The punk rock spirit lives on with a South American twist
Punk rock and mariachi, eh? It’s been a long standing secret of sorts that much of traditional Central American and Caribbean (including Cuban) music is really a kind of punk in terms of attitude, its social connotations (generally working class roots), and above all volume – these guys play loud – as do The Bronx, a Los Angeles based group of punks who were making a name for themselves in the US and Europe for their hardcore rifferamas that included plenty of melody enticing fans from outside the punk ghetto.
It was in 2006 that The Bronx showed up to play on a television show, and the show’s producers requested they play an acoustic version of Dirty Leaves from 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.”
So The Bronx donned sombreros and arranged 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 realise 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. 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.“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.”
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 f*** does this come from?’ but growing up in Mexican neighbourhoods, it feels automatic,” says Caughthran. “My two favourite 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 and Sonic Youth.”
More currently, Mariachi El Bronx found kinship with the Gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello, with whom they toured Europe in 2010. “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 – and it worked!
Mariachi El Bronx, Concorde 2, Tues 29 Nov, 7.30pm, £12, www.concorde2.co.uk