That much of the best pop and rock is made not in the UK any more, but in Scandinavia, is well known. But when it comes to "intelligent" dance music and a fashion-conscious combination of electronica with house and retro funk, surely London is still the world capital?
Think again. In fact, think Venezuela. Over three innovative albums recorded for ex-Talking Head David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, the Caracas sextet Los Amigos Invisibles have created some of the most striking contemporary dance tunes of recent years. Now, their latest album, The Venezuelan Zingason Vol 1 (licensed to Long Lost Brother Records for this country), is set to move them up to a whole new level. Produced by the in-demand team of Masters at Work, it's an entrancing blend of soulful, four-to-the-floor house with loungey exotica and sexy disco cheese.
As you would expect from the perfect soundtrack to postmodern café society, Los Amigos Invisibles' songs are deliciously witty and sophisticated. If you're not conversant with Spanish, though, some of the lyrics' finer points may pass you by. It came as quite a surprise to me, for example, to find out that the catchy "Ponerte en Cuatro", from The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera (1998), was actually a paean to the delights of doggy-style sex. Needless to say, Venezuelans got the point; it was the group's biggest domestic hit by far. I also somehow missed a track called (in English) "Masturbation Session" on their follow-up CD, Arepa 3000.
So, what else are Anglo listeners missing out on? When Los Amigos were in London last week for a gig at Cargo in Shoreditch, I asked the lead vocalist Julio Briceno to fill us in. "Well, you're mainly missing out on the lyrics, which are about sex, but usually in a funny or sensual way, rather than being outright sexy," he says. And what about "Masturbation Session", which - in a touching reversal of the usual formula - is evidently about life on tour? "We're older now, but we're still doing it," he says. "Not so much, maybe!"
We may also be missing out on the context of the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela. "It's not in our music, or even our lyrics, but it has affected us," says Briceno, who, like the rest of the group, is now based in New York. "There's a reference to it at the very end of the final track on the new album, when you hear the sound of pans rattling. This is like in the kitchen when you cook your pasta, and it's a sign that the people don't want the president any more. We're making a statement in favour of Venezuela. It's the fault of all politicians, but this guy is hurting the economy, and therefore hurting everyone. A lot of important foreign companies are leaving the country, like Fiat and Proctor & Gamble. You can say, 'That's capitalism, fuck 'em', but everyone is poorer than ever."
The musical roots of Los Amigos Invisible are inextricable from the social context of middle-class life in Caracas, especially the affluent suburb of El Cafetal, originally a coffee plantation. "We got together in high school in Caracas," says Briceno. "We were neighbours and at school with each other, and the six of us have been playing for 10 years, starting with small parties and then bars and clubs. We made our first album for EMI Venezuela, touring to Puerto Rico, Colombia and Mexico."
How Los Amigos came to the attention of David Byrne is intriguing. "We sent some copies of our first album to New York, to a friend who worked at Tower Records, and he put them in the racks. David came into the shop and picked up a copy because he liked the artwork. There was also a mistake on the sleeve, which gave the date as 1985 instead of 1995, so when he listened to it he thought, "Wow!", like it was really advanced. He called the phone number on the sleeve to ask what we'd been doing all these years, and whether we'd made any other records."
They ended up extricating themselves from their EMI contract, and signing to Luaka Bop. When the album that followed, The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera, got nominated for a Latin Grammy (as Best Latin Alternative Album), the group, and evidently all of Venezuela, was stunned. "I was on the beach the day we got nominated, and when the news came through we were, like, 'What?'. For the next album, we expected to be nominated and weren't, but by then we didn't care."
In contrast to the stereotypes that tend to be associated with music from Latin America, the dominant sounds when the members of Los Amigos were growing up in Caracas were not those of indigenous salsa and merengue, but English Goth or industrial bands. "We grew up listening to The Cure and The Smiths, and groups such as Bauhaus, because that was what was popular," says Briceno. "Then the first album by the Brand New Heavies came out, and we went crazy!"
The foundations of what was to become Los Amigos' signature sound were thus formed from the shards of the British acid-jazz scene. "Incognito, Galliano, all those Talkin' Loud and Acid Jazz acts; it was the kind of music we wanted to play," says Briceno, who had a job in Caracas's most important record shop, Esperanto. "In Caracas at that time, everything was hard rock, and all the people had long hair, so it was strange playing acid jazz. As the theatres were geared to rock acts, we had to play at these clubs and discos from the Seventies that were in decline and beginning to close down. Then we started to do our own clubs and parties. Once we began to practice the music, it didn't sound the same, and so we started to develop that sound."
In case the thought of a Caracas scene divided between black-clad Goth rockers and Mockney soul-boys doesn't sound quite bizarre enough, it gets even weirder. "Just as we were starting to really find out about the development of acid jazz, the movement faded out and lounge music started to come in," says Briceno. "And then we began to listen to records by Mike Flowers Pops."
Latin music didn't get left behind entirely, however. It was in the blood. "In Venezuela, you can't deny listening to merengue or salsa; whatever you do, you're still in contact with that. Both our percussionist and pianist used to play in the salsa band at school."
As it turned out, Los Amigos Invisibles' strange blend of influences now sounds like a quite natural addition to the new global movement in Latin dance music. An opportunistic compilation album out this week, Essential Latin Flavas (Stimulus), yokes together a number of widely divergent bands whose one real point of comparison seems to be that they are all a bit on the weird side. Indeed, some of them, like Señor Coconut, Truby Trio and United Future Organisation, aren't actually Latin at all.
It's also ironic that Los Amigos Invisibles' danciest album arrives at a time when dance music is being talked about as a spent force. "Yes, it's true!" Briceno shrieks, delightedly. "There's far too much of it! We are a dance band, but you can go to one of our live shows, get drunk, dance, and maybe get laid. Nothing too intellectual, but just to have fun. And then you can listen to the record on Sunday mornings, too."
I can't leave without trying to get a final word on that infamous doggy-style single. "If you don't play 'Ponerte en Cuatro' in Venezuela, you're going to get into trouble," Briceno says, very seriously. "Everybody asks about the doggy-style. It's a very educational song."
'The Venezuelan Zingason Vol 1' is released on 11 August on Luaka BopReuse content