Sage Against the Machine is how L.A.'s native plant nerds release their rage

Sage Against the Machine frontman Antonio Sanchez performs.
Sage Against the Machine frontman Antonio Sanchez shouts with feeling. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

In a cavernous convention hall in Northern California, at the end of a long, loooong day of important, yes, but eventually mind-numbing presentations about native plants, nearly 200 scientists, botanists and students had had enough. It was pushing 9 p.m. and everyone, exhausted from paying attention, was edging toward the doors and the beckoning bars. That's when six native-plant nerds took the stage, plugged in their musical instruments and sonically set the room on fire.

L.A.-based band Sage Against the Machine played with a driving, unexpected intensity and enough volume to make your chest hurt in a hard-to-pinpoint style. Was it punk? Rap-metal? Early Doors? Frontman Antonio Sanchez stepped to the microphone in his signature below-the-knee baggy shorts over leggings and monarch-butterfly-wing earring, his head bald save for a slicked-back streak of silver-black hair, and began shouting out lyrics in a blend of caressing wail and shriek.

Suddenly a rather subdued group of serious academics and researchers at the California Native Plant Society's 2022 convention in San José turned into a mosh pit of bouncing, frenzied fans, screaming lyrics back at the band and dancing the way people dance when they don't know any steps but they have to move because they're too joyously possessed to stand still.

It wasn't just the throbbing music that hooked them. It was the sly, salty lyrics, full of in-jokes and puns and references only fellow native-plant nerds would understand.

The other day I was watering my lawn

The government told me I was wrong.

They said, "You're gonna have to turn your irrigation off."

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Sanchez crooned the slow opening to one of the band's most crowd-pleasing songs, "Kill Your Lawn," speeding his delivery to squeeze the increasingly complicated lyrics into the meter:

They told me to kill, kill my lawn

But those native plants are such a yawn.

Besides, what am I gonna tell my landscaper, I forgot his name, I think it's Jose ... or, no, no it's Juan.

What do I tell my landscape designer, I remember his name ... his name is Ron,

and what about my landscape architect, he tucks his shirt in, his name is Sean ...

Then the music went berserk, and Sanchez and his bandmates were screaming, "I gotta kill my lawn, gotta kill my lawn ..." Everyone in the room joined in, jumping and screeching with the chorus: "Kill your lawn!"

Six punk rock musicians onstage with frontman Antonio Sanchez singing in front, and his bandmates behind him.

The gig was cathartic for the audience and a giant high for the band. "After listening [to presentations] all day, it was sweet release," said drummer Hector Cervantes during a recent interview. "I know it sounds stupid, but that was our Super Bowl, the Super Bowl of plants. And I hope they'll invite us back for the next convention." (The convention isn't scheduled until early 2026, said California Native Plant Society communications director Liv O'Keeffe, "but we definitely want them back.")

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Undoubtedly the band will be there anyway, because the six members of Sage Against the Machine, all huge fans of the ’90s hip-hop, punk, metal, funk and rock band Rage Against the Machine, spend their days working with plants, primarily native plants at some of the most prominent organizations in Southern California.

Sanchez, a former Marine who started the now-defunct Nopalito Native Plant Nursery in Ventura, runs the Santa Monica Mountains Fund Native Plant Nursery in Newbury Park. He founded the band in 2013 with Evan Meyer, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation, when the two of them worked for the state's largest botanic garden devoted to California native plants, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, now known as California Botanic Garden.

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Meyer said their first gig was unplanned and totally improvised. He was playing background piano at a garden party when Sanchez came over, sat down beside him and began making up some lyrics. "We were friends. We started freestyling, and people thought it was funny," Meyer said. "And that's how it all started. Our first performance was in front of an audience, speaking to people who love plants. It was always meant to be music for our community of plant people."

Sanchez said they started playing during informal Friday night sessions at the garden "over $1 beers and tacos." Rico Ramirez, a certified botanist and arborist working for Caltrans, was an intern at the garden then and added his driving lead guitar to the mix. Ramirez's family is Indigenous Gabrielino Shoshone — his late grandmother, Ya’anna Vera Rocha, was chief of the Gabrielino Shoshone Tribal Nation — and he feels a deep connection to California native plants, especially white sage (Salvia apiana), "our most spiritual plant." Music has been a priority since he was a child, he said. He's classically trained in guitar, but his style now is more blues and metal.

"We're all very serious musicians who, behind the scenes, are entangled in botany and restoration," Ramirez said. "That's kind of our passion. We're playing music to express our passion."

Eventually all three left the garden but kept playing together sporadically. Sanchez, who was still growing plants on his own, showed up selling plants at Artemisia Native Plant Nursery in El Sereno, which opened in 2018. The owner, Nicole Calhoun, held community events at the nursery "just to let people know we existed." Sanchez said he had a band, and in April 2019, Calhoun invited the group to perform.

Cervantes, a self-taught drummer and horticulturist working as an agriculture inspector for the Los Angeles County agriculture commissioner, was then working in the native plant section of Descanso Gardens. A colleague invited him to attend the show, and he was intrigued when he heard the band's name "because I grew up idolizing Rage Against the Machine. Their music had angst, but it was angst toward Mother Earth, a voice for Mother Earth, and right up my alley."

Backstage at the Mark Taper Auditorium, five people stand around joking and smiling.
Backstage at the Mark Taper Auditorium, Sage Against the Machine bandmates Rico Ramirez, left, Nicole Calhoun, Hector Cervantes, Evan Meyer and Antonio Sanchez joke around before they go onstage in October 2023. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

That night was a big turning point. "Hector went up to them after the show and said, 'You guys need a drummer. Can I join your band?' And I said, 'I want to join too,'" said Calhoun, who studied cello in college, "got tapped out with the classical scene" and eventually started playing electric bass for "fun, punk school garage bands."

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About a year later, Sanchez brought an intern at his nursery to practice, Jason Suddith, to play rhythm guitar. And just like that, Sage Against the Machine had six members and a camaraderie that went beyond the music.

"We get on really well, musically and not musically," said Suddith, who is now the manager of the Arroyo Seco Foundation's Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery. "People tell us, 'Oh, you guys sound really good for practicing so infrequently,' but it comes from a love for each other. We do tend to spend holidays together, with all our families. Even the band wives have their own separate group chat. It's more than a silly band to us. We're friends who consider each other like family."

But it's also a way for the group to do a little proselytizing about native plants "and blow off steam too, because we care about the natural world, and it's being destroyed all the time," said Calhoun. "We're trying to rebuild some of those relationships and we give each other strength. It's important to everyone's mental and spiritual health. We do a lot of s— talking too, and it feels great to have that release."

Finding times to practice is challenging. After all, these aren't teenagers playing in a garage band after school. The band members are in their mid-30s to mid-40s and working full-time jobs. They're all married or in committed relationships and most have children. Calhoun, whose daughter is 2, is trying to finish a graduate degree in landscape architecture, "so I can take my business a little further."

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Still, they're all committed to performing, and will release their new album on Spotify later this month. Just don't look for Sage Against the Machine at traditional rager venues. The band is most likely to perform at nurseries and family-friendly plant festivals, such as their upcoming gigs on April 13 at the Puente Latino Assn. Earth Day celebration at DeForest Park in Long Beach, April 21 at the Earth Day Celebration, plant swap and market in Thousand Oaks and May 25 at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster. (Check out their Instagram page @nativesageagainstthemachine for exact times.)

People who attend the band's performances get to hear lyrics that are often playful, as in the bouncy polka "Munching Milkweed," about a monarch's metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, and sometimes playfully suggestive, as in "California Poppy Chulo," a play on the Spanish phrase "papi chulo," which translates to "a hot guy." Ostensibly, it's a song about bees looking for flowers to pollinate, but the opening lines make it clear that this is more than a nature documentary:

He's a California poppy chulo,

Every pollinator that you know

wants to get a little piece of that c—

"The c—" is a vulgar Spanish word for buttocks commonly used in popular reggaeton music. "But it would never appear in print in La Opinión [L.A.'s Spanish-language newspaper]," Sanchez said laughing. "But you know, those guys are having sex with plants; you almost want to put a partition up because the bees are enjoying it so much. It's like, 'You've got to calm down! Do you not know I'm looking at you right now?'"

The lyrics, mostly written by Sanchez, can be biting at times, as in "PSA," a hard-driving song about white sage poaching. They also can be poignant, like in the song "I Wanna Be a Native Plant." In a video posted on YouTube, Sanchez roams the stage, jumping, crouching, rubbing his head and shout-crooning, "I wanna be a native plant, I wanna grow where they say I can't. ... Mama, make me a native plant, so I can grow where they say you can't."

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More often than not, Sage Against the Machine's songs are funny, even when they have an edge. The band's most popular song, "Baby I'm a Botanist," has about 18 versions, Sanchez said, because he's always improvising new lines while the basic premise stays the same: A plant lover falls in love with a botanist.

"It's funny because so many people think that song is about them," Sanchez said, "but really it's just me, who doesn't have a degree and barely even went to school for plants, saying, 'You don't have to have a degree to be a botanist.' Some of our greatest plant people have hands too hard to shake because they got [them] working with plants. But the native-plant world can be super stuffy — 'Oh, you're not pronouncing Salvia apiana correctly' — and we're just trying to break down some of those barriers and have fun with plants."

Their catalog has tender songs too, including the romantic ballad co-written by Meyer and Sanchez, "Your Love is Like a Manzanita, Slow to Grow, Quick to Die," instantly understandable to anyone who has ever been in love or tried to grow a finicky manzanita. They already have one live album on Spotify, and plan to drop another this month.

They're such a unit when they perform — professional, focused yet still having fun — that it raises the question: Will Sage Against the Machine ever hit the big time? It's something they all say they would love, "if my boss would give me a year and half off to tour," Ramirez said jokingly, but the bandmates aren't holding their breath. Major success is probably unlikely, Cervantes said, because their songs are too specific to California and its plants. "If it goes that way, then it's meant to be," Cervantes said, "but we've built a little niche for ourselves that's pretty much our own."

Then again, who knows. If the Beach Boys could make surfing a national phenomenon, who says Sage Against the Machine can't get everyone excited about California buckwheat and white sage? It's like what Sanchez screams in his favorite song, "Connected:"

If you are the lightning, then I'll be your fire and she'll be the wind; what does that make us?

If you are the clouds; then I'll be your rain and she'll be the earth; and what does that make us?

Connected! Connected! Connected!

We are all connected!

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.