Reluctant reps

Skullening delivers organ-fueled SA punk to SXSW

Skullening didn't plan on applying for a showcase at this year's South by Southwest.

The San Antonio punk quartet, composed entirely of former Churchill High School classmates, formed in 2002, and in their two-and-a-half years together, they'd never given SXSW more than a passing thought.

Skullening rocks The Jackalope in their penitentiary whites. (Photo by Gilbert Garcia)

This year, however, they had a key ally on the inside. Jesse Hodges, a SXSW staff member and guitarist for Austin's Tuxedo Killers, insisted that they submit an application.

"He told us to do it," says Scott Jennings, drummer for Skullening. "We weren't going to enter at all, but he was pressuring us to do it. We didn't get invited at first, we got the standby thing, and just a few weeks ago we found out we made it."

Skullening's 11th-hour seal of approval from SXSW made them surely the most surprising of San Antonio's five representatives at the festival. It represented a blow for an underground collective of Austin and San Antonio bands who sidestepped the rock-club circuit by playing gigs at houses. This DIY scene includes Video Screams, Steers, Animals of the Bible, and, of course, Tuxedo Killers.

Skullening stands out amongst its peers because it insists on playing hard-driving punk music without using a guitar. In its place, they feature Ryan Markmann on a recently purchased, vintage Yamaha C20 organ. The presence of thick, sustained chords on a heavily amplified organ lends Skullening a genuinely spooky quality, appropriate for a group which prides itself on "putting the F-U in fun." They refuse, however, to make any great claims for their own sonic distinctiveness.

"We started out as a guitar band," Jennings says. "Then our old guitar player switched to organ. To us, it's just trying to make music that's loud and powerful without relying on a lot of heavy distortion, like a lot of bands would do. Most good rock bands are just strong without having to use a lot of distortion and fakey stuff. It's just about being loud and solid. We're not trying to invent any sound or anything."

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Everyone in Skullening is between the ages of 23 and 25 and they've been close friends for years. Even Markmann, the latest addition to the lineup, sang with an early incarnation of the group. Jennings is the band's unofficial spokesman, and in both his physical appearance- tall, stocky, and mildly disheveled - and blasé demeanor, he recalls R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. Bassist Chris Cates wears a short, spiky blonde haircut and glasses which make him look vaguely professorial. Markmann is slight and bearded, while raven-haired singer Leonard Guerra is the most conventionally handsome of the lot.

Watching the band set up for its March 16 SXSW showcase at The Jackalope, you're struck by how nondescript this band looks, especially compared to Video Screams, the group they're following. A quintet of pocked-sized young snots, Video Screams have the trappings of rebellion down pat: nose rings, stage diving (although there isn't much of a dive from the stage to the floor at The Jackalope), and stripping down to their undergarments.

Musically, however, Video Screams are clueless. They pull off the estimable feat of being simultaneously loud, abrasive, and sleep-inducing. They seem to believe that bellowing some nonsense and making a tuneless racket amounts to a revolutionary act, but they're too dull to even achieve obnoxiousness.

After Skullening briefly tests its sound levels, the group members depart for a few minutes. When they return, they're dressed in matching white shirts and pants, with their faces covered by brown-and-white masks. They look like penitentiary inmates infatuated with Lucha Libre.

"We've always worn matching uniforms onstage," Jennings says. "Not necessarily these, but just trying to get rid of the fashion aspect of our street clothes. It's kind of a unity, gang thing."

Howling with passion and precision, Guerra restlessly tugs at the top of his mask, finally removing it after the group's second song. Although the club's mix overly emphasizes Cates' bass over Markmann's organ, making the group sound too thin, they still produce a fuzzy, fast, throbbing groove. It's what Jennings simply describes as "pop songs played loud." At the end of each song, almost no response can be heard, aside from a couple of stray clappers sitting at the bar. After only 20 minutes, it's all over, and no one knows exactly what to make of it. But it's obvious that the band members enjoyed themselves.

"We're just trying to play as many shows as we can," Jennings says, by way of mentioning that the group hopes to play its first out-of-state gigs, on the West Coast, this summer. "It's not about playing this to get signed, it's just about trying to have fun, play shows, and meet people."

By Gilbert Garcia