Interstellar Drama

With a newly released CD in the stores, a European tour in the offing and a new label cooing pleasant tidings in their ears, the members of the Galactic Cowboys might be forgiven if they tried to forget that things were not always this sweet. But as much as any Houston band, the Cowboys have learned that in the music business, for every up, there's a possible down lurking in the wings.

All they have to do is look back to less than three years ago. At that time, the Galactic Cowboys could be found bounding onto a Richmond Avenue stage with such unbridled enthusiasm that you'd have sworn there were industrial-strength springs in their boots. With The Partridge Family theme announcing their arrival, the fellows would kick into their set with an irreverent goofiness, peeling the roof off the place with a deviant marriage of metal-edged thrash and pristine pop hooks. Later, the Cowboys would hop into their tour bus and ride away victorious. As the steel behemoth barreled out of Houston, some traveler on the interstate must certainly have noticed the sign in the destination window above the driver. It read: "Burt Reynolds."

Funny guys, those Cowboys.
All was well on the ranch back then. The Galactic Cowboys had a dream deal with Geffen/DGC and were having a blast on the road supporting their sophomore release, Space in Your Face. Then, suddenly, the group took a hard spill.

"[The tour] lasted about two months, and we'd also done a little headlining thing with a few dates," says bassist Monty Colvin, whose relaxed tone in conversation offers no hint of his unruly presence on-stage. "Right in the middle of this, Geffen gave us a ring and said, 'You've been dropped.' So it was like, 'Okay, the album's over.' And we just went home."

To this day, lack of communication with Geffen has meant that the Cowboys still have no idea how many CDs they've sold. But it's probable the numbers are low. The Cowboys are not a band one comes to easily; without the push of a major label, it's unlikely anyone would have picked their CD up on a whim. As anyone who's ever heard the Cowboys, either live or through their first releases, Galactic Cowboys and Space in Your Face, knows, they can generate a schizophrenic amalgam. Thus far, mass sales have eluded them, largely because easy pigeonholing of the band has never been possible. Don't expect to understand the Cowboys on the first or second listen; they tend to be an acquired taste.

"It's hard to say to people, 'Look, you're gonna have to give it time,' " says Cowboys lead singer Ben Huggins. "But you gotta have patience with [our] stuff. It's not something that's an instant hit."

Such a philosophic take on events didn't come immediately. After hearing the bad news from Geffen, the Cowboys returned to Houston with their tails between their legs. "That was probably one of the lower points of my life, I guess," says Huggins, who now works days at a horse ranch in Tomball.

At first, rather than hiding beneath a defeatist attitude, the band carried on, recording new material and playing gigs whenever and wherever possible. But the Cowboys' persistence soon began to wane. "At the time, we thought our management was gonna get us a deal somewhere," says drummer Alan Doss.

But the calls from management were less than upbeat, and then they stopped coming altogether. Discouragement set in, and guitarist Dane Sonnier called it quits. Doss quickly followed suit, and it looked like the Cowboys were finished.

Then last June, just a few weeks after the breakup, Colvin returned home to a logjam of messages on his answering machine. It turned out that Metal Blade, a California-based label known for unearthing Metallica and Slayer, wanted to strike a deal. Offered a second lease on life, the Cowboys signed up with their California savior, bid adieu to their management and began preproduction on what would become the CD Machine Fish, with Galactic Cowboys guitar tech Wally Farkas replacing Sonnier, who had no interest in returning to the fold.

With a new recording deal, a new guitarist and a voluminous batch of new tunes, the regrouped and rejuiced Cowboys headed to Houston's Rivendell Recorders to lay down tracks. This time, the band opted for self-production, assigning the chores of overseeing the project to drummer Doss, who engineered the group's demos. After two months in the studio, the band emerged with Machine Fish, an incendiary 69 minutes of unrelenting hard rock peppered with infectious grooves and glassy harmonies. On first listen, Machine Fish is much heavier than previous Cowboy efforts, but deep down, the underlying vibe is one of subdued self-awareness. On the CD, the Cowboys' sound is like a gooey Milky Way bar hiding a rusty razor in its center -- White Zombie hijacks Yellow Submarine, if you will. Attribute the band's nifty ability to pen catchy tunes to its influences, an extensive list that ultimately begins and ends up with the Beatles.

"We didn't just put a harmony in because we could put one in," says Doss, in reference to a practice often attributed to the group's earlier discs. Instead, Doss and the band spare the overkill, dropping in rich, multitextured vocals at opportune moments, a technique that manages to effectively showcase Huggins' strong lead vocals.

So, rejuvenated by the new CD and an upcoming tour of Europe with Anthrax, the Galactic Cowboys appear to have it together again after a tumultuous spell that would have left lesser groups in the dust. Who knows? Maybe it's time to revive the old Partridge Family theme and get those boot springs oiled up to see if, this time, the Cowboys can leap high enough to avoid all obstacles.

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Sam Weller