TWO WINTERS AGO, in a near-freezing, empty Masonic temple in North Portland, a reasonably unknown local band recorded tracks with Chris Funk of the Decemberists. There, the groundwork was laid for Y La Bamba's Lupon, which is now seeing the light of day more than a year and a half after those ice-cold sessions.
"We've been sitting on this record for so long," says vocalist/guitarist Luz Elena Mendoza, who began Y La Bamba as a solo act (bassist Ben Meyercord, drummer Mike Kitson, and accordionist Eric Schrepel joined Mendoza soon after). "It definitely documented this special time for all of us; we all shared that same reality, where we were at that time, mentally, spiritually, physically. Now, to expose that is kind of an interesting feeling, but for me it seems like it was just yesterday."
Lupon is a wide-ranging garden of styles, with gossamer folk and jangling indie-rock steeped in the influences of Mendoza's Mexican heritage. Her unearthly vocals—at times soft and frangible, at others hardily operatic—sound completely lost in time, like they're emerging from a dusty recording on an abandoned Victrola. The band's restrained instrumentation capably covers the record's varying moods with impressive diversity. But while it took awhile for the record to find the right home, which turned out to be local label Tender Loving Empire, Y La Bamba has become an impeccable live band in the intervening months, performing locally as often as possible—big gigs, small gigs, on the street, in galleries. And the band significantly expanded both its repertoire and its lineup, adding Sean Flinn, Scott Magee, and Paul Cameron to its ranks.
"This last winter was pretty interesting because I had no idea what to expect," says Mendoza of the period after Lupon was finished. "I started taking drum lessons. That was my goal: to grow and do something different. It turns out that my drum teacher—Paul Cameron, who's now in Y La Bamba—plays the guitar and sings beautifully. I didn't have a heater in my house and I was alone all winter, my roommates were always gone. Next thing I know we had a bottle of sake one cold December night and smoked a whole shit-ton of cigarettes, and we wrote song after song after song after song. I don't even know what happened; we wrote so many. Then we started getting other musicians, and it sort of became its own thing. And that became Tragos Amargos."
Those songs were recorded in tinny, lo-fi versions, sounding, even more than Lupon, like trembling ghosts from a distant past—folk songs, farming songs, laments, and dances. "They mean so much to me. They're special. It was such an intense time," Mendoza continues. "Slowly, just naturally and inevitably, it got introduced to Y La Bamba. And now Tragos Amargos is what I call the style, the heart behind this new music that is now in Y La Bamba. That's what was happening as we were sitting on the album and trying to find a label. In the meantime, we were just making all this crazy music—with more stuff in Spanish, just being playful. I think I opened myself up to another level of musicianship."
To try to find where Y La Bamba ends and Tragos Amargos begins at this point is almost unnecessary. The bands are now interwoven to the point where it's not uncommon for Y La Bamba to perform, mid-set, a string of Tragos Amargos numbers, led by Cameron on a fluttering nylon-string guitar. Meanwhile, Y La Bamba has steadily been gaining attention on the local scene to the point where it's beyond Mendoza's expectations.
"It's new to me, and it's not something that I was ever expecting," she says. "And it's still at such a minor scale, man. We're just doing our thing and people are supporting us, and it's awesome. But I'm not used to this side of the music thing. I have faith that soon I will be able to grow up and find a stable, balanced way to create space for it in the most balanced way. Right now, I'm not used to it and it's depleting me a bit, in a way. But I have faith that it's going to mellow out. It's important to remember that music is beautiful, it's sacred.
"There's so much creative energy coming that I don't even know how to harness it all," Mendoza adds. "I don't know where to put it. So I have to take a couple deep breaths and just let it do its thing. This is just apparently how it works. It's... how do I say this? It's like a high-strung monster. But it's not destructive; it's productive. A productive monster. Sometimes you can't tame it, though."