To put it mildly, critics have a hard time pithily describing San Antonio rock underground legends Boxcar Satan. In fact, they wind up sounding a lot less like Lester Bangs than they do Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather or even Jimmy Swaggart. "The next rung down that lake of fire Leadbelly warned us about," runs one such review. "Tom Waits goes to Hell to jam with a twisted devil rock punk band," runs another, and "If I was cast down into Hell, I'd become a stripper and the only music I would dance to be would be by Boxcar Satan," chimes in a third in this hellish chorus.
Shit, who am I to hold myself superior to my ink-stained brethren? I'll play, too.
Here goes: If Beck were the Antichrist, he would sound like Boxcar Satan Boxcar Satan sounds like the soundtrack to one of Hieronymus Bosch's freakscapes transplanted to the depression-era American South If the teenage Damien from The Omen were around, he would ditch those Gregorian chants he was always jamming and get heavily into Boxcar Satan. There.
Boxcar Satan singer-guitarist Sanford Allen has his own description, one that somehow manages to avoid so much as dipping a toe into the sulphurous lake of fire we critics seem so keen on tossing his band in: "the no-account, no-wave blues."
"That's just something we came up with so we could put it in a press kit," Allen says with a laugh. "I think it was just kinda us tryin' to distill down two of our biggest influences. We were definitely influenced by the stuff that came down out of New York at the end of the '70s -- bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and also bands like the Fall and the Birthday Party. And I think there's probably an equal amount of stuff coming from American roots music -- Delta blues, swamp blues, old-timey country and just about anything else we care to throw into the blender."
In the past, everything from Gypsy music to a cover of Soft Cell's "Seedy Films" has been pureed in that Cuisinart, along with their often atonal and dissonant no-wave punk riffs and Allen's Howlin' Wolf/Omar Dykes/Captain Beefheart-style growl. On their current album, Upstanding and Indigent, 1920s hillbilly firebrand Blind Alfred Reed (on a downright ferocious cover of "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live") and the très traditional Cajun singing family the Balfa Brothers wind up in the Boxcar Satan food processor. The fiddle- and accordion-driven "Claudine" comes wafting out of a barrage of guitar and drum clatter like an angel emerging out of a World War I bombardment and then fades back into the din just as suddenly.
"We were listening to the Balfa Brothers on tour one time, and I kept thinking it would be kinda fun to do something like that," explains Allen over the phone from his cubbyhole at the San Antonio Express-News, where he works as a reporter. "It's pretty stripped-down, really straightforward music, and I thought it would be cool to write some really strange lyrics and translate them into Cajun French, and nobody would know what I was talking about."
As should already be plain, hitting it big is not much of a factor for Boxcar Satan. Allen believes at least part of the band's adventurousness can be explained by the fact that they're based in San Antonio (or Satan Tonio, as they call it), a city Allen sees as more similar to Houston than the other Texas metropolises. "In Dallas or Austin, a lot of people there are making music with the expectation that they're gonna, I don't know, go somewhere, go 'to the next level' or whatever. I don't know what that is," he says. "It seems to me like in San Antonio and Houston there's a lot of people there just making strange music because that's what they want to do."
Which is the better approach to take for a baby band? Try from the get-go to hit it big, or just be yourselves? Allen definitely believes the latter, and the fact that his band tours nationally and has been around for ten years tends to support that way of seeing things. "I'm not bad-mouthing Austin or anything -- I love playing there -- but it seems to me that eight, ten, 15 years ago it was a lot different there," he says. "There were a lot of people there doing things just to do it. Now it seems there are tons of people that have moved there with the express idea that they're gonna make it. And it's really not that large a town. There's not enough people there to support the number of musicians that are toiling there."
Well, to hear most musicians tell it, there never are. But bands like Boxcar Satan can always draw a crowd, whether they dwell in San Antonio, Austin or, I don't know, say, somewhere in the environs of ummmm Satan!
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