Piñata Protest will be in town this week to help celebrate Los Skarnales’ silver anniversary. Àlvaro Del Norte, founder and band leader for the San Antonio-based and accordion-powered Tex-Mex punk outfit, said the groups have a common approach to music. He also hinted that his band, which keeps gaining momentum with newer music, bigger gigs and tours abroad, might not exist if not for the friendship and encouragement he received early on from Houston’s own legendary “Vatos Rudos.” That friendship, and especially Los Skarnales’ 25 years in music, will be celebrated at White Oak Music Hall this Friday.
Practically every local music fan knows Houston Music Hall of Famers Los Skarnales. The band pioneered a winning blend of ska, cumbia, reggae and punk. Its ranks have included some of this city’s most renowned musicians and its live shows are the stuff of legend. They gave Del Norte a blueprint for his own unique blend of Mexican border music, punk and zydeco, as well as the push he needed to bring that music to the masses.
“I was back in San Antonio after moving away for college and basically trying to rediscover my roots at that time. I was coming back disappointed with the music scene in general,” Del Norte recalled. “I had played in several bands since high school and there was always the problem that I felt that none of the bands had any originality and didn’t really have any substance to them or anything. And they weren’t really that fun, either. That was a big thing. So, my answer to that and kind of rediscovering my roots and make something fun, to make music fun for me again, was doing Piñata Protest.”
“I like to call what we play ‘Tex-Mex punk.’ I like to call it that because I think that’s exactly what it sounds like. Tex-Mex music incorporates a lot of stuff, everything from mariachi to country to zydeco and jazz, Tejano music, all that stuff, in both English and Spanish,” he continued. “On the other side of that coin is the punk rock, and that’s the aggressiveness to it. That’s essentially what the sound comes down to.”
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“In a way I kind of feel like our band is just one big, huge experiment. ‘Hey, I wonder what happens if you take like a huapango rhythm and you add some distortion on top of that?’” he offered. “It’s all really just one big experiment. Sometimes it doesn’t work. You gotta keep whacking at it.”
Del Norte almost never took his first swings, he admits. He found few believers in his idea at its start, but knew there was a band in Houston experimenting with these styles to great success. He recalled sharing his idea with Skarnales’ vocalist and Houston music icon, Felipe Galvan.
“When my band was starting, I was a huge admirer of Los Skarnales because they were kind of doing, in a way, what I wanted to do. They’re mixing it up with their styles and their blends. Felipe, the singer, is a phenomenal front man and I really, really looked up to them,” Del Norte said. “So, when I was starting my group — I didn’t even have members yet actually, I was kind of working out songs – I was in the process of looking for members and I went to a Skarnales show and I told Felipe, ‘Hey man, my name is Àlvaro and I’ve got this idea for a band and it’s gonna mix like Tex-Mex and punk and it’s gonna have accordion and blah blah blah.’
“And he was like, ‘Órale, that’s a great idea, carnal! Whenever you’re ready to go, we’ll play in San Antonio and you guys will open up for us,’ and he was nothing but supportive. That was really refreshing because at the time I would tell my idea to other musicians or people and they thought it was kind of silly or dumb actually, they didn’t think it would work. So, he was pretty much one of the only people that supported me and that meant a lot.”
It took more than support from kindred spirits to send Piñata Protest on its path, which has its own milestones and keeps growing wider with each passing year. The band released an acclaimed album, Necio Nights, in 2018, the follow up to 2013’s El Valiente, which was a top 10 release on the Latin Billboard Top 100. Its music has been featured on NPR, in films, even in grad-level academic papers. They’ve performed with acts like Mariachi El Bronx, The Toadies, Ramón Ayala, Agent Orange, Ozomatli, Mustard Plug, Molotov and The Reverend Horton Heat, whom they’ll team with again for a Houston House of Blues show in February. They’ve toured the States, Mexico, Canada, Europe. The band’s even had a beer brewed in its honor.
A big part of the band’s upside is its energetic live set. It’s often a frenetic, fun time that might feature a “wall of death” between the crowd’s red salsa lovers and green salsa fans or audience members pulled on stage to help the band with its rendition of “Volver, Volver,” a version, it should be noted, of which both "Chente" Fernandez and Joey Ramone would approve.
“The band, we’re great friends, we all hang out outside of the band itself so that definitely is a big part of it, we all enjoy playing with each other," Del Norte said of the group, which includes Regino Lopez (guitar, vocals),
Richie Brown (bass, vocals), drummer Chris-Ruptive and percussionist Diego Reyes. "And the fans, for sure too, you know that’s part of any great show is really cool fans. I think over the years our fans have kind of evolved with us, with the show. Most of the people that go, they know what we do and they like having fun as well. They’re just like us. They’re ready to have a good time and we always want to deliver that.”
“For me, what we do on stage, I think you could say it’s half theatrical. We like a lot of interaction with the audience and we like introducing new elements here and there, keeping it fresh,” Del Norte said.
We note that Piñata Protest could possibly be the just-right punk band for these wrong-headed times. Its songs include lyrics that question authority and promote Latino pride, two notions which seem at odds with the current American president’s agenda. Del Norte said he’s seen new fans flock to the band because of the present political climate but also has seen some backlash against it.
“Especially since Donald Trump became president, on the road we definitely have experienced a lot more, I don’t wanna say racism, but just a lot more prejudice. We’ve been confronted in public just sitting at restaurants, people come up just to kind of mess with us. We’ve had comments here or there, even at the shows, too. We’ll get a little bit into politics, sometimes we’ll just blatantly say ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ and people get upset, people boo us, and this is at a punk show. It’s like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
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“On the other side of that, we’ve had a lot of people, especially that come from Mexico that are like first generation or zero generation, and they’re young kids that are like 16, and they identify a lot with our music,” Del Norte said. “We do have a couple of covers that we do and they’re singing their hearts out. After the show, they’ll come up and they’ll be really moved, they’ll be crying, these guys, and they’ll say ‘Thanks for playing this music, I feel like it represents who I am’ or, ‘I’m Mexican but I love punk rock, it’s my jam,’ stuff like that.”
Del Norte said he and the band look forward to meeting new fans like those at this Friday’s show.
“We do great in Houston, we always have great shows out there,” he said. “Houston audiences are great, really receptive. You know, Houston, it’s a great blend of a lot of cultures, more so, I think, than any city in Texas and that’s great. They have a great Tejano and a great zydeco scene. We love it, it’s always been fantastic and we’re very excited to be invited to do Skarnales’ – what is it – 20th anniversary? 25th? Geez!”
Piñata Protest helps Los Skarnales celebrate its 25th anniversary Friday, December 27 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. With Debauche and D.J. Tropicana Joe. Doors at 8 p.m., $15, all ages.