Back to Earth

Four years ago last September, Dane Sonnier was hunkered down at Houston's Rivendell Recorders with the Galactic Cowboys. The group had just begun work on its second national release, Space in Your Face, and expectations for the effort were unusually high, given the sorry sales performance of the Houston quartet's previous CD, 1991's Galactic Cowboys. At the time, grunge was big, and the Cowboys -- with their meticulous mix of prog-metal riffing, fire-and-brimstone pedagogy and sharp Fab Four harmonies -- were light years removed from the goings-on in Seattle.

Space in Your Face turned out to be a commercially limp follow-up to the Cowboys' equally limp debut, and that disappointment ultimately sent Sonnier packing. These days, the singer/guitarist divides his time between slaving over a grill at the Velvet Elvis and scrounging local shows for his latest project, the Sonnier Brothers Band. Talk about a lifestyle change.

Sonnier's current lot may seem especially lame in light of what he had before -- major-label perks, snazzy tour buses, classy hotel rooms and whatnot. But Sonnier is disarmingly free of bitterness and claims to be happier now than he's been in a long time. He looks back on his time with the Cowboys as a life lesson, even if it was a bit of a patience-tester.

"I just sat there and kind of took notes -- you know, for future reference," he says of the final days of his six-year stint in the Cowboys. "We really got caught up in a whirlwind of confusion; it wasn't a good time for us. Our record company [Geffen/DGC] kept pushing the release of our first album back and back and back, so we had all this great press and our album didn't come until a year later."

And the label's timing couldn't have been more off: Galactic Cowboys finally made it to stores shortly before the release of Nirvana's historic DGC debut, Nevermind. From then on, it seemed, the band was cursed. "We were all just kind of growing kind of weary of the whole thing," recalls Sonnier.

In hindsight, the musically indefinable, philosophically earnest Cowboys were never really more than a niche band. Yet they were plugged -- by both the label and the group's mentor/manager, Sam Taylor -- as perhaps the most mainstream-friendly thing to come out of Texas since King's X, another Taylor find. And if the commercially underachieving King's X couldn't live up to its billing as a spiritually correct Beatles, the Cowboys' theistic Metallica routine wasn't apt to translate any better to a national audience. In fact, it wound up translating worse than anyone expected. With alarming speed, Space in Your Face fell face-first into nothingness, and subsequent road trips left the Cowboys burned out, disillusioned and near broke. Another nail was seemingly hammered into the coffin when DGC unceremoniously dropped the group. That would be the last nail for Sonnier.

Shell-shocked from the experience, the musician put aside his guitar playing, at least as his sole means of employment, to train as a cook -- and he became a damn fine one. Customers at the Velvet Elvis swear by his gumbo, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering Sonnier's Louisiana rearing in a family of would-be Justin Wilsons.

"After I got out of the Cowboys -- growing tired of starving -- the only other thing I knew how to do was cook," says Sonnier, who grew up in Lake Charles and moved to Houston shortly before joining the Cowboys. "My grandmother, my dad, my entire family cooked."

One thing's for certain: Sonnier makes a mean club sandwich -- heavy on the meat, light on mayo, bacon cooked to perfection. And while there may be scant truth to the adage that a full journalist is a friendly journalist, Sonnier, 27, dutifully subscribes to it anyhow. Five minutes after my order is placed, he emerges from the Velvet Elvis kitchen with his creation, joining me at a table with his younger brother, Len -- former bassist for another highly touted but now defunct Taylor project, Atomic Opera -- to discuss their humble lives as of late. When he's not bartending at the VE, Len, 25, has also been known to wield an expert spatula, but he's off-duty today. Dane, on the other hand, wears an apron through most of the interview, as he is supposed to be working.

Despite their nine-to-five commitments, the Sonnier siblings have hardly abandoned music. Early last year, Dane and Len assembled the Sonnier Brothers Band, a winningly upbeat five-piece with a melody-driven recipe that incorporates the more time-tested elements of the Taylor-coined "Katy sound" (fat guitars, tight harmonies, precision grooves, exemplary musicianship) and casts them in a bluesier, simpler and decidedly more secular light. Granted, a certain piety looms over the group -- which also includes ex-Snydley Whiplash members Chris Ferguson (guitar) and Kevin Radomski (drums) and newest addition Eric Jarvis on guitar -- but it doesn't come at the price of a more earthly perspective.

Soon after he left the Cowboys, Dane resisted an offer from the remaining members to rejoin (the group now has a deal with the Metal Blade label), mainly because he never felt he meshed well with the others. That distance became even more pronounced as the years wore on. "On the road, I just got a hotel room with my guitar tech, and just sort of did my own thing," he says. "There were things that I was doing that they didn't agree with. But they mostly stayed out of my business."

During their respective spells with the Galactic Cowboys and Atomic Opera, Dane and Len were perhaps the least devoutly Christian members of their outfits. Both drink alcohol, both like cigarettes (Dane smokes voraciously during our interview) and both are content with a certain vagueness of faith.

"I have a strong belief in God," Len says. "But organized religion has sort of turned me off in the past couple of years. I don't go to church; I have my own personal relationship with God."

Adds Dane, "It's not our mission to save the world."
Thus, when the older Sonnier leads his band in the harmony-drenched chorus to "Redefine" (one of the band's more propulsive originals), singing, "I want to redefine the meaning of a friend," he could be addressing his faith, or he could simply be chiding a close companion who's dicked him over. It's not clear, and that's the beauty of it: The narrator is there to observe, not to preach. On "Jones Time," Len -- who sings lead on occasion, but lacks his brother's soulful pipes -- documents a female junkie's surrender to the needle. And on "Way to Live," the group's oft-present female protagonist is deserted by her husband, left with "seven kids in a project house where they did live." Grim stuff. But the Sonnier Brothers handle things with believable empathy.

The band's definitive anthem is "Live for Today" (not the old Grass Roots chestnut), a universal ode to keeping one's head in the present. With its uplifting all-for-one sentiments, twisting chord progression and irresistible, hymnlike chorus, it's usually the tune that makes converts out of first-timers in the audience. The song is also an obvious choice for a first single if the Sonniers ever land a label deal with the seven-song demo they're shopping. Originally, they had help in that department from Taylor, who co-produced the demo with the Sonnier Brothers (at the time, just Dane and Len with a studio band) last year. Early signs of interest were promising, but soon Taylor's leads began to dry up, and the two parties split amicably.

"We took a stab at the whole relationship thing [with Taylor] again. We basically just solidified our friendship, and that led to the natural progression of him playing with us [Taylor plays keyboards on the demo]," says Dane. "Then, you know, it was like, 'Let me try and shop this.' But toward the end, it was just ...."

"He wants to play, man," Len jumps in, referring to Taylor's work with his own jazz fusion outfit, Moons of Jupiter. "He doesn't want to manage bands."

So, for now, Dane is managing the Sonnier Brothers Band, and doing so with some success. Aside from playing weekly at the Urban Art Bar, the group can often be seen opening for touring acts at Rockefeller's and the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Live, the band is a powerful, professional unit, which is remarkable considering they don't have the money to afford a rehearsal space.

"So basically we just get our rehearsals done by playing gigs," Dane says. "We've just made a point to take any gig -- no matter what the price. We'll play anywhere with anybody."

Once you've had and lost everything, it seems, you learn to appreciate even the smallest pittance.

"To me, music had always been about fun," Len says. "And when you take the fun out of it, what's the point?"

The Sonnier Brothers Band performs Thursday, February 27, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Doors open at 8 p.m. With Hr and Ty and the Semiautomatics. Cover is $5. For info, call 225-0500.

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Hobart Rowland