Long before he moved to Nashville and formed the Mavericks, Raul Malo grew up in Miami absorbing as much music as possible. “I remember driving around with my granddad, listening to the AM radio,” he says. “We listened to Sinatra, then the Beatles would come on, then a Celia Cruz song. I grew up listening to all kinds of music.”
Those experiences have defined the music the Mavericks have made for a quarter-century now, and their latest album, simply titled Mono, once again shows them to be one of the most adventurous bands in Music City. The songs volley from salsa to ska to blues to country and back again, all anchored by Malo’s roaring vocals. Percussionist Paul Deakin, guitarist Eddie Perez and pianist/organist Jerry Dale McFadden round out the ensemble.
“We try really hard to break down those barriers,” Malo says, “which in some ways has made it more difficult. Our music isn’t easily categorized. Ask 10 people what the Mavericks are and you’ll get 10 different answers.”
CMT Edge: Why did you decide to call this album Mono?
Malo: Every time we would come into the studio to record this album, we would sit around and listen to our favorite vinyl records. Lo and behold, they were all in mono. Pet Sounds was one of them. There were some Sam Cooke records, a Beatles album or two, a Santo & Johnny record. We just love the way they sound.
[Producer] Niko [Bolas] turned to me one morning and said, “Why don’t we mix this in mono?” I loved the idea because I love that sound. We thought that if our record could sound as good as Pet Sounds, that would be heaven. Whether we achieved it or not is another story, but we went for it.
Did that change how you worked in the studio? Or was it more in how you mixed the record?
You still record the same way. Maybe I should say that. Blackbird Studio has arguably the greatest collection of vintage gear in the world. That’s the studio here in Nashville owned by John McBride, who is Martina’s husband. His collection of gear and microphones is unparalleled, and we ended up putting a ribbon mic on every instrument, every horn, every vocal.
Those are the mics that the big band orchestras would use in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and what I like about them is — we’re getting a little technical here, but you asked — that these ribbon mics taper off the high end a little bit. That gives it is a nice, warm sound.
One thing I discovered when we were doing this was how everything on the record counts — every guitar part, every harmony, every cowbell hit. Everything counts, and in turn we ended up recording less. We did very few overdubs. So, in a way, this record more than any other is a true representation of what the band is like live.
It definitely brings out some of those Maverick flourishes, like Jerry Dale McFadden’s piano glissandos on “(Waiting) for the World to End.”
That’s why I don’t really make work tapes or demos for the band, because you end up imitating the demos. With a band like the Mavericks, it’s just better to play a song on an acoustic guitar or piano, just to give everybody an idea of what the song is like. Then we can arrange it, hash things out, start playing it, and let everybody start contributing their own ideas. Before long, we press record and we have a song. I like leaving things up to what happens in the moment.
“Do You Want Me To” is a pretty straightforward blues number, which is new for the Mavericks.
I’ve always wanted to have a blues song but I’m just not a blues artist. I haven’t heard any new blues licks in a while and I’m certainly not talented enough to come up with one. So I just picked my favorite blues lick and wrote a song around that. Part of the fun of that song is the aching and the pleading. I love that James Brown song, “Please Please Please,” where he keeps pleading and begging. That desperation is so raw and primal and powerful. We really tried to capture that feeling.
Mono is a very lusty album. There are a lot of songs, like “Do You Want Me To” and “All Night Long,” that are explicitly about sex.
If you listen to a lot of Cuban music, there are all these great songs that if you break them down, you realize they’re about nothing — just little metaphors for sex or whatever. And that’s on purpose. It’s really all about the jam. It’s about getting the listener to groove, to dance, mess around, make a little love. I wanted this record to distract people from the harsh realities of the world.
Why was that?
I don’t know why, exactly, but it felt like that’s what I needed to do. People don’t need to be reminded how hard life is. We’re all well aware of it. Anybody who’s been alive during the past few years has had to deal with the economy and terrorism and all the bullshit that goes on. So I wanted this record to be a celebration of the human experience: lust, love, friendship, sorrow, longing, all kinds of emotions. “All Night Long” is just lust, pure and simple. It’s more about the music and getting people to groove and forget their troubles.
Is it harder to write that way?
People hear that kind of songwriting and think it’s easy. But I like the challenge of it. My favorite songwriters are people like Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael. There isn’t a harsh-sounding syllable in any of their songs. I’m not comparing myself to any of those people but I’ve studied the way they put words together, and it seems like a lost art. It’s beautiful and mellow, which is really difficult to pull off. I love that. It’s what I try to do.