Ray Brandes: A man by the name of Angel Carrasco contacted me via e-mail in 1998 and asked if I would be interested in releasing something on a small label he ran. I'd been working on a solo album and had close to 20 songs recorded; I was thinking of shopping them to a number of different record labels. But after a few e-mail exchanges with Angel I decided to go with him and released Continental Drifter on the Snap label, which is based in Madrid.
That's how the whole thing started. I'm Mexican-American. My mother's last name is Montijo, and we're direct descendants of Eugénie de Montijo, who was married to Napoleon the Second and was the empress of France and Spain in the mid-1800s. So I have a genetic link to Spain, and I'd always been interested in Spanish art. But this was the first time I ever had any real connection with Spain.
Paul Williams: How did you end up touring there?
Ray Brandes: Bart also had a single out on Snap, so we decided to go over together and do a promotional tour. Since my album was coming out at Christmas, we arranged a couple of weeks in December of 1998. Snap organized the tour for us, the idea being that we'd do some radio interviews and play a few shows backed by a local group called Los Impossibles.
Paul Williams: Did you find the Spanish to be different from the Americans you've known?
Bart Mendoza: Spanish people don't seem to sleep very much. It's not uncommon to have a traffic jam at six or seven in the morning made up of people coming home from the clubs. Americans come from a Puritan tradition; there's much more of an emphasis here on hard work, on preparing for retirement, on preparing for next week. The Spanish love food, they love drink, they love music, they love life for the sake of living it.
Paul Williams: How did Riot Act form?
Ray Brandes: After we returned, I went back to my normal life and on evenings and weekends tried to do what I could to promote the Spanish album over here. Then Bart and I came up with the idea that it would be nice to take some folks we knew from the local scene to Spain. In part we wanted to show our musician friends this incredible place that we'd found. And we thought it would be great if we got together musicians from some of the bands we'd come up with. We talked to Peter Meisner, who had been the Crawdaddys' guitarist. We spoke with Hector Peñalosa from the Zeros and his brother Victor from the Melanies. And we decided we'd form a group to go over and perform songs from our respective catalogues, as well as some covers that we liked.
Paul Williams: You and Bart suggested this because you knew that there was this interest in San Diego musicians?
Ray Brandes: Right. Apart from their interest in what we'd been doing, we were also fielding questions about what San Diego people were up to. "Do you know Ron Silva?" "What are the Crawdaddys doing now?" "Are the Zeros coming to Spain again?"
So we went over there in April of 1999 and had a hugely successful tour of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Burgos, and Ponferrada. Everywhere we went we attracted huge crowds, very demonstrative crowds, crowds unlike any that we were used to. Between us, the musicians in Riot Act must have played thousands of shows. But most were played to mellow California crowds. San Diegoans, particularly, tend to be very appreciative of the music, but they don't yell and scream and smash beer bottles on the floor. They're much more concerned with how cool they look. In Spain, it's people pushing towards the stage, yelling and screaming. In Ponferrada, the small city my wife is from, we ran out of material. We were used to playing half-hour sets in San Diego. But in Spain you need to play for at least an hour and a half. That's what the crowds expect. Anyhow, Ponferrada was probably the smallest concert we played, on a rainy Tuesday night and without much notice. There were maybe 50 people in the club. But they kept begging us to play, and we ended up playing almost three hours that night. We pulled every song that we could think of out of the air; we played an almost complete set of Beatles songs, we played every Chuck Berry song we could remember, and they just wanted to hear more.
Paul Williams: What about Riot Act did the Spanish find so appealing?
Ray Brandes: I think it's the passion we have for music that hits you on a visceral level -- that feels and sounds like a punch in the stomach. That's what the Spaniards found so attractive. They imagine San Diego as a place with 50 or 60 bands like this. The truth of the matter is there are far more bands in Spain who are carrying the torch for that sort of music. It's nice to know that somewhere in the world there's a place that loves and appreciates what you're doing. The journalists in the Spanish magazines even refer to "California rhythm and blues" -- as though that were a particular genre of music!
Paul Williams: And what did you make of the Spanish people?
Ray Brandes: I'll tell you a story: We go to a Spanish diner. It's noon, we eat, the food's okay, Jeff goes to pay, and we leave. Half an hour later, Jeff realizes he left his wallet and passport at the restaurant. His money's gone, everything's gone. He's in a blind panic, so we tell our cab diver about what's just happened. And he turned around immediately, to go back. Jeff's panicking the whole way, but as we're going through traffic the driver says: "Why are you worried? It's no problem." By the time we get to the restaurant an hour's gone by, sure enough the wallet's right where Jeff left it -- it hasn't been touched. The passport, too. And when we get back into the cab, the driver says: "Of course! This is Spain!"