Rene Contreras’ die-hard enthusiasm is infectious. As the mastermind behind Southern California’s very DIY festival Viva! Pomona this past July–which he created to celebrate what he calls “the magic of the suburbs” that are often overshadowed by the monstrosity that is Los Angeles–this past weekend he expanded his reach to launch the Viva! El Ley festival. Thanks to a partnership with a boutique and artist management company in LA’s Fashion District, the festival showcased local and touring acts on new turf like Prettiest Eyes, Vaya Futuro, No-Fi, and Slutever.
Contreras is not cutting any corners to bring his vision to life, which is one that builds from the ground up. It’s a sincere take on building community: placing value on local bands that are usually written off as too “emerging” or only considered as a booking afterthought, and rewiring stereotypes for Spanish-speaking bands. Most of all, he’s listening– not only by having an appreciation for what’s up-and-coming, but also by putting faith in bookings that reflect the communities that are coming to his shows, by bringing acts from not so far away across the border.
Contreras took the time to talk to us about the magic of the suburbs, the sanctity of DIY, his first show in the backyard of a Myspace acquaintance’s home, lip-syncing to Gloria Trevi, and how attending Tijuana’s All My Friends festival changed his life.
How did you start getting involved in music? What was your experience like growing up and going to shows?
It all started in high school/middle school. I attended a lot of metal, hardcore, punk shows in backyards and loved the atmosphere the shows created, and somehow I knew I wanted to be involved in building shows.
I was brought up by my parents just like most of us, my mom would always play Alicia Villareal when it was time to clean the house and I hated that. I don’t think my parents know but driving in the car with them listening to Ana Gabriel, Alejandra Guzman, Chayane really sort of sparked my curiosity in music…they were all characters. I remember interpreting Gloria Trevi as a kid pretending to have long hair singing “Pelo Suelto”…
What was it like putting a show together for the first time?
One of the first shows I ever put together was at a house of a girl I met on Myspace. She was a one of those “scene kids” that posted a bulletin saying that she wanted to have a birthday show at her house. I messaged her immediately and asked if I could put together some bands to play the show. I did the show with a lot of local metal/hardcore bands and had a crazy turn out. I remember leaving the show because my friend’s lip got cut, he had to go to the emergency room to get stitches. I told the last band to kick everyone out once they went on, from there I think the cops came or something.
“In my eyes I always thought of downtown Pomona as the coolest place to be and I wanted to prove it.”
How did Viva! Pomona come about? What were your inspirations for creating the festival?
Viva! Pomona started with a group of friends–we wanted to create an experience for people and outline the city of Pomona’s characteristics. Being born and raised in Pomona, we were fortunate enough to have The Glass House and now the Fox Theatre that opened a few years ago. For me those venues were the only ones I could go to, I never had rides to go to the LA venues.
As I grew older and started venturing into neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Echo Park, etc. When I told certain people I was from Pomona, they always wrinkled their nose…as if they were grossed out by it. In my eyes I always thought of downtown Pomona as the coolest place to be and I wanted to prove it. So we started a festival called “Viva! Pomona,” purposely naming it Pomona and using the word “viva” which signifies revolution. We were heavily influence by “Viva! Mexico” and songs by Refused or The Adicts that sang about revolution and incorporated the word “Viva.” We wanted to start a revolution within the suburbs, sticking to our roots and how we grew up.
I read a quote where you said you started Viva! Pomona to “celebrate the beauty found in suburbia.” How does this come into play for you?
I feel like everyone has a story as to how they were brought up as kids. Living in the outsides of LA, going to crappy public schools, dealing with teachers that don’t teach, and seeing some of your childhood friends slowly evolve into cholos can take a toll. Going to the local skate park, avoiding kids that try to offer you drugs/alcohol, seeing the prettiest girl at school go out with the boy that can beat everyone up who happens to be in a crew. All of this sucks and it sucks more when real life kicks in.
[In the same way that] struggles exist everywhere, beauty exists everywhere. The suburbs are full of magic and creative people that understand what it’s like being brought up in places where it’s not necessarily “cool,” or where peoples goals are to buy a 40 oz and get high at the skate park. Ultimately it’s the people that create the characteristics of a place, and I truly believe the people in Pomona (borderline Inland Empire) have magical powers.
“Helping the local community is necessary; without a local community there isn’t a platform, and without a platform there is no show.”
Why did you choose to go the route of booking mostly local/DIY bands to grow the visibility of the festival? Why do you think this model is working so well?
There is a lot of talent out there that goes unnoticed, no matter what part of the world you live in. The word “DIY” is very sacred and should be respected. I like working with bands that understand the struggle and are purely in it to play music, [and] all [of] that reflects through the characteristics that the shows bring. Helping the local community is necessary; without a local community there isn’t a platform, and without a platform there is no show.
What inspired you to make an effort to include bands from Mexico on your rosters?
I get a lot of inspiration from people playing and dealing with music not in the United States. My first experience of that was when I drove some bands out to All My Friends Music Festival in Tijuana. The crowd and organizers in Tijuana were really about the music. Everyone that attended the show was attentive and anxious to hear the next band that was playing.
Being Mexican-American also help; [it was] the first time I was able to connect with people from Mexico my age that understood and loved the magic music creates. It was a life-changing experience for me, seeing the scene in Tijuana start from nothing and [grow into] something was amazing! Living in the USA, we are all so spoiled having all-ages venues and bands that are constantly touring.
Starting a band now is hard enough, now imagine starting a band speaking another language. [Spanish speaking bands] usually become labeled as “Latin bands,” and I want to break that stereotype and just have bands from other parts of Latin America play shows with local or well-known bands in the US. It’s a wall we are slowly breaking here in the USA.
“[Spanish speaking bands] usually become labeled as “Latin bands,” and I want to break that stereotype.”
How do you hope these projects will continue to grow? Any dream bookings or projects?
I just want to be able to create unique environments for people to hear music, while not starving and being a responsible adult in society.
A dream project I have is Music + Noise = Toys, which happened last year for the first time. The original vision was to have independent promoters book shows in other countries with the purpose of raising money and [collecting] food and toys for children. I felt like this was a way for people to give back to their local communities and at the same time build within their local music community. All of these shows would take place within the span of a week, incorporating music and artists from every tiny corner of this world.
I would not want any of these shows be labeled under Viva because that defeats the whole purpose of helping local music communities establish something. This year MEKA/Nicaraguaindie produced a show in Managua, Nicaragua. Camiseta De Fuerza produced a show in Lima, Peru and Viva! produced a show in Pomona, CA. Hopefully this year we can make it bigger and create bridges for promoters and bands while simultaneously helping our communities!