Mariachi El Bronx
Punk rock. Mariachi. Two great tastes that go great together – er, right? Well, anyway, the two joined regardless one fateful August day in 2006, when The Bronx showed up to play on a television show. At the time, the Los Angeles-based punks were infamous for scabrous rifferama that suggested a return to L.A.’s golden age of hardcore (it’s not coincidence that the band portrayed Black Flag in the Darby Crash biopic What We Do Is Secret, or went on their first tour with the Circle Jerks). The show requested the band play an acoustic version of “Dirty Leaves” off the band’s second, self-titled album – a request that didn’t sit well. “Going ‘unplugged’ was a ‘90s fad that I had a knee-jerk reaction to dislike,” notes guitarist Joby J. Ford. “We wanted to do something a little bit different.” Indeed, The Bronx took it one irreverent step further, donning uncharacteristic sombreros and arranging the song as a mariachi lament. “We never wanted The Bronx to be a soft, quiet band,” says frontman Matt Caughthran, “but this freed up a whole new realm. Sometimes you don’t realize the barriers around yourself until you step outside them. It was a big moment in our career, breathing new life into the band.”
And thus Mariachi El Bronx was born. Between tour stops, Caughthran, Ford and their bandmates – Jorma Vik (drums) Brad Magers (trumpet), Ken Horne (jarana/guitar), and Vincent Hidalgo (guitarrón) – relentlessly studied instructional videos on YouTube to master the various mariachi styles: norteno, jorocho, juasteka, bolero, and corridos. “Mariachi has rules,” Caughthran explains. “We learned everything we could out of respect, especially as we’re a bunch of white guys – well, except for Ken, who’s Japanese.” (Mariachi El Bronx would eventually come to include Ray Suen on violin, as well as satellite members Alfredo Ortiz – known for his percussion styles with the likes of Beastie Boys and Money Mark – and acclaimed guitarrón player Karla Tovar.) The sonic merger of the two cultures wasn’t so surprising considering the band’s evolution out of California’s ethnic melting pot. Caughthran grew up in Pico Riviera, on the outskirts of East L.A., where he was definitely in the gringo minority. “I know people are like, ‘Where the fuck does this come from?’, but growing up in Mexican neighborhoods, it feels automatic,” says Caughthran. “My two favorite bands were always Black Flag and Los Lobos, so it all makes sense. Black Flag was all about aggression, no rules, no dress code, while Los Lobos opened me up to Neil Young, the Carpenters, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth. Through them, I discovered a rebellious spirit in many genres.” Caughthran was actually junior high schoolmates with Vincent Hidalgo, whose father David is a key member of both Los Lobos and the Latin Playboys. Vincent would eventually join Mariachi El Bronx in 2007, while el padre Hidalgo played accordion on “My Love” off of Mariachi El Bronx’s eponymous 2009 debut album. “For David to like something we did musically – it was our vindication,” Caughthran says.
Los Lobos’ nonconformist streak also proved inspiring. “We’ve definitely got our share of flack, but punk to me was not about playing fast and having a chain wallet,” Ford says. “It’s a way of life, not a sound.” As such, while Mariachi El Bronx’s culture clash initially seems exotic, in fact it follows in a grand punk tradition: The Pogues, for example, merged the traditional music of their Irish backgrounds with punk abandon, The Clash famously mixed raw garage guitars with Brixton reggae riddims, and Manu Chao continues to blend raw street anthems with Latin, folk, and African grooves. More currently, Mariachi El Bronx found kinship with the Gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello, with whom they toured Europe in 2010. “I would never have known there was a ‘world music’ category,” Caughthran claims. “I wasn’t thinking that big!” Hugeness ensued anyway: soon after the acclaimed release of the first Mariachi El Bronx album in 2009 – highlighted by the first single, “Cell Mates” – the band found itself moving from sweaty punk dives to playing Coachella and Glastonbury, and booking dates with the likes of The Flaming Lips, Foo Fighters (with whom MEB tours this fall) and The Killers (with whom they collaborated on a charity Christmas single, “Happy Birthday Guadalupe”). “We’re doing some weird-ass shows,” Caughthran laughs. “The experiment of El Bronx was a disguise to get us into parties where we didn’t belong, places we didn’t expect to go – and it worked!”
Mariachi El Bronx has always defied expectations: they were first revealed to the public via an unexpectedly stirring cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” recorded for a SPIN tribute 25th anniversary of Purple Rain (find it on YouTube; it’s awesome, trust.). Likewise, the band’s latest album, Mariachi El Bronx (II), finds them exploring new ground – from collaborating with Grammy-nominated Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles (the first all-female mariachi group in the U.S.) to an even greater emphasis on storytelling craft and emotion in the lyrics. “It still has the naïveté and blind excitement of the first record, but it’s more vulnerable,” Caughthran says. As such, songs like “48 Roses” paint picaresque portraits of men doomed with an insatiable appetite for love, while “Revolution Girls” details a border romance gone awkwardly astray. “A lot of people have gone down to Tijuana, fucked up and done something stupid – I certainly have,” Caughthran admits. “There’s a lot of regret and loneliness here. A lot of The Bronx stuff is in code, but in the tradition of the mariachi, El Bronx has become an outlet for songs about love, heartbreak, growing up and being a man.”
“People were surprised that our embrace of mariachi wasn’t a joke,” Ford says. “Instead, being able to bounce back and forth between two musical styles we love and respect has proven the key to our longevity.” In fact, Mariachi El Bronx (II) finds The Bronx on the verge of celebrating their tenth anniversary – a landmark that most likely will lead to some unexpected path yet again. “If you had told me when we started this that I’d find be playing mariachi ten years later, I’d tell you to go fuck yourself,” says Caughthran. “The greatest thing about our band, and the most torturous, is that it’s unpredictable for us too! We don’t know where the chaos will take us, but that’s a good thing – it’s always exciting. Honesty, heart and the will to do things no one else is doing remain the driving force: I’m not saying we’re the best band on the planet, but we’re pretty fuckin’ good. When we put the charro suits on, we feel invincible.”