By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
View more photos in Timothy Norris' "Killsonic Marching Gang Invades Metro Red Line" slideshow.
On a recent Tuesday night I’m driving toward a huge yellow moon on Folsom Street, under illuminated sneakers dangling from telephone wires in East Los’ City Terrace neighborhood. I’m here for a Killsonic rehearsal — the 24-piece band meets once a week to hone its freewheeling brass-heavy gypsy jazz — but I have been given nothing more than an address and a time. I’m keeping my eyes open for some kind of practice space: a proper studio or a dilapidated warehouse, an oversize garage or gutted back house — anything but the humble two-bedroom that matches the number I was given. I park and walk up the drive. I must have written it down wrong. But no, there it is: Framed by dusty old slats, the front door is clean and painted blood-red, and behind that . it couldn’t be. For a second, I think I can see the little house expand and contract.
Two and a half weeks later, Saturday, January 31, 4:11 p.m., it’s quiet at Universal City’s Metro station. This is a bad thing. We’re at the starting line of Killsonic’s inaugural Red Line tour — to comprise 20-minute sets at four different stops, followed by a grand finale at Union Station — and start time was five minutes ago. About a third of the band is here, including Dorian Wood, an impressive solo artist. Leader Mike Ibarra is not — and those gathered are light on equipment. Dominique “Chief” Rodriguez, one of two drum-section leaders, explains: “There was an altercation. A cop got shot near Mike’s house and they’ve got the whole area locked down. Mike’s got all the drums.” Does he know when Mike will arrive? “No idea.” Plans to carpool from the City Terrace home were quashed (officer Anthony Razo, a family friend of the Ibarras, survived the shooting), and it’s now every man for himself.
Spirits sag. Tension grows. Wood senses this, so he straps on his accordion and begins to sing. The few horns start to breathe; the single drum pulses a bit; taps and clicks come from those without instruments. The man-made cavern becomes part of the sound, then the MTA’s piped-in chimes announcing the next train, and even the rumble of that train’s arrival. The cars pull up and, as if summoned, Ibarra and the gang pour out, adjust their instruments and pick up the tune. The sync is so perfect that a few eyes in the small crowd get bleary — a real-life Disney finish, but in the first act. Wood cues up his bullhorn and releases an unholy scream into the tunnel.
Killsonic is not a marching band. They often move, but they do not march. There are no batons or stupid hats, there is no color guard, no playing or bearing of standards. They are not kitsch. Dressed in their own clothes, they stick to black and red, and don the homemade armbands and insignias created by member (and solo performer) Liz Pappademas. An extremely diverse group living all over this city, half were born and raised around L.A., two are from Eastern Europe, one from Portugal, and one from Mexico. The youngest is 20, the eldest 36. Two-thirds have played music since they were children, and two members only started at 23 (Ibarra is one of them).
To make a living, Killsonic’s members, respectively, teach trumpet, conduct speech-recognition research, cut hair, compose music for Xbox and X-rated films, animate for DreamWorks, repair woodwinds, demolish things, serve coffee, serve dinner at the Brite Spot in Echo Park, install pool tables, operate a camera for Wheel of Fortune, hold art workshops at the Getty, assist an attorney, apply henna, and help run the Southland’s oldest music store, Baxter Northrup in Sherman Oaks. I spoke to each player by phone before the big day, and one summed up her bandmates this way: “They are incredible, talented, brilliant, strange, obscure and deranged individuals.” Aerie Shore, accordionist, should know: She stars in and directs fetish films.
With one station down, the motley group crams into a subway car and pushes onward. The band has captured its momentum, and Ibarra kicks off a small jam in transit. The sound morphs from N’awlins brass to dissonance to oompah music, and the trombones become involved in a careful dance to avoid jamming any ribs or faces. Most passengers look happily awed; only one man stares straight ahead with a stony commitment to seeming unimpressed.
The Hollywood and Highland set is a success, though short: We emerge from the underground to a large audience — and an ecstatic rose-hawker who thrusts a fist into the air when he sees the jumble of bodies bearing down on him — but are sent back by a bored security guard after one song. On the corner of Vermont and Sunset, the collective veers to the weird. Conductor “princessFrank” Luis blows his coach whistle before executing an athletic snare solo, which in turn inspires two rounds of extended call and response: laughter, then weeping. From the smallish, tousled form of Ibarra’s right-hand man Charles DeCastro comes a furious trumpet solo that’d do right by Ornette Coleman.