CRYSTAL BAY, Nev. — JoJo Garza of Los Lonely Boys didn't seem to hide the anxiousness and uncertainty he felt when his throat problems forced the band off of the road in spring 2010 and into an unplanned stretch of inactivity.
Fortunately, Garza's worst fears were not realized. The growth was not cancerous or anything on that order.
“It was just like a lesion or something, and they said it basically came from stress and over-working, over-usage,” Garza said in a phone interview. “They said ‘Look man, with three or four months off, you're going to be just fine.' Man, we were so thankful for that.”
The silver lining in that temporary storm cloud was that Los Lonely Boys ended up getting some much-needed rest from the touring routine, and because Garza couldn't sing in the studio either, a little extra time to work on its current CD, “Rockpango.” And facing that moment of uncertainty, Garza said, also brought some extra urgency to the album project.
“That gave us an extra oomph to get out and get back in the studio,” he said. “ We're like now we've got to get back to the basics. We've got to get back to the roots, but we've also at the same time, we've got to move forward, and I think we did exactly that with ‘Rockpango.'”
The release of “Rockpango” represents the start of a new era for the San Angelo, Texas-based group, which features bassist Garza and his two brothers, guitarist-singer Henry and drummer Ringo.
It's the first release on the group's own record label, Lonely Tone Records after the band began its recording career on major label Epic Records.
That association proved to initially be fruitful for the three brothers, who got their start in music while still children as part of their father's band, which enjoyed considerable popularity in the Southern states.
As the boys grew older, father Ringo Garza Sr. realized that his sons were destined to be more than his backing band, and he encouraged them to go out on their own as Los Lonely Boys. The band grew to become a regular presence on the Texas club scene (and gained a high-profile supporter in Willie Nelson as well), before landing its deal with Epic.
The band's 2004 self-titled debut CD became a surprise hit when a cheerful, easy-going pop-soul song from the CD, “Heaven,” caught on at radio. It eventually went No. 1 on Billboard magazine's adult contemporary chart and also cracked the top 20 on Billboard's “Hot 100” singles chart. The song's popularity kept the “Los Lonely Boys” CD on the “Billboard” album chart for 76 weeks. To top that off, “Heaven” won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
Hoping to maintain the momentum, the group rushed to complete its follow-up CD, “Sacred.” While it was a solid effort, it didn't stick with record buyers. “Sacred” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, but after 11 weeks, had fallen out of the top 200.
A third CD, “Forgiven,” arrived in 2008, but again failed to match the success of the first album. And that CD fulfilled Los Lonely Boys' contractual obligations to Epic.
“We had a great relationship with Epic, and there were a bunch of great people there working with us and we did a lot of good things together,” JoJo Garza said. “We pretty much did our deal with them, and it was so many albums and it worked out. It just came time when it was time for us to venture off and do our thing.”
Garza acknowledged that Epic always wanted Los Lonely Boys to come up with another song that fit the mold of “Heaven.” The band never quite complied, Garza said, because he and his brothers felt doing so would have felt contrived, if not downright impossible.
“They were definitely looking for another ‘Heaven,' ” he said. “(But) we're going to write what we feel, we're going to write what we see, we're going to write what we hear. That's what it always was. I mean, Los Lonely Boys have always gone against the grain. I know it's kind of crazy to say, but it's against the grain because it's our way, musically as well as, how do you say, the way people perceive you publicly. Who we are as people and music, musicians, has always been important to us. And we were going to do everything we can to stay who we are.”
Even with the label's desires for a “Heave Part II,” Garza said it never caused serious tension between Epic and the band, and the group remained on good terms with Epic throughout its contract.
“As far as them (Epic) maybe stressing about it, I never really saw that or heard about that,” he said. “You catch wind of certain things, but it was never really to the point where we were going to jump off a cliff or turn into some boy band or something like that because that was just against the rules of our, how do you say, the rule of thumb for Los Lonely Boys.”
The band very much seems to be following its own musical path again on “Rockpango.” The group continues to draw from the same influences as always — rock, blues and Mexican music. But the blend is more seamless than other on the new CD, and the group's melodic talents are sharper than ever.
What's also notable is that “Rockpango” is the group's most rocking CD to date. The opening cut, “American Idle,” boasts an especially tasty lead guitar line that helps give the song the right kind of grit and grime. “Love In My Veins” is anchored by a nifty choppy rhythm guitar and a rich bass line that provides the foundation for the song's sweet vocal melody. On “16 Monkeys,” the group ventures into new territory, successfully blending Tex-Mex rock and rap and a sly attitude.
The melodic balladry that has also been a key element of Los Lonely Boys' sound surfaces as well on songs like “Fly Away” (featuring some soaring harmonies of the three brothers) and the lovely mid-tempo track, “Smile,” a Beatles-esque number that is sweetened with some beguiling string parts.
The emphasis on more uptempo material was in the band's thoughts during the writing and recording of “Rockpango,” which the band produced itself. That side of the band's sound had been a bit under-represented on the other albums, and especially on “Heaven,” which leaned toward mid-tempo songs.
“We were talking amongst each other as brothers, just talking about how we came to realize there were only so many rocking things on any of our other records,” Garza said. “It just kind of worked out.”
The direction of the CD worked out so well, in fact, that Garza feels “Rockpango” is the best Los Lonely Boys CD yet. Given that sentiment, it's no surprise that Garza and his brothers play a good number of the new songs to the group's live set.
“We're definitely going to incorporate some of the old stuff, but we're definitely going to work this record and we're going to perform a lot of these songs live,” Garza said.