Throughout the '90s, nobody knew much of anything about Inglewood five-piece Despise You, who helped pioneer a breakneck style of hardcore punk called powerviolence. Rumor had it they were cholo gangbangers hiding out from the law. "Everyone was asking, 'Who are these guys? Why don't they ever tour?' " says Tony Foresta, frontman for influential Richmond, Va., thrash band Municipal Waste.
Despise You's record sleeves had pseudonyms for members, while album art featured photographs of gangsters and kids shooting up and sniffing glue. Lyrics concerned working-class Chicano life in Los Angeles, with asides about suicide, PCP abuse and police brutality.
Despite the air of mystery, fans coalesced around the group, snapping up copies of works like their now-classic 1996 EP split with L.A. powerviolence band Stapled Shut. The record harkens back to the earliest days of hardcore, with ultraheavy, stripped-down riffs and a raw, live-in-the-studio sound. Despise You's 1999 career retrospective, West Side Horizons, meanwhile, has sold more than 10,000 copies.
The band finally revealed themselves at a metal showcase five years ago, and the story behind why they'd never played live emerged. It was less strange than rumored: Turns out frontman Chris Elder had a bit of stage fright. The group's singer and driving force, he'd never been in a band before, and wasn't sure he could pull their songs off in concert. "Going through the motions is total bullshit," Elder says, in his intense way. "Your audience doesn't care that you've been in a van for 14 hours."
His own story came to light as well. Though the various incarnations of the group have been dominated by Chicanos, 40-year-old Inglewood native Elder comes from Blackfoot Indian and Irish stock, the son of a construction worker. His music is informed by his tough upbringing. He once left a friend's house to find a dead prostitute in the walkway, and watched a woman climb to an elementary school roof and jump. "It's all my fault / I seen her killed," he sang on Despise You track "My West Side Horizon." "We saw her jump when I was 9."
"Just the fucking sound when she hit the ground," he recalls now, speaking from his well-kept Inglewood bungalow, while a hockey game plays in the background. A focused, soft-spoken man with close-cropped hair, Elder works as a warehouse manager and sports a daily uniform of khaki Dickies shorts, a crisp white T-shirt and Jack Purcell sneakers.
Though no Despise You members come from a gangbanging background, a Vietnamese gang murdered band guitarist Phil Vera's close friend in high school, he says, and they rehearsed on Eagle Rock's Avenue 43, home to the Avenues, a Latino gang with a violent reputation. While recording the split EP with Stapled Shut, a group member — Elder won't say which — pointed a gun at the recording engineer, only half-jokingly warning him to make sure he sounded good. The engineer defused the situation; the mix remained the same.
The band came together after Elder and longtime friend Vera hosted a metal show on Loyola Marymount's KXLU in the early '90s. Despise You's members came largely from folks who'd performed on the program, including drummer Rob Alaniz, guitarist Jerry Flores and bassist Frankie Knucks. Elder, a big X fan, recruited 16-year-old high school student and former City of Commerce beauty pageant winner Lulu Hernandez as a second vocalist. (She was replaced by Cynthia Nishi; Elder says Hernandez's whereabouts are unknown.)
The powerviolence scene was embryonic when Despise You formed in 1994, composed of scattered bands up and down the California coast and popularized by underground zines like Maximumrocknroll. Alternating between blazing fast blast beats and sludgy, slow-as-molasses mosh breakdowns, the songs are louder, angrier and more hardcore than hardcore. At a time when tempos were slowing and lyrics were focused on posturing and confessionals, powerviolence cut through the bullshit.
Despise You added particularly aggressive riffs and metal highlights on early EPs like 1995's split with Virginia-based powerviolence band Suppression, and 1996's PCP Scapegoat. Thematically, the focus was on depression and self-loathing. "A perfect soundtrack for hating life," Vera says.
With lyrics like "I regret everything I've ever fuckin' done" and "He was shot in the face / I wish it was me," Elder expressed deep sadness in plain, straightforward language. It was therapy, and not just for him: He continues to get emails from suicidal fans, who say his music has helped them.
The group's bassist, Chris Dodge, calls them the punk version of N.W.A. Both sprang from gang-infested cities on L.A.'s periphery during the crack era, and reference the isolation and oppression of young people of color. But where N.W.A succumbed to infighting and tragedy, Despise You are bigger than ever these days.
In the late '90s, when powerviolence fell out of fashion for a time, Despise You stopped making music. But after drummer Alaniz made them a MySpace page in 2006, their fan base began to crawl back.
This increased attention finally convinced Elder to put his anxieties aside and green-light Despise You's first live performance, at a 2007 metal showcase at the Knitting Factory. The crowd's reaction was enthusiastic, but, Elder admits, he still gets nervous before he plays. "If you don't have the butterflies before a show, that means it's some pretty routine shit. Fuck that."
Powerviolence, meanwhile, has re-emerged with a vengeance. Although it's still not nearly as big as mainstream punk, bands from Colombia to Japan specialize in the strain. Despise You shows usually draw a few hundred enthusiastic, hard-moshing fans, and a European tour is in the works.
Lyrically, Elder's focus has shifted. Sure, he's still pissed off, but as the father of a 12-year-old girl, he's now more concerned with issues like health care, education and municipal corruption.
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He notes that "3-26-00" — a track about the birth of his daughter — was "the first positive song we ever wrote." In fact, last year she attended her first powerviolence show, at California Discord Fest. Unfortunately, LAPD shut it down over permit concerns before his band could play. Elder remains unsure if the powerviolence scene is the right environment for her, but he hopes she'll at least pick up on its DIY aesthetic. "People just like her are starting bands and putting out records," he says. "You don't need a ton of money. And you can apply DIY to just about anything."
It seems that after reigning as mysterious underground legends for years, Despise You are finally getting their due. This is evidenced by the emergence of a new generation of followers.
"They request songs we don't even remember," Vera says. "I tell them to hum the first riff and maybe we can play it."
Despise You performs Friday, April 6, at Self Help Graphics.