Freak Show

This band doesn't take rock and roll for granted.

It's a hazy Saturday afternoon at the end of August. A white Ford F-350 Powerstroke with Colorado plates whizzes down Interstate 15, en route from one legendary strip to another. The vehicle's occupants are high as hell, almost as if they've buried their faces in mountains of coke, Tony Montana-style. And while it's not a chemically induced rush they're enjoying, it sure feels like it.

They planned and saved for this trip all year, working every gig in Denver that they could. And now, after two nights of playing the odds as an out-of-town band, they're leaving Vegas as winners, ready to live like rock stars -- at least for the next couple of days.

A few hours later, as the Ford navigates through a never-ending maze of metal on the 101, one of its occupants spots the infamous Hollywood sign through the haze. The members of Semifreak -- guitarist Gary Montoya, drummer Billy Coffey, vocalist Roarke Pulcino and bassist Brian Rosenberg -- hoot and holler in unison, high fives all around. This is it, man; they've finally made it. This is the moment they've dreamed about since they were kids. To commemorate the occasion, someone slips 8 O'Clock Fix -- the band's about-to-be-released disc -- into the deck, and they roll down the windows and crank it up.

The freaks come out at night: Gary Montoya (from left), 
Roarke Pulcino, Brian Rosenberg and Billy Coffey are 
Semifreak.
John Johnston
The freaks come out at night: Gary Montoya (from left), Roarke Pulcino, Brian Rosenberg and Billy Coffey are Semifreak.

Next stop: Sunset Strip and the Hyatt House -- or "the Riot House," a name coined a few decades back because of the drunken debauchery of groups like Led Zeppelin, whose members rode Harleys up and down the corridors.

But before they reach rock's hallowed ground, one of the Semifreaks has to piss like a racehorse. He jumps out at the first stoplight after the freeway and disappears from view. "Fuckin' sonofabitch -- that self-absorbed motherfucker!" exclaims the driver. The rest of the crew is annoyed at the delay, too, but nothing's really going to bring these guys down -- not even an impetuous frontman with leaky plumbing. They're in the City of Angels, for chrissakes, and soon they'll retrace the footsteps of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

While they'll take some time to play the role of starry-eyed tourists, this is no ordinary vacation: Tomorrow night they'll perform on the same stage once graced by Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Whisky A Go-Go: It just doesn't get any better than this.


Fast forward to the next night. The four Cowtown boys are discovering that all that glitters is definitely not gold -- especially in Tinseltown, a place that celebrates replication and fabrication.

The bandmembers double-park the Ford in front of the club and unload their gear. Before they can go inside, they must undergo an invasive pat-down that stops just short of a full body-cavity search. And despite what the marquee out front says, this Whisky A Go-Go is not the same club that Morrison played. It's also doubtful that the Doors ever had to pay hundreds of dollars to share the bill with a dozen no-name, Hot Topic punks -- and perform in front of scores of screaming, fourteen-year-old girls.

"They stuck us on this teen-night punk fest; I don't know what it is," says Montoya. "But it's like junior high."

"And this isn't the good punk," adds Pulcino. "This is that new, shitty punk. We're like, 'Eewww, man.' It's brutal with all these young hoochies. It's hi-larious. I mean, all of them walking around in plastic boots, with cell phones on their ears; it's ridiculous, man. It's like being in the movie Clueless."

Although the musicians are dumbfounded by the scene, they remain undaunted. They've gotten used to the idea that they're older guys in a much younger man's game. Semifreak's members are all in their early thirties, and unlike a lot of musicians their age, they're not afraid to admit it. They have no delusions of grandeur; they know they'll have to work twice as hard to make it. But the four of them are driven, and they display twice the passion and stamina of kids a decade younger. So rather than bemoan the fact that they had to pay to play the Whisky, they're so amped that not only are they the first band at the gig, they're also the last to leave -- a pattern they've followed at every show since Semifreak's inception.

"We show up, usually, before the soundman and stay till after the soundman," says Pulcino. "We go, we set up, we go get dinner and come back, then we soundcheck and do our show. We stay till the last band is done. If somebody wants to pay us, we take their money. And even if they don't, we open and close bars, man. We don't care if it's a dive in Nebraska; we know the privilege and honor to be able to play music live in front of people, and we respect it. We all bang gear, we all drive back to the warehouse in Henderson at three in the morning, in the middle of sunrise, and bang the gear out, because we want to do it again next Tuesday."


This shared work ethic was ingrained in the band's members long before any of them picked up an instrument. Montoya's father, a migrant laborer who moved to Brighton in search of work, bought a piece of land there for $200 and built a house for his family, one piece at a time, during lunch hours and after work. Pulcino's parents were successful musicians in their own right -- his father a celebrated jazz guitarist who played with such luminaries as Remo Palmieri, his mother an accomplished vocalist -- and gave up burgeoning careers to raise a family.

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