San Diego's Crawdaddys big In Spain

Paul Williams asks Bart Mendoza and Ray Brandes about it

"In the future," Andy Warhol predicted, "everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." But for a few San Diego musicians, it seems that the future's arrived ahead of schedule and landed them halfway around the world. Take, for example, Bart Mendoza and Ray Brandes. In California, Mendoza is best known as a record store clerk and Brandes works as a schoolteacher. But in Spain, Mendoza and Brandes are bona fide rock stars. Both are members of Riot Act — a San Diego "supergroup" that records for Spain's Snap record label. But it was during a joint solo tour with Mendoza that Brandes summed up the Spanish experience a good many San Diego musicians have had: "Brandes gave me the greatest line ever on that tour," Mendoza told me as we sat in his south-of-Hillcrest apartment. "We're leaving a bar at 5:30 in the morning, on our way to get something to eat, when these people come up to compliment us. A few of them are beautiful women. And after they leave Ray looks at me and says, 'This is the reality I would have created for myself.' " If Brandes's reality was a dream come true, how did the San Diego rock scene make an impact in Spain in the first place? According to Spanish journalist Angel Maeztu, who wrote to me via a British friend, the popularity of San Diego music was a direct by-product of Spanish disillusionment with the British music scene. "Music aficionados who had followed the last movements since the days of punk and new wave began to feel disappointed with what was coming from the U.K. — a country whose music scene had entered a period of noticeable decadence in 1983-1984," Maeztu wrote. "Within this context, Spanish rock and roll aficionados began to listen to music from the past — mainly from the '50s and '60s -- and to give attention to contemporary bands who based their sound on what was done in those two magic decades." Thanks to the efforts of California garage-rock revivalist Greg Shaw, who issued records by Brandes's and Mendoza's garage bands on his own indie Bomp! label, Spanish listeners followed a musical trail straight to Southern California. "It has been said that the revival scene in San Diego was very small," Maeztu concluded. "But in Spain, these bands represented a guarantee of quality, as well as a direct link to the music of bands like the Beatles and the Kinks. And interest in the San Diego scene is still alive among Spanish musicians."

Intrigued, I spoke with Brandes and Mendoza about their experiences in Spain and ended up discovering a good deal about San Diego's cherished place in Spain's own musical culture. What follows is just a small fraction of all they had to tell me....

Paul Williams: The Spanish genuinely like what you're doing?

Bart Mendoza: It's beyond "genuinely like." If I was in Pearl Jam and drove by a city wall plastered with giant posters of my band, I'd be, like, "Whatever...." But for musicians on my level, who play the Casbah on Tuesday nights, to go and see a wall of your posters taking over a whole city block, or to go into a record store and have your stuff already playing? My favorite thing is walking into a bar and having the bartenders refuse to take my money because they know I'm in that band. It's unbelievable! And yet, every San Diego musician that's gone over to Spain has had the same experience. Right now, I'm in the process of writing articles on the San Diego scene for two different Spanish magazines. And on top of that, Spain's Rolling Stone, which is called Ruta 66, is about to start a music history series on San Diego bands from the '80s. The first three installments feature the Crawdaddys, the Nashville Ramblers, the Black Diamonds, and the Gravedigger V. And, as a result, these bands are all touring over there. It's almost unsettling at times, how devoted the Spanish are.

Ray Brandes: Do you remember that Twilight Zone episode where the little girl goes through a wall and ends up in an alternate universe? It's like that. There were so many people there who knew me, who recognized, admired, and appreciated the music I'd been making for the past 15 years. I think it hit me when Bart and I did an interview with Jesus Orbobas, who's kind of like the Spanish Casey Kasem: We did an interview with him, and each of us played a couple of songs on acoustic guitars. Afterwards, Orbobas began making references to tracks that I played rhythm guitar on years earlier; references to tracks that I'd sung on, bands I'd been in. Here in San Diego, I can't get arrested. It would be difficult for me to fill a club with people who aren't related to me. But the very first place we played in Madrid was packed. Bart and I were signing autographs after the show -- that astounded us both.

Paul Williams: Do the Spanish and American audiences expect different things from a rock band?

Bart Mendoza: There are people who know and love your band, but one thing that's different is that people are willing to take a chance on music they're not used to. They'll say, "Well, these guys haven't been here before, let's go check 'em out."

For example, we played a rhythm and blues club that was just packed. Sweat was coming off the walls, people were jumping off the stage -- we could have been a hardcore band for the amount of intensity in the room. But the show was over at two in the morning, precisely. So, at 1:48 we're playing a Muddy Waters song to 500 screaming kids. And 12 minutes later the music switches and those same kids are swing dancing. There's no drop-off in the audience. They dig it both.

Paul Williams: How did this Spanish adventure start for you?

Ray Brandes: A man by the name of Angel Carrasco contacted me via e-mail in 1998 and asked if I would be interested in releasing something on a small label he ran. I'd been working on a solo album and had close to 20 songs recorded; I was thinking of shopping them to a number of different record labels. But after a few e-mail exchanges with Angel I decided to go with him and released Continental Drifter on the Snap label, which is based in Madrid.

That's how the whole thing started. I'm Mexican-American. My mother's last name is Montijo, and we're direct descendants of Eugénie de Montijo, who was married to Napoleon the Second and was the empress of France and Spain in the mid-1800s. So I have a genetic link to Spain, and I'd always been interested in Spanish art. But this was the first time I ever had any real connection with Spain.

Paul Williams: How did you end up touring there?

Ray Brandes: Bart also had a single out on Snap, so we decided to go over together and do a promotional tour. Since my album was coming out at Christmas, we arranged a couple of weeks in December of 1998. Snap organized the tour for us, the idea being that we'd do some radio interviews and play a few shows backed by a local group called Los Impossibles.

Paul Williams: Did you find the Spanish to be different from the Americans you've known?

Bart Mendoza: Spanish people don't seem to sleep very much. It's not uncommon to have a traffic jam at six or seven in the morning made up of people coming home from the clubs. Americans come from a Puritan tradition; there's much more of an emphasis here on hard work, on preparing for retirement, on preparing for next week. The Spanish love food, they love drink, they love music, they love life for the sake of living it.

Paul Williams: How did Riot Act form?

Ray Brandes: After we returned, I went back to my normal life and on evenings and weekends tried to do what I could to promote the Spanish album over here. Then Bart and I came up with the idea that it would be nice to take some folks we knew from the local scene to Spain. In part we wanted to show our musician friends this incredible place that we'd found. And we thought it would be great if we got together musicians from some of the bands we'd come up with. We talked to Peter Meisner, who had been the Crawdaddys' guitarist. We spoke with Hector Peñalosa from the Zeros and his brother Victor from the Melanies. And we decided we'd form a group to go over and perform songs from our respective catalogues, as well as some covers that we liked.

Paul Williams: You and Bart suggested this because you knew that there was this interest in San Diego musicians?

Ray Brandes: Right. Apart from their interest in what we'd been doing, we were also fielding questions about what San Diego people were up to. "Do you know Ron Silva?" "What are the Crawdaddys doing now?" "Are the Zeros coming to Spain again?"

So we went over there in April of 1999 and had a hugely successful tour of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Burgos, and Ponferrada. Everywhere we went we attracted huge crowds, very demonstrative crowds, crowds unlike any that we were used to. Between us, the musicians in Riot Act must have played thousands of shows. But most were played to mellow California crowds. San Diegoans, particularly, tend to be very appreciative of the music, but they don't yell and scream and smash beer bottles on the floor. They're much more concerned with how cool they look. In Spain, it's people pushing towards the stage, yelling and screaming. In Ponferrada, the small city my wife is from, we ran out of material. We were used to playing half-hour sets in San Diego. But in Spain you need to play for at least an hour and a half. That's what the crowds expect. Anyhow, Ponferrada was probably the smallest concert we played, on a rainy Tuesday night and without much notice. There were maybe 50 people in the club. But they kept begging us to play, and we ended up playing almost three hours that night. We pulled every song that we could think of out of the air; we played an almost complete set of Beatles songs, we played every Chuck Berry song we could remember, and they just wanted to hear more.

Paul Williams: What about Riot Act did the Spanish find so appealing?

Ray Brandes: I think it's the passion we have for music that hits you on a visceral level -- that feels and sounds like a punch in the stomach. That's what the Spaniards found so attractive. They imagine San Diego as a place with 50 or 60 bands like this. The truth of the matter is there are far more bands in Spain who are carrying the torch for that sort of music. It's nice to know that somewhere in the world there's a place that loves and appreciates what you're doing. The journalists in the Spanish magazines even refer to "California rhythm and blues" -- as though that were a particular genre of music!

Paul Williams: And what did you make of the Spanish people?

Ray Brandes: I'll tell you a story: We go to a Spanish diner. It's noon, we eat, the food's okay, Jeff goes to pay, and we leave. Half an hour later, Jeff realizes he left his wallet and passport at the restaurant. His money's gone, everything's gone. He's in a blind panic, so we tell our cab diver about what's just happened. And he turned around immediately, to go back. Jeff's panicking the whole way, but as we're going through traffic the driver says: "Why are you worried? It's no problem." By the time we get to the restaurant an hour's gone by, sure enough the wallet's right where Jeff left it -- it hasn't been touched. The passport, too. And when we get back into the cab, the driver says: "Of course! This is Spain!"

Paul Williams: Where did the San Diego sound spring from?

Ray Brandes: When I think of the San Diego sound, I think of Ron Silva. In the late '70s there was a nice little punk scene in San Diego. Ron Silva was affiliated with it, but really, he's from another planet -- and, probably, the single most charismatic person I've ever met. Ron was exposed to the Beatles as a child here in San Diego and kind of became stuck there. He has worn a Beatles haircut ever since. He used to go to Padres games, close his eyes, and pretend he was at a Beatles concert. And because of his flagrant disregard for reality, Ron started the idea that you don't merely emulate your idols -- you don't look to them for inspiration -- you become them. It's not 1982 with a nod to 1964. It is 1964. You don't wear any clothes that were made or manufactured after 1964. You don't drink Pepsi out of new bottles, even if it means walking ten miles to find an old Pepsi bottle. He was absolutely obsessed -- not only with the Beatles but with the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks.

Ron's passion for music and Ron's total adoption of everything about that era was really infectious. His group, the Crawdaddys, were absolutely incredible. So Ron Silva and the Crawdaddys were probably the beginning of that whole San Diego rhythm and blues sound.

Paul Williams: What accounted for the appeal of your own band, the Tell-Tale Hearts?

Ray Brandes: The Tell-Tale Hearts' biggest gigs were at the Back Door, opening for bands like the Cramps or others. Probably no bigger than a thousand people. Our bread and butter was playing house parties.

Paul Williams: What was the local scene like at the time?

Ray Brandes: At the time the Tell-Tale Hearts started, there wasn't much happening musically here. The Crawdaddys had moved to Los Angeles, and there wasn't anything for punks and mods and skinheads and hippies to do in San Diego, so when we started, we kind of filled a void.

Paul Williams: Were you considered a mod band?

Ray Brandes: People didn't know what to make of us at first, but a few groups did adopt us as their own band; after that, people started to dress like us and we kind of created a scene. But it started as a patchwork of different, disaffected San Diego youths. Apart from the house parties, we played shows at the Back Door, the California Theater, the Adams Avenue Theater. We used to play at Wabash Hall. All-ages clubs, and halls that young people could go to. We were all in our early twenties, and our audience was about our age.

We used to get fan letters from all over the world, but we assumed they were isolated nut-cases who happened to stumble across the album somewhere. We actually got quite a few letters from Spain, and from Italy. And on my trips to Spain, I began to meet a lot of people who were kids when the first Tell-Tale Hearts album came out. They talked to us about just how much they loved it, and a scene was created around the Crawdaddys and Tell-Tale Hearts albums. In the days before music videos, a record album contained all the things you knew about the group on the cover. You could imagine what they looked like, imagine where they came from, and what the concerts would be like.

Paul Williams: It's a very concrete thing the Spanish fans have done, where they've brought the bands over, gone to see them, and learned everything they can about their history.

Bart Mendoza: Like everywhere these days, the music scene in Spain is heading more towards teen pop, techno, disco, hip-hop...that sort of thing. And what we found ourselves in was a niche of their own rock and roll scene, which is shrinking, but so fervent that it's very worthwhile.

Ray Brandes: These days, you can go to Spain and look at a group of 20-year-old kids who are emulating a group of kids from San Diego, circa 1985, who were imitating a group of Englishmen from 1966, who were themselves imitating American blues musicians from the '50s. So it's a cycle.

Paul Williams: Have you heard Spanish bands whose reference points include you and your friends?

Ray Brandes: I've seen bands covering our music, yes. When Bart and I went over the first time, a very good, very well established band called Los Impossibles backed us up. They knew all our songs.

Paul Williams: Would you say that one of the elements that furthers Spanish love for the San Diego scene is that it's not something that has been grabbed by media in the United States?

Ray Brandes: The local media -- even, to some extent, the national media -- have tried at various times to characterize the San Diego sound or scene. And I don't think they've been all that successful.

Bart Mendoza: I do think there's a coolness factor to things that are still undiscovered, and one of those things is the garage scene from San Diego. Even in the '80s, people were coming from all over the world to hear San Diego bands, and even today, European bands visit San Diego to soak up the vibes before going to record their debut albums. Germany, Australia, Italy, Spain -- musicians from these countries know San Diego bands. Labels in these countries have released tons of records by members of the San Diego scene. And the beauty of it is, none of us are playing the exact type of music we were doing back then. We're not rehashing either. When we go to Spain, we're gonna do the hits, we're gonna do all the single tracks. You're kind of expected to do that. But there's just as warm a reception for the new things.

Paul Williams: In your experience, what's the difference between American record labels and their Spanish counterparts?

Ray Brandes: They're honest, they're small-budget, and they're thrilled that you're working with them. They bend over backwards. Even if I did manage to get onto Warner Bros., it would be unlikely that my debut album would include a 12-page booklet or come with a DVD attached. There's no way; we're not the kind of band that's going to recoup that kind of money. But on a label in Spain, it's not a problem! The compilations all come fully annotated; it's beautiful stuff compared to what an American label will do. Nowadays you're lucky if you get a one-panel insert with a CD. But over there it's about quality, because they want the product to last.

Paul Williams: In the mind of the Spanish music fan, is there such a thing as the "San Diego sound"?

Bart Mendoza: I think that there is, and there seems to be a garage music theme to it. Somebody called it "roots-R&B-Americana." San Diego bands who do very well in Spain have a rootsy, garage feel to them. It's music that sounds good in a crowded city bar. They know what our music is, and they know we've got nothing against playing for two or three hours if we have to -- straight with no break, making each song faster than the last one. That's what they like. Somebody came out and said, "It's balls-out rock and roll at one of these shows." And while I'd never heard our music described that way before, I guess it kind of is. Everybody goes for broke during a big show. And in some cases we do break stuff. Some of the best shows I've had over there featured Ray jumping off of things -- stuff like that. It's great fun.

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