Featured Music: Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Light Sabers

The Force is with ‘whiteboy’ reggae purveyors Darth Vato.


I walked out onto the deck behind the Darth Vato house and saw Vato Captain Insano relieving himself over the side. Inside the house, a kind of Animal House bachelor pad-cum-24/7 punky reggae party in the TCU area, a crowd of friends, fans, and various hangers-on — including the members of Darth Vato’s “brother band,” Voigt, and ex-Audiophile Derrick McDonald — were celebrating a triumphant show that the Vatos and Voigt had just played at the Aardvark.

Since their first gig in April 2002, the members of Darth Vato have been primarily known for their name and the slogan “Back-Stabbing Pinche Gringos”; a web site filled with off-kilter humor, which includes such wonderment as the infamous “Subliminal Page” and “The Jeremy Hull Shrine” (a tribute to the Camino/Collin Herring bass player who lets them rehearse in his garage); and a seemingly endless string of sticker-and-t-shirt release parties.

So, who are these three Vatos, and where did they get that name? (In street Spanish, “vato” roughly translates as “dude.”)

“It came from a Lowrider magazine,” explained wiry drummer Eric Dodson. “It was a choice between Darth Vato and Han Cholo. Two of us speak Spanish, and Captain Insano is a quarter Mexican.”

Captain Insano is the alter ego of Steve Steward, the California surfer dude (he’s originally from Lodi, where John Fogerty’s bus famously broke down) who plays bass for Fort Worth’s masters of “sloppy West Coast-style whiteboy reggae”, as the Vatos call their sound. “Steve’s the smart one,” said singer-guitarist Kerry Dean. “He has a huge vocabulary — but unfortunately, not a huge musical vocabulary.” Dean recently returned from running with the bulls at Pamplona — “a difficult task for a fat man,” according to Steward.

Steward and Dean, a Houston native, met in 1997 while attending TCU and started jamming together, playing “crappy ska in dorm lounges.” Their main musical influence was Sublime. Since then, their tastes have expanded to encompass the roots reggae of Black Uhuru, the dub of Scientist and Augustus Pablo, the Jamaican dancehall sounds of Buju Banton, the alt-rock of reggaefied Pepper (from Hawaii), and the “from-the-heart East Bay gutter punk” of Operation Ivy.

The joker in the Darth Vato pack is Dodson, who previously provided the percussives for Circle Theory and still does the same for Camino (when you can find that group). Dodson’s musical tastes run more toward ’80s hair metal. “I’m the hired gun who wouldn’t leave,” he said, and indeed, the Darth Vato boys are in the habit of routinely firing one another during shows. “When I started playing with Kerry and Steve, we really sucked,” Dodson said. “We suck much better now.” The band’s humor is heavily influenced by tv’s The Simpsons and the web site www.homestarrunner.com, home of the cartoon character Strong Bad. (A current ambition is to write a song that includes the line “Put a Bengal tiger in the Kaiser’s latrine,” after a line from the site.)

Part of Darth Vato’s sound is an attempt to create a dubbish ambience without a mixer. To that end, Dean skillfully manipulates a battery of effects to color both his voice and his guitar playing. Lately, he’s backed off on the vocal effects a bit, which has made his lyrics more audible — a good thing. This works especially well on numbers like “I Ain’t Got No (Sinsemilla),” a sing-along crowd favorite, and “Ska Song.”

“We like to think of our music as accessible,” said Dean. “We’re not pissed off at our dads or anything.”

“All we want to do is have fun, drink beer, and imagine a place where everything is easy,” said Steward.

So far, the Vatos’ lone c.d. has been a four-song e.p., Aloha Chingaso, produced at First Street Audio by Jordan Richardson of Soviet Space/Horses fame, but the live MP3s on their web site (www.darthvato.com) also provide a representative sampling of the band’s music. Dean records all of their rehearsals and shows, to help them remember their song ideas as well as to give them an opportunity to critique their performances. For the time being, plans for any future c.d.’s are contingent on finding funds. “It’s hard to make albums without money,” said Dodson.

“And it’s hard to get money without gigs,” added Steward.

“And it’s hard to get gigs when ... birds’ heads are falling off,” said Dean.

(Besides being penciled in to produce any future Vatos recording projects, Richardson is also conspiring with Steward and Voigt’s Joshua Loewen in a secret project — a surf band called The Shivs. You heard it here first.)

Darth Vato recently appeared on 89.3/KNON-FM’s Thursday night reggae show — an event that caused one observer to remark, “Those [KNON] guys are real Rastafarians. They’re going to eat these little TCU boys alive!” Such fears proved unfounded, however. The Vatos wound up staying on the air for the whole show. “We had a blast,” said Steward. “[KNON reggae host] Tunde has the best stories, about sharing smoke with Peter Tosh, or sharing orange juice and philosophy with Bob Marley.”

Now the Vatos are set to play a “reggae night” at Deep Ellum’s Club Dada on Aug. 28, on a bill with Dallas dub fanatics Random Select and Fort Worth roots-meisters Pablo and the Hemphill 7. They’ll return to Dallas to play 97.1/KEGL-FM’s Local Show at the Curtain Club on Sept. 14. “We’ve gotten a really good response in Dallas,” said Steward. “In some ways, better than what we’ve gotten in Fort Worth.”

Ultimately, said Steward, the Vatos’ dream is “to make enough money to live decently and still keep drinking Keystone Light.”

Dodson disagreed. “We want to get a cease-and-desist order for the name from [Star Wars creator] George Lucas. And then have it come before a judge who hated The Phantom Menace so much that he rules in our favor, just to fuck with Lucas.”

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