It was the kind of career that hundreds of bands would gladly give up at least some groupie privileges to reach: two releases on a mid-level record label (also home to nationally known acts such as 311 and Cake), a spot opening up for the Dave Matthews Band on tour and the chance to join the traveling rock caravan known as the H.O.R.D.E. tour. But for the Austin-based groove band The Ugly Americans, all these circumstances merely led to break up -- though not "break up" in the usual sense. Out of the Ugly American wreckage, The Scabs, a musical outgrowth that at one point had the exact same band members, simply took over the Uglies' deteriorating form.
"The Ugly Americans are dying a quiet death," says bassist Bruce Hughes. "The two bands had completely different attitudes and sets of material. And with The Scabs, we can do any crazy fucking rock and roll thing we want to do."
Says singer Bob Schneider: "This band is where my heart is, not the Ugly Americans. That's because there's no musical boundaries or limits with The Scabs." But while the band still struggles with an identity crisis and the low-level confusion that comes with morphing one unit into another, it's clear that the better musical menagerie has emerged in the nine-piece Scabs.
And though The Scabs' members play in black suits and have a horn section, one spin of its records or ten minutes at a live show will prove that this is not yet another (Oh, God! Make them stop!) neoswing revival band. In fact, the biggest strength of The Scabs is the diversity of its music.
Its CDs are like minitours of every musical genre. Swinging from hard funk ("Staysha Brown") to stone country ("Pudding and Cheese") to salsa ("Woman") to soul ("So Fresh & So Fine") to rap ("Bones") to jazz ("Man of the Year") to Tex-Mex ("Tarantula") to even doo-wop ("Hanging Out with the Horny Girls") with an anarchic sense of no rhyme or reason, the band seems determined not to get pegged with any one musical style.
"When people ask what kind of band we are, I just say we're a dance band," says singer Schneider. "Our shows are a big party, and that's what keeps people coming back."
Or it could be people's taste for raunch that keeps them around. Schneider calls the band's music in-your-face, party-oriented music to which you can dance but which also has tongue-in-cheek vulgarity in it. What else could you expect from guys who write little ditties such as "Big Butts and Blow Jobs," "Pussy Fever," "Fuck Me" and an epic, which indirectly led to the band's very formation, "I Fucked Your Daughter in the Ass, Boy"?
"Those songs are done in a way that's playful and honest," says Schneider, who writes most of the lyrics. "It's not misogynistic, like 'Smack My Bitch Up,' and you can see that clearly in the live show. We're not going out of our way to offend anybody. And, let's be real, they're also pretty damn funny."
In concert, you might find any one of these songs immediately followed by a torrid rendition of REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling." But to understand how the band has come to this juncture, you have to go all the way back to 1993.
That's when the Ugly Americans formed as a side project for a group of Austin musicians that included Joe Rockhead, Schneider, Hughes (who had played with both Cracker and Poi Dog Pondering), drummer David "Snizz" Robinson and a supporting cast of rotating musicians. The band landed a spot on the 1994 H.O.R.D.E. tour, which led to similar gigs with the Dave Matthews Band and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. The groove-rock-oriented band released a self-titled, self-produced debut in 1995 before signing with Capricorn Records, which put out Stereophonic Spanish Fly the next year. It yielded a minor radio hit, "Vulcan Death Grip of Love."
But by 1996 Schneider had amassed a dozen or so songs, including "I Fucked Your Daughter in the Ass, Boy," that he felt wouldn't fit into the sound the Uglies had established (not to mention within the somewhat simmering musical conflicts between band members). So he formed The Scabs as an offshoot band with Robinson and guitarist Adam "Slowpoke" Temple.
"I knew the Uglies would never play this material and wouldn't even think about it," Schneider says. "It just wasn't valid for some people in the band. And with The Scabs, I just wanted a grab bag of stuff, everything from a polka or a snippet of a song to a full-blown rock opera." And indeed, during regular Tuesday-night gigs at Austin's fabled blues club Antone's, The Scabs might segue from an original art-rock piece to a Neil Sedaka cover to a Tipper Gore-cringing track called "Butt Pussy." Eventually the band's set lists began to reflect more dance-oriented tunes, which people clamored to hear.
In the meantime, the Ugly Americans continued to play on weekends around the region. The summer of 1996 saw the band members in the studio to record Boom Boom Baby, which they hoped would be a breakout hit. The band says Capricorn sat on the disc for more than a year and a half, effectively freezing any momentum the Uglies had achieved by that point.
But a funny thing happened to the lineups as the months dragged on: They began to look more and more alike. Uglies would leave the fold to join The Scabs, then play with both bands and vice versa. On the Scabs side, Robinson quit, then returned after his replacement began to suffer asthma attacks on stage. Charles Reiser replaced a guitarist who had a bout with schizophrenia (once telling Schneider ominously, "There's a battle between good and evil in this room"). And Ugly David Boyle joined on keyboards.
"Bob definitely siphoned people into The Scabs," Hughes says with a laugh.
But by far the most important addition to the group was a horn section, which at first consisted of Carlos Sosa (saxophone) and Fernie "Maddog" Castillo (trumpet). The pair also convinced the band to add their horn-blowing friend Rolo on trombone, despite objections about the group's spinning-out-of-control size. Now it's impossible to listen to The Scabs and imagine the absence of horns. "They're brilliant," Hughes says of the trio. And Schneider, who was vehemently against becoming "a fucking horn band," was eventually won over by the trio's impeccable musicianship.
By late 1997 only one member separated the two bands. But when an Ugly guitarist left, instigating another interband transfer and the institution of Hughes into The Scabs, the nine-piece lineups were identical, though neither had a record out at the time.
The Scabs, desperate to fill the void for some product, last year released Freebird, a live disc culled from its Antone's shows, which, according to Hughes, could have been considered a serious breach of contract by Capricorn. The label finally released Boom Boom Baby shortly thereafter. Confusion between the bands, their music and their shows was perhaps inevitable, and Schneider says that people who hadn't seen the Ugly Americans in several years couldn't recognize the band that played under the name now. Stuck and unhappy with what the band viewed as a "less than satisfactory" relationship with its label, the Ugly Americans asked to be released from its contract. Capricorn complied earlier this year.
"We wanted to continue with what we were doing as the Ugly Americans, but with a fresh start," Hughes says. "That name had a lot of historical baggage, and we were tied to [the label] with it. In the end, it seemed better just to [dissolve]."
Now firmly ensconced in one group with one direction, The Scabs entered the studio to record the follow-up to Freebird, a disc called More Than a Feeling, on the band's own Shockorama label. It was released last month and is selling well at gigs.
But even though Schneider casually mentions that he's also involved with yet another side band, he is completely comfortable with the current Scab lineup, which he hopes stays permanent.
"It's like a puzzle where the pieces just kept falling into place," says Schneider. "I mean, you couldn't pick nine guys out of anywhere and get the same mix of talent and [feeling] that we have now and we didn't before. It's just a weird, mysterious chemistry that works."
The Scabs will play Thursday, May 13, at Party on the Plaza in Jones Plaza. Guy Forsyth opens. Music starts around 5:30 p.m. Call (713)230-1666.
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