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El Paso indie band blows up online, packs live shows

It was a crisp November night as the boys in Late Night Drive Home made the drive to California for their very first out-of-state show. A mini tour, it was the first time in the area for a few of them.

El Paso indie rock band Late Night Drive Home is blowing up online and packing out live shows in El Paso. The band’s lead guitarist and the group’s documentarian (not pictured) are both NMSU students. Pictured clockwise from top are Juan “Ockz” Vargas, lead guitar; Freddy Baca, bass; Brian Dolan, drums; and Andre Portillo, lead vocals. (Photo courtesy of Late Night Drive Home)

They announced the show just a week or two before this night, before they were making it happen. The journey was in the dark of night for the most part, but the car was buzzing with excitement.

When they got to their destination, their eyes were puffy with exhaustion from the long drive, but they made it. They were playing their first out-of-state show to a crowd they weren’t even sure would show up.

Was this a dream come true?

When the band members first met, they were all still in high school in El Paso, Texas. Bonding over similar tastes in music, they were hoping to learn to play music with each other.

Juan Vargas, aka “Ockz,” the lead guitarist, is fairly new to playing guitar, having only learned how to play during quarantine in 2020. The others have dabbled in playing instruments longer, but not by much.

Andre Portillo, the lead singer, and Freddy Baca, the bassist, played in school bands. This piqued their interest in continuing music, but what type of music they would play was still a mystery. Brian Dolan, the drummer, well, he’s just that, the drummer.

Baca, who is actually Vargas’ cousin, was raised in East El Paso, where he attended Montwood High School. Portillo, Vargas and Dolan all attended Chaparral High School.

Portillo and Vargas were two grades apart, but quickly bonded with a strong friendship. The band really began with them.

Vargas and the band’s documentarian, Jaedan Beard or “Jaydog,” are now full-time students at NMSU. Vargas is studying computer science, while Jaydog is in the Creative Media Institute studying digital filmmaking.

The band was all just talk for a bit, but soon they were teaching themselves how to play music and what writing music might be to them. This process is widely different from what they do now, but it was a start.

As Portillo and Vargas began to take the music seriously, they knew that they needed a drummer. This is where Dolan comes in.

Local indie band Late Night Drive Home is blowing up online and packing out live shows. Here’s a short clip of band members thrifting in preparation for the Late Night Y2K event in February 2022. (Video produced by Myra Rommes/Kokopelli)

According to the band, Dolan was a big part of the puzzle of the band becoming a whole, keeping them on tempo while also keeping them on their toes.

When they began to practice as a new band with stars in their eyes, Vargas was playing the bass. They had an alternating rotation for live shows with drummers and there was no certainty the band would truly exist if they didn’t find the right mix of personalities.

After their last live show in 2020, right before the pandemic, they had no idea where they were headed. “That was actually our last show, that Valentine’s show,” Vargas said, in reference to the “Love, Student Media” show they played in 2020.

“Freddy wasn’t even in the band yet,” Portillo added. “That’s the crazy part.”

When the pandemic hit, they had two choices, give up the music or go even harder. The answer was obvious.

Once they made up their minds to make the band work, they stepped into the next chapter of their lives. They knew the next step was perfecting their craft. This is where Vargas’ cousin Freddy Baca comes in.

Vargas knew he wanted to play guitar, leaving the band in need of a bassist. Baca was in. They welcomed him with open arms and let him learn to play at his own pace, which was actually really fast.

The four played together at each other’s houses, and learned to write music and lyrics together. Soon enough, they had a few original songs that they were ready to perform.

After the year-long hiatus, they planned to do their first house show, a “welcome back” kind of gig that brought approximately 50 people to the backyard of Portillo’s grandmother’s house in Chaparral, New Mexico.

“Freddy, wasn’t that your first show?” Vargas asked.

“Oh yeah,” Baca said. “I was super focused on playing. Like, I couldn’t play and not look at what I was doing. I only played the bass for like two weeks before.” 

“It was so cool. There were so many people and everyone looked like they were having the best time.”

After a few sets from local bands that seemed to get all the adrenaline pumping, the crowd was itching for more. This was the kickoff they needed.

Getting a crowd this size for a house show, right after what they thought was the worst of the pandemic, was a big accomplishment. The crowd seemed to be itching for entertainment, personal connection, anything really, and Late Night Drive Home was able to be that for them.

“When we first started, like, in the last year when we started doing shows again and we did that house show … I thought that was really cool because people actually went. It showed that people still listened to our music even after a year of us not playing,” Vargas said. 

Momentum did not stop there. The group booked a show in downtown El Paso called “Indiefest” that garnered them a larger following online.

These local shows pulled in huge crowds. Indiefest alone had a crowd of over 100, crammed into a probably not-up-to-code venue with no air conditioning, in the downtown area. The lineup brought back an indie scene that crowds missed, and Late Night Drive Home was the newcomer everyone was rooting for.

Within those sweaty walls, the band realized that they had a following. Interest grew exponentially online. The group gained 500 new Instagram followers over the next two weeks alone, bringing their total following to almost 4,000.

House shows became the indie scene’s safe haven once again, proving that the people needed to be entertained. In fact, until recently, Late Night was still playing house shows that drew crowds of over 200 people, a very obvious hazard that led them to make a rather difficult decision to stop playing house shows in early 2022.

The band wrote and produced an EP called “Am I Sinking or Am I Swimming?”, which was released in September 2021. This was the band’s first EP, and after releasing only singles since 2019, their writing process had sharpened.

“Well, we all come up with our parts one at a time,” Vargas said. “It’s always Andre and I making the lyrics, and then I kind of set the basis for the instrumentals. And then Freddy and Dolan will add their layers to it after that.”

The layering of the instruments like this allows for them to all add something to the song while also keeping the individuality of their own instruments.

Once the boys had enough money to travel, they decided to reach out to venues around the country to see who would even consider allowing them to play. One venue in California took a chance on them, booking months in advance.

“They weren’t going to book us at first,” Vargas said. “Like, we barely had any listeners at the time of us contacting them. I contacted the venue when we had only like 1,000 listeners [on Spotify] and the venue didn’t want to have us.

“But I told them, ‘Look, I am planning four months in advance. This is going to be in November. I promise you by the time we go there, we’ll bring in a crowd. And if not, if by October you see that there’s been no growth, you can kick us out. When we got there, we were at like 40,000 listeners,” Vargas said.

A week later, the band traveled to Tyler, Texas, and played to about the same size crowd, approximately 50-70 people, in venues they had just barely stepped into.

“I really liked the Tyler show,” Baca said. “There was actually a fan from that show that came to [Late Night] Prom.”

“Oh yeah, she drove all the way from Tyler to El Paso just to see us,” Vargas added.

Late Night Prom was just a joke when the group came up with the idea for it, but soon they realized that the idea had some weight to it.

“Yeah, it was a joke, but Ockz just kind of went with it,” Jaedan Beard said.

“We announced prom the day we went to Tyler,” Vargas said.

“Tickets sold out, too, which was crazy,” Portillo added

“Yeah, we were like: ‘Oh yeah, we can afford food,’” Vargas said.

Late Night Prom took months to plan. Starting in October 2021, they began brainstorming what a prom they held would even look like. The group ended up booking Star City Studios for prom, an unconventional but alluring choice of venue.

They booked two hosts, Arlo Saturn and Blacklightant, who really got the entertainment rolling that night. The lineup was stacked with beloved local bands and artists including Romulus Wolf, Nothing Special, Tony Jupiter and, of course, Late Night Drive Home.

Upon entry, there was a photo booth set up for dates and friend groups to take prom pictures, a red carpet and local artists selling their art before entering the actual concert venue. Through the double doors, past the vendors, was a huge room with a stage that fit the bands just perfectly.

The room was hot and sweaty, much like any local show. The dress code for the event was formal. What kind of prom isn’t black tie only?

“It was so cool. There were so many people and everyone looked like they were having the best time,” Portillo said.

The night somehow managed to get the entire local scene into the mindset of prom, whether they attended their own high school proms or not.

The Late Night boys all wore semi-preppy outfits: blazers, collared sweaters. They looked like a thrifted group of prom goers themselves. The event was a huge success, monetarily, socially and even ego-wise. They knew they had to keep going.

So, the group planned another event, Late Night Y2K, which was held Feb. 25 at one of the largest venues in El Paso, the Raves Club. This venue has hosted big indie artists such as The Drums, The Marias, Luna Luna, and many more.

The lineup for this event was stacked, yet again, with local artists Arlo Saturn, Fader, Tony Jupiter and Nothing Special.

As Late Night Drive Home grows, they keep their friends close. They have been working with these artists for a full year and intend to keep them around as they continue to grow.

Late Night Drive Home has recently passed four million streams on “Stress Relief” off their “Am I Sinking or Am I Swimming?” EP. The band has also surpassed 340,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. 

The band also recently released two new singles, “Perfect Strangers” and “Television Romantic,” from their debut album, which will be released later this spring.

Wherever this band goes, the crowd seems to follow, and they are ready for even bigger and better shows, music and opportunities in the future.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Brian Dolan attended Coronado High School. Dolan actually attended Chaparral High School. 

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