It was Christmastime last year when Mexican rock star Saul Hernandez decided it was finally time for a family vacation.
The leader of the successful rock en espanol group Jaguares had spent the better part of 2000 touring to promote the band's second album, a two-CD set titled "Bajo el Azul de tu Misterio." The singer had also spent some time in the studio, recording four tracks for the next Jaguares collection.
But while vacationing in Amsterdam with his wife, young daughter and in-laws, Hernandez had an epiphany of sorts.
"I listened to the songs that we had just recorded and on a purely instinctive level, couldn't bring myself to like them," the lanky, longhaired singer said during a recent interview backstage at the Universal Amphitheatre, where Jaguares was headlining. (The band plays at the Silverlining Silverlake benefits Friday with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Paramour Estate and Saturday with Third Eye Blind at the Hollywood Palladium; the series opens tonight with Elton John and Sting.)
"I told my wife, 'You're gonna kill me. I know this is vacation time for us, but I need to get back to work.'"
Hernandez proceeded to scrap the existing material and begin the new album from scratch.
Hernandez, who has always composed the Jaguares' material on his own, envisioned these new sessions as a songwriting workshop with bandmates Cesar "Vampiro" Lopez on guitar and Alfonso Andre on drums. The singer took up the bass, the instrument he played when he was starting out.
In retrospect, Amsterdam should hold a special place in the hearts of Jaguares fans.
Recorded in just two months and released in July, the resulting collection, "Cuando La Sangre Galopa" (When Blood Gallops) is easily the band's best, a memorable roller-coaster ride of a rock record infused with crunchy guitars, brooding orchestral effects and a rough, raw edge that brings to mind the melodramatic passion of an epic poem.
"The spontaneity of working as a trio opened up this huge space for us," says Hernandez, 37. "We produced the record ourselves and made a point never to stray from our original intentions. That's why it sounds so rough, almost like a demo."
Formed from the ashes of Caifanes, the '80s group that helped lay the stylistic foundations of rock en espanol, Jaguares is one of the genre's few names to transcend underground status and perform in arenas all over Mexico and the U.S.
Unlike the works of other, critically acclaimed acts such as Cafe Tacuba, Fabulosos Cadillacs and El Gran Silencio, Jaguares' albums can routinely be found on the Billboard Latin charts for months after their release.
The group's acceptance is partially due to Hernandez's charisma, partially to the messages of unity and reconciliation he preaches in concert, and probably partially to the ease with which he embraces darkness as the stylistic epicenter of the group's music.
"I've always had a wild imagination," he says. "I used to dream a lot when I was a child, and I'd share my dreams with my mother. She was the one who told me that it was great to dream, as long as you know when it's time to wake up."
Hernandez lost his mother to cancer when he was only 9. Her presence, he says, was a tremendous influence in his professional life. His father also helped open up his artistic horizons.
"He would play all sorts of stuff for us, from Gregorian chants to Stravinsky," he says, smiling widely. "Sometimes he would play a classical record and use it as a backdrop for telling me stories."
Interestingly, the band's commercial success has allowed Hernandez the freedom to experiment, bringing some of these eclectic influences to a rock format.
When talking enthusiastically about the new album's closing track, "theseViejo El Mundo?," for instance, he describes an instrumental bridge marked by the combination of a guitar riff and oboes, and compares this fragment to something by classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
Now that he's touring behind "Cuando La Sangre Galopa," the singer is already dreaming up ambitious new projects for the band.
"I'd like to retreat to a studio for 10 full months and record three albums' worth of music that could be released over a period of time," he says. "It could either result in some amazing music or drive us nuts. In any case, I know we'll continue trying to creatively stretch as much as we can."
Jaguares at Silverlake Silverlining, Friday with Red Hot Chili Peppers, others at Paramour Estate, 1923 Micheltorena St., L.A., 7 p.m. $150 to $1,000. Also Saturday with Third Eye Blind, others at Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., L.A., 7 p.m. $75 and $150. (323) 665-5384.