Taco first heard of the Tracks while catching up with photographer Valerie Bower, who mentioned a young band from Boyle Heights was using one of her images for artwork. A few weeks later Taco interviewed Rogelio Hernandez, whose frontyard gigs at his house in Boyle Heights earned him a recent profile by Passion of the Weiss. When Taco asked Hernandez about his favorite new local acts, the first one he said were the Tracks, and he wrote down a phone number and said “Ask for Venancio.”
When I called Venancio Bermudez of the Tracks about doing an interview with Taco, he said he could do it but not in person, and he promised me he wasn’t being unfriendly. The Tracks’ rehearsal studio is near Farmer John’s gigantic hot dog factory, and thus directly in the path of the Vernon Drift, the notorious stench of pig products that permeates southeast LA. For his first-ever interview, Bermudez said he didn’t want a stranger to have to endure the pork stench the band is forced to when they practice. So instead of the band’s practice space, Bermudez suggests we meet at First Street Pool, the Boyle Heights billiards hall that’s near his house.
The Tracks consist of Bermudez (vocals and guitar) and bassist Felipe Contreras, both 25, who met in middle school, and drummer Jaime Conde, 24, who they met in high school. After going through numerous band lineups and names, they met 22 year old guitarist Jesiel Higuera, and became the Tracks.
In Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, the legendary critic describes the “enormous reality” of American music. The phrase “enormous reality” kept bouncing around my brain when I interviewed Bermudez about the band.
Where did the band members grow up?
Felipe and Jaime and me are all from Boyle Heights, and Jesiel stayed down around in South Central, but he lives here now. He had a pretty rough life. He was born in LA, but he moved back to Mexico for a while. He joined a gang when he was 11, and then he was homeless by the time he was 14. He’s been all over. But he’s here with us now.
How did you get into music?
My dad was a mariachi singer from Nayarit, and my mom sang in vocal groups back in Jalisco and when she moved here. My dad saw my mom for the first time at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights and then there was an immigration raid and he lost her when everyone ran away. He saw her a couple of weeks after that when they were both performing at El Mercadito and nine months later my sister was born.
Did your parents encourage you to play music?
My dad wasn’t making enough as a mariachi to support a family. He put a lot of pressure on himself. Then a sister I never knew OD’d on crack she swallowed during a police raid in the ’80s. When that happened, my dad stopped singing. He started drinking a lot. He lost his mind. One of my first memories was him beating up my mom in our living room, and my sister calling 911. This happened a lot, and then one time it was so bad and so loud the neighbors called LAPD. There was blood everywhere and my mom wasn’t moving. I thought she was dead. So did the cops. My dad went to jail for seven years and I didn’t see him again til I was 14.
After he got out of jail, my dad’s sister was working at a psychiatric hospital down in Compton, and he could stay there for free. He joined a church down there, it was all black, all these born again Christians, and he brought me down to play in the house band as the guitarist.
In church, we had to know and play all kinds of genres. It was a great education. The people there were pretty opened minded musically as long as the lyrics were about Jesus. The bassist was this cool lady in her 60s with an afro, and she swayed when she played. It was beautiful. We worked that gig for about four years, and then my mom finally let my dad back home my senior year at Roosevelt.
The last week of high school, my dad just collapsed in the living room. Blood was coming out of his nose. I picked up his head and his eyes closed. It turned out he had cancer, stage four, the worst shit. Right before Christmas he died.
At the funeral, I met half-brothers and half-sisters I didn’t know I had. It turns out my dad had 18 kids, and almost all of them were in jail, or just out of prison, or in gangs. It’s crazy to meet a lot of your family for the first time at your dad’s funeral. We buried my dad in his mariachi suit. Standing there, looking at the grave, I realized either I had music, or else I’d have no future.
That must have been very hard to lose a parent when you’re only 18. How did you respond to his death?
I never took off my headphones. I listened to music every second I was awake. I’d go to backyard shows in Boyle Heights and gigs at the Smell, but my mom, she is very religious, and she told me it was either god or music. When I told her music mattered to me more, she kicked me out.
I was homeless for about six months. I was sleeping in this old busted up chicken coop in an alley near Evergreen Cemetery. Saying it out loud now, it sounds crazy. But I would rather be homeless and making music I love than pretend to believe in something. I make music because I need to. That’s really when the Tracks started.
The band started when you were homeless?
Well, around then, after my dad died, when I was staying in that alley, that was the early spark for a lot of our songs. Death, and dying, it was heavy on my mind. But to me the songs are about surviving.
In what way?
We have a song called “Hanging On” that I started back then. When I was sleeping in the chicken coop, when I was going to bed at night, I would say “keep it hanging on” over and over, almost like a chant. It was how I stayed strong. One morning I woke up and I had these chords in my head, this chiming guitar melody. I didn’t have any of my musical equipment, because my mom had locked it all away in her room, but I had a little cassette recorder, and I’d go to the Radio Shack over on Chavez and use their stuff. When I had more time, I’d take the bus out to the Guitar Center in Hollywood and do more recording. I’d go in there every Sunday pretending to be interested in their equipment, and I’d just record as much as I could.
You’re a hustler! What were you doing for money then?
Well, my mom finally let me back in the house, but she wasn’t doing too well after my dad died. I started working at a tortilla factory, doing double shifts. From 18 to 22 my life was tortillas. Some kids go to college, but I made tortillas. I’d work 16 hour days, Monday through Saturday, and then go to practice after. For those four years, I’d only sleep maybe a few hours a night.
I got Jesiel a job working at the tortilleria, but a lot of bad stuff happened. The owner was a jerk, a cheap rich person. He wouldn’t buy fridges, and he would make us use the rotting masa. The chemicals they’d make us clean the equipment with was really toxic, they wouldn’t even give me gloves. My skin was burning for years. Sometimes the managers would pour, what’s that shit, ammonia, in the masa. They were evil. And the conveyor belt was so loud I started to lose my hearing.
A lot of our coworkers hated the job and the baker’s owner, so they’d do fucked up things. One guy got caught masturbating into the masa. A lot of people were getting sick because the factory was so dirty, and Jesiel got tuberculosis and almost died. He was in the hospital for two months, and he was sick for another seven months after he was released.
I had no other job options and I had to support my mom, so I couldn’t quit. I never made more than $8.50 an hour there, I never got a raise, I never got a holiday off. Some of the older supervisors, they had wives, but they would sexually harass us. They’d come up behind us as we were making masa and they’d press their dicks against our backs. If we complained, they would threaten to fire us. Then one December, when they told us we’d get a bonus, they called ICE on the factory right before Christmas just to not have to pay people. When I saw my coworkers getting taken away, I quit and walked out, and I never came back.
That’s a crazy story. What was the status of the band at this time? Why did you choose the name the Tracks?
When Jesiel finally got healthy, that was when we really started as the Tracks. We got a rehearsal room, and back then, I didn’t have a car, so I was walking everywhere or on my bike. Our rehearsal space is around a bunch of factories. There are lots of trucks there now, but it used to be a trolley depot. Maybe you know this, but LA had one of the biggest rail systems around, and then the trolleys were taken out of service, and automobiles were kind of forced onto everyone.
Most of the tracks for the streetcars were ripped out of the ground, but in the poorer parts of the city, they just left them. You ever gone around different parts of town and see tracks in the ground? A lot of times my bike would get stuck in those old tracks and they’d grab hold of my bike and flip me. One time I was going down Soto from my house to rehearsal and my bike got caught in the tracks and I got tossed off. I was on the ground, my pants were ripped and my lip was busted, I tasted blood in my mouth. I was looking at the tracks and I thought ‘That’s it.’ To me, those tracks that were left in the streets in the poor neighborhoods are a symbol of LA. There are secrets in this town, and those tracks reflect that.
City life everywhere seems to come with its major daily frustrations, but something about LA’s seem very unique to the country. What do you love and dislike about this city?
The sun here is very powerful. Look what it’s produced. There is a history of talent here, from the Beach Boys, to Love, to War, to NWA, to Rage, and now someone like Anderson Paak. But it can be evil in this town when the sun goes down. You either grow, or you burn out.
You recently recorded the band’s debut album? Can you tell me about the process? What were you trying to capture?
When Jesiel got out of the hospital, we went through all of our songs and picked the ten ones we’d be happy with if it wound up being our only album. We cut out what wasn’t essential. And then we played the songs over and over, always in the same order, four hours a night, five nights a week. We spent a lot of time rehearsing because we didn’t have a lot of time for recording.
When we finally got into a studio, we did it direct to tape at United, an old spot out in Hollywood that Frank Sinatra built. The four of us played together in the big room in Studio B, and we did the album in order. We did Side A on a Saturday and Side B on a Sunday.
We wanted the album to have rhythm and intimacy. And we wanted the drums to hit. The ticking grenade of being poor. You know that pressure? That constant reminder that your time is running out? We wanted that tension.
From what I knew about you guys before, and from what you’ve said today, it brings up something I wanted to ask you about. There’s a great music critic named Laura Snapes who profiled a country singer and wrote “Illuminating working-class struggles feels subtly political.” Given your background, and what you’ve told me about the songs, do you agree?
Do you know that song ‘Ice People’ by Link Wray? I always think of it when I hear some bullshit from Trump. Every guy in the band, our parents were immigrants, they all undocumented, but they came here, they worked hard, they paid taxes, they made a life here. We’re proud to be Americans, and we’re proud to be first generation. This country was built by immigrants. The railroads, the music, the food, everything. This election is really scary for everyone we know. It’s like the Japanese internment camps you learn about in school. Trump wants to do Operation Wetback again.
Would someone from elsewhere, or someone who was born with money, write the same songs as us? I don’t know. But I do believe a lack of opportunity can be an incredible source of inspiration.
What are the plans for band?
We’re gonna put up the video for the first song on our record soon and then we’ve got a bunch of gigs coming up. We want to put out the album by spring, and then we want to tour as much as possible.