For a band that's been around 15 years, Ozomatli has proved it's still open to change. The Latin fusion collective signed with a new label -- Mercer Street/Downtown Records -- in March 2009 to release its fifth studio album, "Fire Away," due April 20, after releasing its last two studio efforts and a 2005 live set on Concord Records.
Ozomatli's longtime manager Amy Blackman-Romero says the change was key for setting up the next iteration of the California-based act as a band that both makes and performs records.
"The band needs strong A&R because they write as a committee, and a democratic one at that," Blackman-Romero says. "This was the first time I had a sense that we were going to get that support."
"Fire Away" doesn't attempt to re-create the experience of an Ozomatli concert -- a dilemma that has plagued many a jam-friendly band. "For the longest time, it was like, 'Do you like Ozo?' 'Well, their album's all right. You've got to see them live,' " vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Ulises Bella says. "We've gotten to a point where we're trying to let that go. There's a live aspect of us and there's a recording aspect of us, and we have to separate the two."
Blackman-Romero says Downtown A&R executive Michael Howe drew up a list of top producers that could help Ozomatli bring a more power-driven rock sound to its material, which ranges from funk, reggae and hip-hop to cumbia, salsa and other traditional Latin sounds. The group went with Tony Berg (Pete Yorn, Aimee Mann), who gave "Fire Away" a weightier feel but held onto Ozomatli's trademark: topical subject matter set to global dance beats.
Breezy lead single "It's Only Paper," featuring Jack Johnson, warns against overconsumption, while "Malagasy Shock" recounts lead singer Raul Pacheco's accidental electrocution at a show in Madagascar during the group's work on behalf of the U.S. Department of State as cultural ambassadors.
The most attention-grabbing track, though, is undoubtedly "Gay Vatos in Love," about a male couple from the streets of East Los Angeles. "That song is our declaration of how we feel about the issue," Bella says. "It's scandalous that we're still at a point in society where we even question whether they deserve the same rights."
Ozomatli's most recent album, 2007's "Don't Mess With the Dragon," has sold 53,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (The group achieved its highest sales total with its 1998 self-titled debut, at 280,000.) To ensure that sales of "Fire Away" buck the downward trend, Ozomatli has booked a number of radio and TV appearances, from TNT's "Lopez Tonight" to noncommercial KCRW Los Angeles' "Morning Becomes Eclectic." Ozomatli will also tour throughout 2010 and host and curate the Latino Alternativo tent at this summer's Bonnaroo festival.
In addition, the band is getting hometown support from the L.A. Dodgers, who will continue to use Ozomatli's recording of "Can't Stop the Blue" as their anthem this baseball season. Los Angeles has also declared April 23 "Ozomatli Day" in honor of the band's community activism, which will again extend beyond the United States when the band visits Mongolia this summer as cultural ambassadors.
"There's people who are into Ozo that aren't into our politics, and that's OK," Bella says. "You can dig on Ozo on a lot of different levels, and whichever one you want to focus on is cool with us."