By Andrew Bansal
Kevin Estrada is a veteran photographer based out of Los Angeles who’s been taking spectacular photos of rock and metal bands for a number of years, some of his earliest work now seen as legendary because of the era they represent. He continues to work with bands for live shoots and studio session gigs, but besides his still burning passion for photography, he feels strongly about the issue of human trafficking, and for that reason he’s putting together a ‘Rockers Against Trafficking’ benefit concert at Paladino’s in Tarzana CA on April 11th, featuring an all-star lineup of musicians. A few days ago, I sat down with Kevin to talk about this show and his photography career. Check out the deeply insightful conversation below.
Kevin, it’s good to have you on Metal Assault and finally sit down to talk one-on-one with you. We’ll mainly talk about the show that you’re organizing at Paladino’s on April 11th, which I believe is a ‘Rockers Against Trafficking’ benefit concert. First of all, how aware are you of that topic and how did you decide to do this show?
Well, I’m a dad and I’ve got two daughters, so the last ten years of seeing my kids growing up, I got more and more worried because I carry this weight and I hear these stories of young girls disappearing, and young boys as well. It’s just always been on my radar and I’ve been concerned about it. Sometimes I get a little paranoid of my daughters walking home from school or if I had to go to work and shoot and couldn’t get there in time to pick them up from school, or can’t have people pick them up. If they had to walk home I’d have them call me every 10 minutes. So it just kind of got to a point where I was really focussing in and reading more and more about human trafficking and how easy it is for someone to just disappear, a 7 or 8-year old getting off the school bus can go MIA just like that. People don’t know where they went, a lot of people think they are runaways or troubled kids, but these kids are from normal families and it’s happening everywhere. Everybody thinks that human trafficking is happening just overseas or in Nepal, Europe or wherever, but it’s right here in LA, San Diego and San Francisco. These are hotspots of California, and then the borders between countries are really bad because they’re exporting these kids out there and then you never hear from them again. So, every year I have a birthday party at Paladino’s, and musician friends of mine would come and jump on stage to play, they bring me on stage and they have little jams. They called me around November-December about this year’s birthday party and I started thinking, if they want to jam, may be I can just utilize my friends and make the jam on my birthday party really worth something and meaningful this time. I’ve always wanted to support the fight against human trafficking, my wife and I would donate to a lot of causes, not only this one but a lot of other humanitarian organizations. So I started this organization called ‘Rockers Against Trafficking’, and I said, if my friends want to help, they’ll help. I’ll find the ones with big open hearts, the ones who want to perform, we’d put a show together and instead of it being just a party it would mean something. So I asked a few friends and everyone jumped on board. They told their friends, it just spread and everyone is really happy to get involved. Rockers tend to get overlooked a lot. Everybody looks to U2, Duran Duran or whatever, but they forget about the long-haired party dudes. They care too. They have hearts too, you know. So that’s how it kind of started and it’s been a springboard now into this big show on April 11th. We’re excited and so happy to have all these people that have donated their time and talents for the show. But the main thing is really to raise money and awareness. Lot of people need to be educated on what human trafficking is. They really don’t know what it is but it’s spreading slowly. We’re just hoping that we can do this at least once a year, make it bigger every year and just help the cause. It’s our organization and we’re working with two others, Cast LA who focuses on mainly Southern California, and then Tiny Hands International. With them we’re building these border booths to really go in and make sure if an underage child is traveling, that they have the approval and the right to have that child to cross that border. They check every car and bus that goes through, to make sure that kids aren’t being smuggled across anymore to hotspot countries like Nepal and so forth. A big chunk of our money goes into building these booths to stop kids from being taken across the borders to these countries.
Right, so you pretty much plan to make it an annual thing, then?
Yeah, we’re talking about doing an annual thing. For this one we want to start small and at the same place where my birthday party always has been, because they’ve always supported us and welcomed us in. So we’ll see how it goes. There’s a lot of press about this show and people are talking about it. It’s a big roster. I’d like to always keep it at Paladino’s but I’m hoping that we can outgrow it and may be go to the Roxy next year or the Whisky or something like that. Now, Dimebag Darrell’s lady Rita is really excited about this as well and she wants me to join with her and be a part of DimeBash. So, ‘Rockers Against Trafficking’ might also coordinate with that event. So that would really help us as well.
That’s very cool. As you said, the long-haired party dudes also care. I feel that the hard rock and heavy metal community does more for society than the bigger artists. Whenever there’s something, our community always comes together, doesn’t it?
Yeah, that’s the one thing about metal. The whole metal community is like a family. Everybody really looks after each other and thinks of each other. That’s what gets forgotten with a lot of people. They just look at a band and go, “Oh, they’re a metal band.” And all of a sudden it’s not important what the band’s feelings are and what they’re focusing on. But it’s true, we’re overlooked and a lot of times we actually have to defend our love for metal and defend the fact that it’s just as good as everything else. That’s what keeps us fighting for more and makes the community stronger. We don’t give up, we know it’s our family and we’re always there to stand up for what we believe in. All of us believe in metal, and that’s why we’re here. That’s why metal doesn’t die. It’s just a strong family community. Nobody likes metal for a week. We like it for life, you know.
Yeah, exactly. So, in terms of the lineup for this show, it’s pretty stellar. Can you talk about who’s playing and how you put the lineup together?
Most of the artists are friends of mine, or friends of friends. It started off really easy and the first guy that jumped on board was Rik Fox who’s played in Steeler and SIN and was the original founder of WASP. He named WASP and then Blackie Lawless pretty much started the true WASP band. Rik would always be at my birthday parties and play with me on stage and we would always jam a Steeler song or two. So I knew he wanted to play at the birthday party and I told him that this year was going to be different, but I couldn’t even finish my sentence and he said, “I’m there!” So it felt good that at least the ball had started rolling, and then it just kind of went from friend to friend. Page Hamilton from Helmet is one of my oldest friends and Helmet is one of my favorite bands from the 90s. I just love that band. Page lives in Oregon now, but we were having lunch in LA and I was telling him about my organization against trafficking. He was all about it and said he needed to be a part of it. I was just really, really shocked that Page felt that strongly about it and wanted to do it. His drummer is flying in from New York and Page is coming in from Oregon, and they’re not getting paid to do this! It’s all on their dime and their time. So I was really honored that they want to do that. And then I’m putting these all-star bands together. There’s one that’s kind of like the 80s throwback band. It’s got Randy Piper from WASP, Frankie Banali from Quiet Riot, Mandy Lion from WWIII. They’re kind of their own supergroup. Then I have another one that has Burton from Fear Factory and Sin Quirin from Ministry, and they’re going to do some of the stuff from Ministry’s ‘Cover Up’ album. Then there’s one with Chris Broderick from Megadeth, Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots and Dave Lombardo from Slayer. They’ll do Zeppelin, Judas Priest and other covers, a lot of their favorites. I think each guy chose a song and they’re just going to have fun. Helmet will be headlining. But it’s an all-star show, it starts at 8 and it’s probably going to be end at around 1 in the morning, with lots of surprise musicians hopping on stage. It’s going to be a lot of fun, lots of music, but I want to keep the focus on remembering why we’re doing it.
Sounds like an exciting show!
Yeah, it’s going to be fun! Even the musicians are excited too. I have some of the older LA legends like Betsy Bitch and people like that too. One of the musicians is Lizzie Grey who was in the band London. He’s playing this show with Spiders & Snakes, and he has Parkinson’s disease, so this is probably going to be one of his last shows. I haven’t seen him in a while and I guess it’s really bad, but Lizzie’s really looking forward to being on stage and performing for one last time.
Aside from this show, I wanted to talk to you about your photography a little bit, just to give people an idea about your story as a photographer. How long have you actually been doing this?
I’ve been taking photos of rock bands since I was 11. I started going to a lot of concerts when I was a kid, and I used to buy tour programs. I loved those huge programs with all these great photographs. I’d stare at them and stare at them, and I’d say, “Oh, I wish I took this photo, and I wish I took that one.” That was my thing. So then I was like, why don’t I just take my own photos instead of wishing I took those photos? It was a little harder than planned, to just walk in there and take photos. But I started smuggling my camera into concerts. The first camera I snuck in was the old little 110 film camera. I snuck it into a KISS concert and took these photos. I was all excited to get the film back, I looked at the pictures and they blew! They sucked, they were all dark. So I decided that I needed a better camera. My brother had a Pentax K1000 camera, so I would go into his closet to steal it and go to a show to take photos, which were way better. But I still needed to get closer to the band. So I started buying tickets from ticket scalpers to get as close as I could to the stage. Then my mother bought me my own camera with a zoom lens on my birthday, so I had to figure out a way to get into a venue with a big camera. I would tape the camera on my back with duct tape and put a hoodie on over it to cover the bump, and then my buddy, who looked like a cross between Lizzy Borden and Dee Snider, he had this huge metal hairdo, kind of like an afro which he would carve into shape. So I would lift up his hair and put my lens in the collar of his leather jacket. So we went together and made sure I went in first, they patted me down but didn’t touch the hoodie. He was really tall too, and they would never get up to his hair. Then we would find our seats, put the camera together and I would pop up every once in a while to take photos. As soon as I saw those photos, I was hooked. It almost looked like the tour program! And then somebody had told me that I can’t just start off shooting Judas Priest and Van Halen concerts because those are the big bands and that I needed to shoot local bands to get practice. So I started shooting local bands, but luckily my local bands were Mötley Crüe and Ratt. So I’d go pay 8 bucks to see Mötley Crüe and take photos at the Whisky. Now those photos are legendary vintage Crüe photos. But I didn’t know what I was walking into. So that continued on as me just kind of smuggling my stuff. I’d sell photos to kids in school, 4 for $5. I would put together little photo books and started taking those to concerts. I would walk around the Forum or the Sports Arena like an hour or two before the show when kids were in line and I would sell photos. I’d go home with like 75 bucks. So that’s how it started. And then to make a long story quick, the way I got into it professionally was, I was still shooting illegally, smuggling my stuff in. I could not figure out how to make it to really be a legitimate photographer. I’d send my photos to magazines and they would just come back saying, “We don’t accept unsolicited material.” I tried to take part in photo contests but somehow I was always late and all those contests ended. So, one day I was at Long Beach Arena and Anthrax, Exodus and Testament were playing. I saw this photographer go through the doors with all his cameras over his shoulder. So I ran over to the guy and asked him how he got to walk into the show with all that equipment. He showed me his press pass. I showed him the lump on my back and he laughed it off, but I gave him my phone number in case he ever needed help. Two days later, my phone rings and it’s that guy. He said his photos didn’t turn out good and he asked if mine did, and I got 6 or 7 really good ones so he wanted to use them. I was all excited. It turns out that he was the editor of Cream Magazine. So then from there I started shooting for Cream and all these other magazines and got my first agent. Then I started shooting for RIP and Circus, and that’s how it started. So it was just a stroke of luck, basically.
That’s awesome, man. But security must have been pretty lapse back then if you were able to get your camera in like that. It wouldn’t work today!
Security was just one big guy patting you down with big hands with a scary look in his eyes. There weren’t even metal detectors. No hand wands, nothing. So luckily it worked out for me. If it was in this day and age, I wouldn’t have been getting it in. Not at all.
Photographers who start out doing this nowadays, it’s must harder for them to get into the business, specially as a paid photographer, right?
Well, I think it’s easier to get into the business but harder to get paid because there are so many of them. Everyone creates their music site and know someone with a music site, so it’s easier for them to get into it but definitely harder to make a living doing it than it was back then. But the learning curve now is so much easier. You take a digital camera and look at it. Immediately you know what’s wrong with the photos. Back then, you’d have to take notes on everything, then wait two days and compare the notes to the photos and see what you needed to change.
In terms of your photography itself, do you think it’s got easier for you over the years?
Oh yeah, digital photography makes it easier but I still love film. I still think there’s no comparison to black-and-white film. Even though you look at digital black-and-white and think it looks cool, you put a real print next to it and you’re like, “Oh man, that blows.” But yeah, the learning curve is easier, you can shoot a lot more, you can get more photos now because you can just fire them off. You come home with like 500 photos on your card as opposed to shooting two rolls of film which was like 72 photos. The more you shoot, the better you get.
You’ve shot so many bands over the years, but I’m sure you have some favorites. What bands have you enjoyed shooting the most, whether it be live or photo shoots?
Well, I love doing both. When I shoot some of my favorite bands live, my hands still get clammy sometimes when I’m waiting when the lights go down. I still get that, which is great. That keeps me grounded and I know that my heart is still in it. I love shooting Judas Priest. The last time I shot them I got the clammy hands. Shooting Van Halen was cool. I don’t know why but my hands dried up every time I shot Wolfgang, but when the camera went to Eddie or Roth, they’d get clammy again. And then I like doing studio sessions with musicians. I like working with people I get along with, like Jonathan Davis from Korn is great to work with, and then I like working with Robert Smith from The Cure a a lot. Whenever you have a good guy and you’re connecting artistically, it just makes it more fun. But I still have the passion, and the excitement is still there.
And lastly, what’s one thing you hate most about your profession?
One thing that came with the digital age is the post-processing. You go and shoot the show, that’s the easy part. That’s half an hour of shooting and it’s fun. But then you’ve got to go home, dump all the images on your computer, go through them and choose all the good ones, you’ve got to color-correct them, adjust the lighting, and it’s just a lot o work. People don’t realize how often you’re sitting there in a chair looking at the screen, your face is getting swollen and your eyes are killing you. I think there’s going to be a huge rise in photographers with hemorrhoids from sitting down so much, because you’re spending so much time on the chair, editing. So that’s the down side of it. The more you shoot, the more images you have, the more time you’re sitting there doing that. I mean, you can just dump them out and not put any time into it and I guess you’ll get a few good shots, but you’ve got to spend more time and make sure that they look good. It’s time consuming and takes all the fun out of it.
Visit Kevin Estrada on the web:
Official event page for the Paladino’s show: