak made me lose my fucking mind,” goes another, from the Chiquito track “Dontmakemefallinlove.” His Twitter handle, @Icryduringsex, is another clever touch of self-deprecation, but it might also be true. (I didn’t ask.)
Of course, heartfelt lyrics alone aren’t enough to make the ladies swoon. Cuco himself is at a loss to explain the effect his music has on female fans. “I dunno,” he says with characteristic humility. “I’m not cute so it was weird for me to have this fan base that’s all head over heels for me and shit.” He’s grateful for all the attention, but also slightly bewildered by it. “I’m just me, dude. It trips me out.” Often around fans, he admits, “I don’t know how to act.”
He’s more comfortable around his band, a six-piece unit made up mostly of old friends from Hawthorne, and his management team, whom he says are “like family.” A self-described introvert, he doesn’t like the schmoozier aspects of his chosen career; at Coachella, when not onstage, he spent most of his time in his trailer, napping. “I don’t like feeling all awkward because I have to be around people I don’t know.”
It’s something he’ll have to get used to. As our interview wraps, Muñoz announces that Diplo wants to set up a meeting. Conversation also turns to Fantasy’s Easy Living, Cuco’s clothing brand. Then there are more press days ahead for Chiquito, and shows to prep for: two sold-out headlining gigs at the Glass House in nearby Pomona, festival dates at Governors Ball and Outside Lands, an opening-act slot with Portugal. The Man at LA’s Shrine Auditorium. It’s going to be a grind, especially for an artist who, by his own admission, would rather be home (he still lives with his parents, and now helps pay the mortgage), making tracks in his bedroom.
“I just wanna be my own businessman,” he declares, noting that he remains, by choice, unsigned to any label or publishing deal. (He is, however, signed to Paradigm Talent Agency for touring, which has helped with booking his many festival dates.) “I don’t wanna belong to anybody. I want to create my own team, create my own life, create my own enterprise.”
Midway through this speech, his nervous leg knocks the M-Audio keyboard off its stand. He catches it, pauses long enough to mutter, “Oh, shit,” then keeps right on talking. “It’s important that I mold this into what I want it to be. Not what somebody else or some industry wants it to become. I don’t want to be boxed into anything.” For a minute there, even cradling a cheap keyboard, Cuco looks and sounds maybe not like a superstar, but a young man with enough talent and determination to become one. FL