Venancio Bermudez, lead singer of East L.A. garage-rock four-piece The Tracks, recently did something that he never expected to do in his life. The band – Bermudez on guitar and lead vocals, Felipe Contreras on bass, Jimmy Conde on drums, and Jesiel Higuera on guitar – were offered the chance to play a group of country musicians for an upcoming episode of a major television show. A natural performer, he found he liked taking on the tropes of a country front man: the hat and boots, the cowboy croon.
His ease onstage offers an interesting contrast to his character in person. When I meet him at Echo Park Records he is looking the part of a heart-throb from another time: dressed to the nines, sporting a dramatically gelled rockabilly (or maybe razabilly?) pompadour framing kind, slightly sad eyes and a wounded smile. “I’m not so good at talking to people,” he tells me. “I can be kind of awkward.” Maybe he felt comfortable in the role because there’s something about country music that he identified with. After all, country music is rooted in the blues, and Bermudez has had a life so tough that the saddest George Jones song sounds like a commercial for a Disney cruise in comparison.
Bermudez lives in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood that is currently battling the forces of gentrification as it strives to preserve its working-class Latino character. Bermudez’s story plays out like a concentrated version of the broader struggles faced by his Boyle Heights community. Gangs, substance abuse, poverty, labor exploitation – it’s all there. His parents met in Mariachi Plaza where they both sang, but they lost track of each other after an immigration raid. A few months went by before they met again, and when they did they settled down together and had a baby. Things were tough. His father struggled to support the family and the pressure drove him to drink, and that pressure was heavily compounded when a sister that Bermudez never met overdosed after swallowing crack cocaine during a police raid in the ’80s. His father fell apart. The alcoholism got worse and he became abusive, which led to a seven-year prison sentence after he almost killed Bermudez’s mother.
When his father got out of prison he was ready to make a new start for the family, and things were better for a bit. But then came a one-two punch when Bermudez was in high school: the recession hit, and his father passed away from cancer. Without his income, Bermudez and his mother struggled to keep the house. They had to rent out the rooms, and Bermudez worked brutal hours under exploitative conditions at a tortilla factory to help his mother out with the mortgage. “I never slept,” Bermudez tells me about that time. “I’d work sixteen hours, 11PM to 4PM the next day, and when I got home I’d try to sleep but the people who were renting the house were always drunk and making noise, so I couldn’t rest.” Things were at their bleakest when Bermudez was kicked out of his house and was forced to take shelter in a chicken coop near a cemetery.
Holding all of that together was the music.
The Tracks got their start as a group of high-school friends playing for the hell of it, wherever they could. “I carried my guitar around at school, and Felipe carried his bass around, so I talked to him about getting something going. I met Jimmy because I started hanging out with the skaters in this one area of the school where we would eat lunch and just fuck shit up, clown people, you know,” he says, smiling in recollection. “We got to talking and he wanted to play percussion, even though he hadn’t played before. But he had the hunger for it – he wanted to bang some drums.” Bermudez’s father, coming from a musical background, let them practice at all hours in their garage. “It didn’t bother him, as long as there wasn’t any feedback. But it pissed the neighbors off,” Bermudez says, laughing. “The lady next door hated us – she’d throw lemons at our window while we were practicing.”
Things started to come together. They played backyards, developed a bit of a following, found a manager. They rented a studio in Vernon where the smell from a pig processing plant keeps space cheap, released a song that got some coverage. They got a gig playing musicians on TV, poured the money into finishing the album. It’s coming out this fall. The Tracks are gaining steam, with snowballing attention that’s spilling over from their home community into the wider L.A. scene. Their first single, “Go Out Tonight,” is a defenseless embrace of music’s power to create a sense of power, a pure release of emotion from someone for whom that release is a requisite to live. Picture Morrisey fronting for The Clash, with a bit of razabilly flair and some of The Killers’ penchant for anthemic crescendo and you’ll get an idea. Bermudez sings with the unembarrassed bravado of those with nothing to lose.
When he was young, clinging to music as an escape from all “the shit,” as he calls it, the world of The Doors and Michael Jackson and The Beach Boys seemed as far away as a distant star, even if it was just across the city. Now The Tracks are on the threshold. And they’re ready.
Written by Sid Feddema
Photography by Alexis Rivera