Spend enough time in indie rock nerd circles, particularly backward-looking ones obsessed with Eighties British music, and you’re bound to hear about the supposedly bizarre love affair between Morrissey and his Mexican fans.
Since the Aughts, countless cringe-worthy essays have been written — typically by the white cultural cognoscenti — attempting to figure out why our neighbors to the south are so enamored with such an unmistakably English figure. For an answer to this question, aside from the obvious fact that taste is not limited to one’s homeland, look no further than Mexrrissey, a supergroup of Mexican and Mexican-American musicians who will pay tribute to the former Smiths frontman at SummerStage on July 6.
“We are a melodramatic country,” bandleader Camilo Lara tells the Voice via phone from Mexico. “We love telenovelas, not sitcoms. We’re a kind of people that love drama. And I think in Morrissey’s lyrics we find that. Things that other artists don’t have.”
But Mexrrissey — which also features Calexico collaborator Sergio Mendoza and Tijuana-born singer-songwriter Ceci Bastida, among others — is no simple cover band. While playing shows in the U.S., Australia, and, appropriately enough, England, the group has injected raucous energy into the morose Mancunian’s discography. Writing about the band’s performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last May, Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield called the set “a much truer, more passionate invocation of the Moz spirit” than the singer’s own show at the venue a couple of years prior.
That’s because Lara and his cohort have painstakingly adapted the songs the Pope of Mope recorded with the Smiths and by himself into something more Mexican. The Bastida-sung, gender-swapped “International Playgirl” subs in proto–El Chapo figure Rafael Caro Quintero for legendary British gangster Reggie Kray, while the lack of a Spanish word for “Suedehead” forced Lara to retitle the song “Estuvo Bien.” And then there are the arrangements — “Girlfriend in a Coma” as a cha-cha, for instance — that feature more bounce than Johnny Marr’s guitar ever provided. “The whole thing was to capture the essence of the song and make it our own and talk about things that could happen in Mexico with Mexican slang,” Lara says. “As if he were born in Mexico.”
Despite such changes, the Mexico City–based DJ was surprised by how natural the translation often proved to be. “There’s a sort of sadness in each song that makes them very mariachi and cumbia,” he explains. “And while the rhythm of both are euphoric and crazy happy, all the lyrics are about sad things — people leaving each other and other kinds of disappointments. Some things are horrible in Manchester and in Mexico City.”
It’s because the band has held on to its roots while still honoring Morrissey that it will headline the July concert, which is co-presented by the Latin Alternative Music Conference. “I wanted to see them on a big stage in NYC in July, and I wanted others to see them there as well,” LAMC founder Tomas Cookman writes in an email. “It’s amazing that a bunch of Mexican rock stars can get together for a side project and do sold-out tours of the U.K. and Australia.”
With both their live act and the recently released album No Manchester, Mexrrissey have proven something that Morrissey diehards have known since the Eighties: Being miserable can actually be kind of fun. As a devout Moz fan of English and Mexican descent, I say there’s no better tribute than that.