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Trenchtown in the 'Trose

Talking ska with Ryan Scroggins

Maybe there are taller peaks ahead in the career of Ryan Scroggins, the former keyboardist in Los Skarnales and now the leader of his own band, the Trenchtown Texans. Or maybe the best has already come and gone. Scroggins knows one thing — nothing can take away his most prized musical memory.

A few years ago, Los Skarnales was opening for chart-topping Jamaican reggae legends Third World. There, Scroggins got the best compliment he'd ever gotten in his life.

"I almost started crying," he says, savoring the moment.

Scroggins and one of his roommates, a Pac-Man frog
Daniel Kramer
Scroggins and one of his roommates, a Pac-Man frog

During the sound check, a few members of Third World came over to watch. "I guess we were playing one of Skarnales's more reggae-type songs," says Scroggins. "Anyway, they were watchin' me, and I was thinking, 'What the fuck are they lookin' at? They're freakin' me out.' After the sound check, we were hanging out around back and one of them came up to me and said, 'Ya mon. You play organ?' And I said yeah, and he said, 'You listen to reggae music. You know reggae music.' And I was like, What? And they told me they could tell I was into the Upsetters and the Skatalites. They said, 'We're Jamaican. We can tell. We know that stuff.'"

And indeed Scroggins does, too. There's a certain authenticity present in the organ-driven sounds of Trenchtown Texas, his band's debut CD, seldom replicated in today's ska.

A few months ago in these pages, we called that disc a "moonlit, warm-breeze-bathed, rum-punch-soaked, weed-pungent hurricane party" of a record, and along with his band's acclaimed live shows, the Trenchtown Texans have already clawed their way into the national ska scene, only a year after their inception in the aftermath of the implosion of Los Skarnales.

Scroggins looks back on his band's first year with satisfaction. In the last 12 months, Scroggins says, his band has toured both coasts, signed to Megalith Records, released an album and had tracks selected for two compilation records. Megalith will soon unleash Trenchtown Texas on Europe with a pre-Christmas release that Scroggins hopes will spark interest enough for an overseas tour next year.

We're sitting in the garage apartment in Darkest Montrose that Scroggins shares with his girlfriend, four sleek, mischievous cats and about ten ­Scroggins-built terrariums, each of which houses exotic frogs from Africa, Asia and South America, salamanders, and, in one case, a baby alligator snapping turtle that is palm-sized now but will grow to be a 200-pound behemoth. (Scroggins, a self-taught amateur herpetologist, studies biology in his free time and volunteers some of his off-hours at the zoo's creepy-crawly department.)

As an LP by Lee "Scratch" Perry's old band the Upsetters spins on a turntable, Scroggins puffs an elongated pipe that would do Gandalf the Grey proud. The fragrant apartment lives up to its street address — by happy coincidence, Scroggins's house is number 420.

A native of Fort Worth, Scroggins moved to the Houston area with his family when he was about 14, first settling in Texas City. A couple of years later, he dropped out of high school and apprenticed himself to a tattoo artist in Galveston. Scroggins took up the same trade on lower Westheimer while still in his teens, and it remains his "day" job today — he's been at Amazing Tattoo for the last eight years, and he really enjoys his work.

"Growing up, I was always into drawing and music," he says. "My parents figured I would be either an artist or a musician. Turned out it was both."

Scroggins had early musical flirtations with saxophone and guitar. On the latter instrument, he played some of his first shows at the Axiom, towards the end of that club's mid-'90s heyday, mainly in "bands that nobody would remember," he says.

Scroggins ended his active role in the music scene as the '90s came to a close, devoting the next four or five years to attaining mastery of tattooing. In the meantime, his musical tastes were evolving out of punk and toward ska and reggae. Some of his old punk friends gave him some shit about it, not that Scroggins cared. "They were like, 'Fuck you, dude. You're one of them hippie/ska/beatnik dorks now!' I just said, 'Whatever, motherfucker. You like the Clash, and ska is just a natural progression from that."

About seven years ago, he decided to reboot his musical career and learn a new instrument while he was at it. "The instrument that always stuck out to me in ska and reggae was the organ," he says. "I took two or three piano lessons, bought an organ, then I joined Secret Agent 8."

Comprised in large part of Scroggins's old school friends from Texas City, Secret Agent 8 enjoyed some regional success, but wound up serving mainly as a sort of farm club for internationally renowned locals Los Skarnales. Felipe Galvan and company raided Secret Agent 8's lineup more than once, with Scroggins being one of the defecting Secret Agents. But it took a while...

"I tried out for Skarnales the first time in about 2002," Scroggins remembers. "And I sucked. I had just started learning how to play. They told me that they didn't vote unanimously to have me join, so I said, 'That's cool. I'll join Secret Agent 8 instead."

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