They're the cities that secession forgot: the burbs between and around the 91, 710, 605 and 60 freeways; not quite Los Angeles and definitely not Orange County. For the English- and Spanish-language media, these cities—Paramount, Lynwood and Cudahy to name the grimiest—are notable only because they birthed the narcocorrido movement. But in the shadows of this virtual Mexico lurks the youth rebellion of ska.
It's not OC's deliriously moronic version of it, though. These semi-assimilated nether regions are a Petri dish, breeding the brassy OC faves of the south into the punishing punk of LA to create something new and menacing: Latino ska. And the bands that cultivate this version of a lately ridiculed genre—homegrown guys and gals like Las 15 Letras, Left Alone and Rascuache—sometimes sing in English (but most of the time scream in Spanish) and always give the music a sinister spin, reflecting the tough day-to-day lives of the bands, instead of the fooling-around-during-band-camp inspiration of suburban nitwits.
"[OC skankers] don't see the shit we see," says Jay Pea, lead singer of Viernes 13. "You walk the streets of OC, and you walk our streets; it's gonna be different. We're not going to be singing about 'My friend has a red car.' We deal with real human emotions and actions."
Out of all these bands, Viernes 13 is perhaps the best. Coming from Southgate—a city that "you only hear about whenever there's a crime," according to Jay Pea—and holding the bluest blue-collar jobs imaginable (could you ever imagine Save Ferris working in a warehouse or an oil refinery?), the sextet is an apposite amalgamation of the various highlights of Latino ska. They have horns aplenty, all right, but Melvin's trombone and Güero's trumpet are horns to bash to, not bounce.
Mario's guitar has the proper ska-band scratchiness, but he comes armed with two-chord stomps and trippy psychobilly/surf riffs better suited for a brawl. Mikey's drums sound as if he's trying to hammer something evil to pieces. And lyrically, they rarely stray from their Viernes 13 name (which means Friday the 13th) with ominous, fatalistic songs such as "Bailando con la Muerte" (Dancing with Death) and "Últimas Palabras" (Last Words).
But most important in this maniacal mix is Jay Pea. A skinny, tattooed chingón, this Southgate native takes to the stage like a man ready to kick ass. He strangles every ounce of life out of the mic. His moves are subtle yet calculated, and he makes sure to get his points across in a growl that makes any lyrics intimidating.
So this ain't your cute neighbor's ska—because your cute neighbor probably didn't share gigs with metal bands at a dank American Legion bar in Huntington Park like Viernes 13 did when they hit their stride around three years ago.
"We'd be with these hard-core death metal bands, so we started to get influenced by them," Jay Pea recalls. "After a while, a lot of the metal fans, they'd say, 'I hate ska, but Viernes 13 is different.' That's when we knew we were doing the right thing by being dark."
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Though they might be committed to the dark side, the guys never forget their roots—both ethnic and economic. Reflecting their lives the best is "Johnny Pistolero," a ballad written with a nod toward the corridos that their less-assimilated brethren love as well as "all the crazy motherfuckers we know." The song tells the story of Johnny Pistolero (Johnny Gunn), a valiente in the same tradition of other men immortalized in song such as Gabino Barrera and Lamberto Quintero. But this time, the guy's a Stacy Adams-wearing, lowrider-driving homeboy bragging that he can take on anyone and daring everyone to try—even if it brings death.
Stupid posing? Or bitter reality? There's a reason why Viernes 13 doesn't concentrate too much on the political aspect that characterizes most Latin alternative acts in the Los Angeles basin.
"The people who talk about politics, none of them do shit," Jay Pea says. "The world doesn't revolve around politics—it's about life and death. We're not crybabies. We can deal with what's given to us."
Viernes 13 perform with Panteón Rococó and Calavera at JC Fandango, 1086 N. State College, Anaheim, (714) 758-1057; www.jcf.com. Thurs., Aug. 15, 8 p.m. $18-$20. 16+.