Modern Mariachi Music Interview: Roja

I recently had the opportunity to interview Simon Bradshaw, the vocalist and guitarist of Roja. Roja is a band from Liverpool, in the U.K. They write and perform kick ass Modern mariachi music. The band’s latest single, “The Evil Stands High,” blew me away. So I thought I’d find out more about the band, who they are and how they do what they do.

Opening remarks by Simon Bradshaw:

Goodness me, thanks for having us for this interview! I’m totally excited. My daughter is sat next to me watching Moana so I estimate that I’ve got around 80 minutes to complete these questions before she starts banging on my laptop screen and demanding a snack. The film is longer than that but I have to watch the bit where The Rock sings “You’re Welcome.” It’s the best thing I’ve seen/heard in years. And I might cry in the last few minutes. Spoiler alert, but it all ends really well. Proper man tears. Damn you Disney, damn you…

What is the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into?

I’d potentially say that is yet to happen. I’d like to grow old disgracefully. When I was 17, I crashed into a neighbor’s car and took their bumper clean off. I ran out, picked it up and hid it in my wardrobe. The next day there was a whole neighborhood inquest into this catastrophic event and safe to say I was found out. Tail between my legs, I had to go into the wardrobe, pull it out, and hand it back to my angry, about-to-have-a-stroke-looking neighbor. It was bad. All eyes were on me. I felt like I wanted to eat myself from the inside out.

What are the five things you can’t live without?

Chaos. Music. Tea. Patience. Getting older.

What’s your favorite song to belt out in the car or the shower?

That changes on a weekly basis. Last week it was “From Out Of Nowhere” by Faith No More. This week it’s more “Alphabet Street” by Prince. It’s always “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler. Always.

What kind of guitar do you play? And why?

I play a Gretch Baritone guitar. It’s got some lovely noises. The fact that is tuned so much lower alters everything about the sound. It’s rich. It’s got a serious tremolo arm. It’s glittery. Everything I want in a guitar.

What musicians influenced you the most?

Well as a teenager I was all about the rock. My brother brought me up on a solid diet of NWOBHM plus all of the 70’s icons like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. This led me on a direct collision course with Seattle. “Nevermind" spread my wings and I didn’t look back from there.

Now personally I grab at influences from everywhere. Vocally: PJ Harvey, Prince and Bon Scott. Songwriting : Scott Walker, Stephen Malkmus and Nick Drake. Being f**king cool: Peaches, Janelle Monae and Josh Homme. But only one guitar player has ever made me consider giving up there and then because it was so brutal, primal and downright everything I ever wanted to be - and that was Jack White.

The most dramatically influential though are the people you meet and the musicians you play with. Everyone from every band I’ve ever been in has played a part in anything that I write or produce.

In my review of your music video, I described your musical style as “mariachi with elements of Cuban and jazz.” How would you describe it?

Yeah that’s pretty much it! Our tagline is “Modern mariachi music,” so we’re trying to live up to that self-proclaimed moniker. I wanted the album to play like a soundtrack to an unmade Tarantino film. However it came around basically via a fairly lighthearted comment. Ed the bass player is very much the contemporary style guru of the team and whilst we were making our last rock record I said, “What’s next?” On instinct he said, “Mariachi Death Metal.” The Mariachi appealed to me (as does the Death Metal) so I started looking into it. Ed wanted us to be the band that plays in the bar in “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Once I started looking into the history of the music - although I love Mariachi El Bronx, Calexico and that Americana sound - it’s the real turn of the century recordings that have a feel that is so evocative; it forced me to write tons of songs in a short space of time. This, combined with a love of Spaghetti Western soundtracks and over-dramatized lyrics, led to the basics of Roja coming together quite quickly. Frankly, it’s incredibly enjoyable to write for this style of music: horns, strings, accordions, interesting time signatures and instrumentation. It’s an absolute pleasure.

Where do you find inspiration for your songs?

In general I have a “playtime” rule. If I don’t write the nucleus of a good song during a 15-minute playtime break and record it on my phone, then it’s gone forever. It’s sad to say but finding space in life for music was always challenging, but it’s one right now for me that is harder than ever. It’s lovely to be getting some degree of success and exposure, but I am also a father, husband, son, friend and teacher. So music has to happen within the minutiae of the day - 5 minutes at playtime here, family out for an hour there. But I’ll keep on going. It’s in the blood.

Inspiration for Roja material was initially challenging, though. This was the problem I’d created for myself when I decided to take on a genre of music I only had a distanced view of. I had to try and find a way to be as authentic as I could, and being a boy from Liverpool as opposed to turn of the century Mexico, that certainly has its challenges! I think the key to writing lyrics that are representative of the genre is to focus on a more narrative or emotive storyline. It has to be brutally honest, and filled with integrity because that’s what the great Mariachi masters (like José Alfredo or Vicente Fernández) have always done. So although there is the concept of the Mariachi party band, there is also a strong tradition of dark, dramatic storytelling and that was the route I went down.

Oooooh hang on - here’s The Rock’s bit in Moana. Wahoo!

What is your songwriting process? Does the music come first and then the lyrics?

I’m always a music first guy. The lyrics are usually written in a panic or a haze of gin a couple of days before they’re recorded. The arranging with the band follows a specific formula. I provide the song. They bring it to life. There’s that lovely Jeff Buckley quote where he said that he writes “the black and white of a song and the band fill in the colors.” That’s about the size of it.

I have to say though that they are never that excited about new material when they first hear it. I show them stuff and you can feel a healthy dose of skepticism/not actually listening/checking their phones from all of them. However, once they start to play it, build their parts and claim some ownership of the songs, that feeling changes and the excitement builds nicely. But it’s like a marriage really - they’re use to the way I write and deliver stuff so there’s very little back slapping and ego stroking going on. We just go about our business.

So far, has “The Evil Stands High” been well-received by the critics? By listeners?

Actually I’d say that pretty much everyone who hears the song is really enthused by it. The challenge is getting it out to as many people as possible. Goodness me, there is a lot of music about these days. Personally I’m totally overwhelmed by cool new bands that people have told me to listen to. It’s all-encompassing. In fact, I might employ someone to listen to new stuff for me. A personal curator. That’s it. That’s what I’m doing. I want all new bands thoroughly vetted before I listen to a note.

Also, I’d like to listen to a full album every now and then. Not just a track. And not an album that’s 75-minutes long. All filler no killer. If I was in charge, all albums would have to be able to fit on one side of a C-90 cassette.

Will you be touring in the near future? If so, where?

I’m trying super-hard to get over to New York soon. After this record came out some people from your side of the Atlantic have been kind enough to offer to help me put a tour together. That would be totally amazing. I just can’t currently afford to do so. I’m considering selling a kidney to pay for the flights and accommodation necessary. Other than that we’re doing all kinds of bits and bobs in the UK. If you book us, we will come.

Are you working on any new songs? And when might your fans expect another album?

Currently, I’ve got a solo thing going on. It’s coming along nicely. Roja will never die though. Personally, I have always been in bands with people that were my mates first and musicians second. It’s all a pretty intense and intimate experience being in a band, so I’d rather spend that kind of time with people I’m already close to. Before our label got involved, I was more than happy with the idea that being in Roja was just a useful excuse to hang out with them all. It’s coincidental that we make sweet, sweet music together.

We can take each other for granted sometimes. We can be a little bit mean and self-centered. We can be over-sensitive to each other’s jokes. But it’s the same as it ever was. Things just work. It’s not easy as a writer to find a group of people you can do that with. Working now on this new project is exciting because I’m working with loads of new people. And I haven’t done that for a very long time. I’ll get it to you as soon it’s been brought to the boil nicely.

Have any major labels expressed an interest in your music?

Nope! Do major labels still sign bands? I thought they were all just patiently waiting in a queue for their turn with Ed Sheeran or Coldplay. That was a bitchy comment! Ha! I’m leaving it in!

Have you had any interest from movie producers about using “The Evil Stands High” as a theme song?

If only! That was the intention of the song really. We wanted something big and blustery to kick the album off with, and that track has certainly done the trick. It’s a great calling card for the band. Probably the best recorded song we’ve managed to put together in 20-years. It does have the feel of a Bond theme, but I’ve no idea how to get it to the Broccoli family. Who else do you send potential Bond themes to? The Queen perhaps? Or the butler from Downton Abbey? I reckon Adele would sing it really well though. We’ve recorded a mariachi version of “Rollin in the Deep” - seems only fair that she’d do us a similar favor and knock out “The Evil Stands High” over her lunch time. I’ll send it to Adele. Job done.

The production values on your music video were superb. Who produced it?

They will be delighted to hear that. It was made by my good friends Adam and Owen from Tomfoolery Pictures. They’re exceptionally talented gentlemen. Here’s one for the Roja trivia hunters out there: one of them is married to our violin player Rachel. Or both of them. I can’t quite remember.

I’ve really become glib on the last few questions. I’m nowhere near as much of a dick as these answers suggest. I’m quite a friendly, reasonable chap really.

Why did you switch from post-grunge music to mariachi? What was the motivation?

I guess there was a sense, certainly on my behalf, that we’d come to a natural conclusion. In addition, it’s fair to say that critically we were on the wane. I would say critically and commercially, but the simple fact of the matter is that no matter how well we did in the press and on radio, we never sold many records. Our second album got reviews in NME and Q, one directly next to Kings of Leon, and the other next to Muse. In both cases our album got higher scores and better reviews. However, I’m pretty sure that both of those bands sell more records every 5 minutes than we did in 8 years. By the end of the band, we were not getting any coverage, so the last thing I wanted to do was to keep banging my head against a closing door. There was a sense that our time had nearly come, never really happened and then went away (having not been there in the first place).

I’m not trying to pull a bitter musician thing here by the way. I had a brilliant time, making music with my best friends and doing things I had only ever dreamt I’d be able to do. But, the end of Marlowe didn’t feel like breaking up really to me. More of a....hmmmm what next?

So, I released a record with an electro band I was in, called Testcard, which I was very proud of. It was a big learning curve. Marlowe had always been eclectic and, well, a bit confused frankly. Basically whatever song I wrote, regardless of style, ended up in the Marlowe set because I had no other outlet. Testcard taught me that it’s much better to do one thing consistently and well, than try to be all things to all people. There was another band as well, called Slack Elvis, which featured 3 Marlowe members and that was a pretty straight ahead rock thing. It’s something we still turn to occasionally to get our rock rocks off.

Outside of Marlowe people, I worked for a few years with a singer who was very much a pop artist, an x-factor finalist in fact. We had a great time doing that and she’s still making records herself now. That was fascinating because I’d never tried to be so obviously commercial before. It’s bloody hard.

And now it’s Modern mariachi music. God knows what’s next. All suggestions welcome.

Moana has ended. She’s just asked for her snack. Perfect timing. We’re having a quick dance to the track that’s on at the end. It’s another belter! Thanks for having me.

Find out more about Roja here.

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