Interview: Sergio Mendoza – Orkesta Mendoza (March 2017)

In a month’s time, on the 21st of April, London will be blown away by the sound of Orkesta Mendoza. Rich Mix and La Linea 2017 will be hosting the first date of the band’s UK tour and its energetic vibes built on a Pan-American repertoire that welcomes Latin American styles and Southern U.S. States influences as well.

In times of walls, visas and borders control, Sergio Mendoza and his banda are arguably the best answer music can give to the current narrow-minded drift, because, as the musician from Nogales affirmed in our recent interview, Orkesta Mendoza “believe in different cultures coming together and don’t believe in borders”.

Orkesta Mendoza came to light in 2009 as a Pérez Prado tribute band. How did it happen and what has happened after that one-off show? Can you briefly retrace for us the story of the project?

Yes, we started in 2009, doing Perez Prado covers. We played one 20-minute set of his songs. By that time, I was already playing a lot with Calexico (keyboards, accordion) in North America. Joey Burns came to check out our set and then invited us to open up for Calexico for about six shows around the West Coast including California dates and Arizona shows. Joey gave us a great opportunity to get in front of an audience and really gave us a nice lift. After that we started opening for a lot of big acts that came through Tucson such as Los Lobos, Ozomatli and others. We did SXSW about five years in a row, which brought the band to New York to play Global Fest. From there we were invited to play Womex in Spain, which is where we found European booking agents. We now have two albums and the last one was released by Glitterbeat.

Orkesta Mendoza can be easily defined as a Pan-American ensemble. You have constantly mixed styles and traditions coming from all over Latin America and the Southwestern States. How did you build your sound and what influences it today?

I think it has to do with being near the border. I grew up in Nogales, Sonora. Living in Mexico exposed me to cumbia’s and many regional styles of Mexico, such as mariachi and norteño.

When I was 7 I moved to Nogales, Arizona. I made friends with musicians and my neighbour was a drummer. Through him, I started getting into American music and that is where the mixture of cultures begins.

From about 12 to 24 I completely forgot about Latin music. I studied a bit of many styles of music during that time. A little jazz, salsa, ska and a lot of classic rock and roll. I took a little bit from all the styles I had played and that’s how I started Orkesta Mendoza. Today we just want to rock more. Of course, it is Latin-based, but we like turning up our amps and consider ourselves a rock band.

Has your sound changed in the last seven years and how do you translate and bring your live-band approach to the studio?

I believe our sound has changed more in the last two years. We have also added more electronic sounds and have gone from being an 11-piece band to just a 7-piece band which is still pretty big. The studio sound is actually different than our live sound, or at least the approach is. We build the songs in the studio and never play them as a band until it is time to play them live. I like the live shows to sound different. We play with more energy live than we do in the studio.

What can you tell us about your involvement with Calexico? How much has your Calexico experience influenced the one with the Orkesta?

Playing with Calexico brought me back to the basics. Back to the ground. Simple chords, simple melodies, but done brilliantly. Of course, they also have a Latin side when it comes to mixing Rock and Mariachi, so that was inspirational and I felt right at home. The Orkesta has borrowed a lot from Calexico and that is mainly because I play with them. It’s like when you have a girlfriend or a best friend… after a while, you start acting and sounding like each other.

As well as Calexico, you have started or contributed towards many other projects. I know about Devotchka, Mexrissey, Mexican Institute of Sound and I’m sure I’m missing others. I guess that they are all meaningful for your career, but if you need to pick the most significant, which one would you choose and why?

I also worked on an album with a friend from Portland. Luz Elena Mendoza and I made a record together and called it Los Hijos de La Montaña. That is a special one to me, but choosing one is hard. More than anything I am thankful to have made so many great friendships and musical acquaintances over the years. Since I’m involved in so many projects it means that I have to miss a lot of shows with many of these bands. It just means I have more friends to miss. Calexico holds a special place for me. I have been playing with them for 10 years so I always try to make every show. Then there’s Orkesta. It’s my baby…

What can you tell us about the Tucson cultural and music scene? Is there any artist or band you would like to suggest us?

Tucson has been home for 17 years. I’m pretty attached to the community here. A lot of really nice concert promoters and venues. Many great Mexican restaurants including my favorite Poca Cosa. That is what makes Tucson. If you visit here I would say you have to go and eat there and meet Sandra who is always blasting some of the coolest music from all over the world.

I think it’s a good time for music here in town. There’re a lot of bands who are really trying to get out to tour and create. I would say check out anything Matt Rendon is doing and his latest recording titled Butterscotch Cathedral.

When I read that your hometown is Nogales and you currently live in Tucson, it was inevitable to think about the news, because it’s easy to say that your music tears up every wall’s plan. So, how do you feel about the current political and social situation and how is it influencing the Orkesta?

The idea of a wall is sad, for many reasons, and most importantly for migration patterns of animals. Already many butterflies die because they slam right into the fence. Overall, though, it’s bringing our community closer together. We all feel like we have to embrace each other the way we always do, but now with more pride. People are scared of being deported. Many of these are parents who don’t have papers, but their kids are American. Something has to be done. We plan on doing a series of shows later this summer to try and create awareness and also to bring people together to celebrate diversity here in Tucson.

I know that Tucson can be defined as the “US capital of Mexican music” and in particular the norteño sound. How do you think music and culture are and will be affected by what is going on? And how does music keep people together even if they’re on a different side of the border?

I already see it. I took my keyboard to get fixed with a friend who is undocumented. He has a music school where he teaches cumbia, norteño and mariachi. He has lost a lot of students in the last 6 months because parents are afraid to drive their kids to music class. That is a shame because now it’s affecting their future as musicians and as people. Music is powerful. It brings people together. We have been talking about doing a show right on the border and maybe it will happen with Orkesta, Calexico and others. One band on each side…

Let’s talk about your upcoming tour… What does it mean to travel and play all over the world with such a big band?

It’s exciting. We are lucky to be able to do it. I have always enjoyed playing with many musicians. That is why I like collaborations. It means a lot to travel and play with great musicians and friends.

As a matter of fact, your music is as much energetic as it is characteristic… So, I’m wondering how people who are not used to your mind-blowing sound react when they listen to it for the first time?

Thanks! We see a lot of happy faces. Some have that look as if they are discovering something they already knew, but dressed in disguise.  

Finally…how would you introduce/present Orkesta Mendoza to someone who has never heard about it before when they attend to one of your gigs?

Orkesta Mendoza is a group of musicians and friends from Tucson, Arizona. We believe in different cultures coming together and don’t believe in borders. That is the way our music sounds.

Orkesta Mendoza will be touring the UK in April. Don’t miss the chance to be blown away by their welcoming Tex-Mex sound!
21st April – Rich Mix – London
22nd April – Belgrave Music Hall – Leeds
23rd April – Band on the Wall – Manchester
24th April – Sage Two – Gateshead
25th April – Komedia – Brighton
26th April – Cambridge Corn Exchange – Cambridge