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The Golden Boys: best band in Austin?

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

It's a strange sensation to throw on a local band's new album and realize that you have been listening to that band for something like seven years.

It is even weirder when that locals band's new album is not only its fifth full-length in those seven years, but its best.

That is where we are with the Golden Boys, whose new album, "Dirty Fingernails" (12XU), hits stores this week.

I have probably seen Golden Boys (and guitarist John Wesley Coleman III as a solo act) about three dozen times since 2005.

They have been great, inspiringly so (as when they recently played a benefit for the family of one of their biggest fans, Esme Barrera, who died in January), and they have been terrible. Most of the terrible shows probably had more to do with them being messed up than anything specifically musical.

I have spent time thinking they were one of the best bands in Austin. I am now thinking they might be the best — period.

I first saw them in early July 2005 in the old Ritz Upstairs. (The Ritz hasn't been a music venue for so long that I heard the following from a colleague: "They used to have music at the Ritz? How did that work?") The show was hilarious and amazing.

The only member I knew was James Arthur, who played in garage rock outfits such as Fireworks and Necessary Evils, and was playing drums here. His head was shaved, he was out of shape, and he was in his drawers and socks, bashing away as singer-guitarist Matthew Hoopengardner and Coleman traded licks that were part country-ish chops, part Pavement fall-apart squeal, part Lee Hazelwood weirdness and part amp feedback.

It was a messy, thrilling set that ended only when Coleman abused a mike stand and had his microphone removed in the middle of the closing number.

"I remember that set," says bassist Bryan Schmitz. It is now 2012, and we are seated around a table at Beerland. Schmitz wasn't playing with them that night, but he was part of the Golden Boys' circle and had played with Arthur in A Feast of Snakes. "I remember at one point James got kicked out, then by the end of the night he and the guy who kicked him out were drinking together."

This is sort of par for the course with the Golden Boys. Members come and go, sometimes playing on every album, sometimes not. As one member put it, "there were some tours I had to miss thanks to the police."

The band started about eight years ago (even this is a little fuzzy) when Hoopengardner, now 33, was working at Arthur's Moon Shine Lamp and Shade in Spring Branch.

"When I lived with James and his wife," Schmitz, 39, said, "I used to play a recording of this Wes Coleman song called ‘Out in the Country' on the porch with my morning coffee. James liked it and was interested in hooking up with him."

"James said this crazy guy from Denton named Wes is going to come out and work for a couple of weeks," Hoopengardner said.

Coleman, 36, jammed with some combination of Arthur, Schmitz and Hoopengardner and played some shows, sometimes with Nathan "Ney Ney" Arbeitman, 34, on keyboards.

After releasing some singles and an album, "Scorpion Stomp #2" (Hook and Crook) in 2005, Hoopengardner decamped for Austin, and Arthur quit (these days, he fronts the excellent psychedelic rock act James Arthur's Manhunt, which recently played a great set at South By Southwest).

They settled on drummer Pat Travis, 34, a few years back. "The whole idea was that it was a rotating membership," Schmitz said, "not unlike Tim Kerr's Total Action Sound Group outfit."

The band did a ton of traveling and playing in the beginning.

"That was a two-year span that probably took five years off my life," Coleman said. "Driving to Spring Branch would take forever, but once you were there, there were all these badass guitars and booze and you could play as loud as you wanted."

An air of good-natured chaos has always followed the band around. One post-Arthur drummer quit in the middle of a tour in 2008. "Me and the drummer's best friend looked for him all over a snowy Brooklyn," Schmitz said. "He took a train back to Manhattan, and when we called him, he was like, ‘If you don't pick me up, I quit.' I think I hung up the phone." Schmitz pauses. "But he's a good guy."

Again, this is a running theme: Sometimes people get kicked out, but it's just as easy to make up. "Everybody has been (messed) up at one time or another; we just take turns," Coleman said.

The new album, "Dirty Fingernails," almost didn't happen — Hoopengardner was ready to kick himself out.

"About eight months ago, we were at Wes' house having a cookout, and just sitting there I was down on the band," Hoopengardner said. "We had just had a really bad show, and I was like, ‘I don't wanna do this anymore.' Wes said, ‘Lemme just text Gerard and see if he'll put a record out.' Two minutes and a barrage of texts later, the deal was done."

Gerard is Gerard Cosloy, who co-owns the prominent indie label Matador Records and puts out records himself under the 12XU banner.

Cosloy had previously released the Golden Boys song "Older Than You" on the first "Casual Victim Pile" compilation.

This time, the band tried to capture its live sound, not modify it or dilute it, which meant coming into the studio fully prepared and rehearsed. The album's raw, gritty sound is due a lot to Mike Vasquez, who has worked with the band a number of times. Which means that songs like "California" and "Older Than You" weave and bulldoze as if the band was right in front of your nose.

"On the other albums, it was like, ‘There are no rules,' " Schmitz said, which made for sprawling records half-written in the studio.

"This time it was, ‘Let's have these songs finished before we record it,' " Hoopengardner said.

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926