A few years ago, Matt Caughthran suffered from a particularly potent case of writer's block. During the development of 2006's The Bronx, the second in a line of confusingly self-titled records from his L.A. band, the vocalist was troubled by a song that had bounced around his brain “forever.” The event that shook those words loose almost killed him.
While out surfing one day, he hit a massive swell wave that stood around 9 feet tall. He brazenly decided to take it on, but the flow flattened him. Dazed by the crushing, he was held underwater as a handful of wave cycles passed over him.
As Caughthran remembers, “I thought I was going to die.”
Remarkably, he recovered and made it to land, where that work-in-progress song started pouring out without hesitation. Yet instead of emerging as a life-affirming hymn, “Oceans of Class” discusses his desire to be finished off and forgotten, almost regretting his survival: “So drag me down to the ocean floor/ 'Cause I don't want to fight no more/ Against these tides pulling from all sides/ I'm never going back to shore.”
Caughthran found the experience reinvigorating.
“Life has weird moments like that,” he says. “I love when things like that happen. That's what life's nuances are about.”
It might appear strange that Caughthran relishes recounting a time when he was almost exterminated by nature, but that perspective ties into The Bronx's MO: seek destruction out, let destruction come to you and channel the havoc into Hard Rock-tinged Hardcore Punk. The band’s sound is driven by the thrill that comes with spitting in the face of impending doom.
Caughthran's distinctive howl works in sync with this nihilistic approach. “Out for blood” is too timid of a description for it. No, he's out for flesh, bone, organs, veins — anything that can be ripped apart. His restrained form is equally sinister: Caughthran enunciates with the shattered growl of a man getting used to living with some sick truth only he knows.
Even when his intentions are positive, the frontman's lyrics spill with a crooked intensity. “History's Stranglers,” another track from the 2006 album, has a narrator bearing “the hands of history's stranglers” and “the flesh of a million strangers” who threatens to creep in through a window to slice you open while you're asleep. It resembles an overt ode to old murderers, but Caughthran asserts that its meaning lies elsewhere.
“That was my way of saying 'thank you' to singers I always looked up to, like Joey Ramone,” he says. "It's about getting inspiration from the heroes from your childhood and letting them guide you into what you do in the future. I use the idea of a serial killer guided by killers from the past to take the song a crazy way. It's real coded."
Caughthran acknowledges that a sense of aggression is intrinsic to The Bronx.
“If we're going to do a completely soft record, we're going to call it something else,” the vocalist says. “We had all these radio and TV things trying to get Bronx to play acoustic. That just doesn't work. It sucks. The Bronx is supposed to and always will be a loud band, so how do we find a way around that?”
This quandary led to the birth of Mariachi El Bronx, which will also perform on the current tour. Rather than turning out cruel, crude, explosive sounds in ordinary clothes, The Bronx members (and guests) suit up in mariachi band gear and trade standard-issue Rock & Roll instruments for brass, the guitarrón mexicano and the vihuela. In the most revealing alteration, Caughthran actually sings (still in English), utilizing a winsome, masculine tone that displays a surprising sweetness.
The project isn't a marketing ploy. Caughthran has admitted an unfamiliarity with the history of Mariachi music, but the band pursued the style in tribute to the Mexican culture that heavily influences Los Angeles.
Now a more practical purpose governs the two entities: The Bronx represents hate, as spewed by “someone who has been burned and tortured and wants revenge,” while El Bronx symbolizes love by way of “a positive look at life through the eyes of family, friendship and nurturing.”
Following up 2008's The Bronx (album No. 3) and last year's Mariachi El Bronx will be a Bronx/Mariachi El Bronx double LP.
“We are looking to give The Bronx an overhaul. We are capable of much bigger and better things,” Caughthran says, carefully shying away from details. “In this little Punk/Hardcore/Rock & Roll box, the waters have become real stagnant. We're looking to build a new Jacuzzi.”
THE BRONX and MARIACHI EL BRONX play the Southgate House Sunday with Violent Soho and Dead Country. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.