For more than a decade, Rene Contreras has had his finger on the pulse of rising musical talent in Southern California and beyond.
As a teenager, he spent countless nights staying up until the early hours of the morning, cycling his way through every music platform available. He was searching for something that gave him the goosebumps and artists he could reach out to in hopes of booking them for a show in his hometown of Pomona. Contreras’ ability to hear something that he knew would one day make it big is what has made the Viva! Pomona Festival so successful.
The independent music fest — where now superstar acts like Chicano Batman, The Marias, Omar Apollo, The Garden, Cuco and DannyLux were exposed to audiences early on — is returning for its eleventh year at The Glass House in Pomona on July 15-16. El Monte indie rock trio The Red Pears will headline on Saturday, July 15 and Atlanta, Georgia-based pop duo Coco & Clair Clair will close out the event on Sunday, July 16.
“I never thought we’d even make it this far,” Contreras said of the festival with a cold brew coffee in hand, sitting on a bench in front of The Glass House concert hall. “It’s surreal, to be honest. And every year that passes it’s new artists, new generations and new projects people might not know about. And it’s great because we get to put that on the map for so many people here.”
Contreras, a first-generation Chicano, began his career by booking bands in backyards and charging $3 for local teens to catch rising punk, rock or indie bands in the Inland Empire. It didn’t seem like much back then, but Contreras knew he was onto something as he watched the scene grow.
He wanted to go bigger, but he didn’t know how.
Through a chance encounter, Contreras ended up connecting with Los Angeles-based music promoter Paul Tollett, who grew up in Pomona and attended Cal Poly Pomona before becoming president and CEO of Goldenvoice, the company responsible for festivals like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Tollett, along with his brother Perry, opened The Glass House in 1996.
The pair clicked and in 2013, with Tollett’s blessing, Contreras launched Viva! Pomona at the venue.
Since the inception of Viva!, it’s been vital for Contreras to book independent artists throughout Southern California. Still, a key ingredient is incorporating Latin artists, he said, noting that many Latinos who grew up in the surrounding areas listened to Spanish and English music and he wanted to create a similar vibe. Latin artists account for more than half of the 2023 lineup, with a little more than 40 acts in all playing this weekend.
“With any movie or book you read, there’s always a theme, and I really try to stay true to ours,” Contreras said. “If you’re from the Inland Empire, you know it’s heavily dominated by people who speak Spanish, so a lot of us grew up speaking Spanish in our households then going out into society speaking English, so it’s a representation of that 50-50 split. Every language and every person is welcome, of course, but the theme of it is to have that energy.”
Acts from Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Argentina and Spain have taken part in Viva!, and for some acts, coming to the festival marked their very first shows in the U.S. This year, Contreras shared that he booked several bands from Latin America and the Caribbean, including Indie Anthony, an artist based in Jamaica who will be making his California debut at the festival.
“It’s funny because (Indie Anthony) told me that when people think of Jamaica, they don’t normally think of post-punk coming out of there,” he said. “So it’s cool to have different styles take part in this and join the backyard community.”
Though Viva! is now presented on a larger scale, there’s still that backyard DIY spirit, Contreras said. The festival has created a space where the artists feel more at home and he’s been able to foster lasting friendships and working relationships with them. The acts also connect with one another. Past performers like Palm Springs native DannyLux and Inglewood-based singer-songwriter Cuco were introduced through Viva! and the encounter led to the pair collaborating on “Decir Adios,” a track off Cuco’s 2022 record “Fantasy Gateway.”
“I asked Danny who his music inspiration was, and he said Cuco, and I told him he actually headlined a few years back and was so excited, so I knew I had to make that connection,” Contreras said.
Putting together Viva! ultimately led to Contreras landing a job with Goldenvoice in 2017. He curates the Sonora Tent at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where he’s become known to mix alternative and indie rock genres with Latin artists. In 2023, the stage included DannyLux, The Breeders, Bratty, Los Bitchos, Conexion Divina, Momma, Destroy Boys and many more. Using his platform, Contreras hopes to help artists develop their careers — from playing a more intimate fest like Viva!, to being a part of Coachella, one of the largest music festivals in the world.
“I was so nervous when I started,” Contreras said. “But in the end, it really is the same method I use for finding artists for Viva! You know athletes always have to be in shape and I’m not an athlete or anything, but its the same deal, you always have to be at the forefront when it comes to music because it moves so fast.”
Though his official job title is talent buyer and promoter, Contreras said it’s much more than that.
“Sure, my job title is talent buying, but I really don’t see it that way,” he said. “I like to see it as talent believing. Every artist in this world is different, and their creative process and how they want to express themselves is different. People ask me if I ever have days off and, honestly, not really. I’m always hunting and searching for new music, but I would have it any other way.”
When: 3-11:30 p.m. Saturday, July 15-Sunday, July 16
Where: 200 W. 2nd Street, Pomona
Tickets: Two-day passes are $50; single-day tickets are $30 at theglasshouse.us.