Sugar Man’s Rodriguez Talks About His Music and Life
Rodriguez is a folk musician who had a short lived career in the US, but his music became famous and influential in South Africa and many other countries, without his knowledge. He was believed to be dead until in the 1980s when two of his South African fans went to find out if he was dead or alive. The search lead to a revival in his music, and an Oscar nominated documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man.” Rodriguez stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about his music and the documentary. Excerpts from the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: People all over the country raving about this film. And raving about this gentleman. It’s great to have you here, Rodriguez.
Rodriguez: Thank you Ron. And thanks for having me aboard.
Ron Bennington: It’s an amazing story about your life. But the thing that really touched me is the life of a song and what happens with a song. Because it’s one thing – it’s yours when you write it. It’s yours when you record it. But then when you put it out into the world, it becomes something to everybody else.
Rodriguez: Yes. Yes. And that’s okay.
Ron Bennington: There’s no way for you to know or any artist to really know exactly the relationship people are going to have with your music. In the case of you, here’s so many people that loved your music – used it to help deal with Apartheid and fight back against Apartheid.
Rodriguez: Against the system. Yeah. Well, apparently so. That’s the way I surfaced – through South Africa as background music for their history. Yeah.
Ron Bennington: But it’s like magic when you think about it.
Rodriguez: I think there’s an element of magic in this story. One discovers a phenomenon. I think that’s all of it – rock and roll, fairy tales type of stuff. Yes, that 40 years later, this music would resurface again – so I thought that was kind of magical.
Ron Bennington: And it did seem like it fit you. It did seem like in terms of a time line, you were ready for it.
Rodriguez: I’m ready for it. Yes sir. (laughs) Yes I am. Yes, all of that I feel was internship. So, you just hang in there everyone and who knows?
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Rodriguez Talks About Where He’s Been Performing
Ron Bennington: Where have you played now since this story’s come out?
Rodriguez: Let me brag about my resume. A couple days ago, I opened for Earth, Wind & Fire at a private event and on Friday coming up, we’re going to be doing the Jay Leno show in L.A. So, we’re going to do that with a…and I have to meet the band yet, so I don’t know what the presentation will be like.
Ron Bennington: Do you know what song you’re going to be doing yet?
Rodriguez: Yes I do actually. “You Can’t Get Away From It”.
Ron Bennington: And you had the chance to do Letterman already.
Rodriguez: I did. With a 25 piece orchestra. Ron, it would have been a popular performance without me. (laughs) And I have to credit Sherry who did the orchestration. I never met her, but she’s the one who did this responsibility – cellos, and all the oboes and it was just a powerful performance. I had a great back up band there.
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Rodriguez Talks About the Native American Influence in His Life
Ron Bennington: There is something about your music, of course, people react to, but there’s also something about the way that you live your life. I see you’re wearing some kind of Native American stuff.
Rodriguez: Yes. Well, this is a choker. They call it different names – choker, yeah. I was given this by a Native American Indian in Texas. They came up. I meet the audience generally after the shows and often they tell me their stories too. And some give me things, so I wear it and he said it would protect me so, I’m protected Ron. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: Do you like the kind of philosophy of what the Indians have and the different type things?
Rodriguez: If it’s Egalitarian, then everyone’s equal and that kind of stuff. As opposed to the hierarchies that they have – the pecking orders of England and the religions, so everybody’s got an equal say in this. And I’m Mexican. My mother and father are both Mexican. I was born and bred in Detroit. The Mexican peoples are indigenous peoples as well. It’s all been proven archaeologically.
Ron Bennington: So the Mexican people have been here for a long long time and has less to do with Spain than sometimes they let on.
Rodriguez: Oh quite awhile, yeah. (laughs) Exactly, yeah. Well, everyone’s indigenous to something. Everyone’s an Indian to their grouping. But, I’m urban. I’m from Detroit.
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Rodriguez Talks About the Internet’s Affect on His Music
Ron Bennington: Now, the fact is the internet had a gigantic part to do with what you were doing.
Rodriguez: Totally. Yes.
Ron Bennington: But you were never on the internet. All this was happening – your music was going around the world without you really knowing about it.
Rodriguez: That’s correct. I’m old century. I resisted the telephone – where’s the landline? You know? (laughs) Where’s the payphone?
Ron Bennington: And you were working…Demolition.
Rodriguez: Yes. What I do is I take out the walls and the ceilings and the floors and the pipes and the wires. And get it prepared for the carpenters and the electricians and the plumbers. And carry out all the debris as well.
Ron Bennington: Now when were you able to quit that job?
Rodriguez: Pretty much after the tour in South Africa. I’ve been touring since then. I’ve toured South Africa 4 times. Australian, 4 times. And other countries – Wales, London, Ireland.
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Rodriguez Talks About His Family Seeing the Film
Rodriguez: Thank you sir.
Ron Bennington: And throughout the film, as you’re watching it – they’re seeing their father through the audience’s eyes in a way that kids just don’t have that opportunity.
Rodriguez: That was so special. They are the highlight of my life beyond the film too. But now they’re film stars in that sense. And they have helped me through this whole thing. So that was a great surprise and to share with them, so they can see it.
Ron Bennington: There are scenes where you guys are invited to South Africa and limos pull up and they don’t know this kind of lifestyle their whole life.
Rodriguez: No. Unexpected.
Ron Bennington: And they go and 5000 people are cheering for their father. And it’s madness.
Rodriguez: Yeah, well musical anyway. Yes and I was happy to share that with them. Yeah.
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Rodriguez Talks About Being Socially Conscious
Ron Bennington: It’s always a struggle, right? The struggle never ends.
Rodriguez: Yes and I describe myself, Ron, as a musical political. So this social scene – social issues have affected me. And I respond to that.
Ron Bennington: And that’s where your music came from. Now the other interesting thing about the film is – I had no idea that there were any white people who didn’t like Apartheid. So that was amazing for me to see.
Rodriguez: Oh exactly. The film – it shows you a glimpse of that period of history in South Africa. All I knew about South Africa is the boycott. That all the nations were boycotting. And that’s about the extent of anything that I knew of South Africa. So, it was all very…I had heard about Steve Biko, Sharpeville, Soweto…those kinds of things. But I was never “involved” per say in it. Just all this news – it’s like seeing Syria and Dafur and Iraq and Afghanistan – what’s going on over there? You never know. And they say in war, the first casualty is the truth. And so yeah, those kind of things. What is happening? That’s why I want to get to – the truth. What is it about?
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The Film and the Soundtrack
Ron Bennington: The truth seems to be in your music too, Rodriguez. Now, the soundtrack is available. “Searching For Sugar Man” - it’s available now online through Legacy Recordings and at Amazon.com. And the DVD comes out January 22nd. But your music is all through the film. What was that like for the first experience for you to go in to see yourself up – I guess Sundance was the first big place that it played.
Rodriguez: Yes. It opened at the Sundance Film Festival. We had quite a few screenings there. But into the film – Malik Bendjelloul filmed “Searching For Sugar Man”…he’s a self-made director. It’s his first film. He and Camilla (Skagerstrom), the cinematographer, were the only 2 that put that film together, and some other film clips of course. And I didn’t have anything to say about who he interviewed, where he went, what was said, because it’s totally his film. I didn’t…and so, I’m on you…I didn’t even pick the songs. So, he did that. So I can’t take the credit for the…
Ron Bennington: But when you sat down and watched it…
Rodriguez: Oh yeah. It’s amazing.
Ron Bennington: But when you sat down and watched it and listened to it for the first time – it also gives you a chance to sneak, looking in at your audience – that South African audience.
Rodriguez: Oh yeah – the glimpses of them and the glimpses of Apartheid and we see the issue of censorship. And so all of this thing was really revealing to us. And he interviewed Steve Rowland who I hadn’t talked to in 35 years and so all that he was pulling together on his own. And I wasn’t even knowledgeable about it. So, it’s totally his film. And it’s up for an Oscar nomination as documentary of the year.
Ron Bennington: Phenomenal.
Rodriguez: Yes. And it’s all his work. So yeah, I’m in it 8 minutes. I do my own stunts in it. (laughs)
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Rodriguez Talks About Looking Back Over His Life
Ron Bennington: Would you have rather that life worked out differently or are you happy the way that it did?
Rodriguez: Oh the hypotheticals. It’s just the way it is. So yeah, I have to go with that. I wonder if…I think it’s all working out well. Yes, it is.
Ron Bennington: It does, but the interesting thing too is like you got a chance to get around a lot of stuff and show back up with your lifetime wisdom. You didn’t have to go through a lot of things in public the way a lot of artists do. And I was thinking about that with your daughter – here you had the chance to raise these 3 beautiful grounded girls who could appreciate life when you know what happens a lot of times if you’re raised around fame and fortune.
Rodriguez: Thank you. Thank you very much. Yes. That can be destructive, I’m sure. And also, some people cannot leave that persona on stage. They have to carry with them throughout or they are the story and that makes it hard to get away from that or they live their life so openly that…and so depressed too. They’re wanting a story. I met Alec Baldwin and he helped me get a gig as well. I told him – you’re a famous man. And he said – that’s a double-edged sword. So I go with that. It’s has it’s edges.
Ron Bennington: Well the thing that was able to become famous and grow on it’s own – is your art.
Rodriguez: Thank you.
Ron Bennington: Your art had a chance to go out there. And the real power of this film, to look back at it – it’s not about hype and it’s not about the machinery, but it’s about that mysterious thing – that a song can connect with people. And that’s beautiful.
Rodriguez: I agree. Music is that art form that I chose because…and through the protest song of folk music, I found I could write these issues about police brutality and government repression. And it’s hard to do that kind of lyric without offending a lot of people.
Ron Bennington: Sure. They’re going to be. A lot of people have to be offended.
Rodriguez: (laughs) And that’s exactly why…correct. Yeah, yeah. They should air this out.
Ron Bennington: “Masters of War” should not work for people.
Rodriguez: What a wonderful song. I mean…wonderful song and creation. Not the subject. And so too, I think there has to be an end to the violence. I know there has to be an end to the violence.
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Rodriguez Talks About the Benefits of Music
Ron Bennington: And a little at a time and certainly not without the magic that we talked about and also, not without music. I think the beauty of music is that it keeps people alive in ways that they don’t even understand. And that’s what this film kind of shows – that people that were in a really hard spot, could own that album as much and gain from that the way they could any spiritual book that’s ever been written.
Rodriguez: Yes. I think Dylan’s writings, Simon & Garfunkel’s, Neil Young’s writings, Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”. Those songs helped us get through that – those moments in America. So that, South Africa used my songs for their cause. I was very honored by that.
Ron Bennington: And all those people that you brought up – Neil, Paul Simon…they’re all still out there, man. They’re all still doing it.
Rodriguez: Yes, exactly. So, I don’t think it’s something you should have to give up either.
Ron Bennington: If you see one film this year, make it “Searching For Sugar Man”.
Ron Bennington: It’s out of DVD and you can pick up the soundtrack for “Searching For Sugar Man”. That’s available right now in stores and online at Amazon.com. Rodriguez, what a pleasure, my friend.
Rodriguez: Thank you sir. Thank you for the opportunity to interview.
Ron Bennington: And I hope to see you next time coming through and best of luck with everything.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.