Never Mind the Bullets
Bruce Hartnell, formerly of Los Angeles punkers the Detonators, has executed a drastic change in style. Instead of the three-chord crunch of his past, these days guitarist Hartnell and his many mates in Los Mex Pistols del Norte are playing a form that hails less from Southern California as from regions south of the border. Yet rest assured, hombre -- this is no Ricky Martin/talking Chihuahua/Latin explosion band-wagon act. Rather, Hartnell and his compadres have successfully blended the spaghetti-Western drama of Ennio Morricone movie scores, the metal howl of Link Wray and the polka-pounding of Tex-Mex into a spicy, original sound. Loaded with drama and several shots of mescal-spiked camp, it sneaks across musical borders like so much Oaxacan bud.
Though it's a culture or two removed from his own, Hartnell, who currently lives in Eugene, Oregon, says his current musical approach makes perfect sense to him. "If you're gonna be a musician," he says, "you can't just pigeonhole yourself and put the blinders on and think you're gonna be the great big underground rock-and-roll god. That's martyrdom for no end, and we're all old punk-rockers who already did our time for the cause. Besides, this stuff is more punk rock than anything we've ever done. I mean, have you ever seen a mariachi band? The power of a mariachi band is amazing."
So is the power of Los Mex Pistols. The band's brand-new disc, ¡Esta Noche We Ride!, is full of instrumentals that call to mind vintage Clint Eastwood Western soundtracks, Fifties surf bands and Latin-flavored folk groups. Thickening the stew, the Mex Pistols cut in a dash of another brand of esoteric sound: torero, the rousing anthemic music that accompanies a toreador's efforts to control the mighty bull. The 21-song disc (on the NMX label) even opens with a recording from a bullfight. Above the roar of the crowd, one hears a steer snort and rumble into the ring as the Pistols roar into one of the disc's many matador numbers. Hartnell fires off a distorted intro, and the band punches in with blaring trumpets and dramatic stops for effect. The tune is punctuated with romping burrito-Western passages and Mexi-melting drama.
There's more of this type of excitement throughout this recording, along with plenty of Link Wray-inspired grandeur. In the title track, Hartnell's endlessly sustaining vibrato (he plays a Gibson SG roped with strings twice the normal gauge) is supported by farfisa organ and more brass. The cut is sweeping and strong, with a tad of tongue-in-cheek goofiness -- the kind of stuff sure to please lovers of instrumentals by Southern Culture on the Skids, Morricone and Herb Alpert, whose "Taste of Honey" gets covered here. The disc also includes a few cinematic numbers that evoke Neil Young and Crazy Horse soundtracking some low-budget South American murder mystery. But before things get too dark, the boys lighten up with some rootsy mejicano magic -- including a few stompers from little-known Latin guitarist Eddie Dimas, whose "El Mosquito" has been a standard at Hispanic dances for decades. All in all, it's a deliciously different, word-free record.
The culturally schizophrenic music of Los Mex Pistols has found them an audience where they didn't initially expect it -- among the large Hispanic community in the northwest. Sure, the band has a buzz in the rock-and-roll club circuit, but they're also developing into what is possibly the world's first post-punk band to regularly play at Mexican weddings. The band is now just as likely to perform at quinceañera parties for fifteen-year-old girls as it is to headline small theaters, and it now packs a bilingual promo kit to help reach its newfound market.
The crossover began after Hartnell and Los Mex Pistols found themselves in a battle of the bands contest, facing off against a number of Latino acts from around the rural regions of Oregon before a largely Hispanic crowd. "We played the contest, and we won it," Hartnell remembers. "They gave us fifteen hundred bucks and this big trophy, and we got called back to play this Cinco de Mayo thing with Flaco Jimenez. Now we're not just focusing on the Caucasian market that lends itself to the rock-and-roll scene. We want to see if it works in this other way, too. In my situation, if I break into this Latino market, I'll be gigging forever."
Hartnell first conceived of Los Mex Pistols more than three years ago while working at John Henry's, a music club he runs in Eugene. "I'd see bands every night doing basically the same thing," Hartnell recalls, "and I thought if I put another band together, it would be one that people wouldn't forget. Then I got the idea of doing an Ennio Morricone cover band with all of these crazy instruments. I figured we'd do a few shows here and there, and after the third or fourth show, people would kind of lose interest. I mean, it's basically soundtrack music, and people in a bar typically don't want that."
Overcoming this mindset was particularly tough, Hartnell says, in a town known more for its blues and Grateful Dead-like acts than for original instrumental bands. (Local legend has it that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi got their inspiration for the Blues Brothers while soaking up Eugene's blues scene during Belushi's filming of "Animal House.") But before educating clubgoers, Hartnell had to first educate the area's musicians. "Part of the problem has been finding guys in Eugene that can grasp the idea of what we're doing," Hartnell says. "You have to work through that, and you have to educate people as you go. Another hard thing has been finding the gear and the equipment. But once I got the gear, it was a hundred times easier to show people what I wanted them to do."
Judging by the current lineup, Hartnell seems to be a decent teacher and recruiter. The ranks of the Pistols range from seven to ten players, and the group's arsenal includes a slew of instruments not usually found in rock venues. The list includes a guitarrón (the four-string bass used in mariachi bands) tympani, tuba and a set of homemade chimes -- fashioned from metal fence posts -- that provide some of the more cinematic touches in the band's mix. "That was an experience," Hartnell says, "going in and telling this guy we needed a certain amount of fence posts to make a musical instrument and watching his jaw drop."
Hartnell's day gig as a sound engineer at Eugene's Hult Center for the Performing Arts has helped him learn to manage his group's array of gear -- something that can be an onstage nightmare for soundman and player alike. "That came from watching symphony orchestras," Hartnell says, "and the day-to-day seeing of how big-time road acts go through their paces professionally. The important thing with all this gear is getting everybody to be able to walk into a room and say, 'Okay, this is how I'm going to work it.' It's worked out pretty well. See, people don't pay to see a soundman mix the symphony," he explains. "They pay to hear the conductor lead the symphony, so if I have to color the sound, it's detrimental to the performance. Our goal with the Mex Pistols is kind of the same -- to make it all sound good before a soundman gets to it."
Hartnell spares his fellow sound engineers a wealth of trouble by performing without stage monitors. "If the room is in such a shape that we have to use monitors, then we're doing something wrong. A lot of bands tend to stick to their stage plans -- the guitar's gotta be here, the drums here -- it's static. But we move people around to get the best mix on the stage. We play some gigs where we go out on the floor and set up."
Some might say that's muy loco. But the Pistols' investment in every aspect of their sound and performance is born of a desire to best represent the foreign genres they whip together. That listeners are drinking it up may also attest to Hartnell's vision. "The people that want to go out and just see the regular old rock bands -- you know, the Supersuckers every night -- that's great. But there's a huge, huge world out there, and we're gonna be entertainment for those other people. And I hate to use the word 'entertainment,' but that's what it is. It's customer service. And even if people might not be in the mood for what we do, we're gonna get up on the stage and we're gonna deliver the goods. The philosophy is, you only get one life -- you might as well just let go and go monster on it."
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