Like a lot of busted-up bands that have spent years resisting the pressure to reunite, only to finally give in, the Mavericks have discovered how good it feels to finally stop being accosted by fans demanding to know when a reunion will happen. As the old commercial says: Oh, what a relief it is!
"That's the best thing," admits frontman Raul Malo, laughing, in a Yahoo! interview. "We have all felt this at some point throughout the years, with the people coming up to us and really wanting to know when we were gonna get back together—or, really, the complaints of 'Why aren't you guys back together?' I honestly felt that that would die down after a while. And to all our surprises, it never really died down. After a while, you kind of have to step back and go, 'Well, man, maybe we do need to put this together.' So all those years of people nagging us about getting the Mavericks back together, I guess it worked." Democracy in action!
"But should I be worried?" asks guitarist Robert Reynolds. "Someone came up last night asking when Raul was gonna do a solo record again." At this, the entire band cracks up.
The newly reformed group convened on a Nashville soundstage this month to talk about how quickly the reunion came together after so many years of putting it off—and to perform, exclusively for our cameras, a cover of Glen Campbell's "Gentle On My Mind." They also gave us a rousing rendition of their brand new comeback single, "Born to Be Blue," from their new Suited Up and Ready digital EP, which precedes a full 13-song album coming in the fall.
"I don't think any one of us thought a year ago that we would be here," says Malo. That's the short version of how quickly this all came about. The slightly longer take is that last fall, key members of the band (best known for '90s singles like "All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down" and "What a Crying Shame") met up to discuss a tour, and then talk of an album quickly ensued, with recording plans coming to fruition in early 2012.
"I really think that when we first talked and it was (just) going to be a tour, that might have been purely nostalgic. And I feared that, actually," admits Reynolds. "I was so glad that we were talking, though, and I was glad we were even thinking about a tour, because a tour could at least put us in a room together again, so we could restore some old friendships and see what was meant to be. But by the first dinner, Raul played me a song that he just had on his phone that he had written, and I listened through some beat up old headphones as Raul said 'This is kinda where this first song is'... The minute we did a record—or even the intention of a record—to me, that erased this being purely nostalgic... And the band signs to one of the most progressive labels—if not the most progressive label in any genre of music in any city in the world—in our backyard in Nashville, the Big Machine label group. So it's up to us to have relevance in this new era. And if we have any luck at all, if we're doing our job, we will be relevant."
As a country-rock hybrid with eclectic roots in everything from Roy Orbison to Tex-Mex, the Mavericks might seem a slightly odd fit for as seemingly commercially motivated and straight-ahead country a label as Big Machine. But there's plenty of history between the band and Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta.
"Scott Borchetta was instrumental in the Mavericks' career early on when he was head of promotion for Universal, so we'd always had a great relationship," says Malo. "He was the one who quite frankly put us on the map, because when the Mavericks got on radio, that changed everything. And so now, at this point in time, with him running his own label and having undoubtedly some of the greatest success stories in recent times, it was very fortuitous of us to be still friends with him. I went to see him to see if he'd be interested in a Mavericks record, and he was so passionate about it that he just wasn't going to let us go anywhere else. So when he agreed to do it, at that point, I actually did get nervous, because I only had one or two songs written!"
Asked about what's different about making and releasing records now than in their original '90s heyday, Malo has a surprising answer: the label's hands-off approach when they went into the studio.
"You have all sorts of alternative marketing and Internet marketing and all that stuff, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to a song," he says. "And luckily we're at a label that recognizes that. Back then, you had a lot more people kind of chiming in as to what would work here, what would not work there— a little bit more 'by committee' kind of style. We were left to our own devices, and I think that in itself is different."
You might think that Big Machine would have put the pressure on to come up with a Big Country Single if they were going to sign a group as left-of-musical-center as this one. But the label hadn't heard the material when they approved an album. Neither had most of the band members, for that matter.
"We didn't have demos, we didn't have work tapes," recalls Malo. "Nobody had heard the songs. And I kind of wanted it that way. I thought that'd be a more organic approach to making a record. Instead of trying to emulate demos and work tapes, we just kind of went in, and we'd sit around like this, and I'd play a song on the guitar, and we'd go in and record it. Ironically, it's the most band-oriented record that we've ever made, I think. We really had an amazing time making this record. And the fact that Scott and the label signed off on this without really hearing any music is a testament to I don't know what—either that he's crazy or we're crazy. But I think we all knew deep down in our hearts that this was going to be fun and special for all involved."
The Mavericks haven't gone out on a proper reunion tour just yet, but they've made high-profile appearances at the CMA Festival and California's Stagecoach. Having been there for both, we can verify that the new songs fit in so well with the classic ones, you'll swear some of the tunes from their current Big Machine EP and forthcoming full album are preeminent oldies that you just happened to forget about. It's a serious case of picking up where they left off, starting with first single "Born to Be Blue," which has Maul in his most Orbison-esque-with-a-big-backbeat mode.
Will it fit in with the country radio of the 2010s, though? That's a big question mark, but then, Reynolds makes the point that mainstream country is already so fractured—in a good way—that there's room for the Mavericks' singular sound to squeeze in, too.
"I think if we have luck at radio, and it's showing good signs of that now, it'll be because there was a Mavericks sound in the '90s and there could be a (fond) feeling for that," says the guitarist. "We've progressed and are not stuck in the past. But there is a little Maverick jangle in the single that sort of is harkening to 'Crying Shame' and 'Here Comes the Rain' type of stuff. The (label) guys have let us know, 'Look, it's not going to be just a climb to the summit. We're gonna work for this thing.' But we're glad to be there mixed in with all that stuff (at radio): there's the pop country and the neo-traditionalists, while the Eric Churches and the Aldeans have that rowdy thing, and here's the Mavericks jangling along with a sound that is all their own. So we're ready to mix it up."
One of the songs the Mavericks played for the Ram Country cameras, the John Hartford-penned "Gentle On My Mind," is far more acoustic than what the band is usually known for. Why go with that for a cover choice?
"I think part of it at least for me is just that—that it's not something that people would normally hear us play," Malo says. "That to me makes it a perfect candidate for us to play! And at the end of the day, it's a beautiful song. It's one of my favorite songs that really turned me on as a kid to country music. And of course Glen Campbell is one of our heroes."
The same kind of classicism you feel when you hear Campbell's best-known '60s records is the kind of throughline that you find continuing into the Mavericks' past and present music. "Somebody told me the other day that when they listen to the new record, it takes them somewhere that they may not necessarily have ever been, but it feels so familiar in so many ways. And to me that's a beautiful compliment. Because my favorite music I think does that. It transports us somewhere and it makes us feel like we've been there even though perhaps we never have. And if you can make people feel that with your music, I think that's a mission accomplished. I can't sit here and say 'Well, I think it'll tear your heart out.' I just hope it resonates with people."
The core trio of the group—Malo, Reynolds, and drummer Paul Deakin—has been around since the group's formation in Miami in the late '80s. Keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden has long been an unofficial Maverick but has been officially drafted into the group. The relative newcomer of this lineup is lead guitarist Eddie Perez, who came aboard when the group had a brief reunion in 2003 after parting ways at the end of the '90s. (If he looks or sounds familiar, you might have seen Perez as Dwight Yoakam's guitarist in the post-Pete Anderson era.)
Some fans wondered if Malo had lost interest in rocking out, since he'd spent most of his non-Mavericks years focusing on balladry that showcased his operatic-level chops in a major way. Here he is back with a bunch of guys who are all playing as loud as he sings. Was that ever a sticking point for him "I realized a long time ago that I love singing all kinds of music," Malo says. "To me it doesn't matter if it's a ballad or whatever. I go with what I feel like doing at the time. And after doing a bunch of lsolo stuff that showcased the vocals or perhaps a softer, mellower side, this is what I feel like doing now. I'm enjoying every minute of this.I'm proud of the record we just made, and I'm proud of playing music with my musical brothers again. It feels natural and easy and fun."
Scott Borchetta has the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, getting to work with the band again.
"When Raul came to see me last fall," Borchetta recalls, "he said 'Do you realize that next year is the 20-year anniversary of our first MCA album?' And I was like oh my God—I couldn't believe it. He said they were thinking about maybe recording, and if they did, was I interested? ... We went in and recorded in February, and it was brilliant. The music came together so fast. It was putting the train right back on the track. It may be their best record."
Is it for good this time? "You know, I never expected them to get back together," Borchetta allows. "So it's a really special moment, and whether they are together for this record or they decide to try to tag on another 10 years, it's really up to them. But the four of them, with the additional band members, there's nothing like it. I think all of us fans are just thrilled that they made another record and are going to tour. There's not a better band anywhere."
Anyone who missed the band at CMA Fest or Stagecoach will get a shot at some headlining shows soon enough. Given that the band members had spent so many years not fraternizing and resisting the impulse to reunite, should we call this—a la the Eagles—a "Hell Freezes Over" tour?
"Well, it's 2012. I'd like it to be the End of the World tour," says Malo.
"In fact, I showed up for a meeting on time recently," adds Reynolds, "and I thought that's probably a sign of the end times."