The men of Metalachi are proud to be the "world's first and only heavy metal mariachi band."
At first look, heavy metal and mariachi make the uneasiest of bedfellows; one genre is ever-evolving, with the focus on usually-fast, chunky riffs, aggressive vocals and automatic gunfire drumming. The other is all about honoring the past, in varying rhythms, with individual notes plucked and blown, melodic harmonies, no drums necessary. Then again, both genres value intricate musicianship and both styles of music are popular within L.A.'s Mexican American community, which is where Metalachi sprung up.
"We grew up in East L.A., and you become friends with people who love metal," says frontman Vega De La Rockha. "In high school, metal is everywhere. Your Mexican family is listening to Mexican songs, so I guess it's a combination that has to be done."
Mariachi music, originally born in Jalisco, was pushed by the Mexican government after the Revolution to help create a unified Mexican identity. Heavy Metal is a way that younger, often angry and impoverished first gen kids embrace their new American culture. So the genius of Metalachi is in the blending of these disparate genres; they are unifying and representing the Chicano identity – one foot looking backwards with respect for la Raza, the other foot kicking aggressively forward into the future. The combination had to be done.
Metalachi is artistically fascinating performance art. One main criticism of original mariachi, and the traditional charro players, was the sexist machismo. And so, Metalachi has included a very talented female violinist to amend and further the genre. Other, traditional mariachi is evolving to include more women players too, but Metalachi enlists their violinist the way White Zombie enlisted Sean Yseult, she's supersexy and out front, often painted in Day of the Dead facepaint and wearing a leotard, and at once super talented, holding her own with any male player in the genre. She perfectly straddles both genres at once. The players in Metalachi were working mariachi musicians before starting the band. Cut through the hair metal covers and between-song jokes, and the musicianship is superb.
"We used to do funerals, and any type of fiesta," De La Rockha says. "One time, a family wanted us to do Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid' and it got a really good response. People were amazed by it. Seeing that reaction from that amount of people, we decided to do something with it, take it to the next level. It took a while to get everybody on track with it. Some people had to work. In maybe 2010, we pretty much got everybody together. We decided to get some costumes, take those metal anthems, and make them our own on mariachi instruments — no drums. Fortunately it worked out."
The band cut its teeth in North Hollywood, playing anywhere that would have them. They were initially a tough sell, but quickly developed a following and played to packed, appreciative houses. In the years since, the band has gotten bolder and technically better. Now, rather than simply playing metal songs on mariachi instruments, they're fundamentally re-arranging the songs to incorporate mariachi rhythms. While some mariachi and metal purists still balk, the overall reaction from both crowds has been positive.
"Mariachi is a very traditional genre of music," De La Rockha says. "They're purists with their music, more than the metal people. But there're a couple of mariachi people who have come up to us — they teach kids to do mariachi music, and they see that the kids are trying to copy our arrangements more than they want to do the traditional songs. Especially the kids that are born here — they hear the band and they want to play their violin the way we do rather than the slow way they always do. A lot of people appreciate it. A lot of metal-heads too."
True enough. Metalachi can count Hellyear/Pantera man Vinnie Paul and Slayer/Suicidal Tendencies' Dave Lombardo among their fans (which is weird because they're both drummers, and Metalachi doesn't have a drummer in the band).
"To see those big metal guys embracing and appreciating what we're doing is great," De La Rockha says. "Sometimes people who only listen to mariachi hear our songs, and it makes them curious about metal and the original songs. We turn them into metal-heads."
On stage, Metalachi is like a wicked combination of Kiss and Cheech & Chong. As with the popular Mexican wrestling, Lucha Libre, the silly element is always hovering, but Metalachi's music is captivating, even when they're playing a song like Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me," which they dedicate to the sugar-daddies and diabetics in the house, or Europe's "Final Countdown." It's as much a party as a concert, with De La Rockha encouraging attendees to get liquored up, because "the more you drink, the better we sound."
They don't necessarily stick strictly to trad mariachi either. Just like original mariachi once expanded to include the trumpet as a nod to jazz and Cuban music, Metalachi is spreading out into other forms of Latin music including cumbia, which originates in Columbia but is heard in Mexico a lot.
"It's very danceable," says De La Rockha. "On (Dio's) 'Holy Diver,' we play cumbia. Also (Alice In Chains') 'Man in the Box,' and (Black Sabbath's) 'War Pigs.' People love the cumbia. It is a different style of music, but it's very Latin. We don't really do salsa yet, but we might one day. It is good to incorporate different Latin styles into the mariachi."
Metalachi has two albums out so far: 2012's Uno and last year's Dos. Both predominantly consist of covers; the band only has two original compositions up to now. But to be fair, people are going to see this band, much like recent tour-companions Mac Sabbath and Okilly Dokilly, to hear "novelty" versions of songs they already love.
"One original song, 'Gimme Some Chon Chon,' is very comical," De La Rockha says. "It's based on a cult movie called Blood In Blood Out about cholos in prison. We have one written called 'Meat Injection' that we're working on for the next album. We're trying to get out there and bring the Metalachi experience to everybody. It's just a party. There's no space for grumpy faces."
Trust the Old Pueblo show will be a damn good time. During the recent tour, fans showed their support for this gloriously multicultural approach to music by chanting "Fuck Trump," unprompted, which lead Metalachi to pull out a version of The Scorpions' "Wind of Change," lyrics slightly altered to reflect the current political climate.
"We're bringing the togetherness with music," De La Rockha says. "Laughter is a way of getting through to people."