East Los Angeles punk band The Bronx, are, in a word, incendiary; one of the most exciting live bands around, with the kind of passion and energy that can incite a riot.
So when I heard that the riotousness was being swapped for serious reverence onstage, in the form of a new side-project for the five-piece, it wasn’t the kind of departure I expected from these guys.
What I would expect from this go-your-own way, balls-out, proudly Californian punk band is maybe a bit of sticking it to the man and musical love letter writing to hometown influences.
And as it turns out, that’s exactly what inspired their alter-ago Mexican incarnation, Mariachi El Bronx.
Front man Matt Caughthran explains:
“The Mariachi thing came about, god, about three years ago now. When we did our second record we got an offer to do some TV stuff, and they wanted us to do the real lame, stripped down, rock-song-goes-acoustic type thing, so we decided to have some friends of ours join us and do one of our songs Mariachi style.
“The song was ‘Dirty Leaves’, and it was really fun. Re-writing the song kinda opened up a whole new thought-process for all of us, and we wanted to dive further into it.
“It ended up being kinda like a rabbit hole that just went further and further and further down. And we got a whole record out of it and I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” he enthuses.
The debut Mariachi El Bronx album, ‘El Bronx’, is released on September 1st.
“It’s very left-field,” he continues of the Mariachi idea, “I wish I could say there was a single moment, you know, that triggered it, but there really isn’t. I think it’s just an idea of being severely influenced by the culture, living in Los Angeles, being surrounded by it, and it kinda made sense for us because we really wanted to do something different and we didn’t really quite know where to go. So it just kinda seemed logical, being surrounded by Mexican culture, to you know, dive into the music; so that’s why we did it.”
Singer Matt Caughthran grew up in a mostly Mexican town where his next-door neighbour was David Hidalgo, front man of the veteran Chicano band Los Lobos. Hidalgo’s sons Vincent and David Jnr were Caughthran’s best friends and they played in one of Matt’s earlier bands, along with The Bronx’s guitarist Joby Ford. Vincent and David Snr also contribute instruments on the ‘El Bronx’ album.
The two incarnations of The Bronx are comprised of the same members, the only addition being Karla, a female member of the Mariachi crew, who plays guitarrón (a bass instrument) while regular bass player Brad Magers mans the trumpet, Joby and Ken Horne retain guitar duties, Jorma Vik continues to drum and Matt sings.
And what a voice it is. Punk and other heavy forms of music can be accused of being a collecting ground for singers who can’t really sing – where screaming and growling and bellowing undecipherable lyrics get them by. And while as punkers The Bronx thankfully do not fall into that camp, when you listen to Caughthran crooning in Mariachi El Bronx, his talent is even more evident.
Mutual members and Mariachi El Bronx’s punk undercurrent may be areas of similarity between the two bands, but they are still a massive juxtaposition.
I ask Matt to choose a song by each of the bands to be in a movie – what would the song be and what scene would it be setting:
“For The Bronx, ‘History Stranglers’ would be, you know, a great murder scene song. You could kill a lot of people to that song.
“And, I think that, in basic opposites, ‘El Bronx’ is very much a record about love, and kinda the softer side of life, which is cool, and is something I never really thought I would get to explore in my writing. There’s a song called ‘My Love’ on there, which I think would be a great sex scene song.”
And as they say, opposites attract, so it makes sense – in a weird kind of way – that Mariachi El Bronx and The Bronx have begun performing double-header gigs, and so far fans have been welcoming.
“So far it’s been great. It makes the shows really cool, because there’s way more of a weirdo kinda circus vibe; there’s just so much going on in one show, it’s so entertaining. I think it’s great and I think people are digging it.
“I think that Bronx fans respect us for being as odd as we are, you know, I think they like that about our band. We’re not a safe group of people; we don’t like to do the same shit twice. It’s like, that’s either going to suck or it’s going to work, and I think we’re talented enough that we can make it work for us, and I think our fans like it.”
But he doesn’t touch on the obvious question – how can the band members summon the energy to play two shows on the same bill, especially considering the abandon of a usual Bronx show, particularly on Matt’s part?
“It’s difficult, you know, it’s really hard, but it’s fun, too. And it stretches you, physically and mentally and creatively, and I think that’s cool. For better or worse we put a lot of weight on our own shoulders and a lot of stuff in our prospective baskets, because we just wanna do everything we can while we have this, kind of, moment, because you don’t really know how long it’s gonna last. So we don’t shy away from hard work, we’re more than willing to jump in and do it all.”
It is that kind of attitude that brought the original members of The Bronx together back in 2002.
“Joby and I were friends and we were playing music together; I didn’t know Jorma or James (our first bass player), but the instant we got together, you know, it just felt automatic, it was something that I knew was going to be good,” Matt says.
“I think we all are just very unique spirits that can’t really be happy living conventional lives. Our medium and our outlet of expression just happens to be music. We’re all very different and unique in our own ways, we have different beliefs and tastes and stuff like that, but when we come together there’s something really common and creative that flows through us, and I think we all need that.
“I think a painter could survive on his own, but being a musician – there’s definitely singer and songwriter people (who can do it on their own) – but I think there’s a certain type of characteristic to musicians where you need others to bring the best out of you. You need that camaraderie and that family atmosphere to reach the common goal. You can’t really get there by yourself, it’s kinda the sum of its parts.”
In-keeping with the band’s collective drive, the future looks as jam-packed and road-heavy as ever.
“The plan is always wide open with us. We’re not good at scheduling, we try our best to, but the agenda is always just to play.”
At the time of this interview, the guys are in the middle of a two-week stay in the UK, culminating with a show by both bands at the Reading and Leeds festivals. Then it’s back to LA for a few days, then off to Japan, Australia, then back home for a co-headlining tour with the two Bronxs.
And while the members of The Bronx obviously have a strong affinity for their hometown and country, it is travelling to other parts of the world, playing their music, that really excites them.
“Going to places outside the US is always more special, because the crowd knows you’re not from there, and they respect the amount of money and travel and hard work that it takes to get your band over to where they live, so they’re definitely way more excited for you, and they’re ready to show you exactly what you mean to them with their little style of aggression. I love playing outside the States because people go nuts, they’ve been waiting and waiting and they just really, really wanna explode. There’s just something really cool about being able to take your band outside of where you’re from and have people there to share something together. I love touring,” he says.
“Then, we’re gonna get going on the fourth Bronx record,” Matt continues. The third, and again self-titled, Bronx album was released in late 2008.
“I expect the next one to be really, really insane, you know, coming off this Mariachi stuff. I think it’s going to be a complete opposite direction; it’ll probably be the heaviest record we’ve ever written.
“So, in a way, I’m very excited for it, but in a way I’m dreading going into that dark, dark cave and really getting nuts.”
Pictures by Amy Freeborn