Taking Chances and Moving Ahead

Los Angeles collective, Ozomatli, continues to build their storied career with their latest album, Fire Away. Known for their mélange of musical references from funk to reggae as well as their politics, the album promises new directions from a band that is willing to explore new techniques and styles with each track. With a revolving line-up that has included as many as fifteen musicians, its recent reincarnation is a small touring band that consists of guitarist and lead vocalist Raúl Pacheco, drummer Mario Calire, percussionist Justin Porée, trumpet player Asdru Sierra, and saxophonist Ulises Bella. Having celebrated their 15th birthday in April, Ozomatli has not relinquished their responsibilities as cultural ambassadors, with a State Department trip to China and Mongolia planned later this year.

Amidst a U.S. tour, two of the six founding members from the Grammy-winning group – bassist Wil-Dog Abers and percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi -- recently talked with Jupiter Index about the initial, creative struggles with the new album, what to expect on Fire Away, and why “Gay Vatos In Love” should not be controversial.

Joshua Barajas: I want to hear from the band members themselves on how you would describe your sound.
Wil-Dog Abers: 15 years ago when we started, it was easier to say what kind of music we did because at that time we were only really kind of doing three or four styles of music. As we’ve grown, it’s just constantly changing. But I guess the roots are in funk rock music. But then it’s beyond that. It’s traditional American beat music, dance music. And then, beyond that, it goes to Latin music, reggae, um…

Jiro Yamaguchi: World…

W-DA: World, which is everything. World is…

JY: …music from around the world.

W-DA: I guess you just say world music.

JY: I mean, what music isn’t world music? (Both laugh.)

W-DA: Yeah, exactly.

Is there a style you haven’t attacked yet?
JY: I don’t know if we necessarily approach it that way, like saying, “Oh, we haven’t done Eskimo ice music.” I mean, I think how we grow is just we experience different kinds of music. We just went to Madagascar and we also went to South Africa and we got a chance to meet some kids there, some musicians, and we recorded them. It became incorporated in one of our songs – the first song on the new record. I think that’s an example of how we kind of expand. It’s almost like serendipitous, more than like something we think about like, “We gotta do this style of music.” We don’t really approach it that way. It’s either an experience that comes to us…

W-DA: Yeah.

JY: …or a piece of music that somebody’s into that we try. But I don’t it’s really necessarily like we’re out there trying to study different forms of music and “Let’s apply that one now.” That’s not how it really works.

So, it’s mainly garnered from your touring experience.
W-DA: I mean, it can.

JY: It’s any number of ways, but, yeah, that’s one way.

W-DA: I think really what we’re always aiming for is music that can move you naturally, and create movement and dance. So, anything we do, that’s kind of where it starts.

Off on that note, your band is one of the more socio-politically conscious bands in recent memory. But when most people conjure of anything that tackles such issues or such content, they think of folk artists. But you add a dance beat. Is there a reason why for that deliberate choice?
W-DA: Well, I think the individuals in Ozomatli are definitely a part of, like, social change. Ozomatli kind of embodies all of us in the band. So, we would just bring that with us. And also, like the music that we’re into, like, a lot of us grew up being into bands like The Clash, or Fugazi or all kinds of bands that were part of social change.

JY: Public Enemy…Rage Against the Machine…

W-DA: Yeah, and we could keep going. You have a voice playing music and you’re on stage. So, we just use that. It’s not deliberately, oh, like, “Most bands are folk music when they talk about issues, so, let’s do it with dance music.” That wasn’t really deliberate. We just do what we do. We put how we feel in our music.

In terms of the band’s name, Ozomatli, where did that come from? What’s the origin?
JY: Ozomatli was our original drummer’s birth sign. And we were actually called…we had another name, we were called Todos Somos Marcos originally for maybe like, almost up to a year. It was kind of like…that was a name that was really specific to a scene and a movement that really didn’t capture who we were. Even at that point, we knew we were kind of bigger than just a scene. So, we consciously made a decision to change the name and our original drummer was like, “What about Ozomatli?” And we said, “Yeah.” (He laughs).

But it’s interesting because the name, the Ozomatli, what it means, is it’s an Aztec character on the sun calendar. And he’s a little monkey god that represents dance and music, the harvest, passion, he’s an orchestrator of the jungle, he’s a trickster, and all those things really fit kind of the personality of the band.

Coming from Los Angeles, a diverse group of musicians just makes sense. Was is a choice or did it just happen that way?
Both: No, it just happened.
W-DA: I mean, when we got together, it was really about raising money for a youth center in
L.A. That’s how we got together. It was basically people that were interested, musicians that were interested in helping the center, got together to jam out and raise money.

JY: Although we’d joke about that’s how it happened. Like, people answered ads, y’know: “DJ needs tombo player,” whatever. It was such an odd grouping…it was an odd cast of characters. It’s not something you can plan at all.

If I recollect correctly, I believe you’re first show was for picketers during a strike. What was the strike in particular?
W-DA: Well, it was this organization called the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. And 30 of its workers, who, I and our original drummer, Anton [Morales], were employees of, we went on strike and we held a sit-in in our building. We eventually got rights to the building and started a cultural community center dedicated to arts and inner city youth. And we called it the Peace and Justice Center. And to raise money for the center, all these artists and break-dancers. I mean, basically there was nowhere for kids to go after school. So, that became the center of downtown L.A. and basically to raise money for it, that’s how we got together. It was really for the center, but the center came out of a strike.

It’s been said that Fire Away, which is the band’s fifth studio album, is your most diverse album yet. For a band I would consider already pretty diverse –
JY: Who said that?

It’s online, on your Web site.
W-DA: Yeah, we’re taking a lot of chances on this record and it’s not deliberate chances, it’s just this album is a statement. It’s the most English stuff we’ve ever written and even that wasn’t deliberate. It kind of lent itself to being English and a lot of our songs in the past – y’know, you don’t want to sing a cumbia and make it in English. It just doesn’t sound right, and then certain songs just don’t sound right in Spanish. I think, on this record, a lot of the music lent itself to English lyrics. But, yeah, it’s our most risky record as far as a band. Sometimes it can be safe to play…for a band like us to just stick to traditional music and stuff and on this album we didn’t do that. I mean, every music’s a tradition, but we definitely took risks on this record, even like the sounds. I think the songwriting is better, it’s more concise. But with that, there’s just this overwhelming presence of sound you just can’t get away of that’s kind of, I think, groundbreaking.

You mentioned [the album] was a statement. What is the statement?
W-DA: It’s a statement that we’re not going anywhere, Ozomatli, y’know. A band like us, we’re constantly changing. We never know where we’re going to end up when we start the record. We started this record a year and a half ago. Jiro was saying yesterday like when we first got into the studio, we were recording songs, and they were really stale. And we were trying to produce them ourselves because we’re all producers. But the problem is…but I think we realized that we needed one producer, hire a producer, and we went in with this guy called Tony Berg. We took risks on this record like we never taken before. We have a ballad called “Love Comes Down.” It’s not an up-tempo song. We would never delve, like just go into that in the past or welcome that in the way we have on this record. It feels like mature without being boring, y’know, this record and there’s still a ton of energy behind it. But the statement really is we can pretty much do anything. I mean, this band, we can do any music we want. I’m not tooting my own horn, and we can make it happen. And it’s not easy for us and we’re constantly learning, but we can learn how to play any kind of music and make it feel good.

Most bands, I would assume, at this point of their career would have problems evolving their sound.
W-DA: That’s the thing, there was a big problem. A year and a half ago, when we started, it was boring and stale because we hadn’t evolved our sound. That was like the struggle of getting through this record was figuring out and really working hard on it: how are we going to evolve the sound? How are we going to create something new? Because we can’t just do the same thing again. We never have, but that’s always a challenge for any group of people in a company or that have been working together for 15 years, y’know. It’s like keep their relationship fresh and move forward.

Was there a particular inspiration for the album?
JY: I mean, I think the inspiration, like Dog was saying, we were uninspired initially. I think the inspiration was reconnecting with music and knowing that it could be fun to play and that’s really what we do. That’s why we do it: because it’s fun, it’s because it satisfies our souls, because we’re musicians. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 15 years. I think, initially, we kind of forgot that. Y’know we’re just kind of, “OK, this is our job. Let’s go make another record. We need to make songs. They gotta this, they gotta be that.” Once we realized that wasn’t working, we put it aside and we just had fun. I think that was the inspiration. That was the seed of inspiration for the record.

I want to talk about some of the songs in particular on the record. What about the song “Gay Vatos in Love”?
JY: Awesome! That’s my favorite track on the record.

W-DA: Best song on the record.

How do you feel about it being probably one of the more controversial–
JY: Well, I don’t necessarily agree with that it’s controversial necessarily. I mean, I guess I can understand how people would take that because we do take an image of somebody who is…the idea of a vato who is typically not considered gay and putting those two images together as a “gay vato…” I guess I don’t see controversial because I don’t see being gay as controversial. I mean, if you asked somebody who was gay, “Are you controversial?” I don’t know what they would say. I can’t speak for them. I love that song because it does kind of make you think and it does make a statement, and it’s a love song and it’s beautiful. No matter who it is, y’know, it’s a song about love. It’s two people who love each other and it just happens to be two men, and two men who can be kind of “hard,” like from the street.

W-DA: But it also talks about how in gay culture there’s like a history of having to hide who you are. And in this song, it showing these two gay vatos and like how, in the story it kind of talks about these guys in love, but they have to hide. And it also talks about why they have to hide. We mention Angie Zapata, like who was a gay person who was murdered for being gay. So, there’s like all these references to why gay people would have to hide in history, but at the end, there’s like…it is just love. What’s crazy is when we were writing it, it wasn’t like, “Oh, this is going to be like a controversial tune, but for the time, I guess it is.

I’m thinking in the Los Angeles area, of this idea, in Mexican culture, of machismo. I like that juxtaposition of a “gay vato.”
W-DA: Yeah, we wanted to show, I guess, we’re showing our allegiance with…it’s obvious where our stance is by writing that tune about love in general. Y’know, whoever people want to be in love with, y’know, this society is crazy for judging them. So, we’re aligning ourselves with, as Lady GaGa says, “the gays.” (Both laugh.)

Raul’s not here, but for “Malagasy Shock,” what happened?
JY: It was kind of nuts. We were at Madagascar for their jazz festival. There were several thousand people there. I guess the stage wasn’t grounded and so as soon as Raul started to sing…so, we started playing the song, I guess it was “City of Angels.” As soon as the chorus came in, that’s where he first starts singing, he put his mouth to the mic. As soon as he did that, what happened is, because he has a guitar in his hand, he closed the electrical loop, so the mic stuck to him and he couldn’t get it off. I was watching him; I thought he was just dancing, but he was actually trying to get the mic off of him. Once he got past a certain point, I was like, “OK, there’s something wrong” because he just kept going. He knocked the drums over…it was crazy, kind of nuts. He could have died.

W-DA: He was severely shocked. He dislocated his shoulder.

JY: And, so, that’s what that song’s about.

He’s all right now? No severe damage.
W-DA: Not that I’ve seen.

JY: No, it definitely affected him though, on more than just a physical level. I think it took him a few months to really heal in terms of, like, his shoulder. It got dislocated. I think it would keep popping out. It was kind of nuts.

Do you have problems presenting your songs to radio stations since they’re so eclectic?
JY: I think historically…I mean, I don’t know. That’s not really…we make the music and then we put it out there, and we have people helping us to get on radio and doing different things. I think Fire Away is probably our most radio-friendly material yet, but, I mean, it wasn’t a conscious thing, it wasn’t like, “We gotta make a radio-friendly album.” That’s not how it happened. It just happened that way, but that’s my opinion, that it’s radio-friendly. I don’t know if radio programmers, y’know, who knows? It’s not like we haven’t made our career based on radio or anything. We can have a career without any of that. So, if our song gets on radio and does well on radio, that’s great, but I don’t think we depend on it. And I think that’s the beauty of this band, is that we have so many different fires burning in terms of our career. We can play live, we, y’know, get our music license, we do all kinds of things to keep our career going.

Was there any desire to achieve mainstream success?
W-DA: Of course! That’s what we’ve been trying to do.

JY: And I think that’s what great about our career, is that the longevity of it. I think in some ways it’s a blessing, unfolded the way it has because it enables us to keep…there’s always challenges, y’know. I remember we were watching a documentary on Hall & Oates. (W-DA laughs.) They got so huge that they didn’t have anywhere else to go. This is a life-long career. Not that we’re comparing ourselves to Hall & Oates, but it’s interesting to see that they sold so many records, and played so many stadiums that they were like, “What do we do now?” They didn’t know what to do after that. I guess, once you’re a millionaire…(he laughs.)

Is there a mantra to Ozomatli? Do you live by a mantra as a band?
W-DA: Yeah, just work on yourself. Try to maintain happiness and bring that into the band. Bring that wherever we go.

JY: That sounds good. Play music. Have fun!

by Joshua Barajas