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Scabba-Dabba-Do

Guitars, horns and irony fuel Austin band The Scabs

It was the kind of career that hundreds of bands would gladly give up at least some groupie privileges to reach: two releases on a mid-level record label (also home to nationally known acts such as 311 and Cake), a spot opening up for the Dave Matthews Band on tour and the chance to join the traveling rock caravan known as the H.O.R.D.E. tour. But for the Austin-based groove band The Ugly Americans, all these circumstances merely led to break up -- though not "break up" in the usual sense. Out of the Ugly American wreckage, The Scabs, a musical outgrowth that at one point had the exact same band members, simply took over the Uglies' deteriorating form.

"The Ugly Americans are dying a quiet death," says bassist Bruce Hughes. "The two bands had completely different attitudes and sets of material. And with The Scabs, we can do any crazy fucking rock and roll thing we want to do."

Says singer Bob Schneider: "This band is where my heart is, not the Ugly Americans. That's because there's no musical boundaries or limits with The Scabs." But while the band still struggles with an identity crisis and the low-level confusion that comes with morphing one unit into another, it's clear that the better musical menagerie has emerged in the nine-piece Scabs.

And though The Scabs' members play in black suits and have a horn section, one spin of its records or ten minutes at a live show will prove that this is not yet another (Oh, God! Make them stop!) neoswing revival band. In fact, the biggest strength of The Scabs is the diversity of its music.

Its CDs are like minitours of every musical genre. Swinging from hard funk ("Staysha Brown") to stone country ("Pudding and Cheese") to salsa ("Woman") to soul ("So Fresh & So Fine") to rap ("Bones") to jazz ("Man of the Year") to Tex-Mex ("Tarantula") to even doo-wop ("Hanging Out with the Horny Girls") with an anarchic sense of no rhyme or reason, the band seems determined not to get pegged with any one musical style.

"When people ask what kind of band we are, I just say we're a dance band," says singer Schneider. "Our shows are a big party, and that's what keeps people coming back."

Or it could be people's taste for raunch that keeps them around. Schneider calls the band's music in-your-face, party-oriented music to which you can dance but which also has tongue-in-cheek vulgarity in it. What else could you expect from guys who write little ditties such as "Big Butts and Blow Jobs," "Pussy Fever," "Fuck Me" and an epic, which indirectly led to the band's very formation, "I Fucked Your Daughter in the Ass, Boy"?

"Those songs are done in a way that's playful and honest," says Schneider, who writes most of the lyrics. "It's not misogynistic, like 'Smack My Bitch Up,' and you can see that clearly in the live show. We're not going out of our way to offend anybody. And, let's be real, they're also pretty damn funny."

In concert, you might find any one of these songs immediately followed by a torrid rendition of REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling." But to understand how the band has come to this juncture, you have to go all the way back to 1993.

That's when the Ugly Americans formed as a side project for a group of Austin musicians that included Joe Rockhead, Schneider, Hughes (who had played with both Cracker and Poi Dog Pondering), drummer David "Snizz" Robinson and a supporting cast of rotating musicians. The band landed a spot on the 1994 H.O.R.D.E. tour, which led to similar gigs with the Dave Matthews Band and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. The groove-rock-oriented band released a self-titled, self-produced debut in 1995 before signing with Capricorn Records, which put out Stereophonic Spanish Fly the next year. It yielded a minor radio hit, "Vulcan Death Grip of Love."

But by 1996 Schneider had amassed a dozen or so songs, including "I Fucked Your Daughter in the Ass, Boy," that he felt wouldn't fit into the sound the Uglies had established (not to mention within the somewhat simmering musical conflicts between band members). So he formed The Scabs as an offshoot band with Robinson and guitarist Adam "Slowpoke" Temple.

"I knew the Uglies would never play this material and wouldn't even think about it," Schneider says. "It just wasn't valid for some people in the band. And with The Scabs, I just wanted a grab bag of stuff, everything from a polka or a snippet of a song to a full-blown rock opera." And indeed, during regular Tuesday-night gigs at Austin's fabled blues club Antone's, The Scabs might segue from an original art-rock piece to a Neil Sedaka cover to a Tipper Gore-cringing track called "Butt Pussy." Eventually the band's set lists began to reflect more dance-oriented tunes, which people clamored to hear.

In the meantime, the Ugly Americans continued to play on weekends around the region. The summer of 1996 saw the band members in the studio to record Boom Boom Baby, which they hoped would be a breakout hit. The band says Capricorn sat on the disc for more than a year and a half, effectively freezing any momentum the Uglies had achieved by that point.

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