Hardcore punk band The Bronx are best known and well loved for their utterly annihilating sonic assault upon the listener and their absolutely uncompromising approach to what they do. Songs such as “They Kill Us Without Mercy”, “White Guilt” and “Shitty Future” are not so much heard by the listener, they clobber you over the head with how forceful and at times brutal they are. Lead singer Matt Caughthram has one of the all time screaming vocal styles in punk, right up there with Henry Rollins and Ian Mc Kaye from Fugazi. As many bands have proven, there is only so far you can go with this musical template, no matter how good you are at it. A common critical barb aimed at The Ramones for years was that all their songs sounded the same.
So, what is a punk band to do in regards to keeping themselves fresh and inspired in regards to music? In the case of The Bronx, start a side project that specialises in traditional Mexican Mariachi music with original songs sung in English. The immediate question one would ask is along the lines of: “What a bunch of L.A. gringo punks doing playing traditional Mexican music?! And singing in English?!”
If you look back on the history of Mariachi and punk, they are not totally mutually exclusive musical styles. One only has to look at the classic London Calling album by The Clash. On the track “Rudy Can’t Fail”, there is a really nice Mariachi-inspired brass line running throughout the song. Also, this style of music was a strong influence on that beautifully dramatic and melancholic trumpet solo in Cake’s take on the classic disco track “I Will Survive” some years ago.
Also, Mariachi music shares that working class, honest, unpretentious and at times deeply romantic attitude and vibe that is at the heart of a lot of great punk music. What is most impressive is that the band has shown their versatility in being able to play both styles of music to a highly accomplished and polished degree. It is also a little bit novel and highly gratifying to hear Matt actually sing instead of his usual screaming vocal style.
Mariachi El Bronx released their first self-titled album in 2009, to great acclaim. This lead to the band doing shows around the world, including Australia, in their Mariachi El Bronx guise. The band has just released their second album, II.
Tone Deaf recently spoke to Mariachi El Bronx drummer Jorma Vik on the eve of the band’s return to these shores as part of the 2012 Big Day Out tour, where they’ll share stages with the likes of Soundgarden, My Chemical Romance, Kasabian and Kanye West.
You’ve probably been asked this question a million times but what inspired the exploration into, and fascination with, mariachi music?
We got asked to do an acoustic version of a Bronx song on a TV show and we were like, “How the fuck are we even going to pull that off?” So, we had one kinda slower song on the second record that we decided to do and Joby, our guitar player, had the idea of getting Mexican instruments, just to make it different. ’Cause there’s so many people – even like pop-punk bands and shit – who will do acoustic albums and it’s always horrible. So, we wanted to do something different – changing the song into a mariachi feel. And we had so much fuckin’ fun doing it that we really dug our fuckin’ hands into the whole culture of it. It just snowballed.
And it must be so much fun to play.
It’s a fuckin’ blast. And so far removed from what we’ve been doing for the past ten years, you know, with the Bronx.
With the artwork for the album covers and a general sense of attitude with the band and the music, is Mariachi El Bronx influenced somewhat by the Latino gang culture of your hometown, Los Angeles?
Oh, absolutely one hundred percent. That’s why it was so easy for us – I mean, the songs were just coming out of us. It wasn’t super laboured, and I know for a fact that we’re a product of our environment. Mariachi music is playing in all the bars and restaurants that we like going to around town. So, it just kind seeped in.
You mentioned that the songs just poured out. Do you find the writing process varies greatly between Mariachi El Bronx and The Bronx?
Absolutely. I don’t know if The Bronx has ever really found like one method of writing that works for us. We do it different every time but it definitely seems like it’s a lot more labour intensive than the mariachi stuff. We’re like in the studio sweatin’, having it out, fuckin’ trying a million different things, whereas the mariachi stuff just kind of happens. We’ll fuck with it a little here and there, but it just seems to happen a little more, well, not organically, it’s just a little easier.
Why is that, do you reckon?
I couldn’t tell ya. I have no idea.
But when you listen to each band, that’s how it sounds at the end. One sounds like it was hard work and a struggle against something and the other sounds like, “Ah, we’re lying in the sun having a sangria.”
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Do you enjoy playing different instruments to what you would as part of The Bronx and how does it stretch out your musicality?
Oh, man, it’s fuckin’ awesome. Just from a drummer’s perspective, one thing really lends itself to the other because a huge part of drumming is just learning independence between your limbs, trying to get them working independently from each other, and you know, this stuff that’s totally intricate: rhythms and poly-rhythms, and things happening that I never really got into in The Bronx. It’s opened up so many doors – I mean, for both bands. It’s been really cool.
That is cool. You think of bands that have been together for 20-plus years, and yeah, they can continually test themselves and reinvent, but to a certain extent they have to remain true to their band’s identity whereas you can say, “Check me, I’m doing something completely different over here” and there’s none of the side project politics or upsetting of fans.
Yeah, it’s so refreshing. It really brought a whole new life into the band. It’s been the most fuckin’ positive thing for us. And it’s great because when we’re writing, it’s really easy to hit a wall and now we have something to turn to: we can write mariachi music or vice versa. If we get frustrated with the mariachi shit, we can write a punk song. It’s fuckin’ awesome.
Are there any concrete plans for further new Bronx material?
Yeah, Joby’s got about ten or eleven songs right now. He sorta comes up with the guitar parts, or a loose arrangement, gives it to Matt, Matt’ll come up with some melodies or ideas for lyrics and then me and Jobie’ll sit down… a lot of songs with The Bronx, we figure out how to fuck ’em up without making them too math-y. So we’ll sit down and make ’em interesting. To answer your question: Joby’s got about eleven rough ideas down and we’re looking to demo them in January, right before we come down [to Australia].
How has the reaction been to Mariachi El Bronx from fans of The Bronx?
It’s been wild. The coolest thing to see is the people that don’t know about The Bronx. Because the mariachi band opens for The Bronx occasionally and so we’ll have fans of the mariachi who come down and stick around for The Bronx and you can see them just go, “What. The. Fuck. Is this?” It’s fuckin’ hilarious to watch people’s faces. We even get kids that are into The Bronx and parents who are into the mariachi band so it’s been pretty wild.
I’ve seen The Bronx play at Meredith Music Festival…
Meredith? Fuck yeah, that was so much fun!
…and Soundwave, but I haven’t seen Mariachi El Bronx. As familiar as you are with Australia are you ready for the Big Day Out tour?
Oh my god, fuck. We have the best time down there. We couldn’t be more stoked. We couldn’t be more ready. We’re about to leave for about a month’s tour in Europe, home for a bit, do some writing and then, fuckin’, we’re on our way there! For the Big. Day. Out! Big Day Off! It’ll be our first time. We are so excited.
So, what’s the go with the Big Day Out? You were doing the whole tour, now you’re not doing the whole tour…
Yeah, I don’t really know what’s going on. It’s a little confusing to me, too. I heard that we’re not doing Perth or Adelaide which I’m pretty bummed about ’cause we love those towns. But there’s talk of doing something. I’m sure if we’re down there, we’ll make something happen.”
– Neil Evans and Melanie Lewis
Mariachi El Bronx will be touring Australia in 2012 as part of the Big Day Out Lineup.
Sunday 22 January 2012 – Parklands, Gold Coast, QLD.
Thursday 26 January, 2012 – Olympic Park, Sydney, NSW.
Sun 29 January, 2012 – Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, VIC.
Please note: Mariachi El Bronx will not be playing in South Australia or Western Australia as part of the Big Day Out. We reported on all the changes in the BDO second announcement, as well as promoter Ken West’s explanation of the lineup and venue changes.