SOUNDS LIKE: Post-Graceland Paul Simon, if he spent his time listening to Beach House and cumbia and watching footage of Nina Simone on YouTube.
Luz Elena Mendoza and Nick Delffs have been here before. Not necessarily at Savoy Tavern, the snug bar on Southeast Clinton Street, where they sit admiring the mounted buck head amid the warm glow of the table lamps, but chatting about being named to WW’s Best New Band list. Delffs’ former band, the Shaky Hands, placed first in 2007. Mendoza’s Spanglish folk-pop ensemble, Y La Bamba, earned a spot on the list two years later.
But Tiburones—the band Delffs and Mendoza started last year and named after the Spanish word for sharks—is a different kind of animal. Though the music is still rooted in percussive flourishes and Mendoza’s sweet vocal swing, it’s less ethereal than both of their past efforts, and imbued with a heightened sense of collaboration.
“Everyone needs change,” says the tall, tattooed Mendoza when asked about the band’s beginnings. “When you’re doing the same thing over and over, even if it feels good, you start to wonder what it’s like doing something else.” Delffs, scruffy and clad in a slim sport coat, echoes those sentiments from across the table. “It’s like a well-oiled machine,” he says. “Beautiful things happen, but sometimes you need a fundamental change.”
In his case, the most fundamental difference is that the two musicians write songs together—a notable change for Dellfs, who’s used to playing frontman for both the Shaky Hands and his solo project, Death Songs. He and Mendoza began collaborating when a mutual friend brought them together to play at her house a few years ago. That one-off collaboration extended into days-long sessions in which they’d help each other flesh out their respective songs. A joint Death Songs-Y La Bamba West Coast tour followed in 2012, and the pair finally decided to start an official project.
“When you have the environment, tools, timing and right people, it just kind of happens,” Mendoza says. “A lot of people can resonate with that, but they probably have a different way of articulating it.”
With Mendoza at the helm, the band’s eclectic sound isn’t too far-flung a departure from past efforts. The music still incorporates traditional folk elements, with a heavy emphasis on syncopated percussion, instilling Mendoza’s distinctly operatic vibrato with a keen pulse flanked by delicately cascading guitar, lush harmonies and a scattered mix of keys and vibraphone. Additional percussion and Delffs’ dynamic drumming are pivotal to the rhythm, often rollicking in bare-bones fashion before erupting into a cannonade of toms and hi-hat. An all-female choir known as Maria Maria—which Mendoza refers to as a “vocal hug”—often accompanies the band, rendering her hushed, Feist-like timbre even more resounding.
With their other bands on indefinite hiatus, Tiburones is now both musicians’ primary concern. They just finished a short tour opening for Portland roots-rockers Black Prairie, and the band is wrapping up an album with the help of the Decemberists’ Chris Funk. But Mendoza and Delffs aren’t trying to look too far ahead. They’re happy enough just living in the moment.
“We’ve both been in bands who’ve toured and sacrificed a good deal for music,” says Delffs before he, Mendoza and bassist Samantha Stidham take the stage at Savoy Tavern. “We’ve talked a lot about our past experiences, and we want to try and do something different, to be smarter about this project.”
“But we also want it to allow us to be who we are,” Mendoza quickly interjects, “because we just can’t stop playing music. It’s an ongoing search for the balance.” BRANDON WIDDER.