Street Arabs can seem like a deceptively simple band at first glance. If they are onstage and you just watch them long enough to buy a drink and go back out to the patio, their music could strike you as loud and raw, played by five scruffy looking guys who are having a blast. But you should watch the whole set, standing right in front of the stage; hell, move around a little. Beneath that scruffy exterior is a smart, unique band with a sophisticated sound.
Street Arabs' bassist Chris Mancini aptly describes their music as "Short-duration controlled chaos that you can sing along to." In fact, that describes the opening track, "By My Side," of their debut album. The song is maniacal, but carefully contained in a well thought out song structure, tightly woven into two and a half minutes like a lunatic with no straitjacket in a carefully designed padded cell. And it's a perfect introduction to their music.
It all started in December 2011 when guitarist Matt Powers had a place to practice and wanted to put a band together. Powers had been in other bands such as Saddle Tramp, Tokyo Tapeworm and Bipolar Express with keyboardist Scott Booth. Guitarist Aaron Barker was in a self-titled one-man band for four years, which is telling for a lovable loose cannon with a big personality. Tokyo Tapeworm played several shows with Barker and he always thought they would work well together. Drummer Dan Guerra had never played drums for a band but had previously been a part of TV City along with Powers.
Mancini, who also plays with the 1969s, joined Street Arabs a year after the band formed. This improved the band tremendously because they did not have a bass player at the time. "Let's just say that we were a lot more raw before we had a bass player," says Guerra, and the band fills their studio with laughter. "Now there's groove."
The studio the band is gathered in is Aqua Lab Sound, which Powers runs and co-owns in Deep Ellum. Fellow Dallas band Party Static use it for rehearsal and Funeral Shoes have recorded there recently. The studio is tight quarters for five guys. The band is surrounded by instruments and microphone stands, a schedule of live shows is scribbled onto a board with a marker, and one wall is completely covered by cords.
"It's just hard to get people in a room together," Powers says. "The Ramones were a miracle because they stayed together in the room for so long." He's laid back, literally reclining, and he can't talk without smiling. Guerra stands behind everyone in the center, arms folded across his chest, wearing sunglasses at night and a ball cap. Barker never misses a beat, always keeping you wondering what he'll say next, while Mancini sits on the floor and Booth is off to the side, leaning against the wall.
For a few months, the band started taking shape in the practice space. When they decided to play shows they realized they needed a name. In the vagrant street life of early 1900s New York City, homeless kids were sometimes referred to as "Street Arabs" by the upper classes. "We were all skateboard kids," Barker says. "On the weekends, when our parents were home they wanted us out of the house." Like those homeless children spilling out of orphanages, most of the band, as kids, spilled out of their front doors into the streets, spending a great deal of time riding bikes and skateboarding.
They may be older now, and even family men to boot, but the band is still imbued with that youthful spirit. Yet the music is hard to describe and Street Arabs are not eager to be pigeonholed. "The only thing punk about us is that we are loud and have short attention spans," Barker says. It's not a specific indie rock sound either. The music is raw, loud and meandering, but textural and held together by a pop sensibility. After giving it some thought, Barker says, "We're a Texas garage punk band with honky-tonk and psychedelic influences."
Street Arabs know how to put songs together. Mancini and Guerra establish a simple driving beat. Barker and Powers complement each other well with weaving guitars. Booth's keys are the icing on top, adding layers with noises and ambiance. He often uses organ sounds that are distinctive and striking at first, but fit naturally into the music. Booth's organ noises put a stamp on the band's sound, on full display with "Maltese Falcon," a psychedelic garage rock song you would expect to hear in between innings at a baseball game.
With four vocalists, anything goes. They may be holding long notes, barking complaints on "Cut Me Some Slack," screaming, laughing, or in the case of the song "Hip Shake," singing backup vocals that seem to mock the Beach Boys.
Earlier this year, Street Arabs pulled all these pieces together on their impressive debut album, Bruised Fruit. It was recorded by Mark Ryan and Jeff Burke, who have worked with Bad Sports, Mind Spiders and the Marked Men. Street Arabs give them credit for playing a huge part in shaping their sound and plan to work with them indefinitely. The band played many shows in 2014, but say they're especially fond of the shows they've played at Three Links, which is so close to their studio they can move their equipment on foot.
Now they're preparing to drop a new 7-inch EP, Ill Form, through Classic Waxxx Records, the release of which they will be celebrating at Good Records on Black Friday. The first 50 copies will include a great poster from Napkin Art. "We put out two records this year," Barker says. "I want record geeks to have our records in their hands in a hundred years."
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In 2015, the band plans to record a second album and play shows out of town, aiming to become better known regionally. But as they look ahead, Street Arabs are at once serious and realistic. "We have kids, we have jobs, we have shit to do. But we make time for this band and will continue to," Barker says. "We are not trying to be the bar guys who play at the bar every Friday night."
Ill Form 7-inch release party With the Aquaholics, 8 p.m. Friday, November 28, at Good Records, 1808 Greenville Ave., goodrecords.com
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