Dark, Moody, Mysterious, and Daring
Dark, Moody, Mysterious, and Daring
Feb 22, 2023
The Adventures of Pecos Hank
Twenty years ago, when I was in my early stages as an entertainment writer in Baton Rouge, La., I was out covering some local bands when I discovered and fell right in love with a Texas-based opening act called Southern Backtones. I loved their vibe, their presence, their tone, and their music. Not only did the Backtones resonate with me, but they also resonated with everyone else in the room that night. So, I did what any self-respecting writer would do and walked right up to them the second they came off the stage. And I’m glad I did, because it landed me a friend for life in their lead singer, Hank Schyma. We bonded over our love for bands like Pulp, Radiohead, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Portishead, and over our love for film—specifically the movie Clay Pigeons. (Shout out to my fishin’ buddy!)
Schyma, now widely and most popularly known as Pecos Hank, is really one of the most unique individuals you’ll ever meet. He’s quite the popular singer, songwriter, musician, photographer, videographer, filmmaker, and snake charmer/wrangler on several scenes, but that’s not what makes him unique. It’s who he is at his core and his authentic perspectives, as well as his genuine kindness, that leave the lasting impression. His music deeply expresses a lot of who he is, which is a southern badass with a big ole heart.
Oh, did I mention he’s also a professional tornado chaser? Because, for real, he is.
He’s the kind of tornado chaser you might’ve seen in the 90s cult classic disaster hit Twister: in love and obsessed with tornadoes, daring to get up close and personal with them, and passionately unafraid yet deeply respecting of one of Mother Nature’s most powerful storms. When he isn’t Hank the musician or videographer or photographer, he’s Hank the tornado chaser and storm expert.
Not only is Schyma talented at what he does, but he’s also very passionate about it. Dude spends half the year tracking storms and chasing one of Earth’s most stunningly terrifying energies, and he’s highly sought-after for his footage and live reports during tornado season by many news and weather outlets, including The Weather Channel. He also reports to the National Weather Service when other chasers don’t beat him to the punch.
He has also served and continues to serve as a storm consultant on major motion pictures—most recently on Supercell, which is an upcoming disaster movie releasing March 17, 2023, starring Alec Baldwin, Skeet Ulrich, and the late Anne Heche. Not only was “a boatload” of Schyma’s tornado and lightning footage used in the movie, but also two of his tornado pictures were spliced together to create the image seen on the movie poster.
The poster image originated from these two photos of Schyma's:
Videos of his are littered throughout the trailer and movie.
Hank witnessed his first tornado in 2002 and captured the fastest tornado ever documented back in 2014, and on May 31, 2013, he was there in El Reno, Okla., to witness and capture the widest tornado ever recorded at 2.6 miles wide.
On May 25, 2019, while chasing and documenting storms in Oklahoma, Hank discovered a specific type of transient luminous event (upper atmospheric lightning) called a GhOST, or Green emissions from excited Oxygen from Sprite Tops—in short, green upper atmospheric electrical discharges or green mini-auras. In the photo below, if you look just above the brightest part of the picture, you'll see a faint green hue that casts an afterflow across the sky; that's a GhOST.
“I video recorded some sprites over a storm … Later, when I reviewed the footage, I noticed a mysterious green afterglow above some of the larger sprites,” says Schyma.
SPRITE stands for Stratospheric/mesospheric Perturbations Resulting from Intense Thunderstorm Electrification. They are large-scale electrical discharges occurring high above a thunderstorm cloud and are often reddish orange in color. Based on their shape, there are three types: jellyfish, column, and carrot SPRITEs.
Hank tells me he then teamed up with photographer and SPRITE chaser, Paul M. Smith.
“Yeah, this one I’m pretty proud of. [A] buddy and collaborator of mine, Paul Smith, and I discovered a faint green glow that occurs high above thunderstorms after powerful lightning strikes. Think of a random, brief aurora that lasts about one second,” explains Schyma. “We shared the footage with scientists and others on social media. Nobody had heard of it before. Many argued it might be a camera sensor artifact. Over the following weeks and months, Paul captured multiple other GhOSTs at high resolution, silencing the skepticism. This opened doors for us to directly chat with all the real scientist rock stars of meteorology.”
The pair worked together to create this educational video explaining transient luminous events. Give it a watch and check out these atmospheric wonders for yourself.
So, yeah—see? He’s a general badass full of no fear and multi-leveled awesomeness.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, in the Pecos River Valley, Hank formed Southern Backtones in the late 90s with drummer Todd Sommer and guitarist John Griffin. As far as their sound goes, think American Southwestern dark, ethereal, gothic-y rock mixed with lonely echoes and moody twangs so delicious, they’ll leave your mouth watering … but not before they cast a spell on hidden parts of your soul and lull you in by the heart strings. They've often been described by media critics as, “Brit-influenced rock with roots firmly planted in Texas” and “moody voodoo rock that intertwines with Spaghetti Western and devil-may-care rock ‘n roll” ... windswept and gritty.
In 1999, the Backtones headlined the Levi’s/Stage Stores promotional campaign with their hit song “Fallen Angel” from their first album, Los Tormentos De Amor, a self-described psychobilly surf punk album with cult Spaghetti Western twang. That resulted in the band touring through 80 towns across Texas in the first ever stretch Hummer, playing on top of it in retailer parking lots. Footage from those shows wound up as the basis for the Levi’s campaign and was even featured on MTV.
Their second album, Unreleased Studio Tracks (2002), holds three surfy Tex-Mex cuts with vintage tones, and their third is self-titled Southern Backtones and released in 2006. It is pure dark indie rock with a heavy art movie soundtrack orchestration and was widely popular, hailed by Airplay Direct as "a beautifully dark cinematic embracement of Brit-pop and psychedelia in a philosophical search for more bohemian influences." IT IS SPECTACULAR.
All of its songs longingly ache for a movie to come along and do dark justice in playing out their premise. They’re dark, bold, sexy, and mysterious. Tunes “Forever” and “Everything” were featured in the 2005 indie feature film Drop Dead Sexy with Jason Lee and Crispin Glover, and the music video for “Forever” saw regular rotation on MTV.
Personally, my favorite song from their self-titled album is “Glamorous.” Because I love it (and you) so much, click the image below to hear the siren song, but be careful: You will be compelled to listen to it twice, then you'll be compelled to listen to the entire album on repeat. I promise it's just as sexy and menacing and alluring as “Glamorous” is. (wink)
Over the years, Southern Backtones evolved and now consists of Schyma, Sommers, and a pretty bitchin’ viola player named Jo Bird the Fiddle Witch, one of the founders of Two Star Symphony, Houston's best-known creators of contemporary classical music for more than a decade. Schyma says of her, “She is such a wicked force of nature, that our whole new sound has grown around her.” She is, indeed, ferocious with a fiddle.
Hank recently took some very precious time of his to catch up with me and rap about old times, music, tornadoes, and snakes, as well as what the future holds next for Pecos Hank.
MaM: Shit, man. It’s so good to be talking with you after all these years! Thanks for catching up with me. Let’s see, you’re a very unique artist full of many, many, many talents. You sing, you write, you play music, you make videos, you take pictures, you chase tornadoes—I don’t even know where to start with you, so I’ll start at the beginning!
PH: Well golly gee, Keeley. Bless your heart. That’s might dern sweet of you.
MaM: Ha! You were born and raised in Houston, but do you claim any other areas?
PH: Mostly Houston, with a side of Dallas and Huntington Beach, California.
MaM: When did you know you wanted to pursue music, and where did the inspiration come from?
PH: At age 13, I knew rock and roll was my calling. The electric guitar was the Siren.
MaM: Musically, your influences then and now … hit me.
PH: The Doors, The Cult, and Danzig hogged my cassette player, until I discovered Elvis. From there, it was Robert Johnson, Chris Isaak, Dick Dale, Muddy Waters, Ennio Morricone, and The Reverend Horton Heat. After a decade of burning out rootsy 1-4-5s, I did a 180 [after] becomingly heavily inspired by Brit-pop. [That was] shortly after I met you [when] we connected admiring Pulp, BRMC, Radiohead, and Portishead over many, many cocktails. Great times!
MaM: We did! Those indeed were some great times! So, what kind of success did you guys see over the years, and how has that success contributed to where you are today?
PH: Success? Ha ha ha! Nobody down here wants to listen to all that shit fused together. So, we thrived in the small dives, making enough money to pay for gas and bar tabs. [Twenty years ago], thirty people packed in the [former] Red Star Bar in downtown Baton Rouge and it was a good night for us. We worked hard, though, and scored some decent CMJ radio airplay on the East and West Coasts. That helped us put cheese on our Whataburgers.
MaM: What was the Backtones most popular album?
PH: It was always the most recent one, 'La Vie En Noir.'
(Click image to listen.)
We were inspired to change themes and make something new rather than sound like a broken record. You get sick of your stuff when you play 75-100 shows a year. This disappointed a lot of old fans, but for everyone one we lost, we gained two—including you and (friend) Sam.
MaM: I know for a fact (smile) that one of your favorite and most influential groups is the English rock band Pulp. This is Hardcore is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I have you to thank for that. Have you ever had a chance to meet or speak with Jarvis Cocker, and are you stoked about their comeback tour next year?
(Click image to listen.)
PH: That album was a game changer. I’ve never heard of Pulp ever playing in the [American] South. Nobody down here wants to hear that shit. (laughter) But I bet they could pack 40 people in the [former] Red Star Bar!
MaM: Oh, no doubt! So, after Griffin left Southern Backtones, you spent some time in the acoustic performance area, often as one half of a duet with viola virtuoso Jo Bird of Two Star Symphony. Talk to us about the dynamic between you two and how you got together.
PH: Jo was always the darkest, most beautiful artist in the Houston music scene. She sat in with all the best bands, while I gawked on the sidelines. For some reason, she still hangs out with me.
MaM: Let’s talk about El Reno Blues, which was your first solo album with a new approach. Talk to us about what that approach was, how it was new for you, and how it was received.
PH: In a three-piece band, when you lose a member to crack or a better gig, a big chunk of your sound is lost and replaced with another. When we lost Griffin (to a better gig) and replaced him with Jo, we weren’t the same. Package that up with a different brand, and voilà. … Todd (our drummer), being the badass he’s always been, is now also our bass player. We had our first gig as a trio with him on the upright bass last fall 2021. The show must go on. He does have a 9-5 gig and can’t always make the weekday gigs, but Jo can. So, she and I do a lot of duo gigs on the side. Over the years, some magic has emerged from that.
MaM: Tell us what you’re up to today in a musical sense. Writing? Playing? Recording? Touring? Being a general badass, who’ll never forget his super-bitchin writer friend he met 20 years ago? (laughter)
PH: We’re currently halfway through a new record. I suppose when that’s done, we’ll have the impulse to tour where we can. Is the Red Star still open? What about the Bayou? Or the Thirsty Tiger?
MaM: (laughs) Well, I don’t think they’re open under those names anymore, but the amount of venues that’ve opened up in Baton Rouge is insane. You’d have no trouble booking there. Where are you currently playing, and what can you tell us about BowiElvis Fest?
PH: Just the usual places in Galveston and Houston. Fifteen years ago, I started a festival here called BowiElvis Fest. David Bowie and Elvis have the same birthday, January 8, and every year we have a big party with lots of bands playing Elvis tunes, Bowie tunes, and our own tunes. Splice Records has taken control of it, and man, does it swing.
MaM: Dude, that’s awesome. And it sounds like so much fun. So, when I met you, you were known as Hank Schyma, but your identity has evolved into Pecos Hank. How did you earn that nickname?
PH: I adore and snuggle (and charm and wrangle) rattlesnakes and tornados.
My bestie, Emilie, pasted my face over a cartoon of Pecos Bill (a fictional cowboy and folk hero in stories set during American westward expansion into SW Texas). He had a rattlesnake for a lasso and was riding a tornado. It was meant to be.
MaM: Let’s jump over to your filmmaker status. When did you notice an interest in filmmaking, and how did you cultivate that?
PH: I’ve always loved tinkering with video and made a few low-budget thingies, but I don’t think I deserve that title until I’ve completed something more substantial. Texas Honky Tonk legend Johnny Falstaff and I have completed three scripts. The only thing we need now is 10 million dollars.
MaM: Yeah, that’s all we need, too. (laughs) I understand that when you were fronting the Backtones, you also directed, produced, and starred in a full-length blood-thirsty indie film. Tell me more.
PH: Johnny Falstaff and I spent five or six years making Honky Tonk Blood. It’s a murder thriller that slithered through the Houston music scene at the time. For many of the bands, clubs, dancers, and artists of that era, it's a deliciously crude little time capsule.
MaM: You also did the same with several music videos. I’m all ears.
PH: Yeah, [music videos] are only four or five minutes long and don’t take five or six years to make. The time and money spent on an MV that lives forever on the inter-thingie is much more bang for the buck compared to touring.
MaM: Now, rap with me about this tornado-chasing business. What drew you to tornadoes, then to chasing them, then to chasing them professionally for multiple different outlets?
PH: I was drawing and sketching tornadoes before I could spell it. It began as a dream, became reality, and then a career. Weird, huh?
MaM: When did you first get into chasing, and what was your first chasing experience like?
PH: I feel like I’ve always been chasing storms. Whether it was just running into the front yard to see the lightning or driving my first car out to the fields for a better view of the coming storms, it’s always been an obsession.
In 1995, Hank joined KHOU-TV’s news team working as a camera operator, which gave him the opportunity to work under their head meteorologist, Dr Neil Frank. Schyma gained professional storm-chaser status in 2007, when he was appointed as KRIV’s exclusive in-house storm chaser.
MaM: You started photographing and filming your chases and the emergence of these beasts in a most gorgeous light. How up close have you gotten? Any close calls?
PH: As close as you can get without your eyes getting wet! (laughs) Sorry, that’s a line from Old Gregg. Please tell me you’ve seen the Mighty Boosh's Old Gregg. Technically, I’ve been inside several weaker tornadoes and had too many close calls with powerful ones. I’m trying to cut that out.
MaM: Unfortunately, I have not seen that one, but it’s now on the list! Do you ever get scared while chasing? Has a ‘nado ever shifted suddenly and seemingly come straight at you?
PH: The weekly commutes from Houston to [Oklahoma City] are way more terrifying than tornadoes. I’d guesstimate [that] every 25 times I piss my pants almost getting killed by a distracted driver on I-45, I piss my pants from one tornado not doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
MaM: What’s the most frightening tornado-chasing experience you’ve had?
PH: It’s hard to compare that time you almost died with that time you almost died. The most recent was in 2019, when I accidentally positioned in front of a rain wrapped around [a] ¾-mile-wide beast. You think to yourself [that] any second now you could be rolling or flying.
MaM: Talk to me about these weather, science, and nature documentaries you’re creating, and what kind of twist should we expect?
PH: I can’t tell you the twist, that would ruin it. (laughs)
For those interested, you can visit his Pecos Hank Patreon page and subscribe to watch his weather, science, and nature videos.
MaM: You also create zoology and geography videos as well. Do tell.
PH: Whatever neat-o thing I stumble across, I hope to document well. Whether it’s auroras over Russia or whales in Tahiti, I love it all.
MaM: How is a typical year split up for you between music and chasing?
PH: I’m always torn between music, critters, and storms, but lately music and critters are only getting the leftovers. Half my year is dedicated to capturing severe weather. To all my loving fans around the world, keep your Covid away from me! (laughs)
MaM: You print and sell your photos of your tornado-chasing experiences. Have you seen a big demand to snatch up your shots?
PH: It can always be bigger.
MaM: Tell us where all you chase, how you decide where and what to chase, and what happens after destruction settles? What do you and your team do?
PH: Most of the time, I chase alone anywhere from North Dakota to South Texas, Thailand to Australia. For two weeks a year, I join Dr. Anton Seimon’s scientific field operations team hoping to gather data that helps us understand [more about] tornadoes. Anytime we see destruction where human life may be impacted, we try to assist any way we can. Sometimes it’s just letting victims use our phones, and other times we are driving them to hospitals.
MaM: Will you ever stop playing music or chasing tornadoes?
PH: Only if I’m physically incapable.
MaM: What’s the harmony you’ve found between making music and chasing tornadoes?
PH: I score all my nature videos with my own music. Who’da thunk you’d sell way more records chasing tornadoes than touring?
MaM: What’s next on the Pecos Hank agenda?
PH: It’s 6 a.m. Time to go to bed.
MaM: Okay, okay, haha. Tell people how they can find and keep up with you?
PH: Just google 'tornado.'
And he’s not kidding. Pecos Hank is everywhere accompanying the word tornado. For more on this music, snake, and tornado-wrangling cowboy, and for more on Southern Backtones, you can find all your heart desires by stopping by any of the below-listed sites.
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