In a bougie bar in central London, 20-year-old Omar Banos – known to his fans as Cuco – is licking the salt from the rim of a margarita glass, taking gentle sips and scowling. He’s not too impressed: “Thank God we’re not in Mexico!” he smirks.
Mexico this is not, but you can’t really knock this first generation South American immigrant born and raised in California for desperately yearning for a proper taste of home. He’s been on the road for the past few weeks, traveling as far afield as Thailand and China to play a string of packed shows to crowds he never thought he’d encounter. For this guy, international success was never on the cards.
After all, he’s a boy who’s barely left teenager-dom behind, and he has made his name penning woozily-produced songs about heartbreak, friendship, and the mundanity of suburban life that slip in and out of English and Spanish, meeting their audience on the internet. He sits across from Highsnobiety smoking a rollie, his face buried beneath his ubiquitous thick-rim glasses and beanie, and only then, while speaking to him, do you realize that he’s the quintessential kid to find fame in the internet age: grounded, inquisitive, and honest about his emotions.
With songs like “Summertime Hightime” and “Sunnyside” racking up millions of views on YouTube, he seems to have transcended the barriers of language to become a creator of mini viral hits, winning him famous fans and friends like Tyler, Billie Eilish, and Khalid in the process. But it seems like running in flashy circles isn’t all that interesting to him.
His mellowed-out insouciance followed him to the stage the night after we spoke, and around the world as he continued a never-ending tour that came to a premature halt two weeks later. Early in the morning on October 8th, Omar and his band were involved in a car crash on their way to Nashville, Tennessee. All of Cuco’s team were hospitalized; Omar himself underwent surgery.
“Right now I’m feeling ok,” Omar tells us from his home in California a few weeks after the accident. “I’m definitely still feeling a lot of the consequences from the aftermath of it, but it’s been getting better and my foot’s healing.” He’s just starting to walk again and can’t wait to get back to the beach or go bowling like he used to.
The downtime has, however, given him time to dwell on the music he wants to make. When we spoke, Omar fantasized about side projects; the opportunity to spend time “making very different music with all the time [he’s had].” Confined to his home studio, having the blessing of time to create outside of a busy touring schedule and without the pressure of deadlines might just lead Cuco to his most fascinating work to date.
“I wouldn’t say it was a lesson,” Omar says of the accident that upended his already insane life like an unpredicted fork in the road. “It was more so a kind of reset on everything, and a second opportunity to catch up with myself, how I’m feeling and make the right moves for [the music] that’s coming out.”
There are glimmers of this self-reflection that manifested in the conversation Highsnobiety had with Cuco before his accident. This is what happened when we sat down with the fresh-faced kid, the one spearheading stoner-style bedroom pop, to chat high school, sadness, and his own streetwear brand.
You grew up in Inglewood which counts Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys and Swae Lee as locals. What was your musical upbringing like?
My family listened to a lot of classic Mexican: bolero style stuff and some mariachis, you know? But there was rap around too, thanks to my uncles; they used to put me on to some old school shit: Nekro and Jedi Mind Tricks and all those artists [as well as] 50 Cent and T-Pain. I used to be, like, heavy into System when I was younger, too. Like, I love System of a Down, dude. I’ve actually started producing metal and psychedelic music. The psychedelic stuff obviously stuck, but the metal music you would have never really guessed it.
Are you ever tempted to do a spin-off metal project?
Yeah, yeah, I have shit that I’m working on. [At this point, Omar plays an excerpt of some music he’s working on that’s much heavier than his indie pop]. I’m into shit like that: super heavy, like Death Grips. I just need to practice more.
You’ve met Tyler, the Creator before, right? What was that experience like?
He’s cool! I played at a private party once and [The Internet’s] Steve Lacey was there, who introduced me to Tyler. So we chopped it up, and he said he watched my set. That was really tight. I really admire what he does, and he’s from the same city as me, so it’s cool to have someone like that to look up to. Sort of like, ‘he made it out of there so I can too’.
Now, guys like Khalid and MadeInTYO… they’re all people I see as family – my homie-homies. A lot of us on the underground scene are hanging with [pop stars] Clairo and Billie Eilish – that’s cool. To me, they’re just cool people I fuck with. I’m stoked that I know them.
And you’re all in the same position as well. That’s you now.
Yeah, it’s weird as fuck. I don’t know why I’m here.
I guess that’s one of the things your fans like about you: you’ve stayed humble and true to your roots. It would be really easy to act like a douchebag in your situation.
My parents were immigrants; so they came from nothing. They came to the US [and had to] start again, so they always taught me to be humble and be nice to people. I’ve seen it from both sides of the spectrum: the ones living day by day to the [wealthy] people my mum works for, so I was able to get my own perspective on it and really develop myself characteristically. Especially doing all this music shit, I had to mature even quicker, because I’m fucking getting money! The IRS is on my ass!
Tell me a bit about your clothing brand, Fantasy’s Easy Living.
I started it last year and then got my homie Julian, who’s my drummer, on deck. We did a collaboration with RedBull and put out our first drop around the same time we put out the “Sunnyside” video. Back then I was working on designs, trying to get my shit together, so it’s still very much in development. But I have really high hopes for it, because I love the mix of streetwear and high end – like Gosha – but I wanna make it accessible to people that don’t have the money to afford $200 pants. I’m trying to develop it so that when we do come back, we have a team behind it and it’s a strong as fuck. I’m really trying to make that shit work.
Men, in particular, have a crazy relationship with vulnerability and the stigma attached to it. How do you tackle that in your music?
In the Latino community, depression, anxiety, and mental health isn’t really talked about. They see it as: ‘Why are you sad? Stop being sad.’ But it goes beyond that. You fucking deal with that shit. I mean, as much as I’m happy doing my music, sometimes I just wake up and I fucking hate myself. Sometimes I despise everything about me, and it feels nice that I have the freedom to talk about it and not be told [to] ‘man up.’ It’s definitely important that I embrace it in my music.
It’s mad that you never ever really hear another guy just be like ‘I woke up yesterday and really hated myself.’ It’s like there’s no scope to say anything about it.
My mom checks up on me when she sees my tweets, man. It sucks because I just tweet how I feel. Sometimes, I’m not okay and I wanna talk about it but I can’t because people worry a lot. My team has been working with me to make sure I’m not fucking trying to do anything stupid to myself because like, they had to try and stop me a couple of times, and that’s very personal shit – but it still happens.
I guess a lot of your closest friends are still with you when you do all this but, what do the people you went to school with think of how this turned out?
The people I was cool with are stoked as fuck! And then the people who I never spoke to in high school, who probably didn’t even know I existed are like [he adopts a high-pitched, sycophantic voice]: ‘Oh, you’re so talented, we had a class together!’ I’m like, thanks for being proud of me, but trying to act like you’re close to me? No.
Yeah, you seem like the kind of person who can sniff out bullshit quite well.
Yeah dude, [he points to his group of friends at the adjacent table] – they can all tell you. I’m so skeptical of people. If I don’t fuck with people, they immediately know I don’t fuck with them. I got fucked over a lot as a kid and while growing up. They were dark times, and then college I got fucked over too. But it helps you filter people out. So if you have that intuition – even if you want it to be wrong – you’ll always find that your gut feeling is right.
For more like this, read our chat with rising chanteuse Cherrie.