Carrying his charro suit around Kansas City, Mo., Matt Caughthran receives some odd glances. Granted, it’s not every day there’s a stout, white, heavily tattooed punk rocker walking around town with an ornately decorated suit usually worn by mariachi musicians. Plus, it smells.
“They stink like shit. It’s nice to have a suit that smells, though: It reminds you of all the work you’re doing and all the places you’ve been,” says Caughthran, vocalist for both The Bronx and Mariachi El Bronx, by phone from Kansas City.
Those two bands—although made up of the same members—are starkly different creations. “The Bronx [punk rock] is a very aggressive animal, a very abrasive thing musically, and I don’t think people expect it any other way. Mariachi el Bronx is something people can easily digest,” Caughthran says, adding that donning the charro suit to play mariachi tunes has created opportunities for the musicians that punk rock couldn’t. Mariachi El Bronx has opened for The Killers, played the 2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival and are currently touring with the Foo Fighters and Cage the Elephant.
Their road to success was far from intentional—it came about from being smartasses. After gaining national attention, The Bronx were asked repeatedly to play unplugged sets for television and radio, which they refused because, “that just seemed so fucking lame.” Eventually, they agreed to play Fuel TV, but only with sombreros and horns to mariachi-fy their song “Dirty Leaves.” They found out they had a knack for the style, and forging this new musical path has been Caughthran’s most prolific creative endeavor to date, he says.
“It was a big risk, because it’s not like punk rock, where you can just fuckin’ throw something on the wall and call it music,” he says. “With mariachi music, there are rules you have to follow. Especially as a bunch of white guys coming in, we don’t want to disrespect the culture and the music.”
The band learned to play mariachi with the help of YouTube videos. Their first album, Mariachi El Bronx, released in 2009, was the band learning a new form, while the 2011 release, Mariachi El Bronx II, showcases a band that has become increasingly proficient within Mexican music. “Norteña Lights” was their first “party music” song, a norteña—a more technically demanding style. “We didn’t have the balls on the first record to try it,” Caughthran says. He also has a natural gift for boleros, sad, sad love songs like “48 Roses” and “Everything Dies.”
“There’s some serious shit going on in [mariachi]. It’s cool to be the English version of it and makin’ people aware and opening the door,” Caughthran says.
That rawness of emotion is the bridge that connects the disparate styles of punk and mariachi. However, because the genres are so different, critics often label one iteration of the band as an “alter ego,” and Caughthran kind of likes that. “I think an alter ego is just an extension of yourself. The two bands have the same soul—it’s the same people doing things in the name of creativity,” he says.
The Superman-like quick costume change into the alter ego actually has played out before, when Mariachi El Bronx opened for The Bronx for a tour. “We wanted to try to do something special and make people understand 1., that we can be both bands, and 2., we’re upping the ante of the shit punk bands can do live,” Caughthran says.
“We’re not the world’s biggest band, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do different, cool shit,” he says. Case in point: carrying a smelly charro suit around Kansas City.