Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Born in east L.A.



10pm Wed, April 25
The Cove
10pm Thu, Apr 26
2pm Fri, Apr 27
Market Square
12pm Apr 28
King William Fair
10pm Apr 28
The new EP by Los Angeles collective Ollin opens with the sound of a shifting radio dial. The found-sound conceit, which owes something to the opening of the Ramones’ End of the Century album, tells you a lot about this nine-piece ensemble in a mere 48 seconds.

For one thing, you hear Ollin frontmen, and twin brothers, Scott and Randy Rodarte arguing about what station to play, and both brothers will tell you that they tend to disagree from time to time. You also get a hint of progressive politics, when Randy admonishes his dial-turning brother: “Keep on moving to the left, you’re always on the right side.” Finally, the very notion of a radio unpredictably leaping from one form of music to something radically different is the best way to prepare your senses for Ollin, a band which redefines itself with every song.

Ollin’s San Patricios is a mere musical appetizer (six songs, 19-and-a-half minutes), but it’s an uncommonly filling, multicultural buffet. In a sense, the disc is the culmination of more than 20 years of musical collaboration by the Rodarte brothers, who began playing music in fourth grade (Randy on clarinet, Scott on trumpet), joined forces in East L.A. punk bands (beginning in 1984 with Butt Acne), and worked together in various music-theater projects.

In 1994, in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, the two brothers decided to form a band that would allow them to take their sense of punk rebellion into explorations of Mexican and Chicano folk music. They took the name Ollin from the Aztec word for movement/earthquake.

“After seeing Los Lobos do an acoustic set, it changed the way I thought,” Scott Rodarte says. “So I wanted to learn folk music, specifically Mexican music. At the same time, we’d always end up, in our sets, playing punk rock. So there were these hard turns. It seems like most artists got us but a lot of people couldn’t understand why we would play a ranchera and then go into a punk-rock tune or do a country song. We’ve always been schizophrenic about our style.”

Possibly even more than Los Lobos, the Pogues were an inspiration for Ollin, because, like the Rodarte brothers, they were punk rockers who gravitated toward the folk music of their native culture. As Ollin developed, the Pogues became influential to the Rodarte brothers as much for their sound (torqued-up Irish reels) as their concept.

So it’s fitting that Ollin’s new EP takes its title from a battalion of Irish-American soldiers who, as a matter of principle, abandoned the United States Army to fight for Mexico during the 1847 Mexican-American War. Scott Rodarte says he first heard the story of the San Patricios years ago in a Chicano Studies class, but he didn’t fully absorb its meaning until his band started incorporating traditional Irish elements into its repertoire.

  “The whole idea of the San Patricios was beyond romantic, it was symbolic,” he says. “That’s almost what we’re doing now, just crossing genres. Before, we were happy with being labeled a Chicano band, or a Latin band. But as we grew older, we wanted to be more than that, to happily accept other cultures. The connections `between Mexican and Irish cultures` were obvious in the moods of the music and the soulfulness and the heartache and joy. It’s like a parallel American experience.”

The Rodartes’ love for the Pogues only intensified  after Ollin opened for the Irish legends last year at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. The Pogues were so impressed by Ollin that night that Pogues co-songwriter Spider Stacey called his booking agent and insisted that Ollin open for the Pogues in Los Angeles.

“It’s always hard meeting your heroes, ’cause they always let you down, in one way or another,” Rodarte says. “We’ve done stuff with Lobos, and they’re a little tepid. They weren’t super-hot, to us anyway. But when we got with the Pogues, it was instant. They made us play more, and they got it right away.”

At times, as on the jump-jive anthem “Angel’s Flight” (partly inspired by the movie Chinatown), Ollin takes on the character of a 1940s pachuco swing band, while “San Patricios” is a violin-driven instrumental that feels like a touch of Belfast in the Sinaloa Desert, and “La Loma” is a convincing cumbia dance track.”

“La Loma” tells the story of a Chicano village that the City of Los Angeles callously razed in the 1950s to make room for Dodgers Stadium. The Chavez Ravine story has long fascinated the Rodartes, and it led to them connecting with Vincent Valdez, a talented San Antonio artist who relocated to L.A. in 2006.

Scott Rodarte read an LA Weekly piece about a Chavez Ravine-themed piece that Valdez had created for musician Ry Cooder, and Rodarte immediately decided to get in touch with Valdez. The meeting resulted in Valdez joining Ollin as a trumpet player.

“We didn’t even know he played the fucking trumpet,” Rodarte says. “We finally met him and he had a trumpet there. He’s sort of modest and didn’t say anything. Sure enough, he’s a really great player. He could make a career being a professional musician.”

Valdez designed San Patricios’ elaborate cover (which depicts the members of Ollin as members of the legendary Irish brigade) and his addition to the lineup prompted Rodarte to add a tenor-sax player to complement Valdez’s trumpet, a combination that Rodarte calls “very San Antonio, very West Side.”    

 Rodarte should know, because he and his bandmates spent two months in the Alamo City in 2003, when the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center commissioned Ollin to stage a musical called Beautiful Senõritas. During the band’s stay, they played extensively in SA clubs, an experience they are recreating for this year’s Fiesta, with five local gigs in four days.

Unfortunately, they won’t be able to revisit Taco Land, one of their favorite haunts from 2003. The beloved punk club closed down in 2005 after owner Ram Ayala was shot and killed there.

“It was fun `playing at Taco Land`,” Rodarte recalls, with an audible smile. “We got the vibe right away. We didn’t care about the technical things that weren’t too happening. But Ram was really welcoming to us, if being called ‘a pussy’ is being welcomed.” 

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