When Luis Ho and Julian Montano first met in seventh grade, they didn't like each other.
“We were both the class clowns, so there was obvious tension and disliking,” Ho says.
“Yeah, I wasn’t too fond of this Luis character taking my audience,” Montano jokes. “And by audience I mean like 30 kids in one grade.”
A year later, Ho left their little Catholic K-8 school and the two didn’t cross paths again until they landed at the same high school, St. Francis, during their sophomore year — a drastically different era in the timeline of youth, and a particularly difficult stretch for Montano.
“I never felt too comfortable attending that school, and at the same time I was dealing with a lot on the family side of my life,” says Montano, who doesn't care to go into specifics but describes his younger self as a “brooding” loner. “Which is why Penniback” — the record label he began with Ho at 16 — “was so important for me in the beginning. It was basically a coping thing that distracted me from all the possibilities of depression and anxiety.
“I was really into the idea of being some teen who walked into dark alleyways to see live shows and knowing about something no one else knew about,” he continues, describing a familiar scene for any L.A. fan of underground music: downtown venue the Smell. “But you always need someone to go to such events with you, which is why Luis and I got along almost immediately.”
Both struggled to stay afloat academically, with Montano eventually leaving for another school in his junior year after being put on probation. Despite their scholastic difficulties, at 16 years old, neither could be accused of lacking ambition. “Ever since a young age, I’ve always wanted to go into business for something,” says Montano, a third-generation Mexican-Salvadoran, citing as inspiration his immigrant grandfather, who taught himself to be a leather craftsman and owned a storefront on Olvera Street.
So together, Montano and Ho founded Penniback. While Montano was business-minded in his approach, Ho was simply a huge fan of music, something he attributes to his upbringing. “Latino families are very rhythmic, whether it's from the flow in their words or the way they shred the dance floor,” he says. “Getting into music, for me, came very naturally.”
In the beginning, Penniback was a review blog, acting as the antithesis of sites like Pitchfork, and a platform for promoting their favorite local bands. “I remember, back in our conversations, we were as we are today: tenacious,” Ho says. “We couldn't stop tossing back ideas or things we could accomplish if we wanted to do them. Starting an idea together and working on it made sense.”
In time, Penniback became a way for the two friends to release music from their favorite local bands, such as garage-rock group Baby Fleas (who now play as Wild Wing). “Seeing them live gave me shocks; I wanted to share this feeling with my friends,” says Ho, who booked the group to perform a show at his 17th birthday. “Putting them out as our first band made the most sense.” After learning the basics of starting a label via email exchanges with Burger Records co-founder Sean Bohrman, Penniback booked its first show: a Baby Fleas cassette release party at Burger Records in early 2014. The crowd that showed up filled the store, and Ho and Montano knew they were onto something.
Since then, Penniback have booked countless shows, from stacked lineups (The Garden, Cherry Glazerr, Sloppy Jane and Baby Fleas) drawing hundreds on a weeknight at the Church on York (R.I.P.) to “Penniback Presents” nights at the Teragram Ballroom, a gig Montano secured by being one of the first through the doors when the venue premiered and persuading the owners to give his and Ho’s label a chance. Their first show at the Teragram — with Surf Curse and Lovely Bad Things — sold out and prompted a semi-regular Penniback residency; their latest booking featured Ty Segall and No Parents on a bill with Penniback bands Clit Kat and Kuromi, and was a benefit show for the Smell, where Ho and Montano frequently volunteered in their younger days.
“I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink. I just wanted to listen to music and sweat my ass off in the pit,” Ho says. “That’s what the Smell gave me at 17 — happiness.”
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Today, the Penniback boys have broken into their 20s and have set their sights well beyond their previous successes. They’re currently gearing up for their second annual daylong music festival, Dirty Penni Fest 2, produced in conjunction with Dirty Laundry TV and taking place Sunday, July 2, at the Echo and Echoplex. The lineup is pretty stellar — Deap Vally, The Shrine, Plague Vendor, Mike Watt, Enjoy, Zig Zags and many more — especially considering it was put together by two kids who just a few years ago were still learning the basics of how to run a record label.
Though Ho and Montano have certainly grown as tastemakers in the local music scene, they have little desire to move on from those back-alley shows where they forged their friendship and their business. “I’ve never felt more ‘in my place’ than behind the scenes at a DIY show,” Montano says. “The catalyst, for me, is the thought of being involved in a counterculture, as well as creating a little world for people, and working with artists I love. Being involved in a scene helped me get through so much in high school, and I want to do the same for the next generation of Smell kids.”
Now that boutique behemoths Burger and Lollipop have loosened their grip on the DIY community, Dirty Penni have a fair shot of doing just that. Who knows — maybe someday Montano and Ho will be the ones teaching the next generation to run a label via email.