The tranquility of a quiet residential neighborhood in the hills above the South Bay has been shattered. The culprit? A band rehearsing raucous songs from the late '70s with blistering guitars and loads of feedback. It's not kids making all this racket; it's middle-aged men. These are The Zeros, San Diego's first—and one of Southern California's most important—punk-rock bands.
In a small rehearsal space in National City with a black El Camino parked in the driveway, The Zeros are hard at work rehearsing for a handful of West Coast dates, including their first SoCal performances in more than a decade. What makes this comeback so extraordinary is that the reunion features all four founding members.
“You gotta have the original members,” says bassist and vocalist Hector Penalosa. “That's the main thing.”Penalosa went to school with drummer Baba Chenelle at Sweetwater High. Javier Escovedo, who also sings and plays guitar, went to Chula Vista High with guitarist Robert Lopez, aka El Vez. Thirty years down the road, everyone except Lopez, who lives in Seattle, is back in San Diego (he's expected to fly in a few days before the show).
To what do they attribute their longevity?
“I look both ways before I cross the street,” Penalosa says.
“I took good care of myself,” Escovedo adds with a sly smile that suggests the opposite.
Even though they're all pushing 50, they've weathered their time well in the punk-rock trenches. Penalosa is sharp and spry, with an impressive recall of dates and places. Escovedo has the demeanor of someone enjoying the calm that follows a storm. Chenelle, like most drummers, just seems happy to be there. They are clearly at ease with one another, and it comes as no surprise when they reveal the ways their extended families are connected—by blood, marriage and music.
Despite their deep San Diego roots, The Zeros aren't technically a San Diego band. Their very first show was at a dance in Rosarito, Mexico, in the summer of 1976—“before cell phones,” Penalosa quips—but local gigs were hard to come by.
“There was nowhere to play,” Chenelle says. “So we had to go up to L.A. That's where the scene was happening. Down here, it was still bar bands playing for three hours. We couldn't get those kinds of shows.”
Like many bands, The Zeros made their mark in Los Angeles. Their L.A. debut—opening for The Weirdos in April of '77—is legendary in punk-rock circles because it featured the debut of the Darby Crash-led Germs.
“The punk-rock scene was perfect because you could do whatever you wanted and be whoever you wanted to be,” Penalosa says. “Music, style, what have you. We liked each other and supported each other's approach.”
Penalosa isn't nostalgic or bitter about the old days, nor does he glorify the role The Zeros played in the story of how punk rock came to California, rare qualities among the old guard of the L.A. scene. Penalosa isn't interested in turf wars, just don't ask him about the Darby Crash film biopic, What We Do is Secret.
“It was completely wrong,” he says. “The movie tries to portray Darby Crash as a Jim Morrison punk-rock messiah. To me, he was a dork. From my experience, he was another follower of a trend.”
If punk rock were a company, its slogan would be “Fun while it lasted.” You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that the brightest lights and hottest fires burn out fast and seldom last. So when the scene sizzled out and hardcore moved in, The Zeros moved on.
It's not uncommon for bands to insist they never broke up, but The Zeros don't go in for that kind of self-mythologizing. Over the years, they've played numerous benefits and shows, including some memorable European festivals. When asked if they've considered recording new material, Escovedo is disarmingly honest.
“I think it's kind of a really hard thing to do at this point,” he says. “We've all gone on to play in different bands and make different records.” Escovedo seems content to savor the moment. “I like it more now than I did before,” he says. “I'd gotten so far away from it. I just did it before. Now I can really hear it. And I like it.”
“I mean, it's ingrained in us for life,” Penalosa adds. “Why reject it?”
Today, things are looking up for The Zeros. When word got out that they'd booked gigs at Gilman Street in Berkeley, requests started coming in from New York, Europe and Australia. And The Zeros first album, Don't Push Me Around, was recently reissued by Bomp! Records—more than 30 years after the label put out The Zeros' first 7-inch.
“I had a box of records, but I kept giving them away,” Penalosa says without a whisper of regret. “You don't think about the future. You just do what you like to do.”The Zeros play at Bar Pink on Thursday, June 25.