"I started watching the movie, and I saw the Ramones, and I'm like, 'Fuck, yeah!'"
By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
Bernardo Leos' childhood in Tijuana, Mexico, was one without cable television. The future vocalist of the Tijuana-based Los Kung Fu Monkeys would catch San Diego channels whose signals were strong enough to reach across the border. Channel 69 (today a Fox affiliate called KSWB-TV) had a habit of broadcasting B-movies, and thanks to its programming, Leos experienced a revelation at age 10.
"Suddenly, one day, I put on the TV, and Rock & Roll High School was on," remembers the 32-year-old, referencing the 1979 cult classic. "I started watching the movie, and I saw the Ramones, and I'm like, 'Fuck, yeah!'" The New York City punk group's scrappy tunes and leather jackets left an impression on Leos. His first record purchase was one of that band's albums.
Splicing punk angst with Mexican culture and SoCal-inspired brass is the hallmark of cult favorite Kung Fu Monkeys, making their honorable distinction as the only ska-punk band in Tijuana all the more important decades after the salad days of the genre.
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In the early '90s, popular groups such as Nirvana were in their heyday, which was also critical in hooking Leos before the formation of his band. This burgeoning interest in alternative and underground music led him to a NOFX record; he scoured the album's "Thanks" section in search of more new-to-him bands.
"I wasn't the popular kid in school. I wasn't a preppy kid. I wasn't the kid listening to pop songs," Leos says. "I think this is going to sound very cliché, but I was the outcast among a lot of people, so I started hanging out with people who liked the same kind of stuff I did."
When Leos was in high school, his buddies were Tarek and Hassan Limas, brothers he had actually met in Catholic school. A mutual interest in skateboarding between the friends eventually turned into serious discussions of them playing music together. "We tried skating. We weren't very good at it, so I guess we started a band," Leos says with a laugh.
Launching as Monkey Kung Fu in 1997 (another band's onstage shout-out to them as "Los Kung Fu Monkeys" left them with today's moniker), the band's first tune was a cover of the Suicide Machines' "No Face." Since then, they've maintained a serious allegiance to punk, as well as ska and hardcore. Los Kung Fu Monkeys specialize in upbeat, unabashedly enthusiastic tunes that are best for lighthearted mosh pits. The group's melodic approach would have found a perfect home on SideOneDummy or Fat Wreck Records circa 1998, but just because the tides of time have pushed their brand of ska punk out of cultural vogue (even those labels rarely sign acts with their sound nowadays) doesn't mean they've stopped making it.
After establishing their cred through shows with punk bands of similar leanings and dates on the Vans Warped Tour, Los Kung Fu Monkeys have continued to tour steadily, although their recorded output has slowed. (Their last album was self-titled and released in 2006.) Though Leos is a big enthusiast of groups within metal, new wave and indie rock—namely Testament, Depeche Mode and Foster the People—he takes great pride in his seven-piece's loyalty to their original sound. "We're kind of like the only ska-punk band in [Tijuana] now and possibly one of the only five in Mexico altogether," he says.
"We didn't get in it for the trend. We got in it because we wanted to play this kind of music. [We've] always considered ourselves more of a punk band. Ska came into the mix because we were listening to bands play ska," Leos says. "I'm a punk rocker. I'm going to be be 40, and I'm going to still be a punk rocker. I'm going to enjoy listening to Frank Sinatra, but I'm going to still be a punk rocker. I don't see myself playing anything else very far away from punk rock. Maybe I'll start a hardcore band as a side project, but with Kung Fu Monkeys, we're never going to leave our line of music."