Mateo Arias is the Colombiano actor first recognized as “Jerry” from the popular 2011 Disney XD series, Kickin’ It.
¿Téo? on the other hand, is the bilingual artist that is single-handedly changing the direction of the music industry. Utilizing a meticulously crafted blend of influences from Alternative, Bossa Nova, Classical, and Hip-Hop genres, the Atlanta native began weaving his own web into the strands of music through the creation of a new genre he calls “Neo-American”. Each song in the artist’s discography takes listeners through an exclusive voyage through his seemingly boundless sense of vulnerability. Partnering a unique genre-blending sound with broad-minded lyricism, the young artist has influenced a generation of creatives to alleviate self imposed boundaries when it comes to creation. Despite the actor/musician’s humility and low-key nature, each of his songs has individually accumulated over one million streams (and counting) with his most popular song “Uno Dos”, featuring childhood best friend Jaden Smith. ¿Téo? has been an ever-present cultural influence alongside Smith and his older brother Moises Arias (most popularly known as 490tx, the illustrious photographer) via their clothing brand and creative collective MSFTS Republic. In light of this success, ¿Téo?’s Colombian heritage is something that shines in everything that he does. So much so that he is beginning to carve pathways for accurate Colombiano representation in both the music world and dramatic realms. The artist’s newest release “UNI2”, from his forthcoming album New Perfume, is a beautiful example of just one of the golden stones that the Los Angeles resident is laying in place.
FRONTRUNNER sat down and chatted with the cultivated creative to discuss the inner workings of the new song, the rise of Latinx music in mainstream media, and even facets of his astrological birth chart.
As an astrology buff, I wanted to kick off this interview by asking you about your Zodiac chart. Do you know your sun, moon, and your ascendant sign?
Yeah, 100%. I’m not super well-versed in astrology but I know there’s a lot of truth in it and a lot of mystery and I find it very valuable. I know a lot of people feel a certain way about it and I admire it as well. I know that I’m a Scorpio, that my moon is in Aquarius, and I have a Virgo Ascendant.
Do you believe that anyone of those three has the most influence over the art you create and put out into the world?
I feel like if it has an influence over me as a person, it automatically translates into my art and what I put into the world, be it consciously or unconsciously. I did read somewhere that the Virgo ascendant is super organized and meticulous and can be kind of a control freak and in a way I very much relate to that. I wake up and the first thing I do is brush my teeth, I make my bed, and I have to walk around my space and keep things in a neat fashion because I feel like the space around me is a mirror to my mind in a way. If my space is messy, my thoughts are messy. In that way, I super relate to it and it relates to my music in the sense that I—I don’t know if there’s such a thing as perfection but I definitely strive for excellence. So I’ll definitely revisit songs and certain things numerous amounts of times and I’ll try to refine and refine without losing the soul or the essence of whatever I’m working on.
When you initially started sharing your music, did you envision yourself utilizing a sense of ambiguity in your sound to create the Neo-American genre?
That’s a dope question. I think I use music more so to get out of my head. It’s like my avenue for really just getting out the emotion directly and doing essentially what it is that I feel and what I want to do. So in a way, I created this world for myself where I got to do whatever it is I felt like I wanted to do. This Neo American genre that I envisioned for my music was obviously inspired by all of the influences that I have, but it’s really everything that I come from. Both of my parents are from Colombia, I was born in Atlanta, kind of grew up in LA, I love Brazilian culture and music…so Neo American, to me, is me pulling from North, Central, and South America and fusing the continents and kind of synthesizing it within myself. That’s why you have the Bossa Nova influences, that’s why you have certain records that just sound like some dope alternative shit. In this new project that I’m coming out with, and specifically in “UNI2”, it’s the first song I’m releasing with a full verse in Spanish, my first language. Even the question marks in ¿Téo? add to the fact that I’m Colombian because you use la signo de interrogación to pose a question.
So would you say you’ve been incorporating these aspects since the very beginning or is it something that’s been a gradual development over time?
It’s developed more over time, but I do think from the beginning I was like, “if I’m going to make music, I’m going to come from the most honest place”. The music that I put out has to come from an authentic place. I don’t know if it was something that I said in my head like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to make a song called “Americano” where I say “I’m Americano Colombiano“, you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t that specific, but the energy was always there and that’s what allowed a song like that to happen. I wasn’t shying away from my heritage whatsoever. In fact, I was embracing it and I was stoked to be able to communicate to such a wide range of people. I’m really grateful to be able to communicate with South America, to Chilenos, to people from Ecuador, people from Argentina, and so on. I’m really grateful to be able to get a message across, whether it be meaningful or playful. The experiences that I’ve had in my life I incorporate into my music, but it was there from the beginning. It just keeps evolving as I go along.
How do you funnel waves of your own inspirations and passions into the music we adore? Does it ever feel like a process of trial and error?
I think sometimes it is just trial and error. It’s experimenting, attempting new things, and playing with things that maybe make me uncomfortable. A lot of times when I start a song, I’ll speak a language I’m not familiar with or I will literally speak gibberish and interesting cadences come out of that. Ultimately, I think it really just comes from exploration and from being unafraid of attempting things. When it comes to creativity, it’s a known thing but there is no right or wrong—there’s no way to be creatively “correct”. So I think in that, you get to discover and slowly start refining, and, in that way, I just go towards where the feeling guides me.
In a previous interview, you had stated that the question marks in your name serve as the reminder to constantly question yourself. So I wanted to ask you, as of today, how do you describe yourself to yourself?
I observe myself. I think that’s one of the secrets of life. My actions tell me more about myself than my thoughts because my thoughts are constantly changing. I’m like everyone else in the world in that I’m constantly evolving. I woke up on Tuesday as a different person than the one I woke up as on Sunday. The question marks in my name is really just a way of saying “don’t limit yourself”.
Because of my dad’s influence, I’m really into spirituality. I admire the mystics of the world like the Osho’s and the Patanjali’s. There’s this mystic called Ramana Maharshi and he used to always tell his disciples to ask themselves “who am I?” constantly but never give an answer. He would say, just let the answer reveal itself. That just kind of stuck with me and I read that before I had ever come up with the question marks. So it was always just a thing of asking myself constantly, “Who am I? Who am I?” breaking through any limitation that I might put on myself. The whole point of life is to keep evolving and entering new tiers and leveling up and sometimes that means taking two steps backward to go three forward.
“UNI2” is a rich, sonically-diverse song that feels like a new step in the progression of your sound. Can you take us through the development of the song?
Yeah, if you say it in English, it reads as “UNI2” but if you say it in Spanish it’s “Unidos“. My friend Lido played me the beat in December of 2018 and he’s one of my favorite producers and a good friend of mine. I love that dude. He’s got one of the craziest ears in the game. Lido played me that beat and I remember listening to that and going “Wow, that sounds like the evolution of where I’m trying to take my music. That sounds like the evolution of ¿Téo?”. Ideas started to surface and I was like “Yo bro, send me that!” I kind of lived with it for a while but I probably wrote twenty songs to that beat. I would just continuously come back and try to approach it in a different way and I remember one-time thinking “Yo, I wanna make some aspect of this song kind of like an anthem. I need a chant in this song” and almost instantly I got on the mic, went back to my gibberish thing and somehow it just came out like “Unido, Unido, Unido, Unido, Unido“. I remember being like that feels right, that feels really good.
I’m definitely cool with Spanglish—the whole first verse is Spanglish—but I really find it powerful to make a full statement in English and then one in Spanish. That’s why the whole second verse is in Spanish. It was one of those crazy songs that kind of came to me and I just let it happen and let the song evolve. I was really excited about it because I wanted to create something that I hadn’t heard yet and I think the song was just a good example of the evolution of what I’m about. It just felt good.
It’s truly inspiring that you’re incorporating your Colombian heritage in your work. Especially during this time where the music industry is finally starting to be more accepting and welcoming of Latinx music. What are your thoughts on this transition?
I really appreciate that, thank you. It’s really exciting, you know. Even from the time that I dropped “Americano” to now, so much has changed. Even an artist as amazing as Rosalía, and artists like Omar Apollo, Kali Uchis, [Latinx] music is becoming a normal thing. I really strongly believe that “Despacito” with Justin [Bieber] was something that helped open the floodgates. He killed that in the sense that there was this grand acceptance in mainstream music. Obviously, there’s different tiers to it and different avenues for it, but I’m really happy and really blessed to live in this age that’s coming about where people are more so tuning into the feel of things without necessarily knowing what somebody is saying. I listen to French cats and different French songs, I listen to Russian cats where I’m just like, “Yo, this shit is fire”. Sometimes I think that must be how some people feel about my music—not knowing what I’m saying but the feeling is there and they’re vibing, you know? I’m just glad that more and more people are opening up to that.
It is really powerful and beautiful how the Latinx community is finally being delivered the platform to take the front seat in music. I’ve read that one of the biggest concerns pertaining to U.S.-based entertainment is the acceptance of Latinx music being entirely dependent on a given set of genres – namely the intermixing of Reggaeton and Pop. Some folks have said that this may leave many other aspects of Latinx music and culture unrepresented in the industry. Making music underneath the Neo-American genre, have you ever found yourself fearing a similar situation; one where it becomes progressively more difficult for the audience to connect with your music simply because it strays from popularized music?
When people think Latinx music they probably think Reggaeton—which is dope! But there’s other stuff there too that, if you look for it, you’re going to find. Obviously it’s songs like Reggaeton and Pop that are constantly being thrown at us—which is fine because that’s what gets the instant play and it’s cool and it’s fun and if you’re at a festival and you’re trying to rage, it’s dope. There are certain things that will surface with my album, but I’m going to have some Reggaeton songs that I’ll be doing in my own way. So I see the Pop and Reggaeton mix as a massive bridge that I’m grateful for because that bridge is what’s going to allow other songs to have more ears open to it. I don’t feel threatened by it, I want to be a part of it and help do my part to elevate that, too.
I feel like people want new music all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to give people space and time for things to happen. It’s a natural law that eventually people come around. People want something different and have a tendency to want to explore at some point. Like there’s this wave of Latinx Alternative, which I feel “UNI2” is a part of, that’s just really dope and I’m excited to participate in something like that because it’s going to open up avenues for people. There are a bunch of artists doing the same thing. There are artists like Rodrigo Amarante who is an incredible musician that a lot of people might not know about. He’s the man who did the theme song for Narcos. He’s a phenomenal musician and he has songs in Portuguese, English, and Spanish. I really admire him. There are several artists like him that people need to just look for.
Switching gears a little bit, did your experiences filming Blast Beat, the film you starred in alongside your brother Moises, Wilmer Valderrama, Diane Guerrero, and Kali Uchis, carry into your music at all?
One thousand percent! Anytime I go to Colombia, it’s almost as if I become a more authentic version of myself. I love Colombian people and the warmth they carry. I didn’t speak English until I was like 3 or 4—my brother taught me English. Anytime I go to Colombia and I hear el acento paisa, it’s like really heartwarming—oh man, I come alive! It immediately starts affecting the way I move and the way I speak and so I carry that energy into sitting down and making a song or whatever it may be.
With the film, my character in the movie, Carly, is really into heavy Metal and I listened to that music a lot. It’s not necessarily my favorite style of music [laugh] but I forced myself to get into it and eventually I started vibing on it. I want to go back to Colombia and make a full album there and just be around my people. Funny enough, there’s an interlude on the project that I’m about to come out with where I recorded my dad’s friend in the car while he was telling a story. He didn’t know that I was recording and it was just the most authentic thing and anytime I listen back to the interlude I just laugh and smile because it reminds me of home.
What words of advice would you give to all the creative MSFTS of the world looking to tap into their creativity and begin sharing their art?
It’s so funny, my brother and I were having this conversation about creativity and we had settled upon the importance of action. You can have 700 ideas in your head, but the one thing that you do in real life, the one action you take is more important than those 700 ideas that you have because it’s affecting the actual reality you’re in. I think when it comes to creativity, action is what sharpens the craft. Whether it be culinary arts, whether it be producing, cinematography/photographing, the art of learning to play the guitar or an instrument, painting, whatever it is the more you do it, the more the art reveals itself to you. It’s a known thing, everybody talks about it but we have the internet, we have YouTube. You can learn basically whatever you want to learn on the internet. If you really have a passion for whatever it is that you’re doing, you’re going to find a way.
In terms of sharing your art and gathering the courage to share your art, in life, and in creativity courage plays a huge role in the sense that you’ve got to be vulnerable and willing to put yourself out there. A couple of days ago, my brother and I released this video that I put on my IGTV called “In My Mind” and it was just a demo that I made in my room during the quarantine. I was just playing it in my room and my brother overheard it and was like we have to shoot a video for that! I was like alright cool, I’m not planning on dropping the song anytime soon because I have to work on it. But, back to the note of action, it was just me and him at home and we got the cameras, took our time, shot the video, he did exactly what he wanted to do and I worked on the song a little bit more. That little piece of art came out and it was powerful in the sense that it just showed us what we were able to do even in a time like this where people aren’t able to do much, you know? It felt really empowering to be like “Wow, we literally just did that”.
I encourage taking risks. New information allows new things to come into play and new tools for people to be able to continue growing in their craft. The main thing with creativity for me is action and just being there with it and just letting it happen. Don’t worry about the judgment. People are going to say whatever they’re going to say but that’s not for you to have to worry about, you worry about the creation. Once you create it and put it out, you’ve done what you needed to do.
What future projects can we keep our fingers crossed for?
I’m the most excited about the album New Perfume that’s going to come out, hopefully, this summer. Blast Beat, the film we were talking about earlier, will hopefully come out this year and I’m leaving room for things that I haven’t quite thought of yet like the “In My Mind” IGTV video. There’s more to come and I’m excited and looking forward to going back into the world with everyone and sharing my art and creativity.
You can listen to “UNI2”, here.