Local eight-man ska band Viernes 13 started out playing backyard shows in Whittier and South Gate in the mid-90s. It makes sense, since those were the days when Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones ruled the airwaves. But as ska faded from top 40 radio, its popularity only kept growing in L.A.
“In the backyard South Gate scene, there weren't a lot of bands playing what we were playing,” recalls guitarist and founding member Mario Luna.
It was mostly metal and punk, adds front man Juan “J.P.” Pulido. “When we'd go on stage with horns, people were like, 'What the fuck?'”
You'd never know it now. In East L.A. and South L.A., “There's like 13 ska bands on each block!” trombone player Ruben Durazo estimates, only slightly exaggerating.
Viernes 13 is a big reason for ska's perseverance, though they're too humble to say so. At their cozy Monterey Park rehearsal space, the guys scoffed at that suggestion.
“I guess we're pretty well-known –” drummer Mikey Ornelas starts to say, before Pulido cuts him off. “I can't even go to the store without getting recognized!” They all crack up, filling the tiny room.
Viernes 13 has practiced together here for years, meeting in the evenings after the guys finish up at their day jobs. Tours and shows sustain the band and have allowed them to record three albums and a collaborative record, but they aren't getting rich.
As for their influences, the guys disagree. When keyboardist Francis “Bubba” Sanchez, Jr. mentions Reel Big Fish, the others pounce.
“I didn't listen to that shit,” says Pulido.
“For me, it was all stuff from Mexico,” says Luna.
Durazo suggests that it was their parents' American-influenced Latin music — the oldies of that generation — that was more important.
Despite their name — Viernes 13 translates to “Friday the 13” — Luna says they've been lucky to open for bands across the genre spectrum, from heavy metal to punk, reggae and rockabilly.
“This band has a lot of heart, and over everything that's what you need,” says bass player Jesse Castro. The sentiment gets a big laugh from the rest of the guys, who chide his sincerity.
But then they launch into “Lágrimas de Agave,” one of their popular hits, and it's obvious that they agree with him, whether they admit it or not. The song is big, loud and fun, with sweet and heartfelt lyrics.
“Blue tears fall from my eyes,” the chorus goes, translated. Pulido wails: “Now that I've lost you, I want you close to me.”
Viernes 13 plays tomorrow, Feb. 25 at Self Help Graphics & Art in Boyle Heights, 1300 E. 1st Street. All ages.