When Niskayuna native Jon Sandler entered his group, The Fancy Band, in Hornitos Tequila’s Mariachi Mash-Up competition in May, he hadn’t really heard much mariachi music before.
“I’m familiar with mariachi music just from hearing guys playing it on the subway,” Sandler said recently from New York City, where The Fancy Band is based. “I did a little bit of research — ‘Feliz Navidad,’ that kind of thing — and then we tried to do it as authentically as we could. None of us had any experience with mariachi music.”
At the end of April, Hornitos and co-sponsor Billboard Magazine announced the competition, where bands across the country could record a video of themselves playing a mariachi version of one of five songs — “Young Folks” by Peter, Bjorn and John; “Surrender” by Cheap Trick; “What I Like About You” by The Romantics; “Little Secrets” by Passion Pit; and “Louie, Louie.” Sandler heard about the contest through a friend, and decided to enter; the band performed “Young Folks.”
Though deficient in the mariachi department, the band did have some secret weapons — namely, sombreros, and bassist Chris Kelly, who unbeknownst to the rest of the band before the competition, plays trumpet.
“I had no idea he played trumpet,” Sandler said. “When I came forward with this idea, he said, ‘Well, I could bring a trumpet,’ and we were all taken aback — ‘I had no idea you played trumpet.’ It was one of the things that made the video really cool and unique — he was definitely the MVP of this contest.”
The video of the band’s lighthearted take on the song features Kelly playing the original recording’s whistled hook on trumpet and impressed the judging panel made up of Hornitos “tequila experts” and Billboard editors. In June, Jon Sandler and The Fancy Band took home the $10,000 grand prize (The video’s still on YouTube at www.youtube.com).
“We had a good number of submissions, but the reason we liked Jon’s submission was they were just a really talented band — they’re definitely on the rise,” said Amy Weisenbach, senior director of tequila at Hornitos parent company Beam Global Spirits & Wine. “We just like their style, and felt like they were a good fit with the Hornitos target consumer.”
This is to be the first in an annual series of Mariachi Mash-Ups, according to Weisenbach. The company wanted to tie into American celebrations of Cinco de Mayo with a competition that featured “something authentically Mexican that people could take and put a twist on it.”
Hornitos secured the rights to the five songs, even partnering with Cheap Trick to create a video of them performing “Surrender” with an Arizona mariachi band. “That was a lot of fun, and they were really excited about it,” Weisenbach said.
For Sandler and the rest of The Fancy Band — Kelly, pianist and fellow Niskayuna native Dominic Fallacaro and drummer Sam Merrick — the win has helped raise awareness of the fledgling group, which just released its first self-titled EP this year. Sandler self-financed the EP, but the band was quickly picked up afterwards by indie label Super Duper Records.
“We opened for Jimmy Buffett at the Jones Beach Amphitheater, and we were invited to play official shows at the CMJ [College Music Journal] Marathon in New York,” Sandler said of the band’s post-contest success. “We’re getting gigs in really amazing spots, and the vibe of the band feels really, really special. … We’re much more excited about the exposure and recognition than the money. It was a really nice finale on such an amazing year.”
Sandler has been performing music since he was a student at Niskayuna High School, performing in musicals and playing an original song at his 2001 graduation. “That was sort of my launching pad,” he said.
He ended up at Boston University, where he studied film, but music was never far from his mind. It was here that he met Merrick, and the two formed a band together.
The beginnings of The Fancy Band only came about in the past few years. Sandler had moved to New York City to kick start his film career, working for a few years as a production assistant on reality TV shows while performing as a solo artist.
“I gained a loyal fanbase,” Sandler said. “After a few years, I decided I needed to pursue music full time, and at that point I put together the band. The members kind of changed over the years — we’ve had a few different bass players, a violin player, this and that, and finally a year and a half ago, I put together this band with Dominic.”
Fallacaro was also a student at Niskayuna, three years below Sandler. The two didn’t know each other well back then, but became reacquainted after Sandler learned that Fallacaro was also living in New York City, working as a solo jazz artist.
“He played a show at Proctors last year, after we got reacquainted — we opened for him at a solo jazz show at Proctors theater,” Sandler said. “After that we started playing together.”
Merrick eventually moved to New York City, and Kelly was soon onboard. Now, with the increased profile from the competition, the band is working on its first full-length album, with 11 songs, due out tentatively in September.
Sandler hopes to line up a hometown gig soon. But, don’t expect the band’s version of “Young Folks.”
“People have requested it at shows, and we’ve talked about it, but I do not think we’re going to play it at live shows,” Sandler said, laughing. “Maybe in 10 years, when we’re much more successful, we’ll break it out as a special treat or something. But we’ll leave the mariachi with the mariachi contest.”
Categories: Life and Arts