"When 9/11 happened, Alive gave people hope." We asked nu metal veterans P.O.D. to take us on a tour of their hometown, San Diego

P.O.D. San Diego 2024
(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

Back in the 1990s, National City wasn’t the kind of place you read about in the guide books. A mere stone’s throw from the touristy enclaves and glittering sands of San Diego’s Coronado Island and Imperial Beach, and a 20- minute car ride from Tijuana, across the border in Mexico, the area’s nickname reflects its notorious past: Nasty City. “It’s nothing to brag about, but in 1994 this area had a higher crime rate than New York City,” says P.O.D. guitarist Marcos Curiel.

Today, taquerias, strip malls and residential neighbourhoods buzzing with vibrant Mexican culture dominate this sweeping region south of downtown San Diego. It’s here that we’ve arranged to meet one of the city’s most successful and durable musical exports for a tour of their hometown and the places that have shaped them. 

Marcos is first to arrive, greeting Hammer with an electric smile and an enthusiastic bro hug. Bassist Traa Daniels, originally a Cleveland native, is next, reaching out with a handshake and a grin, the quiet man of the band. Last to turn up is singer Sonny Sandoval. Humble but prone to laughter, he’s a world away from the spitfire figure conducting the mayhem at P.O.D. shows. 

The band are gearing up to release their 11th album, Veritas. It’s their first in six years, and their excitement is palpable. The title is the Latin word for ‘truthfulness’. “We decided we were going to write an old-school style, P.O.D. rock and metal record,” says Marcos. “That’s what ‘veritas’ is to us.” 

P.O.D. have been inextricably linked to San Diego – a city of 1.4 million residents, pristine beaches and mouthwatering Mexican cuisine – since their formation in 1992. Their 2001 song Boom included a shoutout to the town they called ‘The Big SD’. Fittingly, our first stop is their old rehearsal space, Sweetwater, an anonymous, three-storey building tucked away in a commercial park a few miles off of Highway 54. The band rehearsed here from 1992 until 1998, paying $500 a month for the privilege. 

“This is the scene,” says Sonny, gesturing to the building with a flourish. “All the South San Diego bands use this rehearsal spot.” 

Inside, Sweetwater is a labyrinth of modest rehearsal spaces — glorified storage rooms with padlocks and soundproofing. It’s here that they spun the raw material of their rough ideas into something pulsating with power and purpose. Marcos eyeballs the bulletin board on the first floor where P.O.D. and the other bands would post gig flyers. 

“This is the first time we’ve been back in a minute,” says Sonny. “It’s completely changed. It’s corporate now. I mean, it’s still ’hood but everything is clean. We thought we’d come back to sticky floors and jacked holes in the wall.” 

During their time here, P.O.D. released three albums – 1994’s Snuff The Punk, 1996’s Brown and 1997’s Payable On Death Live – via their own Rescue Records, funded by original drummer Wuv Bernardo’s father. Then, as now, the band made no secret of their Christian faith, and during that time they built up enough of a buzz to draw a tidy $100,000 offer from a Christian label. Life-changing money for four kids holding down day jobs, but they turned it down. 

“We’d been approached by a lot of indie Christian labels and stuff,” says Sonny, “but we never felt like that was our scene. We didn’t want to be a Christian band. We weren’t trying to be the poster child for Christian rock.”

“Nothing against those bands,” adds Marcos, “but it wasn’t what we were called to do.”

It’s time to head to the next stop, Tribal Clothing, the iconic San Diego streetwear brand whose fortunes are intertwined with those of P.O.D. “I’ll drive,” offers Marcos, as we pile into his truck, a dark grey pick-up with two decals on the rear window: a brown and gold decal of the state of California with the letters ‘SD’ in the middle (the colours are those of the local baseball team, the San Diego Padres), and an image of Iron Maiden’s Eddie. 

San Diego is a city of contrasts. Along with its chilled surf culture, it’s also a military stronghold, surrounded by battleships, fighter jet training bases and a massive armed forces population. Political divisions run deep, as do the cultural divisions across San Diego County, including the music scene. P.O.D. represented one corner of the city’s musical triangle. 

“The North was Blink-182,” says Marcos, “the East was [funk-edge punks] Sprung Monkey and we represented the South Bay.” 

P.O.D. are one of the few bands to get huge and stay in San Diego. We park on a side street of San Diego’s gritty East Village and pass through a retractable wrought iron gate into the courtyard of Tribal Streetwear, where a grinning, dreadlocked man with a spliff the size of a carrot greets the band with big hugs. 

“Tribal is a San Diego based streetwear brand,” explains Sonny, who is wearing an on-brand Tribal zip-up jacket today. “They’re huge. They’ve always been good to us, even as a local band coming up, and you’d see that Tribal logo on Cypress Hill and a lot of West Coast groups. You started seeing them on Korn and Limp Bizkit, but because we were homegrown, they were always throwing shirts our way and they always hooked us up, so we were always rocking Tribal.”

Indeed, P.O.D. returned the love via Tribal, the slamming hardcore rap track on their fourth album, 1999’s The Fundamental Elements Of Southtown. Inside Tribal, Beyoncé’s Texas Hold ’Em bumps through the PA. Every wall is arrayed with dazzling graffiti and street art. There’s a small stage, offices and a bar downstairs, while 15 different tattoo stalls are located upstairs, along with a DJ booth and founder Bobby Ruiz’s office. 

Sonny’s son Justice tags along and, using his iPhone, films the band giving shoutouts to the cities on their upcoming US tour. As Sonny films a promo, Marcos and Traa munch Cheetos, drink Cokes and make fart noises, accomplishing their goal of making Sonny laugh. 

Although P.O.D. pre-dated nu metal, they caught the updraught. Mashing up metal, punk, hip hop and reggae, The Fundamental Elements Of Southtown was their breakthrough record. The first P.O.D. album to be released on major label Atlantic, it went platinum in the US, selling more than a million copies.

“I don’t think we make a conscious effort to mix this or that genre,” says Marcos. “That’s just who P.O.D. is. When we start writing, these types of songs just kind of come out.” 

That success escalated with follow-up Satellite, a record that defied the longest of odds. It was released on September 11, 2001, the day of the deadly terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington DC. By rights, the album should have been dead in the water against that backdrop, but its underlying message of positivity connected with a nation in turmoil. 

“[Satellite’s first single] Alive was already out,” explains Sonny, “and it was heading to No.1 on radio and it was No.1 on MTV’s TRL [Total Request Live show], it was giving people hope. When 9/11 happened, that song just stood out. It gave people hope and, with all of our music, it doesn’t matter how heavy it is, we always want to be hopeful.” 

That sense of hope was evident in the album’s other marquee song, Youth Of The Nation. It was inspired by a school shooting in March 2001 in Santee, San Diego, in which 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams killed two of his fellow students and wounded 13 more. P.O.D. were in a nearby studio at the time, writing songs for Satellite

“We were two blocks away from Santana High School when the shooting happened. All of a sudden we see ambulances and helicopters and we turned on the news, because there were no smartphones, and we see what’s going on.” 

Propelled by Alive and Youth Of The Nation, Satellite rose above the tragedy that fed into its creation, going on to sell more than three million copies in the US. Both songs remain central to their setlist to this day.

P.O.D. pose for pictures with fans in San Diego

(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

As we poke through t-shirts at the skate shop, a spirited debate erupts: where should we get tacos? Being from North County, Hammer’s input is roundly rejected. Eventually, the band settle on a place in the Gaslamp district, a few blocks away. We arrive at Taco Centro, a bright blue and white taqueria in the middle of the Gaslamp, where a girl behind a tall glass window lays out homemade tortillas on a grill and intoxicating spices arrest the senses. 

Marcos immediately takes point, stepping up to the register and taking everyone’s order. “I’m going with the ‘Mar y Tierra,’” he says as Hammer pulls up to the counter. “That’s the surf and turf. You won’t be disappointed.” 

We opt for the bean and cheese burrito. “Vegetarian, huh?” he correctly guesses. “They got nopal here – cactus. It’s really flavourful.” 

Sadly, cactus is a plant too far for Hammer. As the cashier rings us up, Marcos waves away our attempt to pay. He treats the whole group. One person who is conspicuously absent today is Wuv Bernardo, the band’s original drummer and co-founder, and Sonny’s cousin. 

According to P.O.D.’s Wikipedia page, he hasn’t been a member of the band since 2021. Raising the subject elicits a brief but heavy silence. “Wuv is not currently in the line-up and he may return or he may never return,” says Marcos, making no attempt to hide his sadness. “We’re still family, but we’re not currently working together.” 

They won’t be drawn any further on the matter (Wuv’s place on Veritas is taken by studio drummer Robin Diaz). Still, all three core members are understandably enthused by the new album. “Circles was written in a more of an alternative metal/poppy sense,” says Marcos, referring to their last album, released in 2018. “We made a decision to be more heavy rock on this.” 

Previous P.O.D. records have seen them collaborating with everyone from Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta to Bad Brains frontman H.R.. They’ve hit the contact book again for Veritas. Lamb Of God’s Randy Blythe appears on opening track Drop, while Jinjer’s Tatiana Shmayluk guests on Afraid To Die

“Everybody’s like, ‘What does that mean?’” says Sonny of the latter song’s title. “Afraid To Die means that I’m standing up for myself and willing to die for what I believe in. And that’s true, but the next line actually says, ‘Not only am I not afraid to die, I’m not afraid to live.’ I’m not afraid of life. So it’s really more encouraging and trying to empower people.” 

Faith has been central to P.O.D. since the beginning. They wear their spirituality on their sleeves, infusing their songs with messages of hope and redemption without succumbing to the preachiness that sometimes characterises other bands who identify as Christian. It’s this delicate balance that has allowed them to reach a broad audience, appealing to both secular and religious audiences. Still, the ‘Christian band’ tag has sometimes been more hindrance than help over the last 30 years. 

“We were never Christian enough for the institution of Christians,” says Sonny, “but we were too Christian for the secular world. If someone’s interviewing me and they ask, ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’, I’ll say, ‘Of course!’ Because in my neighbourhood, that’s not a bad thing. That’s not a shameful thing. Dude, we’re a rock band! We love God and we love people. People just want a poster child, but you’ve gotta live your own life, man. We’re not choirboys.’’

Wrapping up for the day, we walk past Taco Centro again, where a Mexican family are eating on the patio outside. The father immediately clocks P.O.D. and runs over to shake their hands and ask for a photo with his family. Sonny, Marcos and Traa are happy to oblige – amid beaming smiles and booming laughter, photos are taken, fists are bumped and hugs dispensed. 

We turn to leave, heading up the block towards the cars before we realise that Sonny is MIA. Turning around, we see him back at Taco Centro, removing his jacket and draping it across the father’s shoulders. He whispers something to him and, before the man can get up, Sonny jogs back over to us. It’s proof of just how enmeshed San Diego is in P.O.D.’s DNA – and vice versa. 

This city made them, and in return they’ve been repping The Big SD around the world for more than 30 years. Home? Sure, but more than that. “This is where we built our character on all fronts,” says Marcos. “Culturally, spiritually and artistically. It’s part of a culture – the Hispanic culture. A lot of people around the world don’t understand it, but it’s part of day-to-day life. It’s part of the sound! How could we ever leave when that’s what we are?”

Veritas is out now via Mascot. 

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.