Hailing from Texas and New York, The Last Bandoleros guys have an EP out that’s full of energetic, uptempo songs that guarantee a good time with one listen. The 4-men band features Jerry Fuentes (guitar and vocals), New York native Derek James (guitar and vocals) and brothers Diego (bass and vocals) and Emilio Navaira (drums and vocal). A little pop, a little country, a little rock and a little soul. So what is their music classified as? Well, with a myriad of influences, it’s hard to put a finger to one genre their sound belongs to, but they proudly label it as “Tex-Mex.”
As fun and hilarious as a group of guys can be, they can get real serious when it comes to business. CMchat’s Jeremy Chua got the chance to sit down with Sting’s opening act in Singapore, their first stop on the Asian leg of the headliner’s 57th & 9th Tour, to talk about the genesis of the band, their creative artistry, “failure” on country radio, the music industry, and more.
You guys have such an interesting band name! How did you come up with it?
Diego: Text message! We were in a group text for about a month or two and just trying to come up with a band name. That’s not as easy as most people think it would be. But in the end, we all wanted something with that latin flair/flare ‘cause there’s a big Spanish and Latin influence to our music. So, we thought “The Last Bandoleros,” which means “the last bandits” or “last outlaws”, if you will.
Jerry: We were thinking of a bunch of stuff, and everything we thought of was already taken.
Emilio: Well, “The Beatles” was already taken! (laughs)
How did you guys get started out as a band?
Jerry: Me, Diego and Emilio were born and raised in San Antonio. Years ago, I moved to New York. And when I would come back and forth to New York from San Antonio, I met Diego and Emilio because they were working in the studio I used to work in. Meanwhile, I was living in New York and met Derek and we were working together. And when I met these guys, we started writing songs! And I went to Derek like, “dude I met these brothers! We should all write songs together!” And we started going back and forth between San Antonio and Brooklyn for I think 3 or 4 writing sessions! Initially, we started writing songs together just to see if we can pitch them. We had no real idea what we were doing (except) writing the best songs we could.
Diego: It was a songwriting practice at first.
Emilio: To see if we could even do it.
Jerry: And then the songs coming in an instant snaps fingers and we were like, “shit, this is a band.” So when we got into the studio, we started recording.
Diego: And then the group texted started. “What Do we call it?!”
If you had to really sell and best describe your music in 3 words, what would they be?
Diego: 3 words?! Wow.
Emilio: Yeah, I’d say energetic… Fun?
Jerry: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna say.
Emilio: What else are you gonna say? Let’s see if we’ll say the same thing. (laughs)
Diego: I think wild is a good word! Joy? There’s a lot of joy in what we do too.
Emilio: Yeah, I’m gonna go with Fun, Energetic and Unpredictable.
It sounds like you guys wrote a TON of songs together. How did you narrow it to those 6 songs on the self-titled debut EP?
Derek: Well, we didn’t want to release all our songs at once. And the label also wanted to release a little taste to the world. So we picked songs that we felt best represented what we did and showed the different flavors of music that we make.
If there’s one thing I noticed, it’s that there’s not one ballad or sad song on this EP. I reckon that was intentional?
Derek: It wasn’t so conscious, it kind of just happened. It was just what we wrote when we got into the room together. We were all just kinda excited I think. And the energy just kinda propeled these uptempo songs.
Emilio: I think “I Don’t Want To Know” is sort of a ballad, or the closest thing to it.
That song reminds me of an old western movie that Clint Eastwood or Kenny Rogers was in, with those mysterious and serious vibes.
Diego: Now that, was intentional! I think it was Derek who wrote it?
Derek: Yeah, it was around that time when “True Detective” had came out. That was like a creepy, murderous, mysterious show. And we were inspired to use that as a prompt to write “I Don’t Want To Know”.
Jerry: The soundtrack of that show was really cool too. We really liked the soundscapes and music direction of that. So Derek had an idea and was like, “we should bring some of that mystery to a song like that,” and it worked well.”
When can we expect the debut record?
Diego: Right now, honestly, it’s out of our hands. Hopefully (not too long after) the US headlining tour. I mean, the album is there, but we don’t know when it’s gonna be released. Let’s say, hopefully by next year we’ll have our album out. Derek: We can safely say it’s coming in the future! (laughs)
With such an interesting Tex-Mex sound as y’all call it and a great blend of rock, pop and country, how did settling in “country music” happen?
Emilio: I think how it happened was there’re 4 different writers, and Derek’s really a cowboy. He really writes (country tunes) and wears the hat too. But all of us wrote in South Texas, and that place is a hotbed for all the different sounds of music. You can’t get away from Tex-Mex; and country; and rock; and the blues, it’s all there. If you were a musician down there, you’d learn how to play out that stuff to get all that stuff. It’s just in our DNA, and he [pointing to Derek] loves country music.
And what about eventually signing with Warner Nashville? How did that happen? Was it John Espo who first heard of you?
Jerry: The short story is Scott Hendricks, a renowned producer and A&R guy at Warner Nashville, was looking for somebody to mix a Jana Kramer record. And he got sent “Where Do You Go,” our song, as a sample of a perspective mixer he was looking at. When he heard the song, he kinda forgot about the mix and said “who is this band?!” So, within a week, he flew and saw us play at Austin City Limits where we happened to have a show at, and he came to our trailer afterwards and was like, “I’m not leavin’ until you guys are Warner Nashville artists.” Then Espo fell in love (with our music) soon after and immediately wanted to sign us, and Scott tells the story like, “I gotta go meet the guys and make sure that they’re for real.”
Derek: “Make sure they’re not crazy!”
Jerry: It’s an amazing company to be in.
Emilio: It feels like family, really.
OK, let’s talk about the less pleasant and more serious stuff for a minute. So you guys released your debut single (“Where Do You Go”) soon after radio tour and it flamed out on the charts within 6 weeks, I think? Were y’all pumped?
Derek: [jokes] I think that’s all people could handle! (laughs)
Diego: I don’t know man. How we see it is, we’re just gonna keep creating the music we like to create. If people fall in love with it, then they do. But if they don’t, they don’t. That’s not going to discourage us, because music is our passion and what drives us. We’re not going to change who we are just because people aren’t eating it.
Emilio: I think like there’s a lot of people it didn’t touch, but there’s a lot of people it did touch, and we’re happy to reach anyone that likes it. There were a lot of people who heard it but would’ve never heard it if they didn’t go to the radio. We’re happy that anyone likes it. So, we reached a small, core group that became fans, and we’re happy about that. Y’know, we’ll try next time with another song or something!
I was just gonna ask that! Will you guys be trying again with another single on country radio?
Jerry: So the thing is, like you asked earlier about Warner Nashville and country, we weren’t really saying “hey, we want to be country” or “we want to be the next Blake Shelton.” We weren’t really doing that. We just wrote a bunch of songs. And I think, none of us really understood how country radio works. The songs that we make and our sound is not really present in what country radio is now” So we were definitely an odd ball, like a turkey just sitting out there. But nonetheless, like Emilio said, he’s exactly right- we did it because we were gonna find those people that got it and got excited about it. We don’t think about classifying our sound. We’re just gonna keep creating the music we like to create. But, it was a great experience and maybe we’ll do it again, sure! We don’t know. And I don’t think it was so discouraging for us, like none of us were super bummed about it, because it wasn’t even our intention to begin with. It’s kinda interesting, like people ask us a lot about where country music is going and what we think about it. There’s a lot of country music that I really love, but I’m shocked that so much of it, sounds the same. We don’t sound the same, and we celebrate that. It’s interesting man. We’re still learning about country radio right now.
You mentioned radio. So, going back a bit. I know it’s been a year, but how was radio tour?
Derek: Radio tour was a lot of fun! We met a lot of great people, ate a lot of great food.
Diego: I think we all gained like 5 pounds at least being on the radio tour. Steak dinners, every night.
Jerry: It was a lot of fun. A learning experience for all of us.
You also mentioned about how it’s not a trend-chasing game for you guys, and that reminds me so much of your label mate, Aubrie Sellers! Her first single flamed out fast on country radio too, and the second single (“Liar Liar”) isn’t even charting yet. But, I think she’s got such a unique and authentic sound, just like you guys, and y’all are not fixated on the trends! Both of y’all are just putting out music because of the same thing- passion?
Diego: Yeah, it’s the same way for us. She’s not afraid to do what she wants to and loves to do. And that’s one thing I respect about her.
Jerry: I hope she keeps doing it too. A lot of people will try to put you in a mold man.
Emilio: But the thing with Warner is that it’s such a family, and they believe in you. They believe in us, and all there other artists, and we get to do what we want to do- and that’s really rare.
If there’s one thing you guys could change about the music industry or radio, what would it be?
Jerry: Wow! Just one thing? (laughs) Hmmm. I would probably take the money out of it. I know, it’s impossible, like how do you take the money out of it? But one of the things we all learnt, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault it’s just the system, is that it takes a lot of money to get a song on the radio. It doesn’t matter what the song sounds like or what the artist looks like. If you’re gonna get even a typical song on the radio, it takes a lot of money to do that. I wish there was a way to take something like Spotify and other streaming services–where you actually get to see what people consume based on like how much they’re listening to (the songs)–if they can figure out how to do that and translate it to what actually gets played… Like right now, the actual radio industry, those big companies like the Cumulus’s and iHeart’s—we’re so grateful to them because they supported us—but the economics of it (makes it) really hard for beginner bands to support attempts at radio. If you don’t literally have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s impossible- and I wish that wasn’t the case. This is akin to what people talk about in government now, in the US at least. The people that get elected have all the money. I wish there was a way to remove (the way radio and the music industry works) because there are a lot of people out there who are real country music fans. Not that the music on radio isn’t good, because there’s a lot of amazing music there, but I just wish that it was a little easier to get songs played. I mean, there are some (platforms) right now, like Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play. But that would be my wish, I guess.
Guessing it’s the same for everyone?
Derek: Yeah, that’d be great. That, and more candy. Just more bowls of candy.
(laughs) I can’t see how that fits into the picture, but maybe when you visit stations, they just give you bowls and bowls of free candy, yeah? [everyone knods in excitement]
Derek: Yeah that’d help! Let’ turn this radio game into Halloween. If our songs are not going up the charts, at least we can feel better! It’s almost like going to the dentist. At least you walk away with a lollipop! “We can’t play your songs, but here’s a crunch bar!” [everyone cracks up]
Diego: All three of us and Derek would be like, “YES! Let’s go to another station!”
Who are some of your favorite new country acts right now? I know Aubrie Sellers is down.
Derek: Jon Pardi… We actually did some shows together! He’s our buddy.
Jerry: I like Brothers Osborne a lot. Chris Stapleton too.
Diego: I pretty much listen to only Aubrie Sellers, really.
Jerry: And all the artists we just mentioned, we’d love to do a show with. We think those are some of the artists we feel we’d pair well with.
And what’s your favorite old school country song? Derek, you probably know a bunch!
Derek: Oh yeah. “Hey, Good Lookin’” by Hank.
Jerry: I love Dwight (Yoakam). And an old Willie Nelson, “Mama Don’t Let Their Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”
Derek: I like some of Diego and Emilio’s dad’s country tunes too. They are bad-ass.
Emilio: I like “Mama Tried.”
Diego: I’m a big George Strait fan. He and my dad were my first introduction to country music. To me, George Strait is old school country.
OK, now that we have all the serious questions out of the way, time for some fun ones! 5 of them.
First: Dream venue to perform at in Nashville?
All 4 guys: The Ryman! We have not played there yet.
Jerry: I’ve not only not performed a show there, but I’ve yet to see one.
Favorite place to eat at in Nashville?
Emilio: Hattie B’s!
Derek: Yeah, they’ve got a nice greasy burger. And, Jerry will wait a couple of hours to eat at Biscuit Love!
Jerry: Oh, it’s good.
Derek Really?! (laughs)
Jerry: Yeah, Biscuit Love is probably my favorite spot in Nashville.
Emilio: Better than Hattie B’s?!
Jerry: I mean, Hot Chicken is OK. But I’m a breakfast guy. Like, I’ll wake up at 2pm and I want breakfast. Biscuits and Gravy, eggs, best coffee in the world, fresh squeezed OJ! Oh…
Since you’re on this side of the world, what’s your favorite Asian food?
Emilio: I love Thai.
Diego: Mine’s probably Phad Thai.
Jerry: Indian food.
Derek: I love Wanton Soup.
Emilio: Oh and I like really spicy Green Curry.
Favorite thing to smear on bagels?
Emilio: They’ve got this thing called Bagel Smith in New York Derek and Jerry are from there. I don’t eat a plain bagel anymore. It’s always like a sandwich. But I do like cream cheese I guess.
Diego: I’m gonna say strawberry jelly.
Derek: Regular butter sounds good to me.
Jerry: I rarely smear on bagels. (everyone laughs) I’ll eat bagels as sandwiches. So, I’ll do egg, turkey bacon…
Derek (interrupts) “Oh yeah I’ll smear 7 different ingredients! And in these proportions: 1/8 peanut butter…”
Jerry: We talkin’ both sides of the bagel?! (laughs)
Diego: Jerry’s the particular one!
Is he the sandwich master here?
Emilio: We’re being funny, but if we’re in the middle of nowhere and want to find something to eat, Jerry will find us the best place to eat. That’s his thing!
Final question. Last meal ever. What would it be?
Emilio: I don’t know if you know what that is, but I’d have my grandma’s Carne Guisada. It’s a Mexican dish. Beef tips in a gravy.
Diego: in a flower tortilla!
Diego: I’m gonna say Burger King’s Chicken Fries with some barbecue sauce.
Derek: I’m gonna go with some chicken parmesan, and some spaghetti in garlic and oil, like a big Italian feast.
Jerry: That’s a tough question! I guess I’d probably go with Mexican. Either Carne Guisada or Fajitas.
Diego: Oh wait, I’ll actually change mind! I want a hodgepodge of fast-food. So like, McDonald’s french fries, Taco Bell’s tacos, and then like Burger King’s chicken fries. Oh oh, and Wendy’s chicken mcnuggets. Oh, and a Whataburger. And Chili’s apple pie.
That’s a wrap! And I hope you can finish all that food, Diego! (whole room breaks out in laughter)
What a way to end the interview with such a great band. They were such a real fun group to talk to, and the thoughtful answers provided us with an unfiltered, not-so-glamorous view of the music industry; something often unknown to fans and listeners.
Not having a specific genre classification isn’t a bad problem to have, actually. Because their music blurs genre lines so well, it only means one thing: The Last Bandoleros’ will have fans from all the different formats that their songs are influenced by. Country; rock; pop; soul; indie; Blues, the list is endless. Does that bode well for the band? Most certainly, yes.
With a fully supportive and visionary record label and management team, the sky truly is the limit for this multi-talented and unapologetically authentic group.
Because we can’t get enough of them…