The hallway at the San Francisco headquarters of 'zine Maximum Rocknroll (MRR) is flanked with more than 40,000 records from underground punk bands. It leads to a patio where touring bands are often found barbecuing, drinking, and sharing stories from the road. It's an apt setting to meet Martin Sorrondeguy, a veteran musician, documentary filmmaker, and photographer who's been active in the punk scene since the mid-Eighties. Sorrondeguy and MRR have similar goals: to report on and foster political consciousness in punk music around the world.
In the midst of preparing for an upcoming East Coast tour with Limp Wrist, Sorrondeguy reflected on his 22 years fronting fiercely political punk bands, including Los Crudos, which will reunite for a rare appearance at 924 Gilman on Saturday, June 29.
Sorrondeguy is best known as the vocalist for the hardcore band Los Crudos, which challenges institutionalized racism against Latinos with fast and short songs. Los Crudos' lyrics are written almost exclusively in Spanish, and the group has motivated many Latino youth to fight for social justice through punk and its networks. Sorrondeguy's documentary film, Beyond the Screams, depicts the frustration of young people of color and their empowerment through punk bands. He also fronted the queer hardcore band Limp Wrist, which addressed identity politics within and without the punk scene. Through it all, Sorrondeguy has photographed punks on five continents, and recently compiled more than four hundred pictures taken between 1985 and 2012 into a book called Get Shot.
Despite his accomplishments, Sorrondeguy is also very humble. He's keener to hear about new bands than discuss his own groups, and prefers to photograph underground bands at warehouse gigs rather than high-profile ones at big venues. Even as he sat down for an interview, Sorrondeguy joked: "Can you just answer the questions for me?"
For Sorrondeguy, confrontational music came out of necessity rather than choice. "There are people who have the luxury to completely ignore politics and people who don't," he explained. Sorrondeguy is resolutely among the latter. His family emigrated from Uruguay to Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood that saw an influx of Latinos in the Seventies. Sorrondeguy described his upbringing as a "hyper-barrio-esque existence of growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood in Chicago." He experienced social inequity and realized that Latino youth had few options besides joining gangs. His political viewpoints alienated him, however, yet Sorrondeguy found an alternative in punk, which inspired him to advocate for his people's struggle.
"Other people impose these preconceived ideas of how we're supposed to be," Sorrondeguy said. "When you grab those expectations and flip them around, people have a hard time taking it in, and that's why punk works so well."
Sorrondeguy formed Los Crudos in 1991 and they quickly gained a massive audience. By 1998, Los Crudos had toured five continents, each trip organized directly between members of the band and punks abroad. Sorrondeguy founded the record label Lengua Armada Discos (Armed Tongue Records) in order to release the music of Los Crudos and many other bands from the Spanish-speaking world. Los Crudos corresponded feverishly with punks worldwide and included political commentary in their records' packaging, often donating a portion of their releases' profits to benefit urban neighborhoods or disenfranchised indigenous groups. While the audiences at Los Crudos shows engaged in the aggressive ritual of typical punk gigs, Sorrondeguy often paused between songs to speak about politics and community, or to mediate tension in the crowd.
But in 1998, Sorrondeguy decided to disband Los Crudos, after facing the turning point that many hardcore bands have faced before: "My question to the guys was, 'Are we going to become a rock 'n' roll band now?' That's what I didn't want," Sorrondeguy recalled. "Crudos was never a rock band. We didn't want to play that game."
Sorrondeguy quickly founded Limp Wrist to tackle new social issues. The formation of Limp Wrist in the late Nineties coincided with Sorrondeguy's decision to come out. With songs like "Cruising at the Show" and "I Love Hardcore Boys/I Love Boys Hardcore," Limp Wrist espoused empowering pro-sex sentiments to queer youth, delivering the messages through humor and very fast, brief, and loud songs.
Limp Wrist carried Sorrondeguy's musical endeavors to the 21st century, but with his desire to perform came an equal passion to document. Sorrondeguy had begun shooting Beyond the Screams while he was still in Los Crudos and eventually released it in 2004. The film chronicles Latino punks' resistance to institutionalized racism, anti-immigration bigotry, and police brutality from the late Seventies to the Nineties.
Similarly, Sorrondeguy's book, Get Shot, represents one of the most diverse and inclusive representations of the punk subculture ever published. "I couldn't show you what punk is with ten rolls of film — that's like a drive-by shooting of punk. I wanted to do this for 25 years and then be able to show someone," Sorrondeguy wrote in the introduction of Get Shot. The book portrays punks with contorted faces in basement venues writhing on the floor, but also at ease in modest homes, dejected in the street, and busy at work. It's an evocative account of punk as an indignant, communal force in the face of staggering impediments.
Though fans implored Los Crudos to reunite for years, Sorrondeguy often declined. He eventually conceded to perform in 2006 at the first annual Latino Punk Fest in Pilsen, an event that was inspired by Sorrondeguy's bands, but only under one condition: that it be a secret. "We played as a gift to everyone who was there to see the new bands," Sorrondeguy said. They've played sporadically since, reconvening for select US dates and tours of Australia and South America. Los Crudos agreed to appear at the This Is Not a Step Fest because the event is partially a benefit for the family of Sarah Kirsch, a vital member of the local punk community who died last year.
To this day, Sorrondeguy remains an ambassador of punk as much as a living legend. The night after our interview, I spotted him photographing a Swedish hardcore band at The Knockout. He didn't hesitate to engage with the swirling, energetic crowd to get the right angle, and in between sets, he handed out flyers. They advertised a show a few days later, at which his newest hardcore band, Needles, would share a bill with two Spanish punk bands. Watching him mingle with the crowd that night, it seemed that he could carry on like this forever.