18 min read

The Next Big Thing: Notes on Punk, Pop Punk, Garage Punk, the Riverboat Gamblers, What's What, and Something To Crow About at 20

The Next Big Thing: Notes on Punk, Pop Punk, Garage Punk, the Riverboat Gamblers, What's What, and Something To Crow About at 20

In a perfect world, Riverboat Gamblers would have been bigger than Blink-182. Failing that, they’d have settled for being bigger than Jesus. If they’d been harder, they coulda been as big as The Bronx. If they’d been schtick-ier, they coulda been The Hives. If they’d been poppier, they’d maybe be rich, or at least not had to have worked as many SXSW bar shifts. If they’d been any punker, they’d be dead. As none of those options panned out (yet), Riverboat Gamblers (and the rest of us) have to settle for the band having made Something To Crow About, a punky and poppy Rock and Roll album which came out twenty years ago and goes, and then goes some more. 

Not that you’d notice, if all you go by is contemporary music sites. The anniversary of Something To Crow About didn't get a ton of coverage. Part of the reason for this egregious garage-punk erasure is because, while it’s been years since the album has been available on vinyl, it’s not like it disappeared from streaming or digital. But I think it’s also because Riverboat Gamblers’ moment of critical adulation (or even attention) was brief, and frankly a surprise even to the band at the time. Even in that window of time when the New Rock Revolution/Garage Rock Revival Revival Revival was on tastemakers’ radars, that attention was largely devoted to aesthetes like The Hives and White Stripes—bands with belts you could trust and lifestyles attached—more than the bands invested in hot rod/dog raucousness more than Mondrian spiffery. The Gamblers live show, bordering on legendary, that cast singer Mike Weibe as a sort of Super Dave of willful disregard for life and limb, drew glowing praise from outlets like SPIN and Rolling Stone but it’s not like the intelligentsia was going to  all of a sudden trade in their This Heat albums for anything in the tradition of the Lazy Cowgirls. And the Gamblers did themselves no favors by signing with Gearhead Records, and then proceeding to lean hard into a Warped Tour lottery which they had no chance of winning. Considering that the current media is vaguely embarrassed that they ever got real real gone in the first place, with even projects by ex-Gories and Oblivians largely flying under the radar, it’s no surprise that the band with an anthem entitled “Sparks and Shots” might have to wait a few more years for that critical reassessment. 

Or maybe the failure to properly celebrate the vinyl reissue of Something To Crow About is consistent with the Riverboat Gamblers’ longstanding master plan for world domination. 

“It's kind of one of those things where it was like, either we should just do nothing,” Wiebe says, describing the band’s own blueprint for marking the album’s anniversary, “Or we should just do a little bit more.”

That all said, maybe I need to be the change I want to see in the world. Even if my recent attempts to get the kids (as it were) into Scrawl have yet to pay off, maybe this one will take. After all, if you like Amyl and The Sniffers (you do), Spiritual Cramp (who you should because they rule) or The Chats (who make a valiant effort to rule and seem to be thriving, so good for them), then you really should love the Riverboat Gamblers. 

Riverboat Gamblers Are a Pop Punk Band

As with goth and Batman, the heroes of pop-punk will never admit to being what they are. Both Andrew Eldritch and Bruce Wayne will swear up and down that they, respectively, are indifferent to filigree and crime. And we’re all expected to just go along with the deceit, as if we didn’t know a bat when we saw one. In this same vein, when bands like (fellow Texans) Marked Men and Riverboat Gamblers try to claim sole fidelity to garage rock or, worse, simply punk rock, pop-punk fans are—despite all the self-evident angst, hooks, and bubblegum—expected to just take those bands at their word. As though Clark Kent glasses might fool the listener into thinking that either was Gas Huffer, as if dressing like gas station attendants is the same as being signed to Goner, like the Singles-Going-Steady-signals lighting up the sky over the bands’ respective Denton mansions was some sort of coincidence. 

You can’t blame a band for not wanting to be considered pop-punk. It’s a degraded term for a stagnant genre that’s sole innovations lie largely in the burgeoning field of age-gap dating. Pop-punk has been, since approximately 1993, a scene spilling over with jock-wimp-hybrids, Moreau-esque beast folk abominations who keep from going on all-fours only by dint of not being able to count any higher. If a band does have some soul, and are still inclined to share their archaic love of Teenage Kicks with an age-appropriate world, they’ll find there’s not much of an audience for what someone raised on the subtlety of, say, the Ramones, might consider songcraft. In the timeline of our diminished pop-punk world, the adenoidal jitters of the Buzzcocks and adolescent fear-of-girls of the Descendents are simultaneously codified and diffuse. Travis Barker can take any street urchin he finds sleeping outside the gates of Chez Enema, feed that waif the meagerest rations of Weezer b-sides and septum piercings, and make the little idiot a mid-tier heartthrob to thousands of future real estate dealers and 30-something writers for Teen Vogue. And Barker’s creature will, regardless of what the songs might actually sound like, be recognized as pop-punk. 

(This too is only fair and just. Blink-182 won the war, and nobody can say it wasn’t a fair fight. Sure, Blink-182 and their cohorts had the benefit of multiple generations of counterculture breeders hooked on CIA-sourced brain fryers, an overculture so obsessed with pornography that the alchemists’ dream of transmuting the human soul into physical form was itself transformed into a deification of bodily secretions, and decades of—depending on one’s politics—either lead or fluoride infused tap water. Circumstances which resulted in a pop-punk population as malleable and drooling as your average floppy-eared beagle. 

In MegaCorps Pop-Punk’s defense, if the effet and impudent snobs couldn’t provide a compelling counterargument or alternative to Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, that’s on us. The only argument we provided—after thousands of years of inventing wheels, guitars, and Wallace Shawns—was: “that’s not real punk.”  As we sobbed pathetically into the authentically distressed crew neck of our Crimpshrine t-shirt.)

That said, the difference between “punk” and “pop punk” used to be a bit more fuzzy, and far less controversial. The Ramones were poppy. The Buzzcocks were transgressive. Unless one saw hardcore as the only true progeny of punk (or one’s sense of what constituted “punk,” started in 1982 and ended in 1983), the idea of punk not being catchy by design was silly.  (And, let’s be honest, it’s not like the choruses of Discharge songs are easy to shake.) There’s a reason that “Our Lips Are Sealed,” The Go-Go’s/Fun Boy Three’s ode to defiantly denying true gossip about the singers’ cheating on their respective partners, is beloved by both those that value saccharine sentiment and those that are super into cheating. 

Point being: before pinching one’s nose (and singing nursery rhymes about how fallible the opposite sex is) became the de rigeur mode of pop-punk communication—through the ‘90s, with bands like Discount and Lazy Cowgirls making fast and catchy punk and roll, and even into the mid-aughts, with labels like No Idea and Red Scare—pop punk was a lot of things. It wasn’t inherently an insult. Any distinction between it and “punk-punk” could be seen as being, in large part, based on semantics and/or the font on a band’s hoodies. The field was open to anyone with some whoa-whoas, a dream, and a disinclination to sing exclusively about state oppression. 

And few of these pop ‘n’ punk bands wanted the designation. And the good ones still don’t. Which is a shame. Any brown eyed handsome man/woman/non-binary-rocker can play Chuck Berry riffs fast and loud. And well they should. But let’s not forget that the sweet pop chime of a ringing bell was the man’s initial point of aspirational comparison. 

This is a long, long, lonnnng way of saying that the Denton-to-Austin punk band, Riverboat Gamblers—formed in opposition to emo, quickly embraced by garage punks, and eventually nearly destroyed by Warped Tour—were (and are) catchy as all hell. Their 2003 album, Something To Crow About, is a thing of doomed beauty; hellacious muscle car rock by and for noodle-armed born-to-losers. Twelve tracks of play-dumb genius tailor-made for wiseass dropouts. A monument to partying in the kitchen for way too long. Something To Crow About is perfect pop for now people, who didn’t stick around. And it’s perfect punk for those deluded saps who decline to blame their partners for their lack of futures and/or gas money. 

Riverboat Gamblers Are Not a Pop Punk Band

As part of my campaign to wake up the sheeple regarding one of America’s finest rock bands, I talked to both singer Mike Wiebe and the Gamblers’ guitarist (and, initially, the band’s chief songwriter) Fadi El-Assad in order to get a rough history of the band and the album that, rightly or wrongly, is considered their masterpiece (by those who know enough about what’s what to even understand that the Riverboat Gamblers have a couple truly great ones under their belt). 

The term “pop punk” didn’t come up once. Partially because I didn’t want any hurt feelings, and partly because, in my lifelong project of rehabilitating the genre from its Blink-diminishment, the Riverboat Gamblers are innocent. Not innocent bystanders per se, but agents in a different project entirely. When the band formed—out of a post-teenage rejection of the emo surrounding our heroic skate-brats; the oft-stated desire to be a Texan Candy Snatchers—pop music, punk- or otherwise, wasn’t part of the game plan. 

Just to be sure, I googled “are Riverboat Gamblers a pop-punk band.” The only result was a short interview from 2009, where the band talked about how excited they were to tour with Rancid. And if Spotify’s “Riverboat Gamblers radio” is to be believed, Riverboat Gamblers are region rock, with bands like Off With Their Heads and Dilinger 4 as peers. Which scans as far as Denton/Austin is, technically speaking, a region. But I’ve never seen any of the Riverboat Gamblers with a beard as far as I can recall, so let’s table that for now (and, why not, forever). 

Fadi El-Assad—the son of a Lebanese, muslim (non-practicing) dad, and a Chinese, raised in the Philippines, catholic (very much-practicing) mom—was born in the (inarguably a) region of Kentucky, where his father was working as an ad man for Kent Cigarettes. The family kept moving—Dubai, Abidjan, Florida, etc.—until, at grade school age, Fadi settled in the place he considers his hometown; Denton, Texas.  

Describing his dad as “kind of a rock and roller when he was young” who’d briefly played in a Rolling Stones cover band, Fadi in turn was raised on a diet of guitar tablature fold-out posters, Chuck Berry songs, and—before they eventually lived apart—driving around with his dad, singing along to the Travelling Wilburys. 

El-Assad met Mike Wiebe through skateboarding, through another Mike: “I remember my friend, Mike Searcy, was like, ‘Hey, I got this friend, Wiebe. He’s into this, he’s into that and, you know, y’all should be friends.’ And that was that,” Fadi tells me. “I was so young, like fourteen. I think I went in to see him when he was working whatever job at the time, like, at Kmart or something.”

Mike and Fadi formed a band, called Skeleton Kids, while simultaneously El-Assad was playing with his friend Patrick Lillard in a Denton punk band called “The Sillies” (not to be confused with the Detroit band of the same name). Neither El-Assad nor Lillard were full members of the Sillies but they were touring with them; hired guns as much as one can be a gun at that age.

“We were on tour with them and we didn't know, but there was a crack in the dash or whatever, and gas fumes were getting in,” Fadi says. “We were just getting high as shit from gas fumes and not realizing it. I think Patrick got scabies from a mattress that we lay down in the van. Maybe he got it somewhere else, but anyways we're on tour and he was like,’ You know what? We've got to start something else.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He's like, ‘I want to do this. And he had a name already picked out that he got from some announcer somewhere and told me the name ‘Riverboat Gamblers.’ I was like, ‘All right. That's a weird one, but sure.’  And I'm like, ‘Yeah, I got a couple of songs, you know, in my back pocket.’ It started out as real goofy. As, by the late nineties, emo was starting to take a weird turn. Not like the real stuff, like Rite of Spring, but like…what it kind of turned into.” 

“Everybody in Denton was either into either, like, pop punk Fat Records kind of stuff or, like, really like, I don't know, traditional emo,” Mike says.”Like the full on, you know, super hyper-emotional Romulan haircut, high water Bell Bottom polyester pants.”

Fadi: “...you get to a point where everything was so serious and everybody there was just killing you with EARNEST. I mean, everything was so earnest and just, you know, ‘I just got to scream from my soul.’ And these band names were getting ridiculous. So, like, we're going to do something else. We're going to be rock and roll.”

Mike: “The bass player at the time (Patrick) got the Dictators’ Bloodbrothers LP. And we got really into Teengenerate. Teengenerate came through and it was, like, us kind of realizing that their songs are all souped up covers of old ‘70s stuff. And then, like, us realizing their name came from a Dictators song. And then kind of like finding the Dictators as being that cross-point between big rock n’ roll and punk. And it was so different…Definitely, for the first year, we were kind of playing up being sort of characters a little bit more.It was more fun to do that kind of a live show, that was a bit rowdier and crazier and you didn't feel like yourself at all.” 

Still becoming, as both characters and band, Riverboat Gamblers started playing regularly (with El-Assad going by “Freddie Castro” and Mike being known simply as “Rookie Sensation”) around Denton and Austin.

Fadi: The Denton house scene was fucking awesome. Denton in the nineties was amazing. It was a magical place. I know it’s living completely drenched in nostalgia in my mind, but still… it was fucking amazing. I mean, I'm so glad it landed there.”

In 2001, the band released a self-titled debut album which both Wiebe and El-Assad seem… fine with. An assessment which feels about right. It’s a solid album, and had nothing come after, “solid” would be a suitable epitaph for a local punk band better than most. But, by 2002, as the band’s chief songwriter, Fadi was eager to make a bigger sound; with speed and cheer still derived from bands like Candy Snatchers, with a heavy dose of Wipers and Turbonegro being the obvious high-drama touchstones, and with the operatic histrionics of artists like Tom Waits and the Bad Seeds as perhaps less obvious influences. 

In tune with some of that, and perhaps as counterweight to some of the latter, Tim Kerr was asked to produce the new record. Kerr—the former member of Big Boys, Poison 13, The Monkeywrench, and Lord High Fixers—was a local legend; intimidating despite being, as Weibe says, “the nicest guy on the planet.” 

Getting Kerr to produce was, in the end, a question of “bugging enough people in Austin that we wanted to work with him.” And, while the songs were completed before the band entered the studio, and Kerr did little in terms of rearranging, what he did bring was the kind of amiably forceful nudgery that the band needed to move (up or down, depending on how one looks at these things) from the somewhat restrained rambunctiousness of the debut to the chicken-wire wall-of-trash-talk-n’-self-harm yowl-rock that is Something To Crow About. Besides micing the snare and kick real nice, Kerr was adept at fortuitously getting in the way of the band’s better instincts. 

“I wanted something bigger. I wanted something a little bit, not necessarily darker, like, you know, we weren't a goth band, we weren't an industrial band. We were a garage punk band. But I just wanted to sound bigger and a little bit darker, and more driving. And I just had this big idea in my head, and when we got in the studio with Tim everything kind of changed a little bit,” Fadi says, regarding his best laid plans. 

“Things get a little messier and a little rowdier and a little faster at some points, and a little slower at other points. And for a minute in the studio, I was thinking to myself like, ‘this is not how…’ I was really frustrated. I was like twenty-three or something, you know?  I was like; ‘This is how it goes. This is how this song goes. This is how the record goes.’” El-Assad says this, laughing at his dumb n’ young self. “It took a long time to kind of get away from that, realizing later, when I heard the record with all the flubs and all the little mistakes, and the kind of the messiness of it… I  immediately loved it. I'm so glad that we did things the way we did.”

“Tim keeps everything real live like,” Wiebe says. “There's so many things that we thought were mistakes that we were like, ‘we're going to keep that in there?’ And he was like, (drawn out Tim Kerr accent, not unlike that of gubernatorial candidate Matthew McConaughey) ‘yeah, man, you gotta keep it in there.’ And it's definitely all for the better. Like, I definitely remember kind of thinking, ‘is this is this too raw?’ Too unfinished, or whatever. But it seems to be the one that everyone likes. So what do I know?”

What does Mike know, indeed. Everyone did, in fact, like Something To Crow About. Released on Gearhead (don’t ask) in 2003, the album seemed to bridge (somewhat) disparate islands of counter-parent hairslick; from The Lazy Cowgirls to the Hives, from Flat Duo Jets to the Damned, from Tim Kerr’s Monkeywrench to Tim Kerr’s Lord High Fixers, from the Beatles denialism of Crypt Records to the Beatles agnosticism of Dave Edmunds et al (with some Monkees “Steppin Stone” thuggery thrown in for kicks); Something To Crow About was chunka-chunka slabs of Sub-pop guitar, with leads played fast and loose as amphetamine blues, with a singer so charismatic, that he could pull off instant anachronisms like an ode to drinking Sparks, and so good at masking his insecurities that he sounded exactly like a sexy badger in Iggy-tight Wranglers. It also didn’t hurt that, for all his vaunted rawness, Tim Kerr Butch Vigg-ed the holy hell out of the kick drum and snare (whether Mike Wiebe returned the favor by paraphrasing/referencing Kerr’s Poison 13 version of “Seventh Son” in the album’s “Rattle Me Bones” is unknowable) (because I forgot to ask).

While there’s no shortage of great bands that were more dangerous or more outlandish, there are few records that manage to walk the line the way the album—with its combo of aw-shucks phraseology (itself skirting the line between good time and threat), gang vocals, and Sun Studios via Stooges trash-twang—walks/struts/leers. Something To Crow About is notable, necessarily coupled with the Riverboat Gamblers’ acrobatic live show, for how it managed to hold two thoughts in its hands at the same time; that of rock and roll as something simultaneously dangerous and cartoonish, a medium built for Looney Tunes rabbits who dig hootenanny tuff-punk like Antiseen but not the Confederacy, an aesthetic place occupied by that rarest of unicorn; the self-aware Texan. It’s a paradox which few bands (like, maybe, Motörhead, the Birthday Party, Watain, or the Dictators when they were briefly good) even attempted.

As 2003/4 was not quite the tail end of the “boom” part of one of guitar rock’s periodic Boom/Bust cycle, the Riverboat Gamblers were able to enjoy some well earned attention. There was some label jockeying, some big tours, and splash page photos in both SPIN and Rolling Stone (which Wiebe’s parents appreciated, as far as that goes, though “it's still much more exciting when we would get a nod from the The Denton Record Chronicle”).

Of course, as punk was either becoming glassine wax polished or looking for a way back to total sonic alienation, and the UK indie landfillers were already hard at work making the Hives chutzpah even more Apple-ad ready, the Riverboat Gamblers brand of destro-swing was operating within an already shrinking window.

Mike: “You have to remember that was like right when The Strokes were blowing up, lives were blowing up, and there was this whole like, like grunge to what my friend calls ‘The Gilman Gold Rush,’ where all the all the pop punk bands had like that couple years where all these things were like blowing up really fucking huge. There was like a hot minute where this very, very nebulous term of ‘garage rock’ where, like, the Vines were in. A whole bunch of other bands were getting like these really big deals and that like, you know, the Icarus Line had a billboard over Amoeba and stuff like that. And there was this kind of feeling like, well, this might be the thing that lasts a couple of years or whatever. There were people that were taking us to dinners and stuff like that after this record came out. But, you know, the thing died a lot quicker then, certainly quicker than grunge, and also pop punk and all that. Like, it died. It died a really quick death and it was around, like, the second (and this is what we were told when we were shopping stuff afterwards) Strokes record, which only sold 3 billion records instead of 6 billion. And that was like a huge failure back then. And it was just like that. It was on to the next sweeping trend…”

Now, after a fair amount of wrangling with the old label, twenty years, and (roughly) twenty sweeping trends later, Something To Crow About is… well, it never went away, but it’s back on vinyl, the medium of choice for the sort of people still give a shit about the difference between garage punk and pop punk! And don’t we deserve something nice, for once?

The band is nothing if not overflowing with the sort of perspective that comes with age and having survived Warped Tour. “There are a lot of guys that we started out with, that were in bands at that time, who are now gone,” Mike says. “Or, like, maybe not doing so good. And not just like, ‘oh, their band broke up.’”

Riverboat Gamblers have been in a constant of revitalization ever since their first tour for Something To Crow About, when guitarist Ian MacDougal decided to forgo higher education and instead opted for the larger truths of being a Gambler for life. While most the members have (very good) side/main bands, now—as then (and often in the times between)—MacDougal has been a large part in pushing things along and the band has been writing new material, with their last few singles as strong (if not stronger) than anything they’ve done since their second album. They’re touring reasonably often, as always opening for bands that they’re… arguably a bit better than, and still playing live shows that are boisterous family-esque affairs, while still skirting the edge of “oh god… is the singer going to die?” Maybe if Riverboat Gamblers could do something else, they would. But there’s nothing on Something To Crow About (or the albums that followed) that implies that any of the people involved have an ability or inclination to, you know, get their shit together. 

The Garage Rock Revival Revival was replaced by bands Grizzly Bear. Bands that, in the face of cultural freefall, broke up to become therapists. And I bet they’re damn fine listeners, and I can’t commend that sort of contribution to the public good strongly enough. But some bands can only be on the receiving end of healthcare. I don’t romanticise fuck-uppery. An inability to manage one’s life is no guarantee of quality rock music. The art of Johnny Thunders wouldn’t have suffered for him cracking a book. I’m pretty sure that—even if graduate school didn’t do Bad Religion or the Offspring any favors—half the Marked Men are nuclear physicists. 

To be clear: smart/dumb isn’t the binary here. Rather, I’m just celebrating those bands—like the Riverboat Gamblers—for whom self care is best maintained through the shaking of what their mamas gave them, for as long as the pasties stay on. And I’m saying that, for some lucky bands—again, the Riverboat Gamblers, for instance—that need to shimmy comes through successfully in their sound (and explains why their sound is objectively better than, say, Arcade Fire’s), in ways that are ineffable, though audible to anyone who has more than one favorite Leaving Trains song, considers Border Radio to be a romantic comedy, and counts back denim as formal wear. You know, two ears and a heart, etc.

As to the essential question of whether Riverboat Gamblers are a pop-punk band, a garage punk band, a punk rock band; whether they should have been bigger, or if the work is enough, or what... When it comes to the Big Questions, there is just no telling. The answer is probably contained (or at least appropriately sidestepped) in the opening lines of “The Next Big Thing,” from the Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy album, where Handsome Dick Manitoba—still inhabiting a plausible deniability regarding just how awful he’d eventually become—says, “I don’t have to be here, you know, I didn’t need to show up here… this just a hobby for me, you hear? Nothing! A hobby!” The joke is a solid one and pointless. Maybe admirably so (at least compared to the alternative… some people should refrain from points). It’s showbiz. It’s a laugh. It’s deadly serious. It’s pop. It’s punk. It’s the kind of punk that opens the door for bands like Blink-182, even if that’s not the kind of joke they are in on. It’s a hobby, as though loving something—enough to make sure it’s captured on an anachronistic polyvinyl cylinder twenty years after it was recorded, or enough for the rest of us to devote precious wall space to shelves full of said cylinders and cylinders like it—could ever be a diminishment. That’s the nice thing about being the next big thing, about rock and roll, about life, about one’s predilections, and about how one is perceived through any of it; once you show up, it’s pretty much out of one’s hands. Though it’s fun to feel like you have a choice in the matter.

Something To Crow About is available on polyvinyl from Cobraside Records RIGHT NOW.

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