Chris Pérez never saw it coming.
“All I ever wanted to do was play guitar,” he told the Current. “I never thought I’d be the subject of an interview, much less be portrayed in a movie and all these other things that happened to me since Selena passed away.”
Selena, murdered by the president of her fan club on March 31, 1995, was his wife and quite possibly the love of his life. Ever since the tragedy took place in Corpus Christi, Pérez was the one who wouldn’t talk about it. It took him many years to gradually open up, and he finally did, with a vengeance, with his critically acclaimed book To Selena with Love, released by Celebra/Penguin in March 2012. After the book came out, in December he put out a limited edition EP through his website (simply titled Chris Pérez Project, the name of his band), recorded a full-length album produced by Emilio Estefan Jr. and is prepared perform Sunday at the second day of the Festival People en Español at the Alamodome. He’s living the best time of a solo career that was marked by controversy from the very start.
“When [Selena] passed, I thought, ‘What am I going to go back to? Am I not going to do anything at all? Am I going to go work on cars? Fix A/Cs?’” he said. Instead, he decided to fulfill his dream of recording a rock en español album. Resurrection, released in 1999, was nominated for a Best Latin Rock/Alternative album Grammy alongside tried and true rocanrol heavyweights Enanitos Verdes, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Jaguares and Café Tacuba. On February 23, 2000, against all odds, Resurrection won and the rock en español establishment (yours truly included) went “WTF?” on a massive, international scale. Little did we know that Pérez himself was the first to be surprised.
“I said the same exact thing,” said Pérez. “When they announced,‘‘And the winner is...’ and they started saying ‘Re...,’’ in my head I said,‘‘OK, [Café Tacuba’s] Revés/Yosoy won.’ And [my band] told me, ‘Dude, we won!’ I’m glad I won, but I couldn’t believe it.”
Not that Resurrection is a bad album, but Pérez was and still is considered an outsider in a genre that regards pop artists crossing over to rock with suspicion. However Pérez was a rocker first, and his success with Los Dinos (Selena’s backing band) had been something that fell in his lap.
Nevertheless, and in spite of a more pop-leaning follow-up in 2001 (Una Noche Más), he was never able to maintain the momentum of his Grammy-winning night and spent most of his time playing on albums for others.
“At that time, I don’t think I was ready to be leading anything,” he said. “The politics [of the music industry] and all that, I wasn’t mentally prepared. With Los Dinos there was a clear direction and we all had a job to do, but when I became the leader of my own band, it was a little too overwhelming for me.”
His drugs-, alcohol- and depression-fueled downward spiral started in April of ’95, days after Selena’s death, and lasted through November of 1996. He managed to get healthy and remarried in 2001, but the union didn’t last: the couple divorced in 2008.
“Divorce is a pain in the ass,” he said, “especially when people try to start drama with you. But fortunately there’s peace now.”
Even through the marriage, life was confusing and he couldn’t get his solo career going. In 2002 he finally found help—A.B. Quintanilla, Selena’s brother, was the ear he needed.
“We were in the studio working on [Kumbia Kings’] Cuatro and I had a heart-to-heart talk with him,” he said. “He told me, ‘Yeah, [a music career] can be overwhelming at times. Why don’t you take a break and play with me on the road for a while? I’ll take care of you, I’ll pay you well. I miss you.’”
It was the beginning of a road to recovery that led to him finally tackling the Selena issue head-on with 2012’s To Selena, with Love. Even though he says he kept a lot of memories for himself, the book is candid enough in a classy way.
“I wanted to put some stuff out there but at the same time I didn’t want to perpetuate crazy visions people have of some of those characters,” he said. “And I love those guys [the Quintanilla family]. They’re family.”
In 2010 he formed the Chris Pérez Project, a band with Puerto Rican Ángel Ferrer as the lead singer. They released the single “Todo es Diferente” in 2011 and a limited edition, self-titled five-track collector’s EP in December 2012. It is a guitar-heavy power pop album that only a couple of thousand die-hard fans have.
“If you hear the EP, [it’s] like balls-out rock and roll,” he said. “Guitar, bass, vocals. That’s it. As down home as you’re going to get. But I actually wanted people to have something to go with the music, and that’s why we didn’t release it digitally. I was a fan of that as a kid, I would peel the plastic off and pull the poster out. I’m not kidding, I’m a fan of the smell of vinyl.”
In 2012, he got together with producer Emilio Estefan Jr. to record songs for an album that, according to Pérez manager Carlos Miranda, will be released next year. Pérez said it’ll be a mix of both his and Estefan’s sound.
“What I like about Emilio is that, from the very beginning, he told me, ‘If you don't like something, we won’t do it,’” Pérez said. “I felt like he was opening up his toolbox and letting me use everything that was in there.”
Besides producing, Estefan himself will play on some of the tracks.
“I wanted to play some Latin percussion on a couple of my songs, and he said, ‘Sure, do you want me to play it?’ And I was like, ‘Dude! If there’s going to be a percussion player, it’s going to be you!’ [Estefan] understands the name of the band is Chris Pérez Project. The guitars are more in-your-face than any band that has a lead singer as the vocal point. With Shakira or Paulina [Rubio], the mixes are geared towards their vocals, because you’re selling them. With us, the guitars are boosted up more, and we’re not being shy about it either. People who heard those tracks tell me they sound like a mix of Stone Temple Pilots, Lenny Kravitz [and] Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
For his show Sunday at the Alamodome, Pérez will perform a song from Resurrection and a few of the tracks he recorded with Estefan. “The EP? I’m not sure, they’re too rock [for the festival], but we’ll see,” he said, referencing the Chris Pérez Project tracks.
No matter what he plays, he’ll go onstage feeling better than he has felt in years. Is this a second “resurrection” for him?
“Second resurrection?” he said. “You’re right. It’s the first time I heard it put that way. It’s true.”
But why now? Was it the book? Time itself? He seems far away from the reclusive, shy, tormented person he used to be.
“I just came to terms with a lot of things,” he said. “I got tired of being portrayed as el viudo [the widower], and whenever my photo was on TV they’d put all this somber music like … [makes haunting noise]. Even when I won a Grammy all they’d ask me about was Selena. It never goes away. But…”
Then he stops, thinks for a few seconds and clarifies.
“If you’re going to print this, I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea,” he said. “I’ll always love Selena, she’ll always be a part of me and she’ll always be in my heart and I’ll always think about her. But to do an interview and to have 80 percent about me and 20 percent about her, that’s awesome for me, because it used to be the other way around. But we talked about many other things, especially things about my present work. I understand 99.9 percent of the time I’ll have to speak about her, and that’s fine. Her legacy is going to live on for a long time, and I’m very proud of that and I want to help it move forward.”
Chris Pérez at the Festival People En Español feat. Demi Lovato, Wisin & Yandel, 3BallMTY and others
$33-$253 7pm Sun, Sep 1 Illusions Theater at the Alamodome 100 Montana (800) 745-3000 ticketmaster.com