Ely Guerra

Ely Guerra

There’s a revolution going on in Mexico almost as profound as the PRI losing the Presidency to Vicente Fox. As rock en español has gained ascendancy with Mexican youth, more traditional music such as bolero, tejano, and mariachi have been pushed to the side. Women are also eschewing their usual T&A roles in the Mexican musical scene, demanding to be taken seriously as artists. Along with such women as Alejandra Guzman, Cecilia Toussaint, Eugenia Leon, and Magos Herrera, singer/songwriter Ely Guerra (who once shaved her head in order to have focus shift from her looks to her music) is blazing a new path for female artists. Her Lotofire was recently released in the States to critical acclaim and is increasing her exposure both at home and abroad. I recently had an opportunity to talk to Guerra about her musical roots, her music, and shaving her hair down to the roots.

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Was music a big influence for you growing up?

Yes. Music was the first thing I discovered where I could speak out. It was my way of being able to explain myself.

You’ve said before that you aren’t “fanatical” about music. Why is that?

I’m always scared about music. The record stores are so overwhelming; they’re so big, with so many options. So I love it, but I don’t buy very much of it. My mother’s a model, and my father’s a soccer player, so as a child, we didn’t listen to a lot of music–only Brazilian music, which is very nostalgic and has a melancholy that goes straight to your heart. So, that’s how I see music. I view it more as a learning experience.

What made you want to become a musician?

As a child, I couldn’t really talk to my mother and father. So, at 9, I learned how to play guitar, and, at 10, I started writing my own songs. There were things I needed to say, and I could only say them through music. That’s why lyrics are most important to me. I feel very compromised in my songs, saying things about myself, my inner self, I wouldn’t otherwise say.

Once you shaved your head because you were tired of male critics talking about your sex appeal. Do you feel that your appearance is a hindrance as an artist?

Well, it was very hard for me to shave off my hair because I had very long hair. But I was tired with the way they would talk to me about my image, my look. It was a little bit frustrating. I wanted people to see that I wasn’t only a pretty woman. I don’t even think I’m pretty. My mother and my sisters are very beautiful, and I used to say, “Well, you’re very beautiful, but I play guitar and have a little bit of a personality.”

But after I shaved my head, people started seeing me in a different way. I started seeing myself in a different way. I wanted to share my songs, not my body. It helped me feel comfortable with the idea of being naked, and I became more secure–and more beautiful. Now, in Mexico, those critics finally talk about my music, not my looks.

Is there tremendous pressure for female singers to be “sexy” in Mexico?

No, not now. It’s been changing. People are looking for real people. Ten years ago, women always needed to be sexy. Now it’s more open to the ideas I express in my music. They feel empathy with it. I think they like it that I’m a real person and not perfect, a real musician.

Before you were performing more folksy rock. What made you change directions for Lotofire?

Well, I’ve been growing with the music. It makes me feel happy to hear the differences between the three albums–that I’m writing new songs and that they’re going someplace totally different. I was 20 when I completed my first album. Now, I’m 30, and I’m growing and experiencing different things. Each album records different moments in my life. I wouldn’t say I’ve changed directions, though. I’m developing my own style. I enjoy growing, and I still enjoy every record I’ve made.

What does “Lotofire” mean?

It’s the lotus flower and fire. The flower symbolizes how much I’m growing, and the fire’s for the transformation from one state into another. Both really explain what I was going through while recording the album. I spent about six months in New York with [producer] Andres Levin. He was a big teacher for me, and I really grew around him and his people while I was there. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the work. “Lotofire” really explains the moment we were living during the whole project.

How did your Mexican label treat the album?

They were frustrated with me and didn’t really understand it. They thought they were going to get a “pretty” record, something very commercial. They never came up to New York to hear what we were doing. They felt betrayed and didn’t want to do anything with it. It was a pretty hard moment in my career.

How did your fans respond to the change in your music?

They were great. People are very happy with it. It’s actually still growing. Thanks to them, the album still goes on.

How did it get picked up here in the States?

First, we played in Austin, TX, at the SxSW Festival with over 600 bands from around the world. It was pretty intense, but everybody was very happy with the music and shared a lot of good will. Then, about one and a half years ago, we played in New York, and the press, people, and musicians were incredibly supportive of our music. In Mexico, we have to fight to find our place to be and to play. In the U.S. it is much easier.

So, you find American audiences more receptive?

A little bit, yes. If I’m honest, America is so much more open. They want to hear and know about new things more than back home. In Mexico, that doesn’t really happen. They like things to always be the same. It’s very Catholic, and everyone’s educated in the same way. Most of the time, they are closed to new things and prefer the old things they’re used to. You have to really insist that things be more open.

What role does politics play in your music?

Well, my music is very personal, a way to explain myself. Politics is not really the point, but I do write about things that bother me. Like with the women in Juarez, they’ve been being killed for the past 10 years. I felt that I had to speak out. That may be political, but I don’t think of it in that way. It’s something that bothers me, something that emotionally hits me.

Well, there’s [your song] “Yo No.”

I was thinking about indigenous people, the Tupara Humara. They’re so beautiful, so strong. They have something we don’t have in cities. But their values are our roots. The Chiapanecos [people of Chiapas], they have the eyes of the world. But they’re not the only ones. A lot of communities need attention. “Yo No” was a way for me to say that I’m uncomfortable that Chiapas is the only community people are paying attention to. In that song, I tried to imagine myself as a Tupara Humara, and I said I don’t want anybody around, interfering. Because the government isn’t there to help them. They’re totally against them.

Do you feel that your work is making it easier for Mexican women in the music industry who are different from the norm?

Claro. Yes. I have had a lot of hard, uncommon experiences in the industry. But this might help other women who are trying to do different things. When I play different states in Mexico, women are very enthusiastic. They give me their CDs and are working to get their own contracts. I hope that what I’m doing makes it easier for them.


BYO Records

Before Indie Distributors, Before the Internet, Before Green Day

BYO Records

Celebrates 20 Years as a Punk Rock Label

The bright yellow walls — painted with that sponge/marble effect — that enclose the Better Youth Organization Records headquarters probably aren’t what the Stern Brothers envisioned when they launched their label back in 1982. Then, Mark Stern never imagined painting the walls of his own office — one that didn’t also double as his own home. And he certainly didn’t think that when he had a daughter, she’d be able to tell her friends that her dad runs a record label. Granted, at one and a half years old, Madison Stern and her friends don’t discuss their fathers’ occupations, but after 20 years on board, there’s no reason to believe he still won’t be the co-captain of the S.S. BYO along with his brother Shawn when the time comes.

Shawn Stern doesn’t have kids, but he is developing some gray hairs. The Stern Brothers started BYO partly as a vehicle for releasing Youth Brigade’s records, the band they started along with their brother Adam, who doesn’t help run BYO, but has been known to do some graphic design for them. BYO wasn’t the only independent label around back then in L.A., but as SST, Slash, and Poshboy fell by the wayside, it is one of the few that has survived. Plus it is still going strong even as the onslaught of bands, trust fund babies, and ‘zine publishing-ink slinging-skateboarding-Web designing grandmas run labels that barrage the Internet and the used CD bins with their wares and merch.

Youth Brigade formed in 1980, and has more or less been a staple of the SoCal punk scene ever since. At 41, Shawn is fully aware of the quips made about the band’s name, riffing off some like “Old Brigade,” “Over the Hill Brigade,” and my favorite, “Geriatric Brigade.” But when you take into consideration that BYO’s first release, Someone Got Their Head Kicked In, featured other luminaries like Social Distortion, 7 Seconds, and Bad Religion, they are grateful for at least having a full heads of hair — unlike one band that could be dubbed Bald Religion. But what’s in a name? Even back when Youth Brigade released their classic first album, Sound & Fury, to quote one of their liner notes:

The general philosophy of the band is that ‘youth’ is an attitude, not an age, and that every generation has the responsibility to change what they feel is wrong in the world, but it seems that many people either forget or grow weary of this responsibility as they get older in years and so they feel it is really important that every new generation realize this responsibility and act upon it.

The Sterns have found something they like, they do it well, and it keeps them young. They haven’t just pioneered the DIY punk label and all-around SoCal punk sound; they have long been at the forefront of emerging underground styles. Hell, their band was initially called The Swing Skins Brigade, a full decade and a half before Jon Favreau’s Swingers had all the Money Daddies and the Pretty Babies learning the Lindy Hop. Their juxtaposition of swing and punk prior to Youth Brigade’s Oi-punk debut paved the way for Royal Crown Revue, which in turn opened the gates for Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the like, all the way down to the last band to play to an empty Derby as the swing revival’s rigor mortis set in in the late nineties.

Then, while the zoot suit scene started taking mambo and salsa lessons, Mark and Shawn were sitting on a stack of their Sociedad=Suiciedad compilations. Released a couple years previously, it features bands like Aztlan Underground and Quinto Sol, who really got people ready for the “Latin explosion” (as if Ricky Martin or any of his Menudo amigos were to blame/take credit). The comp featured Ozomatli’s “Como Vez” before it was released on their self-titled debut, back when they were grooving to a packed house at the Dragonfly club.

BYO’s projects go beyond releasing groundbreaking punk, swing, and “rockin’ Espanol” compilations. Their catalog includes quintessential LPs like 7 Seconds’ Walk Together, Rock Together, which has sold well over 100,000 copies and counting. Over the years they’ve put out great albums by roots ska band Hepcat, Bouncing Souls’ classic first full-length, The Good, The Bad, and the Argyle, and most recently, Manic Hispanic’s The Recline of Mexican Civilization, which sounds like Suicidal Tendencies fronted by “Weird Al” Yankovic at Punk Rock Karaoke. In 1999, the label set forth to release an ambitious split series pairing bands that have influenced or complimented one another. Like a digital Reese’s peanut butter cup, the CDs feature “two great bands together on one classic record.”

The first split in the series featured Gainesville, Florida’s Hot Water Music and the English band they emulated, Leatherface, which contributed their first new recordings in over six years to this project. Volume II united the Brigade themselves with their Bay Area pals and punk-Irish folk friends, The Swingin’ Utters. Going back to this album would prepare all Utters fans for Johnny Bonnel’s (lead vocals) and Darius Koski’s (guitar, vocals) spin-off/side project The Filthy Thieving Bastards, which serves as an outlet for their more folksy, Celtic compositions. Therefore it is no surprise that BYO recently released FTB’s A Melody of Retreads and Broken Quills. Not only did the marriage of Irish folk and more popular styles of music not start with Pogues, this album shows it didn’t end with them, either. Among the Guinness-guzzling groups such as Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, down to The Real McKenzies, fans of these bands should all enjoy FTB’s tunes, which go just as well with a steaming cup of Irish Breakfast tea.

A twentieth anniversary seems like a fitting time to put out a record that is sure to sell like rubbers in a Nevada brothel town’s mini-mart. It is the third volume in the split series, but before we get to it, let’s wave our hands in front of our faces as we flash back to the zygote stage of BYO Records. 1982. No independent distributors, no World Wide Web, no compact discs, and no Green Day videos on MTV (Martha Quinn hadn’t even been a veejay for a full year at that point) to make punk rock popular with the kiddies. Back then, distro was handled by loading up the car with the vinyl records and driving to places like Poobah’s in Pasadena or Middle Earth in Downey to try and convince them to stock the albums or take them on consignment. Flyers were still the primary source of finding out about Youth Brigade or Adolescents shows. At least back in the day, there were far, far fewer bands trying to make it on the scene.

When asked how long it took them to realize that BYO was off the ground and running, Mark replied “19 years.” Over that time, and during the changing landscape of the punk/independent music scene, BYO truly remains a powerhouse among labels. So who joins the roster? Mark explains that “It’s gotta be a band we like and a band we think we can help. We can’t help bands that do this part time. And we can’t help bands that are coming out of the garage and think that they’re gonna be rock stars if we put their record out and they wanna sit around and wait on their ass until the limo comes and picks them up.”

After all, bands like Blink 182 are playing arenas. Their weak-ass, replica protégés, Fenix, TX, open for them, and the dream of fame and fortune being in a punk band is sprinkled in the Pixie dust piling up on garage floors across America. It’s a fact the Sterns could not have fathomed when they launched their label, but it is something they have learned to live with. Mark sees the formation of Fugazi and reformation of Bad Religion as the turning point, the catalyst, for reviving the dormant punk rock scene in 1987 and clearing the way for bands like The Pixies, then Jane’s Addiction, then Nirvana to make the radio and clubs safe from the hair rock bands. “And that all culminated in ’94 when Green Day and The Offspring got big, huge, popular. That made the whole second coming of the punk rock scene, and then (the popularity of) Rancid and NOFX a couple years later.”

Now back to Volume III. Due out March 5, BYO’s 79th release features six songs by Rancid and NOFX, each. Both bands are Epitaph recording artists — the two biggest — so this will be an instant classic as well as a goldmine. It’s a no-brainer yet a brilliant idea, and from there, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong made the light bulb glow even brighter. He suggested the bands cover each other’s songs, and we’ll all have to wait until next month to find out which songs from their respective songbooks they chose. With a little prying, Mark gave up a little teaser with the two obscure covers. NOFX does “Girl With a Heart of Gold” (en Espanol as “Corazon de Oro”) and Rancid dug out a tune from S&M Airlines, doing “Vanilla Sex.”

Smiles light up both Mark’s and Shawn’s faces as Shawn perishes anyone’s fears that this will be a hard to find album. “We’ll press as many as people want… We’re ready for it, we got five new shelves.” Their own offices AND new shelves? These guys are having fun.

The Stern brothers both agree that working with great bands, bands that play the kind of music they like to listen to, as well as having the opportunity to travel the world (and surf the seven seas) is what keeps them in the game. Being involved with BYO is not just a job, it’s being a part of a community. In fact, in defiance of the music industry schmooze-fest, SXSW, they created the annual DIY Bowling tournament, which they hold in Vegas, because bands already signed to indie labels don’t need a place to showcase for free. “The bottom line is,” as Mark says, regarding the bands as well as the people who run the labels, “what do you want to do? Let’s just go bowl and drink and gamble.”

Creating BYO wasn’t so much a gamble or even a career choice. “We weren’t thinking. We just did it,” says Shawn. When asked if they thought they’d still be here 20 years later, he immediately replied “Hell no.” So where will the Better Youth Organization be in 2022? Will they just buy themselves some gold watches and retire as loyal company men? Mark half jokes/half predicts that his daughter will be running the label. But in earnest they cannot say, because there never really was a game plan, nor has one developed.

“I don’t know that it’s ever something that you plan,” Shawn ponders. “I think things you plan is when you say ‘I’m going to go to college, then get a degree and become a doctor.’ You don’t plan to join a band then run a record label and make that your life. That just happens… When people interviewed us back when we started this, we were saying stuff like ‘We won’t be doing this when we’re 30.'”

BYO Records: