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Sumo: A Guided Tour

We explore one of the most peculiar and influential bands in Argentine rock.

By | [email protected] | May 3, 2019 9:00am

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Welcome, dear readers, to a new installment of our Guided Tour series, where we take a deep dive into the career of an artist from Argentina’s wide and diverse musical history. In the past, we’ve taken a look at people such as rock nacional demigod Charly García, avant-garde songstress Juana Molina, psychedelic pop pioneers Babasónicos, and kings of unabashed kitsch Miranda!. Heck, we’ve even taken a look at the current crop of indie musicians for you to check out. We’re out here in the trenches, examining long and prolific careers, giving you a detailed breakdown of what makes these particular musicians worth exploring, aiding you in your eternal quest for impressing your peers. We get it, and we’re here for you.

This time around, we are taking a look at a band that existed for a very short time, but left an indelible mark on this country’s music history. A band that burned brightly for a few short years, released a handful of albums, and whose burgeoning career path was cut short by tragedy. A band that, in the years that followed, became a legend in the scene, spawning two other major off-shoots. We’re talking about a band whose musical output blended various genres to create its own sound, and who would eventually go on to influence a brand new wave of Argentine rock. We’re talking about the legendary Sumo.

As always, we’ve rounded up a quick introductory playlist for you to follow along as we go through the history of Luca Prodan and his band. As a bit of a twist, this playlist doesn’t just include work by Sumo, but also some choice cuts from the two bands that splintered off after its demise: Divididos and Las Pelotas. This will provide a more thorough and accurate picture of Sumo’s history and reach, as well as some rockin’ tunes for you to vibe along to during your early morning commute or, uh, whatever normal people do.

Early Years

It’s impossible to talk about Sumo without centering the conversation around lead singer Luca Prodan. His charismatic stage presence, his insightful and wryly sardonic lyrics, his powerful voice, and his penchant for melody were defining characteristics that the band would come to be known for. Born in Italy, son of a Turkish father and a Scottish mother, Prodan came from a privileged background. As a child, he attended a prestigious boarding school in Scotland, from which he ran away at 17. He spent some time wandering the European continent, until he was finally tracked down by his family with the help of Interpol.

He moved to London in the 1970s and worked at a record company, where he discovered bands such as Wire, The Fall, and Joy Division; bands that had roots in the punk rock movement but veered more heavily toward experimental, futuristic sounds, incorporating elements of krautrock and dub to the raw energy of the punk movement. During this time he also became hooked on heroin. In 1979, Luca’s sister, who was also strongly addicted to heroin, committed suicide along with her boyfriend. This threw Luca’s mental and physical health into a downward spiral, and he decided to make a radical life change and move to Argentina.

Once settled in Córdoba, Luca hooked up with musicians Ricardo Curtet, Germán Daffunchio, Alejandro Sokol and Stephanie Nuttal, and formed the first official line-up of Sumo. The band started writing together, eventually relocating to Hurlingham (sans Curtet, who moved back to his hometown to start a family). They started making the live rounds, playing gigs all over Hurlingham and Buenos Aires. A few lineup changes followed: Stephanie Nuttal moved to the UK, and Sokol replaced her on the drums. A new member, Diego Arnedo, joined the band on bass, and eventually Roberto Pettinato (yes… that Pettinato) joined in on the saxophone.

Soon after, this lineup would record the first Sumo album: the independent release Corpiños en la Madrugada, which served as a kind of demo for the band. Featuring many songs that would go on to be re-recorded in later releases, the album showcases the band’s eclecticism and ferocious artistic voice: post-punk blasts of energy, lyrics in English and Spanish, elements of funk and dub, and sardonic lyrics delivered with Prodan’s trademark wink-and-a-smile.

The band made a name for themselves in the live music scene, and after another line-up change (with Alberto Troglio joining as the new drummer), the band recorded what would be considered their first “real” studio album: 1985’s Divididos por la Felicidad. The release would further consolidate Sumo’s sound, incorporating even more disparate sonic elements while also amping more accurately capturing their live sound. The album has some sounds that were truly revolutionary for its time, such as the Clash-inspired “Debedé,” bringing the band a lot of attention in the national stage and positioning them (along with Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota) as leaders of the underground scene.

Commercial Breakthrough

No longer a merely local phenomenon, Sumo went on to perform larger and larger shows, gaining the admiration of audiences far and wide. This was further exacerbated with the release of their follow-up album Llegando los Monos, which featured songs such as the crossover pop hits “Los Viejos Vinagres” and “Estallando Desde el Océano.”

After extensive touring along with some of the biggest names in the rock scene at the time, the band found themselves at a crossroads. On one hand, they had positioned themselves as torchbearers of a nascent alternative culture in Argentine rock music, but at the same time they were in the process of becoming the “it band” of the moment. Their reach was more massive than any of them could have predicted, and this led Prodan to famously lament “there is no underground anymore.”

Around this time, the band would gain another member, with Marcelo “Gillespi” Rodriguez joining as their new trumpet player.

By this point, Prodan’s health and habits were spiraling out of control, replacing what had been an addiction to heroin with something that, on its surface, would seem considerably more innocuous: rampant alcoholism. With gin as his drink of choice, Prodan would go on benders that would severely affect his health and his ability to perform. Still, the band soldiered on, and recorded their third (or fourth, depending on how you’re counting them) album, After Chabón.

There’s an old rock and roll cliché about how the third album tends to be a lot of bands’ best, and if you ask most Sumo fans, they’ll tell you that definitely holds true for this band as well. After Chabón may be Sumo’s most widely-acclaimed album, a definite fan-favorite containing tunes like the racuous “Crua Chan” (a live version of which kicks off our playlist) as well as the lovely ballad “Mañana en el Abasto.” The latter is a sparse ballad built upon a bass and drum loop and understated ambient touches, such as an ascending keyboard line, circular guitar parts, and Prodan’s evocative stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

Prodan’s Death & Aftermath

Though After Chabón served as a document of a band in its prime, things would come to a tragic end when Luca Prodan’s health got the better of him. He was found dead in his home on December 22, 1987, just two days after performing with Sumo for the very last time. He died from a heart attack caused in part by his alcoholism. He was 34 years old.

Prodan’s death came as a gut punch to his friends and countless fans, who’d come to love his wildly irreverent demeanor and the musical innovations he brought to the Argentine rock scene. The remaining band performed a tribute show in his memory and then Sumo would cease to exist.

The band’s story wouldn’t come to a complete stop, however, as the group splintered off into two bands that went on to become pretty significant players in the rock nacional scene of the following decades.

Ricardo Mollo and Diego Arnedo (along with an assortment of drummers over the years) would go on to form the power-trio Divididos, while Sokol, Troglio and Daffunchio would enlist the help of several other musicians to form Las Pelotas. The story goes that the bands’ names came from an interview where Prodan had been asked about the state of the band’s relationship, to which Prodan responded “¿Sumo divididos? ¡Las pelotas!“; however, this story might very well be apocryphal.

It’s interesting that both bands would go on to become considerably successful after Prodan’s death; imagine if, after Nirvana, not only did the Foo Fighters become huge but Krist Novoselic had actually done something worth listening to (alright, that’s a little mean). Each of the bands seemed to take part of Sumo’s sound with them: Divididos have more of a muscular, rock-oriented sound that also incorporated elements of autochthonous folk, while Las Pelotas carried some of the more reggae, psychedelic, and funk-inspired elements in Sumo’s musical DNA.

Both bands had long and prolific careers, and in a couple of occasions they even joined together on stage to form a kind of Sumo reunion. The last time this happened was at the Quilmes Rock festival at River Plate stadium, which yours truly attended. Unfortunately, I had just moved to Argentina and had never listened to Sumo, Divididos, or Las Pelotas… I was just there to see Bad Religion. I was very confused as to what was going on and why there were so many people on stage. I had no idea that I was witnessing a historic and significant moment in Argentine rock history.

There will never be a band like Sumo. Their wildly imaginative sound, their openness to incorporating such disparate musical elements, and their wryly humorous lyrics that eschewed thematic clichés in favor of surreal irreverence make them truly one of a kind. If you’ve never listened to their stuff, we hope this quick little starter guide has been successful in encouraging you to check them out.

And now, to wrap things up, let’s delight in this hilarious video of the band playing at the living room of some rich person’s party in the mid-eighties. What a time.