THEE COMMONS: THERE IS NO CAGE
photo by FUNAKI
Thee Commons has the rhythm that makes you want to move: part cumbia, part psych, part surf and all about keeping you up and keeping on your feet. They come from East Los Angeles with a sound that’s raw and full of energy. (Which explains how they pull off all their guerilla-style generator shows.) The pots and pans they used as drums when they were kids in their parents’ garage are as much of who they as politics and literature, and they don’t worry about fitting into any genre—they just want to express themselves honestly. They host and perform at their Desenamorados: Cumbia Punk Party this Valentine’s Day at Five Star Bar. I sat with members David, René, and José on a warm evening in Long Beach to talk about their music and what makes them so unique. This interview by Desi Ambrozak.
How’d you guys get started?
David Pacheco (guitar/lead vocals): René and I are siblings and when we were little kids we went to all kinds of backyard shows. Like quinceañeras and stuff. A lot of that music was cumbias and rancheras.
René Pacheco (drums/vocals): A lot of NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, and … their name escapes me but that song that goes ‘MMMBop.’
D: That was our soundtrack as kids.
R: Very diverse.
D: One of our uncles would come over and he would play rancheras and drink beer with my dad. And this one day he gave me one of his acoustic guitars. I started playing—but I didn’t know how to do anything. I didn’t know how to tune it. So René and I were at our grandma’s house at a party. We were in the garage with a bunch of pots and the guitar. I was 14 and he was like what? 11? It was super cute.
Actual pots and pans?
R: Well, they had a pretty cool sound. They were like old school. Like, out of aluminum. They were a lot more fragile. They had a good bang. We would play a song [and play along]. He would strum and I’d keep a beat.
D: We thought, ‘It kinda does match.’ We told our parents we knew how to play and put on the track and started making noise. Then my dad said, ‘Try it without the track playing.’ It sounded like shit—ha!
R: We were just having a good time.
D: That’s when we started playing. I kept playing guitar, René kept playing the drums. He played in another band and I played in my own band too.
R: It was just two members. His drummer for the band he was in was such an active musician and always wanted to do stuff. He had his own little project that he decided to pick up again. The bassist was in this new band. David was singing. Then the drummer was playing bass and has asked if I’d play drums. He started teaching me how to get comfortable with it—how to use it, set it up, put it away. All that good stuff. It began from there. After that was over David and I just went from there.
D: We started our first band.
R: ‘The Anti-Party.’
D: No, no—‘Hello My Name is Red.’
R: I just thought I’d mention ‘Anti’!
What kind of music was it?
R: It was very rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of people would say we were rockabilly. Then we started listening to surf and tripped out 50s stuff.
D: I started listening to a lot of chicha. It’s music from Peru. It’s a style of playing that’s surfy guitar with organs,
R: With psychedelic guitar riffs.
Like Los Saicos?
D: Los Saicos is more like the garage stuff. The other bands that did cumbias but instead of an accordion they had an organ and guitars to. So it gave it like a crazy cool sound.
R: It’s its own thing. It’s not like rock ‘n’ roll except the guitar. There’s so many different kinds of cumbias. The southern cumbias use and orchestra with winds or brass. They all have percussion but the southern cumbias have trippy guitars and the riffs are very melodic.
José Cruz (bass/vocals): It sounds like if you took a cumbia band and took the 60s music in America and England and combined it.
D: But the rhythm is its own thing.
R: The rhythm is what makes it cumbia.
When did you start listening to chicha?
D: In 2012. Shortly after we discovered that kind of sound we knew exactly what we wanted to do.
R: I didn’t know anyone our age who liked the stuff. I didn’t think people would be into it but everyone seemed to be having a good time.
Before that, when you were doing rock, was your style more American or Latin? Did you sing in Spanish?
R: More American. We were already starting to think that we should do stuff that was more like what we grew up with when we heard chicha—
D: Chicha was the sound that we really thought was cool—ha!
R: Not only the Peruvian scene—our parents were from Pueblo.
When did Thee Commons become a thing?
D: 2012 in March—right after Hello My Name is Red. We were starting to get more political.
R: We were just starting to go back to college and becoming aware or certain things. It hits you pretty quickly. Music is our way of coping because it can be pretty traumatizing you know.
What specifically was it that hit you?
R: It wasn’t specific so much as just social awareness of things that when you’re a kid you don’t notice.
D: It’s like when you discover Nietzsche for the first time, maybe like in your adolescence. It has a profoundness to it. One of our songs was about the protesters at Occupy. Me and René did a generator show with them. Basically get power by plugging into a car battery and just played music for them. It was a lot of fun. But I think at that point it was more of a political thing and we thought, ‘Let’s change it up and make it about music.’
R: That’s the purpose of music. It’s liberating and not in a cheesy way. It’s a way of coping. I never knew there was a cage in the world. All the sudden I realized there is a cage. Music is a way of saying, ‘There is no cage. What cage? What you talking about?’ That’s why cumbias are so dope because they involve so much about celebrating life. That’s why I like music so much. There’s a lot you can say behind it. There’s a lot of responsibility that you have as a person to celebrate this life we have and this togetherness. So it’s different. There is that responsibility—it’s there but it’s different. It’s not such an important one.
D: I think that non-mainstream music has always been—and cumbia included—music of resistance in a sense and a way to say something that hasn’t been said. It’s creating it’s own outlet. That’s part of my inspiration to make this sound happen. It’s a metaphor. It’s a symbol. Thee Commons represents this limited space where life happens with two sides to it. A side where you can’t cope with it and the side where you do what you can and that’s where we come into play. It’s very existential. Some of the lyrics in Spanish are about choices you make and dealing with the consequences.
Are there any issues specifically that you are trying to cope with?
R: Not really any more. At one point it was. But now it’s evolved to where it’s really just all about music. I really love being in a band that’s cool—that has a vision for innovation and using rhythms that just grab you.
D: We’ve been pushing to stay creative right now.
It’s pretty impressive that you guys are able to put out new music every month.
D: It’s a lot of work, though—a lot of work.
R: We keep ourselves motivated. If you’re not motivating yourself then you have to pay someone else to keep you motivated.
How old are you guys now?
D: I’m 26, René is 23, José is 21.
And you’ve literally been playing music since you were kids.
R: Yeah, never accurately or anything—but little stuff. I starting fucking around with a keyboard and the musical guys at school came and asked me to join. I signed up wanting to play the violin or the flute but they put me on trombone. I got trombone because I had big arms. They were like, ‘No kid can play this except you—you have the arms for it.’ I had a trombone solo with a little pause: ‘Baaa … ba.’
Do you have any songs that have horns in them now?
R: I’ve always wanted to. It hasn’t worked out.
J: I feel like a lot of the guitar that we put together is done in the place of horns that we wish we had. But what we come with in terms of rhythm and phrasing is because we’re missing a horn section. A lot of the stabs and riffs and the parts that David and I link up.
R: I just don’t think it would work with horns. I think a three piece is what’s up.
D: When you get a fourth member it can get really muddy. José’s been playing with us for four or five months now.
How did you guys all meet?
R: We’re twins! He tried to eat me and then we started playing together.
We’ll need to expand on that one.
R: It’s not quite clear. It’s all from a dream in the womb. One of us would squeal then the other would squeal back then we’d start harmonizing.
D: René’s always been super energetic and always causing trouble like at parties and getting us kicked out of restaurants. I remember this one time at McDonald’s in one of those playplaces. We got the idea to use the food trays to go superfast down the slide. Then one kid got hurt and we had to go back to our parents. We were like 7—like still little enough to be cute. We weren’t trying to harm anybody. We were just big enough to be able to handle it but other kids got hurt.
What’s the worst trouble that you got in?
D: There was one that was pretty bad. It wasn’t really trouble because It was an accident when we were playing catch.
R: If we’re going to talk about my scars… I’ve got a bunch of those. Not emotion scars, physical scars.
So what happened?
R: You’re not supposed to play catch in the dark.
D: We were at the park and I threw it to you and I guess you didn’t see it.
R: I was like ‘I got it.’ It was a baseball. I was 8 and I was like, ‘Fuck it. That didn’t even hurt’. Then I went to massage it and ooked at my hand and it was completely red.
D: It was pretty nauseating to see it.
R: My parents were having this conversation with other people and I go in like ‘AHHH!’ ‘What the fuck?’ Everything happened so quickly. We went straight to the restroom. They’re like, ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’
D: So René and I are siblings and José—how long have you been playing music again?
J: I’ve been playing since I was like 14 or so. I was playing bass a lot for my church and that gave me a foundation.
D: Then he got kicked out! He got kicked out of the choir.
J: I got kicked out from playing. I hadn’t been going to church all my life. I started when I was 11. I already had a good sense of rock ‘n’ roll and 60s music and music that you’re not supposed to listen to because it’s the devil’s music. But I found the church to be a good opportunity to play in front of people and to get a good foundation playing a lot of songs. Church music gives you a lot of songs to learn and puts you on a schedule. Like Tuesday, Friday, Sunday services with practice on Thursday. Basically, I did that for three years and built a good foundation to pick up songs really quick. But at that point I started getting more into the songs and playing more rock, more riffs, more solo. One of the churches I was going to said I need to turn myself down. I was headbanging at church! Then I got busted with these guys. The very first show I ever played with them I realized it doesn’t go well with cumbias.
You got kicked out for headbanging?
J: Not kicked out. I was asked not to do that anymore and I just left because I found it too confining. So I started doing my own stuff called the Kings. Right before we broke up I started playing with Casadegas and my singer Eddie—or a lot of people in L.A. call him Lalo—he started going to thee Commons shows and when they needed a fill-in for this big show, they needed a hired gun … they reached out to him and reached out to me.
D: Our old bassist had to go to jail. So he happened to pick the weekend that we had three shows. We got José and showed him the chords that I was playing. He figured it out.
How many volumes of EPs do you have?
D: We have seven volumes—eight’s coming out Saturday. It’s all recorded. [Out now—ed.!]
When did you get the first one?
D: March. The vinyl was last year—its own separate thing. That’s where I realized the power of collective thought. One night we came from the shows and we were like … on multiple substances and we went like, ‘Damn, man, we should set a goal!’ ‘What should it be?’ ‘Let’s do a vinyl!’ We all agreed on it, so that whole year of 2012, we raised the funds and in by like October we managed to get it to print. It took months. We got it by March. It was cool having that. Right now we don’t have a main consistent goal other than making really fucking good music.
J: For many years, we had the goal of being … fucking badass!
And now your goal is a new EP release every month?
D: I think it’s a realization for us to talk about it and discuss it—we did have the goal of putting all the volumes out, and now that we’re getting close to the end—
J: —what’s next?
R: I’d want to go on tour.
D: I was talking to these guys—we should do a college circuit. That’s where the money’s at! During Cinco de Mayo, or during the Día de los Muertos events.
What do you want to accomplish as a band?
D: I wouldn’t mind it becoming my job. The idea of it being a self-sustainable thing … at least enough to do my own thing. I wouldn’t even mind having a job and doing this, which is a goal for me.
R: If you love what you do, it’s not really a job anymore.
Do you wanna tour Mexico?
D: We were talking about that! Let’s go to Enseñada!
R: Where’s Kumbia Queers from? Colombia?
I’ll go with you!
Do you go back to Mexico very much?
D: No, we want to. But we’re always busy.
D: I’m gonna finish soon. I’m doing animation. Fun stuff.
J: I’m doing recording arts. That’s why I’m able to do a lot of the recordings we’re doing now. Since Vol. 5, I’ve done them.
D: If you listen, you’ll hear the difference. I managed to save my laptop—before it exploded—with Vol. 1 through 4, and I saved some of the tracks I sent you. There’s like ten of them, huh?
You almost lost the albums?
D: I did—all the masters for Vol. 1 through 4 are gone. But I managed to send you separate masters for ten songs. We have the other tracks, but we can’t adjust them anymore.
R: It’s fine. We’re fine with that.
D: Mr. Prodigy Producer over here’s gonna fix them up! And through working with us, he’s been introduced to other bands that are hiring him.
R: In a way, we nurture each other. He’s helping us and we exposed him to these beautiful cumbias. When we jam out, he’ll remember certain parts that we used to not pay attention to. Like these cool riffs—that was cool!—and move on. But he’d snatch them up! It’s cool. Before no one would ever put their input in. It was just David and I. Finally everyone is like try this, try that—push it.
J: What makes it really fun is that we all have different inputs and different approaches, and we can also come to each others’ instruments.
What’s the story on your radio novela? That’s like the ‘rediscovered’ E.P.
D: We were just drinking around a campfire and were like, ‘We should do a story.’ In which we narrate it, have different actors, a musical score. It was this cool idea, and I was like, ‘We could make a like a western!’ We needed an idea for Vol. 6 and I had this idea for awhile that I wanted to pursue, but we never worked it out. I read a story in my Howlin’ Wolf voice—cuz that’s where I got it from— you know ‘I was black! I was playing the gee-tar!’
R: Get to the story!
D: This is the setup—it’s one of the essential parts that I do in this voice, so it sounds even more southern! It’s a story by Kate Chopin about female liberation—‘The Story Of An Hour.’ Everything happens within an hour. I read the story first which was really hard, cuz I would try and enunciate and my voice would go back to normal. I did that, and then I recorded guitar over it and did a lot of special effects—grasshoppers, the train—and then I gave it to [José] and he made it sound super old school. It was fun.
R: The story was about … I can’t tell it that quickly.
D: Just read it. It’s short. Just when I read it, it hit me so profoundly. I wrote a song immediately after I read that. We’ve been playing it. It ends with the song and that’s the song that was inspired by it.
R: We’re thinking about doing another one in Spanish. A ranchera tribute—traditional folk music that we love as well. We harmonize pretty well in Spanish.
Where are you all from?
J: East L.A. Well, I’m not from East L.A.—I’m from Ontario.
R: But he drives down, so that’s cool, man.
J: I practically live in the house.
R: You live far but it never feels like that.
Where do you go to school?
D: So it’s less traffic coming to our house and chilling and then having practice. And René goes to Cal State Fullerton. I got to Cal State L.A. I’m doing my master’s right now in literature. I’m in my first quarter—fucking tons of research.
When did you play for Occupy?
D: We played one of the first nights they had when there was protests. We brought the generator and played music and let people use the microphone to talk.
R: For some reason, [generator shows] are always so scary—something about it feels wrong. But then you do it.
D: The first one we did is when the Pixies played the Palladium for the Doolittle tour. That was our first generator show. Have you heard Traps PS or Dirt Dress? They did this thing called the Guerrilla Fest. They got generators and picked five different low-key locations and went and played and filmed it. And took photographs and made a book about it. We got the idea from them, just showing up wherever we wanted and playing. Almost like busking, but we were playing punk music.
R: Remember when we were at work and like, ‘I dunno if we should … but let’s go do it?’
D: The whole ride over there was like, ‘Fuck it.’ We go to our house, load up everything, head over to Hollywood … that was hectic. We were fucking nervous!
R: We were trying to drink beers to calm us down but nothing would calm us down. It was just so nerve-wracking. Then we did it and it felt like naturally on mushrooms and ecstasy when we were done!
D: Kinda like what Aristotle calls ‘the catharsis.’ You get all those endorphins going—cleansed!
R: It’s like if I got up on the table right now and started dancing. It’s kind of unheard of. Like instigating a riot—like ‘Wake up! BLAUGHHHHH!’
D: It’s attacking the sterile part of life that doesn’t move.
R: And watching the vibrations. It’s a psychological social trip.
D: We don’t think about this stuff though.
R: I do.
D: Echo Park Rising was a lot of fun. Last year we played and it was dope. We played the Echoplex. This year we didn’t get hit up—
R: But that’s alright! That’s alright!
D: I figured where the main stages were at, and mapped it out, and figured out the logistics. Which is normally what we do with these kinds of guerrilla shows. But in the middle was a little park. A public space. Like five by ten feet. We just decided to jam out cuz we knew people would enjoy the music. And they did! R: The Allah Las are very swaying back and forth—they’re like the ocean tide, dude.
D: So we got there like 30 minutes before they finished and we were waiting outside, and once we heard their last song, it’s like, ‘Alright, guys—show time!’ A bunch of people surrounded our little island. It was packed!
R: We were like ten-footer waves, compared to swaying back and forth.
D: We got stranded in Arizona in the winter of 2012, too. For FMLY Fest Arizona. We went to the desert the night before and camped out and it was lot of fun. It was a full moon—beautiful daylight in the desert.
R: But little did we know … tragedy was about to strike the next day. We were driving and I guess we didn’t check the water or something?
D: It just exploded! We had to wait on the side of the freeway for hours.
Was it hot?
D: No it was cold! Middle of December! We called this tow truck person and it took them four hours to get there. He temporary fixed it, and the car was still heating up but we managed to get to Phoenix but we missed our time slot. We didn’t get to play! So we get up early the next day to head back and it just gets even better. We’re driving back and we don’t make it more than 30 minutes and the car fucks up for good. Can’t be turned on at all. Luckily I managed to pull over to this dead end on the freeway by the desert. So we’re like chilling—like fuck it, let’s make the most of it. We grab a generator, and we did like what we did at Occupy. Connect it to a power converter and a car battery, and plug it in and plug our amps into it. So we had one of those in Arizona: ‘Fuck it, we’ll jam out here! In the desert!’ And then like, well, fuck it! Our friend has his phone, got a couple clips of us playing, and then we went for a hike—‘Nobody’s gonna jack our stuff! There’s nobody out here!’ So we went for a hike, and then we’re getting hungry. It’s been like morning to afternoon. One guy happens to come by—he saw us playing and got out of his truck. He had seen us playing while he drove by the first time, even stopped and chilled and watched. But then he came back five hours later like, ‘You boys still waiting for that ride? Lemme know if you need anything?’ We’d MacGyvered a little fire with a bunch of twigs and all we had was like a tortilla, some Tapatío, and a piece of apple—which we grilled—
R: —the best damn taco ever!
D: We were fucking hungry! So we told this guy, ‘Well, you got any food?’ ‘As a matter of fact …’ He had a big thing of turkey slices and cheese and bread.
R: I still think he was a ghost!
D: The video [we made] is cool. It’s called ‘At the Table.’ You see the guy that gave us the food come out and he doesn’t have a shadow. So maybe he’s a ghost!
THEE COMMONS’ “DESENAMORADOS: CUMBIA PUNK PARTY” WITH THEE COMMONS, CUTTY FLAM, 3BOLASDF (DJ SET) AND DJs CHRIS CUT AND BANG BANGS PLUS PHOTOGRAPHY BY JACQUIE RAY ON SAT., FEB. 14, AT THE FIVE STAR BAR, 267 S. MAIN ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $5 BEFORE 9 PM / $10 AFTER / 21+. MORE INFO HERE! PROCEEDS TO HELP FUND A NEW THEE COMMONS’ 78! THEE COMMONS’ ROCK IS DEAD: LONG LIVE PAPER AND SCISSORS IS AVAILABLE NOW. THEECOMMONS.BANDCAMP.COM FOR MORE MUSIC AND INFO.