Horny Devils

Voodoo Glow Skulls blow sinister air into Ska's chipper face

It's coming up on 20 years since a certain group of Riverside hombres packed into a practice room, swirled musical passion with unflinching intensity and demonic influence, and finally emerged with their own brand of ska—and a name to strike fear into the hearts of their poppy, skinny-tied brethren: the Voodoo Glow Skulls.

The Inland Empire-based band has undergone numerous lineup changes over the years, but the core has always been the Brothers Casillas: Frank, Eddie and Jorge. Their sound is not standard ska; guitarist Eddie calls it a "Mexican-American punk-rock circus," with the occasional song about beer, weed, or both.

"We were always influenced by the ska of Fishbone, Madness and the Specials," Eddie says, "but we always wanted to play punk, metal and hardcore, too." Throw in the upbeat emphasis of ska and a singer who sounds like he's trying to kill someone via PA speaker, and you've got the signature style that has sustained VGS for nearly two decades.

Mixing subgenres has had mixed results for this admitted amalgam of a band, especially among the skanking faithful. "We're not very popular with the ska purists and have always felt like the black sheep of the ska scene," Eddie says. That being said, Voodoo have a fan base rabid enough to appreciate not only Frank Casillas' vocal onslaught, but also the sometimes-odd horn presence, which is perhaps what really sets the band apart.

"Anyone who plays horns in this band has to adapt quick and figure out it's not just normal horn lines," Eddie explains. Voodoo's horn section, which more often than not is at the forefront of the arrangements, boasts bombast where typical ska horns are often lost in the fray, or even relegated to novelty. "Traditionally, I think most horns lay back a little," says Eddie. "[Our horn players] gotta be able to play hard and fast. . . . We prefer to keep it a little dangerous. For better or worse, [the horns have] made us who we are today and have definitely defined our style."

Despite tours on several continents and, at last count, more than a million total records sold, VGS haven't attained mainstream MTV-style success. The band members enjoyed their peak exposure while with Epitaph Records, where they saw the beginnings of critical praise and even a mainstage slot on the 1998 Warped Tour. Eddie is ambivalent about the band's lack of breakthrough hits: "We've come this far without any commercial success at all, and we have somehow managed to keep it going and keep it real." Reaching the commercial airwaves has never been the group's goal; Eddie says that if the band had "some great success or a single that was popular, I guess it would be by accident."

Voodoo certainly enjoy a following in OC, a scene that Eddie says has been "pretty damn good to us IE dudes." The guitarist recalls the distant days of playing Old World Hall in Huntington Beach, a room normally reserved for lederhosen-clad oompah bands, or the perennially sweaty, underage beacon, Chain Reaction in Anaheim. However, the venue that holds a special place in the boys' 909 hearts is Pomona's Glass House, a cold/roasting, leaky, punk concert venue (a.k.a. paradise) that has hosted bands ranging from the lowliest of meathead metallers to the revered White Stripes and a lot in between.

Voodoo Glow Skulls are currently mixing tracks for their eighth album, Southern California Street Music (due Sept. 18 on Victory). "I think this one is a bit darker than anything we've done in a while," says Eddie, who explained that the songs "people would consider singles" were left out in order to retain the original, sinister vision of the new record. "There's maybe one poppier song out of the bunch, but for the most part, we got the manic ska/punk/hardcore thing happening."

Voodoo Glow Skulls have held fast to the original, striking, sometimes-reviled approach to ska, and they managed to carve out a new and unique place. Still, Eddie admits, concessions have been made. "[We've] always tried to keep the same basic formula . . . and have tried to become a little bit more responsible socially. We can't always write songs about beer and weed."

VOODOO GLOW SKULLS PERFORM WITH THE MAXIES AND CELLPHISH AT ALEX'S BAR, 2913 E. ANAHEIM ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 434-8292; WWW.ALEXSBAR.COM . FRI., 9 P.M. $10.

 
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