Oct. 12 2011 03:47 PM

Punk rockers don charro suits and take up traditional Mexican instruments

Mariachi El Bronx started on a lark in 2006.
Photo by Ashley Maile

The Bronx and Mariachi El Bronx are two very different bands.

The Bronx write songs like “Shitty Future,” a fist-pumping punk anthem with high-octane guitars, pounding drums and a screamed vocal refrain: “Here comes your shitty future!”

Mariachi El Bronx write songs like “48 Roses,” a powerful mariachi ballad with swooping violin, a galloping clave rhythm and vivid lyrics that could’ve come straight from a Gabriel García Márquez novel: “With four different lovers and forty-eight roses / I need a confessional that never closes.”

As it happens, the bands have the same members, a group of Los Angeles guys— Matt Caughthran, Joby J. Ford, Jorma Vik, Ken horne and Brad Magers. And as different as the two bands sound, somehow it all makes sense.

“They’re both, for lack of a better term, the music for the people,” Ford says about punk rock and mariachi, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Cleveland. “Punk, to me, is not about how loud you can scream or how fast you can play; it’s the place you’re coming from, and there’s a passion there. It’s the same thing with mariachi; it comes from such a passionate place. You just go for it.”

Of course, each band’s technique is distinct. The Bronx are a guitars-bass-and-drum combo and Mariachi El Bronx use traditional mariachi instruments, with additional members Ray Suen on violin and Vincent Hidalgo on guitarrón, a six-string acoustic bass. In The Bronx, they wear jeans and T-shirts as they thrash around on stage. In Mariachi El Bronx, they’re standing straight-backed, commanding attention in their black charro suits.

Ford plays electric guitar in The Bronx, but in Mariachi El Bronx, he strums the vihuela, a small, five-string guitar that gives a mariachi band its percussive punch (a band isn’t considered mariachi without one). learning to master the vihuela’s many strumming patterns wasn’t easy; he compares it to learning to write left-handed. As challenging as it’s been, though, The Bronx’s foray into mariachi has turned into an obsession. Ford has since taught himself how to play accordion and bajo sexto, a 12-string rhythm guitar used in norteño music.

And Mariachi El Bronx has developed into a serious mariachi band. While their 2009 self-titled debut sounds like something you might expect from a band of hipsters playing for tips at Pokez on a Saturday afternoon, their new album—also self-titled, released on ATO Records in August—is as gripping and full-blooded as great mariachi music comes, thanks in large part to Suen’s riveting violin and Caughthran’s impassioned vocals.

Curiously, it all started on a lark in 2006, when The Bronx were invited to perform on a TV show in L.A. Instead of doing a cheesy acoustic version of their song “Dirty Leaves,” as requested, they decided to dress up and do it mariachi-style. Something clicked, and they soon started writing material for an album, watching YouTube videos to learn styles like norteño and jorocho.

The experience has been liberating. Reached by phone from a stop in Pittsburgh, singer Caughthran says playing mariachi helps him explore happy topics like love and family, which he overlooked as a punk rocker.

“Before El Bronx, I kind of felt myself focusing on a lot of negative things, just because that’s what the music brought out in me. It made me deal with issues that I didn’t want to deal with, and it kind of kept me in some negative head-space for a long time,” he says. “It’s nice to creatively have a balance to where you can look back and reflect on all the great things that have happened in your life and sing songs about it.”

But there are also songs about heartbreak and perseverance, which Caughthran draws from personal experience. You can almost see him visiting Tijuana’s red-light district in “Revolution Girls,” a tale of unseemly romance set in the Baja city. “I became a man with my Revolution girl,” he sings, alluding to Avenida Revolucion, Tijuana’s main tourist drag.

“I remember ever since I was kid, I was blown away,” he says about the city. “You have nightclubs, you have tourists running around everywhere, you have criminals. You have donkeys spray-painted like zebras, prostitutes, drunk people. It’s just amazing. I love Mexico.”

Mariachi El Bronx has been busy lately, but The Bronx hasn’t fallen by the wayside. The way Ford and Caughthran see it, the two bands are part of a single musical enterprise, with neither band taking precedence over the other.

Indeed, both bands performed almost every day on a recent European festival run. At one performance, Ford says, a mother and her daughter were divided on which band was better—the daughter hated the mariachi and loved the punk, but Mom hated the punk and loved the mariachi.

“It’s a cool place to be,” Ford says. “We try not to be confusing, but we totally are.”

Mariachi El Bronx will play with Foo Fighters and Cage the Elephant at Viejas Arena on Monday, Oct. 17. thebronxxx.com. Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.