Mars Arizona – Passenger side
As our phone interview takes place, Paul Knowles is in the passenger seat of a car that’s somewhere between Collinsville, Illinois, where he’s just visited his daughter and granddaughter, and Athens, Georgia, home of the next night’s gig. Behind the wheel and fielding the occasional question fragment that’s deflected her way is Nicole Storto, the other half of the duo Mars Arizona. (The name is a nod to an otherworldly section of northern Arizona.)
It’s a scene that suggests the same spirit of cooperation and harmonious coexistence that drives the pair’s second release, All Over The Road, on which Knowles and Storto comfortably swap songwriting credits and lead vocals. “Our intention, actually, is kind of to be two artists,” Knowles explains. “When people come to see us, they get two solo artists, but we’re accompanying each other and blending into one thing.”
Knowles, the much-traveled son of a Baptist preacher, and Storto, a former tennis star at San Diego State University, met in a record store in Tempe, Arizona. After several sessions and the recording of some promising demos, they moved to Chicago. “We thought, ‘Chicago is a music town. Let’s go out there and see what’s going on,'” recalls Knowles, sounding as if moving halfway across the country is a decision you make over the morning paper. Mars Arizona was soon debuting at the Double Door, but a job offer for Knowles led the pair to San Francisco, where they began to play out even more and developed a following.
All Over The Road, recorded in neighboring Mill Valley and Cotati, is more stripped down than their band-aided debut, Love Songs From The Apocalypse. Drummer Kenny Aronoff (known for his work with John Mellencamp and many others) and multi-instrumentalist Emory Joseph each oomph up a couple of tracks with their presence, while Chad Manning, the fiddler in David Grisman’s band, vies for secret-weapon status with his work on a handful of cuts.
But for the most part, it’s Storto and Knowles doing the driving — the former on guitar and harmonica, the latter on pretty much anything within reach. (To give you an idea, Knowles plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, bass, piano and drums on “He Broke Your Heart”, an easygoing rocker that splits the difference between Chuck Prophet and Greg Trooper.)
The album is largely about loss and recovery, with three songs dedicated to those now gone. Knowles and Storto use a variety of musical approaches to impart their themes and to convey emotions. It’s an eclectic mix, from the rocked-up honky-tonk of the title track (a tribute to Mike Flannagan, a late Knoxville DJ whose radio show gives the album its title) to the half-classic-country/half-folk feel of “Streets Of Milwaukee” to the keyboard-pop leanings of the closing pair “Goodbye Peace” and “Good Morning”.
There are also three covers, grouped together near the beginning. The Buck Owens/Harlan Howard song “Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got A Heartache” was a tip of the hat to their fathers’ record collections; John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and “Elvis Presley Blues”, from Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, are simply songs Knowles and Storto love.
“With ‘Excuse Me,’ Buck played it really fast, and he didn’t sound really sad about anything. So we slowed it down and made it a little sad,” says Knowles. “It was the exact opposite for the Gillian Welch song. We thought, ‘Let’s stick our necks out.’ I mean, who are we to be covering Gillian Welch? But we really like the song and wanted to give it a little church groove. Throw the organ in there, make it like Elvis going to church.”