IF IT WEREN'T for a drum lesson gone awry, Y La Bamba's second album, Court the Storm, may never have happened.
It started at Zilla Sake House on NE Alberta, the sometime employer of frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza. That's where she got to know Paul Cameron, a regular customer who turned out to be a fellow musician.
"One day I was like, 'You wanna give me a drum lesson?'" says Mendoza. "But it didn't work. So we were like, 'Fuck it, let's drink sake and write a song.' I'm manic, so we just fuckin' wrote it all down. And those songs are Court the Storm," she says. Cameron is now Y La Bamba's guitar player.
Something doesn't quite add up about Court the Storm: It's a lushly orchestrated, gorgeous album of mariachi-inspired indie pop. The lyrics confront serious topics like religion, faith, morality, and origins. There are spine-tingling harmonies and fuzzy guitars. Sometimes, in the right mood, the emotion behind the songs can bring tears to the eyes. Court the Storm sounds deliberate and meaningful, not the product of a few sake-fueled weeks.
Mendoza shrugs. "It was winter."
Fresh off what may be their "seventh or eighth" tour, Y La Bamba have hit a stride, and it's one that seems to agree with them. They even get exercise—Mendoza discusses her Northeast Portland running route—but more importantly, they get along. In fact, they make being in a six-piece touring band seem easy, pleasant.
Making the album was no different. "We recorded it in two weeks," Mendoza says. "It wasn't stressful, and we're really proud of it." Grammy-winning producer and Los Lobos member Steve Berlin offered to produce Court the Storm after hearing their debut album, Lupon. As a member of what may be the most famous Chicano rock band of all time, Berlin understood their vision for mariachi-inspired pop. "He was amazing," Mendoza says. "I learned so much from him."
By then, Cameron and percussionist Scott Magee had joined the initial lineup of percussionist Michael Kitson, bassist Ben Meyercord, and accordionist Eric Schrepel. The boys in the band are also responsible for producing those shiver-inducing harmonies, which are even more effective live than they are on the album. "We're a choir," Mendoza says.
This is part truth and part modesty. Her muscular, full-throated voice is the uncontested star, whether singing pretty and quiet ("Moral Panic") or when she really lets loose ("Bendito").
The fact that four of the 11 songs on Court the Storm are in Spanish has gotten a lot of press. But Mendoza is nothing if not authentic, so songwriting in her first language seems to have been a natural part of the process. "I don't filter myself when I'm writing in Spanish," she says. "I spent six weeks chilling in Mexico at the beginning of the year, and everything I wrote was in Spanish."
Court the Storm has only been on the shelves for two months, but the next album is already well underway. Planning a new album while touring would be impossible for a less functional band, but Y La Bamba seems to have found the magic bullet of talent, creativity, and chemistry. "We know that we're doing something good," Mendoza says. "Our camaraderie is pretty special."