Join the caravan
Run away to the psychedelic carnival with East L.A.’s Tropa Magica
Brothers David and Rene Pacheco have a history of mashing up odd musical genres. Their first band, Thee Commons, drew equally from the ska and punk scenes of East Los Angeles and cumbia, Colombian folk music heavily influenced by the rhythm and dance of the country’s indigenous people. But now, with their new project, Tropa Magica, they’re diving headlong into a theatrical hybrid of surf, disco and circus music—all while retaining the Latin flavor of their heritage.
Compared with the straightforward punk-based songs of the duo’s early work, Tropa Magica is an exercise in musical maximalism. The change occurred after the brothers witnessed a performance by a fellow L.A.-area band they had long admired, Chicano Batman.
“When we saw them, we were like, ‘Whoa, these guys are like Chicano Led Zeppelin over here,’ because those guys all know their instruments really well,” David said. “We were used to seeing bands in the Burger [Records] scene that didn’t need to know their instruments; you can learn a simple chord progression and fuck around and have a fanbase. When we saw Chicano Batman, it was like, ‘Shit, we’d better get our musical chops down.’”
Tropa Magica dropped a 10-song, self-titled LP in September, and the improved chops are indeed evident. The album is a disorienting mishmash of genres: The brothers jam out smooth disco one minute and break into a traditional half-time shuffle the next. David’s gravelly vocals are consistent throughout, as he sings in a mix of English and Spanish.
Speaking with the CN&R by phone ahead of their upcoming show at Duffy’s Tavern this Saturday (Feb. 2.), David (guitar and vocals) and Rene (drums) explained how all of their musical endeavors have been part of a continuing effort to blend the disparate influences of their childhood.
Their parents immigrated from Mexico to East L.A. in the early 1980s and worked in factories as seamsters. As children, David and Rene were exposed to the music their parents listened to, mostly traditional norteño and banda music. Like typical kids, they rejected what their parents liked in favor of American rock bands such as The Doors, The Strokes and The White Stripes, but they came to appreciate their parents’ tastes eventually.
“When we started our band and got more serious, I finally started paying attention the music our parents had been playing the whole time,” Rene said. “I got to learn different rhythms and beats and revisit songs I knew growing up.”
In 2012, they formed Thee Commons, a trio that performed with a rotating series of bassists. They developed a following and a reputation as a wildly energetic live band, but the brothers eventually got bored with the cumbia-punk sound they had created.
“Cumbia was fun, but it’s very simple in its chord progressions and its rhythmic syncopations, so we wanted to do something different,” David said. “Now, we’re exploring elements of ‘vaudevillian gypsy-punk.’”
Indeed, they’ve taken a carnivalesque turn with Tropa Magica, making great use of diminished seventh chords and off-beat rhythms for a darker, off-kilter sound. (David cites The Doors’ cover of “Alabama Song” as an example of the circus style they’re shooting for.) Adding to Tropa Magica’s variety-show vibe, the band is frequently joined onstage by a rotating cast of guest musicians, jugglers and sword-swallowing clowns.
And the theatrics are a natural part of the art-expanding journey for the Pacheco brothers. “In order to grow and keep creating,” David said, “we needed to push ourselves.”