Return of Los Vatos Rudos

Los Skarnales are the Dropkick Murphys of Houston. As the Murphys reflect Boston and its dominant Irish-American subculture, the Skarnales are the musical embodiment of Houston's increasingly prevalent Mexican-American sabor. Both bands filter their heritage through a punk ethos, both bands are composed of and create music for working stiffs, and both bands are famously not averse to taking a tipple or 12. And with the fairly recent addition of accordionist Robert Rodriguez to the Skarnales camp, the Houston band is delving more deeply than ever into traditional Mexican sounds, the same way the Bostonians reached back farther in the foggy dew of the Irish past on their most recent record.

Much as Los Skarnales will do on their upcoming record, tentatively titled Pachuco Boogie Sound System.

Skarnales front man Felipe Galvan, reached on his cell phone while exterminating rats in a vacant apartment, says the title refers to the never-ending blend of American and Mexican culture, one that his band is on the forefront of here in Houston. "Back in the '40s, the word pachuco was about the young Mexican-Americans getting influenced by the American culture and combining it together," he says. "They were outcasts in both cultures, so they had to create their own little subculture."

And that's something Galvan knows all about. After all, with all the lineup changes since their last album, 2000's Sauvecito Style, he's been grappling with creating a new subculture of his own on stage at every show and in the studio. "The lineup we have right now is kinda crazy, because everybody used to play with other bands. Beans [Wheeler, a.k.a. Borracho Beans] the drummer used to play with Simpleton, Chris [Laforge, a.k.a. Chris Con Queso] still does play with 30footFALL, and Ryan [Scroggins] the keyboard player used to play with Secret Agent 8, and the accordion player we got now [Robert Rodriguez] jumps out sometimes with the Hometown Boys and shit. Pretty much it's just me and [bassist] Nick [Gaitan] that have always played with Skarnales before."

Galvan says not to expect to hear echoes of those other bands in the new Skarnales sound. What you can hear, he says, is their individual contributions. The once-dominant ska sound is now much less prominent, relegated to one more style among about a dozen or more.

"My influence is everything from Mexican and American culture; Chris brings out more of that rock and roll edge; Ryan on the organ is into a lot of ska and reggae and rocksteady. And the accordion player is into a lot of old-school conjunto. Nick is into a lot of jump blues, kind of a jump jive thing with his bass. Beans has straight-out got the beat up, up-tempo, just right. He doesn't do too much -- he just keeps a steady beat and he doesn't show off. And that's all we want: just to keep it real basic."

And accordionist Rodriguez is the wild card. "He's a young kid -- he's only 19, and he's got a lot of heart and soul," Galvan says. "He's open-minded about doing stuff. When we do the punk stuff, he jumps out on the accordion and it ends up sounding like zydeco more than anything else. As much as he loves the conjunto style, he's willing to mix it with ska and punk rock.

"We're more like a band now," Galvan continues. "Everyone comes in and they do their own thing. We're not like, 'Hey, you gotta do this, you gotta do that.' Everybody pitches in. It's a collective kind of thing. Nobody's the leader, nobody's the follower. We just get together, jam out, trade some ideas, drink some beer and have a good time."

The album, which Galvan hopes will be out next month, will feature some notable guest shots, one from each side of the Rio Grande. Agnostic Front singer and pioneer of hardcore Roger Miret, for one. Miret saw Skarnales downstairs at Fitz's one night when his band was playing upstairs. "After the show we started hanging out and talking and shit. Next time we saw him we asked him if we could do some vocals on the new record and he was real cool about it." Mexican rockero Roco -- lead singer for the rock-ska-Mexican folk band Maldita Vecindad -- also drops in to sing a verse or two. (And his band will be at the Verizon November 13 on a killer rock en español bill with Molotov, El Gran Silencio and the Tijuana-based techno-mariachi DJ outfit Nortec Collective, which has toured with Calexico and will remix a Calexico song on an imminent new EP.)

Meanwhile, Skarnales are discussing a European tour next year and are in the final stages of planning another Mexican tour. South of the border, Skarnales can inspire something akin to Beatlemania. "Since the beginning of the band's history, through the magic of bootleg tapes that they call piratas down there, we've been known since the first tapes that we put out," Galvan says. "So whenever we go, we get treated with a lot of respect and seniority. It feels good to be appreciated like that."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax