by Dan MacIntosh

Ozomatli could only be from Los Angeles. And like Los Lobos, another fine SoCal multicultural group, this large, multifaceted band covers a lot of musical ground. There's a little rap, a touch of funk, lots of Latin elements, and even a few international wrinkles. And while the homosexual rights song "Gay Vatos in Love" is giving the band a lot of controversial publicity, it's still easy to fall head over heels in love with their music, apolitically. Wil-Dog Abers plays bass in the group, and took time away from recording to give us an inside look at a fascinating musical collective.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): A song that's getting a lot of attention is "Gay Vatos in Love." What kind of a reaction have you gotten to that song?

Wil-Dog: It's a mix. It depends on the community and what's going on. When we play it at our shows, I notice rainbow flags will come out. We just did Bonnaroo and saw a gay couple in the back stand arm-in-arm, sing the song, and bring out the pride flag. And then, in Spanish media, they're always asking about it and wanting to know who's gay in the band. And then there's the L.A. Latino community that's kind of mixed on it, you know, it depends on who it is. You'll see some guys in a band, more macho guys like, (makes growling noise), so a lot of people even laugh when we play it. Kind of like it's a joke or something. So people have different responses to that song. But it's really for the people, it's for gay people, really. And it's also for straight people, showing solidarity with the gay movement and being straight.

Songfacts: My understanding is that in the Latin community, there's not nearly the acceptance of homosexuals as there is in other communities, is that right?

Wil-Dog: I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't make a statement like that, because I think all communities have people that are okay with it, and people that are not okay with it. And that goes for every culture. I don't think there's a culture out there that's across-the-board okay with it. It's funny, because if this had been about race, I think people would be up in arms about it. Because if you really look at the movement of the gay/lesbian transsexual/bisexual rights movement, it kind of started with the Civil Rights movement here in this country. And it's way, way, way behind.

Songfacts: Your song "Malagasy Shock," tell me about that one. (The word "Malagasy" means "From Madagascar".)

Wil-Dog: We were in Madagascar playing. We had just gotten on stage and started playing our instruments, and literally the first note that Raul (Pacheco) played – once he got to the mike and he was playing his guitar, the whole P.A.'s current, he became a part of that loop of the current, and he got severely, severely electrocuted, and almost died. We had to stop the show, rush him to the hospital. And luckily he survived. It's a sad thing, because that was our only gig in Madagascar. And we were playing in this park with 10,000 people waiting to hear us, and pretty excited, so it was a bummer. So we got home and we wrote about it. But we started getting into Malagasy music, so we were copying their music in a way, and so we decided to write it about that experience.

Songfacts: Is the song styled on Malagasy music?

Wil-Dog: Not completely, but it's based on it. We were only there for a short time and we didn't learn the music completely. But it's our interpretation of it quickly.

Songfacts: I thought it sounded a lot like ska music, but not quite.

Wil-Dog: Yeah, that's a good thing, all music is kind of related.

Wait, did he say they were playing in Madagascar when their guitarist was nearly electrocuted? You don't just fly over to islands off the coast of Africa and put on a show unless you're sent there on a goodwill mission, which is exactly how Ozomatli pulled it off.

At the request of the U.S. State Department, Ozomatli toured the Middle East and beyond, from Jordan and Egypt to India and Nepal, as cultural ambassadors. You may also recall how, during the Cold War, the U.S. State Department commissioned jazz players to be similar spreaders of all that’s good about American art. Ironically, many of these same musicians had to deal with racial discrimination in their own country. Some of these prominent artists included Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie. Karen Hughes, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, is credited for bringing back this practice of sending over good will via music.
Songfacts: You were in Africa on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. I'll bet that has brought you some places where few bands have gone before.

Wil-Dog: You know what? It has. We've been able to travel off the grid, per se, and go to some spots and communities, and can connect with people who we would never have connected with before. That's the reason why we're doing it. You know, we look at ourselves as citizens of the world, not belonging to one state or government, so we want to share our music with as many people as possible. Especially people that don't get to hear bands – it's really great when you're playing in front of people that you just know are not hearing bands from around the world. This is a one-time deal, there's no tour market there, there's no merchandise sale. When you tour you need to be profitable or there's no reason to go in a way. But, with the help of the State Department and being a part of the program, we've been able to experience places that we would never go, and do really good work. We've played at orphanages and all kinds of schools. It's been a really good experience.

Songfacts: Would you say that you're not only ambassador to the United States, but ambassadors for the melting pot that is Los Angeles?

Wil-Dog: Yeah, I mean, we represent L.A. That's just part of what's been engrained in our DNA. Ozomatli couldn't exist anywhere else. It's not really a melting pot, because you're not trying to get rid of where you come from, or who you are in any way, but celebrate the differences of who we are.

Songfacts: On the new album, Fire Away, you cover a Pogues song: "Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah." What do you think of The Pogues?

Wil-Dog: Most of us in the band had some kind of relationship with the Pogues growing up, in terms of listening to their music. The fan base we have is really loyal, and we kind of represent people, which The Pogues do as well.

Songfacts: A lot of your songs mix musical styles in ways that are just fascinating. "Nadas Por Free" sounds like "Louie Louie" meets "Funky Cold Medina."

Wil-Dog: (laughing) You know, it kind of is. It is kind of "Louie, Louie" - "Funky Cold Medina," as well as "Mentirosa," the song by Mellow Man Ace. You know, I never thought of that, but it is. Good observation.

Songfacts: When you create music, are you constantly trying to experiment?

Wil-Dog: Yeah, but the thing is, there's nothing that's never been done before. You might be mixing things that already exist, and that hasn't been done before. But it's like language: I'm speaking right now and I'm saying all these words. I'm not saying words that I'm making up in my head. They come from somewhere else. And then I shape it into a sentence, and that's what creates the art. And that's what music is. It's just a language. So we're not creating our own language, we're actually a part of a very long history of language. And within that language of music, there's all types of dialects. We might be adding to one or another dialect a little bit. But definitely not creating the wheel.

Really, it's just whatever works. Man, that's really what it comes down to. We're constantly searching for new sounds and searching for new ways of playing music. However, it has to work. You can't throw everything into the pan, it's gotta come out tasting well. You take risks, and hope the best. Oftentimes we're just trying to recreate something we've heard before in our own way. We'll constantly refer to other songs. Like, today, we're doing two tribute songs that are for a Los Fabulosos Cadillacs tribute album, and we're doing one for Caifanes' tribute album today and tomorrow. And we were just throwing out ideas, like "The devil version of 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'' by Michael Jackson." It sounds nothing like that. But it kind of has the same feeling behind it.

Songfacts: I see.

Wil-Dog: We all have our own interpretation of what we're doing and where it comes from. And what we're emulating.

Songfacts: I noticed that the credits on your albums, it's almost always a collaboration. I rarely see where it's just one member writing a song. Is it a democratic way that you write songs?

Wil-Dog: I guess that's one way you could look at it. Democracy. But it goes deeper than that. It can be one person writing it completely. Again, it doesn't have to be everybody, although we do share writing credits across the board. So even if I bring in a full song myself, it's shared with everybody.

Songfacts: I remember REM did that, and that's one of the things that they credit for keeping the band together - sharing writing credits. Then there wouldn't be that, Oh, that's my song, and that's your song. It was always our song.

Wil-Dog: That's the thing. So now if there's any fight or anything about who did what, it's really just for ego. There's no monetary value at the end of it, which makes things more pleasant. (laughs)

Songfacts: Do you like doing tribute albums like the two projects you just mentioned?

Wil-Dog: It's fun. I think it's easier than writing your own music, in a way, because you're just taking somebody else's already-written thing and you're re-doing it in your own way. We did a Sublime one, as well. We've done numerous covers. We pretty much do anything that we're asked to, (laughs) anything that comes our way, or we have opportunities and we take 'em.

Songfacts: That's a good attitude.

Wil-Dog: You know, it's fun coming into the morning and not knowing the song and then doing it, and yeah, making it your own in a way.

Songfacts: Tell me a little bit about "It's Only Paper," which features Jack Johnson on it. How did – have you known Jack for a while?

Wil-Dog: We have. We know the musicians around Jack really well, and also Jack. We played Jack's Kokua Festival, which brings awareness to where they test bombs in Hawaii. Trying to stop that. We played that a few years ago, but we've known Jack since Jack's been making records, and we've always been cool. He has a studio called the Solar Power Plant here in L.A. that's fully self-sufficient with solar panels. It's a green studio, if you will. And we're there all the time. So he just happened to be next door editing a surf video, and he walked in and heard we were struggling with writing a song, and he came in and came up with a really beautiful chorus for it. He's like, "I've got an idea." It came out really natural.

Songfacts: I didn't know he co-wrote it.

Wil-Dog: Yeah, he did.

Songfacts: It sort of fits with your philosophy - it's not all about dollars and cents, right?

Wil-Dog: You know, there's so many ways that you can look at it. But it's really about, a guy that's struggling with that. Because in a capitalist society, the more money you have, the more power you have, and the more rewards for you. Like, how much are you worth? I think that's the funniest question. "He's worth over ten million dollars!"

Songfacts: (laughing) But I'll bet you run into a lot of people like that in Los Angeles, especially in the entertainment business.

Wil-Dog: You know what, most people in the entertainment business are not wealthy, and that goes for most people in any business. There are very few that are.

Songfacts: Yeah.

Wil-Dog: L.A. gets a rap for being that place, but, L.A.'s made up of 95% working class people, raising their families. That's what L.A. really is.

Songfacts: What kind of audience do your songs attract?

Wil-Dog: It's all kinds. We played at the Hollywood Bowl two years ago, and there was all kinds of people there: Asian, Filipino, Latino, Central American, South American, Caucasian. All kinds of people come see us. It really depends on where we're at. If we're playing Portland, obviously the crowd's mostly white. Because there's mostly white people. It really depends on the demographic of the city.

Songfacts: Sure. You played with Los Super Seven, which has a couple of the guys from Los Lobos in it.

Wil-Dog: Yeah, I worked on one of the records, Canto, and I did a short tour with them, and that was pretty much it. But what's interesting is Super Seven's opening up this year for Ozomatli at the Hollywood Bowl.

Songfacts: Really?

Wil-Dog: Yeah, but I won't be playing with them. So I think it's pretty good, that'll be cool.

Songfacts: But, I imagine people compare you to Los Lobos a lot.

Wil-Dog: Uh, some. You know, the people that know who Los Lobos are and know their history, you know? And some people compare us to Santana, or War, there's all kinds of bands we've been compared to. But usually they have Latinos in them.

Songfacts: Have you ever had a chance to thank Los Lobos for blazing the trail for bands like yourselves?

Wil-Dog: Yeah, I know Los Lobos really well. I actually played bass for Los Lobos on The Tonight Show one time. Those guys did blaze the trail, and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos keyboard/sax) produced a bunch of our songs on our second record. They're like uncles to us.

Songfacts: That's a nice way to describe them. Because if you describe them as grandparents, then they wouldn't like that, probably.

Wil-Dog: No. (laughs) Although they are grandparents, most of them now.

At this point, the band plugs in and gets ready to record.
Songfacts: So tell me what you're recording right now.

Wil-Dog: We're doing a song for Caifanes and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, we're doing a tribute, covers.

Songfacts: Okay, and which song?

Wil-Dog: "La Luz Del Ritmo," that's one of the songs. And the other one is "Nubes"?

Songfacts: What's "La Luz Del Ritmo" about?

Wil-Dog (to another band member): What is this song about? Do you know?

Other Band Member: It's about rhythm gives you life and –

Wil-Dog: The rhythm gives you life and it lightens you. And "Nubes"?

Other Band Member: "Nubes" is kind of a dreamy song. Just being in the clouds when you're with a girl.

Wil-Dog: Being in the clouds when you're with a girl. That's the Caifanes one.

June 29, 2010. Get more at ozomatli.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Wbrady from Niagara Falls,nyThis is a great story of diplomacy. I was far from a Bush fan, but it is refreshing that his administration would take advantage of this great sound of ambassadors for the US.
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