Singing in Spanish and English and incorporating any style that sparked some interest, the band—and its always impressive live show—veered in numerous directions. Despite being one of Tucson's longest-running and most-popular bands, The Jons had anything but a smooth road to their fourth album. Amid lineup changes and some reflective time off, the band began focusing on a new batch of songs that unify their myriad strengths and forge a stronger identity.
After four years of work, sometimes steady and sometimes slow, The Jons are ready to unveil El Rey Mojado, the band's most cohesive musical statement yet. Percussive, trumpet-infused and seamless in its blend of American and Latin American rock'n' roll traditions, the album carries the vibrancy of The Jons' live performances.
"We've never been a one-dimensional band. We wanted to put out an album that says 'This is who we are, this is what we do,'" says singer-trumpeter Jon Villa. "You hear us play our songs live, and this is our style. This is something that defines who we are as a band."
Starting with 2002's Wine at the Hilltop, later released with 10 additional songs, The Jons' recorded music was brimming them with perhaps too many ideas. The talented but youthful musicians combined an overloaded raft of influences into their own sound.
"A lot of the previous albums they were very experimental," Villa says. "We were going from phase to phase and everything we could think of. We'd put it in a song and turn the songs into an album."
Growing up in Nogales, Villa and the band's co-founder, drummer James Peters, were steeped in American rock'n'roll as well as the whole world of Latin music, from rock bands just across the border to the various traditions in South America and Spain.
"With this album, we used a lot of what our personal influences were, growing up listening to different music. Most of us come from families with a musical background, and we're really fortunate to have been brought up in that environment, growing up listening to everything from the Latin market to the English market," Villa says. "It's not a certain style that we try to emulate. It's just everything that we've been influenced by we put into the pot."
The roots of El Rey Mojado trace back four years, when a newly written song emerged as the guiding idea behind the project.
"The title track itself was something we started working on at a rehearsal. We just put it together right there and then, and we knew it was what we liked for our new album," Villa says.
The song "El Rey Mojado" tells a common story facing illegal immigrants, who struggle to get to the United States, at a tremendous cost, only to face discrimination and poor working conditions. The title is slang, translating essentially to "Wetback King."
"We grew up witnessing and hearing stories about the whole process itself," Villa says. "It's a general story about how some of the illegal immigrants are so focused on coming here and a lot of times when they get here, it's not what they think it will be. But in their eyes and the eyes of the family, they've made it. It's a success story without the success."
Plans are in motion to film a music video for "El Rey Mojado" and "Saturday"— an Earth, Wind & Fire-esque tune that's become a live favorite for The Jons audience. Other highlights of the album are a re-working of "All I Ever Think About" from the band's 2006 "Greatest Hits Vol. II," a cover of Electronic Light Orchestra's "Evil Woman" and the urgent, impassioned "Innocente."
The band's lyrics mix Spanish and English (sometimes within the same song) and when writing songs, Villa says The Jons trust their instincts and keep things true to a song's first inspiration.
"Some chorus will pop in my head and I'll go from there," he says. "When I'm thinking of a song, if it comes in Spanish, I'll go with it. I never try to translate a song. That's been our influence, that's been our crowd, that's been our background. Even just talking within ourselves, we'll be switching from Spanish to English back and forth. It comes pretty naturally. It's all the same to us."
Since beginning the album, The Jons grew from their five core members—Villa, Peters, bassist Javier Gamez, guitarist Charlie Rodriguez, trumpeter Michael Carbajal—to add two new players, Kane Flint (Provocative Whites) on guitar and Paul Jenkins (...music video?) on keyboards.
Both Kane and Paul we've always admired. I've always wanted to ask them to join the band years back—however long ago we met them. Somehow it worked out that they were available and we got the courage to ask," Villa says. "These guys bring something that we've never had in the band, a totally outside perspective on the style and the songs. They both have the energy and the talent."
The band recorded El Rey Mojado with Jim Waters, a collaborator since The Jons' first album. P.H. Naffah, the drummer for Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, mixed the album and put The Jons in touch with producer-engineer Clif Norrell, who was nominated for two Grammy awards for his work on Bruce Springsteen's 2012 Wrecking Ball.
Since opening for Clyne at the Rialto Theatre about six years ago, The Jons have performed regularly with the popular Phoenix band, including the annual Circus Mexicus festival in Rocky Point. Playing in front of larger crowds has been a blessing, Villa says, and a nice reminder of why they formed the band in the first place.
"Honestly, with us over the years it's all about having fun," Villa says. "Every time we've had a hiccup it's been because we stopped having fun, so we'd have to stop and take a minute and think about why we ever started doing it. That's what kept us going, year after year. We've found a way to keep it fresh and keep it new and keep everything in perspective about why we're doing this."