Super Mario Brother

For the Dragons' Mario Escovedo, choosing a vocation as a musician is something akin to being a priest and having Jesus Christ and the 12 disciples as older brothers. A quick glance at his famed family tree reveals older siblings such as Alejandro (the Nuns, Rank & File, True Believers, and his current stellar solo career), Javier (Zeros, True Believers, Pacific Coast Highway) and Coke (Santana, Azteca, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock). Percussionist Pete's credits would fill pages, and he also happens to be the father of Sheila E. and Peter Michael, who is musical director of The Wayne Brady Show.

As the youngest in such a talented family, living up to your elders can often be a thankless proposition, but it's hard to fault Mario for taking up the family tradition. Calling from his home in San Diego, he explains that it was the True Believers that made him, well, a true believer.

"That's how the Dragons started," he says. "That's the basis of how we learned the ropes. The True Believers came out here to play and we actually had a family reunion. I was, like, 17 and got to travel with them for the first time. As the 13th child in the family, I was the one that wasn't supposed to get into music, or at least my parents didn't want me to."

But seeing his brothers put on "one of the best rock shows" he had ever seen scotched any plans he may have had for a "respectable" career track. How does Alejandro feel about his part in setting his baby brother down the road to perdition? Speaking by phone from his home outside San Antonio, Alejandro -- whom Mario compares to the Dragons' coach -- lauds his brother's work ethic and sense of play.

"This may sound a little odd about a punk or rock band, but they've always been so committed and really, really super-intense about it, and it shows. They're not sloppy, hippie kind of rock guys. Mario's really devoted. Everything about Mario since he was young has always been like that. He was a great baseball player; he was scouted by major-league teams as a pitcher. He was the star football player at his school, and he applied all of that to his songwriting. Of all the bands we've had, including my older brother's and all of Javier's bands, they're the funnest of all of them. They've really captured something that I don't think we had."

Formed in 1990, the Dragons have released one live and six studio discs, including Sin Salvation, which dropped June 3 on their new label, Gearhead Records. The quartet's lineup -- Escovedo, Japan-born guitarist Kenny Mochikoshi Horne, bassist Steve Rodriguez and drummer Jarrod Lucas -- is all original, with the exception of Lucas, who joined after the first record.

Looking back on the band's 13-year run, Escovedo says that playing with Tokyo garage punk monsters Guitar Wolf stands out as a highlight. (It's a mutual admiration society -- Guitar Wolf's Seiji Ano gushed in a recent interview that the Dragons were one of his favorite bands and even sported a Dragons T-shirt on the cover of his latest release, UFO Romantics.)

"They're just huge music fans, and they just want to sit and talk music," Mario says. "It's cool 'cause over there they have the shows at eight and then Seiji would grab us all and take us to this big banquet. They never let your glass get half empty and the food keeps coming. We called it the rock summit, 'cause Seiji was all serious. He was asking us stuff like 'Why do you drink?' "

The steadfast admiration of the Japanese wild man aside, wider recognition has been slow in coming to the Dragons, garage rock craze or no. Mario shrugs off his band's obscurity -- after all, their heroes had to walk the same dimly lit trail.

"Me and Kenny were sitting there one late night and he commented, 'How come we're not on the radio? How come we never made it big?' And I said, 'Look at all the people we list as influences. None of the people we say we like are pop sensations on the radio. I mean, Johnny Thunders never made it. The New York Dolls weren't on the radio; most of them ended up dead, heartbroken and broke. And that's what we love: you know, the tragedy and the moments of euphoria in between, the moments we have on stage every now and then. You can't listen to any of our music and think, 'Well, they tried to write a top ten hit.' It's just been what we feel and what we believe. If it happens, then great, but it's not something we chased."

Although their music has its share of party-hearty, rock and roll clichés on anthems like "Three Steps from the Bar" and "Loaded," Mario has always struggled for more.

"Lyrically I've wanted to be more explicit than I've been in the past…I've always been into Charles Bukowski and that sort of thing…I think everybody interprets that as 'Let's get drunk and go fuck in the back of the car.' I'm trying to say a lot more, and I think in this record there's a lot of good songs."

Sin Salvation bears out Escovedo's assessment with keepers like "Kiss Me ('Cause Life's Obscene)" and "Play for Keeps" alongside the Bukowskian numbers "Self Destruction" and "Tragedy." But the Dragons' rep has never been based on their albums. It's always been their supersonic live shows, which meld '70s Stones, a touch of glam, a barrel of sleaze, a dollop of hophead junkie blues-rock and a quart of punk fury. The Dragons cook up the perfect soundtrack for leaning against the bar with a cold one in hand.

The album title was inspired by less-than-joyful memories of growing up in the Catholic Church, particularly an incident of corporal punishment doled out by a priest. The Dragons call this release a response to that act and an effort to "slap rock and roll across the face." But don't look to the band for deliverance from evil. After witnessing their sin-filled live performance, it's more likely that penance will be required.

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Timothy J. O'Brien