Lurching towards their 30th anniversary and with a long-overdue new album in stores, the legendary Austin cowpunk combo may be older and wiser—but they still don’t give a fuck.
BY GREG BEETS
From the vantage point of 1987, no one would’ve deemed the Hickoids built to last. Their squalling, beer-logged collision of punk rock and degenerate country was the raw embodiment of Samuel Johnson’s quote – later favored by Hunter Thompson—about getting rid of the pain of being a man by making a beast of oneself.
Assuming they showed up to play, the Hickoids could be transcendent arbiters of the low-rent shamble that epitomized mid-‘80s Austin or a spectacular trainwreck of feedback, fisticuffs and junk-flashing that culminated in the ritualized obliteration of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Either way, you got your money’s worth.
Vocalist Jeff Smith and guitarist Davy Jones, the two remaining members from the Hickoids’ classic line-up, don’t recall much about the composition of “Brand New Way” from 1989’s Waltz A-Cross-Dress Texas. Maybe that’s because they were living the low-rent anthem out loud at the time:
Got a brand new way of livin’
Down here in Austin, Texas
Drink Budweiser every day
Show the girls our peckers
Don’t need clocks for tellin’ time
“Hillbillies” on at a half past nine
Got a brand new way of livin’
Not surprisingly, the beast eventually started to eat itself. By 1992, the Hickoids had sputtered into a hiatus punctuated only by the odd reunion show.
“If we weren’t so saturated at that period of time, then we could’ve build it up…,” says Jones now.
“…but we wouldn’t be alive,” finishes Smith. By Smith’s count, 27 people have been in the Hickoids over the years. Three of them, including longtime bassist Richard “Dick” Hays, have died.
Hays, who had heart arrhythmia, died in 2001 at age 45. His legacy is a focal point of Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit, the Hickoids’ first full-length album in nearly 25 years. That’s Hays on the cover, removing a Charlton Heston-style ape mask as he walks along a deserted beach with shuttered San Antonio punk haven Tacoland and a collapsing Tower of the Americas in the background.
Yet for all its veneration of fallen fellow travelers like Hays, Loco Gringos guitarist/vocalist Tom “Pepe Lopez” Foote and Tacoland proprietor Ram Herrera who are no longer around to drive the freak van, Chafin’ is more than a ghost ride. The current Hickoids line-up of Smith, Jones, guitarist Tom Trusnovic, bassist Rice Moorehead and drummer Lance Farley brings extra meat and shelf stability to the original template. From the gringos-gone-awry border misadventures depicted in “TJ” to the roadside marriage counseling doled out in “Side By Side Doublewides,” the Hickoids have somehow managed to channel the raucous spirit of drunk rock through the wizened lens of sobriety.
“We went from hardcore meets hard country to more of a funny punk thing, says Smith. “Now I’d describe us as just a straight-up rock band. Now that everything has a nine-word description, I think it’s more seditious to just call yourself a rock band.” (Below: “Fruit Fly,” from the new album, performed live)
Hatched in 1983 by Smith and founding lead guitarist Jukebox, the Hickoids never quite fit in with all the other chickens. Their first gig was a San Antonio date with Black Flag and the Meat Puppets, but their Salvation Army pearl snaps and garish “Cajun Realtor” outfits confounded everyone from cowboys to skinheads.
“We weren’t roots enough to be in the roots scene,” recalls Smith. “When we first started out, those guys would smoke dope with us and snort coke with us and drink with us, but they didn’t consider us musicians. There was still that divide.
“Then on the other hand, because every song wasn’t 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, we didn’t really fit in on the punk circuit, either. And because we were so wasted, we were too artless for the art circuit.”
As the Hickoids ventured beyond Central Texas, they forged bonds with spiritual cousins like Dallas’s Loco Gringos and L.A.’s Tex and the Horseheads. The latter band figured prominently in one of the Hickoids’ more infamous tour stories, which later birthed the song, “Queen of the BBQ.”
“We were out there in West Hollywood, staying with Texacala Jones at a place she had called Castle Greyskull,” recalls Jones. “We were inspired by whatever liquor and substances we were on to dress up like women and have a drag race.”
Smith picks up the story here:
“We had opened a show for the Butthole Surfers at the Variety Arts Center in L.A. We’d been staying at Texacala’s house all week. After the show, we had a keg party. And we’re just yelling, singing and stomping on the floor and everything in this old fourplex off of Hollywood Blvd. Tex didn’t know that their upstairs neighbor was a sheriff’s deputy.
“So they waited until everybody in the whole house was asleep. There’s probably about 12 people sleeping there. They kicked in the door at about 10 in the morning. I heard them kick in the door. I was asleep with my girlfriend in the back bedroom. My girlfriend and I just played possum. The cops yelled, ‘Alright, get up!’ And Wade Driver, our drummer at the time, is covered up in a sleeping bag. They’re poking him with a nightstick and they told me, ‘Get your friend up!’ And Wade said, ‘I’m not getting up until you quit poking me with that fuckin’ stick!’ I said, ‘Wade, get up!’ So he gets out of the sleeping back and he’s wearing one of Texacala’s red lace dresses.
“Me and my girlfriend are naked and they’ve got us all with our hands behind our heads, on our knees, with their guns drawn. They’re saying, ‘You think you have rights, but you don’t have any rights. This is Los Angeles and we own Los Angeles.’ Then they left. Nobody got arrested. They just harassed us.”
Then there’s the gig in Athens, Ga. where the only two audience members were R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Jones’ dad. And the drive to a Fourth of July date in Dallas with the Loco Gringos where a country cop ticketed Jones for not wearing a seatbelt while overlooking a felonious cache of psychedelics. And the “12-haybale” show during SXSW that made much of Austin’s Sixth Street resemble a high school ag fair.
The weight of expectations fostered by such war stories isn’t lost on Smith and Jones. It’s part of why Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit—which the band first tried to record back in 1989—took so long to materialize. A 2008 version of the album was scrapped right as the master went to the pressing plant.
“When I listened to it… I won’t say that I cried, but I was about to cry,” Jones remembers.
“I think a lot of it was that we were maybe trying a little too hard,” adds Smith. “It’s a difficult tradition to maintain when you’re known as a drunk rock band and you get sober but you want to remain true to the band and have a humorous element to it but still be true to yourself and not just go for the layups on the songwriting.”
This combination of humor and weight is evident throughout the album’s 10 tracks. “You Knee’d Me” builds a bumper sticker punch line into a yowling slab of grizzled balladry. The R-rated ribaldry of “Stop It (You’re Killing Me)” flowers into a seven-minute rawk anthem. Loose ends are nowhere to be found.
Now coming up on their 30th anniversary, the Hickoids carry the cowpunk torch with the integrity of men on a mission. They’re living down their onetime reputation as the “no-show ‘oids” while simultaneously educating a new generation on what happens when the New York Dolls get crosswise with George Jones. They even made it across the pond this spring, braving unseasonably cold weather to play 10 European dates in 11 days. (Below: Hickoids’ current lineup of, L-R, Tom Trusnovic, Jeff Smith, Davy Jones, Rice Moorehead, Lance Farley; plus photos of Smith and Jones)
“In a lot of these punk clubs, playing to young kids over there in places like Germany, their definition of punk is a lot more modern,” says Jones. “They’re dressed in Misfits T-shirts because that’s what they know. So it feels like we have to school them on what our definition of punk rock is. Guess what? You’re allowed to do any fucking thing you want! You’re allowed to dress any way you want! It doesn’t have to be a Misfits T-shirt!”
Photos credit: Maurice Eagle. The Hickoids will be out ‘n’ about in Texas for the next few weeks, including Aug. 23 in Houston. Tour dates at their website, natch: