View more photos in Timothy Norris' "Killsonic Marching Gang Invades Metro Red Line" slideshow.
On a recent Tuesday night I’m driving toward a huge yellow moon on Folsom Street, under illuminated sneakers dangling from telephone wires in East Los’ City Terrace neighborhood. I’m here for a Killsonic rehearsal — the 24-piece band meets once a week to hone its freewheeling brass-heavy gypsy jazz — but I have been given nothing more than an address and a time. I’m keeping my eyes open for some kind of practice space: a proper studio or a dilapidated warehouse, an oversize garage or gutted back house — anything but the humble two-bedroom that matches the number I was given. I park and walk up the drive. I must have written it down wrong. But no, there it is: Framed by dusty old slats, the front door is clean and painted blood-red, and behind that . it couldn’t be. For a second, I think I can see the little house expand and contract.
Two and a half weeks later, Saturday, January 31, 4:11 p.m., it’s quiet at Universal City’s Metro station. This is a bad thing. We’re at the starting line of Killsonic’s inaugural Red Line tour — to comprise 20-minute sets at four different stops, followed by a grand finale at Union Station — and start time was five minutes ago. About a third of the band is here, including Dorian Wood, an impressive solo artist. Leader Mike Ibarra is not — and those gathered are light on equipment. Dominique “Chief” Rodriguez, one of two drum-section leaders, explains: “There was an altercation. A cop got shot near Mike’s house and they’ve got the whole area locked down. Mike’s got all the drums.” Does he know when Mike will arrive? “No idea.” Plans to carpool from the City Terrace home were quashed (officer Anthony Razo, a family friend of the Ibarras, survived the shooting), and it’s now every man for himself.
Spirits sag. Tension grows. Wood senses this, so he straps on his accordion and begins to sing. The few horns start to breathe; the single drum pulses a bit; taps and clicks come from those without instruments. The man-made cavern becomes part of the sound, then the MTA’s piped-in chimes announcing the next train, and even the rumble of that train’s arrival. The cars pull up and, as if summoned, Ibarra and the gang pour out, adjust their instruments and pick up the tune. The sync is so perfect that a few eyes in the small crowd get bleary — a real-life Disney finish, but in the first act. Wood cues up his bullhorn and releases an unholy scream into the tunnel.
Killsonic is not a marching band. They often move, but they do not march. There are no batons or stupid hats, there is no color guard, no playing or bearing of standards. They are not kitsch. Dressed in their own clothes, they stick to black and red, and don the homemade armbands and insignias created by member (and solo performer) Liz Pappademas. An extremely diverse group living all over this city, half were born and raised around L.A., two are from Eastern Europe, one from Portugal, and one from Mexico. The youngest is 20, the eldest 36. Two-thirds have played music since they were children, and two members only started at 23 (Ibarra is one of them).
To make a living, Killsonic’s members, respectively, teach trumpet, conduct speech-recognition research, cut hair, compose music for Xbox and X-rated films, animate for DreamWorks, repair woodwinds, demolish things, serve coffee, serve dinner at the Brite Spot in Echo Park, install pool tables, operate a camera for Wheel of Fortune, hold art workshops at the Getty, assist an attorney, apply henna, and help run the Southland’s oldest music store, Baxter Northrup in Sherman Oaks. I spoke to each player by phone before the big day, and one summed up her bandmates this way: “They are incredible, talented, brilliant, strange, obscure and deranged individuals.” Aerie Shore, accordionist, should know: She stars in and directs fetish films.
With one station down, the motley group crams into a subway car and pushes onward. The band has captured its momentum, and Ibarra kicks off a small jam in transit. The sound morphs from N’awlins brass to dissonance to oompah music, and the trombones become involved in a careful dance to avoid jamming any ribs or faces. Most passengers look happily awed; only one man stares straight ahead with a stony commitment to seeming unimpressed.
The Hollywood and Highland set is a success, though short: We emerge from the underground to a large audience — and an ecstatic rose-hawker who thrusts a fist into the air when he sees the jumble of bodies bearing down on him — but are sent back by a bored security guard after one song. On the corner of Vermont and Sunset, the collective veers to the weird. Conductor “princessFrank” Luis blows his coach whistle before executing an athletic snare solo, which in turn inspires two rounds of extended call and response: laughter, then weeping. From the smallish, tousled form of Ibarra’s right-hand man Charles DeCastro comes a furious trumpet solo that’d do right by Ornette Coleman.
Each stop adds a couple shutterbugs and a few fans who are in it for the long haul. There’s the college-age blond, accompanied by two friends, who dances the entire time, even through the noisy parts. Two geeky guys are examining their Amoeba purchases on the train when they realize they have stumbled into local music history. There’s a man in a wheelchair who has been along since Universal City; a mother and daughter (the latter about 10) take turns filming the event; and the couple in their early 20s who have wandered into the maelstrom and decided that Killsonic will play their wedding. Still, nothing rivals the response at MacArthur Park.
When we get there, we’re told to cross the street. princessFrank strikes up the band, and as we walk down Alvarado toward Seventh, our numbers grow with nearly every person we pass. We cross the street, and settle into a corner of the park, the transition music becoming a bat-shit and spirited rendition of a cumbia number called “El Cucui.” Like most of the crowds, this one is all ages, but the gathering onlookers are almost uniformly brown-skinned and hard-faced — men in cowboy hats, teens on chopper bikes, women holding portly Chihuahuas — and they are enthralled. An older man has worked his way to the center and starts conducting the band. He waves his hands in the air, fingers fluttering, pushing the horns to an earsplitting fever pitch. He throws his arms down and the music stops. When Killsonic begins again, the man yells, “Maravillosa! Es un milagro!”
Over the phone with me, trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom lauded the group’s “amazing unity of vibe and collective purpose,” but it was trombonist David Dominique who said it best: “We’re able to combine into one bestial instrument. With so many people improvising, we create a heterophony — a cloud of noise.”
Killsonic has its roots at PCC, 1998, in a group started there by princessFrank and Ibarra while they were studying under L.A. jazz legend Bobby Bradford. “We were a straight-ahead Latin-jazz band, and for two years we played on autopilot,” says princessFrank. “With Killsonic, we’d been listening to Coleman, Sun Ra, even Zappa, and we just went for it. We lost almost our entire fan base, but we were happy. When Mike wanted to create a mobile orchestra, it never occurred to me it’d be so easy.”
Until late 2007, Killsonic was a sextet. That November, Ibarra issued an open call for members. DeCastro, who has been with the group since 2005, remembered the selection process: “It was basically: If you own an instrument and you wanna learn how to play it, bring it to rehearsal.” Less than a year later, most of the band was able to fly to New York for a mini tour using money saved in the Killsonic “war chest.” A New Year’s Eve gig in Hollywood paid for a recording session last month (the album is due in spring), and today, there are no fewer than 12 interband offshoot bands. Killsonic’s solo stars frequently contract members for their own performances, a “Killsonic Presents” monthly just launched at Junglerush downtown, and various players now have a residency at the Piano Bar in Hollywood. Nearly everyone I interview uses the word “family,” but truth be told, Killsonic is a union.
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“The very act of putting this thing together is political,” says Ibarra on the eve of the subway tour. “Some of the fines we would have gotten if we didn’t go through official channels for this thing were $2,000 to $7,000 apiece. It’s ridiculous. If you want people to take public transportation in L.A., make things as fun and authentic as possible. We can’t actually do a set inside Union Station — we’d have to rent the space.”
Killsonic plays savagely at Pershing Square, burning down a Bobby Bradford cover and the magnificent Wood-penned “Black Pig,” and just shy of 7 p.m., the entire band and its followers burst into Union Station’s halls like marathon runners crossing the finish line. We run, dance and clap, literally frolicking forward like children. In the main entrance, the band stops and plays anyway, banging out Balkan dub to the impossibly high ceilings, next to a sign that reads “No Trespassing No Loitering No Soliciting.” Someone in the city must be swayed. When an officer does show up, she merely advises us to keep moving, so we do, back to the station’s rear entrance, where Killsonic plays its final songs fanned out across the broad staircase.
There’s nothing like witnessing them for the first time under unexpected circumstances. For me it goes back to that Tuesday night waiting on the quiet side of that blood-red door. When I do knock, the door swings back to confirm my suspicions: crammed into a small living room and tiny dining area are twenty-some smiling faces attached to twenty-odd instruments, hovering above a terrain of empty Tecates and instrument cases. Someone shouts, “Who are you?” but they don’t actually wait for an answer. Instead, Killsonic blows me away.
Killsonic plays Mardi Gras at the Echo with Ollin on Tuesday, February 24, at 8 p.m.; $8, 18-plus.