They call it gypsy pirate polka. Or urban gringo mariachi. Or, cracking up during a phone interview, members of Diego's Umbrella go so far as to draw an analogy between their music and vomit.
"Say you have a burrito and then some strawberry cheesecake for dessert. You drink a lot, and when it all comes out, it's this weird hodgepodge," says guitarist Tyson Maulhardt.
The San Francisco sextet is indeed the type of melting-pot band that can get away with such creative descriptions. The music is a multiethnic blend of stunning breadth: flamenco, klezmer, surf-rock, Eastern European and Mexican, with an urban energy that shows up as gritty punk rock. If there's any sort of a gypsy-rock movement, Diego's Umbrella is certainly a part, drawing comparisons to bands like Gogol Bordello, DeVotchKa and even Tucson's Calexico.
"It's like static cling," says singer-guitarist Ben Leon. "Being in California, you're surrounded by all sorts of different music. You do some traveling, and again, you pick up things along the way. We've been to Europe a few times, and there's lots of great stuff, and we just grabbed it and incorporated it into the act. We've played a couple of Jewish weddings and picked up some klezmer. All this stuff got thrown into the Diego's Umbrella dryer, and it all came out stuck together."
The band began a decade ago, when University of California at Santa Cruz friends Maulhardt and Vaughn Lindstrom moved to San Francisco after graduation. The band began playing around the Bay Area as a quartet, with violinist Jason Kleinberg and bassist Kevin Blair. Drummer Jake Wood and Leon joined in 2009. Maulhardt jokes that Leon is as much a victim of Diego's Umbrella as he is a member, having been kidnapped from Los Angeles to round out the band.
"He added a whole bunch—a whole new guitar sound, a bunch of percussion and a brand-new voice to the band," Maulhardt says.
For his part, the half-Ecuadorian Leon says, "I'm legitimizing the operation."
With its current lineup, Diego's Umbrella began building a reputation for a wild live show.
"It's a whole different beast," Maulhardt says. "It's a wild beast that's pretty much always teetering on the edge of chaos, but in a nice way. It's a loud, raucous, slightly intoxicated dance party."
Says Leon: "One of the things that's fun about being in the band is I can't think of a show that we've played where we did not win the people over by the end. That makes it feel pretty universal, though you could view the music itself as off the beaten path."
Diego's Umbrella has self-released three albums—Kung Fu Palace (2006) Viva la Juerga (2007) and Double Panther (2009)—and is working on the band's first record for Berkeley, Calif., label Ninth Street Opus. The still-untitled record is scheduled for a fall release.
"We try to get a little out of control in the studio, but it's not the same," Leon says. "Live, we just let the beast off the chain, and it grows a third head. The energy gets loose out of the cage and runs around the room trying to grab people's buttocks. It tries to rub its face in women's crotches—anything it can do."
The band also dresses uniformly, in outfits they sew themselves, looking somewhere in between military and marching band.
"We've always dressed up," Maulhardt says. "We always want to keep in mind the visual aspect of the shows. Anyone can wear a ratty hipster T-shirt and get up there and do their thing. We've always tried to blend the outfits based on the music as well."
Says Leon: "We sew in a bouncy van when it's 100 degrees going across Texas. And it doesn't make us any less (manly). We'll sew all day and kick ass all night. We're not just a band that gets up there and just plays music. It's an entire show. We do whatever we can to take the show up another notch, and the uniforms are a part of that."
The band members present themselves irreverently, spreading tall tales with an absurd sense of humor that seems to grow the more they spend time together. (A recent Twitter post: "My other car is an aquaponic tilapia farm.")
As the interview slides further from the serious, the band talks about the "randomizer function on the Diego's Umbrella bat computer" that they use to come up with descriptions of the music. "'Washed-up elevator porcupine' came up first, but we just kept hitting the button," Leon says.
"The folktales are all true," Leon adds. "We will never dispel any rumor that's ever put forth about us."
Diego's Umbrella is gaining notice on the festival circuit. The band just played the High Sierra Music Festival in Chico, Calif., and is scheduled for the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and Musikfest in Bethlehem, Penn., next month.
"We are explorers. We are journeymen," Maulhardt says. "We're just men of the road who come across various things and people and experiences, and we morph them and shift them into some of the content. We're soaking it all in, and it's bound to come out."