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February 2023
Vol. 22, No. 5

Cover Story

JOHNNY VALENZUELA and ANDY RASMUSSEN: Twisted Trails and Two-Fisted Tales

by Bart MendozaNovember 2019

Johnny Valenzuela and Andy Rasmussen. Photo by Julia Hall McMahon.

In the beginning, the brothers in 1970.

Johnny with Flaco Jiminez, 2017.

Andy and Johnny, 1996. Photo by David Harrison.

The Sleepwalkers in 2000: Andy, Sean Styles, Danny Angulo, Johnny, Paul Denton.

Andy in the studio, 2013.

The Hi-Tones in 2019: Tommy Rodriguez, Andy, Xavier Anaya, Max Stretch. Photo by Michele Palermo.

The Sleepwalkers in 2017: Bob Osuna, Andy, Johnny, Alan Fuentes. Photo by Harold Supnet.

It’s been said that siblings make great music together. One need only look at the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, the Black Crowes, and Oasis to see that factoid to have some merit. It makes sense that shared influences and family life combine to make musical magic. Slightly rarer are siblings that are part of different, successful bands. Such is the case with brothers Johnny Valenzuela, who is front man for cumbia/rockabilly favorites and the Sleepwalkers and Andy Rasmussen, bassist/guitarist of blues, country music, early rockers, and front man for Action Andy and the Hi-Tones.

The latter, which includes Rasmussen and Xavier Anaya (guitar), Max Stretch (bass) and Tommy Rodriguez (drums) are a highly acclaimed combo, playing the Southern California club circuit. Meanwhile, the Sleepwalkers, featuring Valenzuela and Ritchie Orduño (guitar), Paul Denton (bass), and Bob Osuna (drums), are one of the most popular bands in town and now solid festival favorites, never failing to get a crowd up and dancing. Their sound is virtually unique, singing in English and Spanish, mixing Mexican rhythms with blues and roots-rock elements for songs that are toe tappingly irresistible.

Sitting in Valenzuela’s patio on a warm San Diego afternoon, the conversation is easy—the two brothers’ love of music and respect for each other clearly evident. While both hold day jobs—Valenzuela as a medical x-ray technician and Rasmussen in travel protection insurance, music is their motivating factor, though balanced with their families.
Both bands maintain separate, busy schedules, however, on occasion, they do pair up, as will happen at Tio Leo’s on November 16. The bill is dubbed, aptly enough Brotherly Love. A packed dance floor is expected, from start to finish.

Early Days
Born into a military family while stationed in San Diego, Johnny (March 31, 1964) and after his mother later remarried, Andy (August 22, 1970), the two brothers’ horizons were broadened from a young age.
“My dad was in the Navy so we traveled around a lot,” recalled Rasmussen. “By the time I was just under a year old, we moved to Chipiona, Spain and lived there for almost five years. We also lived in Christchurch, New Zealand; Oxnard, California; and Corpus Christi, Texas over the years. I finally graduated high school in Chula Vista. I spent most of my time afterward in National City,” he said good naturedly.

It was during those early days, particularly listening to the radio on hot, humid Texas nights, that both brothers were bitten by the music bug. “I’ve always loved music, since I was a kid,” Valenzuela said. “Folks always had some tunes playing on the record player or the car radio. It wasn’t too long before I started singing in secret, when I was ten years old,” he recalled. “It always felt good to sing, but I was too embarrassed at the time to sing in front of anyone.”

Rasmussen notes the two brothers have similar musical tastes. “As far as musical influences, I’d have to say “oldies” music in general,” he said. “I guess I’m an old soul that way. I always loved music from the ’50s and ’60s—it’s somewhere in my genes. I think that would apply to my brother as well. I think I was a bit of a musical sponge and I loved hearing music from wherever we lived, especially in Texas. We had Tex-Mex and country, plus some Cajun and zydeco north of us. Rock ‘n’ roll, blues—it was all over.

There was a particular radio show that caught Valenzuela’s attention at the time. Mr. Telephone Road on KPFT (90.1) in Houston. “I spent many a night listening to his radio show at 3 a.m.,” he said. “I probably would not be in a band or have ever formed the Sleepwalkers if not for his show.”

Music was a big part of the siblings’ upbringing. “Both of my parents sides were very musical,” Rasmussen explained. “When I visited my Grandma Rasmussen, she was always at the piano in the mornings and I always wanted to try it. I eventually started with the piano and wrote little songs.” One Christmas, each brother was given an instrument—Andy got a bass and Johnny got an acoustic guitar. “While in Texas, my brother had a guitar that we both shared. As he was right handed, and I was left, we’d switch back and forth on his. I eventually learned how to play backwards left-handed, stringed for right hand.” Although, Rasmussen was on his way as a guitarist, Valenzuela soon stopped playing. “I learned a few chords, but I guess I just didn’t love it,” he said.

Rasmussen cites his brother as important to his early musical choices. “I looked up to him and whatever he was listening to and also hung out with his friends. We used to listen to the Huggy Boy Show or Art Laboe, and he would order records. That was a lot of fun. My mom also had a good record collection—she was into the blues and R&B, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and Etta James.”

A key influence to Rasmussen’s early music are the San Diego-based musicians and fellow siblings, Hector (The Zeros/Flying Color/Baja Bugs) and Victor Penalosa (Flamin’ Groovies/The Melanies). “By the time I was in my early teens, I was into reggae and ska music alot and loved hearing the bass tones,” he said. Moving on from guitar he soon acquired a bass. “I was playing by ear and tried to pick out what I could from the radio. Once I moved to San Diego and met Victor and Hector, they showed me quite a bit and was very influenced by them. Hector pretty much told me that what I wanted to play didn’t have to sound pitch perfect or that it had to sound like everything on the radio.”

Rasmussen’s main instrument, a no-brand copy of a Hofner Beatle bass, also came through Penalosa. “He had bought two, I think from Taiwan, and I got one. It’s been my favorite for a number of years.”

Meanwhile, Valenzuela, unless you count percussion, doesn’t play an instrument, preferring to take the front man role with his band. As for his influences? “I have always been heavily influenced by Caesar Rosas and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, Raul Malo of the Mavericks, and Stevie Ray Vaughn,” he said. “Everyone knows Vaughn was a great guitar player, however his vocals were also outstanding and he was one of my favorite vocalists.” Valenzuela is also a fan of the Paladins as well as James Hunter. “Dave Gonzalez is a true gent and talent,” he said. “As for Hunter, I love his soulfulness and raspy raw sound.”

Musical Beginnings
While both brothers are musical, their biggest difference is in the amount of projects they have been involved in. Valenzuela’s musical resume is surprisingly easy. “I’ve been in the Sleepwalkers since 1994,” he said. “It’s only band I’ve ever been in.”

Rasmussen, on the other hand, needs a score card for both bands and musical styles. “I played in [power-pop/garage band] the New Breed; my first performance was somewhere in the ’80s with that band when I must have been 17 or 18. I was the singer by default because nobody else dared to get in front of the mic,” he joked. “My hands were shaky and I was so nervous, but I just gulped and said ‘here goes.’ By the time it was over we got a nice applause, and was I hooked after that,” he laughed.

“Then came [R&B influenced combo] the Fugitives. At that point I started the Sleepwalkers with my brother.” The genesis of that group began circa 1990, though it was a while before they played live, building up a catalog of originals. While Rasmussen had had already played around town, it was a new experience for Valenzuela. “My first musical performance was on July 4, 1994 at an Independence Day party,” he recalled. “I sang ‘Shot My Baby Down,’ a Sleepwalkers original tune, among others in the set. The few folks there, maybe 10, seemed to enjoy it,” he laughs. “I was 30 years young.”

Rassmusssen stayed with the Sleepwalkers, playing on both their albums to date, but he also continued to play with other combos. “Right around the time of that first show, I helped form [instrumental surf group] the Bomboras in 1994 and then helped form [psychedelic garage rockers] the Loons in 1995.” He later left the Sleepwalkers simply because he wanted to do his own thing. His later groups all borrow from the “Action Andy” sound, which runs the gamut from Tex-Mex to blues and polka. “A little later, I formed the Black Bottom Boozers in 1997, then Action Andy & the Haunted Honky-Tonkers around 2004, then my current project Action Andy & the Hi-Tones around 2011.”

And those are just the full-time projects. “I had an opportunity to help revamp [garage punkers] the Gravedigger 5 in the early nineties, where I played bass and sang, but the whole [lead singer of the band] ‘Leighton is dead’ rumor put an end to that,” Rasmussen joked.
Other highlights include playing bass for the ska band Colourblind “for a second” as well as playing bass with the Crawdaddys. “I did a show with them around 2004 or so, with the intent of going to Spain for a tour but that never materialized. I also backed up country singer Charlie Ryan as well as Augie Meyers, and did a small So-Cal tour with him.”

The brothers’ release music via their own label, Relampago-go. Each has released two albums to date: The Sleepwalkers with Can’t Stop Rockin’ [1999] and Roots Rockin’ [2016—reviewed in this issue], the release party for the album being the last time the two performed in the same band together. Meanwhile, Rasmussen has issued Action Andy Sings… Haunted Honky Tonk [2007] and Action Andy and the Hi-Tones present High & Lonesome: The Fall and Rise of Hilo [2013] as well as a 7-inch vinyl EP, Songs 4 Swingin’ Sinners [2016].

“I love creating a new song out of thin air,” said Valenzuela. He shows me his writing method. It’s a treat to take in his creative process. Valenzuela doesn’t play an instrument, so as ideas come to him, he hums them into his phone. “There was nothing. Then I hear a bass line, a guitar riff. Eventually it becomes molded and transformed into something: a song.” He plays me a recording of his humming, then a recording of the Sleepwalkers rehearsing the same tune. It’s amazing to hear the tune fleshed out. “Anyway, I take it to rehearsal, and I’ll say listen to this, guys. Keep in mind I don’t know what key it’s in, I don’t play an instrument. With the music, nine times out of ten, I’ll end up thinking ‘that’s what I heard in my head.’ Every once in a while it might be to try a different drum beat or something else, but I’m very fortunate to work with good musicians and that we mesh well,” he said. While the music comes easy, the Sleepwalkers’ lyrics take a bit more crafting. “My brother writes stories,” he said. “You can see pictures in his songs. I’m not a lazy writer, but I want to put the words in there and I just want to go perform it. Love and dove and we’ve got the song,” he laughs.

Songwriting is important to Rasmussen as well. “My favorite thing about being a musician is the creative/songwriting aspect,” he said. Like his brother, he notes that he “…loves writing songs and making something that wasn’t there before. I see it almost as a sculptor or artist would. The art is in the canvas, or material, and you just have to get it out. In a sense, it’s already completed, and as a songwriter you are this medium, seeing that it’s out and into the world.”

Ironically, Rasmussen’s favorite recording session isn’t one of his own. “My favorite recording I’ve been on so far is an EP I did for a friend from Australia by the name of Steve Lucas,” he said. “He was in group there in the 1970s called X—not the American band. Anyway, he had a friend who had died and, prior to that, had expressed interest in making a Tex-Mex record one day. After his friend’s passing Steve called me up from Australia, and I assembled a San Diego Tex-Mex supergroup, if you will, and completed the record. It was a labor of love and one that really meant a lot for me to be a part of.” Featuring the Sleepwalkers’ Ritchie Orduño on guitar, the track can be heard here:

Two Versions
While both albums from the Sleepwalkers are great listens, there is a bit of a difference between the two and a reason for the long gap between albums. Valenzuela took time off to return to school and start his new career as an x-ray tech. “I didn’t play any music for five years,” he said. “Finally, once I had finished with school and was settled in the new job, I was ready to start up again. And for the second time with the Sleepwalkers I decided to go in another direction. We were never a dance band. But this time I felt like I wanted to do stuff that moved me, that I’d want to hear if I was out there in the crowd. I went heavy for the Latin stuff, with cumbias and so on.”

Were there any issues with changing to primarily Spanish-language music? “Not at all,” Valenzuela said. “We only had one minor issue early on. I understand at our a recent show, someone complained that we weren’t a swing band. A lady got very upset and said, ‘This was billed as a swing fest.’ The promoter just rolled her eyes and gave them their money back,” he laughed.

“We do play some swing,” he continued. “We’ve played with the Blasters and the Texas Tornados, and we try to gear it to the show, maybe play a bit more of these types of songs or those type of songs, but still we like to be who we are.”

Beyond Music
Beyond recording, both brothers have dipped their toes into the world of soundtracks. In 2006, three Sleepwalkers’ songs, including “Over You,” were included in the film, Ofrenda Desnuda (Naked Offering). Meanwhile in 2018, Rasmussen’s music was included in the documentary Making Fun: The Story of Funko. “The Sleepwalkers have four songs in the film, we have three,” Rasmussen said. “One of my songs, “If You Don’t Have Love,” was used as the outro for the movie. It was surreal,” he mused.

Fittingly, while both artists have swag, on October 19 the Sleepwalkers received a top honor for any band. Ebullition Brew Works released a special beer in their name, a Los Sleepwalkers band-inspired beer called Nocturno: Mexican Mocha Stout, complete with custom t-shirts, mugs, and posters.

Coming Up
Both bands have a busy 2020 already lined up. “I would like to get started on our newest album, tentatively named American Jukebox, which will feature a lot of the Americana styles I grew up with,” Rasmussen said. “I’m still writing constantly, so we have to narrow things down and book studio time. It will likely be out in late January.” Unfortunately for fans, shows outside Southern California look unlikely. “No plans to tour, unless the situation presents itself,” he commented. “I used to have the mind set of heading out, playing bars ,and hoping to sell a bit of merch. But not so much these days. I think that’s why recording means so much to me, it’s the best way at this point for me to get my music across to audiences. However, once the next record is out, I would like to at least go up the coast or hit a few select spots in the East. Our Bandcamp page has been having numerous sales in Italy and Spain for some reason, so ya never know.” Look for Action Andy and the Hi-Tones to perform a free show at Seaport Villages Casbah sponsored Seaport Sessions on December 5, from 5–8 p.m.

Meanwhile another project will be keeping Rasmussen busy. He is a keen fan of San Diego’s music history and is currently in the midst of producing an album that will thrill fans of rock’s formative years. “I’m working on a compilation of music from San Diego, with a focus on the ’50s, ’60s, and into the early ’70s,” he said. “I’m hoping to finally complete it by next summer. Right now we’re working on liner notes, then it’s art and production.” Plans are for the album, tentatively titled Look Out after the 1964 Joel Scott Hill and the Invaders single, to be issued on CD with a limited vinyl run.

The Sleepwalkers also have plans for new music and plenty of gigs in 2020, including the OB Mardi Gras on February 23. Valenzuela is also open to touring. “I’d like to go for two weeks somewhere,” he mused. “Sort of what artists like Scottie Blinn and other musicians do. I wouldn’t mind getting a little taste of that and, say, go to Germany or Spain.”

Brotherly Love
Wrapping up the afternoon, the laughs and anecdotes come easy, with the two brothers’ camaraderie shining through. “There are so many highlights as a musician,” Rasmussen noted. “But number one is being able to be in a band with my brother and sharing the stage with him; we’ve been through a lot. To perform with him means that the both of us have made those early childhood/teen dreams a reality.”

Looking back, Rasmussen cites two highpoints the brothers have shared. “With the Sleepwalkers we opened up for the Texas Tornados and Freddy Fender, two childhood influences of mine,” he recalled. “We also got a chance to open for Link Wray, which was amazing. A personal highlight was playing the Belly Up Tavern, and seeing everyone dance—not a soul was at the bar or anywhere but the dance floor. I live for those moments.”

Though it’s been three years since the pair performed together, odds are they’ll do it again. Indeed, as we’re exiting his house, Valenzuela mentions the need for lyrics. “I need to get you to help me do some lyric writing” he said to his brother. “I don’t know why we didn’t do it earlier with the Sleepwalkers after all these years.”

Valenzuela concurs that the connection with their audiences is special. “When you ask about a career highpoint, I always think to the last night’s show, especially if it went well. It’s great that we’ve played with Flaco Jimenez at 4th & B, but I love, love, love to see folks moving, smiling, and dancing to an original Sleepwalkers tune,” he said. “Making people happy, even for the short time it takes to perform our set, is the best feeling.” Valenzuela pauses to reflect on a quarter century of making music. “I love music, love performing for folks, and am very proud to have started the Sleepwalkers with my brother,” he said. “I’m happy that we are both still doing what we love after 25 years.”

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