When the Mavericks take the stage at ACL Live on Tuesday to tape "Austin City Limits" for the third time in the band’s illustrious career, it’ll be a much different experience from when they did the show in 1995 and 2000. On the heels of a Sept. 10 taping with Rufus Wainwright, this will be the second time the program has taped a performance with no audience, a precautionary move the show has taken during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mavericks leader Raul Malo tuned in to the private livestream of Wainwright’s taping to see how it went. (The livestream of Tuesday’s Mavericks taping will be public, via the "Austin City Limits" YouTube channel.) Malo acknowledged that the experience likely will be a bit surreal — "You’ve just got to close your eyes at the end of the song and pretend that there's people clapping" — but he’s glad the show decided to continue making new episodes.
"Music has a way of helping us get through these times," he said. "Certainly ‘Austin City Limits,’ with its beautiful heritage, should be part of the dialogue right now. In the midst of all this, we're still providing entertainment and music, and I think it's more important now than ever."
Malo and his band have something special to bring to the occasion. Last month they released "En Español," the Mavericks’ first-ever all-Spanish-language album. Malo says he first started thinking about doing it nearly 20 years ago, when he recorded four Spanish-language songs for his 2001 solo album, "Today," just before the band went on hiatus for several years.
"I remember thinking that if the Mavericks ever got back together, it would be really fun to make make an all-Spanish record," he says. When the band reconvened in 2012, "it was always one of those projects that was talked about. And then in the last couple of years, we actually got serious about it."
"En Español" features a rich mix of classic tunes from various Latin cultures, plus five new songs that Malo mostly co-wrote with Cuban musicians. Malo, raised in Miami by parents who came to the U.S. from Cuba, was motivated in part by his work on the 2017 PBS music documentary "Havana Time Machine," for which he collaborated with several Cuban musicians in their home country.
We talked with Malo about the making of "En Español," the Mavericks’ long history as a band that has commingled country music with other genres, his love of Austin and more.
American-Statesman: Was writing five songs in Spanish on this record a new challenge for you? Did you grow up speaking both languages from the time you were a kid?
Raul Malo: I’m a first-generation Cuban American, so Spanish was really my first language. And then as you go to school, you learn English and you pick it up and you carry on speaking English. But because Spanish was my first language, I was able to retain a lot of it.
Of course, just because you can speak it or read it doesn't necessarily mean you can write a song with it. But luckily I've surrounded myself with some very talented young Cuban artists. The Sweet Lizzy Project is a band we brought over from Cuba after we met them when we filmed the PBS show "Havana Time Machine" a few years ago in Havana. They're a Cuban rock band; we brought them over and signed them to Mono Mundo Recordings, our own label.
During the process of this record, there were some songs where I had almost the complete idea, but I needed help with the lyrics. So I got Lisset (Díaz), the singer and main writer from Sweet Lizzy Project, to help me. Some of the other songs were written by myself and another young musician, Alejandro Menendez Vega, who is our videographer/cinematographer extraordinaire — but he's a complete renaissance man, as most of these young Cuban musicians are; he’s a poet and a writer himself. So they definitely helped me formulate the ideas in a very poetic and "correct Spanish" sort of way.
From the outside, people tend to view the Mavericks as a really diverse band that pulls together a lot of different styles of music. Does it feel that way from the inside, or are you just doing what you love and what comes naturally to you?
Sometimes we sound really clever, like we thought about all this the whole time, but the truth is, it’s sort of a happy accident. But I think what we do have is an open attitude toward music and art. I love finding that little thread that runs through all kinds of music. Not only do you connect all different kinds of music, but you also connect humanity, in a way. You connect all kinds of cultures and all kinds of people in an inspirational way, to show us that we're really all more closely related than we think.
We certainly live in a world where differences are on display every day. But music has a way of breaking down those barriers and connecting us. To me, that was kind of the inspiration for this record. It’s a celebration of the cultures I grew up listening to, and that I grew up loving in my house in Miami — growing up listening to all different types of music all the time.
You did a couple of albums in the early 2000s with Los Super Seven (a Latin supergroup that included members of Los Lobos, Los Texmaniacs, Tejano legend Ruben Ramos, Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso and others). Did that help to prepare you for a project like "En Español"?
I made lifelong friends from those sessions, and I learned a lot. Those records were made with no commercial agendas whatsoever, just creative agendas. They were the most fun you could possibly have, because everybody wanted to be there and loved being there. The music had this organic sense about it that happens when you put a bunch of great musicians together and ideas are just getting thrown around. I'm really proud to have been a part of those.
As a singer, do you find English or Spanish to be more naturally lyrical for you?
I think Spanish is probably more effective, more lyrical. It's a beautiful language — not to brag on it, but to me it sounds beautiful, whether it's a Mexican artist or a Colombian artist or a Cuban artist. It's the language itself; it sounds romantic. It is the language of love.
Did putting out this record in 2020 have anything to do with the times we're living in — in terms of the cultural battles America has had recently in regard to immigrants?
When we started this project, the first thing we said to ourselves was that we weren't going to set a time limit as to when it was complete. So we started recording it a couple of years ago, and this February is when we finished it. And even though it has no political songs to speak of, really, the irony is not lost on any of us.
With everything that has been said against immigrants and against the Latin community and the immigrant community in particular, it's hard not to take that personally. I am the son of immigrant parents, and this country gave them, and me, an opportunity. I honestly feel that if Donald Trump had been (president) in those days, we wouldn't have had these opportunities.
The things this administration has clearly done against the immigrant community, the fear that has been spread among the population, and the divisiveness — in no way, shape or form are we in agreement with what he has said or done. But this record has no political messages, and yet, because of the world that we're living in, the subject does come up.
It's interesting to note that with all of the political songs I've had in the past, this is the one that gets talked about as being a political statement of sorts. And it’s not. It's a humanitarian statement. This is a celebration of the diversity of culture that I grew up with. It’s essential to this country, and it’s what makes this country the beautiful melting pot that it is.
Austin has long been a great market for the Mavericks; you’ve played many sold-out shows at ACL Live, and have played the Austin City Limits Music Festival multiple times. Is it a special city for you?
Austin has always been amazing. In my solo years, those were some tough years because people didn't quite know what to do with me. But Austin always provided a home. The Mavericks have enjoyed nothing but love and support here since the beginning — since before the San Jose Hotel became what it is now, when it still had that crappy yellow sign with red lettering. (Laughs)
Many times in my life I've come close to moving there. For one reason or another, it hasn't happened, but I still consider it one of my favorite places, not only to visit but to work in. It’s a great town, and it'll always be a music town.
Is it a little bittersweet coming back this week but not being able to play in person to all of your fans here?
I wish it was under different circumstances. But we'll get back to that place again, where everybody will be in a crowded room, singing along and sweating and dancing and grooving. We’ve just got to get this thing under control and have everybody wear masks and be sensible and reasonable, which I know is a lot easier said than done. We can't be acting like nothing's happening,
But I have hope for the future. I've seen more acts of kindness during these dark times than ever before. And music is always there, to show us the light. I still believe that.