Nuevo Culture

‘I’ll Always Find My Way Back Up’: The Uphill Journey That Led Cuco to ‘Fantasy Gateway’

Cuco is sitting at home in Los Angeles, his hair a little tousled and his posture relaxed. The 24-year-old artist and multi-instrumentalist, whose real name is Omar Banos, just got back from Yosemite National Park, where he spent a few days climbing, a new hobby he can’t get enough of. His hands are ripped and full of callouses, he’s kind of sore, and I’ve caught him during a busy week just before he drops his second album, Fantasy Gateway. But he’s also the healthiest he’s ever been.

The last couple of years have gone by in a chaotic haze: Cuco was just 17 when he started getting attention for a slew of covers, including Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk,” and building a fanbase by playing backyard shows in California. His EPs, Songs4U from 2017 and Chiquito from 2018, were built on misty, bilingual sounds that intrigued the music industry — and then came an intense label bidding war. After being courted by some of the biggest players in the business, Cuco landed a seven-figure deal with Interscope in 2019 and released his debut album, Para Mi, that summer.

That would have been enough to give any artist whiplash, but there’s been so much in between, including some dark moments. “My whole career is just in and out of a blur,” Cuco admits. “And it sucks because I accomplished so many things, and I feel like I don’t really remember a lot.” Back in 2018, before signing to Interscope, Cuco and his bandmates were in the middle of a tour when a tractor-trailer rammed into their van, leaving Cuco with injuries that necessitated 30 screws and a metal rod put into his leg. The trauma from the accident had lasting implications and filtered into some of the bleaker edges of Para Mi. Cuco has also long struggled with anxiety and disassociation, and he’s been honest about dabbling in psychedelics and other drugs. But his substance abuse issues took a more intense turn, especially as his career took off, and he found himself heavily using cocaine and alcohol, and occasionally trying opiates.

“I stopped for a bit, but then I found it again. It was a combination of drinking and taking substances. It was just not fun — one of those things where people around you always tell you, like, ‘Yo, you should chill out on this, you should quit.’ But you can’t really tell somebody who’s going through that that, because it’s really hard to get somebody out of that loop,” he says. “You can’t really give somebody a crash pad to not hit rock bottom.”

Cuco says he hit rock bottom twice with drugs, and then one more time with drinking. When we talk, he’s been sober from alcohol for four months, and he credits climbing and recording Fantasy Gateway with helping him stay clean. “I think with this album, it’s really just showing more growth than anything,” he says. “I feel like my life was just going so fast, and I was just unsure of what I was doing… Doing the album really helped me out, writing and really getting together thoughts that otherwise would be scrambled in my head and also just led me to a lot of substance abuse.”

Although Fantasy Gateway was recorded during a fraught time, it comes through as cosmic dream-pop from another galaxy, pristine and deeply mature. The tones are less grim than parts of Para Mi, and Cuco finds compelling ways to stretch his musicality, experimenting with jazz hues on “Artificial Intelligence,” forlorn balladry on “Decir Adios,” and sleek R&B tones on “Fin Del Mundo.” He draws on his Mexican through collaborations with artists like DannyLux, Bratty, and Adriel Favela, all while building astral worlds through his songs that briefly make time stop.

“As a person who disassociates a lot and has severe anxiety, the present is never a thing that exists,” he says. He adds that he’s often trying to find ways, through the lyrics and production, to shape a universe that feels a little lighter —  wistful, even. “I want it to feel sweet, and I want it to feel melancholic and nostalgic for something that you’re remembering that happened in the future  —  something that never happened,” he says.

One especially stunning moment on the album comes on “Sitting in the Corner,” a collaboration with country-pop star Kacey Musgraves and Favela that taps into a new genre portal entirely. The song melds Mexican traditions with Cuco’s specific brand of woozy psychedelia, sounding unlike anything floating around the pop space right now. “It’s crazy for me to even be a part of it, and I say ‘being a part of it’ because I did obviously write the song and help with the creation of it, but there’s so many driving forces to it,” he says. “The fact that it’s on my album… I felt like I won the lottery right there.”

Fantasy Gateway is the most present Cuco has ever sounded. It’s testament to the growth that’s taken place over the last few years, some of it after reckoning with his own behavior. In 2020, several screenshots circulated on the Internet, showing Cuco, who was 18 at the time, messaging fans who were underage. “One-thousand percent, I have to be accountable for that, because that was definitely my mistake,” he says. “There could have been so many different ways that I should have approached it, but I think I was just responding left and right, and I think to an extent probably made people feel uncomfortable.” But he insists he never got physically involved with anyone underage: “That was not something that ever even happened.” He did find out that other members of his team had engaged in behavior he found inappropriate, and he says he removed them once he heard. He’s quick to say he still takes responsibility for his own role. “I’m never going to try to downplay it,” he says. “I just want to make it clear it’s everything that I stand against.”

Cuco has scaled back the time he spends on social media. He’s focused instead on staying healthy, often clearing his head by climbing or hanging out with his dog, Leo. That clarity  has opened him up creatively. “I’m already working on the next three projects,” he says. “I’m pretty full of ideas right now, so I’m happy.”

Mostly, he’s been learning how to protect his energy and revel in the things he’s created. He’s found strength as he’s come out of a dark place, and he’s looking forward to keeping his momentum going. “I just have to find my way back up,” he says. “And if I go back down, then I’ll always find my way back up again.”