"In the future," Andy Warhol predicted, "everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." But for a few San Diego musicians, it seems that the future's arrived ahead of schedule and landed them halfway around the world. Take, for example, Bart Mendoza and Ray Brandes. In California, Mendoza is best known as a record store clerk and Brandes works as a schoolteacher. But in Spain, Mendoza and Brandes are bona fide rock stars. Both are members of Riot Act — a San Diego "supergroup" that records for Spain's Snap record label. But it was during a joint solo tour with Mendoza that Brandes summed up the Spanish experience a good many San Diego musicians have had: "Brandes gave me the greatest line ever on that tour," Mendoza told me as we sat in his south-of-Hillcrest apartment. "We're leaving a bar at 5:30 in the morning, on our way to get something to eat, when these people come up to compliment us. A few of them are beautiful women. And after they leave Ray looks at me and says, 'This is the reality I would have created for myself.' " If Brandes's reality was a dream come true, how did the San Diego rock scene make an impact in Spain in the first place? According to Spanish journalist Angel Maeztu, who wrote to me via a British friend, the popularity of San Diego music was a direct by-product of Spanish disillusionment with the British music scene. "Music aficionados who had followed the last movements since the days of punk and new wave began to feel disappointed with what was coming from the U.K. — a country whose music scene had entered a period of noticeable decadence in 1983-1984," Maeztu wrote. "Within this context, Spanish rock and roll aficionados began to listen to music from the past — mainly from the '50s and '60s -- and to give attention to contemporary bands who based their sound on what was done in those two magic decades." Thanks to the efforts of California garage-rock revivalist Greg Shaw, who issued records by Brandes's and Mendoza's garage bands on his own indie Bomp! label, Spanish listeners followed a musical trail straight to Southern California. "It has been said that the revival scene in San Diego was very small," Maeztu concluded. "But in Spain, these bands represented a guarantee of quality, as well as a direct link to the music of bands like the Beatles and the Kinks. And interest in the San Diego scene is still alive among Spanish musicians."
Intrigued, I spoke with Brandes and Mendoza about their experiences in Spain and ended up discovering a good deal about San Diego's cherished place in Spain's own musical culture. What follows is just a small fraction of all they had to tell me....
Paul Williams: The Spanish genuinely like what you're doing?
Bart Mendoza: It's beyond "genuinely like." If I was in Pearl Jam and drove by a city wall plastered with giant posters of my band, I'd be, like, "Whatever...." But for musicians on my level, who play the Casbah on Tuesday nights, to go and see a wall of your posters taking over a whole city block, or to go into a record store and have your stuff already playing? My favorite thing is walking into a bar and having the bartenders refuse to take my money because they know I'm in that band. It's unbelievable! And yet, every San Diego musician that's gone over to Spain has had the same experience. Right now, I'm in the process of writing articles on the San Diego scene for two different Spanish magazines. And on top of that, Spain's Rolling Stone, which is called Ruta 66, is about to start a music history series on San Diego bands from the '80s. The first three installments feature the Crawdaddys, the Nashville Ramblers, the Black Diamonds, and the Gravedigger V. And, as a result, these bands are all touring over there. It's almost unsettling at times, how devoted the Spanish are.
Ray Brandes: Do you remember that Twilight Zone episode where the little girl goes through a wall and ends up in an alternate universe? It's like that. There were so many people there who knew me, who recognized, admired, and appreciated the music I'd been making for the past 15 years. I think it hit me when Bart and I did an interview with Jesus Orbobas, who's kind of like the Spanish Casey Kasem: We did an interview with him, and each of us played a couple of songs on acoustic guitars. Afterwards, Orbobas began making references to tracks that I played rhythm guitar on years earlier; references to tracks that I'd sung on, bands I'd been in. Here in San Diego, I can't get arrested. It would be difficult for me to fill a club with people who aren't related to me. But the very first place we played in Madrid was packed. Bart and I were signing autographs after the show -- that astounded us both.
Paul Williams: Do the Spanish and American audiences expect different things from a rock band?
Bart Mendoza: There are people who know and love your band, but one thing that's different is that people are willing to take a chance on music they're not used to. They'll say, "Well, these guys haven't been here before, let's go check 'em out."
For example, we played a rhythm and blues club that was just packed. Sweat was coming off the walls, people were jumping off the stage -- we could have been a hardcore band for the amount of intensity in the room. But the show was over at two in the morning, precisely. So, at 1:48 we're playing a Muddy Waters song to 500 screaming kids. And 12 minutes later the music switches and those same kids are swing dancing. There's no drop-off in the audience. They dig it both.