The Mavericks set themselves up to make a career of being the odd men out — back when they were the only band of their kind playing South Florida rock clubs in the late '80s.
"I remember us doing shows with Marilyn Manson," says frontman Raul Malo. "That's no lie. We looked out into the audience, and it's all these goth kids in black hair and makeup and lunchboxes. And we're going, 'What the fuck is this? Where are we playing?'
"In those days," he continues, "whenever we'd see a crowd like that, we'd really do the hardcore country stuff, the real twangy stuff. It was a set full of Hank Williams ballads. We had sort of a country-punk [reputation] going around. People didn't know quite what to make of us. Really not unlike — we discovered later — Jason and the Scorchers, although Jason was always a bit more rockin' than we were."
Also, while the Scorchers were committed to taking the twang-punk outsider path, Malo and his crew — including bassist Robert Reynolds and drummer Paul Deakin — wanted, and got, a mainstream country deal. The legend of big-league producer Tony Brown signing them to MCA at their first Nashville performance has grown to mythic proportions over the years.
When asked how that night at the Exit/In really went down, Malo says, "We had gotten to soundcheck, and Tony Brown was there, along with a couple of other executives. But also lurking outside was the great white shark, [fellow producer and former Brown mentor] Jimmy Bowen. Tony Brown was not about to be outdone by Jimmy Bowen again. I think he signed us just to make sure that Bowen wouldn't sign us. I think that's probably a more honest account of how that happened. But that's OK. I'll let people run with it however they want."
The Mavericks were fairly quickly branded as the "hip country band" — it became de rigueur to refer to them that way in print. But considering what they were actually bringing to the table — openly emotional, grandly expressive, classically entertaining music and a male singer who's routinely earned Roy Orbison comparisons — it's pretty remarkable that they won people over to the tune of great press and one gold and one platinum album, during a decade dominated by angsty rock and pop divas.
"I was probably one of the unhippest kids in school," Malo says of his formative years. "My friends were listening to whatever the hell they were listening to, and I was holding on strong to Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, all the stuff my parents and grandparents were listening to. [My friends] always used to tease me: 'Oh, you just listen to what your parents listen to.' 'Yeah. It's better shit than what you're listening to. You're listening to Flock of Seagulls.' "
Like Sinatra with his supper club crooning, The Mavericks found that their evolving blend of pining pop balladry, Latin heat and throwback country-rock appealed especially to women. Even that didn't put off critics, who — to generalize rather broadly — have historically tended to dismiss music that appeals to feminine tastes in favor of more "serious" fare.
"Certainly we have a strong female following, there's no doubt," Malo says. "We love it. There's nothing wrong with that. We always sang to girls. My idea early on was not to sing to a bunch of guys. If I wanted to do that, I'd have joined Rush."
The Mavericks spent most of the past decade apart, during which time Malo indeed teamed up with other bands — but not Rush. Now he, Deakin and Reynolds have reunited, along with latter-day guitarist Eddie Perez and long-term touring keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden, and made In Time, their first album since a self-titled 2003 release. They're still not playing it cool: If anything, they've dialed up their romantic ardor and rhythmic muscle.
Says Malo, "We throw a little saying around ... 'Pretend you're a bullfighter and you've got a flower in your mouth.' That's how you've gotta play your solo, that's how you've gotta do your show, that's how you've gotta sing your songs. That's the emotion you want to convey. It's old, it's corny, but it's how we feel."
The new Mavericks album is being released on the Big Machine imprint Valory Music, under the shrewd and savvy eye of Scott Borchetta, whose time at MCA overlapped with theirs. The first single, "Born To Be Blue," was a non-starter at country radio. Thing is, Mavericks tracks are more out of step than ever with the flimsy, emotionally stunted portrayals of masculinity that have a comparatively easy time getting airplay.
As far as genre positioning goes, it was no accident that The Mavericks gave explosive performances at both CMA Fest and the Americana Music Awards last year. Like several of his fellow left-of-mainstream Tony Brown signees — Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett to name two — Malo's been aiming his solo work at the Americana audience. But even in that context, The Mavericks' new stuff stands out; the simplicity and directness of the lyrics land closer to Tin Pan Alley than to the folk troubadour tradition, and the emphasis is on that operatic pop voice and the big, hot band behind it.
Lest there be any question, The Mavericks' danceable music can't be shoehorned into EDM territory either. And that's a fact; a producer attempted to do what Malo describes as "this sort of Latin cha-cha remix" of the band's virile invitation "Come Unto Me."
"I sent him the track," Malo says, "and after a couple of weeks, I hadn't heard from him. He goes, 'Man I've been trying and I've been trying. Did you guys record this to a click? Because I can't get a grid on it.' Which is essential to doing a remix, you know? He would have to literally go in there and Frankenstein the thing measure by measure to line it all up."
For a band that prides itself on its passion-stirring attack, that oughta be a source of pride.