First published on 9 Apr 2012. Updated on 10 Apr 2012.
Having carved out a 15-year alt-country career as Abbie Cardwell & Her Leading Men, the Adelaide instrumentalist turned her hand to Mexicano music two years ago with new band the Chicano Rockers – and found it had a strange familiarity. Cardwell makes an enigmatic frontwoman, with all the animation of Ann Margret in Viva Las Vegas and startling good looks of Ava Gardner. Backed by her mariachi outlaws, you’re in for good times and – if you’re lucky – a swig of the over-sized cocktail Cardwell puts together during ‘Margarita’.
We’ve been enjoying a swag of Mexican bands in Melbourne, including Puta Madre Brothers and Mesa Cosa. Had you noticed a trend towards all things Mexican when you swapped your Leading Men for Chicano Rockers?
I have hosted Taco Tuesday nights for years but my obsession only really consumed me about two years ago so I suspect it could be some unconscious movement? I haven't thought too much about it. I was talking recently to a lady that was in a Melbourne Mariachi band 10 years ago and she called it 'The Mexican Wave' that seems to come back around every decade. That wouldn't surprise me at all.
Was this Mexican venture intended to be a brief outing that's turned into a success?
As strange or corny as it may sound, I felt completely pulled into it. My obsession didn't make sense to me even though I felt it so strong. All I knew was that this band would be big and we would wear mariachi inspired outfits and somehow the music would sound Mexican but not be traditional!? It didn't make that much sense to me and some days I even questioned my sanity. I wasn't clear on the music but I knew the mystery would unravel if I just trusted in where my inspiration led me.
I never thought too far ahead about its success. When I started looking for musicians I told everyone this project was about having fun and that it would most likely be just handful of gigs a year as I wanted everyone to be paid at least $100 each per show. With a big band that means cheap regular pub gigs are totally out of the question. I also was prepared to have a small army of understudies as most musos are in several bands.
Where do your Chicano Rockers come from?
The Chicano Rockers (and understudies) stem from a fine selection of bands: The Melbourne Ska Orchestra, the Rechords, Sal Kimber & the Rollin' Wheel, the WooHoo Revue and of course Abbie Cardwell & Her Leading Men.
You're a multi-instrumentalist but you've put aside all but the maracas for Abbie Cardwell and the Chicano Rockers. Are you missing playing?
I certainly haven't stopped playing my instruments… I'm just busier than ever before. I admit I've pulled back from playing live shows with my Leading Men recently but I think it's been a refreshing break to immerse myself in my Mexican obsession. Focussing on singing, dancing and shaking a maraca is a joy I revel in but I will always adore playing my instruments!
We heard rumour you've just come back from Mexico… where did you go and what did you get up to?
My trip to Mexico began in a similar way to the Chicano band. I was suddenly inspired to book a ticket one January day whilst wandering past a travel agent and I decided I was going there for Day of the Dead and to record with a band. I knew no Spanish, had no savings and no contacts but somehow in that moment it just seemed to make sense. Of course I panicked a little at times before the pieces to the puzzle began forming, but the major key was attending a Melbourne exhibition of Mexican artists curated by Oscar Salinas Losada, who introduced me to well-known Argentinean artist Dr Alderete. The rest is history! He listened to my music and suggested I would work well with Mexican band Twin Tones. Armed with a few months’ Spanish I met them and we hit it off like long lost family beating to the same drum!
My Mexicali Mamma DJ partner in crime, Miss Annemarie, joined me for the first part of my trip and we revelled in Oaxaca for El Dia De Los Muertos. We even dressed up as skeletons and frolicked amongst the locals in the cemeteries. We also bought tons of records from vintage markets and somehow managed to survive the deadliest neighbourhoods in our hunting that more than often got us lost.
Where do you get your costumes?Miss Annemarie Blades of The Very Curious Kitten blinged up the mariachi jackets and ties. I can't wait to have even more costumes one day.
Is there an album underway?Si, Si, Si! I am currently working on the concept album now between my Mexican band Twin Tones and the Chicanos here. The only thing in our way right now is MONEY! So I'm launching a crowd funding plan very soon thru Pozible so we can set this music FREE! My dream is to also bring Twin Tones to Australia one day too.
Abbie Cardwell & the Chicano Rockers lead a bill of Mexican wrestling and dancing at the LuWOW's Cinco de Mayo celebrations. May 5. $10.