The Mavericks never quite fit in on country radio, not even when they were rewarded gold and platinum albums and scoring hits like "What a Crying Shame" and "All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down" in the '90s. It's certainly not that they didn't have the songs (there are few tracks in country music as gorgeous as their "O' What a Thrill") or the talent (lead singer and main songwriter Raul Malo has a muscular, operatic, shimmering tenor with a near-operatic range). But there was always a lot of rock 'n' roll and more than a little Latin-American sway in their music. And after scoring back-to-back hit albums with 1994's What a Crying Shame and 1995's Music for All Occasions, the Mavericks' stylistic range expanded beyond the tight parameters of country radio. Their 1998 album, Trampoline, which incorporated everything from 1950s-style lush balladry to frenzied gospel, was a hit in Europe but got little attention in the U.S. Then, after more than a decade of hard touring, the successful-but-burned-out group disbanded in the early 2000s.
After various solo projects (including Malo's all-star Latin-American supergroup, Los Super Seven), the band reformed in 2013 to record the aptly-titled In Time, which was well-received by both critics and fans of their genre-spanning hybrid, and it was enough of a success that the band decided to make their reunion permanent. Given the group's momentum, it was somewhat surprising when, just prior to the release of Mono earlier this year, they announced that bassist Robert Reynolds, who founded the group with Malo and drummer Paul Deakin in 1989, had been fired from the band due to an opiate addiction.
Malo says that it was a tough period for the group, but that they've become a better band because of the experience. "I'd say we're in a really good place, spiritually and psychologically," he says. "Dealing with the whole Robert situation was more painful than just about anything I've ever had to deal with. This was even more difficult than a death, really, because with a death, there's closure. And this was an ongoing struggle. After years in the music business, seeing all kinds of drugs and alcohol and knowing all kinds of people who've been addicted to all kinds of things, I've never really seen or experienced anything like this. People ask if it was hard to remove Robert from the band, but once it had come to that point, it wasn't difficult. The difficult part was what led to that point. The lying, the deception, the worry, the tension, the destructive behavior ... it was unbelievable."
Despite (or perhaps because of) the Mavericks' lack of presence on country radio, Malo says that the band has retained a wildly dedicated fan base that loves their musical unpredictability. "If they're in the building for a show, they're real fans," he says. "They're not saying, 'I've kind of heard of them and so I bought a ticket.' People at this point have either heard us and they love us, or they've never heard of us. There's no in-between. Our fans now are really beautifully loyal and aware and knowledgeable. They're aware of what we've been doing; they're aware of all our twists and turns ... they expect our twists and turns. We can be as indulgent as we want, musically, and we have a fan base that will back us up."
Mono is a testament to that adventurous mindset. After the lush, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production of In Time, the band decided to record the songs for Mono live in the studio, and, yes, they mixed the album in mono instead of stereo.
"When we were recording the album, we would start off the day by listening to some of our favorite records, and they were all in mono," Malo says. "That was the one thing they all had in common. Those records had a very simple, beautiful honesty to them. One day we were listening to a playback of what we had recorded the day before, and Niko Bolas [co-producer] had inadvertently done a mono mix, which you sometimes have to do just to check things, and I just thought, 'Oh my God. That sounds great.' It just felt like the natural thing to do."
Ironically enough, Malo credits Trampoline, the album that began their decline on country radio, with inspiring the anything-goes attitude that the Mavericks have lived by since. "I think that that sort of aesthetic, that attitude, has played into what we are now," he says. "Back in those days, there were still a lot of forces who wanted to keep [their music] the same. And then what happened was that Trampoline became an international smash, and that proved to us, at least in our minds, that there's a big world out there and they're playing our music. It changed our career and the way we saw things and the way we viewed the music world and our world."
Malo says that the strong response to Mono, which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Country Albums chart in February, has proven the band's instincts, and their fan base, correct again.
"We don't get a lot of people whining and complaining that they wish we would rerecord What a Crying Shame over and over again," he says. "The new music is resonating. And it's strange for a band that's been around as long as we have to have new music that resonates with the fans. That doesn't happen often. So we're loving this resurgence. We're getting a lot of younger audiences, and that's fun to watch. It keeps the band energized, and it reaffirms that what we're doing is the right path, rather than beating a dead horse into the ground."