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Serving It Up Again 

The New Drakes are on stage again--but they don't all consider themselves musicians

The members of The New Drakes didn't plan to wait 10 years between albums. They just never expected to make another record after 1996's Serve It Up, which was released back when the band was known simply as The Drakes and was a frequent nightclub draw in Tucson and Phoenix.

The alternative rock-pop band--the collective talent and creativity of which always far exceeded its financial success--started in the early 1990s and called it quits around the end of 1997.

So agreed drummer Chris Martin and guitarist-singer-pianist Tom Stauffer during an interview last weekend at the westside home Stauffer shares with his wife and two kids.

"I can't really remember the last time we played back then," Stauffer said. "It was pretty much one of those 'out with a whimper' things. We were playing too much, and we were around each other too much. I think we played one too many Phoenix shows."

Martin concurred: "Definitely too many Phoenix shows."

The guys went their own ways. Stauffer has worked as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star and, recently, Tucson Citizen. Martin manages an electrical business, but he kept busy playing for a while with blues, country and cover bands. Both have families.

Guitarist Gene Ruley was and is the third core member of The New Drakes. He teams with Stauffer to write the songs, and he is primarily responsible for the group's elaborate, inventive arrangements. Ruley continued playing with other groups during the post-Drakes era, including the notorious and still-active Zsa Zsas, a pseudo-Eastern European lounge band that does for '70s and '80s pop covers what Borat Sagdiyev does for journalism.

But Ruley also embarked on an academic career. He's studying for his doctorate in audiology, a pursuit that last year led to his return to his hometown of New Orleans.

His departure was bittersweet, because it roughly coincided with the release of the band's wonderful new CD, Staircase Wit. Although Ruley headed off to the Crescent City, he returns to Tucson every couple of months, and The New Drakes try to play each time he does. The latest performance is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 10, at The Hut on Fourth Avenue.

The re-emergence of The Drakes began several years ago, when Stauffer would schlep his equipment over to Ruley's apartment on Sunday afternoons to hang out and eventually get around to making a little music. They started messing around with new songs, and it was four months before these activities had become a project. Martin came back soon after, and they began recording the songs that would eventually become Staircase Wit right there in Ruley's apartment.

Said Stauffer, "We thought, 'If we do this every Sunday, we'll be done in three months.' We finally finished three years later."

At first, returning to the stage wasn't even a consideration. "It was still a recording. It wasn't a band," Stauffer said. "I didn't even know whether we would play live."

With many of the songs coming together, the band booked a gig at old haunt Club Congress, during the club's 20th anniversary bash of Labor Day weekend 2005. Many in the audience were pleasantly surprised at the musical richness of the reconstituted band. Tunes from the 20th century showed increased depth, and the new songs boasted a new compositional sophistication.

Although Ruley and Stauffer divided the bass duties on Staircase Wit, their live bass player is Nathan Sabatino, who mixed and mastered the album at his Loveland Recording Studio. The band also features violinist Vicki Brown and a three-piece horn section.

In the eyes of the Tucson music community, The Drakes were officially reunited. An updated band name, the result of a legal threat from another group in New York state that laid claim to the original moniker, was soon to follow.

Several years and a new context made the sound come out a little differently.

"When we first started again, it was weird, because we had to play really softly because of the neighbors," Martin said. "Then I was talking to (fellow drummer) Ernie Mendoza about it, he said, 'Just do what the song calls for.' That made a lot of sense, and since then, it has worked out great."

And each of the musicians follows the same rule.

Although Ruley is highly esteemed and no small guitar hero to many a fan in the Tucson scene, he doesn't display the typical attitude problems of some lead guitarists, Stauffer said.

"Gene has always been easy to work with. He doesn't mind playing rhythm, if it works for the songs. And he's not insecure about playing something easy or simple. He's not a noodler; he's not worried about showing off his technical chops all the time."

Stauffer and Martin share the opinion that The New Drakes, compared to all of the guitarist's other bands, often has offered Ruley the most creative freedom. "I think he saves his best stuff for this band," Martin said.

Said Stauffer: "I've said it before, so it's sort of become a cliché, but Gene pretty much plants the seeds of the songs, and Chris and I come in to add a lot of water and fertilizer."

Notably, Ruley was responsible for adding the horn arrangements that have gone a long way toward redefining The New Drakes' sound.

"Gene had (the horns) in mind from the first time we started playing together again," Stauffer said. "It's really a matter of using brass in the same way we started using the violin in the first place. It's a form of sweetening and mellowing, like a backup vocalist.

"He saw the horn arrangements fully in his head, and they were originally for songs on the new album such as 'Noise' and 'Cannonball,' but then they started fitting in naturally with other songs."

Considering the refinement and promise of Staircase Wit, it wouldn't be surprising to predict a thriving second career for The New Drakes. But Martin, Ruley and Stauffer--each in his early 40s--still consider it little more than a hobby.

"I don't even think of myself as a musician anymore," said Stauffer. I'm a guy who has really good friends, and we're all in a band together. I am reticent to tell people in the music scene that we're back, because I don't really want to be part of the music scene.

"There are a lot of great new bands in Tucson and people playing out all the time that I can't support because of my work and family life. And a lot of the kids playing or going to shows were probably in diapers when we started playing. So how can I ask them to support us?"

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