Between a Rock and a Latin Place

Indie rocker Javier Mendoza works to correct genre assumptions

May 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Javier Mendoza has become a pretty big deal at home in St. Louis. He’s built a loyal fan base that packs his club appearances to capacity, and local media have taken notice, showering him with deserved acclaim and appropriate accolades. Well, almost appropriate.

“I’ve had this stereotype because of my name, so I’ve gotten ‘Latin’ a lot. There were a couple of albums I released that were purely in English and all Rock and I still got Best Latin Artist, which made no sense,” the singer/songwriter/guitarist says with a laugh. “One year I won Best World/Reggae Artist, and I was like, ‘I guess we better start playing some Reggae now.’ The one that meant the most was when I got Best Pop Artist in St. Louis. It meant that people finally got it. It’s cool that people think I’m Latin, but understand that we’re not going to play Salsa.”

The media’s confusion, while misinformed, is not entirely misplaced. In fact, Mendoza’s latest album You, released last November, comes in English and Spanish versions, the latter titled Tu. But singing in Spanish doesn't make Mendoza a Latin artist. One listen to You/Tu reveals influences consistent with his Indie Rock peer group.

“U2 has obviously been a big influence, but probably my biggest influence musically has been Radiohead,” Mendoza says. “U2, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie — that realm of epic yet subtle and honest music. And I’m drawn by Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. I like drama. And I don’t think I’ve been able to portray that influence greatly until this last album.”

Mendoza comes by his multiculturalism honestly. He was born at Fort Myer in Fairfax, Va., where he lived for two years. His father retired from the military, took a U.S. government job and moved the family to Spain. When Mendoza was 14, his family relocated to Germany, and at 18 he received a soccer scholarship to St. Louis University. By then, he’d already developed an interest in music.

“My brother, sister and dad all played guitar,” Mendoza says. “There was always a guitar in the house.”

Two knee surgeries ended his soccer dream, so Mendoza switched to musical pursuits. In 1993, former Uriah Heep keyboardist Ken Hensley became Mendoza’s manager and got him a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell in Miami, where he wrote songs for Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias.

“I was writing for them, I just never got one of the hits,” Mendoza says. “I didn’t write ‘La Vida Loca,’ or I’d be talking differently.”

Mendoza became disenchanted with Warner/Chappell when they tried to mold him into a poster boy, but he stuck it out. In 1997 he started work on his debut album, Tinta y Papel. When it was finally finished in 1999, Mendoza decided to part ways with both W/C and Hensley; his now former manager sued him for breach of contract and Mendoza countersued for fiduciary breach. It was finally settled in 2002, but it came at a cost: Mendoza’s label deal, management and marriage all evaporated.

Things began to turn around for Mendoza in 2003. After his debut and three well-received studio albums (particularly 2001’s Beautiful), he released a live solo CD, Live at Blueberry Hill, and remarried, his new wife also becoming his publicist. In quick succession, the Javier Mendoza Band got song placements on MTV’s The Real World and opening gigs for Los Lobos and Chuck Berry, while Mendoza was chosen as a Budweiser True Music Artist for 2005, one among many industry accolades that came his way.

Mendoza’s Flamenco-tinged eponymous 2007 solo album raised his profile even more, setting the stage for the triumphant accomplishment of You/Tu, the English/Spanish albums he has always wanted to make. It was incredibly more difficult than it might seem.

“I had to wrap myself around the melodies and making the words fit — it was a difficult and tedious task,” Mendoza says. “I wrote seven songs in English and four songs in Spanish in its original form, so I (translated the four) into English, and then, with the help of my cousin and the poet laureate Ava Rotato, I had them translate the (English) songs without hearing the music. I took that translation and attempted to fit it. I would end up using about 15 percent of the translation, but it really helped me to patch it. We put it together and it turned out better than I could have ever imagined.

“It was a dream of mine to do that. I’ve always wanted to avoid that, ‘Well, I like the song but I don’t understand it, I wish it was in English.’ And now I can go, ‘It is … take this.’ ”

JAVIER MENDOZA performs Saturday at the 20th Century Theatre with Nicholas Radina. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.