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Specialist in All Styles: The Handsomes step onto the stage and see where it takes them.

The Handsomes pic #1
At this past year's Houston Press Awards show, a friend and I happened to wander into a downtown club where a local band called The Handsomes were getting ready to start their set. I'd heard of the band before, but never heard 'em, and nobody else either one of us really wanted to see was playing right then, so we slipped in and squeezed through the pack of bleached-blondes and slick-haired guys trying hard not to look middle-aged and caught a spot by the bar. My friend and I both eyed the crowd and gave one another rueful "oh, boy..." looks, figuring that we'd enjoy the air-conditioning, catch a couple of minutes' worth of warmed-over alternarock, and then bail.
Then the band started playing, and the crowd went crazy. And after the first three or four songs, my mouth was wide open in stunned amazement. How had I never seen these guys before? Easily one of the most original rock bands in town, The Handsomes mash up ska, reggae, funk, pop, rock, and even a teeny-tiny bit of a salsa/flamenco groove and serve it up flawlessly, performing like a band of seasoned veterans. Which, it turns out, they are, with three of the four guys in the band doing time in fondly-remembered H-town ska/reggae acts The Mod Squad, Half Loaded, Sound Patrol, and Los Skarnales.
Not content to stick simply with their ska roots, though, The Handsomes manage to superglue all the disparate styles listed off above into one catchy, funky, even, um, sexy whole. It's truly something to see and hear. Still reeling from the Press Awards performance, I got my hands on a few MP3s off the band's Website and couldn't keep from hitting the "back" button on the ol' iPod every time one of the tracks rolled around. So, after finally hearing the band's newly released full-length disc, I called up guitarist/songwriter/lawyer-to-be David Nachtigall to talk to him about the band, the music, and everything else.

David: I've got a pug puppy biting my shoe. Let me, uh, secure her really quick.
SCR: Aww... Is this a new puppy, I guess?
Yeah. I've had her for about three months now. She's a great dog, but she's a lot of work. Lots of energy.
I hear they're pretty high-energy, yeah.
Yeah, totally. I mean, I knew what I was getting myself into, but y'know, she never fails to impress. [laughs]
It's better that than 'em laying around or something.
Y'know, I'd like to get her to a dog park and let her run around, wear her out a little bit, but it's kind of crummy up here today.
Yeah, it's pouring down here at the moment, so...
Is it really?
What part of town do you live in?
Actually, I'm in Austin right now.
Oh, okay.
I live, uh...I'm in my third year of law school up here. I'm up here for one more semester.
Okay...so, do you come down to Houston fairly often, I guess, to play?
Yeah, every time we play. That's where I'm from, so... It's usually a couple times a month.
That's not too bad.
Nah. We try to mix it up, play at least once a month down there and at least once a month up here.
-- The Handsomes record cover
(Music courtesy of The Handsomes.)

Have you guys had a lot of success up in Austin?
Austin's a tougher town than Houston is. We...it's just been hard for us to build a fanbase because we can't play with the frequency that we'd like to up here. We have two members that live in Houston, and Austin... I feel like it's the type of place that, y'know, you've just gotta play a lot, 'cause there's a lot more competition up here.
The Handsomes pic #2
Everybody's vying for attention at the same time.
Totally, totally. But for what we've put into it, we have done well up here. Y'know, we don't have any problem getting shows.
Who's the other member who lives up there, then?
Our bass player lives up here.
Oh, okay -- Ben [Stark]. I think I talked to him on e-mail first, so...
Yeah, I think you and Ben've talked on the Internet.
I was wondering how you guys got together, especially considering that half the band's in Austin and half's down here.
Sure. What happened was, uh, I was just working a job in Dallas after I graduated from college, and I moved back down to Houston for about five months before I went to law school. And Jordon Blackwell -- the singer -- and I, we've been in bands off and on since we were twelve years old. We got our start at the Lanier talent show in seventh grade.
So...we'd played in a band called The Mod Squad in high school, and then in a band called Half Loaded after that, and it had been a while since we had done anything outside of a home recording context. We had another drummer when we started out, who is a friend of Jordon's from college, and Ben -- we were just looking for a bass player, and we picked him up by referral. And, uh, we started playing shows a couple months after we first got together, and it just took off from there.
None of us really went into it with the expectation of having the kind of local success that we've had.
This wasn't like a "oh, yeah, we're gonna be rockstars!" kind of thing.
No. I mean, y'know, everybody who's ever picked up a guitar wants to be a rockstar. [laughs]
Anyway, that's how it started. Andy, the former drummer, left the band, and Patrick [Kelly], who was the drummer in Half Loaded, happened to be free at the time, so we picked him up. And that's really been great for us, because he's an excellent drummer -- a real professional. He does a lot of stuff for Theater Under The Stars, he plays at the Wortham and stuff like that.
Really? Wow -- real drummer gigs...
Yeah, he's a teacher over at HSPVA [Houston School for the Performing and Visual Arts] right now. So he's the real deal.
When I saw you guys play the first time, I remember looking at the stage and thinking, "oh, whoa -- these guys are pretty good...wait a minute. A couple of those guys look really familiar. The guitarist and the lead singer; I know I've seen them before. Oh, and the drummer -- yeah, I've seen him before..." I saw you guys play, both with Half Loaded and The Mod Squad.
It's been great to play with them, because we've been able to recapture some of the dynamic, y'know, that we had when we were younger. It's just gelled really well, because we'd all played together for a while before.
You guys seem to mesh very well together.
We have a great time up on stage. I think one of the things that has worked out so well for us is that we really do recognize the importance of putting on a good show. We really work up on stage to engage the crowd and keep things interesting and, uh, I think that really is one of the reasons that we've gotten the attention and the fanbase that we have.
What's the reaction been like? I've seen some of the shows, but from your perspective, how've people been reacting to the music? Are the generally confused at first, or y'know...?
Overall, it's been great, and for me, it's just a little surprising, because we play... We've got a heavy ska influence in the band -- it's pop-rock-y, but there's a lot of ska in there. And ska, from what I've observed, has been music that...it comes in the mainstream for short periods. Y'know, you get a song every few years, but for the most part it's never really gotten a lot of mainstream attention.
But it seems to work for us. I think it's good to do something that's a little bit different, and y'know, it's upbeat and it's pretty high-energy stuff. So it works as a whole package.
Maybe it's because you guys aren't...there's a lot of ska influence, but you're not strictly a "ska band," per se. I don't think, at least.
Totally. We don't consider ourselves a "ska band," but it creeps into just about every song in some way.
The rhythm's in there, so... There's also a lot of reggae, I've noticed, too.
There's...it's a pretty good blend of ska, reggae, funk, and then a little alterno-rock in there, too.
I was trying to listen to you guys at one point and trying to figure out how to describe you to somebody, and the only band I could come up with that sounded close -- and hopefully this isn't gonna be an insult or anything, I definitely don't mean it to be --
I'm not going to be insulted.
Okay, well, you guys reminded me at points of Maroon 5, that kind of pop-funk band.
And I think it's more just the attitude than the music, really.
Well, when we put the CD up for sale on CD Baby, they ask you to put three bands that you sound like. And I can't stand doing it. I just don't like doing the "comparison" thing, y'know. But it's good for searchability purposes, and the three that I put were 311, Sublime, and Maroon 5. That's about as close as you could get, in terms of what's been out there in the last five years or so.
Those all come close, yeah.
I think we've got a world of more variety to what we do.
I mean, you guys definitely have more of like a -- it's almost a flamenco on some of the songs. A couple of 'em are actually on the CD, there.
Sure; that's in "Te Quiero" -- I played a nylon-string guitar off the wall. Man, as far as what I've heard in my head, it's tough being a three-piece. Y'know, Jordon sings but he doesn't play an instrument. We're limited at shows, but it was nice to be able to have a little bit of fun on the CD.
I was thinking about that earlier today, actually. I was wondering how you guys did some of that stuff live. I've heard some of the songs live, but not all of them on the CD, so...
We have arrangements that we've been playing live for a long time that...you get 85, 90 percent of it. There's certain limitations, having the instruments that we do.
No plans to get an extra guitar player at any point or anything like that?
Well, we talked about it for a long time, and we even talked about Jordon playing guitar for a while, but y'know, I don't want him to be restricted on stage, and I think having a guitar in his hands would do that.
It kinda ties you to one place, unless you're Eddie Van Halen or something.
Yes. As far as picking somebody else up, as a practical matter, we're just not together in a rehearsal mode often enough to make it reasonable to do that. Y'know, when we get together we try to write. The time that we get together that we're not playing shows is pretty precious.
Yeah, that makes sense. Have you guys been writing a lot of new songs, then, lately?
I write constantly...
Yeah -- Ben told me you were the brains behind the band, or something like that.
Well, I don't know whether that's a fair statement or not. I do write a lot of music, and what's worked for us in the past is I've got some recording equipment at home and a lot of times I'll make little demos, and then we'll get together and just lay 'em out from there. That seems to be a good way to get the ball rolling when we don't have too much time to just, y'know, dick around to just come up with stuff.
If you can kind of build the framework of it, I guess, and work it up from there. I was wondering -- you guys have done some odd covers and things at shows I've seen. Like, the R. Kelly thing? Where did that come from? Are you guys just big fans?
No. I mean, I wouldn't even think about owning an R. Kelly CD, and it's not that I have any particular aversion to R. Kelly, it's just not the stuff I like listening to. But when we were thinking about covers, the way we got most of our "cover act" together is we were doing these weekly shows at The Lounge, in Houston, which is really sort of a dance club. And they wanted us to play longer sets than we had original material, so we had to fill the time with covers, and that sort of venue and, y'know, the environment there sort of influenced our cover choices. We thought of songs that people could dance to, and that they'd recognize, and that they're gonna like. I personally think the remix of "Ignition," I think it's got a great beat.
It's awesome to hear it. It took me a while to figure out that was what you guys were playing -- it was like, "wait a minute..."
It always goes over well.
The Handsomes pic #3
The show I saw, people seemed to really like it, so... There were several women getting up on stage, I think, at one point, something like that.
Y'know, it never hurts. [laughs]
Does that happen a lot?
Yeah, it does, actually. We usually invite 'em up -- we usually don't get too much reluctance.
That's a good thing. I was wondering, also... I know you guys started out sort of in the ska scene, but I was wondering kind of what music you thought influenced at least this band, if not the older stuff. What you guys listened to, kind of as a whole or separately?
I think we all have pretty different musical tastes. My musical taste is really varied -- I don't have a favorite band, I don't have a favorite style of music, I basically like good songs and good songwriting. Genre's less important to me.
Jordon has always been a big fan of ska and reggae, and that's the type of stuff he likes to sing, so that's one of the reasons we chose the genre we did. I think it's important to have a band that fits your lead vocalist's style.
And his dancehall toasting is impressive.
He'll be glad to get the compliment; I'll pass that on.
When I saw you guys do that, I was just thinking "holy crap -- is he doing that, or is there somebody else on stage that I'm not seeing?"
[laughs] Y'know Pat, our drummer -- he's been doing this for a long time -- played with Los Skarnales before he, uh, joined up again with us. And he played with a band out of Austin called The Stingers -- they were another ska band -- and he's now playing with another Houston ska band called The I-Gents.
Okay, yeah. They were the old Secret Agent 8 guys, right?
Yeah, a lot of the Secret Agent 8 guys and the old singer from The Suspects. So he's, that's basically his bread and butter.
Do you guys see a lot of the old compadres from the ska scene at shows and things?
I'd be willing to bet that Jordon and Pat have seen a lot more of 'em than I have. I mean, they're both much more involved in that type of music.
I've got the new CD, and I really like it. I was wondering, actually, though... I was kind of surprised when I got it that some of the "older" songs, I guess, like "Wake Up" and "Soul's Pretending," weren't on there. Are those out somewhere else that I haven't seen?
Yeah, they are. We recorded an EP back in 2003 with our old drummer, and it was a three-song thing -- it had "Wake Up," "Soul's Pretending," and a song called "The Perfect Cure" on it. We just gave it away at shows, never sold it at stores, and the only form it's available in is MP3s on the Website.
That's where I found those originally, so...
Right. And, um, we recorded a couple of other songs -- I guess it was in 2004 -- just for the heck of it, and again, those're just up on the Website for free.
No plans to re-release anything at any point?
Y'know, I'm a big believer in moving forward; that's one of the reasons we didn't re-record anything that we'd done before. I like to push things along and see how it's gonna evolve, evolve as much as possible, rather than going back and re-recording old stuff.
Yeah, that makes sense. Do you guys have plans to do more later on, or...?
Yeah, we'd love to. I'm going to be much more flexible after I get out of school, because it's been tough at times to balance being in law school with playing in the band.
I believe it. How much longer do you have, then?
Four months. It's a huge relief. That's been my attitude going into it this semester -- I just feel like a huge weight's been lifted off of me. So then I'll have to take the bar, but after that...
I guess is law the "main" career, and this is just kinda a "see-where-it-goes" kind of thing?
Yeah, it is "see-where-it-goes". Let me put it this way: if the opportunity ever came up to take it seriously, I think that would be great. I'm not opposed to that. Right now, while we're separated, and while we still have people in school, the best we can do is see where it goes. END