The members of Mariachi Ghost drift through the throng in the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club on a recent Friday night looking half-dead.
The octet are preparing to hit the stage, all with one side of their faces painted as if their skulls are missing skin. It visualizes a fictional early 1900s Mexican cowboy lead singer Jorge Requena invented for a graphic novel he was writing. Mariachi Ghost, as Requena dubbed him, survived a traumatic upbringing that leaves him questioning whether he is dead or alive.
Mariachi Ghost soon jumped from the page to the stage as one of Winnipeg's most novel and exuberant musical acts, marinating traditional Mexican music in rock en espanol, progressive rock and spaghetti western soundtracks.
"I want people who come to our shows to have an experience rather than listen to a band," says the 30-year-old Requena. "The theatricality has always been necessary for me. Having been diagnosed with ADD, I feel my brain is always paying attention to two things rather than one."
So on the cramped Times Change(d) stage, Requena, with his slicked back hair, sings like a Mexicano Freddie Mercury backed by a fiery supporting six member group. In front is the striking presence of Alexandra Garrido, who floats about as a lithe apparition in a red dress, conveying the emotional state of Mariachi Ghost.
The fixation with death is no macabre preoccupation or trendy pretension, but a cultural reality.
"Death reminds us how beautiful life is," says guitarist Rafael Reyes, 33.
The Day of the Dead is a national Mexican holiday when families gather to clean and decorate the graves of loved ones with sugar skulls and their favourite foods. Celebrants often appear with exaggerated white faces and blackened eyes, noses and mouths.
"Being dead in Mexico is not a sad thing," says Requena, who came to Canada in 2004. "You still have a life after you're dead. It's not like you are a zombie or anything. You are alive in the hearts of the people who loved you. That is your life after death. I wanted to convey that in the music and the character of Mariachi Ghost."
That eclectic sound is reflected by its unlikely lineup that could only be put together in a place like Winnipeg. Requena is a Mexico-born filmmaker and Reyes is a Salvadoran guitarist who played George Harrison in a Beatles tribute band here. There was an immediate musical synchronicity. When they first met, Reyes was playing the same 1999 record -- Reves/Yo Soy by Cafe Tacuba -- that Requena had been listening to in his car on the way over to Reyes's Osborne Village apartment.
The other members include Gabriel Fields, a Spanish-speaking, Quebec-born Winnipegger who champions traditional Mexican music. Garrido's father is from Mexico; her mother is from Flin Flon. Bruce Berven is from Jamaica. Then there are the three Mennonite members: Adam Kroeker, Ian Makita and Tim Friesen.
"When I first came to Canada, my idea of Mennonites were people who sold cheese at the (traffic) lights in Mexico City," says Requena. "I thought that's what they do -- I'm not kidding. I had no idea they had a whole beautiful culture and were musically inclined."
The band debuted on the outdoor stage of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival in 2009 and has developed its material through trial and failure at rehearsals. It took years to refine the story bits in the song Sweet Water to make it a spaghetti western track.
The look was also an evolution.
"The first makeup we did ourselves for a restaurant show," says Fields, 27. "It looked like something kids would do. We looked like racoons."
Mariachi Ghost has been a mostly a live act, having produced only a 2010 EP, Machete, which was well received on university radio stations. Recently it performed at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival and on Canada Day at The Forks. Upcoming shows include opening for By Divine Right at the Pyramid July 6 and this year's Winnipeg Folk Festival where band members will be roving troubadours performing all over the Birds Hill Park site. The current priority is to record its first full-length album.
The price tag for a 10-song concept album is about $17,000, and to help pay for it, Mariachi Ghost has launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, the international crowdfunding site. The goal is to raise $10,000 by July 20. So far, $4,175 has been pledged. In the first few days, $2,000 was promised, raising the group's collective spirit that maybe getting the cash would be a slam dunk, but then there were no donations for five days, bringing the band's hopes down to earth.
Depending on the size of the donation, fans can score digital downloads of the group's live studio demos, a copy of the new album, a Mariachi Ghost T-shirt, get their name on the liner notes of the new CD, or secure an invitation to a secret Mariachi Ghost concert or a private show by the band.
A welcome side benefit of the campaign has been the increased exposure for the group and, for the first time, an email list of their fans.
"Before we were this weird experiment, but now, all of a sudden, we are a serious group of musicians with a plan," says Requena. "Those who are interested in our project will fund it and those who are not interested in the project will think we are panhandling. It doesn't hurt my feelings if they think we're panhandling. As artists, we have to engage our audiences any way we can."
If the campaign is a success, Mariachi Ghost will release its first full-length on the Mexican Day of the Dead next November.
"The Day of the Dead is a cultural thing," says Requena. "It sits very close to my heart. The duality between death and life is something I always include in my art pieces. I want to explain how Mexico feels about that."