Mariachi El Bronx: A cross-border love affair
What happens when a hard-core band decides to pick up traditional mariachi instruments and charro suits? The Bronx did just that in 2009, to the astonishment of fans and critics. Call it sweetly ruminative music with a bit of edge.
Unless, that is, you've ever stumbled upon a troupe of Guadalajara horn players closing down a bar after one too many tequilas. Or you've heard Mariachi El Bronx.
Mariachi El Bronx, which is opening for the Foo Fighters on Thursday at the Forum, is the charro-suited alter ego of the Bronx, one of L.A.'s most formidable hard-core punk bands. Smashing into existence in 2002, the Bronx became known for its raw lyrics and apocalyptic instrumentals on such snarling anthems as "White Guilt" (about a coke-addled prostitute) and "False Alarm."
Then in 2009, to the astonishment and (mostly) approval of fans and critics, the band spun off a side project, Mariachi El Bronx, which is exactly what it sounds like: a mariachi band that performs both traditional and new tunes, in English, with horns, strings and outfits.
Some of the songs on the band's recently released second album, such as "48 Roses," combine the melodic pathos of Mexican regional music with the aggressive energy and self-lacerating wit of punk.
Lead singer Matt Caughthran, who normally sounds like he's about to smash a bottle over your head (or his), sounds on the lovely lament "Map of the World" like any confused lover howling at the Jalisco moon. And "Everything Dies" is as sweetly ruminative a bolero as any melancholy young poet might hope to pen.
All that makes sense for a group whose two biggest influences are Los Lobos and Black Flag, according to Joby J. Ford, who plays guitar in the punk band and the Mexican five-string vihuela and the accordion in the eight-member mariachi ensemble.
"Mariachi to me was emo before there was emo," Ford said during a recent interview along with violin player Ray Suen at the band's San Fernando Valley recording studio. "It was the most emotional music there was. I can't think of a better musical style for pouring your heart out."
When he and his bandmates first came up with the concept of forming a mariachi band, Ford said, many people assumed they meant it as a joke. "Every single person I told is like, 'That's going to really be funny! I can't wait to laugh!'"
But the band members' affection for mariachi was earnest, as they've since attempted to prove through their commitment to performing the music live and their ongoing efforts to master the tricky instruments. "We practice more," Ford said. "There's not a wall of distortion to hide behind."
The band — whose other members are Jorma Vik (drums), Brad Magers (trumpet), Ken Mochikoshi Horne (jarana) and Vincent Hidalgo (guitarrón) — also avoid putting anything in their mariachi stage act that might seem cartoonish. That ruled out sombreros.
"Wearing a sombrero to me would be disrespectful because that would bring an element of comedy into the seriousness of it," Ford said. "We are guests to this genre. We put as much love and respect and caring to this as we do to our punk band."
The band also doesn't attempt to do gritos, the Mexican version of a yee-haw that sometimes punctuates regional tunes.
"One of the things, I think, especially being in Southern California, is not wanting to offend in any way or encroach on the tradition that's here," Suen said. "Playing [mariachi] violin, it's not the same way that you would play in a gypsy jazz band, and — I used to play in a tango band — it's not the way you would play in a tango band."
For its second mariachi release, "II," on ATO records, the band got some expert backup from the all-female ensemble Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.
Jay Leno recently brought the band onto "The Tonight Show" to perform "48 Roses," marking its network television debut. The group already has brought both bands to England (swapping outfits and instruments halfway between sets), and soon will be touring in Australia.
Closer to home, Mariachi El Bronx will take part in KCRW-FM (89.9)'s Halloween Masquerade on Oct. 29 at the Park Plaza Hotel, and will perform Oct. 30 in the Anaheim Mariachi Festival at Pearson Park Amphitheatre.
Ford said the band, which plans to release a third mariachi album, has been energized by its new border-crossing identity. "It's been really healthy for our group to have the yin and the yang," he said. "I think it's the punkest thing we've ever done. It's definitely more punk than our punk band. It's the spirit in which you do things, rather than the image you try to portray."
-- Reed Johnson
Photo credit: Ashley Maile