The border between Mexico and the United States is a loud and unwavering place. The car honking is nonstop, music blares from windows and vendors yell out their offerings in a never-ending rhythm. It's this sound that defines Juan Cirerol's brand of norteño punk.
"I feel like if someone asked what the music of Mexicali, Tijuana, Calexico is, it would be me," the singer says, speaking in Spanish by phone from his home in Mexico City. "I think I'm the Baja California style."
Originally from the blazing-hot Baja California desert town of Mexicali, Cirerol gives a punk-rock immediacy to the upbeat folk-country sounds of norteño, an accordion-driven genre popular in Mexico and U.S. border regions. He's spent the past few years gaining a devoted following in Mexico, and now he's begun introducing American listeners to his style, which draws as much from Johnny Cash as norteño superstars Ramón Ayala and Cornelio Reyna.
"I know rock and punk rock, as well, obviously," he says with cocky self-assurance. But, he adds, "I try to make my own style—Cirerol fucking punk-rock."
Cirerol, 24, likes to wear plaid cowboy shirts and always seems to appear in press photos with a cigarette in his mouth. Though he's baby-faced, he has a defiant stare and the voice of a grizzled older man. He primarily sings in Spanish as he strums out rollicking folk tunes about the drug trade, girls, prescription medication and the monotony of middle-class life, but as with most border-dwelling folk, a few English words tend to sneak in.
On his latest effort, last year's Haciendo Leña, Cirerol limits himself to guitar and occasionally the harmonica. And while his tunes resemble those of Cash or norteño legend Chalino Sanchez, he often growls or yells out his lyrics like a punk singer—or as though he were singing along to a jukebox in a loud cantina.
He focuses on love in tracks like "La Muchacha de las Tierras Lejanas" ("The Girl from the Far Away Lands") and "Mi Amor no Acabará" ("My Love Will Never End"), paying little regard to vocal pitch or tone. These are the kind of songs a drunken man sings outside his lover's window at 3 a.m.
As a child growing up in Mexicali, Cirerol listened to American and Mexican country radio with his grandfather; he picked up his first guitar at around 4 years old. Later, he took guitar lessons and discovered literature and poetry with his cousin. They began writing stories—epic, Satanic tales full of heroes and bad guys, starring neighborhood bullies or their meaner aunts.
In his teenage years, Cirerol fell into the town's hardcore punk scene, hanging out with Mexicali bands like Maniqui Lazer and blasting records by Alabama spazz-rockers XBXRX in his bedroom. The latter band's weirdly experimental brand of punk seems to have been especially inspiring, serving as a model for Cirerol's first band, X=R7, which he started with his cousin.
Around that time, though, Cirerol began harboring a secret love for country music. He started writing songs in the country and norteño style but didn't tell his friends or anyone else.
"I assumed they wouldn't like them," he recalls. "They were my first judges. I realized I was being stupid for thinking that way."
It was norteño's chugging rhythm that drew him in. Eventually, he identified it as his true style. He started a MySpace page under his name and posted four recordings made in Calexico, the sister city that sits just north of Mexicali in the U.S. For Cirerol, it was a way of coming out.
Despite his fears, his friends liked what he'd done. As happens on the Internet, one "like" from a close friend turned into another, and then another. Eventually, Cirerol caught the attention of visual artist Txema Novelo, who put him to work with Vale Vergas Discos, a record label based in Mexico City. He hasn't stopped touring since—he estimates he plays about seven shows a month in the Mexico City area, which is why he recently moved to Mexico's capital.
But even though he's gone country, Cirerol still thinks of himself as a punk.
"I like to think and do things in a DIY way. That's how I consider myself punk," he says in an email. "I haven't left my ideologies that can be considered dominated by punk. I just decided to do it the way it's done in my country."
Now, Cirerol looks forward to touring the States, which he considers a second home, having grown up just blocks from the border crossing. He's excited to bring his music to the people he feels will most identify with it—the people who have lived so long in that hot, loud border region and have wanted to scream.
"This is my land," he says.Juan Cirerol plays with Dani Shivers and Mohammed Qiang at The Casbah on Sunday, June 10. facebook.com/juan.cirerol