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The Mavericks' Raul Malo Still Loves the Skatelites and Can't Wait to Play in Cuba

The country-meets-ska-meets-salsa troubadours are back with their eighth album, 'Mono.'

Photos courtesy of RGK Entertainment

The Mavericks’ eighth studio album, Mono, comes at a particularly interesting time for the long-running country band. It is the second LP that the band has made since ending an eight-year hiatus/breakup, it’s also the first to be recorded without the formerly steady hand of founding bassist Robert Reynolds who was fired last year due to his erratic and litigious action caused by his addiction to opiates.

While a blow to the group on a personal level, the loss hasn’t affected them musically. Recorded in a just over a week in their adopted hometown of Nashville, the Mavericks tear through a dozen songs that folds in elements of ska, rockabilly, and Bakersfield country pop with oodles of energy and shit-eating grins on their faces. Even the ballads feel more like seduction anthems than heartbroken declarations.

As well, for a band that has embraced the sounds of mambo and salsa cubana in their work - influenced in no small way by their early years working the clubs in and around Miami - the Mavericks are still reeling from the news that the U.S. is ready to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in half a century.

We caught up with the group’s frontman and spokesperson Raul Malo (himself the son of Cuban immigrants) to discuss Mono and his reaction to the news coming out of Havana.

Noisey: If the finished product is any indication, it sounds like you guys were having a lot of fun in the studio making Mono.
Raul Malo:
It was a ball to make. We enjoy the process. The recording process for us is really enjoyable. The hard part is the writing of the songs and then once you’ve done that the arranging. That’s where we spend most of the time. That’s where the...not fighting, we’re too old to fight. That’s where you put all of the work in. Once you press record, you just try to capture a performance, the best performance that the band is going to deliver. By the time we made this record, the band had been touring for two years. By the time we got to the studio, we were a well-oiled machine.

That said, you’ve been writing songs for 25 years or more. How do you keep finding inspiration, year in and year out?
It’s a hard thing to even think about. You start to think, “Ugh, I can’t come up with anything new.” But the truth is you’re never going to come up with anything new. It’s all been done before. There are only so many notes on the guitar, there are only so many chords you can play. What I like to do is take a simple melody and take two chords and arrange it. When I go into writing a song, if two chords feels like it’s enough, than that’s how it’s going to be. I don’t feel the need to expand on it. I just try to make those two chord songs sound better. Not that they’re all two chord songs but a lot of them are!

As with a lot of your albums, Mono is such a varied collection. There’s blues, Tejano, and even some tracks that I feel like could have been recorded by the Skatalites.
It’s funny that you mention The Skatalites. It’s part of the Mavericks’ DNA and it doesn’t get mentioned as much as other things. Even early on, we tried to infuse it as much as we could. When I was a kid growing up in Miami, I would sneak into this place called Sundays On The Bay. Every Sunday afternoon they’d have this ska band from Jamaica. They were just awesome. I would listen to the band and watch the people dance and watch the whole crowd. I couldn’t help but just get caught up in it. And every once in a while, the drummer would take a break to go smoke a joint and he would look at me and say, “Come here and play.” It was a great feeling, just everybody grooving and celebrating and having a good time. And I never forgot that.

You are the son of Cuban immigrants, so I have to ask what you think of the U.S. and Cuba normalizing relations. How did you react to the news?
I personally thought it was wonderful. I know not every Cuban or son of Cuban immigrants feels this way. A lot of mixed emotions on this. It’s an emotional subject and, by God, I know that Cubans are an emotional people. [laughs] But I think it’s a good thing. We’ve tried the other way for 50 years and it hasn’t achieved anything other than keeping the powerful in power and keeping the downtrodden downtrodden. Even if you’re just vehemently opposed to it at a certain point you have to step back say, “Well we’ve got to try something.” I think this is a step in the right direction. Is it the answer to everything? No. Is it going to allay the fears that someone has? No. Is it going to ease the emotional baggage that we carry, the pains of days gone by of being ousted from your country? Is it going to change any of that? No. But this is a step for the future.



What are your parents’ feelings about it? Are they going to be visiting the homeland soon?
My mom can still travel. My dad is a bit too frail to travel. He won’t be going back anytime soon. He’s at least lived long enough to hear about this change and hear about it in a real way. Once it’s on CNN then your parents believe it, right? They were part of that staunch hardline conservative Cuban mentality. I think throughout the years it’s softened a bit and they’re glad to see it.

Does this mean The Mavericks will be playing Cuba in the future?
Man, as soon as that is a real possibility and I think we’re a little closer to it every day, believe me I am there. Hell yeah.

This is the second album you guys have made since reunited in 2012, and even in that short time, you’ve been through some drama with your old bass player Robert Reynolds’ drug problems. Are you guys in it for the long haul or do you foresee an end date in the future?
At this point, I gotta say I don’t see this stopping any time soon. For a minute there with the Robert situation, we thought maybe this is the end, this is the sign of the impending doom. And then we all thought about it, and there were many, many late night discussions and deliberations, and we decided it really wasn’t fair to bring down the ship because somebody chose not to participate. A lot of good things were going on. The way we feel now, we could do this for as long as we want. As long as the music is fun for us, that’s the main factor. Unless somebody pulls the plug on us, we’ll be going as long as we can.

'Mono' is out 2/17 via The Valory Music Co.

Robert Ham is blending genres on Twitter.