SXSW regional preview: Pacific Northwest with Y La Bamba and more
On an atypically sunny spring afternoon in Portland, Ore., Luz Elena Mendoza is tearing up.
Y La Bamba, the increasingly buzzworthy local sextet Mendoza fronts, is performing at flagship Portland record store Music Millenium, promoting the release of its second album, “Court the Storm.” As percussionists Mike Kitson and Scott Magee pound and stomp away, and Eric Schrepel wails on his accordion, Mendoza starts to cry mid-harmony, tears welling up in her eyes.
This, it should be said, is not an act. It’s not shtick. It’s not James Brown draped with a cape staggering away from the stage, however cool that might have been in its own way. Mendoza’s tears are real. And they serve as a handy encapsulation of just what makes Y La Bamba so compelling.
Guided by Mendoza’s powerful pipes and heart-on-her-sleeve lyricism, Y La Bamba splices the Americana folk rock so en vogue with the NPR crowd — think the Fleet Foxes, the Decemberists and Neko Case — with powerful Chicano rhythms inspired by Mendoza’s experience as the only daughter of Mexican immigrants. The resulting cross-cultural hybrid contains features of folk music, rock, mariachi and ranchera.
But for all the crackerjack musicianship on “Court the Storm,” it’s Mendoza’s vulnerability that really makes Y La Bamba resonate.
“I’ve been through a lot of (expletive) in my life,” says Mendoza. “And I’m a super-sensitive person, so it can be hard being exposed like that. But it’s important to me to be open. Music should be open. That’s when it means the most to people. I’m always writing about trials and tribulations and struggling — but also about being triumphant.”
Mendoza’s parents hail from Michoacán, a state in southwestern Mexico. They immigrated to the Bay Area before ultimately settling in Medford, Ore. The music of her parents’ homeland — mariachi, norteño, conjunto — formed the cultural spine of her childhood.
“My family members weren’t musicians at all. Nobody played any instruments. But the music was still always there,” says Mendoza. “It surrounded me. It was part of every party, part of growing up Catholic. My dad would parade around the house singing (famed accordion player) Ramón Ayala songs at the top of his lungs. I’ve been singing since before I can remember.”
As Mendoza grew, her musical tastes expanded — first to ’90s R&B like Aaliyah and Sisters With Voices, and later, via Nirvana, to alternative rock ranging from Fugazi to Sonic Youth. But Mendoza’s own musical aspirations — she wrote songs, sang and played guitar during high school — were put on hold when she turned 21. Fervently Catholic, Mendoza traveled to New Zealand and later India as a volunteer for Youth With A Mission, an inter-denominational Christian missionary organization.
The experience challenged Mendoza on two fronts. She contracted amoebic dysentery and giardia in India. The already-slender Mendoza lost nearly 60 pounds and was ill for months. She also re-evaluated her faith, ultimately parting ways with Christianity, though retaining a core of spirituality. Both challenges have manifested themselves in her work — “Court the Storm,” in particular, is rich with religious imagery.
“I was super-naïve when I went, but totally hungry. I wanted to learn more about my faith. And I did, but not in a way that I expected,” says Mendoza. “It was what I needed, but I came back totally confused. I discovered that in India they had their own system and way of living and their own culture. That seems obvious, but it was the first time I really started to understand what that meant. And it hurt for me. It felt like I was divorcing my lover, because the church was such a part of my life.”
Wounded both emotionally and physically, Mendoza moved to Ashland, Ore., before ultimately moving to Portland. As she nursed herself back to health, she adopted a cat named Bamba. When Mendoza took to recording her songs, she dubbed the project Y La Bamba — because it quite literally consisted of just herself and the cat.
That solitude was short-lived. Mendoza began performing locally and connected with a few like-minded musicians around Portland. Y La Bamba gradually grew into a thundering six-piece. They landed on ambitious Portland label Tender Loving Empire. They also attracted the attention of Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk, who produced the band’s debut full-length album, “Lupon,” pro bono. Country folk chanteuse Neko Case became another high-profile fan; she brought the group on tour in 2011 and sings backup vocals on the title track of “Court the Storm.” As Y La Bamba’s profile grew, NPR Music sang the band’s praises.
Perhaps most encouragingly of all, when Y La Bamba needed money to produce “Court the Storm,” their supporters kicked in more than $8,000 via Kickstarter.
“That meant so much to me, that people really believed in what we were doing,” says Mendoza. “Sometimes it takes somebody else really believing in you before you actually believe in yourself.”
Under the savvy production of Steve Berlin — a Grammy Award-winning producer and member of Los Lobos — Y La Bamba’s grown into even more of a force to be reckoned with. “Court the Storm” is a percussive, powerful folk rock record, far more expansive and thrilling than anything the band’s done before.
“I think that record really came together that we were all so comfortable with each other. Regardless of how the album was produced, we were just so open to each other and to new ideas,” says Mendoza. “That camaraderie really makes the record what it is. Everything just gelled so easily. And we recorded it in the middle of a beautiful summer! We could have been outside that whole time! That really tells you just how well we got along; how blessed we felt to be together.”
Official showcase: 12:05 a.m. Saturday at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room
Catch them for free: The Portland Party, 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The Grackle, 1700 E. Sixth St. RSVP and more information at sxswportlandparty.com
5 More from the Pacific Northwest
From: Portland, Ore.
About: You know the synthesizer-saturated Reagan-era grooves that lent such a slick vibe to 2011’s Ryan Gosling neo-noir “Drive?” Portland pop trio Blouse specializes in just that sort of slinky atmospheric nighttime jam. The hazy beauty of singer Charlie Hilton’s vocals is like a ticket to a cooler, more stylish universe.
Could share a bill with: Beach House, Cocteau Twins, Chromatics, M83
Warehouse of sound: There’s a good reason the suave songs on Blouse’s eponymous debut full-length — from buzzy Brooklyn label Captured Tracks — sound so spacey and cavernous. The band records its tracks in a 6,000 square-foot warehouse in North Portland.
Official SXSW showcase: 9:40 p.m. Saturday. The Parish, 214 E. Sixth St.
Catch them for free: 3 p.m. Wednesday. Urban Outfitters, 2406 Guadalupe St.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
From: Portland, Ore.
About: Like the Rose City’s answer to White Denim, Unknown Mortal Orchestra straddle the worlds of rock, psychedelia, and vintage R&B. The trio’s self-titled debut includes reverb-soaked gems that are equal parts experimental and accessible, from the glitchy funk of “How Can U Luv Me” to the toe-tappingly trippy “FFunny FFrends.”
Could share a bill with: White Denim, Real Estate, Wavves, Atlas Sound
Big in New Zealand: Head honcho Ruban Nielson has dual citizenship in the United States and New Zealand — where he and brother Kody first formed the popular anarchic power-pop quartet the Mint Chicks. The band won an armful of New Zealand Music Awards before moving to Portland and ultimately disbanding in 2010.
Official SXSW showcase: 1 a.m. Wednesday. Red Eyed Fly, 715 Red River St.
Catch them for free: 7 p.m. Wednesday. Shangri-La, 1016 E. Sixth St.
From: Seattle, WA
About: Do you like to rock? Yes? Then the Pharmacy has just the prescription for you. Latest release “Dig Your Grave” captures the band at its raucous, sweaty best, with four tracks of lean-and-mean garage rock in the best tradition of 1965 — plus a flavorful dash of modern sneer.
Could share a bill with: The Black Lips, the Sonics, King Khan
Jimi Hendrix eat your heart out: The grainy, graphically violent video for “Dig Your Grave” features lead singer Scott Yoder setting a guitar on fire — and then playing it while wearing flame-retardant gloves. Righteous.
Catch them for free: 12:35 p.m. Thursday. Swan Dive, 615 Red River St.
From: Seattle, WA
About: Silky-smooth blue-eyed indie soul, all subtly insistent bass lines alternating with lead singer Galen Disston’s full-throated vocals. Pickwick’s single “Hacienda Motel” is named for the seedy Los Angeles flophouse where soul legend Sam Cooke was shot to death in 1964 — which says it all about the band’s aspirations, really.
Could share a bill with: Mayer Hawthorne, Fitz and the Tantrums, Raphael Saadiq
Ridiculous: Pickwick began its life as the sort of generic folk band that practically grows on trees in the Pacific Northwest. But, as Disston told Seattle magazine City Arts, “I got sort of sick of playing to a room of white people nodding their heads.” So, inspired by Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder, he retooled Pickwick into a soul sextet.
Official SXSW showcase: 11:20 p.m. Friday. Antone’s, 213 W. Fifth St.
From: Boise, ID
About: Is it possible to be quietly anthemic? If so, that’s precisely how to describe the work of 22-year-old bedroom producer Trevor Powers. Under the moniker Youth Lagoon, Powers concocts sweeping, phantasmagorical pop epics. Debut album “The Year of Hibernation” aches with the longing of … well, youth.
Could share a bill with: Galaxie 500, James Blake, School of Seven Bells, Toro Y Moi
The big year: Powers was virtually unknown at the start of 2011. But Youth Lagoon attracted considerable Internet hype after he posted the enchanting track “July” on Bandcamp. Mere months later, Youth Lagoon’s debut album earned rave reviews from Pitchfork, the BBC, the Onion A.V. Club and others, and touring took Powers beyond the West Coast for the first time in his life.
Official SXSW showcase: 1 a.m. Thursday. Club de Ville, 900 Red River St.
Catch him for free: 4 p.m. Friday. Flamingo Cantina, 515 E. Sixth St.