Beyond the Belt Buckle

El Flaco

photograph by Joey Lin

For three admitted ZZ Top fanatics like the guys in El Flaco, inking a deal with Lone Wolf Management -- the music-biz empire built around that Li'l Ol' Band From Texas -- was better than guitar lessons from Eddie Van Halen. Now, bassist/singer Rob Gray watches a real-time El Flaco Internet chat in a room brimming with ZZ memorabilia: jackets, posters, tour schedules, sunglasses, refrigerator magnets, and a really spiffy-looking belt buckle with the band's name etched deep in the heart of Texas. Though he's been going to Lone Wolf's glass-and-steel headquarters out on Bee Caves Road since just after SXSW '96, when El Flaco came aboard, his eyes are still big as he travels the halls, giving an impressed reporter a guided tour of the House that ZZ Built. For Rob Gray, this is incredibly cool.

But Gray doesn't go to the office as a ZZ Top fan. He goes as a member of El Flaco, the trio he, Chris Hay, and Brad Turner formed from the remains of Bouffant Jellyfish in the early Nineties. Whatever El Flaco has absorbed from ZZ Top comes naturally, because the band's potent live shows are usually stark, brutal, and sweaty -- updating bloozy Texas boogie (sound familiar?) with a stiff dose of metal, noise, and bottom. They've been one of Austin's best bands for years; and now thanks to the same men who made millionaires of their idols, they're ready to take on the world outside the belt buckle.

"Things have just kind of moved to the next level," says Gray, his surroundings proving his point; with an enormous hardwood table and oversized leather chairs, this conference room would make Houston's top oil fatcats jealous. It's the same room where he and his bandmates signed their deal with Lone Wolf. Not that he's been around much to enjoy such luxurious surroundings. El Flaco has spent the past year where bands either put up or shut up -- on the road -- doing what they always did: showing up at the club, plugging in their instruments, and pounding away. And, in this venture, Lone Wolf has helped plenty.

"They do a lot of the day-to-day things that the band really needs," explains Gray. "Besides the fact that they're really highly connected, they've been doing it for so long that they know the business. So they've been able to help us with things you can't do when you're on the road: phone calls, getting connections to get to better shows, and opening up for bigger bands -- help with everything from equipment problems to business-type questions. Now we can concentrate on the music and playing."

That's all El Flaco wants. That's all they need. They're postponing other plans, like Gray's eventual Ph.D. in psychology ("Those other things will always be there."), and taking the rock & roll plunge. That decision is what allows them to tour nonstop, playing 17 shows a month and still blowing up the places like Emo's, which they packed on New Year's Eve when Man... or Astroman? cancelled.

"We're trying to take it out," says Gray. "We've been working really hard this whole year trying to do that, take it to as many places as we can." If anything, Gray says, Austin is too fun a town, and it's good the band stays gone so much because they get more done that way: "What happens is you'll stay here forever. We want to bring it to the next level and see if people like us in other markets, too." Their relentless touring has already paid off in Houston, where they've been popular for years, and now it's starting to pay off in places like Arkansas, Florida, Dallas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where El Flaco has already been tapped to open for George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars and Southern Culture on the Skids.

"It's hard," he says. "Sometimes you're not playing to a bunch of people because it's totally new and nobody's heard of us, but it's starting to roll. It's starting to pay off. People are hearing about us and they're digging it. We're finding that other markets can dig it, too. You never know, because Austin people have really good taste in music."

The band's hectic tour schedule still allows the band time to create and come up with new ideas, though Gray admits sometimes it's a bit of a stretch. "When you get home, you kind of want to just lay back and relax, but you've gotta get in there and just write some more songs," he says. "We've got a lot of ideas on the burner, but we've just gotta complete 'em. There's a lot of new songs ready to emerge as soon as we can get in the studio and finalize 'em. It's really a matter of budgeting our time, because shows are extremely important, and practice time and songwriting is really important too. You've just gotta find the balance."

El Flaco know they haven't found the perfect balance just yet, but they've already shown more of it than most people's checkbooks. They've balanced aggression and playfulness in their songs and live shows, balanced their reverence for ZZ Top with a desire to see if it could be done faster, louder, and with more kick, and balanced the fun of being in a band with the smarts it takes to make a living at it. Rob Gray and the rest of El Flaco have a lot to be happy about, but the thing he seems to relish most is the fact that the band's primal rock impulse is finally reaching people.

"There seems to be a lot of people who connect with that," he says. "That's what we do. All our influences come together, and come out as basic rocking out. People pick up on that vibe I think, and it comes across. Rock, man. Rock is what it's about."

El Flaco's SXSW showcase is on Thursday, March 13, 10pm, at Katie Bloom's

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