Hybrid Grooves

Local sextet Chango Malo doesn't monkey around when exploring the nexus of ska, punk, funk and rock.

There are certain bands that you could place in any live setting, before any crowd, and consistently see audiences walk away impressed. Tucson six-piece Chango Malo is one of them.

Some do it based on music and charisma alone. But the secret to CM's attraction--beyond its music and work ethic, both of which we'll get to in a minute--is the palpable sense of camaraderie that exists among the band's members: Quin Davis (vocals/trumpet), Ian Philabaum (guitar/keyboards/ programming), Ryan Couch (guitar), Justin Lillie (bass), Jericho Davidson (drums) and David Clark (alto sax).

The six locals met a few years back, while attending various Tucson high schools, through their interest and involvement in music--all are avowed "music nerds." Most did time in other local groups (such as Poot, Veering Ever Red and e, all of which at one time presciently shared a practice space) that played Battles of the Bands at the members' respective high schools before, as Lillie jokingly puts it, "eliminating all the assholes from the other bands...(and) creat(ing) our all-star band."

From the start, the sextet decided that they wanted to be a somewhat unique entity, without concern for staying within any particular genre. Lillie, again: "It all just kinda came together and we decided, 'Hey, we're not gonna do what every other band does.'"

While each member has his musical favorites, they together cast a wide net of tastes, providing fodder from which to draw. To wit: in the liner notes of Chango Malo's self-released debut CD, The Business of Fancy Dancing (2001), the band thanks such wide-ranging artists as Miles Davis, Tori Amos, Cows, Tom Waits, Deftones, Eric B. & Rakim, Café Tacuba, Motley Crue, Minor Threat, Paco de Lucia, and Marvin Gaye, among dozens of others. Unashamed of referring to their sources, the group instead revels in them.

A typical Chango Malo song starts with a base of the soulful-yet-pummeling sound of Fishbone and Bad Brains, perhaps the two most pervasive inspirations on the band's style. From there the song might take several detours--a speedy third-wave ska-punk section here, a deep R&B groove there--until reaching a climax at which it is, literally, something greater than the sum of its parts. Again unabashedly, the members label each section of a song according to which artist they're alluding (i.e. "the Queen part" or "the Fugazi part").

"We just sit there and fuckin' listen to music all the time," explains Clark, "and that's where we get our shit from."

In the wrong hands, such a philosophy could be tagged merely a rip-off, but the band sees it more as paying homage to those artists that have inspired them. And, to be sure, not many bands can pull off such a stunt as well as Chango Malo does.

The use of such abrupt changes in a particular song's progression, as impressive as it is, can be downright dizzying. And the suggestion that Chango Malo trades in mere imitation is refuted by the members' chops as well their seemingly innate understanding of such different types of music.

In addition, there's the overriding evidence that these 21-to-23-year-olds truly are having the time of their lives, that they'd be playing just as intensely were they practicing in Couch's basement studio, sans witnesses, as when they bounce up, down and sideways into each other on public stages.

All of which brings us, perhaps, to the underlying essential element in making it all work: the band's unyielding work ethic. Chango Malo's ultimate goal--like that of so many struggling bands--is to survive solely by making music. In that pursuit, CM practices four nights a week when they have no gigs scheduled, and nearly every night when they do.

"People are surprised by that," says Lillie. "I guess we're pretty hardcore (about) it." In fact, the band wouldn't be nearly as impressive if its members weren't so diligent, since the whiplash turn-abouts in Chango Malo's music obviously require hours of rehearsal.

The group will release its second disc, an EP titled Septic Style, on Stunning Tonto Records this week. It contains five excellent new songs, one of which, "Rock 'n' Surf," was recorded live at 7 Black Cats late last year, as well as a live version, recorded at the same show, of the debut disc's "The Pied Piper of Rock."

The members are immensely more satisfied with the latest disc than the previous one, notably because Septic Style was recorded mostly live in the studio, while the songs on The Business of Fancy Dancing were laid down track by track. "We're a live band; that's what we do," explains Davidson. "We can try to fake it, and do it track by track, but the energy isn't there. It wasn't there on the first one."

Lillie adds, "I say it all the time, and people give me weird looks, but to me, it's the most proudest moment in my whole life. I'm more proud of that recording than I am of anything I've ever done. Ever." In return, Tucson should be proud to consider Chango Malo its own.