Raul Malo of the Mavericks Tells How the Band Got Back Where They Belong
In 1989, the year the Mavericks first convened, the divide between pop and country was still relatively wide, despite the progress made by bands like the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Poco and others of that ilk had made to close the distance many years before. Americana was a term that hadn’t quite entered the popular lexicon just yet, and Nashville was still off limits by and large to any artist who arrived sans a cowboy hat and a good ole boy attitude to boot
Not surprisingly then, the cultural expanse was larger still, making any attempt by a group from Miami, of all places–boasting a lead singer of Hispanic heritage, no less–seem all but certain to face indifference at best, and outright rejection at worst. Nevertheless, singer/songwriter/guitarist Raul Malo’s obvious obsession with American icons like Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Elvis Presley eventually prevailed, and within six months after the release of their eponymous debut on the small South Florida independent label Y&T, they landed a contract with MCA Records and the respect and admiration of the industry as a whole. Between 1991 and 2003, they landed no less than 14 singles on the Billboard country charts and produced a string of successful albums, among them From Hell To Paradise, What A Crying Shame, Music For All Occasions and Trampoline, each a showcase for their unlikely blend of country, pop, Latin music and big ballads. They took the country music world by storm, and left an increasingly diverse musical landscape in their wake.
In the liner notes that accompanied that self-titled debut, yours truly wrote: “The Mavericks deliver a rich blend of pure Americana. Here’s a band that mixes country comfort with rock ‘n’ roll attitude, a group that also proves that soul music can reach beyond the streets of Detroit or Philadelphia,” Looking back, the choice of verbiage seems to suffer from overreach, but happily, the Mavericks’ music never did.
In 2004, the band underwent a bitter break-up, frayed at the seams from internal strife and pent-up animosity. Each of the members went their separate ways, indulging in side projects and sessions that allowed at least momentary fulfilment. Malo himself was the most prolific, issuing six solo albums that gleaned everything from his love of traditional Latin melodies to his admiration for classic American standards. In an interview in 2010 he told me that a reunion with his former colleagues was clearly out of the question, and anyone that still hoped that it might someday transpire would best to buck up and move on.
It was somewhat surprising then that in 2012 the band opted to reconvene, original members Malo, Paul Deakin on drums and Robert Reynolds on bass joined by longtime keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden and the group’s most recent recruit, Eddie Perez on lead guitar. An EP, Suited Up and Ready, preceded the release of their comeback album In Time, an effort that was lavishly praised and given an apt title, especially considering the decade of inactivity that preceded it.
I recently caught up with Malo at his home in Nashville and asked him about the current state of the group and what led to the reunion. Seemingly relaxed during a rare respite from a touring schedule that had them on the road the better part of a year, he was casual, candid and overtly optimistic about the Mavericks’ future fortunes.
Lee Zimmerman: Last time we spoke, you completely dismissed the idea that there would ever be a Mavericks reunion. So what happened?
Raul Malo: It’s just life, ya know. It was really like a perfect storm scenario. What happened, at least musically, was that these songs were starting to come out that really sounded like they needed to be on a new Mavericks record. And this was before I talked to anybody, or there was any inkling of anything. I’m saying to myself, ya know, this does sound like a Mavericks record. If ever there was a chance to do a Mavericks record again, these songs would be perfect… at least in my mind. Fast forward, my manager at the time said we had this offer for the Mavericks to play a couple of festivals. And I thought, “Really? That sounds interesting.” And the reason I thought it was interesting because I know this business doesn’t operate on nostalgia or feelings. So when money gets put on the table, there’s a reason for it. So I started thinking, if a promoter is willing to do this, maybe there is money for real somewhere – not enough money for us to retire on or anything – but that maybe a record label would be willing to put up some money for us to make a record. So I asked my friends over at Big Machine Records if they would be interested in a Mavericks album, and they were like, hell yeah. So that changed everything, because what my manager wanted was just to go out and do some summer festivals and then call it a day. But that’s not what we were thinking, or at least what I was thinking.
So it wasn’t just about the money?
In all honesty, I figured if the Mavericks came back it wouldn’t be for a paycheck and then to call it a day. I’d rather have left it alone at that point. I respect other bands that would do that, but the Mavericks were always about a lot more than a paycheck. If we’re going to bring it back, then we’re going to make some music, and hopefully we’ll make some important music and some relevant music as it pertains to our career and what we’ve done. It was the music that steered the thing, and once Big Machine said yes to the project, then everyone was up for it. And that was it. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. We made the record and boom, here we are now.
Was there an elephant in the room once you guys reconvened? Was it awkward in any way? What was the vibe like?
It’s like anything. I think time heals old wounds. So you throw that stuff out, forget about it and kind of put it aside, learn from it and then move forward if you want to do it. And we all really wanted to do it. We really wanted to make the record and we knew that the record was going to be a special record. We didn’t know why, but we knew there was a lot of energy around it. There were high expectations of course, but everybody’s energy was there. And we knew we had to have a special energy for this thing to work. We tried to make the best record we could, and lo and behold — without trying to sound like I’m bragging here — I think it’s one of the best records we’ve ever done.
It really sounds like no time has passed at all. It sounds like you guys were right back in the proverbial groove.
That’s pretty much how it went.
So was it just like old times? Did everyone just transition into their roles?
Yeah. In the past we’d always do a whole bunch of demos and do a lot of preproduction and all that kind of stuff. But this time around I told the guys that this time I didn’t have time to make a bunch of demos. I just wanted to go into the studio. Initially, we were going to go in for just four or five days and do a couple of songs to get the group going, but by the second day we had recorded five songs. So there was definitely a lot of positive energy and thinking that, yeah, we’re back. That’s kinda of how it was.
Was there any lingering resentment?
When we initially got together, everyone said their peace. We made sure that the miscommunication and the lack of communication and the lack of openness that had happened before within the band didn’t happen again. There had been a lot of third parties communicating for us and that’s never good. It’s never good in any communications, because then you’ll end up with a stalemate. Part of the problem back then was that we were younger, and back then, honestly, I was burned out. I didn’t want to hear from anybody, I didn’t want t hear from anything. I was just as burned out and fried as I could possibly be. As was everybody. We didn’t really take care of our business. We let others do it and that was a big mistake. It was a big learning curve in that we realized that no one can take care of your business as well as you can. So there was all this stuff going on back then that really led to the breakup. I think this time around, everybody is more aware. Everybody wants this to work and we’re having so much more fun than ever before. That’s really the big difference now.
What are the audiences like?
The fans are going nuts, and not only that, we’re seeing a younger audience too. They’re discovering the band through their parents. We’re getting into that echelon of elder statesmen (laughs) and it’s cool because we’re seeing those different demographics in our audience.
The music business is a fickle business, and when you’re away ten years, it can seem like a lifetime. But from what you’re saying, it sounds like people didn’t forget and they hooked into it right away. Was that the case?
It’s unbelievable. Certainly during those years in-between, I was still out there doing my part to keep the Mavericks name alive. As I told the guys, no matter where I went, no matter who I was making music with, no matter what groovy little project I was doing, the conversation always turned to, when are the Mavericks getting back together? What about the Mavericks? At first, I was like, aw geez. Give it up already. It’s over. But I think that after a while, it was maybe because they were such relentless pains in the ass, it just eventually influenced my sentiments. It was like, okay, what about the Mavericks? Why aren’t we doing stuff? Looking back on it now, I think that had a lot to do with it. I’m just being honest. How could it not when everywhere you go, people are asking about it. It’s not that they didn’t like my solo stuff, and or they didn’t like what I was doing. I don’t think that was it at all. It’s just that the Mavericks meant something to them. They meant something to a lot of people. That’s nice to finally realize.
So how has this affected your present mindset?
All those things, all the emotions, all the bad blood, all the mistakes, the apathy or whatever you want to call it, makes you stronger and a better musician. At this point, we’re feeling we can do anything we want. We don’t have to play the game. We don’t have to cater to radio or adhere to trends or whatever. We can do whatever we want, and our fans kind of expect that. We can be a little more carefree.
In a sense, it seems the time was right to reconvene. When you started out, you were ahead of the game. You guys broke the barriers. Yes, there was the underlying country flavor in your music, but you broadened the scope, and these days that seems to be the norm in general.
Absolutely. And not only that, sociologically, things have changed. The industry is more open now than we were say, 20 years ago, when we first arrived. Imagine, a Hispanic lead singer named Raul. They couldn’t even pronounce my name (chuckles). I think that plays into it as well. We’re seeing so many young Latin people coming to our shows. It’s amazing, because I’ve always considered this band a truly American band. It’s a blend of all these things and a blend of all these cultures. We embody that in many ways, and nowadays our audience is so vast. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to see that. We love it. Everybody’s welcome at our shows and it just runs the gamut. We’re loving that part of it too and we want to make a statement. We want this band to be a band for everybody, as it should it be. That‘s the way we see ourselves and we’re enjoying it, because it’s proven that we were on the right course all these years. After all these years and all the hard work, it’s very gratifying.
So how long will you guys be out on tour? How long have you been on the road since reuniting?
It’s been about two years. When you think about that first festival which instigated this whole thing, that was about two years ago. That first gig was the Stagecoach Festival in 2011, and since then it’s pretty much been nonstop. We haven’t been on the road continuously since then, but almost. The band is a well-oiled machine. We’re booked into next year already and we have plans to make another record. The plan is to go into the studio in the next couple of months and start recording and hopefully have something done by September or October so we can have something to release in March.
It sounds like the Mavericks are now an ongoing concern, at least for the near future. You’re back and this is now business as usual.
Well, at least for another record for sure. We’ll see where it goes from there. The thing about it now is that everybody realizes we can do the Mavericks, we can do the solo stuff, we can do all the little things we want to do. The main thing for me is that I like to do a lot of different things, and if I get stuck on one thing for too long, I’m going to get bored and I’m going to want out. So if I can try different things, and everybody does their things every now and then – as we all will – there’s still no reason why we can’t do those side projects and do the Mavericks as well. So that’s the goal.
So what is the status of your solo career? Do you have future plans in that regard?
Not right now, because I’m so involved with the Maverick thing right now. But at some point, that will be part of the equation.
At that point, will it be a challenge in determining which material goes to the Mavericks and which songs are reserved for your solo outings?
Right now the Mavericks are so at the top of their game. I don’t think that will be an issue. You just know. As the writer, you know which songs will work best for the Mavericks and which songs will work best for a Raul Malo solo project. I think that becomes apparent. But honestly, some of the songs from my solo career that we play live find the Mavericks just killing it. When the Mavericks play something, there’s something special about the Mavericks. Those guys are just amazing. So we’ll deal with it when the time comes, but again, right now I have no plans for a solo record. The Mavericks are pretty much occupying all my time.
We’ve heard rumors to the effect that you’re going to reissue your first independent album, that you made before you guys signed with MCA.
Yes, and we’re thrilled about that. That record started it all off for us. Perhaps things would have still happened, but they wouldn’t have happened the way they happened without that record. We released it and six months later we were signed to a major label, so whatever that record did, it was kind of a little portal that allowed us to skip a step or two and get our music to the right people at the right time.
I personally think that it was a great album. But regardless, it’s time the public was reintroduced to that album.
Right! The hardcore fans have it, but this will give that album a chance to make its way back and get its due. There’s a lot of newer fans who will get a chance to hear it now and I think they’ll get a kick out of it, warts and all, however imperfect it is. It is what it is. We were young, we were kids. I’m not ashamed of that record at all. I listen to it and think, all right. Not bad. Of course as a songwriter, there are things I wish we had done a little differently. But I still do that now. We’re proud of that album and we’re pleased it’s going to make its way onto our merch website very soon.