Death Hymn Number 9's Paul Gonzalez Busts His Ass for the DIY Punk Scene
Photo by Andrew Zappin
It's 11 a.m. on a Friday in the middle of March, and Paul Gonzalez is just waking up. "I live in San Pedro, but I'm always everywhere else," he says, laughing. "Basically, San Pedro is just the place where I sleep. But home is home."
The whirling trajectory of the South Bay native's days — and more importantly, nights — would likely surprise few in the DIY-centric universe of L.A. punk rock. Because to wear any more hats in the city's scrappy, tight-knit community, Gonzalez would likely have to grow another head. That said, fans who've witnessed the spastic triumph of his band Death Hymn Number 9, which balances surf licks with a searing, white-hot wall of shining, treble-heavy adrenaline, likely could be convinced it's within his powers.
"I'd never seen Death Hymn play before," says Neighborhood Brats guitarist George Rager, who describes Gonzalez as mellow, short and amiable, if not "overly talkative," before he performs. "Then all of a sudden, he's wearing makeup, he's bouncing around the stage, he's bouncing off the stage," he says. "He's the perfect frontman."
By constantly booking bands and promoting shows at Long Beach punk enclaves like Alex’s Bar and the Prospector, Harold’s Place in San Pedro and DTLA’s Redwood Bar, the 40-year-old has become a fixture on the grittier end of the Greater L.A. music scene. It's been more than a decade since he set up his first show, and in an atmosphere where punk bands breed and mutate like fruit flies on a sticky bar top, 10 years is an eternity. But it's that endlessly creative DIY culture, as much part of the L.A. landscape as taco stands and traffic jams, that feeds his fantastic energy.
"In L.A., you can't know anybody without knowing somebody who's in a band," Gonzalez says. "Everybody has to work a job, and playing in a band is an outlet to do what they want, and it's a good outlet. For some people it's a hobby, for some it's their life, and it's always really hard to make money. So, sometimes not worrying about the money is better."
Musically, Gonzalez's own influences run the gamut from metal to punk to jazz to big band. But he credits the cartwheeling, quick-changing orchestrations of cartoon scores (think classic Tom and Jerry) for some of his music's more jagged shifts. And while he admits to honing his theatrical frontman antics in the bedroom mirror as a kid (his first tape: KISS's Alive II), he didn't actually join a band until he was in his mid-20s.
Gonzalez says he only got into music after his Kmart co-worker Jorge Gutierrez randomly asked him if he wanted to come over and write a song. It was a humble beginning, but that early partnership with Gutierrez quickly evolved into The Red Onions, a ferocious four-piece that proceeded to hit SoCal audiences with all the subtlety of a concussion grenade.
Clorox Girls frontman Justin Maurer, who shared countless bills with The Red Onions, recalls Gonzales swinging from the rafters during an extremely sketchy set (the floor felt as if it was about collapse) in the attic of a San Diego gelato shop. "They were like a Latino Stooges, with a real funky, almost James Brown–influenced streak mixed with garage punk. Paul would just go wild, he'd grab the mic stand and pretend he was shooting the crowd, like it was a machine gun. It was fantastic."
Since every night can't be Friday or Saturday, weeknight shows are the lifeblood of a scene. So while Gonzalez's stage presence is legendary, it's his constant hustling to set up the smaller weeknight shows that has made him so beloved among local and touring acts alike. "I'm not the type of person that wants to book a giant festival," he says, "It makes me feel good, when a touring band comes in, to help them out." And helping out can mean everything: making sure band members have a place to sleep, food to eat, a safe place to park their van and occasionally, even some gas money out of his own pocket.
As Rager describes, "Paul's one of those guys that's all about the art, and his booking comes from the desire to spread that all around. He's in it for the love of music." And in the shoestring budget, fast-food-diet world of a touring band, a promoter with a positive attitude can make or break a road-weary band's sanity.
"I really do wish, just collectively, people could know how hard he works," says 4th Street Vine owner Jim Ritson, where Gonzalez books the Wednesday night Rhino Takedown shows. "He doesn't just promote, he's constantly putting shows together with touring bands, setting them up with local bands that have a draw, and he always books an up-and-coming band."
It's already been a busy year for Gonzalez. His latest project, Assquatch, a four-piece built around organ, bass and drums (he describes it as "melodic hardcore") has just recorded its first four songs. If no labels bite on the demo, he's ready to release it on his own tape-only imprint, Ghoulhouse Records. And Death Hymn Number 9 is planning another album for legendary punk label Alternative Tentacles.
As expected, his Wednesday night 4th Street Vine shows promise more killer bills, and he's particularly excited about an April 16 show he's booked for San Diego garage rockers Octagrape. When talking with Gonzalez, the hustle in his voice is always more audible when he describes other people's projects, because as he says, "There should be no 'me' in rock & roll. It has to be a community; without that, there's no scene, there's nothing. It's just a bunch of people that want to be famous."
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