Maybe it was the round of tequilas they just downed, but the Last Bandoleros are fired up. In fact, the four members of the young country-rock band – bassist Diego Navaira and his older brother, drummer Emilio Navaira, and guitarists Jerry Fuentes and Derek James – are nearly causing a scene at an outside table at Dino’s, the East Nashville dive bar and burger joint, as they debate the merits of Liam Gallagher’s just-released solo album. Ultimately, they all agree that it’s a winner, but still pine for that elusive Oasis reunion between shit-talking siblings Liam and Noel.
The Last Bandoleros have a special affinity for family groups, and the Navairas seize any chance to geek out about their heroes Van Halen or the famously fractured Oasis.
“I look forward to the day when you and I can no longer be in a band together,” Emilio Navaira ribs Diego, eliciting a second outburst from the party.
For the briefest of moments, it’s hard to predict where things will go next: Fuentes’ eyes bug out and he pounds his fist on the table, sloshing around some beers, while the brothers and the normally reserved James laugh loudly. Such unpredictable scenes are a microcosm of how the band interacts onstage, a whirlwind of unbridled rock & roll energy conveyed through wild guitar strums, punk-rock pogoing and Emilio’s frenetic drumming. It all combines to make the Last Bandoleros the most thrilling new country act currently on a major Nashville label.
And, possibly, the most important. With its Tex-Mex-flavored sound, the group – which Warner Music Nashville signed in 2016 – has a chance to add some much-needed diversity to country music and, specifically, to country radio, where homogeneous male solo artists still rule the roost. It won’t be easy, though: While the Tejano rock trio Los Lonely Boys, another family group, scored an Adult Contemporary Number One in 2004 with “Heaven,” the last band to crack the Top 20 on the Country Airplay survey with a Latin-flavored hit was the Mavericks and 1996’s “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down.”
“It’s our intention to push the boundaries of where the country genre is. Let’s do edgy country, shake it up and bring Tex-Mex into country,” says Fuentes. “I liken it to a font. You can write in a bunch of a different fonts, but when you look at the letter A, it’s still the letter A, it just looks a little different. Country radio is a beautiful thing for what it is, but I think there are some fonts that are missing.”
“We know we’re strange and different,” says Diego, “so for Warner to take notice and believe in the music, we do not take that for granted. They welcomed us with open arms, as family should.”
The idea of family is the cornerstone of the Last Bandoleros. Fuentes, a guitar prodigy, and his father, a hobbyist musician, used to perform as a duo for tourists on San Antonio’s River Walk. Diego and Emilio, the sons of Tejano superstar Emilio Navaira, played in their dad’s touring band up until the flamboyant Navaira’s unexpected death at 53 in 2016. (“He was like David Lee Roth in a cowboy hat,” says Emilio, officially Emilio IV.) Before he even knew the brothers, Fuentes once worked as a young producer on the elder Navaira’s Tejano albums.
But the Last Bandoleros weren’t born until Fuentes, who was living in Brooklyn with James, a New York native, met Diego and Emilio on a trip home to San Antonio. What started as a writing project evolved into a viable band in 2014.
“I’d come back to Texas to see my family and the producers at the studio where I used to work would say, ‘You have to meet Emilio’s sons. They remind me of you,'” Fuentes recalls. “Right away, we spoke the same language.”
It was one based strongly on Beatles-influenced rock & roll. The Fab Four’s harmonies are apparent in Bandoleros tracks like “River Man” “Where Do You Go?” and “I Don’t Want to Know,” and the group can often switch lead vocalists in a single song.
“Most bands have a lead singer and a guy who sings harmony, but what’s special about the Bandoleros is not only can we each be lead singers, but we each have a distinct sound vocally as well,” says Fuentes.
How do they decide who sings what?
“We fucking street fight,” exclaims Emilio, causing the table to erupt again.
“But the Beatles influence is huge,” he continues. “The other day we were working on something and got to a part where we didn’t know what to do and Derek played “A Hard Day’s Night” chord and we were like, ‘That’s it!’ It’s hard to argue with the Beatles. On top of that is the Tex-Mex influence of Flaco Jimenez and my dad, of course. If you live in South Texas, you can’t escape that music.”
While the band acknowledges the Tejano sound is very much a component – they often tour with a button accordion player, Percy Cardona – they’ve never made a conscious decision to play it up. Nor do Fuentes and the Navairas see themselves boxed in by their ethnicity.
“As individuals, you shouldn’t be stopped from writing whatever kind of music you want, just because of the color of your skin or the race you are,” says Diego.
“It’s part of the cloth that we’re cut from. It’ll seep into the music,” says Fuentes, gesturing at the Navairas. “These guys, since they were little kids and could barely dress themselves, were already laying down amazing rhythm section shit for Tejano music. They don’t even have to try and it comes out of them.”
With its Tex-Mex vibe and rock roots, the Last Bandoleros’ music is undeniably refreshing – and glaringly unorthodox by today’s standards. Two years since Warner, the label home of populist country radio stars like Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell, signed the group, the move remains a head-scratcher. When the Bandoleros’ debut single “Where Do You Go?” was released in July 2016, it stalled at Number 49 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
“We probably made a mistake trying to push the country radio card too early,” says Warner Music Nashville chairman/CEO John Esposito, who recruited the Last Bandoleros after executive vice president of A&R Scott Hendricks excitedly burst into his office with a demo. “The good news is that everyone at this label is in love with this band, and it’s our job now to find other ways of exposing them, much of which is happening from touring and getting fans. If there’s ever an opportunity at country radio for them, it’ll be because there is such a groundswell that [radio] is going to have to contend with it.”
Despite the initial radio misfire, the timing may actually be ideal for Esposito and the group he calls “the most sideways country band in the world.” The past year has seen a resurgence in Latin music’s popularity and its influence on pop music, thanks to songs like Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” and J Balvin and Willy William’s “Mi Gente.” The pump is now primed for country music, typically a step or two behind any trend, to get onboard.
Rock fans are already embracing the Bandoleros after witnessing their spontaneous, even dangerous, live show. The group spent last year on the road with Sting, an early fan with whom they share a manager in Martin Kierszenbaum. Angling for a publishing deal with Kierszenbaum’s Cherrytree Music before the Bandoleros took off, Fuentes played him some of his pop songs, but the Lady Gaga producer gravitated toward what he heard from Fuentes’ still nascent project with James and the Navairas. He lobbied to work with the band, and before they knew it, doors were opening. Eventually, they found themselves in the studio recording for Sting’s 57th & 9th album and then opening for the Police frontman. After their set, they’d return to the stage as adjunct members of Sting’s band, adding harmonies to classics like “Message in a Bottle.”
“I always thought Tex-Mex was food, then I met the boys,” Sting says in an email. “What they serve is a musical recipe marinated in tradition and served up with a touch of picante sauce, close harmonies and a triple shot of rhythm & blues, Tejano and tequila.”
Even before Sting’s seal of approval, the Bandoleros were cutting their teeth on tour with the Mavericks. Seeing their fans’ response to the young act, Mavericks singer Raul Malo invited them to open more shows.
“They really have their own take on rock & roll. You can tell it’s a bunch of Latin kids growing up in America taking it all in,” says Malo, who recognizes some of the Mavericks’ genre-defying spirit in the band. “I love that about them. It may not be the easiest path for them, but I think they’re going to stick to their guns and I think they’re going to kick ass. They have enough of that attitude to keep them going.”
Still, the Last Bandoleros will have to contend with the sometimes constrictive way that Music Row does business. The group released a debut EP in 2016 and already have enough songs for a full album in the can, but the current course of action is to release a series of singles throughout the year.
“We’re a modern band with a modern release plan,” deadpans James.
The group released the Foo Fighters-inspired “Fly With You” in October, and just this month unveiled a music video for the moody “I Don’t Want to Know,” a Flamenco-inflected song that would fit right in on Americana radio.
James admits the band’s music is tailor-made for that burgeoning genre. “That’s an interesting lane for music like ours to fit in,” he says. “It fits with a lot of Americana bands that we all love.”
“I don’t really think about scenes,” interjects Diego. “I love Americana, but I think we’re doing that anyway. We just do what we do and it can fit in a lot of different avenues.”
Just like the Navairas’ father, whose own songs and stage show were as wildly eclectic as his kids’ band.
“Because of our dad, I never grew up thinking in terms of genres, so it makes all the sense in the world to do the Bandoleros,” says Emilio. “It’s everything I love in one thing. He could do it, so why can’t we?”
“He did not give a shit,” says Diego. “He would open up with ‘Ain’t Talking Bout Love’ and the audience would be like, ‘What the hell?’ And then all of a sudden, everyone’s head is banging to it.”
Another round of beers appears and the guys are off arguing David Lee Roth vs. Sammy Hagar. “Dude,” says Diego, “let’s talk Van Halen.”