Rodriguez Talks ‘Searching For Sugar Man’

Contrary to rumors, the featured singer in the upcoming documentary is still alive, and going strong.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Sorry, it’s kind of a spoiler just to know that I’m interviewing Rodriguez, the singer featured in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The film begins with filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul investigating the mysterious death of the singer made popular and controversial in South Africa. So it’s a spoiler that he’s still alive, but trust me, it’s way more inspiring to know that he’s still around and the movie provides him a comeback. I actually met Rodriguez at a Sundance screening of the film, and then got to interview him in Los Angeles. His message remains peace and love, as he gave me a hug and said, “I’m yours.” As we wrapped up, he wished me, “All the best. Stay well, man. Stay well, man. Good luck to you on your journey and get to your destination.” That’s the kind of guy Rodriguez is, and you can discover him and his music in Searching for Sugar Man.


CraveOnline: When you started writing and producing your music, did you ever imagine it would be banned in South Africa?

Rodriguez: [Laughs] No, I didn’t. The thing is, the film shows what they did to censor the music and I think that’s good, because that little clip which lasted four minutes or something, I think that said so much for it because the medias are controlled. The president of the United States appoints the head of the FCC so all this stuff is very government looking over the shoulders kind of thing. I think that little point made was good.


Did the music always have an uplifting or spiritual message?

I try not to have [a message.] Sometimes you can’t help it. You need some kind of conclusion in a song, and they are just songs to me. That’s my stuff but they are just tunes. That they have lasted for such a long time speaks for a lot of things. It’s too bad conditions are currently the same. That’s too bad but the thing is, you have to speak out with things.


Why, after the fist album, did you decide to step out of music?

Well, everybody needs oxygen. Everybody needs a couple bucks. You have to put those things to the side, as opposed to just trying to do it. Music is a challenging career.


Some people when they have that passion, they have to do it whether they’re working on the side or keeping at it somehow?

It’s a curse. [Laughs] It’s inside you and you’ve got to find how you use it. A lot of people start out as musicians and become producers. Kurt Cobain started as a drummer. You develop and it’s just a development. They used to have a department like that on labels.


Did you really completely put music aside for decades?

No, no. I don’t put that aside. I’m saying just the world of performance. Detroit is scarce for places to play, so I’m based out of Detroit and the environment is a little bit harsh.


How does it feel that the soundtrack to this movie will be the first Rodriguez album in 30-some years?

Oh geez, and Sony Legacy picked it up so we’re slated for some nighttime appearances and I’m going to Sweden in August. So we’re getting some calls. I even got a call for next year to do Australia March/April, so that’s always in the works. I think it’s going to be a long tour and I’ll be there maybe six weeks.


What is it like to get back into touring and recording at this stage?

It’s a wonderful time and I’m able to ask for more. Here’s what you ask for: Guaranteed fee, sound/lights, accommodations, airfares to start out with .You need a passport, a bank account. You have to have to have the ability to walk three football fields, you know the airports, carrying your equipment. You have to protect your copyrights.


Did you not have a passport and bank account for regular life?

Yeah, but I’m saying if you’re going to do that touring at that level. I like when they interviewed The Rolling Stones and they said, “When we started out there was no touring industry” and that’s true. They started touring in ’62 I believe. The thing is they created this industry as well. As rock n’ roll goes, it develops. There’s no real blueprint. It’s that kind of term that you can use for bad times. It’s rock n’ roll. When it’s good times, it’s rock n’ roll. It is like that. There can be so many twists and turns, both good and bad, but mostly if you go for good, it’s the way that it is.


Why do you think rumors of your death started?

I didn’t have any knowledge of that. I didn’t know how or why that started but I knew that they were in the middle of a lot of social turbulence in South Africa.


Especially the story that you set yourself on fire on stage. Someone would have had to see that.

I’m not into pyrotechnics so I’d never do anything like that. I heard somebody said that the audience got burned up too. I don’t do anything like that. So I don’t know. Maybe, if you would, maybe the American term saying “He went out in a blaze of glory” was misinterpreted. Isn’t that possible? In a blaze of glory, and they say, “Oh, he burned himself up.” To try to translate it into other languages, like in South Africa, they say howsit instead of how are you. “In a blaze of glory” sounds like it might be an exaggeration of that term. So that’s just a theory. I don’t know how they get those things.


Are you writing new music now?

Yes, I am. I’m writing new stuff but what’s in front of me is what people are listening to, so I don’t want to confuse them in the sense of going into some other tangent of music. I’m following what’s presented to the public, and we’re going to be showing in 84 cities so I’m sticking to the soundtrack. Then in performance, I do covers because I like covers. This is what they were listening to this year.


Who do you cover?

Oh geez, I do a little bit of everybody. I was doing Elton John.


Which Elton John song?

“I remember when rock was young, me and Suzy…” It’s a fun song. It’s a nice change, it’s guitar, it’s a nice beat, it’s catchy. So some of my audience would appreciate that song. I play to my audience. I put my stuff in there and now I’m putting more of my stuff but I do enjoy playing with musicians that I work with. I’ve got my eyes closed half the time when I’m playing and I listen to the response on stage, but it’s a living art. Most people just listen to radio or listen to recorded music. It’s good to get out there and mix it up.


You have your guitar with you. How often do you take it out and play it?

I stay with it because we have these photo shoots, so I just show that because that’s what I do.