The greatest punk band in the world. The punkest mariachi band in the world
In August 2003, four pissed-off young men came raging from the streets of Los Angeles serving up the rawest, purest punk rock racket this pair of ears had ever heard.
The Bronx’s debut album was ten tracks and barely half an hour in length, but blew everything else on the market effortlessly out of the water, gasping and breathless and wondering what the fuck had just hit them and why they weren’t in the water any more; from the album cover, featuring the band’s name plastered across the lower part of a face in thick, black blood, to opener Heart Attack American with its first, face-melting drop and “I’m done going into fucking work and taking orders from a fucking bitch” lyrics. The first time these eyes were set upon them in the flesh, drummer Jorma Vik smashed several shades of shit out of barely-there shards of cymbal, singer Matt Caughthran shirtless in the crowd within seconds, waking a room of awestruck young people up to how intense, vital and downright terrifying punk was supposed to be.
Yet eight years later, those four pissed-off young men have been shorn of one, original bassist James Tweedy leaving the band circa 2007, but have acquired an array of new companions, becoming something which, on the surface, is entirely other. Because Matt and Jorma, along with The Bronx guitarists Joby J. Ford and Ken Horne and new bassist Brad Magners, have been joined by, among others, Vincent Hidalgo and Ray Suen. Their primary instruments? Well, they vary between the guitarrón, the requinto jarocho, the violin and the jarana. That’s because The Bronx have become El Bronx.
As innately unrelated as raw punk ‘n’ roll and mariachi music may seem, within seconds of Matt beginning to explain how this could possibly have happened it starts to make sense. Firstly, an upbringing in LA, something which has always resonated in his lyrics, meant an exposure to a range of cultures and music, Hispanic foremost among them. “LA is where I was born and raised, it means the world to me, and as an artist and a creative person, you draw on your surroundings,” he says. “I think of our band as very much a product of our environment. Los Angeles has a great musical history, so it’s challenging to try and become a part of it. If we were from any other city, I don’t we’d be doing a mariachi band.”
Secondly, Matt seamlessly aligns Mariachi El Bronx with the punk aesthetic which has always been key to the Bronx mentality. When asked what those four young men would have said if you’d told them where they’d be in eight years’ time, he says, “I think they’d be a little shocked, but I’ve no doubt they’d get it. They’d get a hold on the idea that what’s universal to punk rock is universal to mariachi music, and through whatever type of music you’re going to make.” He continues, stressing that “punk rock definitely has a sonic aspect, but punk has always been more of a mentality to me. It’s about carving your own life, making the type of music you want to make despite what anyone says you should or shouldn’t do. I know my friends who I haven’t seen in years understand that, people who understand The Bronx understand that. That’s the approach you’ve got to take on life: don’t limit yourself to one style of anything.”
Initially stemming from a desire to avoid the standard, stagnant ‘acoustic version’ for a television appearance, The Bronx presented Dirty Leaves from their second self-titled long player by donning sombreros and recreating it in a style close to their hearts: mariachi. What was intended as a one-off became a bona-fide side project, releasing a self-titled debut in 2009, a collection of beautifully paced and crafted mariachi-pop, achieving nigh-on perfection on the likes of Cell Mates and My Brother the Gun. What could easily have seemed alienating became utterly accessible and somehow fitting. Now this ‘side project’, second album in tow (self-titled, as if you needed telling) is preparing to hit the road as support to one of the biggest ands in the world, the Foo Fighters. It’s a step described by Matt as “the biggest thing we, as El Bronx, have ever been a part of ”.
With El Bronx gaining such impressive momentum and taking up so much of the individuals’ time, there must be a danger that one project ends up suffering. Maintaining one successful band is demanding enough, but two? Matt insists that both run alongside each other comfortably. “You’ve got to prioritise what’s going on. When you put out a record you’ve got to work on it, and to that extent you have to focus on one thing at a time. But the big picture has always been both bands working off one another. The next record we’re putting out will be as The Bronx. It’s just a back and forth thing.” The news of a fourth Bronx record on the horizon will come as extremely welcome to many, and Matt elaborates further on how playing with one project simply feeds the desire for the other. “It’s gonna be a gnarly one man, it’s gonna be a banger. We’re excited to plug in our instruments and make some noise again, that’s for sure.”
With the two projects alternating, and with largely the same members for both, one bleeding into the other seems inevitable, yet Matt insists that in terms of sound, that simply isn’t the case. “If in any realm at all, then it’s in songwriting confidence,” he replies. “Never sonically or stylistically will there be a transfer from El Bronx to The Bronx. It’s just that the more songs you write, the more styles of music you play and the more confident you get in what you do.”
The learning curve is a sharp one, moving from as close to mastering the punk rock art as possible, to grasping an entirely new style, essentially from scratch. So what does Matt see as the progression from Mariachi El Bronx I to Mariachi El Bronx II? “I just think we’re more comfortable”, he reflects. “The guys know how to play their instruments a lot better, the difference in musicality on this record is enormous. I think that’s the main difference. Other than that we’re just more settled in. We’ve tried to play our asses off on this record and do better than we did on the first one.”
While band members’ rapid embracing of hugely different disciplines and techniques on their respective instruments and, in most cases, learning new instruments altogether is testament to their musical abilities, perhaps the most striking aspect of El Bronx’s sound is the sparkling transformation of Matt to softly soaring, lovemaking, genuinely touching vocalist. Throughout The Bronx’s output he has progressed from throaty punk-rock hollerer (albeit the finest throaty punk-rock hollerer in the game) to a singer possessing a remarkable range and sense of melody. However the dexterity and, at points, mere simplicity of his El Bronx performance is really something. It’s a shift that he describes as “not hard at all”, but simply a step in his development as an artist. “You always want to do things bigger and better, to get more experience under your belt,” he explains. ”I just love music, man, I really do, and I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m not that much into instruments. I don’t have a yearning to learn how to play guitar or bass. I just want to be the best singer I can be and hat’s what I focus on. Just being as good as I can possibly be, to never be satisfied and to keep getting better.”
Hand-in-hand with this evolution of vocal style comes an even more dramatic shift in lyrical content. While a preoccupation with love and emotional transparency is traditional in mariachi, Matt was faced with imbuing these themes with his own experiences. “I’ve just tried to bring my life” is his response to the challenge. “It feels good to be part of the genre, to jump into writing songs about family, friends, love and loss. It’s a different writing realm for me, an opportunity to jump in and explore things that I don’t usually get to write about. It’s an awesome world out there, filled with a lot of different shit, a lot of different emotions, a lot of amazing things and a lot of terrible things. So it’s nice to have a creative outlet for everything.”
From a listener without any tangible knowledge of mariachi music, it seems that beneath those authentic flourishes, beneath the strings, the horns and the trills, are essentially well-written, carefully structured pop songs. Matt responds, almost surprisingly, in agreement. “To an extent that’s totally fair to say. Like any other style of music there’s history to it, but it’s just cleverly disguised pop music, whether that’s because it’s in another language or a different style or using different instruments. The way we approach writing is to focus on making awesome songs, songs that mean a lot to the band and to the people who listen to them. Feelings are a very important thing in mariachi music, it’s got to come from the heart and it’s got to be something that’s meaningful.”
With a style of music that’s so specific, with such a definitive sense of place, and one so distant from our own shores, it’s hard to imagine UK crowds can truly understand mariachi’s cultural significance. Matt gives his audience plenty of credit. “I think they want to. Music has kind of shifted; people are excited to be a part of stuff and to hear something different. Will it change the world? Probably not, but we’re having a lot of fun doing it and I think people get a kick out it. People learn things when they watch us play, but I think someone can also have a great fucking time. If people don’t wanna do that and people don’t get it, well …” (he laughs) “fuck ‘em, what are we meant to do about it?”
Be it in support of their malevolent big brother, or El Bronx headline shows, it seems that this band has genuinely formed its own fan base. “It’s unreal, honestly man”, says Matt. “We’ve been over to the UK a lot, we’ve done Reading and Leeds and Glastonbury and so many amazing club shows, we’ve played to 15 people and we’ve played to thousands. Whether it’s some huge festival or playing The Peel in Kingston on the last time round, it’s always a blast. I’m thankful to be able to do it.”
An outstanding memory from that sun-drenched appearance on Glastonbury’s West Holts stage was a large group of chaps rammed ainst the barrier, clad in the distinctive ‘charro’ suits which characterise the mariachi style. These outfits, almost as much as the music, was one of the most spectacular aspects of the change from ‘The’ to ‘El’ Bronx. So what do these costumes mean to Matt and the band? “I love them man, I love putting on our charro suits. It’s the best feeling in the world. You feel like a superhero, you feel invincible.” So presumably they have cases full of the things? “No, we wear the same ones, every night.” And perhaps that’s as perfect an illustration of the meeting of punk rock and mariachi as any; of the disgusting, sweat-ingrained charro suits being pulled on for every show of a worldwide tour.
So for a man who from night to night, or even hour to hour, can switch from feral, bare-chested punk rock lunatic to heartfelt mariachi lothario, one question remains as he looks ahead at a run of shows across the US, followed by the UK, under his mariachi guise. It must be a nice change to not to go onstage every night knowing, for a fact, that you’re going to end up on your back in the crowd, covered in beer, being mauled by hundreds of ruthless hands? Matt laughs. “Well, you say that, but you never really know for sure. You never know when a Bronx show’s gonna break out, I’ll put it that way.”
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Words: Geraint Davies