Every time the jukebox at the Triple Crown bar in San Marcos, Texas, blasts “If I Was Your Woman,” local drinkers play a game in which the last person to point an index finger in the air has to buy everyone else a round of shots. On the surface, there’s nothing strange about a drinking game in Texas to a Gladys Knight and the Pips song—except that this particular version isn’t sung by Gladys; it’s a cover done by Missoula’s International Playboys, and the pointing gesture emulates what Playboys’ guitarist Jake Morton (aka Cap’n Sextastic) does onstage just before his solo.
It may be hard to believe a bar in Texas is paying homage to a Missoula band, and frontman Colin Hickey (aka Monty Carlo), drummer Joe Brennan (aka Joe Danger) and bassist Chris Knudson (aka The Count) didn’t believe it themselves when they first heard about it. But that was before they played Texas’ infamous South by Southwest festival this summer and found themselves playing a follow-up show at the Triple Crown, half an hour outside of Austin, surrounded by knowledgeable local fans taking part in the drinking game.
“We played the song and the entire place exploded,” says Knudson. “Everyone’s hand is up in the air and shots are going all around. You kind of feel like you’re in an alternate reality.”
The Playboys have had an strange ride from Zoo City garage rockers to southwestern semi-celebrities. It was six years ago that Morton—who originally called the group the Superheroes of Soul Music—penned the line, “I’m sick of a being an International Playboy in the year 2000,” and the name stuck. Since then, they’ve toured 10 times; won 2006 local band of the year honors from PBR; made a rock ’n’ roll B-level horror movie called Ghouls Gone Wild, which sold out twice at the Crystal Theatre and has slowly amassed a cult following through sales at Fangoria conventions; and recorded three albums, including the newly pressed Cobra Blood Hangover, which will be released at a show Saturday, Sept. 9. With the completion of the new album on Australian Cattle God Records, the Playboys are setting their sights on larger arenas; Hickey just learned that, in addition to a national tour, the band will play the CMJ Music Mania festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Halloween night.
“This is the first record where we all walked away from it doing everything that we wanted to do in the studio,” says Knudson, who jokes that the band smeared chicken blood on the studio walls while taking acid to help inspire the sessions. “I think it really shows in the recording.”
In true International Playboys style, Cobra Blood Hangover has all the greasy guitar riffs and whiskey-drenched vocals that characterized both their first album (the aptly titled First Album) and their second, Sexiful. Frequently inspired by odd events, the Playboys wrote the title song of the new album after Morton’s brother visited Thailand.
“He and his friend went to some underground club where they cut the head off a live cobra and they drain the blood into a shot glass and cut it with whiskey,” Knudson explains. “They feed it to you and you freak out and hallucinate and then vomit horrendously the next day.”
Hickey adds: “He woke up the next day and his direct quote was ‘a cobra blood hangover is the worst hangover ever,’ and we were like, that’s a song title!”
Though not as gruesome, other songs—including “The Cougar v. The Silver Fox” and “The Life and Times of Monty Carlo”—embody epic tones and a cheeky sexiness in line with the band members’ alter egos. On this record, Knudson and Hickey say, the band spent more time than usual rewriting lyrics and rerecording tracks, fueling themselves with the alcoholic caffeine concoction Sparks for hours in a Bellingham, Wash., recording studio. As a result, for once, listeners can actually understand Hickey’s raspy vocals, which band members say sometimes elude even them.
“I’ve kind of grown up as a lead singer,” Hickey admits. “I’m more comfortable with the songs, I spend more time writing out lyrics. You know, we’re older now…hence all the serious songs, you know, like the one about drinking cobra’s blood.”
Despite their growing popularity, the Playboys remain grounded about the upcoming tour. Like every other touring band from Missoula, they expect to see their fair share of sparsely attended shows, but the hope is that a series of opening slots for revered prog-punk band NoMeansNo—including stops in Minneapolis, Madison, Wis., and Chicago— will enhance the typical road experience.
“If you like NoMeansNo, you’re a lifer,” Hickey says. “They’re just one of those bands. New kids love ’em and old dudes like ’em so you figure you’re gonna get the best of both worlds. We’re kind of freaking out about [the opportunity].”
With such a high-profile tour and chances to play more festivals, the International Playboys are not only seeing more opportunities, but better ones, with better payoff. That’s particularly important considering that Hickey still remembers a show in San Diego where a club manager hinted the band wouldn’t be paid at all. In such circumstances, Hickey says, he replaces his Monty Carlo persona with that of no-nonsense businessman “Jack DeSonne” and, in the San Diego case, after a few shots of whiskey in a back room where a Russ Meyer film rolled in the background, convinced the manager to surrender the cash.
“You say you do it just ’cause you love it, and God knows I do,” Hickey says, “but if I could just do it and make money and not work in a kitchen...”
Hickey trails off at the reality of being a musician in Missoula because, even if their fan base extends to San Marcos, the band insists that staying in Montana is a good thing.
“People in Texas love us and so it’s like, too bad we don’t live in Texas, right? But look at this,” Hickey says, pointing to the back of their new CD. “It says Missoula, Montana, and that’s our state flower right there [pointing to a logo in the corner of the packaging]. People see that and they’re like, wow, this band is different. I think being from Montana is fucking awesome.”
The International Playboys play a CD-release show for Cobra Blood Hangover Saturday, Sept. 9, at The Raven Cafe. Victory Smokes and the hermans open. 9 PM. Cover TBA.