What do you get when you meld “fast/loud rules” with the Tex-Mex accordion? Piñata Protest and their invigorating and pointed “punk rock-y-roll.” The band “forcefully take the raw essence of conjunto into warp-speed tempos and punky aggression,” raves the San Antonio Current, which rates them as “one of the most original forces on the local music scene.” And now with their national debut album on Saustex Records, Plethora, Piñata Protest take their infectious and bracing South Texas slamdance to the rest of America and the planet at large.
The album bristles with the zest and sheer fun to be enjoyed in a sound that has been dubbed “amphetamine norteño,” “ranchero punk” and “puro pedo [no bullshit] punk rock” while also targeting the adversities and emptiness of modern life with dead-eyed aim. As the San Antonio Current observes, “Piñata Protest’s Álvaro Del Norte is doing for the accordion what the Dropkick Murphys do for the bagpipes, playing what’s often considered an embarrassing grandpa-music relic with youthful angst and energy, expanding the punk-rock template beyond London and NYC.”
And true to its title, Plethora brims with an abundance of borderland twists to the teenage kicks (for listeners of all ages) and proletariat angst at the very heart of the punk rock spirit. Setting the pace with “Polka Time,” the simmering instrumental that opens the album, Piñata Protest barrels its way through a high-octane set of bilingual songs that look at life’s cold-hard realities within red-hot danceable Mexican-American rhythms.
“Campesino” captures the struggles of migrant workers that Del Norte learned about first hand in his early teens picking strawberries in Washington State to earn extra money when his father was serving in the Army, while “Maquilapolis” blasts the cheap labor factories lining the southern side of the U.S./Mexican border. The songs explore dead-end life both at work by day (“Suckcess”) and in the bars at night (“Cantina” and “Scene Unseen”) as well as the realities and hypocrisy of existence in the modern age (“Matador” and “No Que Si”), all with a Español accent to themes that everyone in the great and growing American underclass can relate to. “Denied Rights” wafts with the chill of global oppression, and in numbers like “Love Taco” and “Cold Fries” one hears echoes of the greatness of The Clash on such classic albums as London Calling and Sandanista!
“When people ask me, hey, are you guys a political band? Are you guys a party band? What do you sing about? I like to say we just sing about life,” Del Norte explains. “They songs are all a reflection of things I see and experience and believe in.” Yet at the same time, Piñata Protest offer a rush of catharsis that’s as intoxicating as a keg of Dos Equis and a barrel of tequila with a bushel of limes, and signal a powerful new and utterly distinctive musical wrinkle in music from Texas for the world.
As Del Norte readily admits, for much of his life he rejected the traditional Mexican-American music he heard at home and throughout the barrio growing up in San Antonio. “I hated Tejano and conjunto and anything in Spanish. Didn’t think it was cool,” he explains.
Instead he dug R&B and pop/Top 40 music until he heard in bands like The Ramones, The Clash and Black Flag a sound, attitude and messages that spoke to his feelings, experiences and soul. “I was at a party and they were playing all this stuff, and it was a time in my life when my mind was really open, and I remember being really blown away,” Del Norte explains. “It was an explosion in my mind. It felt amazing. I decided I want to play music in a rock band and make other people feel that way as well.”
He learned to play bass and did time in a punk rock and an emo band. And as his high school years came to a close, Del Norte also had a change of heart regarding the music he grew up with. Born in Nuevo Laredo into a family that illegally immigrated to Texas and later became naturalized, he found such styles as Tejano, norteño and conjunto also spoke to another aspect of who he was as well as larger cultural and human issues.
At Palo Alto Community College in San Antonio, he studied accordion with master player Juan Tejeda, a respected folklorist and founder of San Antonio’s Tejano Conjunto Festival. It led Del Norte to start a band that combined the punk style he loved with his Chicano musical roots that he had grown to appreciate. “I was sick and tired of bands all sounding the same. I thought long and hard: What can I do to do something different, something fun?” he explains. “All these bands were taking themselves way too seriously, and I think they forgot what music was all about: just having a good time and putting on a fun show. I thought it would be a good idea to combine the music I grew up hating and later liking and punk rock, and see how that went down my throat and regurgitated.”
He started recruiting musicians at Snaps Skate Shop, a skateboard store and center in a funky old warehouse with a half-pipe inside that was a San Antonio punk scene gathering spot. It’s also where the first version of Piñata Protest debuted, although their inaugural show was almost derailed when police raided the joint. Undaunted, the band set up outside and played unplugged. They’ve since risen from the local rock and punk clubs to gigs with bands like Girl in a Coma, Snow Byrd, The Hickoids and Los Skarnales and playing such festivals as Chicago's Latino Fest, the American Sabor Music Festival in San Antonio and South By Southwest in Austin.
A self-released 10-track EP helped spread the word. They also so impressed Hickoids singer Jeff Smith that he signed Piñata Protest to his Saustex label, and hails them as “the most pure punk band I've seen in 15 years.” They recorded Plethora to spread the band’s supercharged squeezebox Chicano punk far and wide with the lineup of drummer J.J. Martinez, bassist Marcus Cazares and guitarist Matt Cazares now solidified behind Del Norte.
“The brown people get down to it,” Del Norte notes, and so do the gringos too. The San Antonio Current cited the quartet for one of 2009’s Best Local & Live Shows, noting, “Their respect for traditional Tex rock oozes with more anger than most bands have mustered since the Dead Kennedys went to trial, and cramped inside the confines of St. Mary’s strip institution Saluté that intensity threatens to collapse the walls. So why was everyone in the audience grinning so damn much?” Texas Street Scene seconds the notion. “Their mix of conjunto and punk rock always brings a crowd to their feet and are sure to keep you moving throughout the night.”
“Even if you aren't a fluent Spanish speaker you’ll love this music,” concludes Examiner.com. “Whoever said accordions were only for polka couldn’t be more wrong. After hearing this band, you’ll never look at one the same again.”