El otro lado
San Francisco’s La Plebe straddles the border with its brand of mariachi punk
Nestled in San Francisco’s Mission District just beyond the garages of Thee Oh Sees and The Fresh & Onlys is five-piece punk band La Plebe. You could call them ska—a genre that has been effectively shunned over the past decade—but “mariachi punk” would be more accurate. The beauty of this gritty ensemble is that they continue to operate outside of any bubbles. The band’s name—translation: “The People” (as in “the masses”)—sort of says it all.
The members of La Plebe have been at it for 12 years, playing clubs all over the Bay Area, cities and pueblos in Mexico, and even a fair share of shows in the Balkans. They roll out their dusty punk tunes—sung in both Spanish and English—to give voice to the disenfranchised; and I get the impression it’s the type of band that needs to be experienced live in order to be truly appreciated.
“It’s nerve-wracking trying to capture what we do,” says trumpeter Alberto Cuéllar of La Plebe’s recordings. “We write music by all actively participating. It’s more involved. Sometimes we pull it off, sometimes we don’t.”
La Plebe records most of its material live—including the horns (the trombone player is Cuéllar’s older brother, Antonio). Since forming in 2001, La Plebe has released a pair of (now out-of-print) EPs and three full-lengths. The group’s latest Brazo en Brazo is its most fully realized record, one that saw the band working again with Faith No More founding member and bassist Billy Gould, who produced 2007’s ¡Hasta la Muerte! and 2005’s Entre Cerveza, Ritmo y Emoción. La Plebe mixes punk-rock pub anthems like “Been Drinkin’” with more to-the-point political songs like “Guerra Sucia” (“Dirty War”) and “Campesino.” But even when songs get serious, they’re still fun.
Cuéllar says La Plebe’s outspokenness on the social realties of Latinos and even larger global issues has occasionally put the band in an odd political limbo.
“I think if you have an opinion and put it out there, you’re expected to participate in everything. We’ve been in situations where we were expected to punch a cop in the face,” he explains. “And if you’re too political, people distance themselves. You can’t please everyone.”
Cuéllar was raised in Santa Cruz, born just two months after his parents came to the United States from Mexico in 1975. He grew up listening to traditional mariachi and ranchera music, until fourth grade when he discovered—of all things—four guys who wore makeup and sang about partying (“There was this guy in our neighborhood in a lowrider, who listened to all this traditional music. But he loved KISS.”). Cuéllar began playing the trumpet that same year, and started to explore jazz and rocksteady.
Once he entered junior high, Cuéllar put down the trumpet and wouldn’t pick it up again for another decade until he joined La Plebe, the band that has essentially helped shape him the past 12 years. La Plebe spends a good amount of time on the road, playing up and down the West Coast (the band cites Chico as one of its favorite stops), as well as tours of Europe. Still, the majority of La Plebe’s shows are south of the border, a country that embraces the group as much the members embrace Mexico.
For such a worldly crew, the members still call San Francisco home. Cuéllar continues to live in the Mission, and his comrades all live nearby. The neighborhood has become as much a part of La Plebe’s identity as Cuéllar’s and his brother’s Mexican roots. “It’s changing, but it’s still retained its charms,” says Cuéllar. “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”