|Michelle Rangel, Betty Cisneros, Aixa Vilar and Nicolette Vilar of Go Betty Go at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Glendale
At Forest Lawn Memorial Park
1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale (800) 204-3131
While most people typically don’t choose to spend their free time hanging out in a cemetery, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale isn’t your average burial ground. With its picturesque stone chapels, rolling green hills and sweeping views of the city, Forest Lawn is a peaceful haven for those visiting a loved one’s grave, as well as any Angeleno looking for a moment away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The four founding members of Los Angeles-based punk band Go Betty Go couldn’t have picked a more fitting location to talk about the group’s renaissance and their new EP, Reboot, which is set for release on Jan. 27.
“We literally grew up down the street from here,” drummer Aixa Villar tells me before recounting some of Forest Lawn’s history. “Its main founder [Dr. Hubert Eaton] wanted it to be more of a park than cemetery, that’s why the grave markers are all embedded in the ground and not sticking up like most tombstones. He wanted people to focus on the trees and landscape instead.”
I’ve lived just a few miles away from the cemetery for years but never visited. I had no idea that the huge white building atop its highest hill had such an interesting history, one that Aixa is eager to share. Polish painter Jan Styka created a panorama (measuring 45 feet tall and 195 feet long) detailing the moments before Jesus’ crucifixion and brought the piece to America for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. However, The Crucifixion was seized by airport officials since Styka lacked the proper customs documents, and the artist was forced to return home. He never saw the painting again, and it languished in the basement of the Chicago Civic Opera Company until Eaton found and acquired it in 1944. He began the construction of Forest Lawn’s Hall of the Crucifixion to house the enormous work, and it remains there today where the public can view it every hour, along with a light show and film documenting its history.
“Whenever people from out of town visit, I like to bring them here as a tourist spot because of the art [in the Hall of the Crucifixion], as well as the museum next door where the exhibits are always changing,” Aixa says. “I can also show them the building where Michael Jackson rests and Walt Disney’s secret tomb. We grew up hearing that Walt Disney was frozen with cryogenics, but it’s not true. His family keeps his plot area quite secret. There are trees and a little garden in front of a plaque on the wall with his name on it. A lot of other classic Hollywood actors are here, too.”
Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow are just a few of the famous names many would recognize. Yet, the most special resident of Forest Lawn for the Go Betty Go foursome isn’t a celebrity at all.
“This place is symbolic for me in particular because when I left the band years had gone by, and the only time after that when I saw everybody again was when Betty’s dad died,” shares the band’s lead vocalist, Nicolette Vilar, who is also Aixa’s younger sister. “His funeral, which happened right over there, brought us all back together.”
“It was like a reunion,” adds guitarist Betty Cisneros. “I come here a lot to visit him. It’s so pretty and chill. I bring a guitar and just sit.”
“It’s not a scary cemetery at all,” agrees bassist Michelle Rangel.
“It’s so peaceful, and since it’s on top of the hill, the views are beautiful,” says Aixa.
The museum that Aixa mentions has showcased art from Matisse, Rembrandt and Goya, in addition to a contemporary exhibit of pieces made entirely of Legos and one highlighting the art of motorcycles. There are also several gorgeous stained-glass masterpieces and full-size reproductions of Michelangelo’s David and Moses sculptures.
The cemetery really does inspire you to savor all life has to offer in nature, art and culture, and these are also the things that Go Betty Go loves most about the city they call home.
“The weather is the best,” says Nicolette. “It’s like your mother’s womb – so warm, cozy and familiar. I also love to see the way that people dress, the different fashions all together”
“I like the nature aspect of it, the beautiful parks, mountains and the ocean. You can be outdoors and enjoy it all,” offers Aixa. “I love how the city is so eclectic, its many cultures. We’ve been to places where it’s like the town from Children of the Corn, where there’s no cultural diversity, but Los Angeles is a melting pot of everything you could want.”
Michelle continues, “If you feel like having Thai food, Indian food, Ethiopian food—”
“I want a coconut water right now, and ta da,” exclaims Nicolette.
“You can have a fresh coconut,” Michelle finishes.
When hunger does strike the group, they head to places like Golden Road or any place that has good Thai food or tacos. They also enjoy checking out new music and bands at local venues.
“I go to the Echo a lot because it’s in the middle of where there’s a lot of musical things happening. It seems like I’m always surprised by groups that I’ve never seen before there,” admits Nicolette. ”It’s very welcoming because it’s easy to park, I know the neighborhood, half the time it’s free and you know you’re supporting a band that’s working really hard.”
“I judge places by their parking, so if I can’t find parking I just take off,” laughs Betty. ”One place that I do like to go is the Troubadour; I always find good parking there. Their sound is really good so I’m able to enjoy the bands, and when we play there it’s great.”
Although Nicolette and Aixa grew up just two blocks away from Betty in Glendale, they never knew her until after graduating high school.
“We went to the same elementary, junior high and high school. We knew of her, but didn’t know her,” explains Nicolette.
“I still remember how they dressed; their styles were totally different from mine,” Betty giggles. “Nicolette was very ’50s, and Aixa was more grungy.”
While the Vilar sisters’ dad had filled their home with music, the girls began discovering their own musical tastes and capabilities together around that time.
“Our age gap is only a year and a half. We were both super into music, and picking it up came naturally,” says Aixa.
“Aixa started getting into the drums really early. The first show that I ever went to was her playing in a punk band in a basement underneath a church,” Nicolette remembers.
Meanwhile, Betty’s first encounter with a guitar was actually not of her choosing.
“It was eighth grade, and I had to pick an elective. I wanted home economics because I thought I wanted to be a chef, but I had to take music instead. I wanted to play drums, but there was a boy already on it. They had acoustic guitar open, so I bought a guitar and then was kicked out two weeks into the class because I was tardy,” she recalls, and everyone busts out laughing. “But, I still had the guitar, so I learned a couple of chords and would play along to commercials.”
Like the Vilars, Michelle was immersed in music from a young age, growing up in South Los Angeles.
“I went to a performing arts magnet so I was always around music,” she says. “I played the flute from elementary to high school. In ninth grade I learned to play some guitar, then I picked up the upright bass and played it in orchestra. I eventually ended up playing electric and met the girls.”
“And history was made,” chimes in Nicolette.
They formed Go Betty Go in 2001, taking the name from the chant they would use to get Betty to begin a song. Their fiery energy caught the attention of SideOneDummy, and the label released their debut EP, Worst Enemy, in 2004 and album, Nothing Is More, the following year – both produced by Flogging Molly’s original guitarist Ted Hutt (the Gaslight Anthem, Mighty Mighty Bosstones). The quartet toured across the nation on Vans Warped Tour, just like their musical heroes, No Doubt.
“I watched the VHS tape of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom Tour from 1997 until it broke,” confesses Betty. “It was so good, and they were so cool. I wanted to be up there!”
“When Tragic Kingdom came out it was a big influence on me. Then when I saw them live I thought, ‘Wow, what a great show. I would love to do that,” Aixa remembers. “As a female artist it was very influential seeing a punk rock chick like Gwen be so cool.”
In the subsequent couple of years after the debut of their two releases, Nicolette and then Michelle parted ways with the band, and Emily Wynne-Hughes and Phil Beckman filled in the gaps. Even though several years had passed, when the original members of Go Betty Go reunited on stage in 2012 that fire was still as combustible as ever.
“The show was already booked. It was just a matter of Aixa talking to Nicolette, and Nicolette talking to Michelle,” begins Betty.
“You must have been surprised when I called you,” Nicolette says to Michelle. “I had visited you just to say hi a little before that, though.”
“I think it was a year before that, when the whole ‘American Idol’ thing [Wynne-Hughes was briefly a contestant on the show.] was going on because I remember talking about it, as well as about things that had bugged us when we were in the band,” replies Michelle.
“Well, I told Aixa things, too” jokes Betty, and everyone laughs.
“Then Nicolette called one day and asked me to play a song with them. I had been so out of touch with the band, but I decided I should just do it for fun,” Michelle continues. “I was playing with another band at the time—”
“But we were slowly sneaking her back in with us,” laughs Aixa.
“They went on to do their own thing, composing for a film and I was able to do more things with Go Betty Go, so it all worked out.”
“It’s not like they got butt hurt or anything,” laughs Nicolette.
“It was the same thing with us and Phil. It’s funny because bands are so much like relationships. We said, ‘Hey, Phil, you know we’re talking to Michelle again’ – in a very nice way we told him we would rather have Michelle back, and he was so great about it.”
“He said that if we hadn’t told him that he would have told us that we needed to get Michelle back anyway,” adds Betty.
So Go Betty Go’s original lineup was back together again, working on new material, and when it came time to record they turned to their fans to help make Reboot a reality.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this on our own. Nothing is free. It’s awesome that people would listen and want to help,” Aixa says. “If it weren’t for people having that attitude there’s no way we could make this work again.”
“We have really great fans,” adds Nicolette. “They know that it’s up to them, and they really step it up to make it happen.”
And when it came time for them to head into the studio, they naturally reteamed with Hutt.
“When I was in college I had gone through a breakup, and Ted had gone through a divorce. We caught up one day and became good friends because we were both going through similar things. We hung out a lot and rekindled that relationship, so that all these years later when we were ready to record, it was easy for me to call him up and say, ‘Let’s do this,’” offers Nicolette. “He was super excited and said he would have been offended if we didn’t ask him. That’s the kind of reaction you want.”
“[Betty], me and Ted had a conversation after we played the Roxy with Big D and the Kids Table and Voodoo Glow Skulls on our last tour a long time ago. We said to him, ‘If we do another album, you have to promise to help us.’ We even made him shake our hands!” Michelle remembers. “And now it has happened, and we’re playing the Roxy for [Rebirth’s] release show on Jan. 25.”
“And now he’s a Grammy-nominated producer! He had said, ‘The only thing I would love is to get a Grammy,’ and he’s one step closer,” Aixa gushes about the Best Folk Album nomination Hutt’s work has garnered on Old Crow Medicine Show’s latest, Remedy.
“He’s a real pro, and he worked his ass off for us. We’re so proud of him,” Nicolette continues.
While the original band members and producer have all returned, they have a new focus in mind when it comes to the present and future of Go Betty Go.
“When we first started the band and put out our first two records, it was very much just about the band. Our lives revolved around the band. Now, the band revolves around our lives,” says Aixa. “We knew that if we were going to do this again we would have to do it that way because if not, it wouldn’t work again. Now we take everything with maturity and with the lessons we’ve learned from our past.”
Reboot will be available Jan. 27. Go Betty Go perform Jan. 25 at the Roxy. For more information, visit gobettygo.com.