Look no further than the walls of Los Skarnales' East End practice space to find the group's musical influences. The walls are covered in posters: Desmond Dekker and the Aces, Bob Marley, Mighty Mighty Bosstones and several of the Clash.
There are a smattering of gig posters — including one from when Skarnales headlined a huge punk/ska en español bill in Mexico City — and of course the Specials, as well as not-so-obvious oddities like Jackie Wilson and Robert Johnson.
"We've really been going back through the best roots music," says vocalist Felipe Galvan as he waits for the other members to arrive for their weekly practice session. "You name it — rockabilly, dancehall, ska, dub, blues, calypso, mambo, we've been listening to it. A lot."
The band just released Dále Shine!, its first recording since 2004's frenetic and wildly eclectic Pachuco Boogie Sound System. Galvan, who started Skarnales in late 1994 with friends Jose Rodriguez and drummer Patrick Kelly, says after the buildup of momentum surrounding Pachuco Boogie, real life intervened to slow the band down.
"I had some family stuff I had to take care of," says Galvan, "so I took a year off. And this happened just at the time some of the members were beginning to branch out into solo things. So I just removed myself for about a year."
After the birth of Galvan's daughter, Skarnales' lineup shifted once again, which is certainly nothing new in the band's 16-year history.
"Felipe's and Jose's and my kiddos are all real close," says Kelly, who teaches at HSPVA. "We're always barbecuing together and just hanging out. So with some of the old Sound System band moving on, it just seemed the time was right for us to reform part of the original band."
Skarnales' current lineup includes Galvan, Kelly, Rodriguez (lead guitar), Nestor "El Tiburon" Aguilar (vocals/percussion/dancing), Adam Hill (upright bass), Kevin Bernier (tenor sax/guitar), Jon Durbin (trumpet), Michael Razo (trombone) and newest member Jose "Chappy" Luna (congas). Galvan and Rodriguez go back to their original teenage punk band, Desorden.
Galvan, who was the drummer, laughs about Skarnales' beginnings.
"We were into punk and we hooked up with an older guy as vocalist and started doing little gigs," he recalls. "We had this gig at some benefit for racial equality or something and there was nobody there, so the singer says he doesn't want to do the gig.
"But Jose and I, we tell him, 'No, man, we booked the gig, we gotta play this,'" he continues. "So we argued about it and he said he was going to get a beer and he just vanished, never came back. So that was my first gig singing. None of us were very good, and there was no way I could play decent drums and sing. So I gave up the drums and we started Skarnales.
"The Latin-language papers gave us some pretty rough reviews back then," Galvan laughs. "We didn't give a damn, though. We thought that just made us more punk."
The band struggled in relative anonymity here in Houston, but Galvan quickly learned that wasn't the case south of the border.
"We got a call from a promoter in Mexico City who wanted to book us, and we were like, 'What?'" Galvan recalls.
"But when we got down there, we couldn't believe it — our stuff was everywhere. Just walking around we would see piratas — bootleg cassettes of our stuff — everywhere," he says. "And all these great Los Skarnales T-shirts. It was strange, because on one level we were being ripped off, but on another level those things were just spreading our music wider and wider in Mexico.
"People say, 'Doesn't that piss you off?' and I really have to answer, 'No,' because that's what made it possible for us to headline big shows there in front of 2,000-3,000 people," Galvan laughs. "We got to a point where we didn't even bother taking merch and CDs down there because we couldn't compete."
It's 7:10 p.m., and all the band members have arrived with their game faces on. With 11 men squeezed inside, the practice space begins to smell like a combination of stale men's locker room, Tijuana hop den and East Houston beer joint. The beer is Lone Star tallboys, Bud Select bottles and Miller Lite cans — no frou-frou microbrews at a Skarnales practice.
This practice is to work in substitute drummer Bob Lemos, from Karina Nistal's band, because Kelly is booked to perform the rock opera Tommy — a good-paying union job — for a week, so Lemos is filling in. With little fanfare, Rodriguez counts off into "Una Otra Vez."
The first run-through drags, and Rodriguez says, "Let's try it again." They don't get far before the song falls apart. Kelly and Hill briefly educate the drummer and Rodriguez says, "Let's start it off faster," and kicks the tune off again. On the third run-through, the room booms like a Jamaican street festival relocated to Nuevo Laredo.
Skarnales find their groove and move quickly through the practice list. With the blaring horns and punky ska bottom, it's like Herb Alpert meeting Social Distortion in a broom closet. It's music from somewhere between the bull ring and the Ship Channel, and as they move into their super-syncopated drinking anthem "Borracho," the horns literally attack over the low rumble of cement-mixer punk rock.
Rocker "Bomba 48" screams like Dave Edmunds or Chuck Berry playing with Ricky Ricardo's band in some Havana dive. The energy level in the room is intense — nobody is goofing around, and the camaraderie is akin to a good football team that knows things are clicking.
The new album reflects one of Skarnales' newer influences: New Orleans funk and rock. "Mentiras" bounces back and forth like a ping-pong ball between Fats Domino rock and some H-Town Mexi-punks.
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"We were working a lot of shows with the Zydepunks out of New Orleans, so we started recording with their bassist Scott Potts every time we went over there," says Galvan. "He got what our sound is, what we were looking for."
Virtually all the instruments were recorded at Potts's Guerilla Estudio, with vocals cut at Kelly's home. But according to sax man Kevin Bernier, recording in New Orleans took its toll even on this hard-partying band.
"Whenever we'd go to New Orleans, there was just never enough. Never enough beer, never enough smoke, never enough," laughs Bernier, shaking his head at the memory of some of the sessions.
"New Orleans, now that's a wicked drug."