A Fireside Chat with Ozomatli

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If mainstream means throwing away the ideals and not caring about the music, I don't think we're about that. —Ulises Bella, Tenor Sax, Clarinet, Vocals
Unlike most bands burgeoning from MTV's cultural significance, the members of Ozomatli are seasoned veterans of the Los Angeles underground, anonymous to commercial conventions and unimpressed by exploited riches. Curiously, Ozomatli is detached from the pretentiousness and the staple of insincerity that is Hollywood. But that common man character only serves to endear Ozo to its loyal listeners, who turn out in impressive numbers to support the band.

All About Jazz: Apart from its awkward release 9/11, what frustrated Embrace the Chaos?

Jiro Yamaguchi: Embrace the Chaos was the second record. I think in the system that Interscope had set up, if you don't fit in the machine musically or business wise, then it doesn't work. It is great for artists like No Doubt and U2, and some other developing bands that have a more mainstream sound than we have. But we didn't fit into that. We had been together four or five years before Embrace the Chaos came out. We had been playing a lot around L.A. and the Southern California area playing clubs and doing shows at a place called the Opium Den. The fire marshal kept showing up, so we had to move to another club called the Dragonfly.

AAJ: Fire marshal making regular visits is a sign.

JY: Yeah, I think when the fire marshal showed up to the Dragonfly, we knew. People were showing up every week and we knew the word was out.

AAJ: And finally, Street Signs, the new record is out.

Ulises Bella: It is an interpretation of all our individual tastes

JY: I think we looked for songs that weren't similar to put together in different styles so the record was not the same thing throughout. It keeps the interest peaked because there are different styles going on for different songs. That was something that we were looking for. It is a process and with the number of people in the band, sometimes it takes longer to do things democratically. I like the record a lot. It is some of our best work and shows a growth and a step. With the addition of strings and production value, there are definitely new influences like Middle Eastern music. There are examples of growth on the record.

AAJ: Ozomatli plays an active role in how the band is marketed and merchandised.

JY: We are all very involved in all the different aspects of the business. We pick the designs. We are all involved in that and it is a challenge.

AAJ: Ozo and its diversity reflects the city.

UB: L.A. is a city of contradiction. We love it. We hate it. We love one side of it and we despise another side of it. There is so much to see here and at the same time, it can get all downed out by the plasticness of Hollywood. But we are all products of it. We all live here and a lot of us raise our families here. It is really strange. It is there kinds of cities, it is those environments that makes for a band like Ozomatli.

JY: Yes, it does. Everybody brings their own contributions to the table and along with that a different expertise in music. It is funny because everybody who showed up when we were playing at the community center in downtown L.A., whoever showed up and whatever they brought was what we tried to work with. It was never excluding anything because it didn't fit into what had been done before. It is definitely a goulash of different influences. People come to our show and everybody takes something different away, something that they might gravitate towards. Some people might be interested in political things and other people might be interested in more musical things and then other people come out to have a good time. But I noticed from early on that there was a range of people, from kids to seniors.

AAJ: Does Ozo expect its fans to be proactively abreast of current events and political climates?

UB: People like Ozomatli for a lot of different reasons. Ever since we started, we never put ourselves in a category and we never played to a particular scene. So now, when we play our own shows, we have created a vibe that is very eclectic. Certain people attach themselves to the band for different reasons, whether it's the hip-hop angle or the activist angle or the party music vibe. I don't demand anything from the listener except to dance and enjoy the music.

AAJ: But without category, Ozo is a marketing nightmare.

UB: Oh, no doubt. Right, we go out that as from a business point, especially with the new record, we've talked about how the machine needs you to be in a niche, especially when it comes to radio. Where are we going to play these guys? What we've decided this time around is that we're taking several angles, releasing an English single, a Spanish single, and a hip-hop single. We've been around long enough as a band that if someone heard hip-hop from Ozomatli, that they would think that we're just hip-hop. Nowadays, by now, people know what Ozomatli will deliver.

AAJ: Do you still consider yourself underground?

UB: If mainstream means we've blown up to what we feel comfortable with, then we'd be OK with that. If mainstream means throwing away the ideals and not caring about the music, I don't think we're about that. It is really strange because in the beginning, we were all working in other bands and in all different kinds of musical situations. When we started, it was just for the love of the jam. Cats would just show up and want to jam. At no point did any of us think that this was going to be the gig, the bread and butter. It was late into the band's history that we realized it was hitting off and maybe we should dedicate everything to this group.

JY: I don't know. We've been touring for some years now. I know the name is out there, but only up to a certain point. I think we're right in between. There still are a lot of people who don't know who we are, but there are a lot of people who do know. We are right in between.


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