The raw and ragged din of garage rock, new wave and girl groups are as American as apple pie. Such primitive rock 'n' roll movements weren't exactly what Carlito Davila had in mind when he left his home town of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late '90s to find the Seattle music scene. But while visiting the States he got his first exposure to the music of Television, the Ramones, and the Killed By Death compilations of obscure ’70s and ’80s punk rock. "It was like nothing I had ever heard before," he recalls with a mild accent. "These people were making music because they had to, and it felt so real and honest and homemade to me, and I loved it."
That exposure planted seeds in Davila that would later bloom into his band Davila 666, a group many are calling Puerto Rico's answer to the Black Lips.
The sounds of modern Puerto Rico are defined largely by Latin hip-hop, bomba and reggaeton, and although a small enclave of punk and hardcore music exists in San Juan, the music Davila heard in the states was totally alien to him. When it comes to pop culture, Puerto Rico is a bit isolated, so by the time he made his way to Seattle, circa '96, the music scene he was looking for had come and gone. It was around that time that he met Erin Wood while working at Shop and Save.
"He was your average kid that you would meet at an inner city thrift store, one of the cool ones," recalls Wood, who now plays bass for Seattle punk band the Spits. "We worked in the electronics department downstairs, so we had free reign over the place. Our job was just to sit there and give the locals hell while listening to loud music."
Wood and Davila worked together for about a year-and-a-half before Davila moved back to San Juan. But before he left, Wood made him an epic 120-minute compilation tape. The two didn't speak for a few years, until one day Davila sent Wood a MySpace message that said "I owe it all to you, man. Check out my band!" Shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles garage punk label In the Red Records released Davila 666's self-titled debut. The album was an instant success with the label's followers, and has steadily gained steam throughout the States ever since.
Tipping their hat to the Ramones, the group's lineup, Carlito (vocals, bass), AJ (bass, vocals, piano), Johnny Otis (guitar) and Panda (tambourine, maracas) all go by the last name Davila. Everyone, that is, except drummer Sergio Navarez who is best known as the Latin Snake, a name that he earned due to what Davila calls his "venomous mullet."
From the opening howl of "el Lobo" and the razor-sharp riffs of "Basura," "Bla Bla Bla" and "Callejón," the album embraces the signature songwriting, grit and lo-fi production of cut-and-dry garage rock, while "Tú" rings with all of the fuzz and dreaminess of the Ronettes.
But what sets the group apart is an intensely refined pop sensibility. Since all of the songs are sung in Spanish, there's a language barrier that most Americans typically wouldn't be able to overcome. Yet the songs are so catchy and hook-driven that you can't help but sing along, even if you don't know what they're about.
"Before we think of the music as garage or punk or anything, it's pop music," Davila says. "I love the kind of song where once you hear the first hook you already have the rest of the song memorized, and when I write lyrics I do it phonetically. I wait until the song is done and then I write the words, just to keep it so the melodies are the strongest parts of the song."
The group's latest release, the "Pingorocha" y "la Diva Rockera" 7-inch on Atlanta's Douchemaster Records, show's the group's pop sensibilities becoming further refined.
"When the In the Red LP came out I thought it was an immaculate record, top-to-bottom perfection," says Douchemaster owner Bryan Rackley. "It was trashy and calculating, but it had mood changes, too, which is hard for most bands in this field to pull off. I thought it was one of the top records of 2008," he continues. "They sent me five songs and wanted me to pick the ones I wanted for a 7-inch, but I wanted them all. I asked if we could put them all on a 12-inch, but they had promised records to some other labels so I had to settle for three."
The songs on the Douchemaster single are more focused than anything on the album. They're clean, and a little tame by comparison but the power of their pure pop sensibilities are every bit as fresh and intoxicating as the music that inspired the group in the first place.
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