Almost exactly four years ago, Two Cow Garage graced the cover of an election-themed issue of Alive. As another election cycle wraps up, the city's foremost road warriors are back on the cover in celebration of their fourth album, Speaking in Cursive, which they'll celebrate Saturday at Skully's as part of a seven-band bill in honor of the bar's seventh anniversary.
A lot has changed since Bush beat Kerry. For one thing, Alive underwent a makeover. What about Two Cow?
"Everything has changed," singer Micah Schnabel said, "from band members to the songs to our emotional well-beings."
He called from - where else? - the tour van, on the highway between stops in Nashville and St. Louis. Two Cow has been taking its triumphant brand of punk-tinged roots-rock on the road more or less nonstop since forming in 2001.
At the time of the 2004 cover story, the band was feeling run down from relentless touring in front of paltry audiences. Broke and weary, they soldiered on, continuing their near-ceaseless road trip and releasing the spectacular III last year.
Their dedication paid off.
"Things have picked up and are changing for the better," Schnabel said. "We're not scrounging quite as hard for every nickel."
Two Cow had fallen into a rut on the alt-country circuit. Few new listeners were discovering the band, and despite constant touring, attendance at shows had leveled off.
Last year, they started to see slight improvements, perhaps due to critical acclaim for III or exposure from John Boston's documentary The Long Way Around: One Badass Year with Two Cow Garage. But whatever progress they were making, it wasn't enough to keep drummer Dustin Harigle around.
"It was a really hard struggle for a long time, and I think you just have to make a decision to do it for the rest of your life, or not," Schnabel said. "It's a hard decision. I think he was kind of done with that part, with the struggle and everything, you know? I totally understand that. Not everybody wants to do that for the rest of their lives."
Harigle's departure could have been the end of Two Cow Garage, but Schnabel's other bandmates would have none of it.
"We were playing Chicago that night, when he told us," Schnabel said. "And Andy [Schell] and Shane [Sweeney] and Chris [Flint], they were just kind of like, 'All right, we keep moving.' They pretty much just told me to shut up and get in the van, and that's what we did."
The group used substitute drummers for a while until Cody Smith joined for good. He made his recorded debut on Speaking in Cursive, the band's first release for Suburban Home Records.
Signing to Suburban Home was the boost Two Cow needed. Schnabel credits the label with helping the band secure gigs at a new set of venues and introducing them to a punk audience that otherwise might not have known about them. The increased attention led to the band cracking Billboard's Top New Artists chart at No. 143.
Just as Two Cow is expanding their fan base, Speaking in Cursive finds them expanding their sound. The record has as many balls-out barnburners as ever, and Schnabel continues to deliver angsty anecdotes in a heartfelt rasp that sounds more "badass loner" than "sensitive singer-songwriter." But if there was a playbook for how to write Two Cow Garage songs, they've thrown it out the window.
According to the ballad "Swingset Assassin," Schnabel preferred Black Flag to The Beatles growing up. But the "ba ba ba" harmonies of "Skinny Legged Girl" suggest a growing appreciation for classic pop songcraft.
Sweeney's "Glass City" is Two Cow's most direct Springsteen tribute, and "Wooden Teeth" shows the band is as good at mid-tempo as they are at full blast.
Still, despite changes on record and in life, this is the same old Two Cow.
"We haven't made our Trans yet," Schnabel joked.