The Galactic Cowboys are Still Hoping to Take Flight
A Houston metal act that was supposed to be the next Guns n’ Roses—and got squashed by Nirvana instead—is hoping that a quarter of a century later it’ll finally get its big break.
This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue with the headline “Almost Famous.”
In early summer 1991, Geffen Records placed a series of advertisements in music-industry trade publications touting its newest signing, Houston’s Galactic Cowboys. The first ad was intentionally mysterious, depicting a meteor soaring through space. A week later, when the label placed a second ad suggesting the meteor was about to crash somewhere in the Southwest United States, Geffen general manager Marko Babineau began receiving a flurry of phone calls from radio programmers. “Our label had just broken Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake, and Tesla, so we were the rock gods,” he says. “They knew it was going to be something exciting.”
Week three’s ad, in which the meteor had cratered in Texas—there was a Longhorn roaming around in the background—was the first one to deploy the band’s logo. “Galactic Cowboys had landed,” says Babineau. “We sent the first single to radio when that last advertisement hit. We believed they were the band that was gonna school you in what rock and roll could be.”
Initially, things looked good: the band’s first video ran regularly on MTV’s Headbangers Ball and was championed by Z-Rock, the nationally syndicated hard-rock radio franchise. Babineau, who oversaw Geffen’s radio, marketing, and promotion departments, says that from the start the company was all-in on breaking Galactic Cowboys. One of the label’s founding partners, Gary Gersh, had signed the band himself on the strength of just four demos and a quick trip to Houston to watch them rehearse. Never mind that the band had played only six hometown shows and embarked on just one short tour—they were as heavy as Metallica and, with their lush, Beatles-esque vocal arrangements, maybe a few shades more commercially viable. Given Geffen’s track record, it seemed reasonable to believe that the label had the Next Big Thing on its hands.
“We’d visit the label offices, and everyone was so excited, from David Geffen himself to the guys in the mail room,” says Galactic Cowboys guitarist Dane Sonnier. “We believed that they believed in us because everything pointed that way.”
On one of those Los Angeles visits, just a few months before the band’s self-titled debut was to hit shelves, Sonnier and Gersh stepped out to shoot pool at the Beverly Hills Athletic Club. On the drive over, Gersh popped in a cassette from another young band he’d just signed. “We mixed this today,” he said. That’s when Sonnier heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time.
“Little did we know,” Sonnier says, “we were about to become a statistic.”
What followed is a story of a precipitously fast fall from near glory to almost complete anonymity. It’s the sort of story you hear about a lot in the music industry, though this one is particularly notable because it happened at a pivotal moment in rock history, when grunge displaced metal and upended the pop landscape.
But if Galactic Cowboys have anything to say about it, the story isn’t over. This month they’ll release their first album in nearly twenty years and their first in nearly a quarter century with the original lineup. Man-for-man, it’s the same group that had such high hopes in 1991. But in many ways they’re not the same men at all. They’ve spent decades haunted by all the could’ve/should’ve in their past. And since their legacy is shooting for the moon and missing, it’s no accident that their comeback album is titled Long Way Back to the Moon.
For a moment in the early nineties, before we knew to call every city with a halfway decent music scene the Next Seattle, there was hope that Houston would string together enough left-field hitmakers to emerge as a top-tier rock town. First out of the gate was King’s X, a trio that fused sludgy metal and elaborate harmonies into what they dubbed “heavy melody.” With a string of critically acclaimed albums, MTV play, and late-night talk show appearances, they were arguably Houston’s most recognizable rock export since ZZ Top. Before long, with a new Rolodex of industry contacts, King’s X manager-producer Sam Taylor landed Galactic Cowboys the deal with Geffen. “Getting signed was a big deal back then,” Sonnier says. “People were intrigued that Houston was churning out another major-label metal band.”
While the sound of both King’s X and Galactic Cowboys hinged on richly layered harmonies, there was another connection that found them being mentioned in the same breath: Christianity. Both bands shared a faith and a backstory. In 1985, before they formed King’s X, the members of the band moved from Springfield, Missouri, to Houston to back contemporary Christian singer Morgan Cryar. When they eventually left Cryar to focus on King’s X, they tapped a rhythm section from back home in Springfield to replace them in Cryar’s entourage—drummer Alan Doss and bassist Monty Colvin, who moved to Houston for the gig and started up their own progressive metal project, the Awful Truth. After a few tours with Cryar, Doss and Colvin left him and the Awful Truth behind and linked up with Sonnier, a nineteen-year-old guitarist who used to come to Awful Truth shows. Soon after, they brought in Ben Huggins, a singer they’d found through mutual friends at church. They decided to call themselves Galactic Cowboys—their original choice, the Houston Astros, wasn’t going to fly—and immediately signed on with Taylor. While neither band openly proselytized, the “Christian metal” tag stuck.
“In our mind, we were no different than U2, people who believed a similar thing and sang about their faith,” Sonnier says. “We weren’t telling anyone how to live. It was never like Stryper, throwing Bibles at the audience. We weren’t praying with fans backstage. Maybe people didn’t know what to make of us, or King’s X, musically, but everyone still wants to find a box to put you in. [Christianity] was an easy box for people to throw us in.”
In hindsight, Geffen—which never pushed the religion angle in its marketing efforts—might have missed an opportunity to carve out a distinctive identity for the band. But at least initially, the label saw Galactic Cowboys’ enigmatic sound as the better calling card; the theory was that they’d stand out because they sounded like little else on radio at the time. Gersh seemed to have regarded Nirvana similarly, although the well-documented story of the band suggests Geffen didn’t know quite what it had on its hands. That shifted quickly once critics raved to the label’s publicity department about the advance cassette and radio programmers put “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in heavy rotation. “No one cared about anything at radio except for Nirvana,” Babineau says.
For Galactic Cowboys, the timing was monumentally bad: Geffen released the Houston band’s self-titled debut on August 20, 1991. Seven days later, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” shipped to radio. Nevermind hit stores just a month after that. And, Galactic Cowboys say, the label quickly shifted its attention to the unlikely hitmakers from Seattle.
“We played our big record release show in Houston, at the Vatican,” says Doss. “When we walked into the hotel room party afterward, the label guys were playing Nevermind instead of our record. When we were touring, I walked through Haight-Ashbury, in San Francisco—everyone was in flannel shirts and grunging out.”
Galactic Cowboys wouldn’t be the last band steamrolled by Nirvana, who managed to push Michael Jackson off the top of the album charts. But because they shared a label and were signed by the same executive, the band regards itself as Nirvana’s first real casualty. And indeed, once it became clear that Galactic Cowboys weren’t likely to find mainstream radio success, Geffen seemed content to let the band tough it out on the road. And tough it out they did: on one early tour with New Jersey thrash-metal legends Overkill, they were regularly pelted with nickels and quarters thrown by fans who’d come to see the headliner. (“Some nights we’d be lucky to make it through three songs,” Sonnier says.) Not long after their debut’s release, Babineau was pushed out of Geffen in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit. And by 1993, Gersh had exited for an executive gig at Capitol/Blue Note Records. Without their champions, the band says, their sophomore set—1993’s Space in Your Face—felt like a contract obligation. Early in the tour for that album, they got the news in an Orlando hotel lobby that Geffen had pulled tour support.
“We were going home and likely getting dropped,” says Sonnier. “The veil was lifted.”
Babineau maintains that Galactic Cowboys were as much a priority for Geffen after Nirvana as they were before. “I don’t think we took our eye off the ball,” he says. “They had their day in court at radio, and it just didn’t connect enough to make a difference. Sometimes, as cavalier as it sounds, it’s luck of the draw. I wish we were talking about the legendary multi-platinum Galactic Cowboys. And I definitely regret that we’re not.”
Even Sonnier acknowledges that the band may simply have been too offbeat to appeal to the metal masses, who were gravitating toward the sort of increasingly heavy sounds emblematized by Galactic Cowboys’ friends, the Arlington metal band Pantera. A handful of left-of-center metal-leaning acts like Living Colour, Faith No More, and Jane’s Addiction were finding success at the time, but none of them were as heavy or quirky as Galactic Cowboys. The band’s first single, “I’m Not Amused,” opened with mariachi-style guitars before eventually giving way to a harmonica solo. Babineau remembers thinking the song was just weird enough to get a reaction. But in hindsight, he says, it may have been “too heady” for programmers to comprehend.
“The diehard metal guys wanted [something heavier],” Doss says. “And we were too heavy for pop.”
After the Geffen deal ended, Sonnier left the band amicably and formed the Sonnier Brothers Band, a blues-influenced group, with his brother Len. He was replaced by Houston guitarist Wally Farkas, and in 1995 the new version of the band signed a deal with the independent Metal Blade Records, which over the next five years released four Galactic Cowboys albums. While those records fine-tuned their sound—the songs got shorter, the hooks a little heavier—anything resembling commercial success still eluded them. Doss left the band in 1998, leaving just two original members: front man Huggins and bassist Colvin. The band officially hung it up not long after 2000’s appropriately titled Let It Go. Doss started up his own recording studio in Houston, Sonnier kept working with his brother and became a clinical massage therapist, and Huggins became a sound engineer for the touring production of Disney’s The Lion King. Colvin was the only one who left Houston, returning home to Missouri, where he plays with his band Crunchy and records a music podcast, Monty’s Rockcast. The original lineup has played just four shows since 1993: a three-city Texas reunion tour in 2009 and a one-off Houston gig in 2013. After each, they casually discussed making another record. But nothing really came of it. “Day jobs, families, and mortgages,” says Doss, explaining why there’s never been a full-fledged Galactic Cowboys reunion.
Then, three years ago, Colvin received a phone call out of the blue from the Mascot Label Group, which specializes in releasing new material from metal, blues, and progressive rock acts who once enjoyed major-label status. And now all four founding members have reunited for what they acknowledge could be their last go-round. An effusive press release describes Long Way Back to the Moon as an “explosion of energy and creativity that only results from almost twenty years of pent-up musical passion and inspiration finally being released.” And while the album indeed finds Galactic Cowboys as heavy and playful as they’ve ever been, Doss credits that enthusiasm less to pent-up passion than to the freedom they’ve found in tempered expectations.
“I have a bumper sticker in my studio that reads, ‘Since I gave up hope, I feel so much better,’ ” Doss says, laughing. “That’s pretty much where we’re at.”
Outside of noting a few thousand Facebook followers, gauging the band’s base is tough. So for now they’ll promote the new album with just one live date: a record-release party on December 1 at Fitzgerald’s, the Houston club where they played some of their earliest shows. While it’s unlikely they’ll be able to afford to launch a full-blown tour, Sonnier says he’s holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, some of their peers remember Galactic Cowboys fondly.
“Maybe we get the call that Metallica wants to take us out to open for them?” Sonnier says. “I still believe in miracles. A little success would be nice payback for what happened to us the first time around, wouldn’t it?”