Band on the Hill

Against all odds, Mr. Mota has captivated Boulder’s college audience


Nestled deep in South Boulder is a concrete basement that looks like little more than a graveyard of discarded bric-a-brac: snares and toms, keyboards, a folded ping-pong table, mountain bikes, empty cases of beer and a number of obligatory unidentifiable objects under sheets. 

But a trail splits the sea of clutter, revealing an additional door deeper in the abyss—a musical lair behind lock and key. Inside, vocalist/keyboardist/manager Max Lerman pounds angelic chords into a cherry-red Nord Electro 5D. On a two-seater couch to his left, adjacent to a row of four- and six-stringed beauties, sits bushy-haired bassist Ari Lerman (Max’s brother) and eccentric guitarist Willie Vogel. Directly to his right, drummer Brendan Lamb (unrecognizable without his usual attire: a cowboy hat) is perched in front of a lustrous drum kit—his baby. Five-thousand miles east in Barcelona, guitarist and lead vocalist Will Rosenthal sits next to his phone on speaker mode. This room serves as ground zero for Boulder’s leading troubadours of reggaeton/funk/folk/blues/indie fusion: Mr. Mota.

The band started as a five-year-long series of jam sessions between Vogel and the Lerman brothers, and, by the spring of 2021, organically accumulated into the hard-hitting quintet that will be taking the stage at the Fox Theatre on May 5. 

Once they officially assembled, a name was in order. 

“The problem with that,” Lerman says with a laugh, “is every name under the sun is taken.” The group recalls some of their ideas: Pastel Lotus? Nope. Stinging Rogers? Nope. “Remember Liquid Chicken?” Ari laughs. Really cool, but still nope.

Eli Millner

It was Vogel who hit the nail on the head. “My freshman roommate was from Puerto Rico, and I remember he’d always say, ‘Where’s the mota?’ In Latin America, it’s slang for weed. Years later, I had another friend who worked at a paint shop, and he’d tell me about this Latino dude that’d come in—always stoned—and my buddy would say to him every time, ‘Ahhhh, Mr. Mota, you came back.’ When he said that, it clicked for me.”

Thus, Mr. Mota was born.

This outfit of early-20-somethings needed less than 12 months to captivate a college audience whose attention seems solely dedicated to EDM songs crammed into 15-second Tik-Toks. Fortunately, Boulder has ample space for both genres. 

“EDM is so cool, it just has an intense way of drawing you in,” Vogel starts, “but there’s always—I feel like—a level of familiarity between people our age and a set of drums, a guitar, a bass, some keys and a singer. Boulder students, most of whom love EDM, definitely had exposure to bands like the [Red Hot Chili Peppers], or [Grateful Dead], or Otis Redding.”

Lamb points out one of Ari’s bass pedals, an envelope filter, “that right there helps bridge a gap between what we play and EDM. It’s our band’s version of ‘wubs.’ People’s heads turn when they hear it.”

Max keeps it short and sweet: “[Mr. Mota has] worked because [people have] seen us somewhere. We consistently play so many shows all around Boulder.”

To this point, just under a year since its inception, Mr. Mota’s existence has been nothing but live performances—seemingly hundreds of them. No songs on streaming or videos on YouTube—just them and a stage, or a grass plot, or the parking lot facing The Sink on Thirteenth Street. Oddly enough, between studying abroad, COVID and school vacations, you can count on one hand the shows that have featured all five members. 

In December 2021, the band—save Vogel—played its debut Fox Theater gig for a sea of hundreds of people. The line was quite literally out the door, wrapping beyond the bright white awning and past Ado’s Kitchen and Taco Junky, all for a band built largely on word of mouth.

“That turnout was unexpected. It was huge,” Lamb says.

A couple months later, every member—save Rosenthal—crammed a flock of audience members under the low, raggedy ceilings of Denver’s Larimer Lounge. Again, this was a result tied to word of mouth—and a further extension of the band’s no-holds-barred drive to play as many live shows as humanly possible.

“The improvisation at our shows is super appealing,” Ari says. “We haven’t really changed our setlist too much. There are some songs that we’re so tired of playing. But then, like, once we kick it off, we find that freedom to do what we want with the record. There’s not one guy that makes most of the creative decisions either. We all really, really respect each other’s work—what we do on our instruments. It’s that sort of respect that allows us to explore our sonic landscape.”

Therein Ari’s statement lies Mr. Mota’s smoking gun. Despite age and a general carefree regard to musical output, every member is both wildly experienced and mind-numbingly talented. Vogel rattles off his favorite jazz chords like scripture: “major seventh, minor nine, major nine, dominant thirteen…,” he speaks with passion. “We’ve got this one song where it’s D major six but when you put your thumb over it, it’s a D major seven but then still a D major six… then you’ve got a high E which makes it a Lydian Mode….” 

While abroad, Rosenthal—who released his debut solo album, William, on April 20—spent his spring months metaphorically setting Spanish clubs Jamboree and Marula Café on fire, alongside musicians who didn’t speak a lick of English. Max and Ari Lerman are musically-inclined cowboys; you’d be hard-pressed to name an instrument they couldn’t—or haven’t—broken into, especially saxophone—a deep-rooted family tradition. Lamb is the percussionist backbone for two bands: Mr. Mota and Civic Duty. In early February, he opened with Mr. Mota for Shady Oaks. When the set finished, everyone got off stage but Lamb, who slung a strap over his shoulder and returned to his third role as Shady Oak’s bassist. 

The band’s proclivity for fusion comes from a genre-agnostic list of musical influences, citing everything from rock outfits like Rage Against the Machine and Led Zeppelin, to purveyors of funk like Vulfpeck and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, to glossy psych-rock from Tame Impala and Stick Fingers, and mind-bending jam work from Phish and Goose.

Between taste and skill, there’s something for almost any music fan in the band’s output. But if Mr. Mota’s music doesn’t appease one’s pallet, their personability is sure to. It’s a trait best exemplified on the band’s social media. On Instagram, the group is unabashedly sincere: a collection of high-quality live photography, simple, humorous images (oftentimes featuring the band’s mascot; a three-foot-tall wooden butler statue with Mike Tyson’s face tattoo), and “karate in scenic locations”—courtesy of Ari.

Considering the band’s role as a group of college-age guys whose music exists in backyards on Tenth Street and Euclid, one could reasonably argue Mr. Mota is bearing a torch that house-rockers like Big Head Todd and The Samples carried in the early-’90s. But then again: they’re just having fun with it, something patrons are sure to notice at the group’s May 5 show at the Fox Theater—titled “Mr. Mota’s Graduation Party.”

“We’re absolutely leveling up,” Max says of the band’s second show at the Fox. “We’ll have so many originals. We’ve got this horn section playing with us. The Knuckle Pups and High Street Joggers Club are performing too—two incredible bands. There are going to be college students, of course, but parents as well. People who took a chance and came to see us last time are coming. Friends, fans, everything.”

Max and Ari say a third member of the Lerman family will be joining them on stage come Cinco de Mayo. Their uncle Danny—a renowned jazz saxophone player who’s toured the world—is bringing his skill to the stage.

Above all else, what makes Mr. Mota’s return to the Fox Theater special is the band’s full presence. This will mark the first time that all five members will be together in front of a live audience. They’ve captured hearts and ears, gained the respect of venues from Boulder to Denver, and plan on a summer tour in mountain towns across Colorado. They’ve gained popularity in a streaming era without a second of recorded music on streaming platforms.

It’s not far-fetched to say that—in almost one full year on the dot—the Fox Theater on May 5 will be the first “true” Mr. Mota performance. And as sure as God made green apples, they’re going to blow the roof off that sucker. 

ON THE BILL: Mr. Mota’s Graduation Party. 9 p.m. Thursday, May 5, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets: $15-$18

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