Friends Of Dean Martinez – Dream enough to sleepwalk
The word most often used to describe Friends Of Dean Martinez music is “cinematic,” but of all the movies you could imagine them scoring, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari may not head the list. In the classic silent genre, you might go for, say, the archetypal western, Hell’s Hinges, or maybe The Covered Wagon — anything with equal parts action, hope and betrayal, set in an epic sweep of formidable landscape.
But when Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse invited the band to perform a live score, they suggested the seminal film noir Caligari, a landmark of European filmmaking with a landscape almost entirely contained within the minds of its characters. The Friends rose to the challenge, twice, and later took on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
It’s not just a sign that they’ve toured more in Europe than the U.S. in recent years. More significantly, it’s a measure of the range the band has explored beyond the signature desert scenes evoked by their early music. Through ten releases in as many years, they’ve referenced influences as diverse as metal and experimental, incorporating a growing range of studio effects and instrumentation.
But they’ve also gelled as a band, having now had a four-year run with the same members. The result has been maturing confidence and trust within the trio, and an increasing level of ambition in their playing. Their new disc, Lost Horizon, sounds more like a 360-degree horizon finally found.
It’s been a long odyssey. The band emerged in almost comically inauspicious fashion from the roots of Tucson’s 1980s music scene. Bill Elm, ever a “friend of the band” and possessing an idiosyncratic obsession with Santo & Johnny, had played guitar since junior high school when he gave up violin to be more cool. One lucky day in the Folk Shop, a popular local music store, he found his future.
“They had a double-8 steel (no pedals; two tunings), so I traded a couple of things and then just started trying to learn stuff off of Santo & Johnny records,” he says. Close enough to Santo Farina’s triple-8, Elm’s new toy was probably unique in Tucson. “That was one of the problems,” he says. “There really wasn’t anybody to tell me what to do with it.”
Elm wound up with a band almost before he learned to play. “Van Christian [the original drummer from Green on Red], when I got the steel, he had wanted to start playing drums again, so we decided to put together a Santo & Johnny kind of band. Clif Taylor (who would become a local legend as burlesque performance artist Chick Cashman) was our first guitar player.
“We played one show and started to hang it up, and then Giant Sand moved back to town. We pursued it a little more with Joey [Burns, Giant Sand’s bassist, on guitar], but the band kind of fizzled out. Honestly, we couldn’t figure out a lot of the songs on the records, so our set was only four or five songs.”
It was hard to let go, though, because the players were having so much fun. “For everybody except me, it was a chance to play a different instrument than they normally do,” Elm notes. Eventually, Giant Sand drummer John Convertino joined on vibraphone, lending an Arthur Lyman flavor to the mix.
This was high-concept stuff — Santo & Johnny were essentially a cover band themselves, recording such standards as “Harbor Lights” and “Over The Rainbow” — but the timing couldn’t have been better. Lounge music was then experiencing something of a revival, and as the Friends struggled to find their voice, they sounded enough like Happy Hour to attract the interest of renowned indie label Sub Pop. No doubt it helped that the band was then known as Friends Of Dean Martin.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of thought that went into the name,” Elm avers. “Tom Larkin [Tucson drummer and music scene linchpin] offered us a show before we’d ever actually practiced playing. Rather than admit we didn’t actually have a band, we said that we would take the show. He asked what the name of the band was, and Van kind of made it up in a split second.”
Legal concerns drove the name’s evolution to Friends Of Dean Martinez for the band’s 1996 Sub Pop debut, Shadow Of Your Smile. The name wasn’t the only thing that changed. “When we went in to do our first record, we didn’t have any original songs,” Elm says. “I was trying to do a record of covers, and Joey really wanted to balance it out with some originals. So he and John started laying tracks down, and kind of a broader sound developed in the studio.”
The broader sound worked the desert atmosphere in the same way Martin Denny had worked the tropics. Friends Of Dean offered a Tequila Sunrise to the modest resurgence of the Tiki Bar set.
From this rocky footing, the band soon slid downhill entirely. In the middle of recording the Sub Pop follow-up, Retrograde, Burns and Convertino departed to focus on their pre-Calexico incarnation, Spoke. By the time Retrograde hit the streets in June 1997, Elm had made like Green On Red and split for Los Angeles.
“I had pretty much grown up [in Tucson] from age 10 on, and gone to high school there,” Elm says. “I wanted to move for a while. I was always jealous of people who got to move there later.”
Having launched a career in music, Elm was determined to keep it going, with Santo & Johnny’s crystalline approach to melody still holding him in its sway. For the next Friends Of Dean Martinez record, Atardecer, Elm played a host of instruments himself — assorted guitars, plus moog, Theremin and effects — and filled things in with other L.A. players on organ, harpsichord and percussion. The band may have been ephemeral, but Elm’s artistic vision was growing stronger.
While in Los Angeles, Elm re-connected with emerging music maven/agent Roggie Baer, a longtime friend and former Tucsonan. The pair married and had a daughter; by the time Knitting Factory Records released Atardecer in 1999, the Elms had followed Baer’s career to Austin. “My mother’s side of the family is from Austin,” Elm says, “so I’d spent a lot of time there growing up and always liked it. After living in Los Angeles for a couple of years, [Austin] seemed like a better place to raise a family.”
Meanwhile, a new, permanent guitar player joined the band. Mike Semple, a former Tucsonan, high school pal and Giant Sand guitarist now living in Los Angeles, agreed to tour and to collaborate long-distance. Semple soon proved to be an essential contributor, increasingly writing and co-writing songs as well as recording and performing with Elm and a series of other sidemen over the next few years.
Elm composed and recorded the band’s 2000 Knitting Factory release A Place In The Sun on the fly. “I would use the drummer or guitar player separate from each other and kind of create everything in the studio,” he says. In spite, or perhaps because, of the logistical challenges, the record was magnificent. Mature, emotional and beautiful, it featured a single cover, “Summertime”, that fit seamlessly into a set of moody, spacious originals, each one descriptive enough for its own movie.
“I still like the covers an awful lot,” Elm says. “There aren’t a lot of bands who can play [‘Summertime’] and not have it be a departure from what you normally do. Being an instrumental band, one of the attractions is still being able to play so many songs that we like.”
In 2001, the band found a permanent drummer/percussionist in Austin’s Andrew Gerfers and recorded two Europe-only releases. Indie label Narnack released that material domestically in 2003 as part of a two-disc set which also included new material. In 2004, Narnack released Random Harvest; its tracks revealed the strength of the trio’s new configuration in music ranging through unfamiliar heavy-rock territory, as well as revisiting some of the band’s dark desert roots which had seemed hidden since A Place In The Sun.
Elm named Random Harvest for James Hilton’s 1941 classic about love complicated by war and amnesia. Hilton’s 1929 Lost Horizon, the first book ever published in paperback, supplied the name of the band’s latest release. On the surface all action and adventure, the novel explores philosophical diversity and the contrasts between eastern and western cultures. It’s an apt metaphor for the scope of its namesake, and for the stylistic tension underlying the tracks’ overall continuity.
“Landfall” features a sunset melody line descending over ocean swells, then shifts to a ship’s prow surging with landbound determination. It’s a road song for a voyage of freighted optimism. “All In The Golden Afternoon” is gentle, almost sweet, a romantic picnic complete with an explicit quote from “My Funny Valentine”, but with a dramatic climax. “Hidden Out Of Sight” is contrastingly sinister, opening with wah-wah guitars and a city beat that segues into an acoustic passage shadowed by Moors.
With Lost Horizon, the Friends Of Dean Martinez seem at last to have achieved the potential of Elm’s imagination. “It’s the first one that’s ever been done that we were a functioning band before we went in,” Elm says. “The five or six after [Retrograde] were pretty much me. But this one was a band project from start to finish. A couple of the songs were pretty settled upon before we went in, but other than that, it was just throwing ideas around and writing parts. And letting it develop together.”
Moreover, unlike the band’s previous releases, Lost Horizon was recorded and produced by the three band members themselves; no additional players invited. Austin engineer Stuart Sullivan mixed their tracks into the final versions. “It was great to hand it off to someone else and not know what we were going to get back,” Elm says, betraying remarkable magnanimity about his music’s adventures on its own.
It’s been some time since Santo & Johnny recognizably influenced Elm’s music, but their central idea still resonates. “The thing I liked about Santo & Johnny was that it was so simple, and there wasn’t a lot of soloing or showmanship on the record, unlike somebody who’s trying to show you all they can do rather than just playing a pretty song. I just always kind of imagine the steel is the vocals, less a guitar and more a voice.
“I enjoy it now,” he says, “but I don’t listen to it as much as I used to. I kind of wondered there, when I was searching for their records, if I would finally get one that would make me tired of it, and I think I did. In the ’80s they did ‘The Way We Were’. I think that was it.”