Solo super vato 

Bubba Hernandez was having dinner in Los Angeles with his brother when he suddenly started sobbing.

It was a curious time for the veteran bassist/vocalist to be overwhelmed by sadness. The following day, Hernandez would begin a new recording project with highly respected L.A. session drummer Willie Ornelas keeping the beat and Carmen Grillo, ex-guitarist for Tower of Power — one of Hernandez’s all-time favorite bands — engineering the session. There was every reason for him to be giddy.

But excitement is often just a shout away from paralyzing fear, and Hernandez was plainly scared. After more than 20 years with the Denton nuclear-polka ensemble Brave Combo — a band whose world-music mastery had led to a gig at David Byrne’s wedding, a guest spot on The Simpsons (at the urging of Bravo Combo enthusiast Matt Groening), two Grammy awards, and serious fame in Japan — Hernandez decided to leave the band in 2005.

Hernandez, a fourth-generation musician born and raised in San Antonio, had vague notions about wanting to combine the light propulsion of cumbia with the heavy beats of old-school, ’70s funk, but as his first session approached, he worried that he really didn’t know what he was doing.

“I was so green to doing a recording session by myself,” Hernandez recalls. “`My brother` asked what was wrong and I told him I was scared. He said, ‘Dude, come on. You were in fucking Brave Combo. You played these weird European rhythms and sang in freaky languages. You’ve got your thing.’”

Hernandez’s “thing” manifests itself repeatedly on Dancing en Fuego, his new album, which puts a modern slant on traditional Latin rhythms and showcases Hernandez’s surreal, self-deprecating sense of humor, most notably on the one-man-band tour de force, “Crappy Boyfriend,” with its unequivocal chorus: “I have never been a means to an end/just nothing more than a crappy boyfriend.”

Although not an original member of Brave Combo, Hernandez helped define the band’s best work. He was not only a rock-solid bassist and a key songwriting contributor, he was also their most soulful vocalist. In a sense, his Chicano roots and natural feel for Tex-Mex grooves lent authenticity to a band that might have otherwise felt like an academic lab experiment. With his long black hair (much grayer these days) and cholo mustache, Hernandez exuded street-wise charisma, but in conversation he’s always been a charming goofball: Gabby yet spacey, someone who’ll get distracted in the middle of a long sentence by the profound voices harmonizing in his head.

Two decades of Brave Combo beat deconstruction — turning “Satisfaction” into a cha-cha or “Stairway to Heaven” into a swing tune (with Tiny Tim on lead vocals, no less) — provided Hernandez with an invaluable musical education, but it also made him hungry for a chance to explore his own ideas.

“I needed to get out,” he says. “Man, how many marriages last that long? Twenty years and six months, to the date. It hurt, but we did a lot of stuff. It was hard, because I was used to the nuances that different people would bring in. A matter of theory or a horn voicing or even a scolding like ‘Hey, that chord doesn’t match with that melody, Bubba.’ And I had to resolve those issues by myself.”

While Hernandez tends to belittle his own musical training, his credentials and family history would intimidate most players. Both his grandfather, Cenobio, and his great uncle, Aniceto, played music in the pits at silent-movie theaters, including the Palace and the Majestic in San Antonio. “There’s actually a photo of them as you walk into the mariachi bar at Mi Tierra,” Hernandez says.

From his parents, he heard classical music, mariachis, cumbias, and big-band jazz. From his older siblings, he received a Rock 101 schooling that included the Beatles, Cream, the Who, and Led Zeppelin.

After working with a variety of bands, including an incarnation of the popular Laredo singing duo Rene & Rene, the Holy Cross High School grad moved to Denton, where he received a bachelor’s degree in music at North Texas State University. The following year, another North Texas State graduate, Carl Finch, asked him to join Brave Combo.

Early this year, Hernandez found himself in the odd position of competing with his old bandmates for a Grammy, as both his Polka Freak Out side project with Pennsylvania accordionist Alex Meixner and Brave Combo were nominated in the Polka category (neither album won the award).

Despite the unexpected success of Polka Freak Out, however, Hernandez considers his heavy cumbia venture to be his top priority. He’s touring behind Dancing en Fuego with a band he calls Los Super Vatos, but the group’s lineup is fluid to say the least. For a recent New York gig, three Dallas-area players and a friend from Los Angeles flew in, while a New York sax player made a one-time appearance.

“I was almost canning the idea of having a band there for a minute,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is all too much for me now. I want to retire.’ But my friend Scrote is the one who kind of got me going again and we just tried different rosters, and that’s gone fairly well. There’s a part of me that thinks I dont want to bother people, and there’s times people get their feelings hurt if I don’t call. But it seems like there’s a little core pulling together.”

While Hernandez consistently stretches genre boundaries on Dancing en Fuego (putting Max Baca’s bajo sexto through a wah-wah pedal; flirting with Middle Eastern modalities for “Belly Dancer”), he sees the album as a well-crafted, but conventional, first effort. He promises that its follow-up will offer a stranger journey.

“What I’m thinking about with Scrote is something else to fuck up the sound of my voice,” he says. “The first thing he did was come in with a cheap-ass mic and say, ‘Come on, sing into that!’ And it sounds cool. So the new tracks I’m doing right now for the next project are really neat sounding. They’ve got a different vibe. I’m digging that.”

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LIVE MUSIC

Bubba Hernandez y Los Super Vatos
10pm Fri, Aug 8
Casbeers
1150 South Alamo
(210) 271-7791

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