Matt the MariachiBy: José Manuel Simián
In 2006, after four years of playing hardcore punk, LA band El Bronx decided to challenge themselves.
They had been asked to play an acoustic version of one of their tunes by a local TV station, but they decided to go in a different direction with their music and play it mariachi style.
Their alter ego, Mariachi El Bronx, had been born.
Three eponymous albums of original songs later (Mariachi El Bronx III came out late last year), Mariachi El Bronx is an institution in the indie circuit, perhaps even shadowing its father band.
The band's singer and songwriter, Matt Caughthran, talked to Manero on the phone from California.
I'm going to cut to the chase. Have you guys ever been accused of cultural appropriation or of not treating the mariachi music and Mexican culture with respect?
Never. When we started Mariachi El Bronx, we knew we were taking chances, and that a lot of people could think it was in bad taste or disrespectful and all that stuff. We are pretty easy going guys, but music is something we take very seriously. It is something we respect and we love. We are not assholes.
I grew up in Peco Rivera, a Mexican neighborhood, pretty much the only white guy there. Mexican culture means a lot to me. And at the end of the day, people know it's just our take on it.
Tell me about your musical upbringing. The music from El Bronx is very different from the one that Mariachi El Bronx makes – at least on the surface.
I grew up listening to heavy metal. My sister was a Sunset Strip girl, she was into the glam rock scene happening in the 80s. It wasn't until high school that my first girlfriend introduced me into the music of David Hidalgo [of Los Lobos]. She was their cousin. And I also met David Jr. and Vincent Hidalgo. That's when I first started going to see Los Lobos. They were my introduction not just into mariachi music, but to so much more, like Neil Young. My life took an amazing turn when I met those guys. In a way I grew up listening to everything but mariachi music, which was the music of my neighborhood. It was always blasting, while on my headphones I was playing Whitesnake.
So how was the process of learning to play mariachi music?
When we first started doing this stuff, it was an exciting challenge, because in punk music, with El Bronx, for the most part there are no rules. You can do whatever you want, any noise you want to make, but with mariachi music there are patterns and rules.
The guys worked their asses off trying to learn the rhythms. Vincent [Hidalgo] helped us a lot in getting it right. But to me, lyrically, it was an easy transition. When we started this band, I thought there was going to be a theatrical element that was going to make it fake; that I was going to create this personality, someone that was a larger-than-life badass mariachi kind of guy, but I didn't need to do it. I found out I could be myself, especially because there were things I couldn't sing about in The Bronx –punk brings out the more depressed side of me– but Mariachi lets me sing about love and other things.
Let's talk about the lyrics. Many of the songs in III touch on spiritual matters. There's references to death, eternity and faith.
I'm a spiritual person. I grew up in a Christian household, going to church every Sunday and all of that. As I grew up, I was bummed out by organized religion, but that didn't kill my belief in a higher power. I believe there is a God and a Devil, and some sort of Heaven and some sort of Hell, but I don't believe anybody has figured out how to judge anybody.
I also think spirituality is a very personal thing. I live by a very personal set of morals: I try to be an honest person, a fair person, not to be an asshole, not to be ungrateful... And you know, my dad died, and I was so in tune with just the world and the planet, and I believe that there is more. I just don't believe that you need to go to church for that.
In "Sticks and Stones" you sing specifically about God and your faith: "Echo all your faith in God, son / You're stronger than you think."
That comes out from the fact that people use religion to guilt-trip people. I wanted to take positive lyrics and juxtapose them with a sort of mantra about killing. That is pretty much what that song is about.
And what about the references to death, like in "High Tide" or "Raise the Dead"?
That is different, because there was a kind of transformation for me during this record. Songs like "Wildfire" talk about the days when I wasn't that great of a person, and some tragic things happened to my family and friends. A time when I was looking to shed my skin a bit and start over.
You talk as if the person who writes and sings the songs of Mariachi El Bronx and El Bronx were different people. Do they influence each other?
They didn’t really at first, but as time goes by, the more they speak to each other. There are songs that I wrote for El Bronx but ended up working for the other project, and I think that any time you have two full-on bands that you're constantly writing and recording music for, you're open to that. So they are always influencing each other.