WORDS: Paul Rogers
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Generacion Suicida
Generacion Suicida’s motto is “musica del barrio, para el barrio” (“music from the neighborhood, for the neighborhood”) — yet their impassioned, tuneful Spanish-language punk has far transcended their gritty South-Central L.A. hood. In just eight years together, the proudly DIY foursome has already released a string of increasingly well-received records and performed in 24 countries across four continents.
“Punk right now is kind of seen like a rich kid’s playground,” laments mohawked singer-guitarist Tony Abarca, relaxing in the modest bungalow he shares with Generacion Suicida drummer Kiwi Martinez. “I think that punk does belong to everybody and, especially in the hood, it does play a really important role.”
But Generacion Suicida’s brand of clean-guitar melodo-punk — inspired by long-gone bands like the Ramones and the Adverts, plus old-school Killed by Death compilation albums — has few peers in predominantly Latino South Central, or indeed in L.A.
“When we first started playing we thought, ah, no one’s goin’ to really dig it, ‘cos the scene here is mostly street punk,” says Abarca, who also manages G.S.“Everyone would just start circle-pitting, but our music was like, so slow – it was not even half as fast as it is now!”
South Central L.A. is a vast maze of functional, often faded housing hemmed-in by major freeways. It’s a place of barred windows and muscular dogs in yards, where neighborhood pride is trumped only by familial loyalty. The area was so crime- and gang-ridden by the 1990s (when Abarca’s street marked the border between Crips and Bloods territories) that the City of Los Angeles renamed it South Los Angeles to ease the stigma.
“You can tell you’re new here if you call in South L.A.,” laughs Abarca over the slurred chime of a lurking ice cream truck on a muggy July evening. “Because, for us, it’s always going to be South Central.”
Generacion Suicida began as a casual side-project while Martinez, who’s known Abarca since both were 12 years old, was away studying at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. Lacking local punk venues, the fledgling band simply created a scene, quite literally, in their own backyard. For five years, Abarca hosted punk shows in his garage practice space, which featured both Generacion Suicida and like-minded touring bands.
“A lot of the kids in the hood, they can’t go out to Downtown; they can’t really go, like, to these far-out venues. So I would often reach out to [touring] bands,” Abarca explains. “We would have, like, 150 kids in there or more – the walls in the garage would shake; you wouldn’t be able to close the door.”
Luckily, neighbors in South Central generally tolerate each others’ parties (“The only complaint was … ‘your party is louder than our party’!” Abarca recalls) – and it helped that Abarca’s next-door neighbors are his parents.
“We were way slower,” Martinez, who also sings backups, marvels. “And we would play really wasted, too!”
But Generacion Suicida gradually got serious and graduated to playing warehouses, bars and clubs across L.A. With Martinez back from college and devoted to drumming – her mesmerizing blur of self-taught style is now a focal point of their sound and shows – the band’s music began speeding up; they became more accomplished and popular in the process. A second guitarist, Mario Quezada, was added in time for their 2013 debut album, Con La Muerte a Tu Lado, and new bassist Elias Jacobo – the joker of the band – soon followed.
“Party time’s over,” says Abarca. “Nowadays, I feel like if we fuck up we’re like ‘dude, let’s break up’!”
Propelled by Abarca’s herculean work ethic, G.S. were soon booking shows up and down the West Coast. Then a gamble of a self-funded European tour in 2013 went so well that they had enough money left over to attend a Barcelona football match. Tours in Central and South America, Japan, Canada, and the U.S. East Coast followed. Soon, they’ll play L.A.’s outdoor Levitt Pavilion with punk veteran Alice Bag, and in September they will be touring Southeast Asia.
With the recent release of fourth album Reflejos, Generacion Suicida is now a well-oiled machine. They rehearse for each show or tour by practicing the exact set list just as they intend to play it on stage. And it shows: performances are tight, with between-song pauses brief and stage banter minimal. Hunched over her snare drum, the effortlessly iconic Martinez is a hurricane of focus and feel, apparently oblivious to the multiple cameras invariably aimed her way (“When people ask me ‘What do you do?’ I seriously don’t know – I can’t describe it!” she admits). When the bass lost signal at a recent L.A. show, G.S. didn’t miss a beat and, problem fixed, Jacobo jumped seamlessly back into the song.
Singing in exclusively in Spanish has probably limited their audience, Abarca admits, but it’s another facet of being honest to themselves and their community.
“I feel like I can’t sing in English – my English singing [and] speaking voice is all weird,” he says, in perfectly un-weird English. “‘If only they sang in English’ – I mean, I’ve heard that a couple of times. But it’s like, well, then fuck you, man!”
While still punky and snotty, with songs averaging barely two minutes, Reflejos finds Generacion Suicida exploring nuances within their sound, not least because the now fully-integrated Quezada and Jacobo are infusing the songs with their sometimes Cure-ish or surf-y melodic and textural instincts. And they don’t rule out embracing keys, strings and even sax on future records.
“It’ll be cool to make like a ‘big’ record, even if we do it ourselves,” mulls Quezada, whose shades and beret lend him a convincing Carlos the Jackal air onstage. “I feel like we could do that, even with our style.”
But Generacion Suicida — all 30 years old — don’t over-plan or worry about the future. They’ve found that when they get the big picture right, the music follows.
“The first day [on tour], everybody gets really drunk and Elias and Kiwi fight,” chuckles Abarca, the band’s peace-making diplomat and unofficial dad. “For the rest of the tour, nobody drinks!”
Abarca claims that they’ve already turned down two or three offers from major record labels because, while he admits that the financial support would be welcome, his priority is to make music on their own terms (though G.S. did license a song for a Levi’s commercial in order to fund a Japanese tour).
“As long as we’re still family-oriented – really working together, like a family – then I think our music will always be good.”