ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 21, 1999
By Steve Newton
Few bands straddle the line between pop and metal as skillfully as the Galactic Cowboys. On the Texas quartet’s latest CD, At the End of the Day, they meld melodicism and raunch so winningly that it’s hard to tell if these Cowboys are more Beatles freaks or Metallica fans. Though the album kicks off on a thrashy note with “Nothing to Say”, harmony is quickly attained on the supercatchy “Ants”, and energizing tracks like “Puppet Show” and “Shine” further reveal a penchant for contagious pop hooks.
“That’s part of the thing about us,” says vocalist Ben Huggins from his Houston home, “that we’ve always just enjoyed a good song. I mean, in the beginning we were kinda experimental and stuff, but it was always about the song, you know.”
If you happen to be a well-informed rock fan and are wondering why you’ve never even heard of the Galactic Cowboys after their nine years together, don’t be too discouraged. Despite its accessible bent, the band has never been favoured by commercial-radio programmers, especially since it was dumped by its original label, Geffen, in ’95 and picked up by Metal Blade Records.
“They don’t have the pull with the radio stations that Geffen had when we were there,” confides Huggins, “and it was still pretty difficult to do it even with Geffen. We get some radio airplay, but it’s mostly on little metal shows that people do—which is fine. I mean, any radio is great for us. When Geffen first started workin’ us they worked us as metal because we were heavy, but if you ask metalheads, they go, ‘No, that’s not a metal band.’ So there’s really no place to put us, because there’s no one out there doin’ what we’re doin’. I’m not sayin’ it’s, like, the best thing on earth or anything like that. But it’s hard to figure out where we’re supposed to be, you know.”
Ever since their self-titled 1991 debut, the Cowboys have tried to stay astride a music industry that, even in the days of Beck and Ween, can still be spooked by an unclassifiable product. The band has endured its share of tough luck, as when it recorded a version of Kiss’s “I Want You” for 1994’s high-profile Kiss My Ass tribute album, only to be told by Gene Simmons that the song wasn’t going to fit on the CD after all. And from day one the group has been hampered by bad judgment on the business end of things. At the End of the Day’s seven-part opus, “Machine Fish Suite”, takes a biographical look back at the band’s checkered career, opening with a track titled “Where Do I Sign?” that tells of a record deal gone bad.
“That’s part and parcel of where we are careerwise,” explains Huggins, who grew up on Frank Zappa and the Sex Pistols, and now digs the Ben Folds Five and Soul Coughing. “We signed some things in the beginning because we were naive and we were excited about bein’ in the music business, and there was a certain amount of—especially on my part—of going, ‘Yeah, this may not be the best deal in the world, but I’m gonna sign it ’cause I wanna get started.’ I didn’t want to take the time to go out and find a lawyer to get him to look at the document. We were ready to make an album, you know, we were on the fast track.”
Although the Galactic Cowboys have handled their fair share of adversity, Huggins claims that he wouldn’t change the way things have panned out even if he could. And his desire to let things be offers an insight into the progressive-leaning quartet’s cosmic mindset, hinted at in their name and otherworldly tunes like “Circles in the Field”. “Obviously, I wouldn’t go back and change anything because I, I…you never know. If you ever watch those Star Trek episodes where they go back, you know, through the space/time continuum, you’re not supposed to change anything because it may set off a chain of events and chaos ensues and everything else—ha!
“But all I know is that, yeah, we did make some mistakes, and we’re living out the consequences of that. But I have to look at the good side, you know. The fact is that we’re writin’ better music than we’ve ever written, everybody’s developing as artists and musicians and performers, and we’re still gettin’ paid to make records, so…”
The band is touring, too, on a jaunt that brings it to Vancouver for the first time in six years, opening for fellow Houston ear-busters King’s X at the Starfish Room on Monday (January 25). “Their first album came out three years before ours did,” says Huggins of the better-known headliner, “so they had a chance to get in there a little sooner and gain a bit better foothold. We were always, like, stutter-stepping—we’d think we were goin’, think we were goin’, and then suddenly we’d trip and fall. It seemed like an uphill struggle—especially with gettin’ dropped by Geffen and gettin’ our album release pushed back—so we’re still workin’ at that. You know, 10 years later, we’re still trying to get a good fan base goin’.”