Whenever rock gets old, fat and full of itself, something inevitably comes along to steer it back to the loud-and-fast honesty that's always been the music's soul. Now that heavy metal, punk and new wave have had their turn behind the wheel, maybe it's time for them to slide over and make room for vatobilly, an ornery noise that starts with Houston's Flamin' Hellcats. When it's suggested to the Hellcats's Jamie Marroquin, Lawrence Cevallos and D.J. Hinojosa that "101 percent Texas vatobilly" -- captured for posterity on the band's debut CD Speedfreak -- is just a clever marketing ploy to sell basic, stripped down, high-energy rock and roll, they agree with enthusiasm.
"We were playing mostly rockabilly," explains singer/guitarist Marroquin. "And none of us are white. Everybody in the band is Mexican." He pauses briefly and adds, "You might have noticed," before getting back to his tale. "The whole vatobilly thing started out as a joke on a poster. But people really got into it, so we added '101 percent Texas' to define it a little more -- let people know what they're in for."
Seldom, though, has a joke achieved such cachet. And now the founders of the vatobilly genre understand the value of an attention-getting, smile-provoking definition.
"ZZ Top wants to be vatobilly," quips drummer Hinojosa. "But it's going to cost them a lot of bucks."
Don't bet the rent on the likelihood of Houston's most famous power trio reinventing itself in the image of a Ship Channel Mexi-thrash band, even if the Top's Billy Gibbons has been spotted having a blast at the group's gigs. And while rock becomes a parody of itself when it takes itself too seriously, this is not a pitfall that appears to threaten vatobilly's primary practitioners. The Flamin' Hellcats are, if nothing else, a band of extremely limited pretensions. You don't interview these guys; you hang out with them and take their comments and observations like you would shots of tequila: with large grains of salt.
Every hair on their heads slicked in place, Marroquin and Hinojosa are wiling away a recent weekday night at the Blue Iguana. Joining them are Speedfreak producer/Road Kings veteran Jason Burns and a lovely young lady who goes simply by the name Mickey. She says she's been Marroquin's significant other "for about eight months, which I understand is a record." When asked why she hasn't strangled the guitarist yet, she takes advantage of her knowledge of journalism and responds, "No comment."
Mickey's presence here tonight is what made Marroquin's journey from southeast Houston possible. It seems that some weeks ago, he attempted, while intoxicated, to set a land speed record on the Gulf Freeway. How many cops show up when you've been stopped for driving more than 100 mph?
"All of them," Marroquin replies.
Still, Marroquin is quite penitent, just in case his probation officer reads this. "I thought I was going to be in jail for our CD release party, which would have really sucked," is how he describes his moment of enlightenment.
The conversation soon turns to Cevallos, the band member conspicuous by his absence. Burns, sporting the most impressive pompadour at the table, saw the bassist most recently, and he reports that Cevallos has been unexpectedly stricken by an ailment of considerable severity. "Too sick to party" is the diagnosis. After discussing the possibility of using that line in a song, a decision is made to call Cevallos and demand an appearance.
The summons issued, Hinojosa and Marroquin attempt to explain the history and philosophical foundation of vatobilly. That explanation is quickly derailed over confusion regarding when the band began. "About three years ago" and "about five years ago" are both offered as possibilities, but "about four years ago" is eventually agreed on. There's much more certainty regarding who the high-profile Houston bar bands were at the time: the Missiles, de Schmog and Trish and Darin. When asked if vatobilly owes a stylistic debt to any of those bands, Trish and Darin are cited as a particular influence. Pass the salt, please ....
Eventually, Cevallos arrives and immediately becomes the center of attention. Since the last time his pals saw him, the bassist has had the first joints of the fingers on his other hand tattooed; now all eight digits are decorated with initials, stars, pairs of dice rolling sevens and the number 13, a numeral also stamped on the Speedfreak CD. Though it appears the conversation has drifted, it's also possible that this alleged interview is still on track, seeing as every time rock has returned to its roots over the last couple of decades, it has somehow stirred derma-graphics into the mix. Marketing ploys aside, the Hellcats are merely the latest in a long line of tattooed rock and rollers, charging into a barroom brawl under the "vatobilly" banner.
Their particular brawl began in the barrios south of the Houston Ship Channel. All three Flamin' Hellcats are veterans of the Milby High School marching band. Though it might hurt their image to admit it, there's a strong possibility that all three actually graduated from Milby. They've known one another "forever"; Cevallos, for instance, is the younger brother of Marroquin's best friend from high school.
"[Cevallos] used to tell me he would be in a band with me someday," Marroquin recalls. "I would tell him that if he touched my guitar, I'd kick his ass."
While Marroquin confesses to secondhand formal music training by a sister who studied classical piano -- and a lapse during the conversation reveals that the Hellcats have a passing familiarity with conjunto, norteno and other traditional styles of their culture -- the Hellcats are adamant about vatobilly being a knee-jerk reaction to the pop culture of their adolescence.
"We were at Milby in the late '80s," Cevallos recalls with a shudder, as the band begins deriding the popular music of the era. "Culture Club," someone laughs, followed by "Duran Duran," "doin' the moooon walk, wavin' that silly fuckin' glove," "sissy rock," "sissy music, you mean" and finally, "man, it wasn't even music."
"The stuff we wanted to hear wasn't on the radio," Marroquin explains. "The '80s were such crap, so we went back before that."
It's an attitude that carries over to Speedfreak, which from beginning to end is saturated with an amphetamine-fueled style that's both innovative and immediately familiar. Songs such as "Go Straight to Hell Baby," "Datin' Satan" and the drooling-with-lust "Three Pack Panties" show elements of everything from rockabilly to grunge, while retaining an every-mother's-nightmare quality that has always marked rock at its purest. This is a party, not an artistic statement, as Marroquin makes plain when he describes the band's collaborative songwriting process.
"I'll come up with a riff and these two will change it around, and I never can remember what they've done," he says. "So we just play it really fast so no one can hear all the mistakes. And when I come up with a melody, they ask me if I've got lyrics, and I say I do. But I'm always lying, and then I have to make something up the night of the show."
When the observation that most bands rehearse new tunes before they debut them in public is offered, it's met with revulsion. "We don't rehearse," the Hellcats say in unison, appalled that they could be accused of such a thing. If area groups serious about their art, and their practice schedules, accepted this claim of a totally carefree approach without the obligatory grain of salt, it could lead to serious feelings of frustration, seeing as how numerous local clubs have learned that the Hellcats are apparently a band that can't be booked too often. (Their latest local booking is as openers for next week's Reverend Horton Heat show at Numbers.) They appear immune to oversaturation. The vatobilly vanguard has also found enthusiastic audiences in markets not noted for being receptive to Houston acts. Dallas and Austin are both notoriously lukewarm to Houston bands, but the Flamin' Hellcats have nonetheless developed serious followings in the two cities.
"We do gigs all over Texas," Marroquin explains. "But it's not like we're on tour. We're just out of town a lot."
San Antonio has also feted the Hellcats on numerous occasions, though a few of the fans at those fetes have caused some problems for the band. "They had three or four major crimes in San Antone where people were wearing Flamin' Hellcats T-shirts when they got busted," Marroquin says. "It wasn't anything we did; those dudes just didn't get it. But this one cat took hostages, man. And when they brought him out on TV in handcuffs he was wearing one of our shirts. Well, hell, the cops decided we were some kind of gang band, and our next gig there got raided."
Another curious story explains the long delay surrounding Speedfreak's domestic release: The initial shipment of discs was impounded by U.S. Customs for some unfathomable reason. "It was out in Europe months ago," Marroquin explains, "and it got to the point where people didn't believe we had ever recorded. How do you explain to people that you've got 500 CDs somewhere, but you don't know where they are?"
The discs finally arrived, complete with impressive governmental rubber-stamp impressions, and since then the Hellcats have been "out of town a lot," playing CD release parties around the state. But it's likely that even their staunchest fans know deep down inside that Speedfreak is ultimately just a souvenir of something best experienced live -- a token, perhaps, of that irreplaceable night when the Hellcats ripped the brain out of your skull and bounced it off the barroom wall like a vatobilly superball.
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