The Last Bandoleros Hope to Travel Far With 'Where Do You Go?'

The Last Bandoleros
Salvador Ochoa

The Last Bandoleros

New Warner Music Nashville Tex-Mex act formed after writing its first single.

The first single in an artist’s career is crucial. It establishes a sonic baseline for the act, and every move after that -- whether it’s building on that sound or moving away from it -- is part of the artistic storyline.

Rarely, however, is that first single as central to an act as “Where Do You Go?” is for The Last Bandoleros. It’s not just because it’s the group’s introductory release -- it’s also the first song it wrote, and in fact, the band only exists because it wrote the song.

“It started as a writing project,” says drummer Emilio Navaira IV. “As soon as that happened, it was like, ‘This is something else. It’s special. It’s a band.’ ”

Much like one of their influences, The Beatles, the Bandoleros are a group that operates with a lot of playful sarcasm, as they did in a Warner Music Nashville (WMN) conference room while discussing the track. Emilio was dissecting the frustrating push/pull romance in “Where Do You Go?” As he wrapped the evaluation, he suddenly halted and stammered, and the whole sentence completely fell apart.

“He was just cataloging the one-night stands he’s had in his head,” guitarist Derek James joked.

Emilio didn’t miss a beat.

“It only took me 30 seconds,” he riffed.

That kind of verbal sparring and laughter were present at the start when the Bandoleros -- including guitarist Jerry Fuentes and Navaira’s brother, bass player Diego Navaira -- held their first writing session roughly two-and-a-half years ago in San Antonio. In some ways, it represented the melding of two partnerships. The Navairas had played in a band fronted by their father, Emilio Navaira, a Tejano/country singer who landed six titles on Hot Country Songs in the 1990s under the name Emilio. Meanwhile, Fuentes formed the other partnership after moving from San Antone to New York, where he and James became roommates and put together a basement studio in Brooklyn.

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Mutual friends introduced Fuentes to the Navaira brothers, and after they musically hit it off, Fuentes brought James along to Texas to do some songwriting. They were specifically thinking country as they started in on “Where Do You Go?,” though their various backgrounds practically guaranteed it would be atypical.

“Derek’s original singer-songwriter music had this train-beat kind of flair,” says Fuentes. “Diego and [his brother] Emilio grew up with Tejano music in San Antonio, and I grew up producing and working in studios, so we all kind of had these [different] influences.”

“Where Do You Go?” “started with the verse,” continues Fuentes. “We all put guitars in our hands, and we literally started throwing out ideas. It just becomes a whirlpool of ideas.”

That concoction includes thick, accomplished harmonies -- a la Restless Heart or Little Texas -- layered over a rambunctious backbeat akin to the Dwight Yoakam/Buck Owens version of “Streets of Bakersfield.” That upbeat sound rubs against the lyric, which finds a confused guy obsessing about a woman who’s both flirtatious and elusive.

“We were kind of going for like a [Rolling] Stones ‘Satisfaction’ or like a Beatles ‘Day Tripper’ kind of thing,” says Diego. “The sound is up and happy, but the lyric is not. Not that it’s sad, but he’s sort of screwed up or twisted by this female.”

It was absolutely a group effort.

“Derek would have a lyric here, Emilio would write a guitar riff, Diego would come up with a chorus hook, and it literally manifested itself,” notes Fuentes.

In addition to the Tex-Mex framework, they instinctively created harmonies as the melodies were built. Those harmonies change from song to song -- sometimes the guys even switch parts in the middle of a song -- creating a complex web that forces them to work as a team to pull it off.

“We’re all lead singers,” says James, “so it’s been kind of fun to hear which vocal texture we all agree on -- ‘You sound best on that verse’ or ‘Diego sounds great on this chorus.’ Every chorus, we’re pretty much all singing, but that’s what makes it really fun to be a part of this band. It’s vocally so stimulating.”

“I’m rarely on top,” adds Fuentes, “because I can’t sing as high.”

“He’s rarely on top,” corrects Diego, “because he’s lazy.”

More laughter ensues.

As they sewed up “Where Do You Go?,” the bridge took a unique turn. Instead of injecting a new melody, they held out some long harmonic notes around the 2:15 mark, rebuilding the energy the same way The Beatles did in “Twist and Shout.” From there, they made space for a frenetic button accordion solo, played on the final version by Chris Arocha, who had worked in Emilio Sr.’s band.

The Bandoleros recorded most of the instrumental parts together, then overdubbed the vocals in Brooklyn, the way the bulk of their album was made.

“What you hear on the recording, that’s what you’re going to get live,” says Diego.

It still wasn’t officially a band. The guys continued to pursue other projects, and Fuentes was actually trying to get a songwriting/producing deal when he met with Cherrytree Music founder Martin Kierszenbaum, whose Los Angeles firm has worked with the likes of Lady Gaga, Feist and Far East Movement. Three or four songs in, Fuentes played “Where Do You Go?,” and the meeting took a different turn. Kierszenbaum offered a management deal on the spot.

As the band was formalized, Emilio continued to work on other projects and wasn’t always available. As a result, he co-wrote “Where Do You Go?,” played on the album and tours with the Bandoleros, but is not officially a member of the trio. (“I’m the drummer with the bad timing,” he deadpans.) But he continues to play a big part in the Bandoleros’ live presentation, appearing for all intents and purposes as part of the group.

WMN executive vp A&R Scott Hendricks saw the band on Oct. 3, 2015, at the Austin City Limits Festival. It signed with WMN, and “Where Do You Go?” became the obvious first single.

“ ‘Where Do You Go?’ was not only the first song,” says James. “It really, more than any other song, is kind of in the middle and has the best representation of the variety of sounds that we have in our music.”

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During the first week of its radio promotion tour, the band repeatedly ran into programmers who had known the senior Emilio, and Diego phoned his dad with some of the feedback. The following week, the Bandoleros were in Fort Pierce, Fla., when Emilio died on May 16. That cast a shadow over their efforts, though the Navairas focus on the positive aspects of their father’s guidance rather than his departure.

“I don’t know if we’d be doing this if it wasn’t for him,” explains Diego. “Now after playing a few shows after his death, I find it to be very therapeutic and actually feel a bit close to him onstage.”

“I love that we’re continuing what he did, but with our own spin on it,” adds Emilio. “That makes me feel really, really proud.”

WMN released “Where Do You Go?” to radio via Play MPE on June 6. It jumped from 60-49 in its second week on the Country Airplay chart as the Bandoleros work to take it to another level. It’s central to their sound; they hope to make it central to the entire format.