It can be very hard to shift gears and try something new in life but sometimes, circumstances just push people to go ahead and take a chance. Houston’s longtime ska musician Billy Munoz knows this feeling firsthand.
The Riptide Phantoms will be playing on Wednesday, February 23 at the historic guitar bar Dan Electro's with San Antonio punk rockers FEA and Houston-based “Queer punkish rock and rollers” Branagan for a full night of intense rock and roll.
“From where I was a year ago till now, I didn’t think I would be doing any of this,” says Munoz who in 2020 underwent back surgery to treat his stenosis and worked on writing these songs during his long recovery process.
Stenosis is a condition where the spaces in the spine narrow causing pressure to apply to the spinal cord resulting in pain and mobility limitations. “It almost suffocated my spinal cord,” describes Munoz. “They literally took a piece of bone out so my spinal cord could breathe again. It was pretty gnarly but I'm doing way better than I was.”
Before his surgery, Munoz was not sure what his future would look like as he was experiencing increasing pain and challenges in getting around. He did not know if he would be able to walk again let alone get up and play the saxophone, guitar or bass that he has spent the majority of his life dedicated to.
As he was recovering from surgery, he bought an acoustic bass online and just started writing songs with new sounds, freeing himself from the constraints of staying within the ska genre and tapping into one of his favorite artists, Brian Wilson, who is clearly present within these surf rock jams like the relaxing track “Topanga.”
“I was telling myself, if I could walk again and be normal and whatnot, what would I do? What would I write even if I couldn't walk again? I would have still released it just to get it off my chest but luckily everything worked out and here I am doing gigs again.”
“It was one of the most organic projects I think I’ve ever written,” says Munoz of the band's debut album Borrowed Time. “It just spilled out of me. I think because I was forcing myself to write all that ska music, because it's such a particular niche and I wanted it to be right, once I started doing this it just felt like breathing almost.”
“I always loved rock and roll so I always wanted to make a project like that. After a while, it gets redundant writing all ska songs.” Munoz describes his new project's sounds as a mix between The Beach Boys and The Beatles combined with The Ramones and The Misfits.
His description nails the band's sound which initially was a power trio that has now evolved into a four-member group. Borrowed Time is a fast-paced rock and roll album bouncing from ‘60s-inspired surf rock to more aggressive “Stenosis,” an autobiographical account of Munoz’s health scare.
Munoz's strength and authenticity comes through on the entire Borrowed Time album, most likely a combination of his many years of experience and immense talent as a song writer together with his punk rock roots and resiliency.
The Riptide Phantoms have been slowly but surely playing gigs as openers for other bands and will continue to play live and record new material. Following their appearance at Dan Electro's, they will be performing at Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge on March 5.
“I’m just kind of going with the flow and riding the wave I guess,” says Munoz of the band's future. “I’m in so many projects myself, it's fun to play sax and everything but at heart I'm a songwriter. Who knows what I'm going to come up with next.”
The Riptide Phantoms will perform on Wednesday, February 23 with FEA and Branagan at Dan Electro's, 1031 East 24, 7 p.m, $10-12 and on Saturday, March 5 at Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge, 3714 Main, 9 p.m., $5.
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.