Juan Alderete was born into a politically-minded chicano family in Los Angeles, California. Events like the Zoot-Suit riots shaped his father's outlook on the world, and in turn Juan's. When his family moved to Marin county, Juan suddenly found himself at the epicenter of mountain biking culture. It was there that he also became fascinated by music, and playing it. Being introduced to these worlds would shape much of the rest of his life.
Today, Juan Alderete is known as a talented, inventive and versatile bass player. His abilities span across genres, having played with heavy metal phenoms Racer-X in the 80s, acclaimed acts like The Mars Volta and Deltron 3030, while contributing to landmark hip-hop albums by artists like Kool Keith, and ongoing projects like Big Sir and Vato Negro.
Likewise, his passion for bikes and cycling is widespread. Juan discovered BMX in the late 70s, followed by mountain biking. He later became interested in track bikes, which in turn led to road cycling. On most days, you'll find Juan getting around LA—or whatever city he's in while on tour—by bike. It might be a road bike, an old steel beater, or a folding bike. It doesn't really matter, so long as it has two wheels.
I think growing up in the US, much of the latino experience is shaped by how many other latinos are around us. Was that true for you growing up in the Bay Area?
Yeah, in part because my father was very political, so there was no walking away from it. If anything, it was ingrained in me that I needed to be proud of my heritage, be outspoken about it, and defend it if it came to that. There were Latinos in the Bay Area, but they were in San Francisco or in Oakland. They weren't in Marin County, in Novato, which is where we lived. When my grandfather would come up from LA to visit, he'd always say, "there are no vatos in Novato!".
When did you first become interested in bikes as a kid?
Very early on. I got into BMX, along with skateboarding as a kid, because both things were open to everybody, it was open to every race. I got Skateboarding magazine when it first started coming out, and there'd be Asians and Latinos skating in there, and as a kid I'd see that, and I knew it was cool for me pursue. It was something I wanted to be a part of, because I could be a part of it, unlike football or something like that.
Roughly what year are we talking about?
It was in the late 70s. So at the time, skating and BMX were tied into punk rock, because it was all rebellion. It was early on, there were no skate parks or anything like that at first, it was all hard riding. I then started coming to LA to ride here and in Bryant Park in Oakland. I was also really into BMX at the time, but I was never that good. I had a pretty gnarly wreck doing a jump, and I was already really into playing music at the time. I realized that if I got hurt, I wouldn't be able to play music anymore. Time went by, but then I discovered mountain biking, since I was right in the place where the whole idea of mountain biking came about.
When did you first discover mountain biking in Marin County?
Mid or maybe late 80s. I just started seeing these dudes ripping around Mount Tamalpais and I said " what the hell is going on here?" They were taking these regular bikes and doing all this crazy stuff. So I just kind of jumped in. I bought myself a 40 pound tank and went. Riding uphill sucked, but then you're shredding downhill and it's all worth it. I still have an old Univega like that, and that thing weighs like 37 pounds. I was really into it, but I was practicing music a lot too. So I wasn't as deeply into it then as I am now. And back then, I wasn't into road bikes, because they just didn't seem cool, you know?
Certainly. I mean, for me, I encountered road cycling in Colombia as a kid...and the whole country thought it was "cool" back then. But taken out of context, it would be hard for a kid to take it all in I think.
For me at the time...there wasn't anything rebellious about it. There probably was but I couldn't see it, as I did with mountain biking. And to me back then, mountain biking felt like an extension of punk rock, and of skateboarding. You felt like a daredevil up there making your own trails. But on the road, you're with other people and you do as you're told. At least that's how it seemed to me when I was younger. Eventually, I moved to LA to do music. I was broke, there was nowhere to ride, like there was in Marin County, and I pretty much stopped riding a bike for like three or four years.
You were into mountain biking, skatebaording, punk rock, and hip-hop. But you move to LA to study at the Musicians Institute, and you suddenly end up playing with Racer X, a band steeped in the kind of complex, neo-classical metal stuff that people like Yngwie Malmsteen had pioneered. A pretty radical change.
Yeah! When I moved to LA, all my Bay Area friends were like, "don't move to LA and become a metal monkey!", which is what we called metal people back then. But I found myself in school, and I suddenly thought, "how am I going to make a living at this?" I grew up middle class, in a bit of a bubble. Suddenly I'm in the real world, Hollywood Boulevard, and my apartment is infested with roaches. How was I going to live? I started to worry.
I met Paul Gilbert [Racer-X guitarrist, later voted one of the fastest guitar players of all time by Guitar Magazine] through my roommate, who was a drummer. Paul would later say that I was the only guy he met who could play all the stuff he did on guitar on the bass. That wasn't entirely true, but I could play almost everything he did.
So it was weird, because I wasn't into metal at all. I didn't own any records by metal bands. I was listening to Killing Joke, hip-hop and early U2. I would pick up Paul to go to rehearsals in this lowrider I had, and I'd be playing UTFO or something, and he'd just laugh at the drums on those songs. It wouldn't be until years later that I stopped playing metal, simply because it wasn't in my heart. I mean, I liked some of it, like Van Halen, but I didn't see myself doing neo-classical stuff forever.
It's interesting that you made a conscious decision to follow your heart musically. Because you could have easily become the bass player who plays with insanely fast shredder guitar dudes. And that would have been it. I mean, many others have gone down that route, and there's no getting out of it.
You're absolutely right. Don't get me wrong, I definitely owned prog records which I guess kind of ties into shredding in some way. Stuff like Yes and King Crimson, but I wasn't really into metal. Not that genres were fully defined back then. I mean, Chris Poland, who was in Megadeth early on, he was a shredder and was way into Racer X. He'd recommend our band to other bands, guys in Metallica and stuff. But they'd look at us, and they'd be like, "nah, look at their hair, they're goofy!"
You were at the epicenter of mountain bike culture in Marin County, and you were also in LA at a time when that was the center of the metal world. Slayer, Megadeth and bands like that, but also the whole glam and hair metal scene of the 80s.
Yeah, and it was all messy in terms of genres. It wasn't totally defined. I remember Bret Michaels from Poison handing us flyers at a Slayer show back then. At least I think it was Bret Michaels...it was one of the dudes in Poison. They all liked women to us. Back then, the way we talked, we probably said, "they look like chicks!" But yeah, we thought they [Poison] were already a huge band, and they had big teased up hair, and we were like, "why don't we do that so we can get girls to our shows?" (laughs) Of course that didn't work.
Glam seemed like a recipe for success at the time.
Man, all those dudes with big hair were getting signed to major lables, and were on big tour buses right away. Meanwhile, guys that just wore denim and leather jackets, like Metallica, were grinding away for years. MTV could sell big hair, and everyone else got left out. The next thing I knew, we were just trying to get signed as well.
So fast forward to you playing with the Mars Volta years later. In a way, it was kind of an odd fit on the surface, and yet it was a perfect fit at the same time.
You're right, there was a lot of challenging music with that band. So they needed a bass player who could handle it, and I happened to be that dude. At the time, they didn't know who I was or anything about my musical past. It was later revealed to them through Omar's tech, who was a big fan of Racer X.
Did the fact that the Mars Volta was, in a sense, a latino band resonate with you?
Yeah, for sure. I was super proud to be in that band. To this day I'm incredibly proud that I got the opportunity to play with them and really see it through.
Which reminds me, you were part of a really interesting and sort of weird event. The Mars Volta played at the 2003 Latin American MTV Awards. Which was weird because the band was largely out of line with what the rest of the show was like. I mean, you guys were playing, going nuts with Cedric jumping onto the audience, as Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Alejandro Sanz look on in disbelief. It was a weird mix.
But you know, everything we did was like that. It was always really heavy playing with them.
You know you're going to get booed. We used to get booed on the Red Hot Chili Peppers tour. We got booed on the Perfect Circle Tour. People were throwing coins and stuff at us.
I remember being at Madison Square Garden in 2003 opening for the Chili Peppers, we finished playing, and they started booing us. John starts fighting with these people in the audience, he tells them to come down, and these dudes start coming down at us and we have to get pushed off the stage because these dudes in the crowd are coming to fight us. It was always really heavy.
Much in the same way that playing in Racer X and then the Mars Volta speaks to your musical range, so does your interest in hip-hop. For a musical style rooted in rhythm, namely bass and drums, most bassists find little value in it. You see things differently [Juan wrote an article for Bass Guitar Magazine on the subject]. What has attracted you to hip-hop as a musician?
I love it so much, that I want to be a part of it. Hip hop is just drums and bass with maybe a keyboard thing or whatever, but it's usually very minimalistic. There's definitely hip-hop tracks that are cluttered but most of it is very streamlined. I love it, and always wanted to be in it.
The first hip-hop project you worked on was the Doctor Octagon album, with Kool Keith from the Ultramagnetic MCs. Dan the Automator did that album.
Yeah, I would go up to the Bay Area and go into his little tiny attic, and we would record in Sound Tools which was a 2-track Pro Tools back in the day. I would lay down a ton of bass, and he would just cut it up.
Were you playing to tracks, or were you just playing stuff that he could sample for the album?
Just some loops that he would cut up. He was constructing, it wasn't just for Octagon. He was doing remixes, and making other records, so I'm probably on other stuff. He was just like "play to this" and I would. I played on the new Octagon album too too, and I'm on the new Deltorn record as well [with Del the Funky Homosapien] same thing. You just go out there and you give them stuff.
What's Kool Keith like? He seems like such an unusual and interesting dude.
He's awesome. He's super eccentric and in tune with what's happening in music.
You were in his live touring band too.
We were going to do Lalapalooza with a full band. We had breakdancers and Invisibl Skratch, basically the best scratching team in the world, and Kool Keith, one of the most acclaimed hip-hip MCs of all time. We practiced Octagon songs and Ultramagnetic songs [Kool Keith, aka Dr Octagon, was part of the seminal hip-hop group Ultramagnetic MCs]. But he would never show up, and just bailed on it.
With all this music stuff going on in your life, when did you finally come back to cycling, once you were already in LA?
I started riding again when I got a fixed gear bike, but I blew my knee out on it by going up hills. I got rid of that bike, and eventually got this Ibis carbon fiber road bike, full Ultegra. It's super light and clean. I'm not into aluminum at all, maybe on a full suspension bike, but on a road bike? No thank you. So I still love steel road bikes, and I also put together these 80s and 90s mountain bikes to ride around in the city. They look beat, so they don't get stolen. I also have a belt drive city bike, that I'm going to put an internal hub on. That one's going to be super clean.
Do you mostly get around LA by bike?
Yeah, I have my routes to avoid traffic. I mean, I've had people drive their cars at me. One dude nicked me, I yelled at him, and then he put his car in reverse and try to run over me. It just sucks. But the reason why I'm such a believer in riding a bike in the city is because I get to ride all over the US and the world when I'm on tour. Europe, Australia, all over. I bring or buy little folding bikes on tour and ride. I actually have a couple of folding bikes in Europe from past tours. I mean, who wants to see Paris from a car? No thank you.
What are your favorite cities to ride in?
Rome, Berlin, and Paris, for sure. There's no better way to see Paris. You get on a bike, you go ride, pull over, buy a croissant. Man, you can do that all day. At night you switch it to getting oysters, drinking some rosé. People respect you if you're on a bike there.
I remember that in Rome, I hit my first traffic circle and I froze. I was scared, and I then saw a woman in her 60s, all decked out in this amazing dress, and no helmet. I saw her riding and I thought, "man, I got this!".
In the US, I love riding and around Minneapolis. New York is fun. At 3 in the morning, riding through all those buildings with no traffic, the city is empty, it's something you have to do in your lifetime. Those are some of the most memorable moments of all the tours I've done, stuff like that. I also love Montreal, and Toronto is good for riding too.
Do you see any similarities between people that are super into bikes and people who are super into musical instruments, and the way they talk about them? I mean, people get really into steel Italian road bikes, and the way they talk about them, their "soul" and so on is like hearing a guy talk about a '62 P-bass, and Leo Fender's legacy and inventions. It's so similar.
Oh yeah, it's the same thing. I see it, because I look at bikes all day long. There was a point when I got really bad. My wife was like, "this is ridiculous, every time I look at you, you're just looking at bikes!" I got into old steel bikes, because to me they are like art. They have such a beautiful, and refined aesthetic. Of course, there are also those ugly duds, that will always happen. Like the Surlys with big fat tires.
Yeah, I mean, maybe if I lived around snow I would feel differently...but man. They're just ugly. But to me, Japanese track bikes, and old British road bikes....man. I love all that stuff. My wife and I went to Vancouver not long ago, and I was up there looking on Craigslist, to buy a Brooks saddle for super cheap, because they are expensive on Craigslist here in LA.
I'm guessing you do the same for basses when you're on tour? Searching Craigslist on every town and city?
What's your best Craigslist find?
I bought a Wal bass for $1,600. I bought it, and just flipped it. I sold it to the bass player for Nickelback for $4800. I also bought a '62 P-bass, the holy grail [the Fender Precision bass was the first mass produced electric bass guitar, the 1962 model being extremely sought after]. I would still have that bass today, but the neck was too heavy. I can't really play a heavy neck like that. Another great find on Craigslist was actually my Ibis road bike.
Do you ever watch pro cycling on TV?
I do, but I'm not obsessed with it. I mean, it's really hard to capture the essence of riding I think, which is what attracts me to riding. Same with mountain biking. Although I do love all those downhill GoPro videos from South America. Those are insane.
Are there any other musicians out there that you ride with?
On tour with the Mars Volta, I would ride with Marcel [Rodríguez-López]. Also with Tim Commerford from Rage Against the Machine. Man, when they were in their prime, he'd fly me out so we could go ride. We rode in Utah, and up in Marin county.
That's right, he rides. He did the Race Across America (RAAM) and Leadville 100.
I was actually supposed to ride with him once in the Santa Monica Mountains, but I blew it off, because I was hung over. I didn't hear back from him for a couple of weeks, and I thought he was mad at me because of it. Turns out that he wrecked that day, and a helicopter had to come get him . He face planted onto a rock, had to get sewn up, titanium in his face, the whole thing. It was crazy. He's very competitive and he just pushes himself really hard. I've had my wrist busted and those wrecks kill you. Me, I'd rather ride for the rest of my life than have some real severe injury. It's just not worth it.
What projects are you currently working on?
I'm doing clinics, and I have my website, Pedals and Effects, which my wife always says should have something to do with bikes, since the word "pedal" is in there.
I also have this band called Halo Orbit, that's been extremely difficult to get done. It's with Mark Juliana, an unbelievable drummer who's all over the new David Bowie record, and Sugar who plays guitar and sings in a band called Buffalo Daughter from Japan. It's taken four years to get the album it mixed because we don't have money and a friend of ours is mixing it. Hopefully it'll get out next year. I'm doing another record with Lisa from Big Sir, so we're working on that now.