Yerba Buena

Through his work as a producer, Andres Levin has long lived in the worlds of Latin music and modern pop. A few years ago, he decided to incorporate all those elements into his own recording project called Yerba Buena, which has since evolved into a steady touring band.

“I’ve always been pulled between the Latin world, soul, hip-hop, and world music as well,” he told POLLSTAR the day it was announced that his band’s President Alien was nominated for the Latin rock album Grammy Award. “[Yerba Buena came from] a creative desire to blend these things together in a different way, more organic.”

Levin, Venezuelan by birth, assembled artists from Cuba and the States to record the album while he was working on other projects.

“At that point in time, we were just experimenting and I transformed the idea into making a super, 10-piece live band,” he said. “The record I did kind of overdubbed, and the live band matured from touring over the last year and a half.”

The core of the group comprises vocalists Xiomara Laugart, Cucu Diamantes, El Chino and Pedro Martinez, who also plays percussion. Levin plays guitar and is backed by Soul Coughing’s Sebastian Steinberg on bass, Ron Blake on sax, and drummer Terreon Gully.

All have histories in their respective – and varied – genres, but what holds them together is the direction of Levin, who doesn’t abandon his producer hat at the studio.

“I’m always directing onstage, producing onstage. … It’s the way I produce records, the way I like to put tracks together by combining eclectic rhythm sections,” he said.

In late 2001, when the band had played only a handful of live shows, Yerba Buena caught the ear of Michel Vega, who now heads up the William Morris Agency’s Latin music office in Miami Beach, Fla. Vega said he was “blown away by their sound” and jumped at the chance to help them develop as a band.

“It was a huge challenge because they had no record deal and were completely unknown outside of a very small music afficionado group in New York,” Vega told POLLSTAR. “So we began by booking them at summer festivals that were open to exposing audiences to new music.

“In addition to that, we tried to look for some interesting pairings for them to open up for other groups, including Dave Matthews, who was very receptive to having them tour with him. They’ve opened for all different kinds of groups, from Dave Matthews to Willie Nelson to Celia Cruz in Central Park.

“A big part of what makes them who they are now has been their touring history, which has really influenced them from a musical point of a view because they’ve played for so many diverse audiences and hit.”

Levin agreed that the variety of audiences and concert settings, whether it be opening for Matthews or headlining Latin club dates, has molded the band.

Yerba Buena

“I really play with shifting the vibe of the set and the way we do the arrangements, depending on the crowd, if they’re sitting down or dancing or watching us on TV.”

While the band picks up fans across the country, even the Midwest (where Vega said groupies followed Levin & Co. from town to town), the team at WMA is using its multimedia influence to expose the band to as many people as possible

“We have agents in our Beverly Hills office that specifically handle soundtrack opportunities for our music clients, so when we had the group out on the West Coast, we introduced them to a lot of music supervisors and Hollywood people who became enamored with their sound,” Vega said.

The band has shown up on TV shows like “Third Watch” and has the featured tune on the trailer to the new “Dirty Dancing” movie.

“I think for this particular band, it’s been great. Their music is unique and I think they can benefit from all these exposure outlets. Being at a full-service agency gives them the opportunity to open those doors,” Vega said.

The coming year looks to be a big one for Yerba Buena. In addition to the Grammy nod and YB solo projects that Levin is producing under his Fun Machine Records company, Vega is lining up extensive touring plans.

“It’s a two-pronged thing. … The plan is for them to do a combination of headlining club tours in the U.S. for the spring; we’re also looking at some creative packaging with other groups for U.S. touring in the first half of next year.

“And then we’ve got a big focus on their first tour of Europe, which will happen in July and August. … There’s a lot of interest for them in France as well as Germany and Japan. The record has been released in Japan, like three weeks ago, and got great critical acclaim.”

For Levin, it will be the culmination of years of hard work for the self-managed band.

“We’ve done this, Michel and I, since the very beginning and it’s been a lot of work, all independently,” he said. “It’s great to see this happen on an independent label (Razor & Tie), where we’ve done everything with our bare hands. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially the way the industry is right now.

“The timing has been perfect, and it’s completely under our control.”