Sergio Mendoza is one of the great innovators of the Arizona music scene. He’s a composer, arranger, producer and programmer who plays keyboards, guitar, percussion and horns, and works with the cult American band Calexico, as well as Smiths/Morrissey tribute act Mexrrissey. He may be based in Tucson, but his inspiration comes from south of a border that is not blocked by any walls. With Orkesta Mendoza he sets out to update and enliven the Latin big band tradition, mixing influences from Mexico and across Latin America with electronica, strings and unexpected bursts of western pop and psychedelia. He has a sometimes brash, widescreen style that would have impressed Phil Spector, but there is impressive variety in his exuberant approach. So he starts with stomping, brassy dance songs, slows down a little for a grand, piano-backed ballad and then changes direction again for ‘Mapache’, with its witty reference to 60s instrumental pop. Classy and enormous fun.
Can you tell me about your background, the music you heard, listened to and started playing?
I grew up in Nogales, Mexico. I started playing keyboards at the age of five, mainly learning rancheras and cumbias by ear. I heard a lot of Ramon Ayala who I still love. Also the cumbias of Chico Che.
I moved to Nogales, Arizona, at age seven, and from that point my life as a musician also changed. American music and rock took over a bit and that's where the mixture of sounds and cultures began.
I understand you started the band in 2009, as a Perez Prado tribute. Can you tell me about that and the evolution?
We started playing Perez Prado (famous Cuban bandleader, also known as ‘King of the Mambo’, and whom many of you will know as the original composer of ‘Mambo No.5’) covers, but quickly started writing our own as well. In the beginning there was 12 of us, plus dancers for some shows. There was a lot of energy. There was a sense of innocence. We didn't know where we were going. I had an idea of where I wanted it to go, but had no idea how it would happen. I remember friends asking me about how I would do it, to take 13 musicians on the road. I thought it would just happen.
Now we are here as a six-piece getting ready for a tour that will take us all over Europe. Five are from Arizona, and Raul Marques from Portugal. The reality is we still play with a lot of energy, but now it's more focused. A little less innocent, but we still don't know where it's going. I think that is beautiful.
Sound-wise the music has been affected by the size of the travel group which led to us using more electronics and drum machines in the studio which was a lot of fun. In a way it makes our style and sound more relevant to what is happening today.
Various styles such as mariachi, mambo, cumbia play a big part. Was it just a natural progression to incorporate all these styles, western too, into your overall sound?
I think a lot of it is in my blood. The other part came in Tucson, playing with Calexico. Certain parts of the studio instrumentation came from that: pedal steel, accordion and vibes.
You call what you do indie mambo?
I was calling it indie mambo at first. I was trying to let people know that it is mambo and cumbia, but it also has another side to it. That side being that we are rock musicians making these songs. We like to turn up and play loud, but we also have the rhythm in our blood.
What’s the meaning behind the last album title Vamos A Guarachar?
It's an invitation especially for people here in the USA and in Arizona. It's saying let's get together to not only dance, but to embrace each other. To create awareness that we are all here and we need to work towards a future that accepts different cultures coming together.
Can you tell me about Salvador Duran, who is name checked on the album's cover?
Salvador is the lead vocalist for the band. He is very charismatic and fun to watch perform. He has a classic Mexican voice. He reminds me of Javier Solis or Jose Alfredo Jimenez. Great voice and awesome energy.
And Camilo Lara?
He is sitting next to me right now! We have been doing a lot of work together. We are working on a tribute album for a Mexican singer at the moment. We did Mexrrissey together (they were last here in January, at the Brighton Dome, a Mexican-inspired tribute to The Smiths and Morrissey). We built a studio here in Tucson. So we spend a lot of time together working, non-stop! He is a great friend and musical collaborator.
Can you tell me a little about Tucson, in particular the music environment that resides there? I see it is called the “US capital of Mexican music”.
I didn't know that it was named the US capital of Mexican music. Well I think there is a lot of great talent here. We have an awesome mariachi scene and they get together once a year for the annual Mariachi conference. I think we have some of the best Mexican food in the world as well. Little Poca Cosa has an amazing vibe and Sandra Davila will welcome you with a hug and kiss. She also has great taste in music and through her I discovered some of my favourite bands such as Bombino!
It's just an hour from the Mexican border. How are Trump's wall policies playing out in that part of the world? Are people nervous?
At this point I don't know what to say. We were scared, but now we are confused. Actually more scared than before. I think the wall and all the other nonsense he talked about during the elections are just a cover up. I think he is hiding something much heavier.
And just a quick word on Calexico. Are you still involved with them, are there any plans, and how did they help inform what you do with Orkesta Mendoza?
I am still very involved with them. Joey Burns is a close friend and we get together often to talk about the new Calexico album being recorded. We have more sessions this week to work on their new material. I plan to tour with them next year as; Vamos a Guarachar! begins to wind down.
Joey and John (Convertino) have had a big influence on my life. They are my mentors. Not only in music, but also in life. We exist as Orkesta Mendoza because Joey invited us to open up for a bunch of Calexico shows. I have played with them for ten years. So, yes, once in a while we sound the same and also talk the same. They thought my music should be simple and basic. Sometimes we forget that.