[pullquote quote=”I have a problem. Everywhere I turn there’s cold beer.” credit=”Matt Caughthran “]”I have a problem. Everywhere I turn there’s cold beer.” Emphasizing the point with beer in hand, for hardcore punk rock vocalist, Matt Caughthran from [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]The Bronx[/lastfm], there is nothing more quintessential to the punk rock experience than drinking a beer before rocking out in a sticky-floored dive bar.
Except at this moment, we are sitting with Bronx drummer and percussionist, Jorma Vik, enjoying a temperate Los Angeles night on the patio of a charming Eastside Mexican restaurant. Those beers are Tecates instead of Bud Light and we are talking about The Bronx’ markedly popular mariachi side-project with the àpropos title of [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Mariachi El Bronx[/lastfm].
When I first saw The Bronx, it was with beer in hand at a raucous, energetic show at a dark dive in Long Beach. When I first saw Mariachi El Bronx, it was with beer in hand at a daytime concert in the parking lot of the same restaurant we were sitting in. Though met with some initial skepticism the day of that show, El Bronx created the same amount of vibrant energy they did at their punk shows–albeit transfigured into mariachi form.
While the uncommon juxtaposition of brash punk-metal and mariachi seems totally disparate, the bridge between those two musical worlds is less tenuous than one would expect. Performative passion (and beer drinking) persists regardless of what format the music is in, as long as the players possess that radical vitality necessary to pull it off. They do, and they did, and that is what makes Mariachi El Bronx so innately punk rock.
“We had no idea how to play it at the time. We got Mexican instruments and played them like white boys and we were like, ‘Ahhh. It’s mariachi, right?’,” recalled Vik when asked about the genesis of the Mariachi El Bronx sound.[pullquote quote=”From the get go, Bronx has been trying to get our point across that we want to be able to creatively do what we want to do. We never wanted to write the same record over again.” credit=”Matt Caughthran”]
“It was a style of music that we were all familiar with just by living in L.A. It didn’t feel like we had to reach very far. It wasn’t like we were doing something so foreign to us. “
“It came pretty easily…It wasn’t like we felt the need to start a whole new band. We just did one song. It was fucking a blast and then it just kind of snowballed.”
Part of the creation of Mariachi El Bronx was as an appropriately punk rock reaction to requests for The Bronx to play acoustic sets. Instead of going the typical folk route, The Bronx followed-through on a suggestion from their guitarist Joby J. Ford to try doing something completely out of the proverbial punk rock box–mariachi.
Caughthran elaborated, “When we did our second record…our Island major label record, we got our first taste of doing television stuff…That was when it became popular to do the stripped-down rock thing. You know, like the folk approach to everything.
“It was just something we weren’t into doing. A lot of programs wanted Bronx to go acoustic…Bronx would never be like that. It’s a loud, aggressive, abrasive band and we didn’t really want to change that.
“So Joby came up with the idea of doing a song on our second record, ‘Dirty Leaves,’ in the mariachi style.”
“From the get go, Bronx has been trying to get our point across that we want to be able to creatively do what we want to do. We never wanted to write the same record over again.”[pullquote quote=”Reaction wise it’s been so mind-blowing. People are picking it up and enjoying it.” credit=”Matt Caughthran”]
“Even though you try to stay out of that box as a punk band and as a rock ‘n roll band, sometimes you can exist in that without really even knowing it.
“So, once we did that ‘Dirty Leaves’ thing with the other guys and messed around with mariachi rhythms and stuff like that, it was just kind of a blast-off. It was like, ‘Wow, let’s see what we can do.'”
“And it was so much fun. It was so cool. It was the first time–in an old school jazz sort of way–that we jammed with other ‘cats.'”
“Most people thought it was a joke…We all knew we were doing something cool and different and fun. We weren’t exactly the most confident at that point.”
What Caughthran views as a band initially lacking confidence was what jaded music lovers saw as a gutsy, balls-out attempt at something fresh and innovative. On top of widening their fan-base, The Bronx’ fans have eagerly made the leap from rock to mariachi.
As far as Caughthran knows there has been no negative reaction, even from the Hispanic community.
“It’s been awesome. If it’s been negative, I haven’t really heard it. There’s so many stops along the way that have been amazing…Reaction wise it’s been so mind-blowing. People are picking it up and enjoying it.”
“I think the main thing is that we were respectful and embraced the genre; we didn’t make it a joke and do it sloppily. People respect that we’re just trying to get into it.”[pullquote quote=”When you tour with other bands you see other dynamics, and I’m really proud of the unusual friendship we have in this group.” credit=”Matt Caughthran”]
Respect is something The Bronx is used to from their first days of being a punk rock outfit. The story of The Bronx’ rapid road to success is legendary among struggling musicians.
After only about a dozen or so shows, The Bronx were signed to a major label. At one time, they even played a show in Vegas where a then unknown band called the Killers opened for them.
Caughthran and Vik laughed about how the labels “swooned” over them and how, in what was probably their first definitive moment in terms of The Bronx’ collective dislike of being controlled or boxed in, they would mess with the desperate music executives.
“They were doing all this talking. We were taking pictures where it didn’t show our faces. There was all this mystery behind it. It was fucking hilarious. We had so much fun with it.”
“People were e-mailing us from record labels and we’d just write back the goofiest shit. We had a blast. It was so much fun. But, yeah, it happened so quick.”
With about ten years of touring as both a punk rock band and a mariachi band (including having El Bronx open up for The Bronx and playing 127 shows in 76 days), the friendship and fidelity within the Bronx has helped them overcome the dark cloud that was following them in the early days of the Bronx, while creating hilarious and enduring relationships with each other. [pullquote quote=”There’s literally a zillion moments you try to remember and you can never recall them and they just dump truck on you when you least expect them.” credit=”Matt Caughthran”]
Oh, and a small reputation for being party animals, although Caughthran and Vik clarified that while they were down with the party, it was their friendships that provided the most amusement. Caughthran elucidated:
“When you tour with other bands you see other dynamics, and I’m really proud of the unusual friendship we have in this group. We really like to hang out and have a good time…But we’re not a Sunset Strip leather-wearing, cocaine-party band.”
“I was in the supermarket the other day and I just started busting out laughing and people around me are just like, ‘What’s this guy doing?’ You just remember, out of nowhere.”
“For example, our guitar player, Joby. We were all walking down the street together. He has this thing of french fries and he was just talking shit saying, ‘You guys, don’t have french fries. You want some of these fries everybody?'”
“He had this huge to-go container, just shoving fries into his mouth. Then he was like, boom, walks into a pole and just dumps the whole thing of french fries on himself.”
[pullquote quote=”The way we talk to each other when we’re on tour…It’s like not even English anymore.” credit=”Jorma Vik”]”It’s the little things like that. It’s so funny. There’s literally a zillion moments you try to remember and you can never recall them and they just dump truck on you when you least expect them.”
Laughing, Vik agrees and elaborates:
“You’d be surprised. There are a lot of miserable bands out there that do not enjoy hanging out with each other…We honestly enjoy each other’s company.”
“We’re constantly cracking jokes and laughing. The way we talk to each other when we’re on tour…It’s like not even English anymore. They’re all just dumb inside jokes and people are like, ‘Are these guys even fucking real?'”
One new member who has rapidly infiltrated the band of merry misfits that is Mariachi El Bronx is their new strings musician, Ray Suen, who was once touring with the Killers. Caughthran explains how Suen’s expert musicianship has helped change the sound of the second, upcoming Mariachi El Bronx album:[pullquote quote=”There was still that same feeling. That sense of childish excitement.” credit=”Matt Caughthran”]
“We have a new guy with us, Ray Suen. One the first record, we had someone play all the strings. When he joined the band, he did all the strings on this whole record. He’s been an awesome addition to the group. He’s one of those guys who can pick up any instrument.”
Although Ford’s relentless accordion practice has helped the band add an exciting bit of norteño to their sound. Caughthran continues:
“It’s a lot more evolved musically. We dove into norteño , which we were really excited about doing and it’s one of my favorite songs on the record. A song called “Norteño Lights.” I’ve got to give it up to Joby because he was hammering his way through the accordion.”
“And that was a tough instrument to listen to someone hammer through. But he kept at it. It was really cool. It’s the same kind of root as far as inspiration goes…Sometimes you can make a record, you go to the second one, all of a sudden it feels like work or you’re not as inspired as you were on the first one.”
“There was still that same feeling. That sense of childish excitement.”
Vik agrees and adds:[pullquote quote=”Personally, I’ve been playing rock music for 15/20 years and then to do something that’s just completely, stylistically so removed from that was awesome.” credit=”Jorma Vik”]
“But even like musicianship wise, when we did the first record, we were all just learning how to play the patterns and all that stuff so we didn’t know as many patterns.
“We weren’t as fluent in the music and as comfortable with it. On the new record, you can kind of hear that we’re more comfortable in our own skin. And kind of stylistically it’s a little broader.”
“It feels awesome to just be learning something new again. Personally, I’ve been playing rock music for 15/20 years and then to do something that’s just completely, stylistically so removed from that was awesome.
“And to learn all the traditional shit and to delve into that music and really get into the culture of it was awesome. So much fun.”
“If you think about it, in a matter of ten years, your own personal musical taste change so much. So I think ‘our fans’ have kind of grown with us.”
[pullquote quote=”Mariachi El Bronx was the first time we sort of ‘hung our nuts’ out there, so to speak, musically. Taking the chance was such a rewarding feeling.” credit=”Matt Caughthran”]Experimenting with different musical styles and having the confidence to incorporate a new sound into their repertoire that people once thought was a joke has made Bronx into fearless, confident musicians.
According to Caughthran, this attitude will undoubtedly bleed into their next rock album from The Bronx–once they have time to actually devote to it.
“We had a window where we had started writing it and we got through about three or four songs. It was coming out awesome, but it just became apparent that we needed to make a second El Bronx record first. “
“The way we let the band feed off each other writing wise is when you get stuck on something or you’re tired of hearing guitar at an insanely loud volume, you can switch over and it’s nice to have an outlet for each other.
“When you’re tired of singing soft, or you want to let something out, you can go back to Bronx.”
“The Bronx records are very much a kind of creative explosion and more of an outlet in a lot of ways. [Mariachi El Bronx] was the first time we sort of ‘hung our nuts’ out there, so to speak, musically”
“Taking the chance was such a rewarding feeling.”[pullquote quote=”That’s why I’m so excited to write a Bronx record with that attitude–now that we’ve accomplished what we have creatively. ” credit=”Matt Caughthran”]
“We knew when it was done that we had done something amazing and succeeded in what we wanted to do and when you take a blind shot like that and you succeed at it, the confidence it gives you creatively to trust your gut, to know that if you write something, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be good, is a crazy leaf to turn over creatively.”
“That’s why I’m so excited to write a Bronx record with that attitude–now that we’ve accomplished what we have creatively. I’m trying to get to it but there’s obviously so much going on with the El Bronx stuff.
“I’m looking forward to that because it really was a huge turning point in all of our careers and individually as just creative people and musicians when we finished that first El Bronx record. It was just a feeling of ‘Wow, we can really do this.'”
“It was really a life changing moment.”
For now, the Bronx boys are getting ready to tour with Foo Fighters who they deem as the “raddest” and predict the shows to be “absolutely amazing.”
When we first sat down, Vik had been talking about the new exercise regimen he was going to start the next day to which Caughthran quipped:
“Bronx equals touring shape. El Bronx not so much. I could eat a bunch of chicken and I could just be barbecuing all day to get into El Bronx shape. Foo Fighters tour rolls around, you’re going to have to wheel me in. Don Ho style.”
And with that, I asked if they wanted another beer.
KROQ Locals Only presents their record release party at La Cita in Downtown Los Angeles:
Tues, Aug 2nd at La Cita (336 S. Hill St. LA)
Presented by KROQ Locals Only. 21+. 9:00
Check out an exclusive track from Mariachi El Bronx!
If you liked this, check out Mariachi El Bronx in-studio at KROQ!