The Year of the Tiger: An interview with Barrio Tiger’s Calixto Hernandez

The year of the Tiger: An interview with Barrio Tiger’s Calixto Hernandez

Words by Matt Hutchison

Calixto Hernandez, the name may ring a bell for some… As for the rest, well, read on! A lifer in the punk and skate scene of Southern California since his family emigrated from Guadalajara to San Diego when he was a kid and he discovered the likes of Jeff Ho and the sounds of Cheetah Chrome shortly after. If you’re a Los Angeles local, you’ve probably seen him on stage with his rock n’ roll comrades fronting Barrio Tiger, and he’s probably handed you a beer or two from behind the El Patio bar at La Cita during Angry Hour, or maybe back in the day, you caught a show he put on at his old skate shop, Juvee.

These days he focuses his time between work and Barrio Tiger, a garage punk group he formed alongside henchman, Jimmy James [of The Hangmen] who just released their debut LP Ave Maria and are a few days away from traveling to Europe to begin a month long tour across the continent.

At the end of a hectic shift behind the bar on a Friday evening, Calixto took the time to grab a few Victorias and lead us down to the basement to rap with us about Barrio Tiger’s big year, his skating background and the time he humbled Anthony Kiedis after the guy pulled the “Don’t you know who I am?” card at Calixto’s place of business.

Barrio Tiger – “Enough” from Jacob Mendel on Vimeo.

Tell us about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, why do you enjoy it and what are your plans for world domination?

Well, to start off, I’m a Gemini and if you study zodiac signs closely, a pattern shows that we like to have fun. I was born in Guadalajara and my family relocated to San Diego not too long after I came around, so that’s where I grew up. I grew up skating and was very lucky to be exposed to it early on, completely fell in love and assimilated myself into it, and pretty much just wanted to become the “California Kid”…whatever that’s supposed to mean.


You’ve owned your own business [Juvee skate shop was based in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles] and now you’ve got your band, Barrio Tiger, which preoccupies the bulk of your time and resources. This drive comes from somewhere and we’re curious to know if there was anything during your early years in Mexico or San Diego, which left a significant impact on you and planted the seed for all this?

Three things happened: My family was the first family on our block in Claremont [San Diego County area] to get a cable box when those first came out. MTV arrived and the first wave of music videos they broadcasted included The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah” and seeing Joe Strummer and those guys do their thing, really hit me. Then Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky” video was released and hearing the tone that came from his Gretsch made me want to pick up the guitar. When I turned 14, I remember going to the Del Mar Fair, and Los Lobos was headlining that year, and seeing the packed grandstands around the race track with people who were just losing it to these big Mexican American guys, which left a giant impression on me. I identified with it immediately and it showed me that this really was attainable. Up to that point; I’d never seen a live Mexican rock band! Years later, I found out about local groups to the San Diego area such as The Paladins and of course The Zeros who are now buddies of mine.


You guys have a record out and will embark on your first European tour beginning in May. How did the relationship between you and Jimmy James spark to get this group going and tell us about the process you guys went through for releasing Ave Maria?

I knew Jimmy as an acquaintance when he first joined The Hangmen, around early 2000ish, but it wasn’t until a few years later when I would frequent the guitar shop he worked at, Silver Lake Guitar Shop, where we would get to know each other personally. My place and the shop were on the same street, Sunset & Sanborn, and I would just come and geek out with him. That’s how we got to know each other and hit it off. Jimmy came out to see my old band play one night and came up to me after the show to say how much he liked it and that he’d like for us to jam sometime soon. That was a huge deal because for people who don’t know Jimmy James, he’s one bad dude on the guitar and has a sound and style that people instantly recognize. So, he and I formed the nucleus of Barrio Tiger and we’ve been through a few lineup changes since but really started to settle in with a groove when Mark [Benquechea – drums for Barrio Tiger] entered the fold. Mark is as solid as a drummer can get and he understood what we were attempting to achieve with our sound and knew exactly how to approach it. It took us a long time to get solid as a unit as well due to me being gun shy as a band leader as well because I was so late to fronting a band and felt I was in no position to tell anyone how to play their parts. That’s also why it took our record Ave Maria a long time to release in part to it being written in batches over time as well plus my issues communicating to the producer how I wanted this record to sound! I had confidence issues during that phase. I would let them do their thing and they’d give me a mix back and I’d hear it and note that something is missing from it and attempt to explain what it was I wanted to hear. [laughs] It really was a learning curve that I had to overcome. When we got the mix back that we all were satisfied with, that’s when we came up with the title for Ave Maria because in truth it is our Hail Mary!

What’s your whole take on how people respond to the Barrio Tiger experience either live or on record and how did you guys go about the process for writing this record?

We’re in a weird time it seems, where the type of rock and roll Barrio Tiger makes doesn’t get a lot of attention these days. We’re not lo-fi or surfy sounding and we sure as hell aren’t the type of band who sounds like they just found their dad’s guitar in the garage and attempt to act all cute with it. It’s rock and roll for people who like high octane rock and roll, bottom line. We read the things that press has said about us where they compare our sound to the late 60’s Detroit and 70’s New York punk scene and I’ve heard other things. The fact is, everything is copied; of course we love stuff that Wayne Kramer [guitarist of MC5] and Sylvain Sylvain [guitarist of New York Dolls] did and that influence is there, but I also add things I recall hearing from the time I grew up in San Diego and I was seeing bands like No Knife, Drive Like Jehu, Pitchfork and others. I think of our sound as all of that, but filtered through a San Diego lens of some sort. There’s really no other way to describe it. We’re organized when we approach our songwriting and we do our homework beforehand. I like to come in with a song structure and a few hooks, show the guys and then let them build on it like the professionals they are. That’s another thing that can’t be taken for granted with running a band or any type of business for that matter. When you’ve got the right people with you, it makes everything easier and I trust and love these guys I’m playing with now.


No hard label support, unknown band from Los Angeles but you guys landed a European tour. Give us a breakdown of how that opportunity arose and what your guy’s expectations are?

We leave for Europe on May 1st and come back on the 22nd and I need to credit Jimmy for making all this happen in the first place. Jimmy went over there with The Hangmen a few years ago and had a guy named Zuhaitz book the Spanish leg of their tour and act as tour manager. When that tour finished, they kept in touch and Zuhaitz contacted Jimmy to let him know he was flying out to Los Angeles and asked if he could put him up for a few days. Around that time, Jimmy and his girlfriend had a baby together, so he couldn’t pull it off but referred Zuhaitz to get in touch with me. I let him stay with me for a month and during that time we got to know each other and became buddies. Towards the end of his stay, I gave him some Barrio Tiger recordings to show him what we were doing and he really dug what he heard! We kept in touch when he flew back home and when these masters became available, I showed him what we had and he told us that when we we’re ready to come over to let him know so he could go to work booking our tour. It all came together and now it’s really happening. We’ve got 16 shows across 18 days confirmed. Can’t sneeze at that! Spain’s a rock n’ roll city and they have their finger on the pulse. They love The Hangmen and here’s to hoping they dig Barrio Tiger as well!


What is your background in the skate and surf scene and tell us about your roots in it.

I’ve been skating and surfing my whole life dating back to when I was a 7-year-old grom. One of my older cousins let me use his Fibreflex that he had decked out with Tracker trucks and Cadillac wheels. It had this 70’s surf flow I remember and I learned on that. We would ride two miles up the road to a little french fry curb and use that as our first skate park. It was during the time when the first wave of skateparks died off and the second wave hadn’t taken shape yet. I’d practice at that curb for hours on end thinking I had it down until Rodney Mullen introduced the world to the street Ollie and the game changed overnight. My family couldn’t afford a membership to the Del Mar skate ranch, so my friends and I, at a young age, learned how to build our own ramps and set them up in our backyards. We were consumed with it. I even came close to being kicked out of school because I didn’t show up for a few weeks just so I could continue to build. That’s what the skating culture taught us, to make it work no matter what. When I was older, I ended up working for TransWorld magazine and lived at the Blockhead compound outside of Oceanside, where I witnessed the launch of Invisible Skateboards and saw the early rise of pros like Jamie Thomas, Matt Mumford, Rick Howard and a bunch of people.


You have a special relationship with Los Angeles and the skate scene due in part to your time running your skate shop & venue, Juvee. Can you tell Juice readers how that opportunity arose for you and some of your experiences and memories you took from that time in your life?

I didn’t begin Juvee until I moved to Los Angeles toward the end of the nineties, I was camped out in the city for a while and a guy I knew from a mutual friend approached me with the idea of opening a skate shop in the Silver Lake neighborhood. I was into the idea because there was only one other skate shop there and it took a few meetings to hash out the details. He would provide the financing and I would work everything else. After some shady details pertaining to that guy came to light, I decided to just open the shop myself because it was the right thing to do. My roommate during that time was the comedian Bobby Lee and he just landed his role on Mad TV, so he loaned me the startup capital I needed to make this work. He was making real good money and he knew me, so it worked out and I’m grateful that he took the chance on me. We had this place on Sunset and Sanborn called “The Dumpster” cause the amount of couch traffic from people coming in and out of our place and that’s how I got the name of my publishing company, Couch Tour. Bobby gave me the capital and I loaded up on trucks, decks, wheels and apparel but as soon the first day launched I was out of money and did everything I had to do to move product from there. After a few days of stressing, I went over to Silver Lake Guitar Shop to see Jimmy and my friend Brian Waters happened to be there. Brian’s then band, The Flash Express, was on a tear around that time and, after talking for a while, he told me to throw a party at the shop and offered The Flash Express to play at no charge. So that’s how Juvee became both a skate shop and venue. The first show was The Hangmen, The Flash Express and The Warlocks. It just grew from there. I built a skate ramp that was five feet tall and 20 feet wide with a couch extension and a 2 ft vertical extension. I had skaters like Pat Duffy and Christian Fletcher come in and abuse that thing for hours. There wasn’t anything like Juvee going on at the time and it was something special. We had all sorts of bands contact us out of the woodwork to play there like The Silversun Pickups, Duane Peter’s bands, 400 Blows, Keith Morris [OFF!/Circle Jerks/Black Flag singer], Cody Chestnutt, Rolling Blackouts and a grip more. It became a tour stop as well and the policy was that I would select the headliner and the band would choose who they wanted for support, that way you could blame it on them if the opener sucks [laughs]. Some of the ego trips I would get from management or booking agent’s was strange. I’d hear things like “what do you mean you don’t want them to play? Don’t you understand they’re going to be huge very soon with all this press?” I would respond “Don’t tell that to a skate shop. tell that to The Roxy.” Daryl Hannah, Christina Ricci & Anthony Kiedis of the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers used to stop by because it was a place where no one would hassle them and everyone was treated the same. It was $5 to get in and no guest list. I’d let touring bands crash at the shop as well, en route to their next stop. One time Anthony came in while we were having a party and he didn’t pay the cover charge. I found out, so I approached him and asked him what the deal was and he just responded “Don’t you know who I am?” to which I replied “Yeah and I know you have $5 too.” He paid but I’ll tell you, some people, man.


What did you take away from that experience running Juvee?

Along with being a business that I ran, looking back I see it also as a platform for me to show a young skater/musician that they can do something big in both worlds beyond it just being a hobby. Showing and demonstrating that is something I’m proud of and glad to do. It gives back to a community that shaped me. The arts are so important and can’t stress this enough. Along with living it, I’ve seen how these programs can enrich and change lives for the better. I used to work as an educator in San Diego with a theatre program that involved disadvantaged and at risk youth participants and the stories these kids would tell about their backgrounds were rough and hard to hear at times. Our program consisted of hearing each kid’s story about their issues and troubles and to build their confidence through theatrical developments of their story. This worked for them, their families and their schools because we would hear reports from the parents about how their attendance has dramatically improved as well as their grades and overall attitude, that’s a rewarding feeling to have and to hear about something that we played a part in. The fact that higher ups want to cut funding in the arts is so messed up. Look, I’m not a Rockefeller or a brain trust, but I know this. If these programs are being cut, they’re being cut for a reason, in part to them only wanting people just smart enough to push the button. I used to host art shows at Juvee as well and Shepard Fairey was the first exhibition we had there. We knew each other from our days skating together in San Diego around the time he first started up his old design firm Black Market.


What piece of advice would you pass onto anyone who has similar aspirations and a desire to go on the same path as you did?

For anyone that has aspirations, don’t make any excuses, just go for it. You’re responsible for you and only you shape your own destiny. If the outcome from accomplishing your goals doesn’t live up to your expectations, look at it from a different angle because something good and beneficial will occur. I’m living proof of this. There’s a quote that Gibby Haynes states in the book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, which reads “Look, if a band like Butthole Surfers can get signed to Capitol Records, then anyone can do this.” That’s why we keep going and give it our all.

For more information about Barrio Tiger and to find out what the hell all the hype is about with Ave Maria, visit their official website and stream the album from their Bandcamp. Vinyl available and shipping through Ghost Highway Recordings.

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