Se Habla Ska

From a dingy garage in Riverside, California, to a dingy stage at Fitz's in Houston -- the Voodoo Glow Skulls bring the ska.

You expect a band as well traveled as the Voodoo Glow Skulls to have its share of bad-luck road stories. You just don't expect them all to come from the same tour. On the phone from somewhere between Edmonton and Winnipeg in an area he refers to as no-man's-land, Skulls guitarist Eddie Casillas sounds road-weary. This trip has been a bear, he says, and he's tired.

"Man, has our luck been tested," he says. "On our way to Edmonton a couple days ago, the transmission just died on us. Completely kaput. We had to stop for a day in some little town, and these guys at a local Amoco fixed it. Then yesterday, on our way to Winnipeg, our trailer completely came off the hitch. I tell you, in the last 12 years, this has been the roughest couple of days."

Coming from a member of a blue-collar workingman's band like the Glow Skulls, Casillas's statement says a lot. For more than a decade, this skacore/punk outfit has been steadily pushing its wares across the globe, recording album after album and touring endlessly. While some ska-tets have achieved more notoriety (the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, for instance), the Skulls have managed to create a strong, somewhat underground fan base with a product that isn't radio-friendly. They were also one of the first bands to unleash a fiery Latin-flavored fusion before Middle America knew anything about livin' la vida loca.

Born in a dingy garage in Riverside, the band captured the hearts of the local backyard-barbecue circuit shortly after forming in 1988. After developing their stage show and sound over the next couple of years, the brothers Casillas -- Frank (vocals) and Eddie and Jorge (bass) -- and drummer Jerry O'Neill soon decided to add a horn section to further their musical depth. With the lineup complete, the Skulls cut a couple of seven-inch releases and got picked up by the Los Angeles-based Dr. Strange label in 1991.

The ensuing album, Who Is? This Is, did amazingly well for a DIY regional touring act, selling more than 20,000 copies in the first six months. One of the pioneering efforts in skacore, the album flavored the SoCal movement with horns, producing a much thicker sound while retaining a fast and furious approach. It proved wildly popular within the punk scene and has become Dr. Strange's best-selling album ever, moving more than 200,000 copies to date.

"A friend of ours who worked at Epitaph passed our CD on to Brett Gurewitz" -- the Epitaph exec who produced the Skulls' latest outing, Symbolic -- "and he was immediately interested in signing us," Eddie Casillas says. "At first we told him no, because we were obligated to do one more CD for Dr. Strange. But the guys over there realized that signing with Epitaph would be the best thing for us, and they let us out of the obligation, and we signed a three-record deal with Epitaph."

The Skulls' initial contract with Epitaph resulted in Firme (1996), Baile de los Locos (1997) and The Band Geek Mafia (1998). Of the trio of albums, perhaps the most interesting is Firme, of which both English and Spanish versions were recorded. The precedent-setting dual release came out at a time when Gloria Estefan was still running the Miami Sound Machine, Ricky Martin was dancing for Menudo and Jennifer Lopez was just another Fly Girl. The doors to widespread bilingual acceptance in the music industry were still very much locked, and only Julio Iglesias seemed to have the key.

"Even today it's still more of a hindrance than a help," Casillas admits. "It seems like if you speak too much Spanish in a set or on an album, it turns people off. They're like, 'It's cool, but don't do too much of it,' you know? We really can't get away with a lot of it unless we're playing for a wholly Latin audience. It's really kind of sad to me that this is the way it is. I mean, that duality, our culture, is so much about what we are as a band, anyway. We're just trying to open people's eyes a little bit to what it's like to be where we're coming from."

The group's latest recording brims with that sense of frustration. Symbolic, released last fall, is hard, angry and fast. There's a swagger to the tunes, a survivor's embittered yet stubbornly persevering stance that weaves itself through the music. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the lyrics to "We're Back": "Now that the whole world is gone / It's time for us to carry on / We took a break and stayed away / Now we've got a lot of things to say."

Intensity is the album's constant. Every tune is blazing, the subject matter ranging from schoolhouse violence to police brutality to neighborhood drug dealers. Frank Casillas's spoken-word style of singing sets a cadence that's reminiscent of soldiers on a drill, backed up by fast, distorted, riff-heavy guitar and droning bass. The horns are often matched with the guitar. The wall of sound is heavy and thick, almost oppressive. This is not reggae-influenced two-tone ska, and therein lies the beauty of the genre: It's always evolving.

"It's back to being underground again," Eddie Casillas says about the ska phenom. "From, like, 1996 up until the last two years, it was the thing. Now it's like a bad word, and to be associated with it is a curse if you're a new group. Personally, I kind of like that it's gone back underground again. It weeds out the true fans from people just trying to be where it's cool to be."

One of those fans is Jim "the Reverend Horton Heat" Heath, whose blazing guitar work is heard on the Symbolic tune "El Mas Chingon."

"Working with the Rev was amazing," Casillas recounts. "We had done a tour with him in 1997, and he was kind of in the back of our minds when we wrote 'El Mas Chingon.' It's got this psychobilly kind of feel, and we thought it would be great if he played lead on it. As it just so happened, he was [in San Diego] when we were recording the album. He was playing two nights there, so we called his manager and asked if he'd like to be on the album. He showed up on his day off and brought three guitars with him. He sat down with the tune for, like, two hours and wrote a great solo for it."

And judging from the way their luck has gone on this past tour, they may be in need of the Reverend's services in other areas -- namely exorcism. But then bands with names like the Voodoo Glow Skulls don't need men of the cloth to keep their trailers on the hitch.

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