"I’d love it if a label made an 'experiment' department."
Norteño band Intocable has long pushed the boundaries of its genre, infusing the traditional accordion and bajo sexto sound of norteño music with tinges of country Western, rock and even pop. The sextet boasts over 3 million albums sold in the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen Music, as well as two Grammys and 13 No. 1 titles on Billboard's Regional Mexican Albums chart. They've also placed four tracks on Billboard's Latin Airplay chart -- previously unheard of for a norteño act. Now, Intocable prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary with the Jan. 25 release of XX (Good I/Universal), a live double album.
Billboard caught up with Intocable lead singer and accordionist Ricky Muñoz, 39, who founded the group with pal Rene Martinez, 42, when the two were just in high school. (The remaining lineup since 2003 also includes percussionist Sergio Serna, 40; electric bassist Felix Salinas, 43; backup singer Juan Hernandez, 43; and Johnny Lee Rosas, 44, on bajo sexto). Speaking from his hometown of Zapata, Texas, Muñoz spoke about a first record deal negotiated in his teens, about demos funded with plate sales and about musicians and labels as game changers.
Billboard: Zapata, Texas. That's near the Mexican border. Tell me about growing up there?
Ricky Muñoz: I lived all my life here. It's a very, very small town. Everybody here knows each other. It's where I grew up, where I went to school. The population in Zapata is more Mexican-American. I am a third-generation Texan. My grandparents were born in Texas, my parents were born in Texas, my kids were born in Texas. I feel both [Mexican and American]. For example, during the holidays, we eat tamales and Mexican food, but when it's election time, I become a patriotic American and vote and listen.
At home, my parents were what you'd call Tex-Mex. 'Oye, mijo, go to the tienda and buy me some sodas.' Everything's mixed up in the same sentence.
You really embrace that whole Texas lifestyle?
Yes, I really do like my hat, and my boots, and my pick-up and the ranch.
Most norteño bands are from Mexico, not Texas. How did your interest in the music come about?
My grandparents. I was an only child. My parents both worked. They had good jobs and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and with them, I got to listen to Monterrey AM radio stations. That's the first music that got into my head.
Then I went with my grandfather on my dad's side -- that was the first time I heard Ramon Ayala. That's when I discovered I wanted to play the accordion and be a musician. I was like four. I remember the song, "Piquito de Oro." I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
You and Ayala are now good friends, correct?
I got to meet Ramon when I was 12. He came hunting to a ranch in Zapata County, and they invited me to meet him because they knew how much I admired him. Today we're like family. We do vacations together. We go to my ranch and we sing songs, and it's a very, very, very healthy atmosphere because nobody drinks. We do that every year. I look forward to that side of my vacation.
How did you actually get started playing?
There's a local band here in Zapata called Conjunto Falcon, and every party would hire them. My mother was a loan officer at the bank and I guess she knew the family of the of the accordion player, and she asked him if I could take some accordion lessons.
I would call the guy every single day. I read a book [Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers] that said that in order to do anything well, you have to be on the field, busting your ass, for 10,000 hours. That laid the groundwork. I was 12 years old, I practiced every day. They let us join, me and Rene. That's what I tell my kids. I was 12, an only child, my parents worked good jobs, and I never depended on them.
So you started Intocable with the money you made?
Yes. We were buying speakers, all that, but no success whatsoever, no gigs, nada. And my father burst my bubble. He said you're not La Mafia, you're not Selena and you're not Ramon Ayala. That was reality. But we always thought of ourselves as a big band. Even when we were starting out, we thought we deserved the speakers, and the lights. Once we got onstage we were going to be prepared.
You must have done something right because you got signed to a record deal…
We recorded a demo. We did a plate sale; you cook carne asada and chicken and you sell plates. And with the money, we recorded a demo in Corpus Christi. We recorded at Freddy Records, because that's were Ramon Ayala recorded. [Then] we went to a local radio station, and Rogelio Diaz sold our music to EMI, and they liked it and they signed us. My mom had to sign for us because we were still in high school. I think it was a three-year deal with two options. Our first record deal was in 1994 and our budget was $6,000 to record and master and mix an album.
Tejano music, as you've pointed out, was huge not only in Texas but all over the country at the time. But you weren't playing Tejano, were you?
Tejano music was a bunch of keyboards. We were a band from Texas playing accordion music. Our first records were labeled "Tejano," but our music is more traditional Mexicano. And the group started to get success because we were damn good. We were a pretty damn good little band.
In 1999, two members of the group died in a traffic accident in Mexico. How did that affect Intocable and its music?
It was huge. When you have a near death experience, you do change. We stopped thinking about music -- it was [about] getting back together as a person. It was traumatizing. When we decided to go back into the studio we decided there was nothing to lose.
You've done some pretty risky things with your music -- you're actually working on a pretty game-changing project right now for 2016. Can you tell me about it?
I want to work with different producers to produce two songs each. I want to work with a Nashville producer, an electronic producer, maybe a guy from England. Let us become the submissive musicians, where we give the songs to these producers and they tell us how to do it.
We're going to record a regular Intocable album, and in the "B" record we cover them in different ways, just to break the routine.
What are you personally listening to now?
I listen to Howard Stern every day. Sometimes I run across new artists by watching SNL or Jimmy Fallon.
So, here you are, 20 years after founding Intocable. How does it feel?
It's been 20 years of being relevant, and sticking to our guns. In the DVD they ask me how I feel. I say, "I feel confident when I get onstage because I have a damn good band that plays with me." I like that every one of them has an ego, and that they want to be the best at what they do.