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Ante Up

In his coverage of Austin's South by Southwest Music festival, Rolling Stone tastemaker David Fricke called the Texas-based Riverboat Gamblers "the best band without a major-label deal at SXSW '06." Raves like this have spawned music-industry feeding frenzies in the past, but Mike Wiebe, the Gamblers' lead singer, says his group wasn't so lucky. "Mostly it was just sniffing-around kind of stuff," he notes. "I mean, nobody was writing out big checks and waving them in our faces."

That's too bad, since the Gamblers definitely aren't rolling in the chips. Sure, they've received steady buzz about their live show and latest CD, To the Confusion of Our Enemies, a pure blast of rock and punk (in that order) released under the auspices of the independent Volcom imprint. But despite the acclaim, Wiebe concedes that he and his comrades -- guitarists Freddy Castro and Ian McDougall, drummer Mark Baker and bassist Pat Lillard -- are still mired in the day-job grind. "Two of us are in construction," he reports. "One of us is a burger flipper at a bar. Our drummer was doing drum-tech and sound-engineer things for shows. And I work at a nightclub and bartend and wash dishes.

"I'm not doing it out of some blue-collar sense of pride, either," Wiebe adds. "I'd rather do the band full-time, and if we ever get to the point where I don't have to have a job, I'll definitely be honest about it. I'll be like, 'I haven't washed a dish by myself for twenty years. That's what maids are for.'"

A mix of straight talk and snarkiness has been a hallmark of the Gamblers since their debut seven-inch, 2001's "Jenna Is a No Show," and Enemies is no exception. Highlights of the disc include "Biz Loves Sluts," a bite-the-hand salvo that may explain the dearth of contract offers, and "The Gamblers Try Their Hand at International Diplomacy," which was written after a George W. Bush-hating Frenchman verbally attacked Wiebe for his Texas origins during a European tour. But unlike the Dixie Chicks, the Gamblers didn't acknowledge feeling ashamed about Bush's Texas roots while playing overseas. Instead, Wiebe says, "We'd always throw out that he was born in Connecticut. To us, it's very important to mention that he's not actually from Texas."

In other respects, Wiebe prefers to keep preaching out of his politics. "It's too easy to write a song that says 'Bush sucks,' even though he does," he says. "I'd rather be more personalized -- like, maybe, 'I can't afford health care and my teeth are fucked up, and if I was in Canada, it wouldn't be that big a deal.'"

Fortunately, Wiebe's choppers are fine, and thanks to the Gamblers' current tour, he's enjoying an extended hiatus from dishwashing-for-hire -- a gig that admittedly doesn't do much for his image. "I wonder sometimes if it would be better as far as a PR move to pretend that things are going fucking great," he says. "You know, like, 'Man, we're huge!'"

Or at least as huge as Gamblers without a deal can be.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts