We wanted to start a Latin rock 'n' roll band," recalls James Peters, drummer and co-founder of Tucson's long-running Latin rock 'n' roll band, the Jons.
The year was 1999. Peters and singer/trumpet player Jon Villa were both 21 and had moved to Tucson from their hometown of Nogales. Longtime friends and fans of one another's high school bands, the two modeled the Jons on the horn-heavy rock en español of Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, among others. "The horns were a big thing," Peters says.
They recruited some more friends from Nogales to start this band—formed solely because no one else was doing this music locally and Villa and Peters wanted to hear it. By the time of their first show in 2000, the band included Sergio Mendoza (now of Calexico and his Y La Orchestra), Jason Urman (now with Chicha Dust), Ricky Shimo (Discos, Lenguas Largas), Scott Vandervote and Jose Barnett.
The band members lived in one house, wrote songs prolifically and practiced every day. "We were just so excited all the time," Peters says. "We would listen back to recordings of our first shows and they were terrible! We didn't care. We just wanted to keep playing."
By 2002, the band was commanding large audiences in a revitalized downtown music scene that valued originality and spontaneity over typical rock bar-band fare. The Jons had become beloved because there was no one else like them. The lineup shifted constantly, and Villa recalls members being forced to switch instruments at a moment's notice. "We had so many shows booked, and if someone couldn't make it ... then the bassist would now have to be the guitarist." Still, the core members—Villa, Peters and Javier Gamez (who joined shortly after the group's inception)—soldiered on, releasing two full-length albums, Wine at the Hilltop and the flippantly titled Greatest Hits Volume II, in addition to an expanded edition of Hilltop that featured 10 previously unreleased songs, and many compilation appearances. They shared stages with acts as disparate as the English Beat, the Dismemberment Plan, Oh My God and Café Tacuba.
As the Jons' popularity crested, Peters and Villa both agreed on what went wrong. Peters says, "We became a bar band," and Villa completes his thought: "It stopped being fun and we stopped being creative." Around 2006, the band had more shows than it knew what to do with, including regular gigs at Fourth Avenue college hot spots like O'Malley's. "That was when our set list went from 10 percent cover songs to 90 percent cover songs," Peters explains. The Jons were being paid very, very well, but it was at the cost of control over how and what they played, and to whom they played it. Villa remembers promoters threatening to cut power to the sound system if the band didn't perform material to their specifications. Internally, the relationships between members (the friendships that made the Jons possible initially) were becoming strained, and nobody really knew why they were still doing it.
The Jons had cut down their gigs schedule sharply in the past five or six years, and during the last few months, Villa and Peters decided to pull the plug on the group for now. Villa canceled all remaining engagements after a triumphant appearance at the Rialto Theatre last month. Peters says "It's time for us to reset the band. We want to get back to why we wanted to do this in the first place." With a new album, El Rio Mojado, nearing completion (it may be released as soon as this fall) and Villa writing new songs, the band will most surely be back after the members regain their spark and desire. The current members—Villa, Peters and Gamez, along with guitarist Charlie Rodriguez and multi-instrumentalist Michael Carbajal—are pursuing their own projects, with Villa performing with Howe Gelb and Giant Giant Sand, and Peters behind the drums for the Resonars.
When asked what some of his personal highlights have been in the first 15 years of the Jons, Peters tells the story of the band being flown to Hawaii to perform at a wedding, while Villa recounts how Alejandro Marcovich, on leave from Caifanes, had the band back him up for a pair of concerts in Tucson and Phoenix. Marcovich and Caifanes had made a formidable impact on the sound and style of the Jons, and they found themselves playing his songs, though apparently not up to Marcovich's standards. "He schooled us in front of the entire audience," Villa says with a laugh. They also want to give respect and thanks to all former and present members of the band, including Mark Williamson and Daniel Nusbaum.
To watch Villa and Peters interact—sharing memories, interrupting each other and finishing each other's sentences—is to make sense of why the Jons need some time to recharge. Or, as Peters puts it before Villa laughs in agreement, "Being in a band for 15 years is like being married. I don't want to fucking hate these guys anymore."