Ask the members of Last Call Brawlers what kind of music they play, and they've got a simple, concise answer: "rock 'n' roll." And while that may be true, it's also a bit simplistic.
In its earliest days, Last Call Brawlers was a straight-up rockabilly band. The Tucson group played its first show 10 years ago this month with a lineup that included guitarist Justin Valdez, who also then sang, and bassist Eric Eulberg, who then played lead guitar. After recording a demo, Valdez realized he didn't like the band's sound.
"It just didn't work out," recalls Valdez. "It sounded like crap."
About six months in, they hired singer Marty Moreno, who they didn't know very well; he had previous experience singing in a punk band. As Moreno puts it, "I fit the description at the time: 'That guy greases his hair and wears cuffed-up jeans, so we'll ask him to join the band.'" Eulberg switched to standup bass, and most of the pieces of the current lineup were in place. Drummer Joel Dunst is the newest member, having joined in 2006.
In 2001, the Brawlers released their debut album, Huffin and Puffin, on their own label, Los Muertos Records, named after the loyal group of friends and fans who support the band. The album showcased the band's early trad-rockabilly period—"rockabilly tunes about rockabilly stuff" according to Valdez, though Moreno points out that, even then, the group threw some psychobilly into the mix. Soon after its release, the group hit the road for its first regional tour.
The group played a show in Texas with Austin's Flametrick Subs, which Valdez says was a turning point in the Brawlers' evolution. "When we saw the Flametricks, we were like, 'Oh, you can do something different. You can make your own sound.'"
You can hear that revelation played out on the Brawlers' self-titled 2003 album, on which the band adds a bit more brawn to the mix in the form of surf, punk and blues influences—even as the pop-hook count increased. The album was recorded at Wavelab Studio and released by the Ohio-based Rock N Roll Purgatory label, which has also released full-lengths by local acts Al Foul, Tom Walbank and Swing Ding Amigos.
But the band's sonic evolution to that point was chump change compared to that leading up to 2008's Pointing Fingers. While the Brawlers had always played fast, even when they were playing traditional rockabilly, not only did the pace of the songs increase a bit on Pointing Fingers; their sound had become even more muscular. Last Call Brawlers had essentially morphed into a classic rootsy punk band, not unlike, say, Social Distortion. As if to reinforce the idea, they even covered "Police Truck" by Dead Kennedys, a band not exactly known for its roots influences.
"We've always fit in better with punk bands," says Moreno. "When we played with punk bands, kids seemed to dig us a lot more than the rockabilly scene ever did. And that's kind of still the case."
Their fans noticed, too. After winning three Tucson Area Music Awards in the Roots Rock/Rockabilly category, they won their first Punk TAMMIES honor in 2008—though in this year's awards, they again won in the Roots Rock/Rockabilly slot.
Perhaps that has something to do with the impending vinyl release of Last Call Brawlers ... With Rice and Beans on the Side (it's currently available at iTunes and other online outlets), a one-off detour EP of Tex-Mex-flavored songs that features guest Gary Mackender (Carnivaleros) on accordion and demonstrates just how versatile the group has become.
When Moreno asks drummer Dunst to describe the band's current sound, he pauses. "It's hard to describe—it's just kind of rock. We've got a punk-rock song, then we'll do something more traditional, then we'll do something completely different. We all come from different backgrounds ... and we bring that to the table. And somehow, we make it work."
To celebrate a decade of "making it work," Last Call Brawlers will perform an anniversary show at The Hut. "We're having this big party (on) Saturday, and it's a milestone for the band. But it's also, I feel, kind of a milestone for the Tucson music scene, because bands come and go. There are a lot of bands that live here that get world recognition, so it's not to say that we're the only band. But it's just cool to take the next step and feel more established—and be looked at as more established as well."
Next month, the group will begin work on its fourth studio album.