EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Union 13, East L.A. punkers

Robert Grana Photo

LOS ANGELES, January 18, 2014 — East Los Angeles is a hot bed for punk rock. It is from this area that the band Union 13 came to be in 1992. Five years after their formation, Epitaph records signed the band and immediately started releasing records. Now 20 years later and after numerous lineup changes, Union 13 is going strong. In April 2013, Wells On Music sat down with Balti Rodriguez and Edward Escoto of Union 13 to discuss the band’s start, lineup changes, and future.

Kevin Wells: What does the name Union 13 mean? Where does it come from?

Edward Escoto: It means friendship, unity, you know? That’s how we came up with the name. Me, Jerry [Navarro] and Louie [Villareal] grew up in East L.A. We went to the same high school. And same with Ben [Sandoval], our old guitar player, or actually our original guitar player. So we were just sitting one day and we said, “What name should we pick?” We just said, “Union” because of the friendship, unity, all of us together. The “13” came after and the reason why was legal reasons. There was another band in Florida that had the same name. We had been playing with the same name for four years already and we had already established a fan base and we were already getting signed to Epitaph. So it was hard for us to part with the name. So we decided to put a number. We talked to Brett [Gurewitz] and the legal department [at Epitaph] and they said, yeah you can add something after the “Union.” So we said, why not Union 13? Cause that’s a number everyone associates with, either bad luck, good luck or just some mysterious number. We just decided to say, “Union 13.”

Balti Rodriguez: And I think the “13” eventually started identifying the fact that we were Latino kids.

Edward: Yeah, actually it identifies with both, you know, because a lot of greasers use that, a lot of people use the “13.” It means something to someone.

KW: What bands inspired you to want to start your own band?

Balti: For me, I grew up listening to all the good punk rock bands like Dead Kennedys, Subhumans, all the older stuff, Bad Religion, for sure. I just remember being a kid, at first, it was just the fact that the music was fast and aggressive and that’s the way I was feeling. And then later those bands really started standing out because of their lyrical content.

Edward: For me, it was Bad Religion. I grew up listening to Bad Religion. The first Bad Religion CD that I got was Against the Grain. That was like, it blew my mind. I never heard anything besides that and then I went to see them in concert and it was just amazing, it was just amazing. I was like, maybe 15 or 16 years old, my first Bad Religion concert, it was a killer. Now, you know, I listen to a lot of new stuff too because when you’re a musician, you got to listen to different types of music. You can’t just be centered on one style. So I listen to everything, Social Distortion to AFI to Rage Against the Machine, you know just a lot of different types of music, even hip hop, everything that’s good, you know?

Balti: When I first heard Bad Religion, I got one of the tapes and I remember looking at the logo and being like, “F**k, that’s a strong logo,” you know, a strong image. And then when I started listening to it, I think the first record for me was How Can Hell Be Any Worse? And when I took the bus to school, I had a tape, well, I had a Walkman back in the Walkman days. I made a tape and it was How Can Hell Be Any Worse? on one side and Rage on the other and it got stuck. So those are the two albums I listened for two years going to school.

Edward: Same with me, I had Bad Religion on one side and Dead Kennedys on the other. That was it, you know?

KW: Edward, why did you leave the band?

Edward: Well, I left the band because we were touring too much, you know? When we got signed to Epitaph, they demanded you to tour to promote the new records, right? So, we were touring constantly, like nine months out of the year, 10 months out of the year. I was always on the road and after nine years, you just get burned out. You just don’t want to do it anymore. You see your family a lot less. Plus, you know, I didn’t feel like it was fair for our fans to see. My performance was lacking energy. I thought I was being fake. I just decided I need some time off. The good thing is that Jose [Merado] took charge of the band and started singing and playing guitar. So, that kind of saved Union for a while.

KW: What made you come back?

Edward: The reason I came back, come on, man. If you’re a musician, you miss it. You just can’t stay away from music. Those four years for me, it was trying to get my energy back. After four years it happened and I decided to come back.

KW: How did this version of Union 13 come about?

Edward: I’ve known Balti for more than 10 years. He used to play in a different band called Schizm and we used to play together, you know? After our bass player left, I hit him up. He wasn’t doing anything and I liked his style. He was a really cool guy and I like his energy on stage. And plus, he’s another singer. That’s what I needed. I needed someone to help me do backups. So I asked him to come in the band and he just brings that other type of energy into the stage. Eddie [Carrasco], he was already in the band when I got [back] in the band. Eddie was in the band. So he was already there. And Cassie, it was just by luck the way we got Cassie [Jalilie]. We were actually on tour playing Gilman St. and she was just a fan. She came up to us and we were talking. I don’t know who brought up that we needed a drummer. At the time, the drummer we had was just a filler. And she goes, “I play drums.”

Balti: And we said, “Yeah, right!” And she was like, “No, listen to the recordings.” It wasn’t until, I think a month later we were at band practice and we had a bunch of dates and the guy that was filling for us said, “I can’t. I have to work.”

Edward: Yeah, he had to go to Comic-Con.

Balti: I was like, “I’m tired of this s**t. Who got that girl’s number?” And I called her on the spot.

Edward: She sent us actual video of her playing “Never Connected” and she was dead on, you know?

Balti: She was from The Bay, so I said, “Look, instead of you driving down here and trying out, why don’t you record some songs on Youtube and send ‘em to me?” So the next day, she sent us “Never Connected,” “First Day of Promise,” which will be on the new EP, and I don’t remember what the other one was. It was three songs immediately. So two weeks later, she came down. I sent her a list of songs we normally play. And she came down and knocked out 28 songs.

Edward: We had a show a week later and she played with us. It was just amazing, you know? And that’s the good thing. When you get members that are fans of the band, they bring that level of energy you’re looking for. You just can’t get just anyone to come in or to try and make ‘em like your band, you know? So I think, Balti, Cassie, and Eddie have always been fans of the band. That’s what I like about them, you know? They’re not there just to get something out of the band, they bring something to the band.

KW: Do you still keep in touch with the old members of Union 13?

Edward: Yeah, actually, I do. I talk to every single one of them, except for José because José is doing his own thing and we’ve kind of lost touch. But everyone else I still talk to, we hang out once in a while. Louis now is a born-again Christian. Jerry is a mechanic. He fixes nothing but old cars. Ben works for the city.

Balti: I think what is really important also is that all those guys still come to our shows once in a while and they still hang out, so we’ve been able to keep friendships.

Edward: Yeah, like I said, you know, that’s what Union’s all about, the unity we have. So, we’re still all friends. I mean, I still talk to José. Don’t get me wrong. I talk to him once in a while and we say, what’s up with everything. We still keep in touch, but now the band is not their lives anymore. Their life is something different. So, that’s good for them, you know? They’re doing what they like.

Balti: And that’s something important for people that aren’t in bands. They don’t know the level of commitment that being in a band takes, especially a band that is active and touring and stuff. I try to explain it to people and it’s like having another girlfriend.

Edward: Actually five girlfriends! Because it’s different little worlds in each person, you know? You got to deal with everybody’s good things and bad things. It’s the same thing with a relationship. That’s what a band is.

KW: When can fans expect to hear the new EP?

Edward: We’re still finishing a few touches. We had to change studios because of certain things, but yeah, it’s almost done. It should be out 2015, 2016 [laughs].

Balti: It should be out June 18. It’s going to be on One Shot Records, which was my old label. We were thinking, “What should we do with it?” I really think that it’s important to put it out ourselves and because One Shot was my old label, I thought, let’s just put it out ourselves on One Shot. And we can get it in stores and get it to our fans.

Edward: Yeah, exactly, nowadays you can just do it yourself. It’s no longer labels [that] are actually selling CDs anymore. It’s everything iTunes or digital, so with that, we could do it ourselves. It’s not that hard and why deal with the whole bulls**t of a label, when you can do it yourself? So that’s what we’re trying to do, kind of DIY, you know, do it yourself. If we do get picked up by a label, that would be great, that would be a bonus, but right now we’re just looking to do it ourselves.

KW: Will you do any touring this summer?

Edward: We’re actually planning on doing Mexico, June 28 and 29. We’re planning to go to the east coast. Those dates are confirmed, which is August 22nd to the 27th. Right now, we are a little bit stumbling because I am making a move. I am moving out of California, I’m going somewhere else. I got to adjust. And once we adjust, we’re gonna go to the Midwest. We’ll go to the east coast as much as we can. Hopefully, we can go to Europe and Japan by the end of the year or the start of next year to promote the record. So, right now our main goal, our main purpose is just to finish this record and for me to just settle down. Once I’m settled down, just run with it.
KW: What is your favorite tour story?

Balti: Every time we go to South America, we always make sure that on our rider it says you can’t charge more than 10 bucks because we don’t charge like rock stars do. We’re bare minimum. You pay for our expenses, our meals, we’re good, you know? And that’s it. That’s all we really ask for. So, the promoter was selling pre-sale [tickets] at $28. When we got there, it was a good turnout inside, but there was about 300 kids outside that were furious and they were angry and they were talking s**t, like “Your band is capitalists.”

Edward: In Mexico, it’s like a different animal. Over there, they take everything to another level. It’s good, you know, but if you’re charging $28 a ticket in Mexico, no one has that type of money. Usually, like Balti said, we don’t like to overcharge people for tickets. I mean, come on, you know? That’s too much.

Balti: So I told the kids, “I’m glad you guys showed up. If there’s anyone out there that knows a venue, you know, we’re here tomorrow. We’ll play for free anywhere.” One of the kids said there was this warehouse. So I said let’s make it happen and that same night, we confirmed and posted it on our Myspace, at the time, and we had about 800 kids show up to this warehouse.

Edward: The great thing about the show, it was the last song and our P.A. blew out.

Balti: Yeah, the P.A. just burned up. It was a place called the Clandestino, it’s in Ecatepec, they called it Epunktepec because there are so many punks there. It’s the equivalent to the East L.A. of Mexico. They ended up doing the show and it was just an empty warehouse with this shitty old school P.A. The worst equipment we ever played on and it just went off. Towards the end of our set, I think we blew a fuse or something, but the P.A. turned off. I think we played the last two songs and we had no vocals and everybody was just singing along. It was so awesome.

Edward: I didn’t even need to yell out. Everybody was just helping me out with the songs. It was amazing.

KW: Are there any bands you would like to tour with that you have not had the chance to tour with yet?
Edward: To be honest with you, dude, I want to tour with everybody. I like everybody, so I don’t have a specific band, but if I would say which one, Bad Religion.

Balti: Of course.

Edward: Bad Religion, you know? It’s the band that I really want to tour with. I grew up listening to Bad Religion. Bad Religion would be the band.

Balti: For me, we had the honor of doing a couple shows with Dead Kennedys in Arizona and New Mexico and California and that was just awesome because they’re definitely a band that I grew up listening to, that I respect and I think that it’s so hard for bands to keep going, you know? Punk’s not where it used to be as far as venues that are accessible and fan base. So I have a lot of respect for bands that are still doing it, like the Casualties. They were just in L.A. and I am so bummed that we’ve never played with The Casualties. I have so much respect for those guys.

KW: What is your favorite city to play?

Edward: I would like to say New York. I like the hardcore scene of New York, you know? It’s just amazing the vibe and the energy they bring to shows. I think it’s amazing. So I would like to say New York. I like every single city, you know, but New York’s the one I really like.

Balti: I really enjoy playing those obscure cities that you show up and you’re like, “What the fuck is this? There is nothing here.” And then you get to the show and there’s like 30 kids and you’re like, “F**k.” Then you get on stage and there’s those handful of kids that are singing every lyric and going nuts. I love it. I love being able to be there and having the opportunity to play in front of your fans.

Edward: And for us, even if there are three kids at our show because it happened to us, you know? In a weird place where you don’t even see life forms and it’s like those three or four kids that went to see your show and we always put the same energy into every single show. If it’s a hundred kids to a thousand kids, even if there’s only three, we don’t care, we’ll still go off.

Balti: I love it when we play small cities and there are 30 people there and the kids are like, “Dude, this is the biggest crowd ever!”

KW: How does having a family affect you going on tour? Do you ever take the kids on tour?

Edward: I would love to, you know, once they get older so they could roadie for us. Right now they’re really small and they don’t know what we’re doing. So, it’s a lot easier for us to leave the house. I’m not saying easy, but it doesn’t really affect them yet. Once they get older and start asking, “Where’s Dada? Where is he? He’s not around.” You just got to explain to them that this is what you love to do and you got to be on the road, you know? Like I said, once they get older, hopefully they can roadie. Because the roadies we got right now, dude, we got to roadie for them.

Balti: My daughter always asks questions. She’s always asking why am I leaving and the whole tears and everything. That breaks my heart. I never had experienced that before because I always looked forward to going out, and I still do, but I always tell her I’ll be back. Another thing I tell them is that it’s another job. I have to do this because I have to go to work and I have to play. I feel like for me as a person, I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t playing. I have to, you know. They do come to shows when we’re in L.A., but my wife understands that when we have a show, we [the band] all go together, we set up, we try to be as professional as possible. It’s not a date with my wife, unfortunately, I’m not a parent that night, especially because [of] the disaster we do on stage.

KW: Is there anything else you would like Union 13 fans to know?

Balti: June 18, our next EP will be out, pick it up and continue going to shows. That’s the most important thing. I know now that we’re older, there’s so many times I’m like, “Man, I really want to see this band,” but I’m so tired from going to work and I always go because these moments, you don’t get them back, you know? All the fans that are out there, all the people that are into punk rock, all the people that are into Union, come out, dude. Come out and hang out with us because it’s important that we share what we love.

Edward: Exactly, music, you know? Especially for those that are starting a band, just continue. We’ve been doing this for the last 20 years. Don’t give up, you know, because music is life. Even if you’re not making any money, it’s just a way, you know, to express yourself. So, continue doing what you love. Look at me, I’m married with two kids, Balti’s married with two kids and we’re still playing music. I think even if I didn’t stay in Union, I’d still be playing with some sh***y a** band at a bar, just to play, you know? So just continue playing, you never know what could happen. That’s the advice I would give them.

Balti: I also think the best moments of my life resulted from being in a band, you know? And I really think all the experiences we’ve had combined, whether we’ve been fighting each other or if we’ve been in random cities, it’s really sculpted the people that we are.

Edward: And don’t play in a band thinking you’re gonna make it big or go on tour. No, just do it because you love it and you love doing what you love doing and don’t expect those things in return. If it happens, it’s a bonus.

Kevin J. Wells writes about Major League Baseball and punk rock music. Follow him on Twitter @WellsOnBaseball

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