Night Out with an Austin Legend
It’s Friday night and I’m late for my date with Laurie Gallardo. Luckily, she is my friend and will forgive me.
Gallardo and I both work at Austin public radio station, KUTX 98.9. She’s an Austin radio icon and I’m still pretty new to broadcasting. I remember how nervous I was when we first met a few years ago. Dressed in all black with boots — and that hair — you might think for a second she could kick your butt until she smiles and you realize she’s the absolute sweetest person you’ve ever met. Gallardo is truly becoming an Austin legend. A triumphant supporter of Austin music and a comforting, familiar and quirky voice on the nighttime airwaves, Laurie keeps us loving this town.
Over the past few years, Gallardo and I have spent countless hours together at work and our friend groups have intersected. Still, there’s much I don’t know about her. Nothing like a night of cocktails to remedy that.
I arrive at Manor Road’s El Sapo and spot her big, jet black hair at a corner table on the patio. Gallardo's dressed in a pinstripe dress with booties and a blaze of rings across her fingers. She looks 100 percent rock and roll. After greeting me with a giant smile and a tremendous hug, she exclaims, “I want some queso!”
Before we get to the queso, Gallardo orders us her newest favorite drink, the Dust Devil. It’s Red River Rye, St. Germaine, lemon, apple cider and hell fire bitters served in a mason jar with single cube of ice. I’m into it because I love whiskey and I’ve become a sucker for a drink in a mason jar. But from the first sip, I can tell it packs a wallop. Gallardo speculates the bartender did that just for her. And that won’t stop us from ordering another round of them during our nonstop gab fest.
And don’t forget the signature pronunciation of her last name. The specific way the double ‘L’ in Gallardo rolls of her tongue can’t be replicated. Believe me, I’ve tried.
“Sometimes I wonder how I got these engagements in the first place,” Gallardo tells me while we dig into our queso and sip our drinks as the sun sets over East Austin. We have been discussing our hectic schedules. Gallardo constantly has something going on whether it's producing the Austin Music Minute, DJing music four nights a week, voicing station underwriting, running the Good Music Club, catching a local show (or several), hosting a music showcase, auditioning, shooting movies ... the list goes on.
“I’m always like, ‘Oh wow, this thing is coming up, when did I schedule this?!’ And then have a mini panic attack,” she says.
For someone who’s become so recognizable across Austin, Gallardo remains incredibly humble. “I keep telling people that I’m really flattered and honored and touched that you want me to be part of you special event. Whether it’s hosting or just being a guest. But often I say, ‘I’m just a DJ!’”
Which, I’m surprised to learn, is not her ultimate career aspiration. Despite logging over 20 years in the business and having name that’s synonymous with Austin music, 44-year-old Gallardo is still pursuing her dreams.
You see, Laurie Gallardo wants to be a voice actor.
“I’m not going to be a DJ for the rest of my life. It’s a great thing, but I always tell people, 'I play music for you. If you think I’m that great, that is awesome.' And I will embrace it while it lasts," says Gallardo.
Now, does this mean Gallardo will be leaving the Austin music scene anytime soon? Not a chance, but we’ll get into that later. Like so many of us, there’s still much more she wants to do with her life and talents. She has a voice agent and has recently landed roles in films including Two Step, in which she played a character by the name of Flaco.
Gallardo and I get so wrapped up in conversation that it's hours before we remember to order. El Sapo, which sits in a refurbished auto shop, is one of the newest creations from the El Chile group. It specializes in burgers with a Tex-Mex spin. While you can certainly order a basic cheeseburger, options also include Yucatan-style achiote pulled pork, grilled queso panela, a fish burger and even one that swaps two corn tostadas for the bun. When we finally look at our menus, Gallardo orders El Camarón, which is a shrimp patty, greens, some pickled red onion and a lemon-serrano aioli. I settle on the Lamburguesa, a Tex-Mex Greek-style hamburger with lamb instead of beef. And, of course, we order fries and onion rings, too.
“Here’s what my friends tell me,” Gallardo says, taking polite bites as I shovel chips, cheese, burger, fries and rings into my mouth. “I have three voices. I have the official radio voice. The underwriting voice. And ... the entertainer voice, " she says before launching into a demonstration of all three.
If you have listened to Austin public radio stations KUT 90.5 and KUTX 98.9 in the past 10 years, you probably know what Gallardo is talking about. You’ve probably heard her, “geek out,” as she puts it, on-air. She proudly gets excited about new bands, meeting idols and playing her favorites and you can hear it in her voice. And don’t forget the signature pronunciation of her last name. The specific way the double "L" in Gallardo rolls of her tongue can’t be replicated. Believe me, I’ve tried. When subbing for her in the past, listeners have called in to inform me that I’m not doing it right.
But what I didn’t realize until tonight is Gallardo's love of voice work goes much deeper than her on-air persona. “When I was as kid, playing around and having fun with friends, I’d be doing different voices," she says. "I’d listen to the radio and I started to notice different things about the different DJs. Back then I remember them having a lot of personality.”
She soon began paying attention to the voices behind the cartoons. Throughout dinner she rattles off different voice actors and what she appreciates most about them. She names Phil Hartman, H. John Benjamin and Hank Azaria among her idols, but her favorite is Paul Frees, perhaps most widely recognized for playing villain Boris on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
She also loves comedy. Catch Gallardo before her shift at work and she’s often at her computer watching stand-up performances and comedy shows, mostly British ones, and heartily laughing at whatever is coming through her headphones.
“I have to credit my parents. I think it started because my dad is a fan of Peter Sellers and we would watch all of The Pink Panther series, " says Gallardo. "I also have vivid memories of my mom watching PBS. She would watch all these great show from England."
“I wouldn’t call myself punk rock. I wouldn’t call myself heavy metal. I call myself, Laurie. Laurie who likes the ‘badassary.’”
Gallardo is very close to her family, the majority of whom still live in El Paso. Throughout the night, she speaks fondly her mom, dad, step-sister and two brothers and laughs wildly as she shares memories of growing up.
As she talks, Gallardo jumps quickly from topic to topic using different voices, laughing frequently, making puns and even engaging in a bit of dialogue with herself. Her sassy, smart sense of humor about life shines through and it’s not a huge surprise when she tells me one of her favorite comedians is Cassandra Peterson, also known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
“[Elvira is] hysterically funny and sexy, dispelling many myths about being a funny lady," Gallardo explains. "She’s one of my favorite smartasses. ”
Gallardo and I laugh and eat and drink and talk about an array of topics varying from first days in public radio to KISS to the career track of Archer and Bob’s Burger’s voice star, H. John Benjamin. We could probably have stayed at El Sapo the whole night, but we have two other bars to check out.
School House Pub
“I wouldn’t call myself punk rock. I wouldn’t call myself heavy metal. I call myself, Laurie. Laurie who likes the ‘badassary.’”
Gallardo tells me this over a glass of red wine at School House Pub, a grammar school-themed bar just east of El Sapo. It’s decorated with chalkboards, flashcards and spelling tiles and, on a Friday night, it’s packed. We stand for a bit on the front patio before finally scoring a picnic bench. We continue discussing her punk rock attitude and taste in music.
“I don’t think I am hardcore anything, but I love the hardcore things," she says. "I have to stay true to myself … And [over the years] a lot of the punk and metal heads respected me for that. In my 20s, I would go see these shows and I would talk to these bands and talk to the people that loved them. And they’d be like, ‘Wow. She really gives a damn. She wants to know more.’ And when you communicate that way and listen, a lot of times [people] respond well and go, ‘Thank you for asking!' And they appreciate you.”
Gallardo moved to Austin in 2002 after years of public radio in El Paso and it wasn’t too long before she found herself knocking on KUT’s door. She ended up scoring some part-time work at the station, doing a little bit of everything. After she inherited the Austin Music Minute from KUT’s Teresa Ferguson, Gallardo suddenly found herself the voice for Austin bands. “I said, ‘No!’ Gallardo laughs. “I didn’t want it! I was horrified. I said, ‘Teresa, are you crazy? I can’t do this! People will hate me!’ I was freaking out.”
But, as any KUTX listener knows, Gallardo takes her role filling audiences in on the Austin music scene very seriously. And somewhere along the way Gallardo's name has become synonymous with local music. But Gallardo is quick to throw all credit back to the segment’s creator. “Teresa Ferguson is the pioneer. She also had a great show, called Femme FM, which used to highlight women artists. Sadly, we still need to do that," Gallardo says.
Gallardo quickly rattles off some of Austin music’s important female figures, like Megafauna’s Dani Neff, Sara Houser of Löwin, and Bee vs. Moth drummer Sarah Norris, but her tone gets serious when she discusses the way gender can be portrayed in music.
“I steer away from people who ask, “What was that female band you were talking about?’ It’s a band. You wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, that male band that I like so much.’ I steer away from that, because it’s insulting," says Gallardo. "It’s time we stop saying this female cellist; this female guitarists, this female vocalist. We need to get away from that. Why are you differentiating? It’s the vocalist.”
Gallardo is proud of her role as an advocate for all Austin musicians. Even though she has her eyes set on other avenues for voice work, she continues to see herself as a voice for the music community. “Obviously I have quite the resume now,” Gallardo laughs. “If I go, you need to check this band out, people actually listen! I don’t brag about that ever, and I think people know that I don’t brag. But I think instead they go, ‘I wanna know what that band is about. I want know who Laurie is talking about.’ So whatever I do, I plan to continue in that capacity.”
One way Gallardo has taken her musical advocacy to the next level is with The Good Music Club. A few years ago, Gallardo, along with her friend and director/producer Richard Whymark, began hashing out ideas for how to showcase and promote local talent in innovative ways.
“We didn’t know what the hell we were going to do," says Gallardo. "We didn’t want it to be music videos, but rather Richard did have the idea of filming bands performing. Austin style.”
The Good Music Club has now evolved to host monthly live music tapings. Artists are filmed in intimate settings in front of audiences. At the end, the artists receive high-quality videos of their work to use, for free, as they wish.
“Many bands have used these videos to get into ACL Fest and SXSW [or] to book shows across the country and internationally," explains Gallardo. "I’m so proud of the Good Music Club. We are sharing this amazing talent with the world. It needs to know about all the talent here in Austin.”
The Butterfly Bar
Gallardo and I continue to walk east down Manor Road. All of the evening’s venues are within spitting distance from one another, so we travel everywhere on foot. Many others out for the night do the same along this growing row of restaurants. Gallardo actually lives close by and says she prefers her neighborhood bars.
Turns out some of Gallardo's favorite non-music venues are all nearby on the east side. Hillside Farmacy, East End Wines and the Quickie Pickie are among her go-to spots. When I ask her what she thinks about the growth of the east side, she expresses the kind of personal conflict I’ve heard from many. “It’s interesting because I didn’t grow up here. When changes happen, as much as I’m alarmed to see condos going up and historic buildings being torn down — which is a sin — at the same time I often wonder about my attachment to Austin and whether it’s enough. Because when something like these little places open up, I go ‘Woohoo!’ and I’m happy for them. I want to show support, especially if they’re in my neighborhood. But [that may mean] there are also people who aren’t going to have homes anymore.”
I move a few low hanging branches out of her way as we walk down the crumbling sidewalk and soon we arrive at the sprawling Butterfly Bar, located behind East Austin theater, The Vortex. The unpaved parking lot, laid-back attitude and eclectic landscape of the bar reminds me of the Austin vibe that originally attracted me and so many others to move here. Butterfly has the sort of run down charm of Spider House, Deep Eddy Cabaret and the early days at the old Cheer Up Charlies, where all you needed was a cold drink, a seat and good friends around you.
“I have three voices. I have the official radio voice. The underwriting voice. And ... the entertainer voice, " she says before launching into a demonstration of all three.
We pop inside and belly up to the bar and where say we are looking for a good nightcap for the evening. The bartender recommends her own creation, a Lady James, which is Jameson and Disaronno, with a lemon squeezed and dropped in. We both look at each other, shrug, “Why not?”
Gallardo and I grab a couple of chairs outside on covered patio next to a table playing dominos. I grab us a couple of waters to accompany our final drinks and the conversation turns to boys. She lets out that big laugh when I ask her if she’s into guys with beards.
“I must be perfectly honest and candid here. Great, magnificent beards and facial hair, those are wonderful. However, there could be the most handsome, beautiful bearded man in the universe — but you really need to look at the person,” she says.
Gallardo is currently single. She dates, though she says "not enough.” It would appear she’s looking for a little bit more than she once did. She reminisces, “Whenever I rely on the outside appearance or someone’s looks, it doesn’t always end very well. Sure, I hope to find a wonderful handsome, fabulous man, who might have a beard. But, my god, I’m looking for someone that I can relate to and can relate to me.”
I feel you, girl.
We reach the point in the evening where we wax poetic about many things. Bands, life plans, more boys, personal goals. The latter of which turns out to be especially important to Gallardo.
“I’m learning to be kinder to myself and not be such a harsh critic. I’m very hard on myself. I was yelling at myself just today while recording [an] underwriting! When I’m recording the Austin Music Minute, people hear this thing, and are like, ‘Oh you sound so warm and inviting!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh thank goodness, I’m glad I’m doing my job!’ Because sometimes when I mess up, I’m like, ‘What the hell are you thinking!’ I have to be like, ‘Whoa! Nice Laurie! You’re just stressin’!’ Gotta give myself a break.”
We finish the last of our drinks and I’m playing with the lemon rind in my glass. We’ve moved over to a quieter spot since the dominos game next to us has gotten a bit rowdy. A robust aroma of rosemary hangs in the air and the crickets chirp in the bushes amid the muffled voices of the bar patrons. We’ll soon shut the recorder off and continue on with our Friday night as friends. But before we do, I ask Gallardo, "Why Austin?"
Gallardo thinks for a second and then responds, serious at first and then turning it into a big smile.
“One of my favorite things about Austin are the people. I’ve met the most amazing people out here. People who are genuine … I’m astounded [that] people [can be] so encouraging. It’s been one of my favorite all-time things about this city. ‘Laurie, what do you want to do? Do it!’ ‘What do you need help with? I’ll help you!’ ‘What do you need?’ They’re all like that. Everyone’s so supportive; they want you to do it. They want you to go for it. And I feel that all the time.”