THE PITTSBURGH OF MEXICO” is one of the more printable insults lobbed at the steel-industry town of Monclova. From Monterrey, the home base of the two-man band Plastilina Mosh—whose 1998 debut, Aquamosh ( EMI), sold faster south of the border than anything by Selena—the city is a bleak two-and-a-half-hour drive, mile after scrub-brush mile of barbed-wire fences separating nothing from nothing.
On this day the duo’s destination is Icarus, a disco in the middle of town with a capacity of six hundred. Like a lot of Mexican discos, Icarus resembles the set of Saturday Night Fever: Mirror-plated columns and a mechanized ball hanging over the center of the floor vie for attention with classical statuary guarding the restrooms. Though American rock stars wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this, Plastilina’s Alejandro Rosso and Jonas (no last name; just Jonas) have seen this sort of joint before. And even if the surroundings are squarely seventies, the kids who show up for the six o’clock all-ages show are up-to-the-minute—especially the nine-to-thirteen-year-old girls decked out in fashionable thick-soled sneakers and microscopic backpacks.
Plastilina’s set is their usual mix of punk, funk, hip-hop, and jazz, and when it’s over, they have to make like the Beatles landing at Kennedy Airport in ’64: They run through the back alley and leap into their van, not quite quick enough to avoid the crush of girls who swarm all over the vehicle, jumping on the sides, pressing their lips against the windows, squealing with unmistakably sexual delight. The scene wasn’t so different earlier that day when the band held a press conference in a back room of the Ludivina Hotel. It went on for about an hour, and after it was over, the nearly twenty journalists in attendance—male and female—lined up to get autographs and be photographed shaking hands with Alejandro and Jonas or planting a kiss on their cheeks. A few went for the mouth.
Who are these musical matinee idols? For starters, they’re a study in contrasts. Alejandro, 26, grew up playing classical piano and got turned on to jazz by a music teacher who played saxophone with Buddy Rich. He dresses nicely, grooms himself well, and looks like the plastic surgeon’s son he is. Jonas, 23, grew up playing in punk bands, wears cut-off shirts that reveal his tribal tattoos, bleaches his hair blond, and has a pierced nose. At their press conferences Alejandro pulls a Gen-X revamp of upper-class hauteur: He gives his questioners a dazed look, as if he’s suffering from momentary aphasia, then favors them with an inscrutably delphic utterance. Jonas plays the part of the potty-mouthed prole: When one interviewer says they look bello (“beautiful”), he feigns exasperation and asks, “We look like vello [“pubic hair”]?!?” When another asks what sort of responsibility they feel toward their pre-teen fans, Alejandro launches into a lengthy, sober-sounding answer. Jonas responds by lighting up a cigarette.
What they have in common, however, is a childhood spent in Mexico’s third-largest city. Monterrey (population: 3,000,000) is something of an anomaly. Dominated for generations by two Sephardic Jewish families, it’s always been a prosperous, industrial town—unapologetically capitalistic in a manner that has often discomfited the socialist powers that have run the country. There is poverty, to be sure, especially where the land begins to slope upward toward a picturesque and jagged mountain range, but in the heart of town one is more likely to notice the first-rate art museums, fine restaurants serving cabrito, the regional specialty, and dazzlingly beautiful women dressed in the latest European fashions.
A mere two hours from the Texas border, Monterrey—like many norteño towns—admires yanqui industriousness and has always drunk deeply from the well of American pop culture. “In Monterrey,” says Alejandro in his accented but fluent English, “even little shacks have satellite dishes. Drive out on the highway and you’ll see them on top of gas stations.” Texas musicians who’ve started playing in Monterrey in the past couple of years can testify to the influence. Los Skarnales, a Houston band self-described as “ska-rockabilly with swing influences,” recently heard rumors that bootleg cassettes of their music were in wide circulation there. “We didn’t really believe it, so we decided to call around,” says the band’s manager, Joshua Mares. “Sure enough, we found a TV program— Des Velados—that wanted us to play live on their show and a promoter who offered to pay all our expenses. We played at an indoor stadium in front of four hundred or five hundred kids—and some of them already knew our lyrics.” That kind of reception, Mares emphasizes, “is better than we get in Houston.”
The Houston hip-hop turntablist group Mathmatech DJs also played their first Monterrey gig recently “The audience knew almost everything, from obscure James Brown tracks to [Japanese artist] DJ Krush to [France’s] DJ Cam to California DJs like Shadow, Cut Chemist, and Q-Bert,” says Mathmatechnician Eric Castillo, a.k.a. DJ Ceeplus. “I talked to lot of them, and they drive to Texas or Louisiana—particularly Austin—to buy twelve-inch singles they can’t find at home.” Thanks to the city’s relative prosperity, such trips are a regular occurrence. “Most people in Monterrey go to Texas five or six times a year, and maybe on New Year’s they go to San Antonio or Houston,” explains Jonas, remembering his many trips across the border. “I was at Lollapalooza in ’93. It was the first time I saw Rage Against the Machine, who I like a lot. That sound I make on my guitar on ‘Niño Bomba,’ where it sounds like a DJ scratching—that’s the kind of thing I got from [Rage guitarist] Tom Morello.”
This intimate knowledge of American culture can be heard on Aquamosh, which veers between English and Spanish lyrics and the instrumental stylings of the Beastie Boys, Beck, and Liberace. In the U.S. that might simply seem like a canny commercial recipe, but in Mexico it adds up to something more. Alejandro describes Mexican rock as chronically “underdeveloped,” and all the evidence you need