Each time Sergio Mendoza returned from a tour or a recording project, he'd carry back new musical ideas.
As that pattern played out again and again for Mendoza—a frequent collaborator of Calexico, DeVotchKa and the Mexican Institute of Sound—he began harnessing those different sounds into a new version of his eponymous band. And now what began as a Perez Prado cover band has morphed into Orkesta Mendoza, with a sound that both incorporates and transcends those mambo roots.
The new ¡Vamos A Guarachar! is an album that found its influences everywhere Mendoza turned, with a variety that stems directly from his ever-increasing collaborations, as a crucial sideman in DeVotchKa, co-writing and taking a larger role in Calexico's Edge of the Sun (2015), joining with Camilo Lara of the Mexican Institute of Sound on Mexrissey, and forming Los Hijos de la Montaña with Luz Elena Mendoza (no relation) of Y La Bamba. Those projects kept Mendoza on the road almost as often as he was home the last several years, but whenever he'd come back from tour, it was with new musical inspiration.
"There were just so many ideas. Every time I'd get home, I'd work on writing more songs and I was always in different moods," he says. "If you look at the music we're making with the Orkesta, it's a little bit of all the bands I play with, but we take it somewhere else. It takes you on a journey."
As Mendoza worked to reshape the Orkesta sound, the band has sharpened into a seven-piece, down from its prior lineup of 13, easing the logistics of traveling while putting more emphasis on the individual musicians: Mendoza (guitar, vocals, keys), Salvador Duran (vocals and percussion), Marco Rosano (sax, clarinet, keys and accordion), Joe Novelli (lap steel guitar), Sean Rogers (bass), James Peters (drums) and Raul Marques (trumpet).
"We can still make that big sound," Mendoza says. "But I've tried to get away from being a mambo band. There are certain elements that are like the last album, but I wanted it to be more modern and find our own sound."
The album took about three months of work spread over about a year, as Mendoza found time in between other projects. A lot of the demos came from a week he spent in a borrowed cabin on Mount Lemmon, away from everything but the music. Challenging himself to explore different sounds, Mendoza built ¡Vamos A Guarachar! as a distinctly different record than the band's 2012's debut, Mambo Mexicano.
"It's a little bit more poppy, it's a little bit more structured, and we tried to keep some of the signature elements, but the songs go in new directions," he says. "When I was showing it to people, they'd ask 'How is this supposed to go together as an album?' There were 15 or 17 songs there to make the cut and they were all different."
To record, he went with a process similar to how he witnessed Joey Burns and John Convertino created the Edge of the Sun record. "They're good at form construction and I understand it. They'd have the names for different sections we were playing and they'd write all the music first, no lyrics or vocals until the very last step."
Mendoza wrote the songs for ¡Vamos A Guarachar! with just the percussion grooves first, starting with shakers and congas and building up from there, laying on a bass line and moving to the other instruments: piano, guitar, horns.
"It was pretty much like jams and then we'd pick the ones we liked," he says. "If you have a good-sounding song, it'll be easier to write better vocal lines and lyrics. For me, when the music is almost done, there are certain frequencies in the music that give me melodies. Sometimes the music just comes by itself."
The new record takes its name from the Mexican sandal guaracha and loosely translates to "Let's Dance," but the meaning stretches beyond that.
"It has to do with a lot more than just a dance," Mendoza says. "It has to do with issues of race and some of the things we've seen in Arizona with things like SB 1070. On 'Redoble,' it's a dance number, but it talks about racism, saying to look out for the people you love, to be careful and be able to look out for people who could be racist. But the overall message is 'Let's Dance. Let's get together to celebrate life through music.' It's an invitation to anyone who wants to dance, to celebrate different cultures. It's more about compassion and loving one anther."
The album cover comes from Mexico City artist and designer Oscar Reyes, who rendered the band members as different animals, most notably Mendoza as a jaguar and Duran as a rooster, highlighting how the different personalities behind the different instruments contribute in their own way.
"I've worked with people here in town before, but they don't understand the lyrics," Mendoza says. "I sent him the music and he wrote back a long email about what each song meant to him and the cover represents Arizona and Mexico."
Orkesta Mendoza just returned from the band's longest tour yet in Europe, nearly a month, with shows spread from Istanbul to Belgium and the support of a new European label, Glitterbeat, that generated some significant press. Three Arizona shows will highlight the album's release stateside. And as the band carves out a stronger identity, Mendoza says he'll keep searching for new sounds to incorporate.
"We're mixing so many different things, starting with that 40s mambo and updating it with electronics. The live show is so energetic," he says. "I just can't wait to discover more things that can be a part of what we do."