The distance between punk rock and mariachi music may seem quite vast, but for L.A. punk-band-turned-mariachi-septet Mariachi El Bronx, the difference was a matter of trading electric for acoustic instruments, adding horns and donning traditional charro costumes instead of black T-shirts and jeans.
Three albums in, punk band The Bronx’s alter ego is beginning to eclipse the popularity of its brother band in some markets. With an opening slot on Flogging Molly and Gogol Bordello’s current tour – which could be described as the first world music punk tour mixing Irish, Eastern European and Mexican-American music – Mariachi El Bronx’s unique version of Americanized mariachi should find an even larger audience. The tour stops at Uptown Amphitheatre Monday.
So how did an aggressive, socially minded hardcore punk rock band become sombrero-sporting purveyors of flamenco-flavored ballads and sunny, horn-laden Latin harmonies?
“They kept wanting the Bronx to do acoustic because sometime around our third record, punk rock guys were doing acoustic stuff,” says Matt Caughthran, singer for both bands, who says the direction reflected L.A.’s Hispanic culture. “We thought, we don’t want to play boring acoustic rock Bronx songs. How do we find a cool, fun way around it? We started experimenting with different mariachi rhythms and instrumentations.”
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The experiment led to a traditional mariachi album sung in English, which found the band working within the genre’s boundaries, much like a punk band that adheres to its genre’s expectations.
“There aren’t supposed to be limitations in punk, but there are. You don’t discover that until you’re a couple years in,” Caughthran says. “There are expectations with mariachi music. Just like when we started the Bronx, it’s important that it (be) defined. With El Bronx, we put a lot of work in to make sure people knew we weren’t making fun of Mexican culture. We made sure we followed the rules, and had the right instrumentations and rhythm.”
The new sound couldn’t be mistaken for true mariachi music because of the musicians playing it, but the group did a good job of pulling it off gracefully.
“It was destined to be unique,” Caughthran says. “I’m not singing in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish. Mariachi doesn’t usually have drums, and we have the loudest drummer in mariachi history.”
With its latest album, “III,” Mariachi El Bronx branched out, expanding on established rules by incorporating more rock and pop elements.
“The third record, in my mind, is where you start reaching for something different. We took more of a rock n’ roll approach to the song structure. We used electronic elements,” he says of the full cinematic synthesized strings and soundscapes that are layered with the more traditional rock, pop and mariachi arrangements.
It may seem a strange mix to shift from the laid-back sunniness of El Bronx to the aggressive throttle of The Bronx when the bands play two sets a night. That’s something the group is still reconciling. It’s easy for a punk musician to miss the catharsis of a loud, intense set.
“El Bronx feels like ‘wake up, have a beer and sing some songs,’” Caughthran says. “On this last tour, I was itching to play a Bronx show. Right now, it’s something I’m writing toward. Once the El Bronx record is done, your gears start shifting toward Bronx.”
He doesn’t foresee a time that the two will truly merge into one band.
“I think there will always have to be a line,” he says. “Songwriting-wise, at this point, my brain doesn’t have the power to envision the band as one sound. That would be a really weird sound.”
Courtney’s blog: cltsoundbites.blogspot.com
Mariachi El Bronx
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday.
WHERE: Uptown Amphitheatre, 1000 NC Music Factory Blvd.
DETAILS: 704-916-8970; www.livenation.com.