We Are Familia
Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
It's see-your-breath cold in the garage, a cramped zone made even smaller by a partition separating a washer and dryer from Go Betty Go's rehearsal space. Posters of Shakira and Aterciopelados crowd up against the cautionary visages of rock-star stiffs Janis and Jimi, a string of multicolored twinkle lights, a couple of stripy Mexican blankets draped over the amps, and boxes of family storage clutter. The garage door stands open, and when the band start to run through their set, it can be heard several blocks away.
"Why even bother to shut the door?" says drummer Aixa Vilar. "It's like a piece of foil, doesn't make any difference. The cops are usually pretty reasonable when they show up � the fact that we're all girls seems to help."
"It used to, when they thought we were just cute kids still in high school," her sister Nicolette adds, "but when they ask how old we are [the eldest is 22], it's more like, 'What? Get a job . . .'"
A laugh ripples through the garage; they name a tune and start churning it out, Aixa (pronounced I-eeks-ah) facing the wall as she hammers the drum kit, Betty Cisneros (after whom the band is named) all stone-faced composure but using her guitar like a flame thrower, and Michelle Rangel, dwarfed by her bass guitar, making with her intricate lines while Nicolette stalks about the limited floor space as she sings. Mom comes down with a load of wash; Betty keeps glancing out the open door as if expecting a lit-up prowl car to appear any second. Running through the tunes, the band handle individual screw-ups in an easygoing manner, rarely having to redo anything more than once; it's, like, tight, with little room for improvement, only decisions to make about which way to do it. "You want it regular or the tutti-frutti way?" asks Betty.
It's an old story, perhaps even a stale one, but it's rendered exceptional by the music, a tuneful, driving brand of old-timey punk rock. Accelerated and expanded upon by their own Latina-centric innovations based on frequently cited Go Betty Go essentials � pride, love and respect � music is something these four decidedly excel at. Go Betty Go are a romance in progress, the ardent pursuit of rock & roll's fabled seductive liberation.
The band's appetite for rock's rebel spirit is a marvel; indeed they're dedicated to the point of near zeal, bashing it out with intense focus and involvement, putting it over with a beguiling blend of hellish velocity and the gee-whiz air of a schoolyard crew � Nabokov's "strange mixture of tenderness and vulgarity" comes to mind. They'll play anywhere, from a billiards hall in Tecate, Mexico, to a meathead jock bar in City of Industry. In a recent four-week period, they had 16 shows, a KJLA television appearance and a Kill Radio interview-performance, which, taken with their frequent rehearsals and scheming sessions, qualifies them as a tight-knit coven whose chronic togetherness usurps family, job and romance.
"We're barely even at home anymore," Aixa says. "Sometimes we all spend the night at Betty's so we can just get up and start rehearsing. My life is becoming the band, and that's what we all want. We take any show offered to us, and new people see us and then they start coming out. People say, 'Aren't you playing too much?' but we've already sold about 1,200 CDs at our shows."
They've spun their own reality. In any conversation with a Go Betty Go member there's a recurring statement that explains a lot: "We just want to play." Clearly they're not making too much money, and they express no dreams of "making it," but of course such drive and desire can be neither bought nor counterfeited. This is purely instinctual rock & roll, the renegade compulsion to break out, kick through and burn down the dull lull of suburban California convention, to reach that barely discernible point on the imagination's horizon.
It was here in the garage, a few blocks from Glendale High School, that the band started in the spring of 2000. Sisters Aixa and Nicolette Vilar had formed a duo as preteens ("We wrote songs about Monopoly, kid stuff," Aixa says) and messed around with high school garage bands as teenagers, blossoming into the way-cool rocking siblings of the neighborhood who, even after they became aware that a guitar slinger named Betty lived nearby, felt that she just couldn't muster the hip quotient they needed. A silly notion that turned out to be, because Betty, the chola-tuff guitar pyrotechnician, is not only the anchor but the guts of the band � onstage, she lays down her effects pedals, plants herself before a microphone and discharges an intense blast of hard-rocking, run-for-your-life riffs.
Avoiding most of the pitfalls modern rock has created � those annoyingly unnecessary time changes, and the Specials-damaged ska-reggae lapses that plague so many Latin rock acts � the band also mix English and Spanish into their songs. The former is used on the more standardized classic punk sound of "Go Away" and "Worst Enemy," while those in the latter tongue are far more sophisticated and unconventional, leaving room for Nicolette to sustain soulful, clear-toned notes before rolling into a rapid-fire barrage of tongue-tripping espa�ol ("Mis Locuras," with lines like "My madness, treating me so badly/keeps chasing after me/press on the gas because we gotta get there/the faster we go the farther we are from her"; and "No Hey Perdon" � key lyric translation: "I don't forgive you, you asshole"). For the dazed gringo, it's a lot to absorb, but what the hell � most good punk lyrics are indecipherably delivered, and the Spanish songs provide a fascinating contrast.
The band winds up the rehearsal after a ferocious hour of grinding. Later on, rolling down the 134, Aixa is behind the wheel, illuminated by the intermittent strobe flashes of mercury-vapor light slashing through the shadows. She discusses Go Betty Go's future with sensible pragmatism. "We want to record more songs, and we've been approached by several indie labels who want to do a single or an EP, but whenever it comes down to signing anything, it always seems like there's some kind of catch. I mean, why should we? We can do the same thing ourselves, so there's no big hurry to do anything like that. The last few months have been a big push, and it's already getting better this year � we're pulling in 80 or 100 people on our Tuesdays at Mr. T's. Now we're even getting some paying gigs, and the clubs are starting, finally, to invite us back. But it's all because of love � we enjoy what we're doing."
Several weeks later, up on the third floor of the Hollywood Palace's crumbling backstage, the girls, set for an 8 p.m. opening slot on an Ozomatli show, are trying to play it cool. Aixa grabs her sticks, drops to a squat and beats furious paradiddles on the floor as Betty's sister Veronica applies makeup to Nicolette. Betty's down wrangling with the tech man � they showed up half an hour late and lost their chance for a sound check; when Betty returns, she doesn't seem quite thrilled about the situation. "Well, we set the levels, and I ran through a few things on the guitar, but . . ." The announcement fades into a fog of uncertainty and tension they're doing their best to ignore.
The 1,200-capacity Palace is a big change from the rundown confines of the band's home away from home, Mr. T's Bowl, and knowing there's a big fat line already stretching down Vine Street by 6:30 p.m. doesn't allay the band's misgivings. Betty is ashen-faced, doubled over and clutching at her stomach. "I'm always nervous before a show, even at T's," she says, gamely putting on a weak grin. "I even do this when I get in trouble at home . . ."
As Aixa pounds away at the faded dressing-room carpet, her mood contrasts strangely with Betty's, especially considering that these two are the group's primary writers. But opposites attract � Betty digs Missy Elliott and Eminem while Aixa gorges on underground indie bands, Clash and Ramones � and when the twain meet in Betty's garage, the results are explosive. It's all so unlikely: Nicolette, whose favorite vocalists are Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and James Brown, had never sung a note prior to the band's first rehearsal three years ago.
Yet on the Palace's broad stage they seem anything but intimidated; they play hard as hell, and Nicolette uses all that open space, presenting a mighty spectacle more than equal to the room. ("It was like never having been on a roller coaster," she says, "then going to Magic Mountain and riding them all at once.") The floor is packed all the way back to the bar, and the crowd looks stunned at the force these chicas conjure. ("I thought it was a sonic boom," one audience member tells another.) Aixa hits so punishingly that at one point she breaks a drumstick and, a true delinquent, launches it in a high-speed arc that looks as if it might touch down in the bartender's ice bin, if not straight through the roof and on into Hollywood orbit. That reckless, potentially injurious toss symbolizes Go Betty Go's sound and stance.
"We don't write songs that say, 'Please love me, I love you,'" Nicolette says after the show. "It's more like, 'I don't need your shit.' That's our attitude: We're not gonna kiss your ass, and if you fuck us over, then fuck you. If you don't like it, go away."
Go Betty Go play feral and correct punk rock with a carefully measured ratio of musical facility and spiritual essence: careless, restless, fearless. That equation fired rock & roll from the beginning and was applied in its most culturally animating form in the late '70s, when punk rock pushed the dwindling rock geyser with its blast of primitive chaotic charm. And here's Go Betty Go, already suffering inevitable comparisons to the Go-Go's and Bangles, trading in waters muddied more recently by the connect-the-dots likes of Courtney Love and Avril Lavigne.
"I respect anyone who's a musician, and they can do what they want," Aixa says, "but it sucks how it's always a package. It's all too phony. I mean, we do everything ourselves, and we're proud of that."
Let's face it, most Los Angeles bands stink, a point driven home at Mr. T's on a recent Tuesday by a turgid self-proclaimed "power trio" whose set highlight, after interminable, wordy slabs of low-rent "personal" rock, comes with an appalling Tears for Fears cover, bad enough to make one grateful for the anti-smoking codes requiring one to leave the premises in order to shorten this suddenly wretched life. But God love them, the trio are a perfect setup for Go Betty Go, who by comparison appear as beings from another planet, high rock priestesses so sharp at the game that everything seems to work in their favor; they never overplay, keeping the set short, and refusing to do any lame-ass covers.
Among the 150 or so attendees, Go Betty Go seem a favorite topic of barroom and parking-lot conversation, and the girls receive adulation from just about everyone in the club. Whether mere shlubs ogling the sinuous, hip-shaking Nicolette, or hopped-up rockers gassing on the urgency and dynamism of the music, few ears stray from this band. The intensity and joy in the performance is remarkable, since Betty's sick and Nicolette has slaved late at the hated day job. But as they bear down with the fierce aplomb characteristic of their songs ("I'm not hungry tonight, don't feed me that lie/Don't hold me don't touch me/I'm not feeling lonely"), all that tiresome crap evaporates. The mostly Anglo crowd goes ape, chanting, "Otra! Otra! Otra!" when they finish the set.
It's another climactic moment for Go Betty Go, and there's a calendar full of more of the same. They've finally agreed to a recording deal, on the punk psychobilly indie Split Seven, for a compilation track and an EP, with Helmet/G. Love affiliate T-Ray set to produce. And, of course, there're dozens of fast-approaching club dates. They wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's such a wonderful feeling of friendship, and I feel like for the first time in my life I'm completing something worth working for, because the music is so good and we have so much fun," Nicolette says. "It's not like high school or the dumb jobs I've had. What's worth working for is art and music. When I paint and when I sing with Go Betty Go, I know what makes me happy.
"People always say, 'Oh, when you make it you can do this and when you make it you can do that,' but what is that? We're doing it now, and whatever happens to us from now on, I feel like I've already made it."
Go Betty Go play at the Echo, Monday, March 24, and at the Cobalt Caf�, Wednesday, March 26; see www.gobettygo.com for more dates.
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