July 20 2011 12:27 PM

Observing Northern Tigers in their natural habitat

Aldo Bustos (left) and Sam Rivera.
Photo by Keokodorm Sar

These aren’t the tigers you’re looking for.

NortheTigers, San Diego’s hot new garage-band sensation, has nothing to do with Los Tigres del Norte, the Spanish-language band who pioneered the popularity of norteño narcocorridos, Mexican ballads about the drug trade.

“We would always joke around about band names during practice,” says guitarist Aldo Bustos. “This was one of those that kind of stuck.”

“When we tell people our name, we get all kinds of responses,” adds Sam Rivera, who sings and plays guitar. “‘You can’t do that. You can’t take that name.’ Other people laugh. It’s pretty funny.”

“Mostly it’s Hispanics who get upset,” Bustos adds.

Los Tigres del Norte have won five Latin Grammys and sold 32 million records. San Diego’s northern Tigers haven’t won any awards. They haven’t even put out a record. But they’ve been electrifying audiences at house shows and dive bars across the city, quickly building a reputation as a band to watch.

One recent Thursday night, the band gathered at Andrew Montoya’s garage / studio in University Heights to record vocals for their first demo. Surrounded by mismatched recording equipment and assorted instruments, the band members sat wherever they could find space. Montoya, the singer for Ale Mania, was northern Tigers’ first drummer. He was also in The Sess with Bustos and Rivera. Just about everyone in northern Tigers has played in Ale Mania or The Beaters, which formed after The Sess broke up. And on and on it goes.

Montoya and Rivera are cousins who lived in the same apartment building behind Bob Baker Ford on National City’s Mile of Cars. They grew up around musicians and have been making music together for as long as they can remember. Montoya is so at ease with the band, he might as well be a member.

“Once a tiger, always a tiger,” Montoya says.

NortheTigers formed last September and solidified their set after three raucous back-to-back-to-back shows at The Tower Bar, a house party and Soda Bar. Their live performances have gone so well that they’ve shifted their focus to recording their six best songs. The guitar and drum tracks were recorded at Til-Two Club.

“We’re recording to record,” Rivera says. “We want to put something out in the next few months. So, hopefully, something will come out of this.”

Rivera has finished his tracks for the first song and is listening to the playback. The song’s punk edge is balanced by the backing vocals, which are more than a lit tle doo-woppy.

“Punk wop,” Rivera says with a laugh.

He’s not far off. Think The Zeros mixed with Portland’s The Observers and Orange County’s The Stitches—with harmonizing vocals.

Rivera knows it’s a fine line between corny and cool. And this is what’s giving him trouble. The vocals need to be rough, but not too rough. Sweet, but not too sweet.

The song, a souped-up number with snappy drums, catchy hooks and anxious vocals, is about a boy’s latenight visit to a girl’s house. He might be trying to make things right, but he might be up to no good. It’s called “Gutspeed.”

“The title has nothing to do with the song,” Rivera cautions.

This is the charm of northern Tigers. The songs don’t reveal themselves right away, and when they do, something unexpected surfaces. For instance, the next number—another love-gone-wrong song—is called “Tan and Dead.” Surely this title has something to do with the song. Right?

Wrong. Bustos, who seems to have a knack for finding something strange in the familiar, stumbled upon a copy of Jan & Dean’s Carnival of Sound and thought it said “Tan and Dead.”

After Rivera finishes his vocals, Bustos goes into the sound booth to record the “Oohs” and then it’s bass player Frank Mindingall’s turn to do the “Aahs.” They do one take. Then they do another. It’s coming together, but barely.

“This is the work,” Rivera says, “the hard work you put in.”

“It’s pretty painful,” Montoya adds.

NortheTigers play with Dogbreth, Falling Trees and Hello the Mind Control at The Che Café on Sunday, July 24.