"I don’t know how it happened.” Ricky Soltero is surprised to see the emergence of both shoegaze and dreampop in the rock clubs along Calle Sexta in downtown Tijuana. He plays there in a band called the Electric Healing Sound. “I think pretty much it started because Tijuana is in love with that whole British culture thing. You’ll see a whole lot of fans of Britpop down here. People walking around in Radiohead T-shirts and things like that.”
But what you won’t see in Tijuana, he says, are very many fans of American rock.
“In the ’90s there was a lot of ska and the kinds of rock bands people would expect to hear in TJ.” Soltero says that when he mentions the subject of Tijuana rock bands, people think he means either hardcore or ska. “But there’s really a lot of shoegaze. You wouldn’t think that a city known for violence and debauchery would be known for shoegaze, but there’s maybe only a few true rock-and-roll bands down here.”
Musically, Soltero says there is a link missing in the chronology from the ska/rocker days to the shoegaze of today. “It’s an evolution of style.” And, content. “You would have to hear some of the lyrics to understand what they are saying.” Much of shoegaze concerns itself with the past years of cartel violence. He says the bands have a message. “You hear the lyrics, and you think its nonsense sometimes. But if you know what’s happening, you get a connection to the energy.”
In so many words, shoegaze, says Soltero, and most other original Tijuana rock is informed by a lifestyle that is self-aware of, if not directly touched by, violence and mayhem: “Yeah, she took that plunge from the Golden Gate Bridge/ And she landed on her feet/ Well there ain’t no kitchen for her to clean/ And there ain’t no floors for her to mop and sweep.”
“In my apartment complex, I knew a guy who played on my soccer team. And he got involved with people he shouldn’t have.” Meaning, Soltero says, drug dealers. “They kidnapped him when he didn’t pay them the money he owed them, and for every day, they cut off a finger. I heard finally they decapitated him.”
“I don’t think there’s a lot of shoegaze here. It’s just two bands, really: Shantelle and Celofan.” Eric Curiel plays guitar and bass in Shantelle. “I think both bands influenced other musicians down here that had never heard of shoegaze, and they kinda went our way.” He shakes off the general category as a whole. “For some reason, people have labeled us as shoegaze, but I don’t know... I see it more as another influence in our sound, more than just stickin’ to one style, you know?” he emails. “It’s not like we’re moody, druggy, shy, I-stare-at-my-shoes kinda guys.”
Shantelle is based in TJ. “We have been playing here for eight years now.” Shantelle has played gigs at the Echoplex in L.A., the Glasshouse in Pomona, and Bar Eleven and Tin Can Alehouse in San Diego. In Tijuana, he says, “Clubs that are part of the rock revolution include Bodega Aragon, Black Box, La Terraza, Zebra Bar, and La Sexta House of Music....
“But the best known bands from TJ,” Soltero tells me, “are probably rock bands that play a type of music called Ruidoson. That’s the genre that became quite big a year or two ago.” Ruidoson, he says, has more direct input from the actual violence. “Where shoegaze takes an indirect route, Ruidoson — these guys are more direct about their feelings.”
Ricky Soltero’s band works both sides of the border. He now lives in the U.S., and the other three members of the Electric Healing Sound live in Tijuana. They are American garage-rock holdouts, performing “everything from Velvet Underground to the Stones. People in San Diego don’t think we’re from TJ. But we don’t try to hide it. In fact, we try to exploit it. We put that label on ourselves.”
He says the resurgence of night clubs along Calle Sexta has helped the rock-music scene as well as the economics of Tijuana. “Before the clubs opened, there wasn’t a lot going on. But people were tired of being scared. They just said, ‘Let’s party.’ Calle Sexta brought people all the way over from the old parts of TJ where the violence was.” Namely, the Zona Rio and a club called La Plaza.
“It just got pretty nasty in there.” He says Calle Sexta is about three miles away. “You can go on the weekends,” he says, “and you’ll see chicks from everywhere. Americans flock down there now.” Here, the Electric Healing Sound plays the Soda Bar, Tin Can Alehouse, and the Casbah. In Tijuana, they frequent La Terraza and a bar that was used once as a location for a Cheech and Chong movie, the Dragon Rojo.
“Dragon Rojo is really something. We brought San Diego bands like Bagdad to play there. It was really funny. You’ve got prostitutes standing in front, just standing right out there, and then in the corner you’ve got the musicians for hire. You couldn’t ask for a better Tijuana snapshot.” ■