Piñata Protest frontman Álvaro del Norte embodies punk rock’s do-it-yourself spirit, enrolling himself in accordion classes after he couldn’t find an accordion player in San Antonio who wanted to play in his punk rock band. Del Norte had a vision for a band that broke from the traditional punk sound, ironically enough, by incorporating the traditional norteño sound of Mexico.
The concept isn’t so strange—Tejano music started off as an experiment by musical pioneers who were tired of the same old stuff and decided to blend Mexican sounds with rock ‘n’ roll, country and R&B.
There’s a case to be made for these punk rockeros to be considered the next and most viable evolution of the Tejano genre. But del Norte won’t go that far. Instead, the humble San Antonian is content to talk about the ups and downs of being in a band, as well as the importance of having a supportive group of people around you.
We sat with del Norte backstage at Pachanga Fest and talked about the band’s new album, Plethora, as well as learning to play accordion. Del Norte’s girlfriend, taking minor objection to the interview being in the VIP area, sent him a lovingly vulgar text.
Tell me about this text you just got.
Álvaro: My girlfriend just sent me a text that says, “You’re a V-I-Puto.”
What does it mean to be a V-I-Puto?
Álvaro: I’m a puto, but a very important puto. [laughs]
The first thing that stands out about your music is the accordion. People aren’t used to accordion in punk, aside from the Dropkick Murphys. Most kids want to play guitar and be rock stars. How did you pick up the accordion?
Álvaro: Well, actually, I didn’t start playing it until this band started. And honestly, I had to pick it up myself because I couldn’t find any other accordion players who wanted to play punk rock music.
So that was the vision from the beginning, having a punk band with accordion in it?
Álvaro: Yeah. I’ve been playing music in bands since I was in high school. We always sounded like everybody else. At the time, I kinda gave up on music. I said, “I’m just going to do something my own way. Something fun, something different. I don’t care about getting big. It just has to be fun.” That’s what it was about. So I thought it would be cool to combine my two musical influences, punk rock and norteño, which I grew up listening to. Anyways, so, I was a bass player and I couldn’t find an accordion player or a singer. I was like, “Oh, well.” I pick it up myself. Luckily, I happened to be going to school at Palo Alto College where they have accordion lessons. So I bought one and took lessons for a semester.
Was it difficult to learn?
Álvaro: Playing accordion and singing is a lot harder than playing guitar and singing. It almost works against you.
It seems more complicated with all those buttons. You guys have been playing for a few years, but what were your first shows like? Did you get weird looks?
Álvaro: Definitely. When people saw the accordion on stage at a punk rock venue, they were like, “What’s this? What are you doing?” But for the most part, people have been open-minded. Even if they don’t like our music, they at least appreciate that we’re doing something new.
At your shows, fans tend to get up on stage and push you guys or put an arm around you and sing along. It looks fun, but does that ever get annoying, dealing with rowdy crowds?
Álvaro: You know, our crowd is pretty rowdy, and I love them when they get rowdy. I love it. I want to play music to move people, either emotionally or physically. If they get so worked up to come up and push me, great. But it does get kinda annoying when they keep bumping into me and I can’t play. But I’d rather have them bump into me than stand like this.
Arms crossed, blank expressions. What was your family’s reaction to you playing this kind of music?
Álvaro: They really liked it. I mean, they liked the fact that we were continuing on with “our people’s” music, in some way or another, so they like it.
To me, what you guys are doing is spiritually the next evolution Tejano, in the sense that early Tejano was guys mixing their conjunto influences with Americana and rock ‘n’ roll influences. You guys now are just mixing your American punk rock influences with your traditional Mexican influences.
Álvaro: Our sound is a reflection of where we are from. We’re a product of our environment.
Exactly. I want to talk about some of these songs on Plethora. Who is “Jackeee” and why did she run away to Alaska?
Álvaro: Jackie is not a real person. That song is actually about me. When I was 19, I came to live here in Austin because I wanted to get away from my parents, be on my own. But at the same time, I wanted to reinvent myself. And I thought moving away to another city where nobody knew me would be a great chance for me to become someone different, someone better than who I was. But what I ended up finding out was I was really the same person. And really, if I wanted to change it had to be within myself. There’s no need to run away.
Sometimes, if you get away, it helps you realize that you never had to leave. You come away from the experience more mature. Something like that. Last couple things: You guys very much have your sound. Do you plan to branch out and experiment?
Álvaro: It’s a secret. No, we’re going to stick to our sound but we definitely want to experiment. Maybe not so much with me bringing in other instruments, but maybe with bringing in other genres.
Last question: What’s the philosophy of your band?
Álvaro: The only reason I started playing music is because I discovered punk rock. I remember the first time I ever heard punk rock, I felt like I had just done a line of coke or something. I felt so energized.
Not that you would know what that feels like.
Álvaro: Oh, no. But it was an amazing feeling. I felt so enlightened. I felt like jumping around. So for me, at least personally, what I want to do at every show is make every person at that show feel the way I did at that moment when I was 16.
All photos by Mari Hernandez for Austin Vida.