For a good six or seven years, you could put Los Skarnales up against any bar band in America. The ska-punk-rockabilly-Tejano boogie vatos were a bundle of contradictions, simultaneously tight and loose, fresh and traditional. Fun and dangerous are not opposites, but Los Skarnales had both of those attributes as well. Rare was the show without two or three fights in the crowd; their finale at the Continental Club last year had about five or six. Sin and smoke and blood and beer — Los Skarnales was all of those things.
They were also something like the ultimate Houston band, a two-tone, bilingual confederation of Anglos and Mexican-Americans playing music with much of its roots in the African diaspora. While most of amazing frontman Felipe Galvan's lyrics were in slangy Spanish, that didn't stop hundreds of monoglot Anglos from coming out to each and every show. As one fan memorably put it in an iTunes customer review of the band's classic album Pachuco Boogie Sound System, "Es un must-have for all you 'chucos, cholos, chuntaros and también los peckerwoods. Los Skarnales rifan!"
And then there was that one last intense night at the Continental Club. The band broke up over creative differences, and that old cliché really was true in this case. There really was a lot of energy going in several different directions.
Numerous other groups, of several different styles, have already spawned. Bassist Nick Gaitan now fronts the jazzy Umbrella Man and jams with so many other groups I've lost count. The same goes for drummer Beans Wheeler, who, along with Gaitan, won top honors on their respective instruments in this year's Press Music Awards.
Keyboardist Ryan Scroggins now fronts the Trenchtown Texans and has already released a killer debut CD that has his band rising on the international traditional ska circuit. (Former Skarnal Jeremy Peña is his guitarist, and the Trenchtown Texans are one of Wheeler's many projects.) Accordionist Robert Rodriguez now helms the traditional Mexican band Pistoleros de Tejas, who bring their conjunto sounds to Tacos A Go Go every Tuesday.
So far, only Galvan has been dormant. That's about to change, as Felipe Galvan y Sus Carnales are set to make their official debut September 8 at the Continental Club. (Their unofficial debut came in the big top of a circus on Airline Drive that Galvan's cousin is affiliated with. No shit.)
Galvan wants it known that there is no bad blood between his former bandmates and himself. "A lot of people think we hate each other," he says. "We don't. We see each other at bars and we'll do a shot together. Everything's cool. They're doing their thing, and they sound real fucking good. And I think the fact that they are so different from each other makes the whole Houston scene sound better."
Galvan seems energized, and, well, galvanized by his sabbatical from performance. "I just wanted to take it easy and focus on the family and work and all that," Galvan says. "But after about four or five months of that, me and [guitarist] José [Rodriguez], who helped me start Skarnales way back in the beginning, started hanging out mainly because we both had kids."
Over weekend beers, Galvan and Rodriguez started plotting a band. They are both fans of the Pachuco boogie sound of Latin rock and roll pioneers such as Don Tosti and Lalo Guerrero and jump bluesmen like Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner, and their core sound would be a fusion of those styles. That meant they would need not only a rhythm section and a pianist, but also a horn section.
So they started calling guys up. The first piece to snap into place was drummer Pat Kelly, who banged skins in Los Skarnales several years ago, and is, according to Galvan, a "badass fucking drummer."
Supposedly the last thing a drummer says before he gets kicked out of a band is "Hey guys, let's try this song I wrote." Not so with Kelly. "He's a musical genius," Galvan says of Kelly, an HSPVA grad who also studied music at UH and Rice. "He plays a bunch of instruments and shit. When he was in the band he would come in and we would write songs together."
"Pat's got a kid too, and we started going to family events, like barbecues and shit like that, so we kept talking about the project, and when you're liquored up it's easier to be like, 'Yeah, yeah, let's do it!'
Jazz pianist Henry Darragh soon signed on. That left just the bass and horns.
"After having a badass lineup with Skarnales, with Nick on the bass, I knew I would need a good one for this band too," Galvan recalls. "I wasn't gonna settle for an electric bass player, so I decided I wanted to get Shawn Supra." (Like Gaitan, Supra plays an upright.)
Supra is known primarily for his work in traditional country, roots-rock and rockabilly circles — he's played with John Evans, Sean Reefer and The Artist Formerly Known As Johnny Wolfe. (Now Johnny Falstaff.) "We've known him for a long time," says Galvan. "And we know how good he is, and he seemed like he wanted to do it but was too busy, but me and José were like, 'Man, it's gotta be him or somebody just as good.' But after a while I guess we bugged him so much he was like, 'Fuck it. I'll do it.'"
To find trombonist Michael Razo and trumpeter Jon Durbin, they turned to the good old-fashioned Internet. "It was a pain in the ass looking for the horn players," Galvan says. "Luckily with the MySpace bullshit going on, you can post a bulletin and a lot of people get it and we got a real good response."
As the septet started rehearsing, their sound quickly started evolving more toward what Los Skarnales had been before. The subtle shift in name — dropping the "ska" — had seemed a good idea at the time, as Galvan wanted to focus more on the jump blues and Pachuco boogie and other back-to-the-future sounds. That soon changed.
"We were all like, 'Yeah, yeah, '40s and '50s jump blues and rumba, mambo and this and that,'" Galvan remembers. "So we started doing that, but once we were there, bro, we couldn't keep away from the good Jamaican ska and rocksteady, so we started messing with that. And after that, it was just like, 'Fuck it, let's just do whatever.'"
That "whatever" includes popular Skarnales songs. "At first we were like, 'Naw, let's make it fresh and new,'" Galvan says. "But then we were like, 'Fuck it.' Eighty percent of the songs me and José wrote. And another good percentage were written by Patrick the drummer."
But don't expect Sus Carnales to be carbon copies of Los Skarnales. There will be a more pronounced Pachuco/jump blues feel, and new coats of paint will be slapped on the band's older tunes. "We're trying to balance it right, where we're giving something fresh, like maybe giving some of the old songs new arrangements," Galvan says. "And that could just be having the horns on there, because we haven't had horns in a real long time."
Galvan believes that taking his time before coming back has been worth it. It has given his band the chance to mesh, and given some members, like roots-rocking bassist Supra, a chance to master new styles. "He was used to country and rockabilly, and we do a lot of rumbas and cumbias. And even with the Jamaican ska and rocksteady, he was like, 'Man, I've never played any of this stuff before.' But he's so badass, after a while it sounded like he had been playing it all his life."
"We're all real excited about it," Galvan says. "It took us a while to be where we felt like we were good enough to do a show, but we are now. We hope people come out and have their say-so. They can be like, 'It's cool' or 'You suck,' but we're happy about it. We just can't wait for the September eighth. I just hope we can be as good as those bands with the other guys who used to be in Skarnales."
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