Glendale Latina pop-punk quartet Go Betty Go’s 18-year run has been marked by enough high drama and dynamic tension for half a dozen bands. Formed by teen sisters Aixa and Nicolette Vilar, they worked a luminous brand of high-impact, bilingual punk rock lent tremendous heft by guitarist Betty Cisneros’ formidably idiosyncratic playing. Within three years, the group had a significant following whom they’d whip into a frenzy every Tuesday night at their long-running, reliably SRO residency at fabled Highland Park bowling alley Mr. T’s.
Vocalist Nicolette’s expressive siren call delivered an intriguingly vulnerable yet defiant tone and the band’s intense, driving accompaniment conjured a biting, ingenuous brand of straight-up punk that never lost its particularly sharp focus. Bassist Michelle Rangel and Aixa’s propulsive drums maintained a frantically solid foundation atop which Cisneros and Nicolette performed dazzling feats of musical derring-do — it was a tight, urgent presentation of momentous appeal and not inconsiderable skill that quickly brought them national recognition.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years,” Aixa says. “If we’d had a baby, it could vote right now. I remember Nicolette and I were jamming at a party on New Year’s Eve 1999, and the next day was the first time we got together with Betty to see if we could play together. It’s been quite a journey.”
The band members were unstudied and unconventional — they’d never heard of forebears Alice Bag or The Zeros — and Betty, who dug hip-hop and metal, would play whatever suited her, breaking out a wah-wah pedal if the mood struck. Go Betty Go’s tales of anger and frustration had a poised grace within their jolting musical framework, and en español numbers like “Son Mis Locuras” expanded an already freewheeling aesthetic palette. It was the dawn of the Latin-alternative breakout and GBG hit at just the right moment.
Inevitably, this occurred amid a tide of sarcastic, gender-fueled skepticism, which was frequently disgusting—from dismissive chatter (“You only like them because they’re hot Latinas,” one colleague sneered) to a couple of downright appalling hatchet jobs that referenced, in one case, Nicolette’s “bouncing breasts.”
“If that's not a blatant chauvinist statement, I don't know what is,” Nicolette says. “We honestly didn't know how to respond at the time because we didn't have a point of reference. People all around us treated us with respect and accepted us as a good, new young band. The only time we ever did feel objectified and pinned down is when [that writer] wrote those articles — it reminds me of all the times we were asked, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in the music business?’”
Go Betty Go worked ceaselessly, sharing bills with Los Lobos and Ozomatli, going the full route on two coast-to-coast Warped Tours, along with bales of positive press that steadily raised their national profile. In 2005, their first full-length album, Nothing Is More, was launched in tandem with a lengthy tour opening for MxPx, but Nicolette abruptly quit, walking away from the very real prospect of full-blown stardom.
“I left because I was frustrated with the relationships in the band,” Nicolette says. “There were a lot of pressures and a lot of people pulling me in different directions and being really negative. My boyfriend was very jealous and would give me shit every time I had to leave — that’s what the first two records were about. I thought I could fix it by leaving the band and going to art school. But I couldn’t.”
It was a stunning moment. “When she left, we were at a crossroads,” Aixa says. “The band was our life, we lived and breathed it. And we thought that was it, she’d never be back.” After bassist Rangel dropped out, Aixa and Betty brought in singer Emily Wynne-Hughes and bassist Phil Buckman and kept on, but it was nigh on futile and eventually lead to a two-year-plus hiatus.
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By then Nicolette was in the midst of a successful career as a graphic artist but, like a moth to the blowtorch, she and Rangel agreed to do a single, just-for-the-hell-of-it show in 2012. Ka-pow — in classic Tufnell/St. Hubbins fashion, they almost immediately reformed, issued the marvelous six-song Reboot EP and have continued performing and occasionally touring ever since.
“Besides being a lot of fun, most importantly, I still feel influenced and inspired to play,” Aixa says. “When the four of us get together, I feel at peace and at home. The crowd’s energy during shows and talking to people afterward, hearing how good we make them feel, keeps me wanting to do it. It’s a very gratifying, and satisfying, feeling."
Nicolette views it all on an almost universal level. “My sound has energy and feeling to it,” she says. “As human beings we all are vibrating with emotions, and my job as an artist is to relive these experiences. If you do it from the heart, people relate to it; even if it’s a darker thing, it turns into something beautiful. All I can do is give myself time to do the work and make the songs better. I really care about art, and I’m not seeing things as mind-blowing as they should be. We need to grow as a species, get closer, be better — we’ve got to keep pushing.”
Go Betty Go plays with Bad Cop/Bad Cop, The Venomous Pinks, Glam Skanks, and Fare Game at the Viper Room on Sunday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m.