A Wave of Relief: DIY Hardcore Returns as Sunami Pummels San Jose

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Josef Alfonso, singer of Sunami, at the Real Bay Shit show in San Jose on June 19, 2021.
Josef Alfonso, singer of Sunami, at the Real Bay Shit show in San Jose on June 19, 2021. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

If you’re gonna go out on the first weekend after California’s COVID restrictions are lifted, you might as well go hard. That was my idea, anyway, when I drove two hours to San Jose on Saturday. My destination: REAL BAY SHIT, a DIY show with seven bands, in the city that’s quickly become the epicenter of the country’s hardcore scene.

Picture your typical industrial park: faceless concrete buildings, loading bays, on the outskirts of town. Then picture a long line of people waiting to pay their $5, and, around a corner in a roped-off, hidden parking lot, upwards up 1,500 people. The location was announced at 3pm, just two hours prior, and people have been so eager to get together again that the place is already full. Some of them are already crowdsurfing before even one band has played a note.

The crowd in San Jose.
The crowd before the start of Real Bay Shit in San Jose. (Gabe Meline)

There’s an electricity in the air, along with the occasional hurled beer can, drum head, giant stuffed animal, discarded bra, and human body soaring across the sky. And that’s just during the opening bands. During Xiobalba’s set, I scan the crowd: maybe 60% white, with a mix of Latino, Asian and Black fans—a reflection of the South Bay. I see a couple of typical mohawked drunk punks almost get into an all-out brawl with some dudes in matching “10 Years of Smashing Nazis” T-shirts and then, two minutes later, I see them working it out and hugging in the pit.

I’m here for Sunami, San Jose’s most talked-about hardcore band at the moment, who specialize in a heavy, in-your-face assault. This is their second-ever show; the only other one they’ve played was in October of 2019, pre-COVID. In the past year and a half, two things happened: that show attained legendary status due to widely-watched footage of crowd mayhem while the band debuted in a living room, and also, everyone who watched it sat at home for a year, waiting for the chance to finally allow the bottled-up powder keg of shelter-in-place to explode in every direction.

So... yeah. That’s basically what happens when Sunami starts playing.

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From where I am, at the front of the stage, it’s just a churn of bodies—flailing, falling, swarming. Entire sections of the crowd crash down hard on the asphalt, resurfacing with bloodied knees and palms. One guy has a bloody eye. During one song, four different stagedivers land right on my head. There are screams and sweat and gnashing of teeth all around me. There are men and women alike just straight-up kicking and throwing swings at anybody within striking distance, over and over; I wind up getting punched a couple times in the head.

And you know what? It is beautiful.

This is what I missed most in the pandemic: not just being in a pit specifically, but moving in close quarters with other humans, with their movements impacting yours, and doing so in such a random and hectic way as to feel illicit or dangerous. Think crowded BART cars, or sideshows, or even wave pools. After a year of quarantine, I wanted chaos and tension with other people. I wanted the extreme opposite of social distancing.

And, as I realized at some point on Saturday, I don’t want any more manufactured “experiences,” or festivals put on by huge promoters. This show was $5, it was completely DIY, probably illegal on a number of different levels, bands played on a plywood stage, powered by a generator, BYOB with cheap tacos being sold, no Live Nation, no Goldenvoice, by the scene, for the scene. The stacked lineup—Drain, Gulch, Sunami, Xiobalba, Skeletal Remains, Maya Over Eyes, and Scowl—could have easily sold out the Warfield. It wouldn’t have been nearly the same.

Plus it was just fun. Being cooped up inside has made everyone I know take themselves too seriously. Give me more of the inane, the over-the-top, the unexplainable, the alive. Give me more of the band that, as I went to my car for more ibuprofen (I am 45), pulled up in a van, opened the side doors, and played one song before insulting the crowd and driving off, all in under a minute.

And yes, I know it isn't for everybody. But to me, there’s a church-like ritual to the best hardcore shows that I’ve missed: the processional of the pit, the unwritten rules of lifting each other up, the moments of rising and singing along to hymns, the sin of beating the hell out of everyone around you and the redemption of hugging it out. People of all races and backgrounds and pronouns in a communal testimony.

And, especially after a year in quarantine, it’s the concentrated version of society itself, that thing we’re all going to have to re-enter: messy, unexpected, joyful and scary, and completely unmediated.

Sunami plays again with Connoisseur, Lead Dream, Extinguish, and Fentanyl at the Punk Rock Flea Market on Sunday, June 27, at LVL UP in San Jose. Bring aspirin. Details here.