We Dare You to Sit Still During Thee Commons' Punk-Cumbia Shows
Thee Commons: Rene Pacheco, left, Jesus Salas, Jose Rojas and David Pacheco
If Thee Commons aren’t the best live band in Los Angeles, they’re damn near the top.
On a recent fall night, on a big stage downtown, the band’s three members — brothers David and Rene Pacheco on guitar and drums, respectively, and bassist Jose Rojas — pinball all over the stage, jumping, grimacing and grinning. They jackknife on a dime from grungy beatnik punk to groovy cumbia and back again. The audience follows them, too, dancing one minute and shoving one another the next.
Even a detached observer, someone not caught up in the sweaty fray, would find the whole thing amusing, with its air of giddy energy, touched by the carnivalesque. At one point, a dancing gorilla runs onstage; at other shows the band has been joined by burlesque dancers and juggling clowns. David Pacheco, with his theatrical growl, recalls an entire continuum of ’60s Latin garage-rock vocalists as well as Oscar the Grouch, slouching over his guitar, reverb jacked all the way up, surf-rock style. Meantime, Rojas tangos across the stage with his bass and Rene slams his drumsticks, wearing a big grin.
Even without the added theatrics, the band is a thing to behold. Only one night later, those in the right place at the right time would have witnessed the Pachecos rolling up to the little bar in Boyle Heights where a much smaller crowd had gathered to watch La Diabla, a cumbia band from Tijuana. The brothers joined in, jamming until past 2 a.m. — no punk this time, just the beat of the cumbia, CHICH-chich-a-CHICH-chich-a-CHICH, hypnotizing, erasing the crowd's awareness of time.
It was a much more relaxed scene a couple weeks earlier, as the band sat in chairs on the sidewalk outside a little storefront in San Pedro, where they were finishing up mixing their new album. The studio is situated in a residential neighborhood, two blocks from the beach. It’s long past sunset, and the band is about to finish up. They’re drinking beers and smoking cigars. A couple, walking two little dogs, waves hello.
“My goal is to be able to bring different groups together, almost like what like Chuck Berry did with white and black people,” David says, slung back in his chair, cradling a beer. “Crossing those gaps, but with what we’re doing — mixing older and younger Latinos but also older and younger white people, black people, Asian people."
Pacheco is like a stoned professor in his cardigan and ’50s-style spectacles, eloquent but buzzed, almost whispering. Rojas sits in a chair, too; Rene stands, towering over us. (A fourth member of the band, saxophonist Jesus Salas, only joins the band for special gigs, to "freak out the crowd," David says.)
The "Thee” in the band’s name is a nod both to Thee Midniters, the groundbreaking ’60s Chicano rock band from East L.A., Pacheco says, and to ’70s Latino street gangs. Historically, “It’s very pretentious, basically like saying, ‘We’re the shit,'" Pacheco says. The “Commons” part of their name is “an area in which we share a musical palette of sounds. It could be the chicha, it could be the punk."
“Chicha” refers to a Peruvian style of psychedelic cumbia, popular in Lima in the ’70s and only recently discovered Stateside thanks to two compilations, The Roots of Chicha Vols. 1 and 2, that found an audience a few years ago. It was particularly popular in L.A.’s Eastside. “We started transitioning the sound of the band when we heard that album,” says David, who formed the band with his brother Rene in 2012.
With the chicha, the band mixes in the sound of obscure ’60s Latin psych bands like Peru’s Los Saicos, whose “Demolición" the band often covers alongside Selena, Nirvana and chicha band Juaneco y Su Combo.
The Pachecos originally hail from East L.A. and came up playing at DIY spaces and art galleries. “Our parents would always tell us, 'Play rancheras, play paisa music, you could make money that way,’” David recalls. (Rojas, for his part, does actually play bass in a norteño band.)
Instead, the pair fell under the influence of renegade bands like the Kumbia Queers — the Argentine cumbia-metal band — who gave them the confidence to pursue their mix of loud rock and chicha. Between 2012 and 2014 they released eight EPs, became a part of the de facto "alt-Latin" scene revolving around small venues like La Cita and M Bar, and crashed bigger gigs around the city guerrilla-style, hooking up a generator to a car battery and playing outside between other bands’ sets. Their 2014 generator set outside Echo Park Rising is the stuff of legend.
By the beginning of 2016, they’d developed a reputation as one of the most exciting live bands in the city, which they credit in part to their new affiliation with Burger Records and the assistance of Liz Garo, the main talent buyer at the Echo and Echoplex, who also books Echo Park Rising.
Loteria Tribal, their debut full-length, came out in early 2016 on Burger and is a concise summary of their sound. It doesn’t quite do justice to their live shows, but it does show the band coming into their own as songwriters, particularly on the genre-shifting "Chico Che" and the spooky "Wampiro."
But with eight EPs and an album of “psychedelic cumbia punk” under their belts, there's also a feeling it may be time to take some new risks. They contemplate this as they sit out in front of the studio in San Pedro, while their forthcoming album is being mixed inside.
“What we started realizing,” David says of the band’s newest music, "is that the sound we’re doing is meshing into [different sounds] — maybe it’s more like reggaeton. It’s still cumbia but it has more of a swing to it."
“It gets very silly, and then very technical,” Rene adds. “I’m excited to see how people react to it."
Some of the new songs have been gig-tested already, once during a quick jaunt to a college show in Arcata and another time at an opening for Rene's art in Boyle Heights. "I was nervous about that,” David says. “But the fans who are [telling us] this is who you are, this is who you should be — they’re gonna get it."
Thee Commons wrap up their winter tour with a show at the Wayfarer in Costa Mesa on Friday, Dec. 23.
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