Tucson Songs Story
words: Rolf Witteler, translation: Mathilde Hawkins
Responsibility for this album goes entirely to Marianne Dissard. Had she not sent us her first album, I would never have gone to Tucson, I would have never stood in the studio with Françoiz Breut and Calexico, and would probably still not have been to the Grand Canyon, most probably would not have gotten interested in Mambo and Cumbia, would also certainly have not experienced a trip during which I saw a jackrabbit, a Gila-monster and a rattlesnake all on the same day, would still not have set foot on Mexican ground and would have also still not have eaten chimichanga. That said, I could have done without the last experience. The chimichanga is a kind of burrito consisting mostly of meat which sits heavier in the stomach than a Lithuanian Zeppelinas, and that means something! The craziest thing about it all is that the first time I decided to fly to the hot hell of South Arizona was in August. Marianne had told me that because it was monsoon season it wouldn’t be so bad, in fact it would make late summer quite pleasant. “We keep it a secret!” she wrote. It was a flat lie. A monsoon can last a while, but it’s such a heavy rain that you get the feeling of being pressed to the ground. And when it is over, one is happy about the unusual amount of water flooding the streets because it is more or less the only time and place in dry Arizona where water may be marvelled at. Afterwards it’s steaming like an alchemist’s kitchen and within hours the last drop of rain has been absorbed back into the desert air. It is so crazily hot in the summer, one becomes so rapidly dehydrated, as I did within a few days. But let’s take one thing at a time, too much information at once.
The reason I visited Tucson in August was not because of the Monsoon time of year, but rather because of a festival, which was probably going to be a one-timer. It was called “Some French Friends” - some kind of a tongue-twister - and it took place in several live clubs. The whole thing probably went back to the friendship between the bands the Little Rabbits from Nantes and the Golden Boots from Tucson. Amongst the invited artists were Françoiz Breut, Dominique A and Katerine. From the former two we had already released some albums and I like Katerine either way. The prospect of experiencing these three musicians in a faraway world seemed extraordinary to me. A few weeks prior we had also decided to release Marianne Dissard debut album “L’Entredeux”. It was a great opportunity to get to know each other. Marianne had a small cottage which she rented cheaply to me. Moreover there was Marianne’s ex Naïm Amor’s album. “Sanguine” was equally beautiful and should also be released by le Pop Musik. So many reasons at once besides the fact that I hadn’t been on holiday for a long time (Keep your eyes open when deciding on a profession!). So I sat down in the airplane and landed 18 hour later in a small airport south of Tucson. Marianne picked me up her old rickety VW Beetle and after a short welcome cup of coffee we went straight to a barbecue party where I met many people who only dressed in thrift stores about town. And I had thought slackers had been extinct since grunge ended. But in Tucson, I realised nobody cared too much about trends. They were simply great people without any money. The party set in a garden overgrown with cacti was a perfect start - and I met Naïm Amor there. After the first impressions I had three days to find my bearings before the festival began.
I rented a car and drove around for two days. Around and between the hills of the area, marvelling at the slopes where these huge cacti grew, plants which I knew only from Lucky Luke comics. I let myself drift aimlessly. On the evening of the second day in Tucson I was invited to DJ at the Red Room at the Grill for the opening of the festival. It was Marianne who had given me the DJ-Job the most far away from Cologne to date. But on that day the thing happened. I hadn’t packed enough water in the car and felt merciless. Without navigation or a mobile telephone I drove in circles. The system of indicating cardinals points to the street names, which still confused me completely, increasingly irritated me, and the signs hanging over the crossroads and which indicated the streets one had just crossed, didn’t make anything better. Eventually I noticed that I had passed by the same trendy café for the fourth time. I stopped, had everything explained in detail, and with the last of my strength made it into the ‘Club’ just 20 minutes before my DJ set. Inverted commas because it was really like the large backroom of a typical American dinner and had the atmosphere of a bar. There I met Jeb, who had organised the evening. A really nice guy, understanding and helpful. I told them what had happened to me and Jeb immediately drove me to Marianne’s cottage so I could pick up my DJ stuff. After my first experience of dehydration, the evening was still not without difficulties. I had expected an American audience and it had been agreed on that I would strictly plat French music and thus provide a kind of exotic flair. But at the beginning of the evening there were almost only French people there. Friends of musicians and artists who were also part of the festival - who admittedly found it strange to be presented neo-Chanson music by a German DJ in far-off Arizona. I caught on contemptuous comments such as “très frenchy”. At that point I thought the evening would end pretty much catastrophically, until Dominique A arrived. He greeted me with a loud “Hey Rolf” as he came in and quickly the atmosphere switched completely. A friend of the great DOM A surely can’t be such a bad DJ. And finally came a few Americans, who wisely only came out of their houses later into the evening, when the temperatures had dropped a little. Then began a really great party. I could hardly believe my luck. At some point a dancer came to me and said: “I am the manager of Giant Sand and this is the best party ever”.
The next day I met Françoiz with guitarist Boris and they both told me that they would record a song with Calexico and that I should come and visit them. Wavelab-Studio - wow! I had already heard of them and now I was invited in. I had actually already met Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico once before. It was during a work shift at the Cologne Normal record shop, for which I still worked at the time, that I was (coincidentally) introduced to Calexico who were playing an in-store gig. Joey Burns opened up, but couldn’t remember me. The sound in the studio was incredible. I had been once, twice already in a recording studio but here it sounded warm and organic. On the wall hung a wild collection of instruments and I was able to admire Françoiz practicing the lyrics of Nina Simone’s “Keeper of the Flame”. Next to Joey, John, Boris and Françoiz there were two mexican guys hanging around. One of them was called Jacob and played the trumpet and the other was Sergio Mendoza and played the piano. He told me about an upcoming show where he would perform with a mexican band called the Jons. An evening that I will never forget. Françoiz, Boris and I were the only ones in the audience which didn’t look mexican. A wild concert, with Sergio on the keyboards and a madhouse atmosphere. And it went on like that. Next to us danced a rather large woman so fantastically I couldn’t take my eyes off her. As I write this all down now, I realise what a crazy couple of days it was. The song which Françoiz recorded with Calexico was only released on our compilation. I never thought at the time that we would release such a record. Because besides the Jons concert I really only saw a short performance by the Golden Boots, without even realising how good they were. I didn’t actually discover so much of Tucson music on my first trip to Arizona. There is little to say about the actual festival shows that happened there. The Americans who came there were friendly and interested, but I didn’t have the feeling that a new market for the Nouvelle Scène Française would root itself here. And they didn’t have to convince me anyway. I had a good time, met Laurent, a Nantais who belonged to the Little Rabbits who had spent much of his life in Arizona and who showed me the nice corner around and all the nice record shops. Then we went on a trip to Tombstone and Nogales in Mexico.
Both worlds, the American and the French, were brought together again by Marianne. She shot a music video at the legendary Hotel Congress (and here I have to mention it is also the place where the famous bandit John Dillinger was once arrested) where Dominique A, Katerine and a few other French guests were invited as extras. I was also allowed to take part. Marianne sat on the edge of the bed, her American band members standing next to her and in bed a porn actress and her boyfriend enjoying themselves to the beat of “Les draps sourds” while the French threw some kind of improvised party. A strange idea for a video, which was unfortunately removed in its original form from Youtube due to alleged pornographic representations. Today there is a still worth soft version of it online. Afterwards I arranged to meet the very nice porn queen for a beer. For a short time I was leading a very strange life. Eventually I had had enough of it. When the festival ended I took a trip to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. There is little to say about it: it was a typical tourist trip and I returned to Tucson with a couple more snapshots. My French friends were all gone and the American everyday life became a little less eventful.
Thanks to Marianne we learned more and more about the scene there. On her first tour in Germany she played alongside Andrew Collberg on the drums, who at that point was already a talented singer-songwriter and from whom we were to release two records in the near future. But the decisive moment came in Dortmund, where Marianne played with a new band. She had somehow managed to bring along the best musicians of the young Tucson scene. Among them were Brian Lopez, Segio Mendoza and Gabriel “Gabe” Sullivan (who is among others today playing with Xixa). Lopez and Mendoza gave us demo CDs and we immediately felt we had to make more out of them. Just before Christmas 2010 we came to a decision. It was all so good, we could make a compilation out of it. I wrote to Joey Burns about the idea and he told City Mag “Tucson Weekly” about it. When I opened my email after New Year’s Eve my account was blocked, overloaded with MP3s from Tucson.
Listening to the music, arranging and ordering it already told us a lot about the character of the Tucson scene. In principle the music came from three directions. On the one hand it was all about the proximity to Mexico, with Mariachi and Mambo, as well as sounding typically like US Country and Folk and US Alternative-Americana-Sound. That said, the music didn’t seem to provide a pure representation of these genres but - and much more excitingly - ‘in-between’ music, music from the field of tension of these different poles and directions. We were sure that we were on the right track with this material, but didn’t have a clear idea for a track-list yet. Eventually it became clear that the best thing to do was to go back and do some research on site.
And so I came to Tucson for the second time, but this time with Rebekka, who had been working for our label for quite some time and had in the meantime become friends with Brian Lopez. Rebekka immediately felt at home in the Tucson scene and had great times with the parties with Brian and co. I went to the Red Room in the evening and did research during the day. I met Dan Twelker, amateur musician and ophthalmologist, who knew an awful lot about the scene. I met Gabe Sullivan, the best city guide you could wish for - and about whom I still have a bad conscience because we never really released his great album. And then I met Al Perry. Twelker had told me that I should absolutely meet him, despite me being interested mostly in the young scene. Perry belonged to the older generation but he is definitely quite a legend. He had toured a lot around Europe during the time US Cowpunk had a market there. It was a fantastic meeting, which also resulted in me not having to sleep over the loud club in the Hotel Congress anymore. Perry had probably once been the hotel manager and managed to settle the matter over a quick phone call. I also met Brian Lopez’s manager, who had golden records by Cyndie Lauper and Radiohead hanging in the anteroom. I watched the basketball playoffs with Brian and his friends and witnessed how Dirk Nowitzki (Dörk!) became NBA champion for the first time. I met with Andrew Collberg’s manager in a Mexican restaurant and fatally let him talk me into the aforementioned chimichanga. I discovered the incredibly good Otherly Love at a concert in my favourite shop, the Red Room. And I caught Brian Lopez and Gabe Sullivan live at their gigs at the Rialto.
And so the city grew on me more and more. We went on excursions again. And there was this one day. Andrew had told me about a road you should turn right somewhere to get to a mountain lake. I missed the exit and drove my rental car up the mountain. The potholes got bigger and bigger until eventually a Jeep with massive wheels came towards me. Although the driver looked at me in my little tin box as if I was starking mad: to drive such a car amongst Saguaro cacti (that’s the name of the big green ones with the arms), I kept driving up the mountain as if by remote control. I braked suddenly when I saw a rather large rattlesnake reluctantly clearing the path for me. I had already missed the point of turning around. There was hardly any maneuvering room to turn around and so I just kept on going until the other side of the ridge would ascend again. I came to a gravel road at the foot of the mountain and was glad that my car was still in one piece. Digging out my map of Arizona I found that I was somewhere on the north side of Mount Lemmon. I looked up and saw a jackrabbit jumping off to my left in a giant leap. Jackrabbits are desert rabbits with huge, long ears. They look great and jump higher than Dietmar Mögenburg, if anyone still knows of him. I could hardly believe my eyes. Shortly after I saw something on my right side that I had only learned about from a book about North American animals and that had fascinated me as a child: a lizard that was drawn yellow and black, had an oddly shaped helmet-like head and glanced at me suspiciously from the side. A small, dangerous, poisonous dragon which I knew as the Gila Crust Lizard, but for which the Americans have a much better name: the Gila Monster! In the evening in the Red Room, Brian taught me how to pronounce it properly: G soft like in Spanish, so like the CH in China. The next morning I wrote an email to Sue and Oliver about this day and was happy to watch Oliver include a Gila Monster in the artwork for our “Tucson songs” compilation a few months later.
I am telling you all of this because it is inseparably connected with the making of this compilation. The songs are also the soundtrack to these stories. The landscape is so peculiar and fascinating that it really leaves its mark on the music. Of course there is so much more to tell. About the spectacular German tour for the “Tucson Songs” compilation with Sergio Mendoza Y La Orkesta as back-up band for Sergio, Marianne, Brian and Andrew. Or about how I met the great Amy Rude, Marianne’s neighbour; how I later survived a foreseeable nightmare evening with Brian Lopez in Düdelingen, Luxembourg; how Andrew Collberg once played upstaged the Crocodiles in Austria, or how Howe Gelb forced his band to listen to this compilation five times in a row in the tour bus. But I think enough has been told here for now. You can find the most important stories in the booklet of the compilation, where the main protagonists of this scene are presented in short portraits. In any case this project was one of the most beautiful ones I have had the chance to work on so far. Fantastic days in the great city. It’s about time to go there again!