Santoros: “If You Love To Do It, You Want To Keep On Doing It. No Matter If You’re Successful Or Not."
Vernon, California is a strange place.
Hanging on the southern fringe of downtown LA, it’s a suffocating, industrial mecca comprised of nothing but concrete and chalky, blanched dirt. At just five square miles, it’s the smallest incorporated city in California—it’s only claim to fame besides the ugly, onion-shaped water tower.
To be there on a boiling July day is to experience sense-numbing heat, noise, and a squint-inducing, high-noon light that continually smacks you in the face as it reflects off all the beige warehouses. It’s no wonder Vernon is the inspiration for the corrupt, eerie town at the center of True Detective season two (Yes, the lame one without Matthew McConaughey).
So what the hell am I doing here? In the midst of all this wasteland resides the rehearsal studio of Santoros, a band that couldn’t be more incongruous to the unpopulated, colorless, crooked city where I’m meeting them.
Lead singer Jossef Virgen waves at me as he pulls into the parking lot of a nondescript building. As we climb the stairs, passing numbered doors that look cheerily like meat lockers, Virgen is telling me why he didn’t bring us any beer. His Fourth of July got a little out of hand (“There were guys dancing in their underwear! Or maybe I was seeing things.” ) and he thinks water is the best thing for all of us right now. He tells me drummer Marco Rocha is waiting inside, and hands me a Dasani.
Inside their studio, one gets an overwhelming feeling that they’ve just entered a secret clubhouse. A creative aura embellishes every inch of the place that’s not already filled with eclectic thrift-store bric-a-brac. The black walls are surprisingly inviting, a welcome rest for the eyes, while Piñatas, technicolor banners, and other memorabilia from La Batalla—the festival they hosted at the Glass House in Pomona back in May—hang from the ceiling. La Batalla was a hard-won success for the band, who suffered through hours of anxiety when a crowd failed to show up for earlier acts like Wild Wing, Adult Books, and Colleen Green.
“I was like, ‘Fuck dude. We’re fucked,’ Virgen explains. “We invested a lot of money, promised everyone that they were gonna get paid no matter how we did. In the end, it was like, fuck it. We got this far. We did it. Let’s just get drunk, have fun, and enjoy this shit. As soon as we decided to just do that, that’s when people started showing up.”
Santoros hail from the Valley, but made a name for themselves in the Echo Park scene, playing shows at Little Joy—a hole-in-the-wall hangout down on Sunset that stood as the only bar that would fail to notice the boys’ very fake IDs. What started as a group of friends “barhopping, hanging out, partying,” as Virgen puts it, morphed into a band when lead guitarist (and Virgen’s cousin) Adolfo Canales asked Rocha if he wanted to jam. “I was like, ‘Oh this guy’s good,’ ” explains Rocha. “We didn’t even know that Carlos played guitar.” Next came keyboardist Diego Prieto and guitarist Carlos Precichi.
"In the end, it was like, fuck it. We got this far. We did it. Let’s just get drunk, have fun, and enjoy this shit."
I’m not speaking to Virgen and Rocha long before it becomes very clear that Santoros is a brotherhood. The love runs deep. When I ask what the ultimate goal for the band is, Rocha is quiet for a minute before answering, “I just want everyone to be playing music, having what they deserve, doing what they love, enjoying life.”
Rocha grew up in a small beachside town in Mexico—something that’s present in his love of surfing, and his melodic, Spanish accent that only heightens the calming, almost mystical presence he has. His father worked as a driver for a local band and would take Rocha to shows, where he became fascinated with the drummer. He credits his father with tuning him in to the universal language of music early on. “He didn’t speak any English but he loved the Beatles and all these bands. I would ask, ‘How do you like it if you don’t understand?’ And he would say, ‘I don’t know, I just do.’ ”
After a crosstown move landed him at his cousin’s school, Virgen quickly fell in with the group. A childhood spent listening to a combination of KROQ and oldies radio gave Virgen a love of music, and he became a roadie and cheerleader at all the early Santoros shows, but it was the death of a close friend that landed him in Santoros. “I was very depressed, and that’s when the boys asked me if I wanted to join in,” he explains.
He quickly earned his spot, improvising Santoros’ trademark song, “She Doesn’t Love Me Anymore” over a riff that Canales had just written. The band worked the song into their set, bringing Virgen on stage for one song each night.
“I would just jump in like, ‘Oh hey! How’s it going! My name’s Jossef! Here’s “She Doesn’t Love Me Anymore.” ’ It was the only song I knew how to sing, and the only song I sang for like, two years. Then the boys were like, ‘You should come up with more songs!’ ”
Virgen is bigger, louder, goofier than Rocha—a teddy bear who likes to call everyone dude, takes naps in the sand while the other guys are surfing, and thinks he might be “allergic” to IPA beers because of how drunk he gets off them. He speaks with a slight lisp that make his enthusiasm even more endearing.
After La Batalla, the boys hit the road in support of El Perdedor—their latest record which continues the garagey, psychedelic, sloppy-in-the-best-way tradition they started with Ancestros and Animals. They’ve been traveling up and down the coast, a jaunt that will conclude at the Echo on July 21 for a sure-to-be legendary celebration in honor of the album’s release on vinyl—a first for the band. “It’s like a trophy. All this hard work, all this sweat, but we did it, and we did it together! There’s a lot of emotions in that record. A lot of people put in a lot of work,” explains Virgen.
With their infectiously easygoing personalities, their ability to put away six-packs like there’s no tomorrow, and the party-like atmosphere of their shows (complete with shirtless luchadores and fiesta decorations), it’s easy to forget that Santoros are one of the hardest working bands in LA, with each band member leading what Virgen describes as a double life.
“It’s like a trophy. All this hard work, all this sweat, but we did it, and we did it together!"
“We’re in the studio four days a week, from 8:30 to 11:30. Everyone has day jobs. People get off from work at 5:00, they go home, they change if they have time, sometimes we don’t even have dinner. It’s all dedication, dude. Nobody’s giving us money to release our albums, to pay for the studio, it all comes from our pocket. On top of making music, and keeping up with this, you have a real life. You gotta pay your rent, your car insurance, your cell phone, if you got a girlfriend you gotta keep up with their things. It’s a fucking struggle.”
When Virgen isn’t in the studio, he works at a dog daycare and spa—a job he got from Canales. Pietro trains dogs at a pet resort, and Rocha works in construction. So basically if this whole band thing falls through, they could definitely open the Santoros Doggy Daycare. On top of their day jobs, they handle their own social media, PR, merchandise, and help their booking agent organize shows. When I ask what their least-favorite part is Virgen laughs. “Oh shit. It’s getting very raw.” The answer: “All the fucking merch stuff.”
With so much on their plate and more piling up every day (planning next year’s La Batalla, recording their next full length, releasing the EP they just finished up with Joel Jerome), their time in the Vernon studio is sacred. “I love hanging out with these guys,” Rocha explains, “and playing music is even better.”
“Coming over here, opening a couple beers with your friends, and playing music is good for the soul,” Virgen adds. “If you love to do it, you want to keep on doing it. No matter if you’re successful or not. It comes from you. That’s what makes you happy.”
In an LA music scene that’s getting more crowded, and more competitive every day Santoros stand as genuinely nice guys who are rooting for everyone, seeing the current uptick in killer bands as a blessing rather than a curse. What sets them apart is their straightforward, genuine approach: good dues making good music for good times.
“It’s not competition. It’s just inspiration,” Virgen insists. “You get inspired by seeing someone succeed. Oh shit! Fuck yeah! Let’s fucking work twice as hard! It’s a blessing having so many talented friends that you can reach out to, or go to their picnics, their birthday parties, and talk about how successful their music video was, or their record release show, or what they’re planning to do. In the end, you’re just fucking homies doing the same thing.”
It’s these positive vibes that bring the right people into their orbit at the right time, causing the brotherhood to grow over the years to a huge, extended family. Managers, friends of girlfriends, artists, other local bands—even me—all become members of Santoros thanks to their irresistible tractor beam of hospitality, humor, and generosity. My guess is, you would be hard-pressed to find someone that has a bad thing to say about them.
“It’s a big family,” Virgen explains. It’s getting stronger by the year, by the month, by the week, by the hour. We learn from each other, we see each other grow. You’ve gotta just keep on pushing. It’s gonna be good for you, for the people that are close to you. If there’s challenges in between, it means you’re doing something good. You’re doing good.”