When The Villain Vanguard formed in 2004, the then-sextet launched into Fort Worth’s eclectic music scene with brash boogie and high hopes. After 2006’s Enter the Platypus, the guys felt they were on the verge of breaking into a larger market. Their music was energetic and infectiously funky, and drew lots of fans. Over the next few years, though, two members quit while the band cycled through too many drummers to count. The remaining guys kept going and growing as songwriters, but, inexplicably, they fell out of Fort Worth’s prevailing musical consciousness.
When the Villains, on several occasions, failed to garner nominations in the Weekly’s annual music awards, singer Justin “Beef” Williams took it hard, even staying up all night to drink in the dark after one Villain-less ballot had been published. The guys continued to gig, sound good, and do everything right. They just never made a follow-up to their debut album. But finally, on Friday, The Villain Vanguard will release McMontezuma’s Revenge, a live album and a symbol of the band’s return to form.
When keyboardist/trumpeter Justin Barbee and bassist Dino Villanueva started the band, they were fresh out of TCU’s jazz studies program. Back then, they were joined by guitarist Bryce Harp and saxophone player Jeff Dazey, who is now part of Josh Weathers & the True+Endeavors and EPIC RUINS. In the original days, much of the Villains’ material was freeform, still structured into songs but conducive to high-energy jams. With Dazey’s punchy sax parts and Barbee’s multitude of keyboard noises, The Villain Vanguard could be a jazz odyssey kind of band. Part of the reason they never blew up was the lack of a consistent drummer. After adapting to four different stickmen over as many years, a new lineup fell into place after Villanueva threw out his back lifting speakers. A fan, Frank Holligan, filled in on bass. When Villanueva returned, he decided to explore his drumming hobby and become the Villains’ steady drummer, giving Holligan the bass gig for good.
Now, four years later, listeners would never guess that Villanueva wasn’t born with a pair of drumsticks in his hands. The son of a professional Filipino musician, Villanueva has a knack for sharp, groovy rhythms. This killer musicianship has been a trademark of The Villain Vanguard from day one, and no amount of lineup changes has subtracted from the overall sound.
When Harp decamped to Oklahoma for law school, guitarist Ron Geida, a studio-quality player in several genres, took his place. Likely as a reward for persevering on the several occasions when it might have been easier to give up, The Villain Vanguard now has its most solid, mature sound to date. Williams strengthened his silky voice over hundreds of gigs and even learned to play some guitar. He and Barbee do the majority of the songwriting, and six years of practice have culminated in tightly focused music that retains plenty of the original funky elements.
Recently, thanks in part to Villanueva’s move behind the skins, the group has been experimenting with progressive world rhythms. They want to keep audiences dancing and are finding ways to incorporate Latin-inspired rhythms into the funk and reggae framework. “It became a laboratory,” Barbee said of the Villains’ songwriting process. “We are definitely evolving, and the process is becoming a lot easier.”
Barbee sometimes plays an effect-laden trumpet with one hand while drawing hallucinatory sounds out of a keyboard with the other. While not overly busy, The Villain Vanguard sound is still large. “We got used to being in a big band, so we had to find a way to sound like 12 people playing music,” Williams said.
The nontraditional elements add motion and texture to the Villains’ new material, but they know how to whittle songs down to leave room for Williams’ vocal messages. Villanueva says the band is trying to go “mainstream” by producing shorter songs, but with a likably eccentric singer like “Beef” (he got the nickname because in his younger days he refused to eat anything but meat), The Villain Vanguard will always be on the outside of any mainstream.
Basically, the band wants to attract crowds with music that stands out from the crowd. McMontezuma’s Revenge is a commentary on the often gluttonous consumer society in which the guys feel they live. McMontezuma himself is a fictional character who likes things “fast and cheap,” Barbee said. Much of the inspiration for the songs came from late-night political bitch sessions. “There were nights we’d stay up, upset, and write political stuff, but that’s not our style,” Barbee said.
Complaints aside, “We can’t lose the moments that we do have,” Williams said. “People deserve to take what they want from the music,” so he in particular brings the funk and really gets down on stage.
For The Villain Vanguard’s enduring fans, McMontezuma’s Revenge is an overdue sophomore effort. The disc was recorded, mixed, and mastered by producer Raj Chauhan (Rabbit’s Got the Gun), and it does not sound like they captured it live at The Grotto on University Drive (although they did). The album, Barbee said, is like a “report card.” It contains the material written between the debut album and 2009. A studio effort, with the new Latin-disco/rumba feel, should follow shortly.
In the meantime, the guys will continue to gig regularly. They play monthly at the Flying Saucer downtown and, on occasion, farther afield. It’s a wonder the band manages to keep booking shows even twice a month, considering that the members also work adult jobs and play in a host of other projects, including Dazey Chain, Boss Level, Luke Wade and No Civilians, Sean Russell, Texian, and the Matt Tedder Band. The guys keep coming back to The Villain Vanguard because they remain close friends. This camaraderie helped them push through the rough phases that every band must endure. Now that they’ve made it back with another album, “We have a chip on our shoulder,” Williams said. “We feel like we’ve proven everything, but we still have to take it to the next level.”
The Villain Vanguard
W/Rabbit’s Got the Gun Fri at Ridglea Theater, 6025 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW. $8. 817-738-9500.