By Andrew Dansby
Despite the chaos implied by the band’s handle, the Derailers rarely teeter on the brink of any such crashing chaos. That said, theirs is an exciting means of musical transportation: Informed by yesteryear, yet forever chugging forward. It can be easy to fall into lazy complacency when you do what the Derailers do, a rock solid brand of old-style honky-tonk. But such isn’t the case with the Oregon-raised, Austin-seasoned four-piece. Over the span of four long-players, the Derailers have regularly tinkered with the formula, pushing the parameters of country music with injections of rockabilly, British invasion and pop that fill out their sound with a melodic sensibility that is as infectious as it is danceable.
The band’s new album, its fifth, is boldly tagged Genuine. The easiest interpretation of the title is external, comparing the band’s classic hard country sound to the digitized pop that passes for country of late. It’s a valid, if easy reading. But an internal take, one that focuses on the album’s 12 songs, serves it better. The band’s co-frontmen, Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt, have done nothing over the course of their career if not craft a sound and look and scene that remains forever true to themselves and their loyal legion. Genuine — pronounced, naturally, “gin-u-whine” — finds the group playing some of their usual cards: a tip to Buck Owens and Bakersfield (“The Happy Go Lucky Guitar”), fringe Nashville (two Jim Lauderdale songs) and Austin (the Tex-Mex flavor on “Leave a Message Juanita”). It’s a trinity of locales that, fused with a hearty Beatles jones, form the engine, cabins and caboose of a sound that feels vintage, but with the life of a chugging heartbeat.
So can you tell us a little about the new one. “Genuine” is one of those efficient titles that kind of says a lot …
Tony: There’s a radio station in Austin, it’s been there a long time, and that’s been their slogan, “the genuine Austin station.” I just kept hearing it a long time and I just thought it’d be a good title for a song. And when we were putting the songs together for the album, our manager hadn’t even heard the song, he’d just heard the song title from us, and he said, “Well that sounds like a great album title.” Everybody seems to agree. It’s just something that everybody can relate to as far as we go. The more I think about it, the more it says.
Brian: It broke our tradition, though. All of our records had been named consecutively — from the first on — with the same number of words in the title that the number record it was for us. First Jackpot, then Reverb Deluxe, then Full Western Dress and then Here Comes the Derailers. So we broke the tradition and I think that was a good word to break the tradition with.
With that pattern, you could get yourself into trouble if you made as many records as, say, George Jones.
Brian: That’s what we figured. [Laughs] It could end up like a Hoagy Carmichael title. He holds the Guinness book of records for longest song title.
Which one is that?
Brian: “I’m a Cranky Old Yank in a Clanky Old Tank …,” I can’t remember it verbatim. But it’s pretty extensive. You know, after you write “Blue Skies,” what else you gotta do? That song just makes you happy.
One thing you can always look forward too on your records are big melodies that you can hang your hat on. A lot of modern country is missing the hooks.
Tony: I like that. Well, that’s the kind of music we like. I think we found a lot of fans that appreciate that. Especially the older fans. Whether it’s our song or somebody else’s. I know in particular we’ve got a lot of mentioning from older country artists about how tuneful “All the Rage in Paris” is. That’s got a good melody. They said the same thing, that it’s lacking today. I think a lot of times it is. A lot of these things that have surfaced over the years over different albums are things we discovered about each other off the bat. Musical likes and dislikes. We both have a bunch of stuff that we like. And every now and then it makes its way to the surface.
There’s always been a bit of British invasion in your music, but the title cut sounds as Beatle-ish as anything you’ve done.
Tony: I think the Beatles is about as far as I was really aware of for British invasion. But Brian is a massive 45 collector. He has lots of records and knows all kinds of British bands and American garage bands. He’s like an encyclopedia.
Brian: Everything I was into was through the Beatles. My parents had Beatles records around so I always listened to them as a kid. And I found out about Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Buck Owens that way. My introduction to a lot of American roots music was through the Beatles. Their craft of melodies and songs is definitely the ultimate standard to hold yourself up against. But Tony wrote that song. Tony’s a little bit country and I’m a little bit rock ’n’ roll, so I always get blamed for the Beatles sound. But that one’s in Tony’s court there.
The album has an upbeat feel to it. I know the last one was released on September 11 and like many other albums took a back seat to the events of that day. Was the mood here a reaction?
Brian: I think that’s a good observation for sure. It is reflective of the way we felt the year previous to making the record. Getting those songs together, whether it was overt or not, it’s certainly what we were feeling and I’m glad it came out that way.
Tony: It was definitely on our mind going into the studio and remembering that was when the previous record was released. I think we did want to have a lot of positive tone to the record. But I also think in general, that’s how we are.
To that end, “I Love Me Some Elvis” is good fun.
Brian: We just laughed when we heard that. It made us feel good. And we thought, “Hell, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, it made us laugh, maybe it’ll make some other folks do the same.” Most everybody’s got a little Elvis in them. We just try to help people get in touch with their inner Elvis.
So how or why did you make the venture from Oregon to Austin?
Tony: I just took a trip to the desert in Arizona and had a vision. [Laughs] No … I grew up country and loving country music and Austin seemed like a natural place to go. It’s still Western and a unique different kind of music down there. The more I think about it, it’s hard to know how it happened, but it did. And it worked out really good. Austin’s the only place where this band could’ve formed and built a base and a following.
And how did two country enthusiasts and players find themselves up that way?
Tony: It’s one of those things … a mutual friend of ours told us that there was a guy looking for a couple of guys to play in a band with, so we just met that way. Playing and then we established a friendship. I guess that’s one way of saying it. And another is that I was down and out. I’d just moved to Portland, and he was kind enough to let me stay on his couch. [Laughs] It’s not something to brag about, but it’s just a fact of life. We’ve had a few hungry days.
Brian: It happened pretty much immediately. When I heard Tony sing I was impressed and I loved his songs. I knew right away I wanted to play with him. We had some joyous times together in the early days. Then we’d run around to our gigs. We rented a PA one time with the last dough we had to our names, and for a month we rented it and took it around to all these beer joints in Texas and stopped in and said, “Hey can we play for tips and beer.” We’d sing songs all the way there and back and at the gigs. We just grew tight.
With over 250 gigs in a year, do you ever get road weary?
Tony: Oh yeah. I tell you, it’s not all glamorous, no matter what they tell you! [Laughs] It’s fun though. Doing what we do, we get a tremendous boost and a tremendous amount of support. Our fans are just so passionate. Sometimes we’d hit cities in the country five times a year. Way back, we just established real loyal fans and they’ve become friends. I feel like we’re all in it together. It seems like a get-together. We do our part and the room gets filled, because it definitely can’t happen without them.
Brian: In Texas, we can get a whole lot done right around here. But until we’re on mainstream radio, we have to get out and about and get to our fans, because they’re looking for us to come through town. Hopefully absence makes the heart grow fonder.
And one thing I notice about your fans is that they’re not afraid to dance. That had been a dying trend between ’70s countrypolitan and the pop country of the ’80s and ’90s.
Brian: Especially with a partner. I think it’s great to see. For us, there’s little that’s a higher form of compliment than people out there dancing to the music and staying out there for the next song. That’s our job to help people have a good time. That’s a job well done if that happens.
So is there a story behind your cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret?” Who’s the closet fan?
Tony: [Laughs]. You know, that would be neither of us. A friend of ours in Austin was doing a benefit concert and having all different kinds of artists doing Prince songs. And he recommended that one to us and we thought sure, and put it together backstage. I wrote the words down somewhere and we were like, “How are we gonna do it?” It was just down to the wire and we had to do something, so that was it. And people just kept talking about it until the folks at Sire said they wanted to hear it on a record. It’s a good song with a good story. It sounds like a country story to me, “working part time at a five-and-dime …”
You guys have such a great collection of Western duds. Do you find that you spend more than your average country band on a clothing budget?
Tony: Nah, we just get our stuff off the sale rack at the western shops, we get the stuff nobody else wants. We always get the comments about the clothes, and that is, speaking of money, one of the things that has worked out in our favor, because these are considered costumes. Because you wouldn’t consider it everyday wear, we get to write it off. [Laughs] So how dumb are we now?
I asked Johnny Bush the weirdest thing he’d ever seen at a gig in a honky-tonk. He told me two guys got in a fight and one decapitated the other with a cleaver. Ever see anything particularly odd at a gig?
Brian: Oh my gawd. That one’s a tough one to beat.
Tony: Boy, no. I don’t have anything that big. That’s a trump card. That’s the old school.