There's no music industry in San Diego. Well, there is one, but it's not that big, and it doesn't seem to sustain artists for very long. There aren't any major record labels based here. There are no well-connected booking agencies or national media outlets like Pitchfork or Rolling Stone. For many years, there weren't even that many venues to play.
Because of that, musicians often leave the city to pursue their dreams of rock stardom; San Diego suffers from an artistic brain drain. But Aldo Bustos hopes to change that. A member of local bands Northern Tigers and Beaters, he's the founder of Cholo Punks, a budding label that fronts the money to press records for bands with talent big enough for larger markets but no desire to take off for the music industry's greener pastures.
Currently, Bustos has a handful of bands on the roster. He releases only one band's record at a time, and everyone involved has a day job, so it's a slow process. But there are good sounds to be heard. Among the highlights are The Natives, a thrashy punk trio that's been on the scene for years, and The Watusi's, a glitchy power-pop punk project of Bustos' childhood friend, Joey Ugalde, for whom Bustos plays bass. Bustos is also working on a collaborative release with local label Volar Records for his group Northern Tigers, a self-described "punk-wop" band of delightful strangeness. Sam Rivera, who does graphic design for Cholo Punks, sings and plays guitar for the group.
And then there's The Electric Healing Sound, a minimal rock quartet with members from Tijuana that boasts frantic guitar riffs, a stand-up drummer and vocal parts that sound like they were recorded from the cockpit of an Air Force fighter jet. For its second release, Cholo Punks is putting out a new Electric Healing Sound 7-inch with a digital download of their debut album (last year's Tangled Up) to go with it. They'll celebrate the release at The Tower Bar with a show on Friday, June 28, and another one at Moustache Bar in Tijuana on Saturday, June 29.
Bustos sees Cholo Punks as something like the musical version of a gang—they stick together and go out of their way to help each other. The three guys who make up Cholo Punks' leadership—Bustos, Rivera and sound engineer Andrew Montoya—have been making music together since 2004, when Bustos was introduced to the South Bay music scene. At first, they thought of themselves as an artist collective, or just a group of dudes who wanted to skate, make music, play shows and party before they were old enough to drink. They came together amid a shared love of experimental, stripped-down garage-pop-punk, and they've hung tight through a long list of bands.
"We're not in a gang in a strict sense," Bustos says with a chuckle. "It's more like, Let's see who from our circle of friends—since we're all in bands and we all sound good together—who we can pull from to party or put on an event together.'"
The brotherhood took hold when Bustos, Rivera and Montoya started The Sess, a hypnotic but volatile group that, despite breaking up in 2008, is still regarded by many locals as one of the best acts to come out of San Diego. After the split, Montoya went on to form the mutant-punk outfit Ale Mania, bringing Bustos along to play keyboard. (They also played together in Jeremy Rojas' band, Beaters.) Rivera ended up taking some time off from bands but remained tight with the crew (he and Montoya are cousins).
With life taking the guys out of Chula Vista and into families with wives and kids, Bustos says Beaters and Ale Mania ultimately took a break from performing live. But he recognized there was something in the crew worth holding on to. He had some money lying around, so he decided to use it to press his friends' records.
"Aldo just came to me one day, and he said, Hey, I want to put Shiva Trash's record out,' and that's pretty much how it started," Rivera explains, referring to a surf-punk band also on the Cholo Punks roster.
"I want to help [bands] get more attention, boost [them] up," Bustos says. "Because if you are this band that has no material released in the local scene, then you will never be recognized."
Cholo Punks put out its first release in June 2012—Shiva Trash's "Bleach Bath" 7-inch, a three-song selection that sounds like the soundtrack to a drug-fueled getaway scene in a Quentin Tarantino flick. Electric Healing Sound's forthcoming release comes almost a year to the day after the first.
It's a start, and who knows where it'll lead.
"It's nowhere near where I'm going to quit my job and just do Cholo Punks because we're generating that much revenue," Bustos says. "But, hopefully, we can have that happen."
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