Ocha La Rocha

A Country Boy Can Survive:
Ocha La Rocha is Gunning for the Big Leagues

There’s a reason for the near 10-year gap between Ocha La Rocha’s live debut and the band’s first proper full-length, and it’s got very little to do with head honcho Johnny La Rocha’s relocation from Atlanta to LA.

Finally, Ocha Scores drops this month. Recorded in Johnny’s Decatur basement in 2011, the LP is the epitome of country-rock revival done right, replete with rollicking Southern stompers, aching ballads and even a staple subject: trains. Paisley psych filters and ’60s west coast country nods are slid smoothly into the mix. And local production whiz Kris Sampson glazed the whole thing over with his signature crystalline sheen.

The physical copy delay, however, is deceptive. For several years now, the LP’s been ready for consumption – and already turning a profit. Folks who’s kept up with the fellas for the past few years will likely recognize a handful of songs from live shows. It’s not that they were intentionally keeping the material under wraps. In fact, it’s been permeating the mainstream all along.

“There wasn’t really a reason to release it. Every song on that album now has been placed,” Johnny explains. “It was out there, it just wasn’t in the public domain so to speak. The music supervisors had it and it was making us money, so it was like, ‘Why go through all this trouble?’”

A couple examples: The boisterous romp “Slow Rolling” was a fitting tune for the finale of Sons of Anarchy’s latest season, as well as the gentle and twangy “Heavy.” That cut found its way to Jersey Shore too, in addition to the melancholy cowboy number “I Feel It Too” and the jumpy, subtly funky jam “The Beach.” It’s not an unprecedented move for Ocha to sell tracks – they’ve got older songs in other works, like Hot Tub Time Machine and Going the Distance. Johnny’s become somewhat of a commercial Kris Kristofferson, actually.

“I do Ocha tunes, like the masters that we create for album release are always being shopped to publishers. And I do custom writing too. I do that with Kris Sampson from Ponderosa,” he says. “We email back and forth to each other from Atlanta to LA, and he helps me get them cleaned up and ready for TV and higher production value. I did a title sequence a couple days ago for this new Sylvester Stallone movie coming out in 2014 that looks pretty hysterical.”

America’s Funniest Home Videos also scooped up a song just recently, he says.

“That’s what’s so cool about [Los Angeles]. There’s so much of that work here,” he says. “It’s available if you can just find [it]. I had a lot of contacts before I moved out here. Number one because our manager [Evan Smith], who’s been out here for ten years already, had a lot of this stuff up and running. But I lived out here five or six years ago previously, and I did production work when I was out here before.”

His backline company, he clarifies, is his old reliable. Some of his other jobs are even cushier and more enviable, like handling the stage at the Gibson showroom in Beverly Hills. At the time of the interview, running sound for the Beach Boys’ appearance in a few days was among the next items on his to-do list.

“I’m not selling tea tree oil door to door every day,” he laughs. “Everything else is pretty cliché I guess. The clichés are real, because that’s what kind of work is in this town.”

Considering Johnny’s proximity to the higher profile sector of working musicians, it could easily be assumed that Ocha might soon outgrow its britches. Ocha Scores doesn’t prove much – it’s too rooted in their hometown, and completed long before the possibility of major label grandstanding came into view. It is fair to say that, at the very least, Johnny’s got his eye on a bigger prize for Ocha than sunset slots at small-time festivals.

“We’re getting shopped to a bunch of booking agents right now. As soon as we get a booking agent we’ll do a full us tour, like winter 2013, to support it,” he says.

He adds that “you can’t really tour and break even anymore with an agent.” That’s big talk – but it’s not as ostentatious as it sounds.

“I make most of my money off of just staying busy writing, so if we’re going to go out it’s going to be have some fun and play some bigger shows, and do it right,” Johnny adds.

Thing is, Johnny’s not a pompous guy by any stretch. He doesn’t live right in LA, but instead in the historically artistic hub of Silver Lake – and complains that it’s become “kind of yuppified.” Its saving grace is that Echo Park is nearby, where every Sunday during summer there’s a country-western shindig. Johnny seems to cherish California’s golden days more than he revels in well-paying work.

“There’s a very strong heritage of California country stuff, which is really always the kind of stuff we were doing anyways in Atlanta. There is a pretty substantial sort of two degrees of separation from Gram Parsons and the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. All that stuff is still here. There’s still a pretty strong jangly country scene,” he notes.

While it’s unlikely that Ocha would cringe at the idea of a contract with the likes of Sony or Capitol, it’s certain they’d oppose any bending to the whims of a knuckleheaded exec. They’re not blindly aiming high. And because they lend tracks to popular culture doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly join the ranks of robotic auto-tuned artists outfitted in designer duds. (Especially the latter part. There’s no way Johnny would give up his bellbottoms without a fight.)

The route they’re taking isn’t so much about financial gain as it is security. They’ve been mostly DIY long enough to want to eat regular meals on the road, and be able to pay their bills while they’re gone. Demanding a better quality of life as a musician isn’t going to cause any level of cultural conformity. Plus, more money means Ocha can sound even more like Ocha, really.

“The band has always been about the players. It’s always been about getting the best of the best that I can find in whatever town and put them together and recreate the songs to the best of our ability,” Johnny says.

Lead guitarist Taylor Croll took the leap to LA with Johnny, who says together they’ve rounded out the rhythm section with a stellar live lineup of “hired guns” and a pedal steel player named Loren. Whenever they play Atlanta, they’ll continue to ring up the familiar faces: Chandler Rentz, Milton Chapman, Spencer Garn and Anna Kramer.

“To me, those guys are pretty much the best at what they do in Atlanta,” he asserts. “Milton is to me hands down the best keys player in Atlanta. Spencer is a badass bass player in his own right. And Anna…I just try to cherry-pick the best folks I can find. The band is just a culmination of those players. Taylor [Crowell] is like consistent badass guitar player, he’s always been helpful to have around. Kris Sampson, on the production side, is like the sixth member of the band. He’s the reason the album has that production value to it.”

Need further convincing that Ocha’s trademark sound won’t soon be written with a glittering, diamond-encrusted pen? Johnny sent me the freshest batch of songs that will eventually comprise the follow-up LP – and it’s as down-home, hippie friendly and altogether rockin’ as ever.

“That’s kind of the carrot at the end of the stick for the booking agents. We’re ready to go on a full touring cycle to support two LPs,” Johnny says. “And the promotion that’s sort of inherent in having it placed in TV and film.”

Sometimes it’s better to be proactive than to simply keep on keepin’ on.

Photo by Alex Cullen.