The Family Portrait – Differences. Track by Track.

All dialogue by Gene Ramirez @isitastranger.

The Family Portrait is about my mom, & most of the stuff I went through as a kid. There are side stories to each song, but at its core, this record’s about my mom. I miss her and I love her. This is one of the photos I have of her (cover centerpiece). I have two photos in total.

All band photography & graphic design by Ryenn Lyons @threexstitch.

I’m a photographer and I’ve been taking Polaroids of my friends for the past six, seven years. I didn’t know what to do with them for the longest time until I was trying to think of artwork for this album.

All of these people are my family, but I don’t really have one. I grew up in foster homes, so my family’s the people that I actually give a fuck about <haha>. Most of the faces are blurred because wanted to make sure that I respected their anonymity. I wasn’t sure if anyone wanted to be a part of this, & I don’t know if you know how asking 200+ people, ‘Hey, do you wanna be part of this art project?’ goes, but… <haha> It’s so tough, man.

But yeah, these are photos of all the families that have adopted me into theirs. And I’m just so enamored & in awe of all of these people. (Flipping through the CD booklet) This is a PSA for the people who don’t know (Reads NO MEANS NO), this is the national sexual assault hotline… Yeah man. Just really an ode to my mom.

The first song is called Day Zero and it’s about substance abuse. And though I’ve never personally experienced substance abuse, I’ve been surrounded by substance abuse my entire life. Every failed attempt is an attempt towards success. So you should never count your failures.

My girlfriend Ryenn did all of the design for the CD sleeve, and hand-wrote all of these little notes and stuff for lyrics. I bought her a camera a while back since she was interested in my photography, like, ‘Yeah, I want you to do this too. It would be fun.’ I never ask her to show up to anything, but she’s at every one of our shows. That’s kind of cool; not that I bought her a camera so that I could have free photos for the rest of my life, I just wanted her to have fun and be happy. I also built her a PC last year for Christmas, ’cause she had this real piece of shit Mac. She still has this piece of shit Mac <haha>, but she’s finally started using what I gave her to do all her Photoshop stuff, saying ‘Oh, this computer is like the best thing in the world!’ Well, that’s what it’s for, you know? Also to play games, but mainly to do work.

Iris is about my younger brother. We grew up in most of the same group homes. And one day when he was 15, he didn’t come home. He’s serving 25 to life now and all we talked about when we were kids was starting a band and playing music. I started a band and I’m playing music and he is not. So don’t be the enemy of yourself.

I write most of the lyrics. Sometimes I’ll write an iteration of a song and then I’ll send it to Shonzza (singer) who pins it out a little bit. For context, he’s a 5th-grade teacher in LA. So is Nicholas (drummer), for music. Our bass player BJ records depositions for the court system – so I feel like most of my friends are a little bit smarter than me, which is fine. Shonzza definitely did the whole college thing; I had to drop out my first year. He helps me make more definitive statements with fewer words, ’cause I get kind of wordy when I write.

Nicholas is a crazy drummer. He plays at his church a lot, has mad gospel chops. In addition, he’s also a singer, guitar player, and bass player. He’s probably the best at every instrument in the band, and we just kind of play with him <laugh>. Just down to play drums, I’m so grateful for him. Sometimes, like for Iris, he sent over the first draft of that song with the bulk written musically. He was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know. It just feels kind of like something is missing.’ And I was like, ‘I got it, dude!’ And I finished the rest of the song. It’s cool having another writer in the band to help write & bounce ideas off of.

Animate is about figuring out how to cope with the loss of a parent, or really anybody. When we were writing the song, I was thinking a lot about Full Metal Alchemist <haha>. I love that anime and I so strongly relate to it. Just think of Full Metal Alchemist when you listen to track 3.

I think when I was like 19 or 20 when I bought my first camera; I would hang out with my cousin who plays drums every day. One day he needed a photo for a DW endorsement, so I took a photo on his old point-&-shoot, and he was like, ‘Dude, this photo is so cool!’ I was like, ‘Oh, really man?’ It wasn’t a big deal to me, but from how he hyped me up I thought that maybe I should be a photographer. ‘That seems like a fun thing to do!’

*I do not recommend this idea. <laugh> <laugh> Don’t do it.*

It’s not a fun job, but it is. I owe a lot of myself to photography and being able to tour. Like, when I was homeless, I would hop on any tour that I could. One band that gave me a lot of opportunities was this project called Mother Sound, which I now play in. They’re from LA and didn’t make a lot of money, but whenever they’d hit the road, they would invite me: ‘Hey, come hang out with us!’ And I was so in, because, yo: if I have somewhere to sleep tonight, that’s a good thing. Even if it’s a van. So we toured.

I think the first time I ever got paid for photography was $5 a day, which was enough for McDonald’s, so I was cool, whatever. I didn’t give a fuck, I was out there doing it! You know? Just taking photos and being a part of the magic, and being a part of the not-so-fun stuff. Like playing a show and only having two people show up. Yeah, it can be tough. But even if only two people showed up, somebody still needed to document that it happened, you know?

I feel like documenting what’s happening is the most important thing. Even if it’s not a good thing at that time, in retrospect, it can become a good memory. Like, we played a show at Chain recently and pulled a hundred to two hundred people; sold a shit ton of merch, too. Like, ‘Oh, hey, remember when we played in Idaho and two people came to the show? And we didn’t sell a thing and got paid nothing? We took a trip to Idaho for absolutely no reason!’ <haha> But the crazy part is that the two people who showed up to that gig in Idaho will remember that performance forever. That was the band that showed up, even though nobody else did. Just gave it their all.

Body, I wrote about my sexual assault and, unfortunately, plenty of other friends’ sexual assaults; how my body doesn’t feel my own anymore ’cause somebody decided that they had the right to touch me inappropriately. The people I’ve grown to love as well.

I grew up fucking hating myself for a long time for things that weren’t my fault. I was mad at the world, because, ‘Why does nobody want me?’ And then I realized: it’s not that nobody wants me, it’s that nobody can. It’s really hard to adopt kids when they’re middle-aged, 10-15 year olds, because they already have their own set of problems. But if you adopt a kid when they’re younger, they’re probably gonna forget and believe that they’re part of the family, which they are. But overall I was just angry at the world.

Soon after I was 18 and homeless; living out of my car, sleeping in garages. I just knew that I didn’t want that for the rest of my life. And I was pretty sure it all had to do with me being angry at everyone. I needed to give somebody a chance to love me so I could reciprocate, and then we could go from there. You know?

I… Dude, I’ve had a ton of friends offer me places to sleep. I used to live down the street from here (The Night Owl in Fullerton) with my friend Mickey, I met her at Chain. Literally the first day we met, she said, ‘Yeah, you can sleep in my house whenever you want.’ I was like, ‘Are you serious? I’m about to crash in my car tonight, dude, can I just come over?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever!’ I had stayed over so long, she just told me to move in <haha>.

‘But I don’t have any money,’ was what I said. And she told me to figure it out. Like ‘Yeah, you’re right. I have to figure this out. I’m an adult. I gotta go to work, do what I need to.’ I took care of it and still do; stayed there for like four or five years and it was such a big help. Somebody just opening the door was just – I’m, I’m indebted to all of my friends, all the people in The Family Portrait. I owe them everything. I would not be here without them.

Elephant is about not forgetting all the people that you loved, and kind of a pseudo about my mom forgetting my name. I think even as a 10-year-old, it really broke my heart when my mom asked me who I was.

A lot of the people in this album’s artwork I either went to high school with, or met around here because I was local to this area. I played Programme quite a bit, Chain Reaction too. Also this venue in Santa Ana that’s called, or used to be called, Malone’s: I would frequent all those places, but mostly hung out at Chain. I was such a late bloomer <haha>. I grew up in South Central so there were no venues, and when I turned 18, I got a car and knew I needed to get the fuck outta there, ’cause people who stay in South Central never leave that area. It’s hard to thrive in a place where you don’t feel like anyone is pushing to be more than just somebody living in South Central.

I started making friends with people who also frequented local shows, again, mostly at Chain. Like, this one photo here is a picture of me and my friend Jenn with some others, all met at Chain Reaction…

And this is a photo of my mom, as it were, but she kind of just adopted me under a family. Like ‘Hey, if you ever need anything, just call me.’ I lived with her for like three or four years in Texas and finally got to see her a few weeks ago when I was on tour – it was the first time I’d seen her since the pandemic, like, it’d been so long! We just caught up and ate food and just… It was good to see her again.

Journalist is about watching my mom slowly lose her mind when I was 10: just trying to recall all the memories that happened before she passed, and how writing was really the only way that helped me figure out how to get through my shit.

Journalist is also another Nick song. He wrote most of the music, I added the rest after his start. The perspective of the song is from 10-year-old Gene not understanding why things are going the way that they’re going:

We found out my mother got cancer when I was 10. She was in hospice for a long time, and it was too far too gone for them to do anything about it, since it had been undiagnosed. I was already living in group homes & whatnot at the time, but we had visitation with my aunt, so my mom would be in her living room. We’re all just hanging out there and like, I’m 10 years old, so I don’t know what the hell’s going on – I just remember watching as the more we’d visit her, the less she remembered of my aunt and myself: not knowing where she was, or who she was talking to, or what was going on, either, really. And then one day she became hollow. Like she was somewhere else and we were just there separately.

There was a picture of Jesus on the ceiling that she used to talk to who she thought was her friend. And I’m sure he was… Um, <laugh>. But I went to go visit recently, and I saw that my aunt finally took that photo down. I’m 28 now, and I’m still trying to figure out 18 years later how to deal with all this stuff. This project has been such a big help.

And also, semi-perspective from my mom – I don’t think that she wanted to die, but I think it got to a point where she thought ‘Hey, I should probably die now. I’m not really fit to be alive anymore, I’m not even me anymore.’ She wasn’t the person that I grew up knowing or watching TV with. Hell, she’s the reason why I love music.

I remember the first song I ever put on repeat was Staying Alive by Bee Gees. I was third wheeling a date with her <laugh>, and the person had put on a mixtape or whatever. And I said ‘Yo, play that song again,’ <laugh>. And she smiled, ‘Really?’ The song’s like five or six minutes long, and literally the entire way from Santa Monica to Huntington Park, that’s what we listened to <laugh>. And then on the way back, I was like, ‘Hey, put the song on.’ I mean, my mom was my best friend. I didn’t really have friends in elementary school. All I remember was coming home and hanging out with my mom and watching Unsolved Mysteries, music documentaries, whatever; just hanging out, you know? <haha>

Selfless is about pouring out love from yourself when you have none left to give – becoming a shell of a person because you want other people to be full.

I have been such a stranger to all of my friends and my family. Like, a lot of people don’t know about me being homeless or being an orphan or not having a mom. This is all a very foreign process to me; I have not been vocal about it. And I don’t know if I really want to be, but I think I need to be because I’m not letting people love me <laugh>. Sounds bizarre, but it’s so true. I don’t think it’s fair for me to want to love people the way that I love them, and also be a stranger to them.

This photo is of my friend Michael. He’s homeless and he lives in Baltimore. I talked to him for like five hours that day. We just walked around and got coffee and he just talked to me about how he wound up where he’s at.

It’s hard to tell people how I’m feeling or speak about what I’m going through – I mean, I wrote an album about all this, and everyone I know’s been like, ‘Yeah, I had no idea that you were an orphan!’ <laugh>. Well, how am I supposed to bring it up now!? <laugh>. But at the same time, when people ask me about my parents, I say ‘Yeah, they’re fine.’ That’s it. Or, ‘Where did you grow up?’ I say, ‘South Central.’ That’s it. None of these topics are things I talk about outwardly. So this album has been such a great segue for me to tell everyone, ‘By the way, I haven’t been lying to you, I just haven’t told you the full truth.’ And now my friends and people who’ve dug into the record have been opening up to me. But overall I think it’s just been easier for me to be friends with my friends, you know?

I owe so much of that to photography and friends who have given or loaned me cameras. Like, ‘Yo, I see you’re like trying to do this thing. Just take it, just go.’ That’s so cool and inspiring. I try to repay that favor to whoever needs it. I’ve given away a lot of instruments and cameras to people who tell me they want to pursue that thing. Having all the drive without the funds to supply it is the worst fucking feeling in the world – I was that kid.

But yeah, if they set whatever I gifted them on fire and had fun, I’d be like, ‘Well, that was fun.’ I can’t be upset about it, ’cause I gave it to them.

62 is about post-mom dying; trying to figure out how to live. I feel like having a mother is such a common thing that most people don’t think about what is life after, especially as a kid.

(Regarding Stateside, on the lineup for the September Issue release show) Anthony & I used to play shows in this abandoned building in K-Town when I was maybe 19 or 20. There was no parking anywhere, and my drummer at the time, Miguel, and one other dude would unlock the fence – like a bike chain lock? We would undo that and open the gate to flood a crowd in. Nobody was there to tell us ‘Hey, you’re allowed to do this,’ we were just kind of doing it. Sort of like a don’t ask, don’t tell <laugh>, but I’m pretty sure we were not allowed to be there. We used to play quite a bit in that main apartment building.

Manos is about when my stepdad used to hit us when we were younger. He always felt really excited to beat us up. Now that I’m older, I wish a motherfucker would.

I think it’s hard to find your tribe or pocket of the scene. But I feel like I’ve been going to shows for so long that I’ve met so many people that just back the idea of, ‘Hey, it’s Gene! Just cruise it.’ You know? Not to make myself sound like a big deal or anything, but I am literally from the dirt <laugh>, and I semi-made it, touring & manning cameras pretty often. I think the scene that we’re trying to get at is still being built for all of these outcast bands that don’t fit into any of the molds out today.

Trials is about sitting in a courtroom and not really understanding why I was there, but watching my stepdad get convicted of child abuse, and him not having really any remorse. I think the part that sucks the worst is that he passed away a few years ago, so I never really got a result from that. I’m just now figuring out that what he was doing wasn’t okay. I thought it was normal for a long time.

I think that’s where most of the people who support my band come from: ‘I fuck with this project, because they give a fuck about what they’re doing and what they’re saying.’ Not that these topics haven’t been covered before, and not that this style of music hasn’t been played before us, but we give a shit about it. You can’t show up to a gig and put on a caring suit to play a good set, but I feel like people can tell when a band is actually for real about their message. And all this stuff is so personal to me – how could I not care about it? Even before we wrote this album, we put out a song called Rescape about sexual assault. That was something I went through, and I didn’t tell anybody that it was about me – but those lyrics were my perspective. How could I not give a shit about that topic? Or our song 2AM, about drunk driving… My friend Nathan got hit by a drunk driver on his way home from work when I was younger. He was walking at like four in the morning and the dude hit him and just left him to die. That sucked, man. I can’t make up these stories.

REM is just a love letter to my mom. I fucking love you and I miss you and wish you were still here. Rest Eternally, Mother.

Photo by Jon Pentz. @jvpentzx

-Gene Ramirez, Guitar for DIFFERENCES.

Article to be featured in our September Issue, to be released this Saturday 9/16 at Bad Dogg Compound. All door proceeds go to bands.


By Hector Zaldivar

Professional magician. @hexzald