You expect a band as well-traveled as the Voodoo Glow Skulls to have its share of bad-luck road-trip stories. You just don't expect them all to come from the same tour. On the phone from somewhere between Edmonton and Winnipeg, Canada, in an area he refers to as "no man's land," Skulls guitarist Eddie Casillas sounds road-weary. This trip has been a bear, he says, and he's tired.
"Man, has our luck been tested," he says. "On our way to Edmonton a couple days ago, the transmission just died on us. Completely kaput. We had to stop for a day in some little town, and these guys at a local Amoco fixed it. Then, yesterday, on our way to Winnipeg, our trailer completely came off the hitch. I tell you, in the last twelve years, this has been the roughest couple of days."
Coming from a member of a blue-collar, workingman's band like the Glow Skulls, Casillas's statement says a lot. For more than a decade, this skacore/punk outfit has been steadily pushing its wares across the globe, recording album after album and touring endlessly. While some ska-tets have achieved more notoriety (take the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, for instance), the Skulls have managed to create a strong, somewhat underground fan base with a product that isn't radio-friendly. They were also one of the first bands to unleash a fiery Latin-flavored fusion in the days before Middle America knew anything about living la vida loca.
Voodoo Glow Skulls
Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue
With Ann Baretta, Total Chaos and Backside
7 p.m. Monday, July 16
Born in a dingy garage in Riverside, California, the band captured the heart of the local backyard-barbecue circuit shortly after forming in 1988. After developing their stage show and sound at a local venue over the next couple of years, the brothers Casillas -- Frank (vocals) and Eddie and Jorge (bass) -- and drummer Jerry O'Neill soon decided to add a horn section to further their musical depth. Saxophonist Joey Hernandez and trumpeter Joe McNally (who has since left for the 9-to-5 life) joined soon after; trombonist Brodie Johnson enlisted later. With the lineup complete, the Skulls cut a couple of seven-inch releases and got picked up by the Los Angeles-based Dr. Strange label in 1991.
"Dr. Strange was the only local label actually doing anything at the time," Casillas recalls. "So we got together and cut our first full-length CD with them." The album, Who Is? This Is, did amazingly well for a DIY regional touring act, moving more than 20,000 copies in the first six months. One of the pioneering efforts in skacore, the album flavored the So-Cal movement with horns, producing a much thicker sound while retaining a fast and furious approach. It proved wildly popular within the punk scene and has become Dr. Strange's best-selling album ever, moving more than 200,000 copies to date.
"A friend of ours who worked at Epitaph passed our CD on to Brett Gurewitz [the Epitaph exec who produced the Skulls' latest outing, Symbolic], and he was immediately interested in signing us," Casillas says. "At first we told him no, because we were obligated to do one more CD for Dr. Strange. But the guys over there realized that signing with Epitaph would be the best thing for us, and they let us out of the obligation, and we signed a three-record deal with Epitaph."
The Skulls' initial contract with Epitaph resulted in Firme (1996), Baile de Los Locos (1997) and The Band Geek Mafia (1998). Of the trio of albums, perhaps the most interesting is Firme, which was recorded in English and Spanish. The precedent-setting dual release came out at a time when Gloria Estefan was still running the Miami Sound Machine, Ricky Martin was dancing for Menudo and Jennifer Lopez was just another Fly Girl. The doors to widespread bilingual acceptance in the music industry were still very much locked, and only Julio Iglesias seemed to have the key.
"Even today, it's still more of a hindrance than a help," Casillas admits. "It seems like if you speak too much Spanish in a set or on an album, it turns people off. They're like, 'It's cool, but don't do too much of it,' you know? We really can't get away with a lot of it unless we're playing for a wholly Latin audience. It's really kind of sad to me that this is the way it is. I mean, that duality, our culture, is so much about what we are as a band, anyway. We're just trying to open people's eyes a little bit to what it's like to be where we're coming from."
The group's latest recording brims with that sense of frustration. Symbolic, released last fall, is hard, angry and fast. There's a swagger to the tunes, a survivor's embittered and yet stubbornly persevering stance that weaves itself through the music. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the lyrics to "We're Back," the first cut on the disc: "Now that the whole world is gone/It's time for us to carry on/We took a break and stayed away/Now we've got a lot of things to say." The constant on the album is intensity: Every tune is blazing, the subject matter ranging from schoolhouse violence to police brutality to neighborhood drug dealers. Frank's spoken-word style of singing sets a cadence that's reminiscent of soldiers on a drill, backed up by fast, distorted, riff-heavy guitar and droning bass. The horns are often matched with the guitar. The wall of sound is heavy and thick, almost oppressive. This is not reggae-influenced two-tone ska, and therein lies the beauty of the genre: It's always evolving.
"It's back to being underground again," Casillas says about the ska phenom. "From, like, 1996 up until the last two years, it was the thing. Now it's like a bad word, and to be associated with it is a curse if you're a new group. Personally, I kind of like that it's gone back underground again. It weeds out the true fans from people just trying to be where it's cool to be. It's proven how dedicated our fans really are, that we can continue to tour and sell our albums and have great shows. Some are bigger, some are smaller, but the fans are all the same."
One of those fans is Jim "Reverend Horton Heat" Heath, whose blazing guitar work is heard on the tune "El Mas Chingon," from Symbolic.
"Working with the Rev was amazing," Casillas recounts. "We had done a tour with him in 1997, and he was kind of in the back of our minds when we wrote 'El Mas Chingon.' It's got this psychobilly kind of feel, and we thought it would be great if he played lead on it. As it just so happened, he was [in San Diego] when we were recording the album. He was playing two nights there, so we called his manager and asked if he'd like to be on the album. He showed up on his day off and brought three guitars with him. He sat down with the tune for like two hours and wrote a great solo for it. He's totally professional and a great guy."
That's just how smoothly the rest of the recording went as well, Casillas says.
"After we finished touring on Band Geek Mafia, we were going to take the next year to write and record another album. It ended up just taking three months. We shopped it to Epitaph, and they had Brett produce it, and nine months later, we're back out on the road." The progression was amazingly quick for a larger label, which is one of the reasons the Skulls have stayed with Epitaph past their original contract obligations.
"After we finished our first three-record deal, we signed another two-record deal with Epitaph, of which Symbolic is the first. We've got one more to do, and then we'll either re-sign or move on. The label has been really good to us. They've given us all the tour support we've needed and let us do our thing. My only complaint would be that there's too many personnel changes in the label. It seems like every time we're getting ready to release an album, right before it's all done, someone gets fired. It slows up the process sometimes."
While it may not be magical or groundbreaking, the Skulls' writing process is a big part of their sound.
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"It usually starts off with the guitar," Casillas says. "I'll write the first riff or two, and then everyone else will start filling things in. Or we'll start with a lyrical theme or idea, like just a title, and write to fit that. It usually goes pretty smooth. I mean, we all grew up together, so we're really in tune with each other."
That comfort of familiarity certainly comes in handy during long hours on the road. Current automotive worries aside, the band still has plenty of miles to cross in its immediate future.
"After we get through this tour in one piece, we've got a short European festival tour of about a dozen dates," Casillas says. "We'll be playing with Less Than Jake, 311, the Vandals -- bands like that. Then some more North American shows in the fall. We plan on fulfilling our contract with Epitaph at least by next summer. Then we'll do it all over again."
No doubt the Voodoo Glow Skulls will continue doing it -- loading up, heading out, playing hard -- over and over again, providing they can keep their trailer on the hitch.