An Interview with Tony Zamora and Bob Robles of Tremolocos: Mexican Americana Roots Music

"Life has a way of giving you all you need to become a good writer and musician. It's a matter of paying attention so your music feels real."

Tremoloco: Tequila, Burbon and Riffs

L.A.’s Mexican-Americana roots band Tremoloco’s latest album “Salsipuedes” will be available September 27th. This album of all new original songs features musicians from Los Angeles, a West Coast album to be sure but with some of their Texas regulars from both Houston and San Antonio. Salsipuedes translates to, “Leave If You Can” One listen to this album of clever well written bi-lingual songs, steeped in traditional forms but with an unmistakable originality to them and you’ll be as hooked as the title suggests. Traversing many locales from the West to the Southern States to Mexico with as many styles, stories and people one can imagine.


Tremolocos are: Tony Zamora, Bob Robles, Cougar Estrada, Mike Tovar, Jason Lozano, Juan Chacon and John “Vatos” Hernandez.

Tony Zamora was born to a large musical family in Los Angeles. Instruments, bands, young musicians and rehearsals were always present. His older siblings were part of the East L.A. music scene. An insistence on versatility from the older brothers turned out to be very influential. With an ever-increasing interest in roots, regional folk or ethnic music (especially West Coast music) and a renewed appreciation of Mexican folk music came a period of journeyman sideman work.

Bob Robles has a strong musical lineage. His father was well known 50’s singer/songwriter Lalo Robles. As a Warner Brothers contract artist he appeared on many TV Shows and movies of the era. Though Bob was either not born or too young to remember all of Lalo’s early heydays his talent and love of music was passed on. After years of study and practice Bob became well versed in many styles including jazz. He was renowned as a very young guitarist for adapting Charlie Parker and John Coltrane solos to guitar. Tony and Bob talks about Tremolocos and their experience in music...


Interview by Michael Limnios


What do you learn about yourself from the music, what does music mean to you?

Tony: I think for a lot of musicians it is how we find ourselves, we learn who we are. Music is life, including all of its ups and downs. It is not the only thing but a huge part of who we are.

Bob: To be humble.  There’s always somebody greater, some more challenging style or composition to learn.  I don’t want to ever get so impressed with myself that I can’t learn something from someone else, or learn a new kind of music.

With music, I am able to express the inexpressible.  I learned that music is endless, that no matter how much I study music, there is always something new to learn.  It’s endless.


In what age did you play your first gig and how was it like (where, with whom etc.)?

Tony: I was maybe 12 years old playing a casual in Los Angeles with my older brothers, at a dance or maybe a wedding. They were all musicians though they did not go on to become professionals. They wanted me to learn and it was a novelty to have a young kid performing. By 14 or 15 I was playing in local bands doing high school parties and trying to sneak into clubs.

Bob: I was fourteen.  I was a strolling guitarist with my father, who was a professional singer and guitarist.  We were at the Women’s Club in Whittier, California.  We played a lot of Mexican and Spanish music.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD MUSICIAN and SONGWRITER?

Tony: Being someone who really observes has helped a lot. I think all good songwriters do that. Life has a way of giving you all you need to become a good writer and musician. It's a matter of paying attention so your music feels real. Being genuine for me is crucial. It didn't happen overnight at least not for me, but I think it goes back to finding yourself. 


What characterize Tony Zamora’s music philosophy?

Learning to make yourself happy is probably most important. We all want approval from our peers, our audience and the critics but writing playing and performing for them is madness. If you're satisfied with your work (as much as an artist can be) you will find an audience. I think people will gravitate towards something genuine something they can relate to. If not at least you're not phony and you did your best.


What characterizes Bob Robles’ music philosophy?

Many years ago, I read an interview with the great Elvin Jones.  He said, “Always play like it’s the last time you’re ever going to play.”  I try to live that philosophy.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

Tony: The obvious answer would be things I've learned from the greats we all know and love, be it something I've read or personally experienced but there are just too many so I would say older musicians, always. There is plenty to learn from young people and they are the vanguard so we must pay attention but for secrets and life lessons nothing beats experience. Even if it was a bad one you can learn. I found really great musicians are always willing to share. As a young musician and as I've gotten older their wisdom or sometimes lack of it has been invaluable.

Bob: From my oldest brother, Edward who played guitar and taught me about the blues, and about music in general; Kent Henry (guitarist with Steppenwolf), an early guitar teacher, taught me my first blues and rock licks, and was encouraging to a young fifteen-year-old, and who exposed me to the music of Eric Clapton and Michael Bloomfield; jazz great Barney Kessel, who told me that I should be able to play on the guitar whatever I hear in my head; guitarist John Collins (Nat King Cole Trio) was an important teacher of mine for chord voicing, chord melody, and jazz feel in general; trumpeter Bobby Bradford (Ornette Coleman), an early mentor of mine, taught me the importance of rhythm in music, and that rhythm is more important than the notes themselves in jazz – in jazz the notes are secondary – and also about the spaces between the notes; bassist Alphonso Johnson, another mentor, who helped me understand the importance of time (rhythm), groove, and feel.


Tell me a few things about the beginning of TREMOLOCO

Tony: I had been working as a sideman for many years and decided to start a project for guys like myself playing music we all loved but didn't necessarily get a chance to play much. We started by having jam sessions at a vintage guitar shop where I was working and soon we had a collection of great players as the shop always had musicians coming and going. Players loved the vibe and music and it just took off from there.


Tony, how did you choose the name and where did it start?

I was trying to come up with a name as we were getting closer to playing gigs with the band. Texas singer/songwriter/producer/guitar great the late Stephen Bruton came in and we started talking about it. We just came up with it together, we thought it was funny and it stuck. It's just a twist on the musical term tremolo. Stephen was instrumental in the beginning of the band and couldn't have been kinder and more supportive and even played on our first full length album. He is one the greats I referred to and learned so much from and he is sorely missed by the entire musical community.


How do you describe TREMOLOCO sound and progress?

Tony: Mexican Americana was a term used to describe us which is actually pretty close. It's the blending of Mexican music and country music or roots music which includes the gulf coast stuff we love like Zydeco, Cajun, Tex-Mex and of course the blues. On the Mexican side we touch on traditional folk music, Rancheras, Cumbias, Nortenos, Boleros etc.... One review of the new record describes us as having a wide scope, maybe we just have an identity crisis but it's who we are, like where we're from a melting pot of styles.

We eventually went from those jam sessions at the guitar shop to playing out. In particular the Cinco de Mayo festival at Olvera Street in Los Angeles which gave us an opportunity to put it in front of a large audience. People responded well and starting asking for recordings. At the time we were playing songs from artists we loved (Lydia Mendoza, Trio Los Panchos, Texas Tornados, Velerio Longorio etc...) and only an original or two. I realized we had an opportunity so I started writing material that would fit what we were already doing and maybe add something different. Not an easy task but a fun challenge. So here we are three albums into it and working on a fourth. 

Bob: It’s an amalgamation of all our musical influences.  For me, I bring blues, jazz, and country Telecaster style, mixed with cumbia and corrido rhythms.  It’s constantly evolving from one “gig” to the next.


Bob, tell me a few things about your meet with TREMOLOCOS, which memory makes you smile?

I used to take my guitars for repair to Asher Music in Santa Monica, California.  That’s where I met Tony Zamora.  He asked me to come play with his band, Tremoloco.  The band was a lot of fun.  The thing that I liked the most was that he encouraged me to play different instruments, like requinto (a Mexican, high-tuned guitar), acoustic nylon- and steel-stringed guitars, electric baritone guitar, and pedal steel guitar.  Tony used to let me bring my dog, Lobo, to rehearsal.  That was really cool.


Tony, which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Very gratifying to have people respond to the songwriting positively. When they let me know something has touched them personally. I know it's a cliché but there truly is no other feeling like that. I have to also mention Tremoloco headlining the festival Bob described up in Canada, really fun. So many lows along with the highs we tend to forget the bad things and maybe romanticize the good. Bad gigs are certainly part of it and they all suck and can be demoralizing. 


Tony, what is the “feel” you miss nowadays from Doug Sahm’s music?

I just miss Doug Sahm, I think no one else has had that feel. He was a child prodigy starting way before the Sir Douglas Quintet and left so much amazing stuff behind. There would be no Tremoloco without him. We dedicated our first EP to him. I have so much respect and admiration. He is Texas Soul incarnate in everything he did.


Bob, what is the “feel” you miss nowadays from Charlie Parker and John Coltrane’s era?

I’m not old enough to remember that time (the 1950’s and early 60’s), but from the recordings I have, the feeling I get is the immediacy of the recording sessions – the “real” playing, in the studio, with no “fixes” or edits.  In jazz, all the great musicians are instantaneously composing as they solo.  Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are among the greatest of the greats.


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Tony: Being a kid in Los Angeles in the 60's and 70's was a really special place and time. Not always perfect and I don't mean to idealize it but the music and neighborhoods were really amazing, it's California. That being said the present time we live in is very interesting and I'm happy to still be working and looking forward to what comes next. Always some surprise around the corner.

Bob: Now.  It’s nice to have put in a few decades in music and be able to access my creativity.  That creativity is more accessible to me now as I’ve gotten older.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Tony: I believe they don't need my advice. If they are going to be a musician they'll do it on their own terms. If they truly love it they won't give up, they'll figure out what works for them. A strong foundation musically speaking in theory, craftsmanship and especially history, sounds like a good idea and I might advise that, but there have been plenty who invented their own thing, in their own way and have gone on to show the world something new. Tell them to advise us.

Bob: Be versatile.  Try to have an open mind, and hear all kinds of music.  Learn to read music, because there are centuries of written masterpieces to study, such as Bach and Mozart.  You can adapt that knowledge to your own music.


Why did you think that Mexican-Americana continues to generate such a devoted following?

Tony: I think anyone that listens to music with an open mind and enjoys different styles outside of the mainstream is a pretty devoted audience by nature. If they invest the time to search out things they like they become attached. It may not be a huge audience but like other forms of folk music Mexican music has a soulful down home earthy feel that is joyous, familiar and endearing.

Bob: I believe Mexican-American music to be a soulful music.  It hits people in the heart and the gut.  It’s also hard to be in a bad mood when you’re listening to a corrido (polka) or cumbia.


Tony, are there any memories from Los Lobos, which you’d like to share with us?

There were a lot but getting a chance to watch David Hidalgo make Lobos records, our own recordings and even a couple of sessions when he recorded with Bob Dylan was quite an education. He's very casual but extremely creative when the record button is pushed, it didn't matter what instrument (and he plays plenty of them) or if it was a slow ballad, Mexican song, traditional acoustic piece or blues rock song. He plays with a fiery intensity and yet a sort of "relaxed abandon" that helps make him one of the most truly amazing and versatile musicians of all time and an absolute inspiration. On top of all that he is very humble, funny and down to earth, always a joy to be around. 


Tell me a few things about your meet with Delaney Bramlett, which memory makes you smile?

Tony: Just hearing his name makes me smile. Delaney used to come and sit in with an Irish folk band I was working with. I met him through mutual friends, a true Southern gentleman, uniquely talented. He had a small ranch with a home studio northeast of Los Angeles and I always tried to call to let him know when I was coming over but he didn't always answer. He finally told me, "Stop calling and come over whenever you damn well please", He really meant that. Spending time with him at that place was truly special. He said, "If only you could know what has gone on in this little room", considering his history it was legendary stuff, I'm sure of it. He had dozens of tapes with songs, some finished some not but it seemed like each one was better than the one before. He is truly one of the great songwriters. He was interested in having me play guitarron (Mariachi bass) on a few songs but what I mostly remember was how generous he was with everything, especially his stories. He tried all he could to help Tremoloco and even called Flaco Jimenez (who I didn't really know at the time) to record with us but schedules conflicted. He was simply one of the most talented, soulful artists of all times. I love him dearly. He is truly missed, and I know how lucky I was to spend any time with him.


Bob, are there any memories from Airto and Flora Purim’s recording time, which you’d like to share with us?

Working with Airto and Flora Purim was my first professional recording session.  I was young, and it was exciting to be in the studio with them, with Alphonso Johnson on bass, and George Duke in the control room.  I felt I had “arrived.”


Bob, you have played with Greg Allman, Ry Cooder, Elvis and Jack Bruce. Which gigs have been the biggest experiences?

I was fortunate enough as a young person to spend the day with Elvis Presley.  I worked with him on his last film, Change of Habit.  He was the kindest man I’ve ever met, and was gracious enough to oblige my request that we play a blues together on our lunch break.  When we were done, he complimented my playing and said, “Bobby, you’re all right!”  It was most encouraging as a young player to be validated by The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.



What’s the best jam you ever played in?

Tony: We've had a chance to play with a lot of great well known musicians but one of the best jams would  be when Tremoloco played an afterhours gig at a festival near Portland, Oregon where we played late into the night with a number of great musicians. The highlight was playing with Peter Rowan for a set that was amazing. He taught us "Free Mexican Airforce" on the spot and we had him play on a number of our songs and some traditional Mexican stuff. If you don't know who he is looks him up.

Bob: When I was working with Alphonso Johnson, we would have rehearsals and jamming would be part of it.  Some of the great jams we had were with Vinnie Colaiuta, Chester Thompson, Steve Smith, and Terry Bozzio.


What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Tony: Another tough question because we've been at it for so long now. I think The Cinco De Mayo festivals at Olvera Street in Los Angeles were memorable. The band was new and there were huge crowds at these events so we were suddenly able to play for several thousand people at once. Olvera Street is a special place especially for the Mexican community and we've been around it all our lives. Another is when Conrad Lozano from Los Lobos had a vacation scheduled with his family toward the end of 2007 and the band got a spot at the the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival during this time.  I was working for them and they asked me to fill in. This is a huge annual festival in San Francisco. What made it memorable besides the enormous crowd was during the Los Lobos set several of my favorite artists came and sat in with the band. They included Dave Alvin, John Doe, Joe Ely, Greg Leisz and others. That was a lot of fun.

Bob: Playing with Jackson Browne was great, and playing with Lyle Lovett was also cool.  Recently, Tony invited Telecaster Master Jerry Donahue to play with Tremoloco.  We got together twice at Jerry’s house.  He’s a wonderful guy, and the gig went well.  Last year, I played with Reba McEntire, and that was really great.  Last summer, Tony and I played at the North Country Faire with Tremoloco.  It was a four-hour drive north of Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada.  It was like going back to the 1970’s, post-hippie, Woodstock era.  We had a blast.



Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Bob: It’s timeless.  It expresses deep emotion.  On a human level, it’s the deepest of all music. Wish? That the great guitar stylists of the past, Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, etc., will continue to be studied, and that the younger generation will carry the torch.


Which things do you prefer to do in your free time?

Tony: I do normal stuff, not so interesting. Bob: Musically, I like to challenge myself.  Like I said earlier, music is endless.  The more I work on new things, the more new things come.  When I’m not playing my guitar, I like to go for walks.  I like to read books about history.  I like to travel and see new places, and especially explore places with great history, like Athens and Corinth.


What is your “secret” DREAM?

Tony: My secret dream is a SECRET! 

Bob: I’d like to study music composition and arranging for orchestra.  I’d like to perform and/or record with some of my heroes – Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney.


Happiness is…

Tony: …a warm gun (because I'm an American)…Just kidding Michael!

Bob: . . . being aware of the beauty of the moment.


Tremolocos - Official website


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