South Bay’s Slaughterhouse ready for its curtain call after a year pent-up by the pandemic

After more than a year without live music, South Bay’s Slaughterhouse is ready for the roaring crowd

by Ryan McDonald

On March 6 of last year, when face masks seemed a paranoid overstatement, the band Slaughterhouse played a show at the Factory, a venue in a converted industrial space about a half-mile west of the Los Angeles River. Proceeds went to aid victims of the bushfires that had recently ravaged the east coast of Australia, and they shared the bill with Clit Kat, Feels, and NIIS.

In the months leading up to the show, all of the bands had been gaining followers, said Eddie Cairns, Slaughterhouse’s bassist and a Redondo Beach native, but the crowd at the benefit seemed oddly spare. 

“Even at that time, people were talking. You could tell something was coming,” Taylor Ramirez, the band’s guitarist and a Hermosa Beach native, said in a recent interview.

Slaughterhouse had its next show scheduled in Los Angeles on March 17. Cairns remembers wondering what time they would finish their set, in hopes he might have enough time after to be able to drive to the El Rey Theater in Hollywood, where the post-punk act Ceremony was set to play. As the 17th drew nearer, the El Rey announced that the Ceremony show, and others, were canceled.

“My first thought was, Oh cool, maybe the attendance at our show can go up a little bit, being that there’s fewer things to do,” Cairns said. The El Rey holds about 800 people, at least four times bigger than the spaces where Slaughterhouse has played most of its shows. Cairns remembered thinking, “We’re not going to get canceled. It’s just big stuff, the NBA.”

The band Slaughterhouse after finishing a recording session last week at Screaming Leopard Studios in Hermosa Beach. (From left) drummer Nick Aguilar, bassist Eddie Cairns, singer Veronica Molidor, guitarist Taylor Ramirez. Photo by J.P. Cordero

Nick Aguilar also sensed opportunity. Aguilar, Slaughterhouse’s drummer, works as the assistant talent buyer at Alex’s Bar, a Long Beach venue that hosts both new acts and established draws, and holds about 180 people. After years of trying to book the Mummies, a Bay Area garage punk band known for performing wrapped in white rags, Alex’s finally lined up a Mummies gig for March 13. When posted online months earlier, the show sold out faster than any that Aguilar could remember. The Mummies were set to headline Burgerama, a one-day festival put on by Santa Ana’s Burger Records, at the Echoplex, an 800-person venue in Echo Park, the night of March 14. When Burgerama announced just a few days before the show that it too was cancelling, Alex’s reached out to the Mummies, and booked them for an additional night. Response this time, however, was slow. Aguilar worked the door the night of the first show, the sellout, and remembers noticing how many people were apparently forsaking their once-sought-after tickets. People were scared, Aguilar realized. Suddenly, so was he.

The experience of Veronica Molidor, Slaughterhouse’s singer, revealed what was to come: job loss, displacement, Zoom. Molidor was finishing her senior year at UCLA and sharing an apartment in West Los Angeles with her sister. They worked at the same restaurant, and shortly after the various public health orders went into effect, their boss contacted them to say the restaurant would not survive. Molidor floundered in a sea of troubles at California’s unemployment insurance program. Unable to pay rent, she moved in with her parents.

“I was fortunate to even have a place to go after that, but I was there for maybe a couple of weeks, and I was like, I gotta get out of here,” Molidor said. She moved once again, this time to the couch in the San Pedro home shared by Cairns and Ramirez.

Thirteen months later, Slaughterhouse’s most recent show remains the gig at the Factory, a venue that no longer exists in a world no one from March 2020 would recognize. 

In the early days of the pandemic, scientists from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believed the virus was primarily spread through shared surfaces and moisture-laden “respiratory droplets” that traveled fewer than six feet before sinking to the ground. But after 53 of the 61 people who attended a March 10 practice of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington tested positive for COVID-19, public health authorities began to suspect the coronavirus could linger in the air and spread through a confined room. (Two of the chorale members died.) This made any indoor gathering risky, and none more so than a musical performance. “The act of singing itself — drawing air deep into the lungs and then expelling it completely while forcefully vibrating the vocal cords — puts more particles, and thus more virus, into the air than talking does,” Kim Tingley wrote in a recent story about the Skagit Valley Chorale for the New York Times Magazine.

In retrospect, the initial optimism of Aguilar and Cairns — that small scenes might be spared even as larger institutions tumbled — looks like a strain of the naivete with which the world met COVID-19: Surely this microbe that sprang from an animal market on the other side of the world will not upend the modest sliver of life I have managed to carve out? Instead, the extended absence of live music that ensued posed an existential challenge to Slaughterhouse and bands like them, acts built on relationships made at shows, and driven by their intimate, irreplaceable thrill. 

When we spoke by phone last week, Aguilar had just left work at Alex’s Bar. As vaccination rates increase, so has hope of some return to pre-pandemic conditions. (April 15 marks the first day that all California adults are eligible to be vaccinated.) Alex’s is trying to keep up with shifting regulations, he said, and might soon be able to begin lining up shows at reduced capacity.

“It’s nice to be able to put certain things on the books and make small-scale things happen. But man, I just can’t wait to be in a packed room with 200, 300 people and have some asshole spill beer on me,” Aguilar said.

***

Ramirez described Slaughterhouse as “the first band I’ve really been in and committed to.” When Ramirez was 17, she played drums in a band with some friends. Then, about five years ago, she saw one of those friends perform in a different band, Oakland-based Shutups.

“It made me way more inspired to want to be in a band,” she said.

Cairns, who has been in several South Bay bands, including the trio Local Hate, was living with Ramirez in Redondo until several years ago, when their landlord raised their rent. They moved to San Pedro, a move that coincided with a period of constantly going to shows, drawing inspiration and meeting fellow musicians. In 2018, a friend of Cairns, a drummer named Miles Gretzky, said he wanted to form a band, and suggested Ramirez as the guitarist. Cairns credits the initial interplay between Ramirez’s riffs and Gretzky’s rhythms with producing “the entire sound of Slaughterhouse.” 

The band’s original lineup, of Cairns, Gretzky, Ramirez, and Gabi Ramirez singing, quickly built momentum. (Cairns had previously played guitar in each band he’d been in, and planned to serve as a second guitarist once the band recruited another bassist, which never happened. “I’m enjoying being stuck there,” he said.) After playing fewer than a dozen shows, they recorded a demo, and decided to go out on tour.

“After playing in bands for a decade, I heard better response about this band than any prior band I’d been in. Like local buzz: ‘Hey man, I hear your band’s good.’ I’d never had that before,” Cairns recalled.

They set up a 13-show, West Coast tour. After returning home, their singer told them she couldn’t commit to being in a touring band, and would be leaving. About the same time, Gretzky, who was then in several other musical projects, also announced he would be departing.

“It was like driving a car and losing power,” Cairns said of learning of the two exits immediately after the tour. “To have the momentum and feeling like you’re in control and then very quickly realizing you aren’t.”

“We wanted to find someone right away,” Ramirez said. “It was not something we wanted to give up.”

Cairns reached out to Aguilar, a San Pedro native who played in several bands in the area, and who often practiced at the same rehearsal space as Slaughterhouse. He quickly agreed to join.

Finding a singer proved more difficult. Cairns and Ramirez were hesitant to announce publicly that their singer had left, for fear of giving off the impression that the band was imploding. Instead, Cairns resorted to “stalking strangers on Instagram.” Knowing that they wanted another female singer, he would go to the accounts of local bands that he liked, look at their followers, and then do the social media version of cold calling. Eventually, he came across a picture of Molidor playing bass, on her sister’s account, and asked if she would be interested.

Molidor had moved to Los Angeles only a few months before. She grew up in Tehachapi, a small town in Kern County where wind turbines dot the nearby mountains. As she got older and more interested in music, she increasingly ventured to Los Angeles for shows.

Joining a band made up of strangers, however, was a leap.

“It was honestly very off-brand for me. Normally, I’m within my comfort zone: I know what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. But this time, for some reason, I just got a wild hair up my ass, and I was like, Let’s do it,” Molidor said. (Her sister accompanied her to her first Slaughterhouse practice, “to make sure they weren’t murderers.”)

Before meeting the rest of the band Molidor had received recordings of some of the band’s older songs. Going in, she had to consider how to balance expressing herself while keeping in mind the existing work of those who had invited her.

“I kind of knew that I was going to have to do things my own way. Like, I wouldn’t be able to hit certain notes. I wasn’t going to be able to scream as hard as the previous vocalist at some points. But I also knew that I wanted to … not emulate, but keep their previous sound in mind, and try to do my best at maintaining that,” she said.

Shortly after releasing the demo with the previous lineup, Cairns had received a call from Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge. Dragge had known Cairns since he was a kid, when Cairns’s father would bring him to Pennywise shows. Dragge kept tabs on the band’s search for a new vocalist, and when Cairns told him about Molidor, Dragge suggested bringing her to Screaming Leopard, his Hermosa Beach recording studio. It was the first time in a studio for Molidor, who had relatively little experience playing music with others before Slaughterhouse. Molidor, Fletcher recalled, was a natural, and displayed obvious chemistry with the other members. 

Cairns, Ramirez and Molidor inside Screaming Leopard. The band said the halt in live music made it hard to feel creative or motivated during the first wave of the pandemic. Photo by J.P. Cordero

The band quickly got back into a groove, and began playing more live shows. At the end of 2019, they accompanied Pennywise on a tour. Opening for one of the world’s most famous punk bands gave Slaughterhouse a chance to play for their biggest audiences yet. Ramirez recalled looking out at the audience before their set at the Majestic Ventura Theater — capacity 1,200 — and seeing a full house.

“It was gorgeous,” Ramirez said. 

Dragge watched their performances, as well as the audience’s reaction to them. He described a band that was polished and kept audiences engaged for their entire set.  They are not, he said, “one of those bands where you watch a couple songs and go get a beer.”

“I’ve seen a lot of bands, friends and younger bands that come on tours with us, and I’ll be backstage after the show, telling them what they could do better, blah, blah, blah. With them, there wasn’t really anything,” Dragge said.

I was fortunate enough to catch Slaughterhouse at one of their last shows before the pandemic hit, when they opened for L.A. punk rock quartet the Paranoyds in mid February 2020. Slaughterhouse’s sound is foreboding and woozy, and echoes acts like Rudimentary Peni and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Cairns’ bass is the band’s pulsing heartbeat, and leaves Aguilar liberated to offer flourishes that Dragge compared to those of a jazz drummer. Ramirez’s riffs are transporting, alternately jagged and ethereal, while Molidor’s vocals complete the atmosphere of distant menace. On the night I saw them, the Paranoyds’ Laila Hashemi joined them on keys for a cover of X’s hangover anthem “Nausea.” 

By March of last year, the band had wrapped its first full-length album at Screaming Leopard. The plan was to release it by last summer.

 ***

Todd Congelliere founded Recess Records, the label that will be putting out Slaughterhouse’s first album, in 1989. The son of a former Redondo Union High School football coach, Congelliere had a vert ramp in the backyard of his parents’ Torrance home that became a source of local legend. He started Recess with what little money he had been able to save from his career as a skateboarder, and used it to put out the recordings of F.Y.P., a punk band that in its earliest incarnation consisted of Congelliere on guitar backed by a Fisher Price drum machine.

He was in the midst of a separation from the mother of his child when the pandemic hit, and he rode out the first wave in an RV parked behind the Sardine, the San Pedro music venue he opened in 2019.  (An F.Y.P. reunion show that had been scheduled for April 2020 sold out so quickly that the Sardine added two more; Slaughterhouse had been scheduled to open for one of them.) For the first month or so, he often found himself alone inside the shuttered businesses, tinkering on the empty stage with guitars and, especially, the piano. He wrote songs, but knowing that live performance was impossible for the foreseeable future made the experience feel “unnatural.” 

“I was doing more piano stuff than what I was used to, and came up with a bunch of stuff, but it didn’t feel the same. There’s something about it where, if you’re not actively playing, then it’s hard for me to get inspired. The piano thing was like, ‘Well I can’t imagine ever doing this in front of people, so …’” he said, his voice going flat and trailing off as if to suggest that it was close to pointless. “I learned a lot of piano and the boogie woogie and all that stuff. But, definitely, it was the driest year for creativity for me since I’ve started doing this. It doesn’t make sense. But it’s just, not playing in front of people, there’s something about that where it’s almost like, Ah, what’s the use?”

In the early days of COVID-19, when people were sharing insipid social media posts about Shakespeare writing “King Lear” in quarantine, it seemed possible that a creative flowering might spring from a time of forced isolation and, for many, joblessness. Cairns, who works in construction, spent about two months on unemployment at the beginning of the pandemic. Like Congelliere, the uncertain future for live music made it hard to get attached to creation. 

“While constantly employed, I’ve always, always stressed, Man I wish I had more free time to write more songs. I always blame work: It sucks creativity out of me, by the time I get home, I don’t want to pick up my guitar and start working on all this stuff. But now that I had the free time, the inspiration was gone. As much as there was stuff to vent about, I had not a creative bone in my body,” he said. “We kept it going for a second, but it was like, what are we practicing for?”

Slaughterhouse stopped practicing for several months. They put off releasing their album, fearful that a record they were unable to tour behind would be quickly forgotten.

Last summer, they were talking with friends in another band from the Bay Area, who had been unusually productive during the pandemic’s first wave. The friends asked what they’d been up to, creatively.

“I said, We have our album. And they were like, Yeah, but what about after that?” Cairns said. The sense of looking to the future propelled the group to write additional material. They finished recording new songs at Screaming Leopard last week.

Molidor spent several months on the couch of Cairns and Ramirez before finding new jobs and a new apartment, in North Redondo. (It was September before she managed to get her unemployment claim from March resolved.) She said that, although the group stopped practicing for a while, their identity as a band never faded.

“All of us knew that, as soon as we were able to again, we were all going to be back on board. I don’t think there was ever a point where we were like, Oh, what if one of us doesn’t want to be in it?” Molidor said.

Aguilar, who works as a casual longshoreman, along with his job at Alex’s, was able to stay employed throughout the pandemic, but often felt adrift without live shows. In 2019, in addition to playing with Slaughterhouse, he had gone on tour with Mike Watt, bassist for San Pedro punk legends The Minutemen. He had started to build his life around playing music in a way that felt both satisfying and realistic. Going from the successes of 2019 to the setbacks of 2020 felt “like a kick in the face.” He described moving from sadness to frustration to a grim, powerless acceptance. (“Like, This is how it’s gonna be. For a while.”)  

“I’m not gonna lie man, in the fall of 2020, I was in a very dark place in my life where I felt I hadn’t been in a long time. And it was definitely a new kind of dark, because there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said.

Although Slaughterhouse was able to make it through, it’s uncertain what the scene they’ll be returning to will look like. A year without live music may have wiped out untold numbers of nascent bands, or discouraged those who might have been inclined from ever starting one, leading to a kind of musical lost generation. Congelliere, who became acquainted with Slaughterhouse through encounters at shows, said he had considered that possibility, but is optimistic. The Sardine is cautiously preparing for some kind of return by June 15, the date on which Governor Gavin Newsom has said most pandemic restrictions should be lifted. The venue has rented out the adjoining space to do larger all-ages shows, and is looking into permits needed to have events in their parking lot. 

“We’re kind of thinking it’s going to be a flurry of creating and touring. I can’t imagine everybody just thinking, Ah, we gave up, we like being home and that’s it,” Congelliere said. 

Dragge said Slaughterhouse is at the point where bands are most exciting: a state of energy and exuberance that is inseparable from a love of live performance.

“This is when I think people write their best albums, their best stuff. They don’t have a goal they’re trying to reach, they’re doing it because they love the music, they have a hunger for it, and they want to play,” Dragge said.

Slaughterhouse will be playing live with Pennywise and others at Punk in the Park in Arizona on May 29.

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Written by: Ryan McDonald

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