Rock: You ain't from round here, boys

The Mavericks look like a country band; they almost sound like a country band - but their latest album shows more than Nashville in the mix. Jasper Rees talked to them
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The Mavericks are one of those bands to whom you may have been exposed unawares. On cinema sound tracks, for example, they have a habit of flitting discreetly in and out of earshot like thieves in the night. That was their haunting cover of "Blue Moon" in the Oscar-winning Apollo 13. You'll recall the scenario. Marooned in space, the astronauts listen to the song on a cassette recorder, but the batteries run out and Raul Malo's liquid tenor vocal squelches to an ignominious standstill. When the band took their families to the premiere no one in the audience could understand why a bunch of guys at the back had succumbed to a hysteria way beyond the merit of the joke.

The band didn't attend the premiere of Michael, their next movie role, and it was just as well. "I Don't Care If You Love Me" is chuntering along on the jukebox when John Travolta's eponymous angel enters the bar and gives the jukebox a kick - and something else by someone else comes on. So look out for their forthcoming outing in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. "Dream River", a gorgeous acoustic swooner incorporating a spooky whistle solo, has been called into the sound track. Knowing the Mavericks' big-screen bad luck, it will probably be whispered by a horse.

The Mavericks have been kicking around for most of the Nineties, pretending to be a country band with a pleasant infusion of something a bit less programmatic - a twist of rock'n'roll, a slice of easy listening. In all the cosmetic details, they certainly appear to be a country band.

They're signed out of Nashville, they live in Nashville, one of their number has even married into Nashville aristocracy (bass player Robert Reynolds is Mr Trisha Yearwood). At the Grand Old Opry, country music's La Scala, they won the award for vocal group of the year two years running. Plus there's a goodly scattering of goatees among the ranks, which have been big among your more left-field cowboys these last couple of years.

But while they may be in Nashville, they are not of it. The Mavericks come from Miami and on their fifth album, Trampoline, it finally shows. While a string orchestra tugs the sound Texwards to western swing, they've also enlisted the four-piece Havana Horns, whose job it is to blow the stetson in their music clean away. Right from the first cheerful spray of trumpets that kicks off the party on "Dance the Night Away", they take the mission seriously. One song - "La Mucara" - is even sung in Spanish. The lone instrumental, "Melbourne Mambo", is fluent in Hispanic.

Rather than borrowing someone else's roots, Malo, the band's creative motor, is now officially owning up to his ancestry. His parents are both immigrants from Cuba; his father even enlisted in the army that was mobilised to invade Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A Spanish grandfather brought flamenco into the home, plus a big operatic voice that has come down to his grandson in a set of vocal chords that seem to find everything that cross their path a cinch. Somehow, though, this heritage counted for nought, and when Malo started writing songs they turned out to be in the idiom of Johnny Cash.

When the band's constituent members met in Miami, they were all in different bar bands playing covers to order of anything that was on the radio - U2, you name it. "I had these songs that I had been writing for a while," says Malo. "They sounded like country music to me, or a close relative, and at the time the most exciting place musically for us was Nashville. In the late Eighties you had Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, kd lang, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam being signed out of Nashville. Of course, you don't know the inner workings, the politics; you don't know any of that; you're in Miami. But you're thinking, wow, all these eclectic artists - maybe we got a shot. There wasn't anything happening in New York or LA that was remotely close to what we were doing."

The acts Malo cites have mostly drifted away from Nashville, losers in the battle to turn themselves into fixtures on country radio. Apart from the splendidly defiant Griffith, the Mavericks are now the only resident mavericks in town, and with every fresh album they have been severing the ties that keep them there. Music for All Occasions, their fourth album, was quirky enough. Country likes to concentrate on just a couple of occasions. Sad occasions (lover done let y'all down again). Or happy occasions (speeding into sunset in open-top Chevy as worries recede in rear-view mirror). But in Trampoline, the Mavericks really have written music suitable for all occasions.

"In order to ease in to Nashville," says Malo, "you sort of had to bring in the reins a little bit, kind of be a little more focused and sort of ease into whatever it was you were going to later present. For years I've tried to downplay the Latin influence. But instead of downplaying it like I did and squashing it, I've let it develop and flourish.''

In much the same way that Ingenue, Lang's triumphant crossover into cabaret, was ineligible for any country awards, so Trampoline is a kind of categorical coming-out album for the Mavericks. At least on this side of the Atlantic, it seems to be working. Trampoline got to number one in Norway, if you please. When it was released in this country last month, it got supportive reviews and entered the charts at 17. That may not sound that high for the more mainstream American infiltrants, but it's nosebleed territory for the type of band the Mavericks are perceived to be. So far sales have reached 40,000. After next week they could easily beat that position, when a concert recorded in January at a BBC studio in Maida Vale is broadcast on Radio 2 and they perform live on the National Lottery show.

Then, this month, there's the national tour, where they can be seen doing what they do best. In fact the Mavericks didn't do it for the whole of 1997. In an average year they do 125 shows, mostly in the US, which involves nearly 300 days on or near the tour bus. "Financially it was a little scary," says Malo, a bulky man, who smokes a pipe and doesn't look as he'd find the tour bus at all commodious. "But we couldn't afford not to take the year off. Had we not taken the year off I think we would have broken up." Reynolds talks of "the fatigue factor". "Even when we reworked the songs to give them a different treatment," he says, "they still weren't that exciting to us."

The tour, then, consists largely of new songs. At the Radio 2 recording, as tough a gig as they come, with a hand-picked audience of industry stiffs, the band performed the whole album with no more than two allusions to their own past. This sounds off-putting, but in the Mavericks' case it isn't. Malo has the knack of writing songs which, even when you hear them the first time, you think you've heard before.

The Mavericks' tour begins on 16 April at Belfast Ulster Hall. A live recording is on BBC Radio 2 on Saturday 11 April at 5.30pm. They will also perform on the National Lottery draw on 15 April.

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