Both as a musician and in a background capacity, it’s safe to say that over the past 20 years, Mario Escovedo has been one of the lynchpins of San Diego’s music scene. Part of San Diego’s first family of music, Escovedo was originally set on delivering high octane rock ‘n’ roll. These days he fronts the Tex-Mex outfit the Mario Escovedo Experience, or MEX for short, with an accordion-fronted sound that ranges from Mexican classics such as “Volver, Volver” to an updated version of Elvis’ immortal “Suspicious Minds.”
From 1988 to 1990 Escovedo paid his dues with the punk band M-80. By late 1990 the core of that group, Escovedo and guitarist Ken Mochikoshi Horne would go on to form legendary rock band the Dragons. They toured relentlessly (11 appearances at SXSW) throughout their 13 years and ultimately released a slew of singles and seven albums. Though the band officially broke up six years ago; their occasional reunion shows are still a guaranteed sell out whenever they occur.
Following the dissolution of the Dragons, Escovedo set out as a solo artist, though that road proved rockier than expected. “I put together a line-up, but really wasn’t happy with the way it was turning out. I kept working on it and working on it.” It was while feeling stymied on his solo band project that the idea for MEX came about.
“I wanted to keep playing, so I wanted to do something that was fun,” he said. “Even the Dragons had a tendency to do some cover stuff. For Cinco de Mayo we’d do cover stuff by the Texas Tornados and all my favorite stuff. That was kind of in the back of my mind. Instead of working so hard on a solo record that was frustrating me, I said screw it, I just want to play some stuff that I have fun doing and that I like.” Some of the current covers in MEX’s set will certainly be familiar to longtime Dragon’s fans, notably the Texas Tornado’s classic “Adios Mexico,” which the Dragons covered on their 1996 album, Pain Killer.
By 2007 MEX was an ongoing concern, though the line-up has seen personnel shifts. Initially, former dragon Steve Rodriguez was part of the band. Other notables to pass through the ranks include drummer Brian “Nucci” Cantrell, guitarists Jimmy D. Seville and Rick Wilkins (Sara Petite, the Outriders), and accordionist Adam Cavazos. Today the band consists of Escovedo, accordionist Lou Fanucchi, bassist George Veddari (Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver), guitarist Chuck Cameron (The Cured), and prolific drummer Charlie McRee (Wirepony, Lord Howler, the Stereotypes and a zillion others).
The sound Escovedo makes is a million miles away from the hard rock of the Dragons, yet there are similarities, particularly in the passion and energy the songs are played with. Mixing elements of Mexican folk songs, country music, and rock ‘n’ roll, MEX is all about the rhythm, some might say it can be similar in feel to ska, providing an irresistible beat for dancing. With accordion as a lead instrument, MEX can handle weepy Spanish ballads as well as more uptempo material, which borders on fifties rock ‘n’ roll
While MEX is a popular attraction around town and there was initial thought about taking MEX to the next level, with touring and recording, Escovedo is happy to keep things where they are. A family man with two kids as well as an employee at local CBS affiliate Channel 8 for nearly 25 years, it’s harder to get away these days. Don’t expect an album or worldwide jaunt anytime soon.
“For me, it’s just been a fun project that keeps me involved in playing and performing,” he said. “It’s something that we keep in the fun vein.” The band’s local following has seen some crossover from the Dragons, but a whole new group of fans has seen them expand their local tour circuit out of the clubs and into venues such as Viejas Casino. “It’s enough to keep me as busy as I want to be or can be,” he said. “It’s something that at this point is still fun and not at the ‘work’ point. And that’s kind of the way that I’d like to keep it.”
Besides the performance angle, Escovedo also enjoys “the camaraderie of being around the guys in MEX. I was so close with all the guys in the Dragons, who have all gone their own separate ways and have their own families and kids and all that.” He’s also effusive about his band mates’ talents, noting that while he fronts MEX, it’s very much a group effort. “These guys are musicians and in their own right, really well respected,” he said, pointing to Fanucchi’s status as accordion icon, McCree’s gun for-hire status, which recently saw him tour Europe with Dead Rock West and Cameron’s regular sold out tours with the Cured.
Today much of Escovedo’s focus is on his work with Requiemme Management and Booking, handling touring details and other business for artists including Maren Parusel, Gun Runner, Lady Dottie & the Diamonds, and Mad Juana, expanding recently to take on artists from outside of San Diego, starting with Toronto’s, Darlings of Chelsea. It was Mad Juana, featuring Sammi Yaffa (New York Dolls), who first approached Escovedo about tour booking. “I still had all these connections from the Dragons touring and knew people in the industry and I knew tons of club owners around the country, so I helped do a tour for him. It ended up being something I liked.” He also worked with older bands, including the Dogs and his brother’s punk band, the Zeros.
It’s clear that Escovedo has the need to make music in his blood and that MEX fits the bill perfectly. “Something I’ll always have to have for myself is an outlet to perform and to play,” he said. “It’s something I really enjoy. MEX is something I have a lot of fun with and the band has a lot of fun with.” He notes that the other band members all have musical careers of their own. “They have their own personal projects, but with MEX, it can be fun and there’s no pressure.” For Escovedo, the best part of being MEX is simply playing with his bandmates. “We never know where it’s going to go. We get into these songs that are structured, but we take them to different places,” he said. “It’s the magic moment s that we have on the stage that we really look forward too.”