After a rough start at home in Guadalajara, where audiences had zero idea what to make of the band, Troker has gradually established itself as one of Mexico’s most lauded musical exports. Four adventurous albums into a career that started in 2004, the six-piece has won raves around the world, wowing Glastonbury, sharing stages with indie icons like Beirut, and performing in prestigious showcases like NPR’s excellent Tiny Desk concert series.
Not bad for a group that, in the early years, fielded confused questions after live performances.
“The hard part, in the beginning, was that we failed in Mexico,” says Troker bassist Samo Gonzalez, speaking through a translator when reached in Guadalajara. “Everyone kept asking us, ‘Where is your vocalist?’ They come up questioning why there was no singer in the band. Festivals would tell us, ‘Sorry, we don’t book instrumental bands.’ ”
“Instrumental jazz” is a label that today doesn’t begin to do Troker justice. (Evidently aware of that, the band has its own considerably more evocative summation: “If Salvador Dali ever made a heist movie, then Mexico’s Troker would have been the soundtrack.”)
The group was founded when Frankie Mares and Gonzalez decided getting out and playing music was preferable to studying it at the classical-oriented Conservatorio de Las Rosas in Mexico.
“When I was 13 I was in a traditional Mexican band in my hometown,” Gonzalez says. “That convinced me that I wanted to dedicate my life to music. So I knew that I needed to study, and the closest place to do that was the conservatory of music in Morelia. So I went there, but found out that it was completely specialized in classical music, which was not my goal as a musician.”
So Gonzalez dropped out and did time in a rock ’n’ roll band for a while. His world changed when he discovered New York improv underdogs Sex Mob, and then Combustication—Medeski Martin & Wood’s groove-heavy collaboration with DJ Logic. Grunge-era oddballs Morphine and jazz giant Charles Mingus would also reshape how he and Mares thought about music.
Recordings eventually followed. Troker’s 2007 debut, Jazz Vinil, played out like a late-’90s Ninja Tune offering, Mares and Gonzalez—along with DJ Sonicko—serving up a downtempo strain of urbane-cool jazz made for chill-out rooms. Things have got progressively more adventurous and thrillingly chaotic since then. Crimen Sonoro (2014) delivered a dizzying rush of woozy mariachi, depth-charge house, pimptastic soul, and frenetic free jazz.
After years of providing live accompaniment at screenings of the 1919 Mexican silent movie El Automóvil Gris, Troker captured its work in the studio for the 2016 soundtrack 1919 Música Para Cine. From the opening drum roll and snake-charmer horns of “1919” to the sepia-toned sax and tidal washes that finish things off in “Fusilados a Su Natural Horror”, Troker creates the kind of journey perfect for making vintage black-and-white movies in your mind.
The early challenge for Troker was finding a place that would book the band. That’s no longer a problem for the band, which has discovered that sometimes the best way to make it in your home country is to build your career abroad.
“When we started out, there were no venues, but there was a jazz scene,” Gonzalez says. “That started in the ’60s, mostly in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Troker had to find ways to play live. We started convincing owners of restaurants and bars to open up space for live music. Those places are still doing live music. There’s a live scene for jazz again like in the ’60s—the bands have venues and an audience. Because of that, festivals are booking the bands. All we had to do was prove our music had value outside of Mexico.”
The Chutzpah Festival presents Troker at the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (February 17). For more information, visit the festival website.