For now, it's over -- after 12 years, hundreds of gigs, beers without number and almost as many brawls, and three dozen members coming and going from their ranks, Los Skarnales have called it quits. Their packed show at the Continental Club on October 27 was their last.
Or was it? According to bassist Nick Gaitan, singer Felipe Galvan -- who couldn't be reached at press time -- is considering keeping the name and swapping out all the players. But let's just say for the sake of argument that the band is done, and make no mistake about it -- this lineup is kaput. What was their significance?
"As diverse as this city is, I think we made a lot of people cross boundaries they wouldn't necessarily have crossed if we didn't exist," says Gaitan. "I loved the fact that our best crowds would be when we had the house full of people and it would be all colors and all ages. People dancing -- it was a good-time thing. We had a great time, and it was the audience that was really the show, I believe. We had the melting pot deal, you know?"
The audience reflected the band's makeup -- it is one of the first primarily Spanish-language bands with Anglo members in support roles, and all of the guys were from all over this mega-city's super-sprawl. Better still, they sounded like it. The band's sound was a Gulf Coast/Caribbean hellbroth of not just ska but also norteo, dancehall, reggae, rockabilly, blues, surf, zydeco and punk. "Our band was made up of guys from Spring Branch, guys who live right on Harrisburg, guys from Second Ward, we had Montrose people, and [drummer] Beans [Wheeler] is from way the hell out," Gaitan says. "We came together and had an energy that we all shared, and it was great that it happened."
Gaitan can't help but wonder what could have been. Los Skarnales, especially in the last couple of years, always seemed on the verge of some huge breakthrough. I always thought they had huge, mostly untapped potential with the type of Anglo punks who are into bands like Dropkick Murphys. Had they gotten a slot on the Warped Tour through the West and Southwest, they would have stolen the show. "I saw it growing across the audiences," says Gaitan. "I would see articles about us in magazines, and it looked like there was a hump we were crossing there, and I was looking forward to see what the future brought."
But such was not to be. Gaitan says the beginning of the end came last month at Warehouse Live. There, backstage before the band opened for Ozomatli, Galvan called a band meeting and told the guys that he thought they were getting too distracted by their various side projects. "Basically it was just one of those band discussions, where he was like, ÔI ain't feelin' it,'" Gaitan says. "Felipe decided that the Ozomatli show was gonna be our last one. And all of us were kind of like, 'Okay.' We didn't really split up -- it was more like Felipe took off from our collective. It was just like he decided to leave us and we were like, 'Well, all right. If that's what you really want...'"
Later, Galvan relented. Skarnales had a West Coast tour with New Jersey's Hub City Stompers booked, not to mention a few shows here in town. Galvan wanted to go ahead with the tour, do the shows in Houston, and line up a slate of farewell gigs in Skarnales strongholds like San Antonio and Austin. The other band members turned him down. "Once I knew it was over, it was over for me," says Gaitan. "Doing those shows would have felt weird."
In the end, a compromise was reached. They would do the local gigs only -- the Continental show at the end of October and one other. That was to have been as the openers for Jamaican ska patriarchs the Skatalites at Fitzgerald's during Thanksgiving weekend -- which would have been pretty much a perfect way to go out. Sadly, the Skatalites canceled. As for the West Coast tour, it is proceeding pretty much as planned. A Skarnales spin-off band called Ryan Scroggins and the Trenchtown Texans -- basically the entire lineup of Los Skarnales minus Gaitan and Galvan -- will be hitting the road with the Hub City Stompers. "They were gonna use our backline on that whole tour," Gaitan says. "And that would have really sucked to cancel -- not just to cancel the tour, but our friends were depending on us."
So the Continental Club show was it. Gaitan says there was no bad blood between Galvan and his bandmates that night. (The same, alas, could not be said for the crowd -- there were three brawls the same night.) Gaitan, who joined the band in 1999, says his mind was racing all night long. "I was just reflecting on the past seven-plus years of what's been going on here in the scene," he says. "I used to watch this band when I was in high school and it was my favorite Houston band. I joined the band after a while and I saw the end of it up close. It was weird.
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Gaitan says he found himself feeling almost as if he was still that high school-age fan he once was. "If somebody said it was gonna be the end of something, I would want to check it out one last time," he says. "And it's not the last time, really, because it's not like we died or something. We are all gonna be doing our thing -- but this specific group of six musicians had a chemistry. This band has seen 35 members -- we had a high turnover rate."
And now that chemistry is scattered over four bands -- five if you count whatever it is Galvan will cook up. Among them are the Trenchtown Texans and Gaitan's gypsy/jazz/ska band called the Umbrella Man, which also features fellow Skarnal Beans Wheeler on drums. Gaitan is hoping that each of the embers from the explosion of Skarnales will start fires just as big. "I just hope that people are supportive of the bands we are all in now," he says. "All of us -- Felipe, Robert, Ryan, Beans, everybody."
But as he said, Los Skarnales had a chemistry. They were more than the sum of their parts. When they were on, they were the best band in Houston, perhaps in Texas, and Gaitan was always a world-class frontman -- easily the best in town the past ten years. As of right now, none of the side project bands have his brand of charisma behind the mic, nor do any of them feature that weird cast of characters -- a couple of Anglo punks alongside a rockabilly cat next to a zoot-suited pachuco next to a Tejano charro.
In a year that has seen so many Houston institutions crumble to dust, this one will hurt as much as any. Los Skarnales kicked ass seven ways to Sunday. All us perdidos y borrachos will have to find another band to get drunk and lost to. As somebody wrote on their iTunes page, speaking of the 2004 classic Pachuco Boogie Sound System, "Es un must have for all you 'chucos, cholos, chuntaros y tambin los peckerwoods. Los Skarnales rifan!"