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Wild Things

With a stiff dose of vatobilly, the Flamin' Hellcats aim to cure rock and roll of what ails it

"[Cevallos] used to tell me he would be in a band with me someday," Marroquin recalls. "I would tell him that if he touched my guitar, I'd kick his ass."

While Marroquin confesses to secondhand formal music training by a sister who studied classical piano -- and a lapse during the conversation reveals that the Hellcats have a passing familiarity with conjunto, norteno and other traditional styles of their culture -- the Hellcats are adamant about vatobilly being a knee-jerk reaction to the pop culture of their adolescence.

"We were at Milby in the late '80s," Cevallos recalls with a shudder, as the band begins deriding the popular music of the era. "Culture Club," someone laughs, followed by "Duran Duran," "doin' the moooon walk, wavin' that silly fuckin' glove," "sissy rock," "sissy music, you mean" and finally, "man, it wasn't even music."

"The stuff we wanted to hear wasn't on the radio," Marroquin explains. "The '80s were such crap, so we went back before that."

It's an attitude that carries over to Speedfreak, which from beginning to end is saturated with an amphetamine-fueled style that's both innovative and immediately familiar. Songs such as "Go Straight to Hell Baby," "Datin' Satan" and the drooling-with-lust "Three Pack Panties" show elements of everything from rockabilly to grunge, while retaining an every-mother's-nightmare quality that has always marked rock at its purest. This is a party, not an artistic statement, as Marroquin makes plain when he describes the band's collaborative songwriting process.

"I'll come up with a riff and these two will change it around, and I never can remember what they've done," he says. "So we just play it really fast so no one can hear all the mistakes. And when I come up with a melody, they ask me if I've got lyrics, and I say I do. But I'm always lying, and then I have to make something up the night of the show."

When the observation that most bands rehearse new tunes before they debut them in public is offered, it's met with revulsion. "We don't rehearse," the Hellcats say in unison, appalled that they could be accused of such a thing. If area groups serious about their art, and their practice schedules, accepted this claim of a totally carefree approach without the obligatory grain of salt, it could lead to serious feelings of frustration, seeing as how numerous local clubs have learned that the Hellcats are apparently a band that can't be booked too often. (Their latest local booking is as openers for next week's Reverend Horton Heat show at Numbers.) They appear immune to oversaturation. The vatobilly vanguard has also found enthusiastic audiences in markets not noted for being receptive to Houston acts. Dallas and Austin are both notoriously lukewarm to Houston bands, but the Flamin' Hellcats have nonetheless developed serious followings in the two cities.

"We do gigs all over Texas," Marroquin explains. "But it's not like we're on tour. We're just out of town a lot."

San Antonio has also feted the Hellcats on numerous occasions, though a few of the fans at those fetes have caused some problems for the band. "They had three or four major crimes in San Antone where people were wearing Flamin' Hellcats T-shirts when they got busted," Marroquin says. "It wasn't anything we did; those dudes just didn't get it. But this one cat took hostages, man. And when they brought him out on TV in handcuffs he was wearing one of our shirts. Well, hell, the cops decided we were some kind of gang band, and our next gig there got raided."

Another curious story explains the long delay surrounding Speedfreak's domestic release: The initial shipment of discs was impounded by U.S. Customs for some unfathomable reason. "It was out in Europe months ago," Marroquin explains, "and it got to the point where people didn't believe we had ever recorded. How do you explain to people that you've got 500 CDs somewhere, but you don't know where they are?"

The discs finally arrived, complete with impressive governmental rubber-stamp impressions, and since then the Hellcats have been "out of town a lot," playing CD release parties around the state. But it's likely that even their staunchest fans know deep down inside that Speedfreak is ultimately just a souvenir of something best experienced live -- a token, perhaps, of that irreplaceable night when the Hellcats ripped the brain out of your skull and bounced it off the barroom wall like a vatobilly superball.

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