Exclusive: Joe Cardamone Talks Travel, Music and Holy War in Mexico City

Joe Cardamone has been in Los Angeles from the start. Don’t expect him to brag about it, though — the Los Angeles-based musician has spent much of his nearly two-decade career seeing the world outside his city in one way or another.

What started as scrappy punk tours to Bakersfield, has grown into a musical career that has taken him to the likes of London, Brussels and, most recently, Mexico City, for a performance of his most recent album, ‘Holy War.’

Catch the visual document of that trip premiering exclusively here at Collide, along with a conversation with Joe on baselessness, belonging, and what travel means to him.

Growing up in a mostly Latino neighborhood of El Sereno, Cardamone describes his adolescence as a time of baselessness. His family was one of very few white families in the neighborhood, and his mother, a schoolteacher, used her connections to send him to a private school in a wealthier district. The result was a feeling of distance from both his neighbors and classmates, which led Joe to music — an outlet that solidified an identity that existed only in negation.

For Joe, discovery of music and the larger world around him went hand in hand. He was fifteen when his parents loaded up the family wagon and drove across the western United States, spending weeks on the road. “By the time it was done, it had put this impression in my mind that all I had to do was get in a car and go somewhere. Once that was set, I felt I could do whatever.”

COLLiDE: You mentioned being one of very few white families in a Latino community. Want to expand on your experiences growing up?

Joe Cardamone: Yeah, I had a weird one. I never went to school in the neighborhood I lived in. My mom was a Catholic school teacher, so she would get breaks on me going to these nice private Catholic schools. I was kind of on both sides of the train tracks. I spent time learning with kids who had way more money than me, which was kind of weird, but I was raised by educators who didn’t make any money. And my neighborhood was, like, quinceaneras going on until like four in the morning, and the dude pushing the cart, and pitbulls running down driveways to bite your leg. My parents never talked about race. Like, I didn’t even really know that I lived in a Mexican neighborhood. But at the end of the day, I still felt different. You don’t really have a name for that, because you’re a kid. Like you know, but you don’t know.

So yeah, I never really fit in pretty much wherever I went. It was normal for me. Until I found music, I didn’t really have a foil for who I was. Like, there’s something in you that has to be put into a positive expression in order for you to communicate with the outside world. Luckily, I found a rock on the wall to pull myself up. That’s what music was for me.

CC: And how did you first come to music?

JC: Well, it’s funny, because growing up in East L.A., I would hear bands like ‘Tom Tom Club’ coming out of cars. I had no idea that I was hearing this cool New York art band — to me, it was just lowrider songs that was part of the mix on the streets. There was a lot of music like that — Funkadelic and shit like that. Songs I just knew from the neighborhood or old-school comps.

But before music, I actually started off painting. They tried to commission me to go to Russia with my art teacher to go to this academy when I was like ten or eleven. It was this huge opportunity, and we couldn’t afford it, so I didn’t go. I pretty much stopped painting after that.

I turned to music not long after. I actually decided I was going to play music long before I ever touched an instrument, but I couldn’t just go and get one. This sounds like some old man shit but I would serve weddings. They’d tip you 20 bucks, and I saved up a whole summer to buy a guitar. And then one day, like some fucking miracle, this guitar was just sitting on the lawn across the street. I ran across and gave this guy all my money and dragged it home. And it didn’t even work! It took me another four weeks to get it working. But I finally had this bullshit guitar I could teach myself music on.

CC: What were your first few years of playing music like?

JC: I was just an animal once I started. I was playing shows every weekend, all over the city, trying to convince everyone’s parents to let us go out of state. It was crazy back then. You had to call people on the phone and be like, “Hey man, we want to play in your basement.” By the time I was sixteen, I had written a record and recorded it and put it out through a friend’s label. Your classic high school punk band, just me and some buddies, just playing shows every weekend and figuring out how to put out records. It was fucked! Our parents must have thought we were psychos.

The first few tours were like, we break down in Bakersfield, and the tour ends. But we got to Bakersfield! I’d never been there before. We broke down almost every tour, because it was a bunch of sixteen year olds buying vans for like nine hundred bucks. We’d scam as much cash as we could from local shows, and buy something that might get us to the delta. We were broke with no money for hotels. We’d sleep at gas stations on the concrete. We didn’t give a shit, because the excitement of seeing new places was enough.

It became clear very early on that I wasn’t gonna make a lot of cash with my music, but the one thing I knew was that it was my ticket to go around the world and see places. That got burned into my head very quickly- “I’m gonna see parts of the world that I wouldn’t be able to see any other way.” I don’t think I even got on a plane until I was in a band. We didn’t have money for shit like that, so art was my ticket to delve into cultures I didn’t even know existed. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s still a huge motivator for me.

CC: So what is it like, then, to perform for these cultures you didn’t know existed, or countries you’d never been to before?

JC: Showing up somewhere where you’ve never been and having a good show is pretty mind-boggling. It’s like being accepted somewhere where you don’t have roots. The fact that anyone ever gives a shit about anything I’ve done is a shock to me. It’s like, how did this happen? When you’re making shit that feels vulnerable and exposing, it’s like, why would anyone ever want to go down this road with me? But being able to talk to people about their reactions, you realize that people are really the same in a lot of ways.

That was another thing I learned early on — everyone’s the same. My Dad would tell me before tours, “Oh, be careful in Italy, they’re thieves there.” I was like, Dad, we’re Italian. And I’d come back and just tell him that everyone’s the same. We all just want to do the same shit and live a decent life and be happy. There’s of course these idiosyncrasies of regions, but at the core, everybody wants the same shit.

CC: Did finding this sort of global sameness change your outlook, coming from a childhood that was often baseless?

JC: I think it mellowed me out, as far as the way I saw humanity. I don’t know though. I don’t look backwards much. The older I get, the less I like looking backwards. I don’t really ponder or ruminate or whatever you want to call it. Looking back is wasting time for the present. I like developing what’s happening. I don’t listen to my records after I put them out, and I know the failures of those experiments as they’re happening.

I think I’ve been trying to tell the same story since the beginning. It’s just from different vantage points. I’m just trying to refine it or find a potency that I couldn’t before. I mean it might sound pretentious, but that’s what it is. Even when I try to get away from it, I find I can’t get away from my voice. No matter what, I’m stuck with myself.

CC: Speaking of your voice- in the Holy War video, you mention William Burroughs as being your inspiration for visiting Mexico City. What does his writing mean for you?

JC: It’s weird, because I didn’t graduate from high school. A lot of the reading they wanted to have us do, I wasn’t really attracted to, but I also didn’t want to be an idiot. So I kind of taught myself with stuff that made sense to me. I was a kid, and I read what aligned with my sensibility. It was ego shit, really. I’m simple, when it comes to writers. If I can read it and see what I’m reading, then I like it, and Burroughs is one of those guys. Some of his stuff is totally insane, like “Naked Lunch.” But his early works, where he talks about life, it’s a life that, at that point, was completely distant to me. The things he talked about and the places he talked about? That was like Lord of the Rings to me. It was a fucking fantasy! I wanted to see those places.

And with Mexico City, there was all this taboo shit around it when I was growing up. The cartel, the worshipping of the dead. All this shit you’re told in the media about it being ruthless and dangerous. It’s painted as this lawless bloodbath. The only way I heard that it was okay to go there was from people who had been there, and it sounded like Berlin in the 70’s. Just this beautiful, incredible place.

CC: You use the words “endless crumbling metropolis” to describe it in your video. That feels a bit Burroughs-esque.

JC: It’s still hard to describe what it is. There’s no other city that I can compare it to. It feels like Paris and Barcelona and Rome and Los Angeles all wrapped up. To imagine what shape it is, forget it, dude. It’s sprawling. When you’re landing, you can’t see in any direction where there isn’t just houses. There’s no way to do it justice.

CC: Some might say “endless crumbling metropolis” applies to L.A. How does it compare, for you?

JC: There’s a weird thing here —I don’t know. I don’t think you always feel ancient culture because there’s new people always coming. In Mexico City, there’s ruins in the city center. And it’s right next to these endless street markets where they’re selling skeleton t-shirts and knockoff Burger King thongs. It’s a vibration, at the most basic knowledge of it. The first time you step off the plane, you can feel these generations of life built upon each other and concentrated in this area. You can feel that people have lived there for a very long time. That humans have been in this spot and will be.

CC: L.A. doesn’t have that as much?

JC: It’s the opposite here. It’s almost like you’re still in nature, and all these houses are temporary. Which can be cool, too. It can be calming in a way. In places like Mexico City, there’s almost this anxiety underneath everything because this place has just been beating. There’s been this heartbeat here since whenever. It belongs to people, and the people there were just so, so gracious. We had zero bad experiences. Well, my brother got sick. But that was the only thing. He ate off this street cart, and we told him not to do it, but he did. But that was the only fuck-up. He’s a chef, though, so I understand why he did it. He wanted the top to bottom. That’s how he gets to know people, you know? That’s how he gets to know a culture.

CC: So how do you get to know a culture?

JC: Since what I do is either showing a film or performing, I’m fucking spoiled. It’s like my birthday. Even at the lowest level, I’m a spoiled asshole. Because I get to go in and show up at a venue where everyone is predisposed to you. Like if you ask a question, they’ll answer. On the street, that might not happen. But with what I do, the roles are predefined, it’s kind of fixed up, you know; it’s an arranged marriage from the get-go. I can ask where to eat, what’s within walking distance, what I should go see. From there, I have the keys to the city, at least compared to if I just walked into some random city and being like “where do I go?” You’d either end up in a box or having to go to some resort and pay people to give you some sort of experience.

And that’s the one of the coolest things about being an artist — aside from it keeping you from killing yourself, you know (laughs) You get to express shit, explain life in your own way. But it also allows you an inpoint into cities and cultures all over the world that you would either have to be a rich person to have an experience like that. Your cultural wealth is just boundless.

CC: Do you do tourist-y things?

JC: Oh yeah. For sure. I try to strike a balance. I want to remember the neighborhood I’m in. Like, if you’re just going to see landmarks, you never fall in love with the corner you’re on. So I try to do both. When I book shows, I do them three days apart, so that I can just stay somewhere for a minute, and just see it. That’s the payoff to me; if I can live in Lisbon for a week, stretch the dollars and make it work. So, it’ll be a balance between me going to Paris and just living on a street in St. Germain, or whatever. It’ll be split between that and going to the cemetery to visit Jimbo. I mean, people go to that shit for a reason. It’s impressive.

CC: There’s a definite desire amongst some people to almost become the culture they’re visiting, which can be hard.

JC: You’re gonna be an outsider until you pay rent. (laughs) You can creep in and experience it, but you don’t have to commit. That seems like a decent life to me.

CC: Did you find any parallels to the community you grew up in?

JC: Various parts of the city visually reminded me of El Sereno. I was seeing shops that I’d seen in my neighborhood — taquerias and street meat that I’ve seen my whole life. It didn’t feel very foreign in that sense. There were a lot of cultural touchstones that had kind of mutated in Los Angeles but are still essentially versions of what I saw in Mexico. It kind of made me realize how much I knew about my own city. Walking down the street and seeing things, it would be like well, shit, I know that.

What it really made me realize was that people that leave their home to move somewhere else for work or sanctuary — it’s really hard for them. I knew that, but it emphasized that further for me. When people talk about immigrants, and paint it as this super-opportunistic path… I know that nobody wants to leave their home. The fact that they’ve tried to build so much of their home in Los Angeles should strengthen that idea even more. These people obviously love where they come from.

I’ve never moved from Los Angeles because my family is here. If I had to move in order to take care of my family, it would not be easy to just get up and move. People coming up here for a better life or whatever — it has to be a hard decision to leave your home.

CC: So it was an enlightening trip, then, overall?

JC: Yeah, definitely. The promoter that put us on and took care of us the whole time grew up in Roma Norte, the neighborhood we stayed in. But he grew up almost the exact same way I did. He came up through a similar punk scene, playing in punk bands. When I say punk bands, I mean bands that nobody has ever heard of. Like, a scene that had no documentation of it. It was just this microcosm, but these scenes seemed to touch down all over the globe in these tiny little pockets, and it ended up gluing us all together. There’s people all over the world that grew up on the same kind of records, did the same DIY shows, just lived very similar lives, and had no idea each other existed. That was the coolest thing, because I felt instantly at home. It would be awesome to go back and explore those relationships. It would be cool to work on something where music is just the conduit for people.

photo by: Travis Keller