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On a recent afternoon, Mike Sniper, owner of Brooklyn record label Captured Tracks, is talking about Juan Wauters, co-founder of the Beets and a newly minted solo artist. Sniper, whose label gave a start to bands like DIIV, Beach Fossils, Blouse, and also the Beets, has a pretty high tolerance for eccentricity. Still, Wauters sticks out. "I mean, have you met the guy?" he asks, laughing.
When I do, he's leaning on a railing in front of a Foot Locker in the Queens Center Mall, a sprawling four-story shopping center that stretches across a highway (I'd ask him to pick somewhere personally meaningful for us to meet). He's dressed in a white athletic-style turtleneck underneath a white V-neck sweater, boxy acid-washed jeans, and a faded jean jacket, chunky white high-tops over black socks, and translucent purple glasses, topped off with a casual early '90s-style mullet. We say hello and start walking.
Over the next hour, we walk up and down the mall, past Applebees, a stand with controllers snaking from flat-screen TVs where you can play Xbox One, and a Starbucks kiosk, where he gestures at the crowd waiting in line with strollers and in puffy jackets and says, "I love Queens because it's the quintessential New York place." It's not the last time I won't be entirely sure what he's talking about.
As the singer and songwriter for one of the DIY era's biggest bands, Wauters was one of the most sought-after musicians in the city. Fashion designers whisked him away to play at parties in Montauk (fashion designer Cynthia Rowley famously called the Beets "a rock 'n' roll protest"). Pavement picked his band to open for them at their massive, sold-out Central Park show in 2010. If there was a show at an illegal venue between 2008 and 2011, his band was probably on last. "They were always erratic and unpredictable," says Scott Rosenthal, who has previously played with the Beets. "There was never any indication whether or not it was gonna be a complete disaster or some totally transcendent show."
Yet no matter how popular Wauters or his music has become, he remains a dedicated outsider. He's smart and genuinely himself, and has a way of making everyone else in the room seem like they're trying too hard. He barely listens to any modern music. "When Juan puts on a Beatles record," says Rosenthal, "he freaks out about how awesome it is in the same way he did as a kid. It hasn't been numbed over time, and I think that same attitude goes into his songwriting."
He's prone to speaking in curious, Yogi Berra-esque epigrams that Sniper calls "Juan-isms." For instance, here's Wauters on identity: "I try to be who I think I am." On living in New York: "There's lots of people, but you're kind of by yourself." But the word he uses most is "friendship." It's something that fuels his music, but it also tore his band apart.
Wauters was born in Uruguay. When South American economies began to collapse in the late 1990s, his family decided to move to America. Or, more particularly, his family decided that he and his father had to move to America, earn some money, and then bring over everyone else. So, at age 17, Wauters moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, to work in a picture frame factory with his father. "We're not going back," he says his family told him. "Don't think about going back. Don't miss it. This is where we are from now."
He took that message to heart. Queens has become central to Wauters's identity. He sits in front of the famous Unisphere on press photos promoting his new album. In interview after interview, he names only a few influences, almost all from Queens: The Ramones, Howard Stern, and Jerry Seinfeld ("He's from Long Island, but . . . I like him, too," Wauters adds, a bit apologetically). The Beets always performed with banners scrawled with "We are from Jackson Heights" in block letters.
Queens is also where Wauters met Jose Garcia, with whom he would start the Beets. At the time, Wauters had been playing music with some friends, without any larger ambitions in, or really any larger knowledge of, the music industry. "We didn't know there was record labels," he says. "We listened to music at home, and we had instruments and we played music. It ended there."
All that changed when Wauters met Garcia. "When I met him, I started going into the city, we made our first band," Wauters says. "He's like my first American friend. Through him I met all my other friends in Queens. I created a circuit of people." That was then. Today, The Beets' future is highly uncertain, and Wauters is focusing on his solo work, releasing his first proper album, NAP: North American Poetry, this week.
The relationship between Wauters and Garcia was central to the Beets; when the two began to have problems, the band quickly fell apart. Wauters doesn't offer specifics, but obliquely refers to "money stuff" when prodded. (Garcia declined to comment for this article.)
"I held him up here, you know?" he says, putting his hand above his head. The band first broke up in 2012; Wauters attempted to get the band back together in 2013, putting his personal feelings aside. They booked a rare tour, only to see Garcia give up and go home in the middle of it. The band hasn't been the same, but they still perform with a rotating cast of friends to fill in as necessary. These days, they could more reasonably be called "Juan Wauters and Whoever Else Is Around."