Mando Saenz On a hot night in Houston (ok, so what night isn?t hot in Houston), in a tiny, dark apartment sunk deep in a one star building, songwriter Mando Saenz sees the world, and he takes notes. He wanders the streets armed with only his guitar on his way to one of his regular gigs at Houston bars like the Continental Club and later settles down for drinks with the tough guys and broken girls who usually populate poetry but rarely read it. All the while he?s writing it all down - in his head, on little scraps of paper - taking stock of what he sees with words and with melody. Back in that dingy apartment he takes all of those frozen moments, all of those simple, unexpected phrases and he makes them into music. Like the gloriously disorganized life he observes in his neighborhood, Mando?s songs usually aren?t about linear expectations or predictable narratives, they are flashes of emotion, snapshots of time reassembled in his songs with rhyme and melody to make uncommon, musical sense.
Born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas Mando Saenz joined the long line of notable singer-songwriters to emerge from, and chronicle their lives in, Texas via his first release, Watertown. Nearly three years later he has since moved on to Nashville and has distanced himself thematically and musically from his past with a broader, more rock rooted sound but his music still retains the familiar touches of Texas.
?On the first record I?d never even had a band before,? Mando (pronounced Mon-dough) states while sipping joe at a bustling Nashville coffee shop. ?I really hadn?t developed a sound. So I had a lot of growing to do in that regard.?
The sound he eventually developed while banging it out in the clubs harkens back to the early days of what has become known as the Americana or alt.country movement. It?s the sound of bands like Lone Justice, Foster & Lloyd and Alejandro Escovedo?s first band Rank and File but it is informed by all the music, popular and otherwise, that has since become part of the canon. Part of the reason his music has become more amped up since the more subdued sounds of Watertown is purely practical. Much of his new material was developed in clubs, where while fighting for attention he began finding the things about his music that made people stop for a second and forget to finish their beer slurred sentences.
?In the places I was playing,? Mando recalls, ?You kind of had to play electric guitar just so that people could hear what you were doing. To truly cut through when nobody knows who you are, you have to turn up your amp and kind of go for it.?
On his new album Mando, with the help of veteran producer R.S. Field and notable Nashvillians like Tony Crow (lambchop) and Will Kimbrough (Lucinda Williams, Todd Snider), really did go for it in every possible sense. From the outset of the album it?s clear that there were no borders erected on this record. The opening track ?Wrong Guy? begins with exotic instrumental strumming and thumping tablas matched with a drum loop and chiming, echoing guitar before the acoustic, and Saenz?s trembling tenor, slowly come in to give this music it?s roots in country, in Texas, in pop, in all the styles he?s assimilated into his own. The song also establishes the lyrical impressionism and musical matchmaking that reoccur throughout the record. ?Wrong Guy? juxtaposes mellow mid-tempo pop-country with the macho, defiant stance of the narrator who is warning the listener, and evidently the woman who broke his heart, that he?s the ?wrong guy to be messing with.? Elsewhere Mando turns the term ?creative differences? on its head to come up with pleasantly unexpected pairings. ?I Don?t Like It,? with its rolling banjo, Hammond organ and driving distorted guitar, recalls what would have happened if Crowded House?s Neil Finn had been raised on country radio and Texas roots rock. And later ?The Back of Your Mind? sounds like Toad the Wet Sprocket leader Glen Phillips if he ever completely gave into his fascination with the Nashville singer songwriter sound.
A more traditional match was made when Mando met up with Vanguard artist Kim Richey in Austin to craft two of the tunes ? the hit single sounding ?Pocket of Red? which Mando describes as a self reflective pop song and ?All Grown Up? a song that Mando says is about being ?old and educated but you still don?t know what the fuck to say sometimes.?
Of all the standout songs on the album, ?Seven Dollars? is the most deserving of finding it?s rightful place as a modern day, country-rock jukebox standard. Fittingly enough it was written about being broke and young in a bar in Houston and having just the title track amount to get you by. ?The drinks would flow while the fans would spin Crimson showers sinking in, through your stained glass eyes So drink ?em up and hold me close/Don?t give up on what you know There?s seven dollars in my coat/So don?t you worry anymore.?
Mando believes it?s ?pretty abstract but pretty specific at the same time,? which is a pretty good way to describe the album as a whole. But the song Mando sees as maybe being the most autobiographical on the album is ?Touch is All.?
?It?s a song about moving around to be happy or not be happy,? Mando explains, ?Or just feeling the need to move, whether it?s moving to another town or just being restless in a restaurant. The attachments and detachments along the way ? jobs or friends or girlfriends.?
It?s this restlessness that drove him from Texas to Tennessee and that brought him to his new musical milieu, but has all the movement meant musical growth?
?Musically, I?m not sure,? Mando replies. ?I can?t tell you if I?ve grown musically or not. Because whenever I write in my mind I?m still in Houston in that crappy apartment. It?s kind of where I like being.?