Full disclosure: These guys bought me beers. We met a couple of days ago at a local restaurant around happy hour for an interview. I had three or four (five?) drafts. The guys had beers and burgers. When time came to say our goodbyes, bassist Duane Smith told our waitress that he was covering my tab. I did not put up a fight. So there’s that. But any question of my journalistic integrity (or lack thereof) is rendered moot by the music: Southern Train Gypsy is for real, pumping out heavy, loud, hard, swampy goodness that’s reminiscent of Pantera but not nearly as showy, which gives STG’s tunes a welcome punk-rock immediacy.
Smith, vocalist/lyricist Matt Leslie, guitarists Brian Hoover and Travis Knight, and drummer Daniel McKay have just released their sophomore album. Recorded earlier this year at home studios in Houston and Fort Worth and produced by Knight, The Bastard is five no-bullshit, in-your-face tracks that are decidedly, profoundly head-bangable. “Here’s the gauge,” Leslie said. “Our drummer doesn’t like a damn thing. He’s the most miserable, sad, dissatisfied person you ever met, but part of that has made us a helluva lot better, because he’s never satisfied. … He said this is the only record [he’s done that] he still listens to, so if he likes it, I love it.”
The time was ripe for recording. The guys had been playing songs off their debut album, 2011’s Hallelujah in the Fire, “forever,” Smith said. “And we were, like, ‘Jesus Christ, we’re tired of these songs.’ ”
Recording is in keeping with the band’s mission to remain active. “You’ve got to stay relevant, to stay busy, to look like you’re doing something,” Knight said.
The standout Bastard track is “The Healing,” a rolling, bouncy, thunderous jaunt with a juicy hook. (The video for the song consists entirely of early-’80s stock footage of men in tights doing rhythmic aerobics in front of an audience.) The song was something of an afterthought –– on a whim, Knight had showed his bandmates some riffs he was working on. “We wrote that [song] in one practice,” Leslie said. “And that doesn’t happen.”
The Bastard is in the same ballpark as Hallelujah but more melodic, especially vocally, and lyrically deeper. Whereas Hallelujah was influenced by the Stephen King novels Leslie was reading at the time, The Bastard reflects some tough times the frontman recently endured. “I think we’re all real happy with it,” Leslie said. “But I’m the Jerry Jones of this band. I’m the eternal optimist. I’m, like, ‘That’s the best fucking shit I ever heard. I can’t wait ’til we sell those 40 CDs at our CD release.’ ”
Knight is also pleasantly surprised by the record. “If any one of us walked into Guitar Center and picked up the instrument that we represent and tried to play, you’d be, like, ‘That dude sucks over there,’ but if you put us all together, we all collectively don’t suck enough that it works.”
Smith chuckled. “The collective mediocrity builds up to be a little better than mediocrity,” he said.
While the band has been together for only about five years, the guys have been making music together in one incarnation or another for a lot longer. Around 2000, as members of the popular local metal outfit Travail, Hoover and Smith did a lot of touring. They eventually crossed paths with Knight, who was living in Memphis, Tenn., and playing in an on-the-verge group called Logic 34. After Travail broke up, Knight moved to Texas, and the three began playing together as Tomorrow’s Rescue. (“There are some YouTube videos out there of us,” Smith said. “We were a lot skinnier. And a lot more energetic. I could play more than two songs and not feel like I was going to die.”)
Music eventually took a backseat to life: day jobs, marriage, kids, mortgages. The guys never sold their gear, though. They stored it in a room in a house some of them were sharing. “We’d get drunk, and we’d go in at 4 o’clock in the morning and just jam, and that happened for years,” Smith recalled. “And then one day, we were, like, ‘Why don’t we try to do it again?’ ”
By chance, some of the musicians bumped into Leslie at a local show. They hadn’t spoken in years –– Leslie had played with some of the guys in another outfit, and the breakup was “not amicable,” Leslie said. But slowly, Southern Train Gypsy began to take shape, and by the spring of 2010, the band had played its first show, a barn-burner at The Aardvark on an otherwise slow Wednesday night.
Southern Train Gypsy has been performing regularly ever since, even cramming in shows just because. “For South By Southwest this year — which was almost stupid because we’re too old for this — we did Oklahoma, Austin, and Fort Worth in less than 24 hours,” Smith said.
The guys agree the experience was tough but fun. “I’d never been drunk for 24 hours,” Leslie added. “That was my first time doing that.”
The guys think something special is happening in Fort Worth and are glad to be a part of it. “We might not be the best band around here, and we get it,” Smith said. “Whatever. We just want to have fun when we play shows. … We’ve met a lot of our friends through the shows. There’s always some sort of [sense of] community.” (Leslie summed up a typical invitation to a Southern Train Gypsy show by saying, “ ‘Let’s all hang out at The Grotto and get fucked up. We’ll play some music. And also give us a little bit of money for our shit.’ ”)
Knight is noticing a change in the scene. He said that while most people still go to shows just to see their friends’ bands and no one else, some people are sticking around. “It’s starting to be if you put the right bill together, everyone comes and hangs out all night,” he said. “It’s an awesome thing to see.”
Memphis, Smith said, was a different story. He described the vibe there as “cutthroat,” adding that bands in the same genre could get only so close personally. The attitude, he said, was “ ‘We’re reaching for the same ring, and I don’t mind knocking you off.’ Whereas around here, now at least, there’s always somebody [from another band] at a show to hang out or talk.”
Leslie said he and his bandmates also go to others’ shows.
“Now it’s like we know each other, let’s have fun,” Smith added.
Perhaps part of what makes Southern Train Gypsy so successful is the nearly complete lack of outside pressure. “We were on the road constantly to make it,” Hoover said of the previous bands. “Now we’re older. We’ve got normal jobs. Realistically, the band is never going to be a career for us. That being said, we’re still going to try to do as much as we can. When we do it, we love it. It’s a passion: Have fun, party, do what you love.”