On a Sunday afternoon I went to a tiny bar in Boyle Heights to see a band called Barrio Slam. No giant stadium, no $40 dollar vip parking, just a good old fashioned gig. I wanted to see what this band and their scene was all about. All I knew was that the name of the band sounded punk rock.
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, we thought we had it all, the beach, Hollywood, porn, but we always heard about happenings in East LA. Whether it was the history of Zoot Suiters and Brown Berets, or lowriders, and muralalists, you name it and Chicanos had started it. The only thing is how do you hear about these shows? You have to be in the know. For most locals, ducking into a dive or unknown territories isn’t so unusual.
I found the venue, but decided to do a little cruise of the area first. Boyle Heights is nothing fancy, but the streets are clean, and there’s a family community vibe. I found a sweet spot with a seductive arrow lit up in red, pointing towards a matte black door. My friend said “should we go in?” I said “hell yes.” Inside we found a beautiful watering hole with brick walls, an outdoor smoking patio, and a familiar image of a cross in red neon. We hung out for a few, then walked over to the gig.
It was early evening and a small crowd gathered in front of the Blvd Bar on Whittier Blvd. The bar was packed. The music was loud as hell and the bartender was grumpy. The place had good sound, no lighting, no backstage area. There were no drunks, no attitudes, no drama. Just really loud, fast, bass, guitar and drums coming from real musicians playing real instruments, and plenty of amplifier feedback.
I elbowed my way to the front of the bar where the bands played at eye level. The feathered serpent on the Mexican flag was the only visual behind the 5 band members.
Barrio Slam is Victor on vocals, David and Alex both on guitar, Jose “Goat” on bass, and Abraham on drums. No last names were offered. All five of them look very young. Musically the band is super tight. Their music is aggressive, and fast, with a solid bass line and screaming vocals. 25 year old Abraham on drums is all about speed, and being on time. Their songs combine speed with a slow, heavy, distorted guitar rhythm break in traditional punk style. The vocals are in both english and spanish which is completely unique for American music.
There’s a lot of passion in Victor’s screaming vocals. Their lyrics tell their story, about being Mexican, about politics, and the realities of their world. Song titles are “Xcano Hardcore”, and “Resisting Arrest.” A huge contrast to mainstream lyrics of big booties, plugs and clubs. Victor starts the set by screaming to a crowd of mostly latino young adults. This band has something to say! Lyrics are written by Victor, and the music is written by all members of the band.
“We all ran in the same circles, same scene” Victor said. Inspired by their creative environments, each had found an instrument to play “some were hand me downs, or family members had left them in the garage.” Barrio Slam formed in 2015 and all members are self taught musicians.
I asked them how they got into punk, into playing an instrument, into a non mainstream genre? It’s always the same answer, an older sibling or kid from the same block. Barrio Slam’s bass player (also a full time dad) Jose said “A new breed came out of punk.” Abraham the drummer, wearing a Bad Brains t shirt quietly looked on.
Barrio Slam has a fan base with people coming from as far away as Riverside County to see them. They played a 9 song set with plenty of violent slamming in the pit. Shockingly the show finished without any injuries.
When you think of counter culture, lowbrow, underground scenes you may ask, where are they, and how do they start? The answer is in neighborhoods like this. These are the unspoken facts. American styles of art through expression that eventually hit the streets of London and Japan start in humble neighborhoods like Boyle Heights. Underground trends typically do not start in affluent areas. As Ian Mckay from Minor Threat put it “Rich kids, and all their lazy money” could be on the mark.
The message of Barrio Slam is genuine. Their lyrics tell their story without a stereotypical ending. “You don’t have to be a cholo.” Famous words from World History High School teacher and vocalist Victor. “You don’t have to listen to Banda.”
Please visit Barrioslam.bigcartel.com @barrioslamhc