“The producer listening is probably gonna hate me — like, ‘No, don’t say that!'”
Joni Sandez is joking, but he’s eager to talk about parts of the norteño recording process usually kept under wraps. He knows from experience. A lifelong resident of southern California, Jonathan Sandez, 26, grew up playing guitar and bass. At 14 he joined the long-running L.A.-based Grupo El Tiempo, playing bass and singing backup amid a synthesized sound rooted in the ’80s and early ’90s. “Modern Tejano, grupero, norteño music,” he explains. “They had accordion, but the accordion was actually in the keyboard.”
Going solo as a bandleader, Sandez has pursued a more acoustic direction. He plays concerts, festivals, and private parties with norteño groups, up to five shows a night. One New Years Eve he played for 12 hours and was still able to sing at the end. He’s justifiably proud of this.
Like many young musicians, his recent music has been mostly sierreño — two guitars and a bass. His latest single is straight out of the Great Ranchera Songbook: “Las Mañanitas,” a fond birthday wish sung by everyone from Vicente Fernandez to Javier Solís to Los Tigres. With his bassist’s ear, Sandez has added some smooth walking chromaticism to the bottom end, a sound you won’t find in most oom-pah-pah I-IV-V versions.
During our 45-minute phone conversation (edited for length), Sandez told the Blog about making the switch to sierreño, the differences between tuba- and bass-bottomed music, and some lesser known tricks of the trade — “those hidden little secrets that nobody wants to say.” Follow “jonisandez” on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, and check out his website.
NorteñoBlog: Why did you start recording sierreño music?
Joni Sandez: It went back to my roots. The style of guitar was what I used to do, which was requinto. You know, all those tremolo-sounding riffs and terceras — two notes at a time, three half steps apart — and sextas, six steps apart. It was what I was playing back then, and most of the shows that we go to, they wanna hear that 12-string guitar. When you hear sierreño, you’ll hear the terceras — you won’t hear just one note, [he sings, outlining a triad] “dun dun dun dun dun”, you’ll hear [outinling the same triad] “drun drun drun drun drun.” It’s really subtle, too. A lot of people of people who aren’t familiar with the music won’t know about that. That makes it sierreña, you know?
Is that you playing requinto on your recordings?
Yes. Once in a while I’ll have somebody come through. It’s more having a little bit of variety — everybody has their own style of playing, and if it’s always me on the tracks, it becomes a little bit too played out. All the bass is me, but on the requinto I’ll try to have somebody come in and put in a couple of fill-ins for the track.
How did you decide to record “Las Mañanitas”?
There weren’t really a lot of modern artists, in general, and not even one sierreño artist [has recorded it]. It’s such a classic. [My version is] very different, in terms of the rhythm — the rhythm is not the traditional sierreño, it’s a descending little pattern. I really like it a lot.
Why do you think sierreño has gotten so popular in the last three or four years?
In the scene, when you have an accordion player, usually the accordion player charges a lot of money to play with you. I think a lot of people started recording sierreño tracks because it’s a lot cheaper. It’s one of those things that probably nobody wants to talk about, one of those hidden little secrets that nobody wants to say. When you record a sierreño track it’s a lot quicker, a lot faster, because you already have a guitar there. If you wanna have a norteño, then you have drums, and you wanna have an accordion, and you wanna have a bajo quinto, which is a little more expensive than a natural guitar. In sierreño you need a bass and a 12-string guitar, that’s basically it. And a six-string guitar. If you want, you can even play sierreño with six strings, which is kind of how it all got started.
Do you prefer having a sierreño band with a bassist or with a tubist?
The [people] that I’ve worked with, they all ask for the tuba. I have a couple of tuba players, but sometimes I feel [audiences] just want the image of it. Seeing a tuba player. Seeing the brass. [The tubist is] more into the action, compared to the bass, which just kind of stands there. In terms of music quality, the tuba is a lot more aggressive — very in your ear, very buzzy. And the bass fills you up more live. If you listen to it with headphones on, it fills up your ear more. And the tuba is a little bit more staccato.
Do you feel like the tuba sierreño is better suited to certain styles of music?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like when it comes to corridos… I mean, most of them are aggressive, right? Talking about drugs or death, stories like that, I feel like it fits a lot more. Even the singer, he’s kind of singing full force, he’s giving a hundred percent. And when it’s a love song, he’s more mellifluous, he’s going with the rhythm, he’s not angry. When it comes to love songs, I feel like the bass is a little more preferred.
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
This producer [behind] I wanna say 70% of the tracks you hear on La Que Buena, on modern radio, is Marito Aguilar. We did a track [“Se Tu Mismo”] with him. I feel like he’s one of those unsung heroes that nobody really hears about. You’ve heard his songs, but you don’t know that he was the producer behind that track. He’s on a lot of Gerardo Ortiz tracks. When I say “producer,” he does it all. He’ll put the bass down, he’ll put the drums down, he’ll put the accordion down, but his main focus is accordion. Most people know him by the accordion. In comparison to a lot of the accordion players, I feel like he’s the best — the quickest, the most technical.
[The Blog notes: we’ve marveled at Aguilar’s playing with Ortiz before, you remember.]
Since we’re talking sierreño, what did you think of Ariel Camacho’s music?
He’s one of the first ones that made it really popular. There were a lot of sierreño singers before him, but he’s one of those people that made it into pop. I remember listening to his song [“Te Metiste”] and it was still not hitting. The majority [of hit music] was banda, the majority was norteño ballads — and then the song “Te Metiste”… hit. After that, I started hearing some in the scene, a lot of my friends — a lot of people you hear on the radio are people I know personally — I heard them start posting stuff, and then they’re like, “Hey, I’m recording a sierreño song,” and I’m like, “Really? Sierreño? That’s kind of out of the ordinary, right?” That was about five years ago. After that song it became more popular, so I feel like he’s one of the pioneers. Not pioneer, ‘cause “pioneer” means that he started it, right?
I see what you’re saying. Not a pioneer in that he originated the style, but he helped it cross over to the radio.
Yeah, so in a sense, he’s a pioneer for crossing over.
So you feel like people heard him and started making music in that style, but then they also realized a lot of times it’s less expensive than norteño, so that made sense too? Like it was a combination of things?
Yeah, exactly, exactly. So [sierreño tracks] are a lot quicker than getting a banda together, a lot quicker than adding the drums first, adding the bass first, adding everything first… It’s just like, “Do you know the melody?” And they’re like, “OK, yeah.” It’s very quick. The turnaround for the studio that we have, it’s really a day or two that we can have a really good piece finished. A day, a couple hours. I definitely think that was part of the jump start for [how] sierreño ended up happening.
Sierreño bands don’t record all three instruments at the same time, right? It’s still one instrument at a time?
It depends on the producer — and obviously the musicians, ‘cause sometimes the musicians aren’t ready. In the case of Marito, for example, it would most likely be him putting in the sierreño [lead guitar], him putting in the bass or the tuba, him putting in the accordion — I’m not sure he plays tuba, but it’ll be one by one. And if there’s a band that has their own style they originated, he’ll bring them all in and they’ll just do the band all at once. It’s kind of hard to play it perfect for the first time, but there’s bands that can do that, that can actually play the whole song through the first time and get it perfectly.
So you’re telling me that Marito or a similar producer will put down guide tracks for all three instruments —
— and then the band comes in and just plays over those guide tracks?
Correct, exactly. The producer listening is probably gonna hate me — like, “No, don’t say that!” Even with a trumpet player.. I’m not gonna say the name of the banda, but there’s a really famous banda — like, really famous — so they have one guy that comes in and he can do all of it. [He mimics a player laying down several parts, from oompahs in the tuba and charchetas, or alto horns, to trumpet melodies and vocals.] So now they bring in the main singer, and the main singer will lay down his singing, and you’ll think it’s the full band playing. It’s really cool how they do it. People might think it’s kind of like cheating, I guess…
On the final recording, are we hearing the one guy, or does the band lay down the final tracks over his guide tracks?
Yeah, you’re hearing the final recording.
So one guy playing all the instruments?
It depends on the producer. Maybe he’ll be like, “You know what, you don’t sound like a good tuba player, or the tuba [part] needs this, so I’m giving it to the tuba player.” It just depends. Even the trumpets, he’ll be like, “Your trumpets don’t sound that good, so I’m gonna bring the trumpets in.” But on a lot of tracks, you’d be surprised, it’s one guy you’re hearing, and then they brought in a singer.
[The Blog notes: The guy who used to run the local music store — Iggy Guerrero, who also leads La Original Banda El Rey — once told me pretty much the same thing.]
And the bands can still cut it live, so it’s not totally cheating, right? They can still play concerts.
Yeah, definitely. When you see them live, you’ll hear. Trust me, they practice a lot, and you’re listening to a really good quality band.