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How the Last Bandoleros Reinvented Tex-Mex and Blew Sting Away 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JAIME MONZON
  • Photo by Jaime Monzon

“Hello Cleveland!” yells someone, somewhere within the bowels of the Tobin Center, and it ain’t Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls. His name is Emilio Navaira IV, the drummer for the band that, at least for the 15 minutes it took us to find their freaking dressing room, became known as The Lost Bandoleros.

“When it’s time to play, can someone take us to the stage? How are we going to get there?” asks bassist/vocalist/brother Diego Navaira, who is growing impatient while the others (guitarists/singers/Brooklyn roommates Jerry Fuentes and Derek James) keep on laughing at the absurdity of the situation.

“Have you ever gone through anything like this before?” James asks, smiling at the others. After going up and down stairs and elevators for what felt like 10 miles, they finally reached their destination. Diego crashed on the dressing room’s sofa as if he had just finished a grueling stage of the Tour de France, but the mood is great: It’s November 12, and they were there to perform at the 36th annual Tejano Music Awards, where hours later they offered a two-song tribute to their father, Tejano legend Emilio Navaira III (scratch that — it’s Emilio, period), who died unexpectedly earlier this year at age 53.

“I wanted to make sure people remembered he was also a country music star,” says Diego about their decision to perform “Even If I Tried” (from Emilio’s 1995 Life is Good album, which peaked at #13 on the Top Country Albums chart and #82 on the overall Billboard 200 chart). The other song in the tribute was a heartfelt rendition of “Mundo perfecto” (from Emilio’s 1996 Quédate album), with Diego on vocals and Emilio IV on acoustic guitar. “We toured with dad for the last six or seven years of his life, and after the shows we’d do an acoustic jam for ourselves,” Diego recalls. His father would sing Eagles or Beatles tunes, not his own – except for “Mundo perfecto,” which he never really played live. “He really loved that tune,” Diego says. 

The tribute to their father came after an incredible 2016 for the band: TV appearances (including Jimmy Kimmel Live! and the NBA All-Star game in Toronto with Sting), a recording contract with Warner Music Nashville, and jams and recording sessions with the former Police frontman, who they will open for during his 2017 U.S. and European tour (and, possibly, some South American dates). 

click to enlarge BY JAIME MONZON
  • By Jaime Monzon

Their infectious, hook-laden, early Beatles-meets-Tex-Mex brand of country rock-pop (all wrapped in perfect three and four-part harmonies) was officially launched with The Last Bandoleros, the six-song EP digitally released in October (a physical version comes out in January, with a full-length release following later in 2017). At the time of this writing, the first single, “Where Do You Go?” (released on July 23) peaked at #49 in Billboard’s Country charts, slowly climbing after a no. 52 position the previous week. 

Reviews have overall been positive. Nashville music writer Bev Miskus said the song had her “checking the station and the decade.” “The strong, unusual instrumental opening gives way to a wall of harmonies that never let up,” she wrote on, complimenting the prominent accordion, ‘60s Brit-pop groove, and the band’s ascending, harmonic vocals. Back in May, Rolling Stone called the then-trio (Emilio IV started as a touring drummer but is now a full-time member) one of the “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know,” describing them as “the next generation of Tex-Mex renegades.” 

The Bandoleros — including touring accordionist Percy Cardona — are often compared to the Texas Tornados (the Tex-Mex/conjunto elements), Los Lobos (strong singing and songwriting, a killer Latin fusion and the ability to rock hard) and The Mavericks (great singing and all that rock/country flirting). They’re all reasonable comparisons – but the Bandoleros are a more natural, contemporary, updated version of the Tornados, fueled with the energy of youth.

At least that’s the assessment of Augie Meyers, one of the two remaining original members of the Tornados. “There’s a bunch of bands that imitate the Tornados, but they sound horrible,” Meyers told the Current. “But [the Bandoleros] were great, I loved their harmonies.”

Really, the Bandoleros are first and foremost a rock band – one that even jokes about how much they look the part. When someone mentions Emilio’s MTV Unplugged-era hairdo, calling him “Emilio Cobain,” he corrects them: “It’s Kurt Navaira. That last name is too strong to be left out.” 

It’s hard to disagree. During the heyday of Tejano in the ’90s, only Selena was a bigger Tejano solo act than Emilio Navaira. And not only did he cross over to country music, but he loved the Beatles, Eagles, ZZ Top, Nirvana and all the great music from the ’60s and ’70s, instilling that passion and musical open-mindedness to his kids from an early age.

“Emilio knew how good they were, he was very proud of them,” said Joe Reyes (of Buttercup and Demitasse), who has known and played with the brothers and Fuentes since they were young teenagers (Diego, Emilio IV and Reyes covered the Beatles on several gigs, and the brothers are featured on Buttercup’s upcoming Spring album). “[Emilio] told me the story of how he took them out of school to take them to see A Hard Day’s Night at the Bijou, and that’s when everything changed for them. When they left the theater, they were stunned, just like me after I saw Help! on TV.”

Dad’s inspiration helped, but the Navaira brothers were born with a special talent: It seems they truly can hear, write, sing and play better than most kids their age.

“They stole my job from Studio M!” jokes Reyes, who learned how to produce records from Studio M’s Mike and Ronnie Morales in the late ’80s. “As I became busier with my own stuff, [Fuentes and the Navairas] took over all the guitar production I was doing, and they were great.”

So the Navairas kept playing and playing until they formed Ready Revolution, a pop-rock band. Enter Jerry Fuentes, an SA native who released his first album while still a young teen and, like Reyes and the Navairas, was a protégé of Mike Morales. Eventually, Fuentes moved to Brooklyn and met Derek James, and the two became friends and roommates. They set up a studio in their basement and Fuentes would regularly come back to SA and continue writing. It was Ron Morales who suggested Fuentes meet the brothers.

“They were all like, ‘You have to meet these two brothers, they came in after you left and they’re amazing!’” Fuentes remembered. He and the Navairas met and clicked immediately, both personally and musically. They wrote feverishly for months, until they realized they had songs for a whole album.

“We didn’t want to give the tunes to no one else,” said Diego. “When we got together and wrote those songs, it was just magic. We soon realized we had to take it as far as we could take it.”

Fuentes had met Sting manager Martin Kierszenbaum (who wrote one of the Texas Tornados’ early bios when he was at Warner) through a mutual acquaintance, and did some studio work for the former Police frontman. The sessions went so well Sting invited Fuentes and Diego to play with him at the NBA All-Star game in Toronto in February. They sang backup vocals in Sting’s new album, 57th & 9th, and the Sting/Bandoleros live version of the Police’s “Next To You” is featured on 57th & 9th’s deluxe version. 

I’ve worked with [Sting] for 26 years, and he works on musical impulse,” Kierszenbaum told the Current. “He had great vibes with those guys.”

“It was very surreal,” said Emilio IV. “Three or four times in the studio I thought, ‘Wow… That’s Sting over there…’ but after a while we got to know him and he’s such a nice guy.”

“He allows you to feel comfortable around him,” added Diego.

click to enlarge BY JAIME MONZON
  • By Jaime Monzon

Preparing for the upcoming Sting tour, the band had a handful of terrific SA performances, including a free show at the Havana Hotel during the Música en la Calle fest on November 4 (with Blackbird Sing and Los Texmaniacs) and a Sam’s Burger Joint gig where they joined headliner Marc Broussard onstage on November 18. On both occasions, they soared and earned scores of new fans, many of whom had no idea who they were. The best part: the full-length, which was produced by Fuentes, will be a reflection of how they sound live, and vice versa.

“What you hear on the record, you’re going to hear live, and we were very conscious of that when we were recording it,” said Diego. “Sometimes we had three-part guitars, but we decided not to do anything we won’t be able to pull off live.”

Rock, country, Tex-Mex, fusion… Call them whatever you want. They seem like the kind of band that could play pasodobles or Polynesian chants if they wanted; their precision, swing and, as Reyes rightfully says, “good taste” to come up with disarming hooks would  remain.

“Let me tell you something they won’t tell you,” said Michael Morales, the Grammy-winning head of Studio M. “This is a young supergroup. More often than not, when you put together the best musicians in the world they make terrible records. But in this case, these guys were all groomed learning not only to be the great musicians that they are, but the right musicians. The right musicians play great but also write the right songs, and this is what happens with the Bandoleros.”

"They basically play by ear, and their ears are pretty good,” said Reyes. “Those guys have the ability to detect what the song needs, and they master so many different styles. Even though they’re so young, they’ve been playing forever, that’s all they’ve ever done, and it shows. They do their thing but can also hang and play with Sting. That’s how good they are.”

The Sting, Joe Sumner (Sting’s son) and The Last Bandoleros tour starts February 1 in Vancouver, Canada, and ends May 4 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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