I met Y La Bamba at a hole-in-the-wall café/bar called Muddy Waters in Santa Barbara, CA in 2009. This place was, and is, a haven of creativity and locally supported artistic exploration. The evening I met them they were playing with a local band named Gardens & Villa, who is now a popular musical group in their own right.
Since then, Y La Bamba has become a Portland powerhouse of indie gypsy folk with Spanish influences. Lead singer Luz Elena Mendoza carries you through haunting melodies with her powerful voice, and if you’re not dancing when you hear it, then you’re probably singing along to the expressive lyricism. Or in my case, you’re holding a bottle of whiskey and singing like a deranged homeless man.
In their latest EP Oh February, produced by Chris Funk, the band takes what they created in their previous album, Court The Storm, and pushes it to another level. One of the most noticeable adjustments in the style of the music in their new album is the elevated percussion usage. Percussion has always been an integral part of their aesthetic, but it comes out stronger in this album. There is also more use of electric guitar and no Spanish songs on this one. Enough about the bullshit I think though. I picked up a bottle of whiskey and interviewed Luz, so I’ll let her explain.
VICE: It’s nice to see you again. How’s it goin’?
Luz Elena Mendoza: Good, good.
So, how was it touring with the Lumineers? I wasn’t really familiar with them before, but I’ve checked them out, and it seems like they have a somewhat similar style to you guys. What was the chemistry like with them?
The chemistry has been very good from the beginning. We got to play with them for the first time last year in March. A good friend of mine introduced me to their music, and from there we’ve exchanged energies and it’s been a fruitful experience, and they’re really good people, so touring with them the few times we did—this summer, this last tour, and throughout the year—has been nothing but replenishing. A lot of it has to do with, like, they’ve grown so much, and we’ve grown with them, you know? It has been a really important thing for us and our musicianship, and also as people. These last few days have been really magical. I can’t even articulate what we are witnessing. I feel super blessed, and I feel like we're taking back as much as they are, and I feel like we’ve been supporting each other.
Tell me about the EP. I noticed it was a little more percussive, a little more electric guitar, and a little more raw.
A lot of those songs, like three or four songs, I wrote a year ago. We’ve been getting familiar with our sound and developing each song for the nature of what they are. Once we got to recording time, which was totally unexpected for us, in December, by then there were some other songs we had already been writing. The recording process this time was really raw, you’re right. It definitely captured the moment, and the moment was super rich. At first we were worried we weren’t going to have time to work in the time frame, the two-week time frame, but everybody was working on it: Chris Funk, everybody at Search Party, Y La Bamba, Adam, and all those people just made it happen.
How was it working with Chris Funk?
Chris is awesome. We worked with him on Lupon, the first record. That was our first time getting to know each other and figuring out our chemistry. He’s hilarious, and who doesn’t want to work with someone that’s totally encouraging what you do? As a musician and as a person. That initial experience led us to be open to recording again, which was awesome. I definitely recommend getting to know the guy and slapping some high fives. He definitely has a good heart and a good sense of humor. Very talented, for sure.
Speaking of Lupon. I’ve listened to Alida St. and Lupon, obviously, and there are some of the same songs on there, but done differently. What was the reason for that?
The best way I can articulate that is Alida St. was home recordings that I did on my 4-track, and was probably one of the most special times in my growth here in Portland. It was like, right before I moved, and then right when I got here. Then, once I started developing the ensemble, the band, we took those songs and we were like, “What would it sound like with more people?” And we got Chris Funk behind us, and we recorded that album. That captured what we were trying to do at the time. I will say the songs on Alida St. I’m much more affected and attached to. The rendition on Lupon, they’re something else and there’s a difference, and they are what they are. It’s really interesting for me to see my path as a human being documented. It’s a vulnerable expression.
I was curious how you decide if you’re going to do English or Spanish songs?
I was trying to explain this earlier to this lady from Spin. It’s not even a decision, it’s so temperamental. I’m either writing in Spanish, or I’m not. I’ve been writing in Spanish since I was a little kid, so I feel like, in Spanish I’m able to evoke this different emotion. I feel like my emotions are more familiar in Spanish, even if sometimes I don’t have the vocabulary that some, you know, Latin city people, do. My parents are from a remote area in Mexico, so I’m able to really go deep with the way my parents expressed themselves growing up. Maybe I’m a little more angry, but then you’re like, are the songs in English not passionate? I think it’s both, but I think I’m able to go into a different place. I feel like I live in two worlds simultaneously.
Speaking personally, we had a conversation a while back about the difficulties of being a musician. I was under the impression that with the amount of success you guys have found that you wouldn’t really need to work on the side.
Well I, myself, Thor, am starting to understand what it all entails. You know? I’ve always worked, and I’ve been blessed to have awesome jobs that support my creativity. Just recently, the last couple of years, I’ve been enabled to do what I do, but still figure out the balance of what’s going on financially. For me, it’s like, when you’re expressing yourself, when you’re inspired constantly, you don’t think about money. Until you realized you don’t have any money, because you’ve been spending all this time doing that. I feel like the music industry is totally different than what it was 60 years ago, and I was just listening to Bob Dylan, when I woke up today…
So was I...
He sings a song where he’s, like, trying to sing in Spanish. I was thinking about his evolution. People were saying, like, “there’s something about your music that’s hitting home” and also all these accusations, like, “why are you in a band?” I see all this money that was being made at the time, and he took no shit from no one. He’s doing all of this, he’s playing music, people are totally captivated. I was thinking, if he wasn’t making money, I wonder what his verbal communication would have been, versus if he didn’t have money. Like Wes, from the Lumineers, he’s such a powerful songwriter and such a powerful energy, that’s why people are coming to the shows. It’s so infectious. There’s something really pure about it, and they’re making money, but it’s different. Musicians today have that struggle, there’s more of a struggle than ever before.
Cheers to that!
It’s the best time to start drinking. On an even more personal note, the first night I met you I remember you explained a tattoo you have, and you said that you left your heart in India. I’m curious to hear what experiences you had in India that may have affected your music career or you as a person.
Well, it’s always me as a person, and me as a person creates music. I create through the growth, as far as I’m able to understand, of what I’ve gone through, I guess. India, I was a Christian, I was totally developing myself as someone that was really intrigued and genuinely involved with my spirituality. When I went to India, through that context, I felt like it just broke me into a million pieces in a way that I was totally not expecting. Imagine leaving the country. I mean, I went to Mexico, but going to India and them being so hungry and poor, and being like a sponge absorbing all of this stuff that you’ve never seen before. That alone is spiritual and powerful beyond any god, that I think it was there I was able to realize that there was more. I went there searching for God, and I came back feeling the overwhelming feeling of God and the universe. I felt like there was so much more than I was being taught at the church. I think that’s when I started developing my own philosophy, and how I view spirituality in myself. I felt like I left that piece, my heart, in India… I was like 20 or 21 then. I was a kid.
On a lighter note, would you rather be homeless or in prison?
Would I rather be homeless, or in prison? There’s this thing that I was reading, I think it was in Trout Fishing in America, they were talking about the winter and saying, “We could spend a whole winter in an insane asylum, or we could do this.” They were saying, “A winter not well spent in an insane asylum is wasting your time,” or something like that, and I thought that was so endearing. For me an insane asylum could be considered some kind of prison. I feel like home, this is going to sound super cheesy, but home is where the heart is for me, you know? I’m super blessed and grateful that I actually have this roof over my head, and also people that I live with, and also living in an awesome town. When I’m in the van, like, where is my home? I feel like I’m so in my heart and my head that home can be anywhere for me. I’d rather have that forever than anything else.
Yeah. Alright. What’s your favorite bar in the US?
Favorite bar in the US!? A bar, or a venue maybe?
I really enjoyed Boston. That’s just because that was just so recent. The House of Blues, like, the whole venue was super cool. And bar? I’m trying to think; there were some really cool places, and I just can’t remember. There was a bar in LA, and I saw Devendra Banhart there, they had this Latin night. I don’t remember what it was. I’ve been to a lot of places.
In terms of Y La Bamba, has there been a defining moment as a band? Whether it be a show you had, or a practice. One moment when you all just clicked, and maybe saw where the band was going?
For me, I feel like we’ve experienced that more so just recently, doing this EP. Court The Storm, for sure, but I feel like something is happening. It’s an interesting time too, because we’ve been together for a long time, and it’s like a relationship, and it’s like, “Oh, I’m tapping into this new thing, let’s develop this.” I feel like that more than ever. We have our own way of giving input in the band. It’s like you’re developing yourself, and we’re constantly growing. I feel like there have been times throughout our history as a band that we felt like that, for sure, and because we believed in that shift, it’s brought us here. I think it’s all about having faith in those shifts.
Tell me about a cluster-fuck moment.
A cluster-fuck moment? There have been some times that things go wrong here and there, but a lot of it has to do with miscommunications with the venue, you know? Whatever happens, whenever we have a, like, cluster-fuck moment, it’s never that big. I feel like we have good communication. There was this time that we played Santa Monica, on the pier, when the promoter of the show was being a little weird about a bass issue that had nothing to do with us, and even through that, we all got frustrated, but I feel like we were still able to keep it together. We thought that with this Lumineers thing there were so many things we had to do, like rent a van, and getting six people on a plane, and we think it’s a lot, in our minds, but it’s awesome, and we totally did a good job.
Alright. I guess my last question would be what’s next for Y La Bamba?
What’s next? Well, we have four months off. I feel like we’re going to continue to develop our sound. That’s my intention and I feel like that’s everyone else’s intention. We’re going to do a tour in the summer, and record another record or another EP. I don’t know.
What kind of tour in the summer do you want to do?
We’re going to do a US tour. Like late May, early June.
Do you know who you’d like to be touring with?
I don’t know yet. I think we’ll start thinking about that soon. We headlined our last US tour, and it was a lot of fun. We did the Santa Monica Pier, that hotel/café. In New York we played the Knitting Factory. Austin, I loved Austin. They had a college there that was really cool.
Do you find Austin to be as similar to Portland as people say it is?
I don’t know. We had really good experiences last time. I feel like there’s a similar vibe and appreciation in music. They do call it another musical mecca, but I could say that about Santa Barbara, because of the guys, you know, Gardens & Villa…There’s a lot of good music out there.