It may be hard to believe, but L.A.-based fusion rockers Ozomatli are about to celebrate their 20th year as a band. Known to many for their seamless blending of genres and their activist points of view demonstrated in their lyrics, the group is touring in support of their eighth album, Place in the Sun. Recently, the band has been expanding and exploring different sounds, best demonstrated by a New Year's Eve gig at the Kennedy Center that featured a backing orchestra. Continuing to push themselves, saxophonist Ulises Bella can't hide his excitement over what 2015 has in store for the group. After he returned from a jujitsu session, we spoke with Bella about his mixed martial arts training and how the band plans on celebrating their 20th anniversary.
How long have you been practicing jujitsu?
Since 2001. I never got the competition bug but I learned a lot from people who really know about the sport and still don't know everything. It's kind of like being well versed in music. I am, but there's a million things that I probably don't know.
So you're the toughest guy in the band then.
It depends on who steps up to me. (laughs)
How did playing with orchestras come about?
Playing shows with orchestras started a while ago, I want to say like two-to-three years ago with the Boston Pops. In the process, we had to go through what songs would be orchestra-friendly or songs where they'd compliment our repitoire. This gentleman named Patrick that works for the organization was responsible for arranging the music for the orchestra. After that performance, Patrick basically gave us the arrangements and said we could use them with any orchestra. Since then, we've done with groups in San Francisco, Colorado, San Diego Symphony and it's been really cool.
Would you have guessed that this would the natural progression of where Ozomatli to be at this point in its career?
I don't know if it's a natural progression. There was already music we had that had strings on it. It was easy to punch that in. But for other ones, it was really refreshing how the arrangement gave a totally different angle to the music I never wouldn't have fucking thought of. It's now a thing for when we have an opportunity to do orchestra shows, we'll try to finagle that. They're really cool and we'll do em.
Would this type of show ever be considered for release as a live album?
It's definitely something we've talked about. If we were to do it, we'd have to pick the right orchestra. We still have yet to perform with the LA Philharmonic which is our hometown orchestra. Maybe if that happens we can make it a really big deal.
Why did you guys decide to tour at the top of the year rather than the standard November/December holiday run?
I think the gigs just fell on those dates this time around. We usually do the holiday shit and ramp it up that way.
What's it been touring behind this record?
In some ways, it's already finished. This year is our 20th anniversary as a band and a big deal is going to be made of it one way or another. For any relationship, whether it's a band or people, to be around together for 20 years is always a big deal.
Are there any plans for a show or big release or re-release?
All of the above. There will be a big concert probably with all the people who have been with the band past and present, people who have collaborated and shared the stage with the band making it one of those star-studded kind of things. Obviously that will include releasing music and maybe repackaging our earlier releases. That's all just talk for right now though.
So an OzoFest type thing?
Yeah. There's also talk of a State of Ozomatli Music, Food and Tequila Fest that might brewing in the works.
Are your 2015 plans based around the anniversary?
In some ways, yes, and in others, when opportunities come. Like we just played in Hong Kong at this festival down there and just from that performance they already want us back, and there are plans to go back there this year.
Is there new music in the works?
There has to. We haven't hit the studio yet but the plans are already cooking up.
Ozomatli performs at the House of Blues Anaheim, Jan. 9 and 10. 8 p.m. $28; All ages. For tickets and more info, visit www.hob.com/anaheim.