Los Skarnales are the Dropkick Murphys of Houston. As the Murphys reflect Boston and its dominant Irish-American subculture, the Skarnales are the musical embodiment of Houston's increasingly prevalent Mexican-American sabor. Both bands filter their heritage through a punk ethos, both bands are composed of and create music for working stiffs, and both bands are famously not averse to taking a tipple or 12. And with the fairly recent addition of accordionist Robert Rodriguez to the Skarnales camp, the Houston band is delving more deeply than ever into traditional Mexican sounds, the same way the Bostonians reached back farther in the foggy dew of the Irish past on their most recent record.
Much as Los Skarnales will do on their upcoming record, tentatively titled Pachuco Boogie Sound System.
Skarnales front man Felipe Galvan, reached on his cell phone while exterminating rats in a vacant apartment, says the title refers to the never-ending blend of American and Mexican culture, one that his band is on the forefront of here in Houston. "Back in the '40s, the word pachuco was about the young Mexican-Americans getting influenced by the American culture and combining it together," he says. "They were outcasts in both cultures, so they had to create their own little subculture."
And that's something Galvan knows all about. After all, with all the lineup changes since their last album, 2000's Sauvecito Style, he's been grappling with creating a new subculture of his own on stage at every show and in the studio. "The lineup we have right now is kinda crazy, because everybody used to play with other bands. Beans [Wheeler, a.k.a. Borracho Beans] the drummer used to play with Simpleton, Chris [Laforge, a.k.a. Chris Con Queso] still does play with 30footFALL, and Ryan [Scroggins] the keyboard player used to play with Secret Agent 8, and the accordion player we got now [Robert Rodriguez] jumps out sometimes with the Hometown Boys and shit. Pretty much it's just me and [bassist] Nick [Gaitan] that have always played with Skarnales before."
Galvan says not to expect to hear echoes of those other bands in the new Skarnales sound. What you can hear, he says, is their individual contributions. The once-dominant ska sound is now much less prominent, relegated to one more style among about a dozen or more.
"My influence is everything from Mexican and American culture; Chris brings out more of that rock and roll edge; Ryan on the organ is into a lot of ska and reggae and rocksteady. And the accordion player is into a lot of old-school conjunto. Nick is into a lot of jump blues, kind of a jump jive thing with his bass. Beans has straight-out got the beat up, up-tempo, just right. He doesn't do too much -- he just keeps a steady beat and he doesn't show off. And that's all we want: just to keep it real basic."
And accordionist Rodriguez is the wild card. "He's a young kid -- he's only 19, and he's got a lot of heart and soul," Galvan says. "He's open-minded about doing stuff. When we do the punk stuff, he jumps out on the accordion and it ends up sounding like zydeco more than anything else. As much as he loves the conjunto style, he's willing to mix it with ska and punk rock.
"We're more like a band now," Galvan continues. "Everyone comes in and they do their own thing. We're not like, 'Hey, you gotta do this, you gotta do that.' Everybody pitches in. It's a collective kind of thing. Nobody's the leader, nobody's the follower. We just get together, jam out, trade some ideas, drink some beer and have a good time."
The album, which Galvan hopes will be out next month, will feature some notable guest shots, one from each side of the Rio Grande. Agnostic Front singer and pioneer of hardcore Roger Miret, for one. Miret saw Skarnales downstairs at Fitz's one night when his band was playing upstairs. "After the show we started hanging out and talking and shit. Next time we saw him we asked him if we could do some vocals on the new record and he was real cool about it." Mexican rockero Roco -- lead singer for the rock-ska-Mexican folk band Maldita Vecindad -- also drops in to sing a verse or two. (And his band will be at the Verizon November 13 on a killer rock en español bill with Molotov, El Gran Silencio and the Tijuana-based techno-mariachi DJ outfit Nortec Collective, which has toured with Calexico and will remix a Calexico song on an imminent new EP.)
Meanwhile, Skarnales are discussing a European tour next year and are in the final stages of planning another Mexican tour. South of the border, Skarnales can inspire something akin to Beatlemania. "Since the beginning of the band's history, through the magic of bootleg tapes that they call piratas down there, we've been known since the first tapes that we put out," Galvan says. "So whenever we go, we get treated with a lot of respect and seniority. It feels good to be appreciated like that."
Not all their shows have been in front of crowds predisposed to like them. "We played this ghetto in Mexico City called Ciudad Neza one time where it was so hardcore that not even the cops go there," he says. "A lot of people there didn't know who we were. Those people never really leave their little area outside of Mexico City. The only stuff that they hear is stuff from 30 years back like El Tri and shit like that. So whenever we went there they would give us dirty looks while we were setting up. But after we started jamming out, the next thing you know they were all dancing, so they liked it, you know?"
But in other areas of Mexico City, the band is so popular they have to employ bodyguards. "They tell us, 'Don't talk to the people, don't give autographs, don't do this, don't do that,' " Galvan says. "But we're like fuck it, we're gonna talk to the kids. And we do, and they freak out. They might do something to us, but they're all pretty cool, and we just talk and drink and hang out."
Galvan says that too many Mexican bands isolate themselves from their fans as soon as they get anything like a following. "In Mexico, [fame] gets to the bands' heads real quick. The audiences themselves make monsters out of bands. They like the music so much, and they give their heart and soul, and it gets to a lot of bands' heads and they don't talk to the kids, they're assholes on stage. So whenever we go over there we talk to the kids and bring them on stage with us and just have a fucking party."
For Mexican audiences, rock shows are about more than hedonism or scenesterism. It's a catharsis, a purging of pent-up frustration, a glimmer of hope for youths whose futures seem hopeless. "The way of life over there for those kids is so fucked up. It's corrupt. The working class gets paid shit. A lot of the kids see rock shows as an escape from all the bullshit. Whenever they go to a show, they just go nuts. Over here, a lot of the kids like the music, but it's more of an excuse to start drinking at an early age and get fucked up. A lot of them probably don't even remember the show."
And there's one stateside Los Skarnales show a lot of people over here do remember. Or more accurately, they remember the aftermath. At South By Southwest this year, a prominent Austin music figure approvingly told me the following Skarnales anecdote. Seems the guys played a great show to a packed house somewhere in North Texas. The club owner then attempted to shortchange the band, whereupon the ripped-off vatos rudos went to their van, returned with a few Louisville Sluggers in hand and went Barry Bonds on the club's urinals.
I put the legend to Galvan, who laughs heartily. "Good times, bro! It's not all about the money. If you feel like you put on a good show and you had a good amount of people there and then people try to fuck you We're not about getting rowdy and shit like that. But just like anybody -- if somebody pushes your buttons you're gonna go off. We try to be peaceful and not burn any bridges. But if John Lomax wrote some fucked-up shit about us, maybe John Lomax would get his shit broken."
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He's kidding. I think.
Project Row Houses will be throwing down a party to remember November 15 at the historic El Dorado Ballroom. The event will be a reunion of alumni from Duke-Peacock, the Houston label run by the late Don Robey, which at one time or another between 1949 and 1973 was home to recording artists Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, James Booker and Big Mama Thornton. Guest of honor will be Evelyn Johnson, Robey's right-hand woman, a pioneering black female in the music business and in the words of author, Press contributor and reunion master of ceremonies Roger Wood, arguably "the most important Houston woman in modern music history." Calvin Owens will lead an 18-piece blues orchestra through swinging arrangements of many of Duke-Peacock's scores of hits, and former Duke-Peacock artists and/or session people Lavelle White, Roy Head, Jewel Brown, Oscar Perry, Mickie Moseley and I.J. Gosey will be sitting in. For more information, call Project Row Houses at 713-526-7662.
If that isn't enough to cure what ails you, there's another huge blues event the following day: the 13th annual Blues For Food drive at the Shakespeare Pub. The Mighty Orq, Don Kesee and the Blues Masters, John McVey and the Stumble, Eugene Moody, Shawn Pittman and Sonny Boy Terry will all play, and the proceeds go to the Houston Food Bank. Bring along some nonperishable chow or a few bucks to donate. Music starts at 1 p.m. and winds up a full 13 hours later. Attendees will receive a free barbecue dinner, and there will be a silent auction and a bunch of raffles.