“REMEMBER TO ASK YOURSELF / WHO TAUGHT YOU TO HATE YOURSELF?”
So bellows Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz in a guest spot on the intro to Busted Outlook’s first full-length, Not Defined by Violence. The line, which echoes Malcolm X, introduces one of the main themes of vocalist Rich Gutierrez’s lyrics and writing overall: dislodging the internalized negative stereotypes that often afflict people in marginalized communities.
Gutierrez is a part of a creative San Jose milieu that includes groups such as Try the Pie and Sourpatch, plus a broader array of artists and writers working in various mediums. They prize intentional spaces and homespun community at a time when skyrocketing rents and an influx of often churlish and heedless tech workers contribute to what can feel like a sudden erasure of longstanding cultural character in San Jose and the greater Bay Area.
Before founding Busted Outlook, Gutierrez and guitarist Jeremy Meier played drums in Bay Area hardcore bands such as Permanent Ruin, In Disgust, Ritual Control, and Yadokai. They recorded the Plague Hoarder demo, which appeared in 2014, as something of a lark, but the group has since evolved into the purveyors of sturdy hardcore with youth crew flourishes showcased on Not Defined by Violence, which premieres here ahead of its release next month on Refuse Records (and anticipates a European tour).
Last month, Gutierrez was visiting friends in New York following tours with both Younger Lovers, in which he drums, and Busted Outlook. We spoke on the phone about the new album, embracing vulnerability, distrusting the label “activist,” and the artists rising to face challenges within the city where he grew up.
Tell me about the album title, Not Defined by Violence.
That line is actually from a song on the album, “Dust”. And that’s basically about a story my friend told me. My friend, who’s a teacher at alternative high school on the South Side of Chicago where the age ranges like 14 to 19, all of her students are Black and brown. As an exercise, she asked the class who they’d vote for mayor and someone said, “Just let the white people vote, they’re smarter than us anyway.” She was obviously jarred by it. She asked, “Why do you think that?” He just said, “Well, take a look around you,” meaning their peers and neighborhood.
So that song was written after she told me that story because I often see that with kids who are from my neighborhood, too, black and brown kids who’ve absorbed this negativity and define themselves by the violence that’s around them, which is physical violence or the violence of the state.
It’s frustrating how, for people in the communities that you’re talking about, before you can learn to see self-worth, you have to unlearn so much negative conditioning. It’s a massive burden.
Oh yeah for sure. I do this monthly writing workshop in San Jose for young men of color, and I think a big part of it is embracing vulnerability, which is kind of hard. It’s really tough to get young men to open up about that stuff.
On the San Jose tip, I’m guessing the song “Rain on the North Side” refers to the North Side of San Jose. Can you talk about that neighborhood and its significance to you?
I grew up on the North Side of San Jose on 15th & Julian. I moved around on that block a lot growing up, to at least three different houses. My grandma lived ten houses down and I’d move within five houses of her for years. I live on the North Side of Downtown now and I wrote that song thinking about the pull that this part of San Jose has on me, the ways in which I embrace that pull even though there’s a lot of pain that comes along with it. A lot of places I see constantly remind me of things being tough growing up. I think I wrote that song specifically to acknowledge that I’m choosing to embrace these things so I can move past them.
You’re part of a really thriving scene in San Jose, with a lot of people creating intentional spaces and producing pointed art. So I’m wondering if you’re frustrated by the popular perception of San Jose, that it’s an uncultured bedroom community for the tech industry?
It’s a little upsetting. It’s strange now because most people who are born and raised in San Jose hardly noticed it. It was more like the businesses were here but people didn’t live here, people lived in San Francisco and commuted to Silicon Valley. It’s just starting to impact us now because, when the dot com boom happened the first time, [tech workers] were younger, but now there’s older people who want to live closer to work with their families. So it’s strange to start feeling displacement, since we didn’t think it’d ever hit us.
Does San Jose feel separate from the rest of the Bay Area?
I do get upset when people kind of disregard San Jose as a city within the Bay Area; at the same time I’m happy about it because it keeps us—I don’t want to say “pure” but maybe it helps us avoid things that I don’t like about San Francisco or Oakland. There’s this cool quote from Murray Bowles the photographer. He was interviewed about moving to San Jose years ago and he was asked why he’d do that, instead of Oakland or San Francisco. And he said, “They have much less strict notions of what’s cool. Maybe it’s the sprawling landscape; the cliques are more spread out.” So, there’s much less pressure on the perception of coolness, which allows for more creativity.
Right. For people who have no idea, can you tell me about some of your peers in San Jose and their projects?
Right now I feel there’s a lot of cool projects happening. I think that happens when prices go up: people start to focus more on art and community, since it’s much more apparent that it could die. So there’s Think and Die Thinking, a collective I’m a part of. Anytime someone has an idea, there’s a meeting with the main organizers and we see how to make it happen. Currently I’m doing Summer of Discontent, which is like a four-month zine-making project for people who’ve never made a zine or haven’t in a long time. [It’s] to keep records of our histories, people from the South Bay and San Jose.
Also within Think and Die Thinking, Bean [Tupou] and Jenna [Marx] are starting a youth music project with Girls Rock Camp as the model. … Right now it’s in the planning stages, finding spaces and volunteers and fundraising. I think they’re calling that Think and Die Thinking Camp.
An old friend of mine Li [Leslie Patron] is a writer and she…started an online journal called Cheers From the Wasteland for stories from San Jose. They go online accompanied by recorded readings by the usually unpublished authors. She also created an Inspiration Map, where people can add places where they’ve worked or have memories.
These are all punks, but they’re not like punk, if you know what I mean. I think there’s a big push down here right now to make sure that people who go to shows know that the people playing music shouldn’t be the forefront, because the community is. Being in a band isn’t that big of a deal.
That kind of ties into something else I want to ask, which is to what extent do you consider yourself an activist and where do you view Busted Outlook within that role?
Yeah. It’s strange. I never wanted to consider myself that.
When I think of the word activist I think of protests. I consider myself a social advocate. I think if you’re trying to do good then there’s activism inherent in it. I’m struggling to word this.
I think I know what you mean, or I’m sympathetic to your hesitance to use the word. “Activist” lately implies a sort of identity in the way “hipster” or “yuppie” does—it can be more of an aesthetic, something to be worn.
I just want to be effective within my community. So I feel like maybe I’m inherently an activist but I don’t word it that way. I want to advocate and speak for people in the place where I grew up, people I relate to. I‘m a big supporter of using art and writing and music to lift each other up, and to teach others through the community by example, to find strength through vulnerability. Not being afraid to do that. I think people are angry and I don’t want them to downplay that but to use it constructively, to let it be fuel.
Who does the intro on the first track?
That’s Victoria [Ruiz] from Downtown Boys, a good friend of mine. We’re often talking about lyrics. We always send each other poems and books. She’s originally from San Jose but now lives in Providence. I asked her because of that but also because I’ve always loved guest spots on hardcore records.
So is that your lyric or hers or both?
We made it up. I know that Downtown Boys say that a lot, too. And we talk about it a lot and Malcolm X says it. It has so much power for people of color. Every time we’re upset about something or feel like you don’t have a choice, we can go back to that phrase.
Can you sort of compare and contrast writing for Busted Outlook with your novella or other types of writing? How they differ in terms of process but also in terms of the emotional satisfaction you draw their respective delivery?
A lot of the lyrics are poems I wrote or from zines I’d written. The novella is very different; that’s something I’d never done before. It was my first attempt to write something more than a short piece. It’s weird. I feel like my writing is much more feeling than analytical. I dropped out of high school I never went to college or took a course of writing. I didn’t consider myself a writer until later in life and constantly reading and realizing everyone can write. So, the writing process is much the same.
The only thing that’s different with writing for Busted Outlook is it feels really cool to emote sadness or anger in a specific way. Sometimes reading it is great but really feeling it and letting—I feel like I’m sounding screamo—but letting the lyrics come alive in that sense is amazing.