In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
By now, fans of The Bronx are used to the band's dramatic reinventions. Starting as a hardcore-inspired rock 'n' roll band in 2002, the band would would land a manager at its first show and draw out major label A&R types by its very next live appearance. The following year, the band would release their ten-song debut, which was produced Guns N' Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke. The band toured hard in support of the album, eventually signing to Island Def Jam for its second record. And by the time The Bronx (II) hit shelves, the band was already incorporating experimental twinges into the mixture, asking fans to take a step forward along with them.
But it's what happened next that would become the biggest surprise for Bronx fans as, following the release of the band's third album, they would become a full-blown mariachi band and release Mariachi El Bronx in 2009. To differentiate the two sounds, the band would jointly operate as The Bronx and Mariachi El Bronx, allowing fans to know what band to expect at live shows, and also that their traditional mariachi music was as serious of a concern as their hardcore raging. Mariachi El Bronx would bring a windfall of popularity to the band, as they toured with the Foo Fighters, were given slots on late night television shows, and were even given the boost of performing a Tiny Desk concert. For a while, this meant The Bronx was put on the shelf as Mariachi El Bronx's star rose, but now the two bands coexist, giving the members of The Bronx the rare opportunity to release split records with themselves.
With The Bronx releasing their fifth self-titled album—which sees the band merging the intense raging of its early years with a big, pop hooks—it seemed like as good a time as any to have vocalist Matt Caughthran rank the catalogs of his two bands. Here, Caughthran contextualizes the evolution of both The Bronx and Mariachi El Bronx, and how a dark time for the former spurred the latter, bringing with it a new set of creative inspirations.
7. The Bronx (III) (2008)
Matt Caughthran: When we made that record, we were hanging on by a thread. We didn't really know what was going to happen. We didn't have a manager, we didn't have a label, we didn't have money, we didn't have anything. We had this studio in Van Nuys that we were holding onto, that was our headquarters. We did that record there and it was a time in the band where we just didn't know if it was gonna last. It was super desperate times. I love the record, I think it's great, but as far as the full-on, 360 experience, it was probably when we were at our worst as individuals and as a band. I think that feeds into the record, and there's a little bit of uncertainty in the record that isn't necessarily a positive thing.
Noisey: Lyrically, the record has always read like a commentary on the music industry. You guys were going through this tumultuous period and is that something you wanted to address directly?
The first song, "Knifeman," is basically all about that—it's about the bubble bursting. It's absolutely a document of that whole era. The music industry is tough, and having everything shift and fall on its own ass—and we're still in the middle of the redesign, I guess—at that time, I just remember a lot of, "Ah shit. What the fuck's gonna happen?" When you're going through that, and you're an artist or a musician, whether or not you want your surroundings to influence your work, they're going to regardless. You just have to accept it and roll with it.
6. Mariachi El Bronx (III) (2014)
Mariachi El Bronx III was a swing-for-the-fences record for us. We recorded it in Dave Matthews' studio just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and it was this amazing place out in the forest and an amazing experience. But there was also part of it that didn't really manifest sonically. There's something about the record that's off, and I could never really figure out quite what it was. There's a little bit of a disconnect there.
And it's so hard because, specifically talking about El Bronx, you have the first record which is this thing where you can't really believe this thing you're doing. Then you have the second record which I believe is us at our best. Then you have the third record. It's not that the third record is troubled times like Bronx III was, it's just a victim of the countdown.
But recording that record was incredible. We were able to push ourselves. There was a lot happening during that time. And El Bronx continues to be this thing that, just when we think it's gonna wrap itself up, it takes on new meaning.
Mariachi El Bronx really took on a life of its own and you guys took it further than I think anyone expected. Was this record you trying to figure out how to take the next step with it?
We never wanted it to plateau. We want it to keep growing and keep building. And I think we did that with the record, but I don't know if the record did that for the band.
5. The Bronx (II) (2006)
Bronx II was the crazy, major-label-debut type thing. For this to make sense to me, I have to wrap up the entire experience, not just the album. Because you just have to do things that way. At least for me, I can't detach and focus totally on the music of each record. And even if I were to, I think the rankings would be pretty much the same.
So Bronx I comes out, people are super into it, but I had no idea how to be in a touring band or how to be a professional musician. We just toured forever and learned how to become a real band on the road and then had to make a second record. We decided to make Bronx II with Michael Beinhorn, who is just a legendary producer and a kind of notorious ballbreaker. The dude's an old school musical genius. You hear about it going in, but you don't really have any idea. The plus-side of Bronx II was that Michael pushed the band to levels that, at that time, we just had no business achieving. His strength is to pull things out of you that you didn't know exist inside of you and you're not really expecting. It's legit military shit—break you down, build you back up. And there's record producer head games but, at the end, you make a great record. All that being said, that's all hindsight. When you're in it, you're like, "What the fuck is happening?"
So that record, it took on a life of its own. It went forever. We recorded all the music live in Venice Beach in this giant old brick building where they used to do scores for movies, they'd pack orchestras in there. Michael pushed Joby [J. Ford, guitarist] to the limit songwriting-wise, and it's some of the best stuff Joby ever wrote because of Michael pushing him. And that was one of the coolest things watching for the sidelines, how he affected Joby. It came my time to sing and we started out great, but it just turned into this insane recording session. There's one song on that record that is actually the one Bronx song that I hate.
What song is that?
It's a song called "Safe Passage." That song took basically a month to record. Michael didn't like the vocal so he just made me do it over and over and over and over and over and over again. To the point where our relationship during the record was severely damaged. By the end of the record I was just recording vocals with Joby and the engineer. Michael wasn't even there. We couldn't talk to each other by the end of it.
And I never really liked the song. It didn't feel like a Bronx song. For me, singing it, it's just not me at all. Michael was trying to this kind of bluesy thing. I don't know, man. I just fucking hate that song. And, dude, you sing any song for three weeks straight and someone's like, "Nope. Nope. Nope." It could be fuckin' "Bohemian Rhapsody" and you're gonna hate it. And if it's not "Bohemian Rhapsody," you're gonna hate it even more.
In comparison to Bronx I, this record saw you guys slowing down and getting a little experimental. Were you guys trying to stretch out a little bit?
I think that's very true. I'm well aware that when we started The Bronx we wanted to do something different every record. We wanted to push ourselves, write stuff people weren't expecting, and do something different. And in order to do that, we had to push our hand. The level of progression from I to II, at the time, it felt like it was too much, like we were forcing the issue. It wasn't a natural progression. But sometimes you have to push the issue to establish the idea that you're going to be a band that changes with each record. You have to force yourself into that spot. And that's what II was. And it's the classic major label story of all the people who worked there when you sign are fired by the time the record comes out. It just turned into that kind of major label debacle.
That record is tough for me and tough for the guys because we look back at it and, for me personally, I listen back to it and think my voice sounds great, and you get the mission and understand it but, at the same time, I would never make a record like that again. There's a lot of questions involving that record. When you do something like that to a certain extreme, it makes you question, "What if we didn't do it this way?" I listen back to that record and I love it, and I think about recording it, and I love that too. But at the time, it was like, "What the fuck is this?" It was just too much for us at the time, I think.
4. Mariachi El Bronx (I) (2009)
This came after Bronx III, which sounded like it was a pretty difficult period. What was the impetus for this?
One hundred percent, absolutely. That's exactly what it was. And it's amazing that Mariachi El Bronx was basically born out of The Bronx III. I obviously would have never seen that coming, but it's really awesome to come out of crazy, desperate times and take the feelings that we were having and use them to start something new so we wouldn't be put in that position again.
At the time, we were like, what do we have to do to not go through that Bronx III experience? Creatively, financially, everything was on the ropes for us. So the answer was to do something completely different. Our old studio in LA, which is now getting turned into a Soho House, right outside the studio there was a car wash and they were always blasting Mexican music. And Los Angeles, in general, is always blasting Mexican music. Joby called me on the way to the studio, and it was one of the rare days where I got there before he did, and he called me up and he said, "I want to try to write a mariachi song today, just for fun. I've got this song idea. I don't know what to do with it, but it's 'My Brother the Gun.' I think that sounds cool." So I started working on it and it was literally just something to do that day. But I didn't know Joby already had a fire under him about it. So we started showing the band this stuff and they were like, "What the fuck is going on?"
I'll never forget when news started getting out that we were going to make a mariachi record, people were like, "What the fuck?" That is what The Bronx is all about, getting people to say "What the fuck?" It instantly felt so good and that we were doing the right thing. The songs were slowly starting to come together and then it was like, who the fuck is gonna produce this record? Who is gonna understand this? We went back and forth between a bunch of people and none of them worked. None of them felt right. I had a buddy say to try John Avila, who played bass in Oingo Boingo, and he's one of the weirdest, coolest guys. We meet John and he's like manna from heaven. He's an absolute, pure-hearted lover of life, and one of the most talented people I've ever met. We sit down, and we start going through these songs, and he's singing the songs out loud. He's on the verge of tears, excited about making the record. So we get together and make the record in his garage. When it was coming together it was just like, "Holy shit." It was the truest form of inspiration I ever felt because it was not something that was expected.
I was super worried about what I was going to do and what I was going to sing. Were they expecting me to sing in Spanish? But it was just like The Bronx, we're not gonna fake it. We're gonna be who we are and we're gonna do this. Songs started coming together and it was just an avalanche. And it was just so much fucking fun. When it was done, we were so proud of it. We knew how good it was and we were excited to tell everybody to fuck off. Everyone expected it to be a joke. Everyone expected it to be some sort of punk rock hybrid. No one expected it to be traditional. It came out and it just fucked people up. And that's the best feeling you can have when you make a record. It's better than sales—it's better than anything. When it comes out and you can feel the collective jaw drop. It's the best feeling. For that reason alone, that's why El Bronx I is up there.
- The Bronx (IV) (2013)
Did doing El Bronx give you the chance to shake off the feelings of Bronx III and approach the band with fresh eyes?
That's a big part of it. We decided after the first Mariachi El Bronx record that we were going to make another one. We had it written already and the vibe was just too high. So by the end of that, it'd been so long since we made a Bronx record. And like you were saying, the last Bronx record kind of ended up being the jumpstart of the mariachi thing because we were just banging our heads against a wall. For the first time in a long time, we were chomping at the bit to make a punk record. Going through the whole El Bronx thing had taught us a lot about who we are, what we could accomplish, and we just had a different sense of confidence around the band. And you start to wear your battle scars a little bit and start to be proud of the longevity of the band. We'd been a band close to a decade and we'd made it through the nuclear war type of thing. We'd survived. Let's plug in some guitars and let's fuckin' go to work.
It was a really cool feeling getting back into Bronx world for Bronx IV, and getting back with Beau Burchell who did half of our first record, and this being the last record we did in our studio in Van Nuys. It was a very relaxed record, and there were times when it wasn't—there are always songs that are fucking annoying, that happens on every record. But it just felt super natural and calm. It just felt like we were making Bronx I again.
The songs on IV, I love 'em all. I love "The Unholy Hand," I love "Too Many Devils," I love "Along for the Ride," I love 'em all—the slow songs, everything. It shows that it's a different kind of Bronx record, it shows how far we've come as musicians, and I think the songs on there are inspired. Bronx IV, whether you like it or not—and there are some people who really, really like that record and some people who think there are too many squirrely songs on it, which I understand—it's an inspired record from start to finish. It was replanting the flag and saying that we're doing both bands, Bronx is back, and we're going.
2. Mariachi El Bronx (II) (2011)
As far as I'm concerned, I don't know if I'll ever be able to make a more perfect record. All the elements were coming together. Mariachi I was basically us fumbling our way through it and learning our instruments. And I think one of the great things about that record is the naivety of learning something and going through this experience together. El Bronx II is us at the top of our game. It's basically the first record but played by professionals. It was so inspired and connected, and the musicianship on that record is just unbelievable. There are a lot of songs on that record that are just total heartbreakers. Every single note and every single word on that record has meaning.
There were so many moments on that record that were just completely insane. We had pretty much written the whole record and our producer, John, who did all three El Bronx records, he comes up to the guys and had this song he'd been sitting on for 20 years. He starts playing it and it's just absolutely beautiful. He's kind of humming stuff and instantly the song comes together. So I go home and write the song and, as I tell this, that record has so many cheesy, storyteller type moments. It's just a special record, man. I came back the next day and said, "John, I wrote something for your song." He plays it and I sing this thing I wrote that I'm super proud of and he just starts bawling, just crying his eyes out. We're sitting there having this moment together in the studio and it's just one of those powerful moments. You can't buy a moment like that. Then that record came out and it just blew everything off the fucking wall. We did Letterman, we did Leno twice, we did Kimmel, and on that tour we went out with the Foo Fighters. It was a crazy touring cycle. We did all the things The Bronx could never access. El Bronx officially kicked the door wide open.
You said these songs were heartbreakers. Was this just you pouring yourself into this thing?
Oh yeah, it's a total Matt Caughthran pain cave. [Laughs] You can't really hide it. I've got no problems with it, as that's what life is for. You gotta share your experiences and try to make something good out of the bad. There's a lot of heartbreak on that record, man. When I say "inspired," it's every sense of that word. It's a very honest record, it's a very painful record, it's a very beautiful record, it's a hopeful record, too. There's a lot of sadness on there, but there's a lot of hope. That record was just raw. Super raw.
When bands have a breakthrough moment like that they can start to resent the thing that got them there. Was there any point where you started to feel that?
Nah, it was more like, "Fuck. Finally." My whole life is spent in the trenches. I'm a battler—we all are. Success is a confirmation of your work; I never view it as a negative. To be at a point where we finally felt like we were getting the recognition we deserved, it felt so fucking good. To have Dave Grohl and fuckin' Dave Matthews coming up to you and telling you how awesome of a record you wrote, it's like, fuck yeah.
Bronx, we pride ourselves on being cool dudes, being normal dudes, and just being down to earth Gs. It was cool to just see people be proud of the band and be happy for the band, knowing how hard we worked. Being in that spot for a while was really, really beautiful.
1. The Bronx (I) (2003)
What has made this record still stand out for your nearly 15 years later?
That record saved my life. That record saved everyone in the band's life, to a degree. Coming together, it changed my entire world. At the time, I was just doing a bunch of drugs and just holding on to whatever remnants of a high school band, just hanging out with my buddies and having no real direction. I was on my way to legit becoming a total fuckin' loser. I'd been playing with Joby in a band called The Drips, which was the best thing we had going. It was rad and fun and cool, but nothing outside of that was really planned. We eventually got a record done and then Joby calls me he's like, "I want you to be in this band. Come check it out." Keep in mind, we'd known each other for a while now, but he came and picked me up one night and in his car he was like, "Sing these songs." He put the demo on and tried to get me to sing and I was like, "Dude, shut the fuck up. Let's get together and play some tunes."
You hear people talk about chemistry and you never really take it seriously, because I never really took music that seriously. But we get in there and start playing and you just instantly knew this was something bigger than the room, bigger than yourself. The way things kind of snowballed from there, it was absolutely insane. Getting to write the first record, which is basically just demos, and then we get to finish it with Gilby Clarke of Guns N' Roses in his house, he's telling us Guns N' Roses stories and is screaming into the microphone. The way it came out, man, I just couldn't believe it.
This was the end of the big record deal time. Who was that fuckin' terrible band who got a hundred million dollar record deal?
There were probably a bunch of them.
Oh yeah. But there was this guy who looked like Roger Daltrey, he had curly blond hair, their logo was, of course, a pair of scissors. I probably shouldn't even say it… but anyway, labels were still paying out money that was like, "How many degrees is this band from At the Drive-In? That's how much money they get." They knew everything was on the way out, and they knew how desperate labels were, so that's where The Bronx banner of fucking with people started. It was like that from the get-go. Like, "Oh, you want to hear a song? No." We knew exactly what to do to make those fuckers froth. We had three songs and two shows, and our third show there were fuckin' eight labels there. It was so stupid. I'm tangled up in a mic cord, I think I had a broken wrist, I'm just a mess, an absolute mess. I had no business being on the Troubadour stage, I'm fuckin' high as a kite, but it just all came together. The water settled, the record came out, and The Bronx fuckin' started. We toured our asses off, we had so much fuckin' fun, and we learned how to become a band and be the real deal. It all happened so fast but it was all 100 percent pure, honest truth. It was just us, just going for it. And we still are, dude. That hasn't changed.
Everything that Bronx I was, it still is. And I love that. Considering everything we've gone through as individuals, and as a band, to have the outlook and the joy we have doing this, I've seen it fade in a lot of people, man. I've seen bands implode, I've seen bands go on because it's a fuckin' paycheck, where they hate each other and they fuckin' hate music, they don't respect their songs, they don't respect their audience, they don't respect anything. This is a band that is still important to us. We still care about what we're doing, where we're going, and the decisions that we make and the songs that we write. And it's all because of how it came together on Bronx I.
David Anthony is on Twitter.