Once lauded in Russian Playboy as "The Greatest Guitar Band on Earth!" After a long hiatus, this Tucson powerhouse is back. So if ever you are, let's say, gunning through the desert southwest on a psilocybin-fueled hellride toward rebirth, in that surreal expanse, the sound of Friends of Dean Martinez starts to make perfect sense. In other words, the band, which features past and present members of Giant Sand, Calexico and Naked Prey, is still an esoteric mix of Americana (yes, we hate that word too), ambient-electronic, psych-country, inspired by the late '50s/early '60s instrumental surf, with Bill Elm's plaintive steel guitar at the forefront.
Some quick backstory: They formed in Tucson in '93, with Clif Taylor (AKA Chick Cashman) on guitar, Van Christian (Naked Prey) on drums and Elm on steel. "The initial idea for the band came from an acid trip spent listening to Santo & Johnny records," Elm says. At a party, Christian started in on drummer Tommy Larkins about the project. "Since we had no band [name], Van had to make one up on the spot," Elm continues. Friends of Dean Martin it was. "Van thought it sounded like a political organization."
They played their first gig at the Arizona Children's Home supporting a Ronald McDonald clown.
Elm: "We had a total of four songs in our repertoire, that we struggled to play."
Back then ambitions were humble, "There wasn't anything else to do but drink Tecate and play music. The ultimate goal was to get to the point where we could play in the lobby of Hotel Congress on 'Downtown Saturday Night,' get some free drinks, maybe dinner," Elm says. Even so, "It was in my mind a lofty ambition, because Rainer [Ptacek, singer/songwriter, guitarist of legend] used to play there and pretty much anything he did was beyond cool."
Over the years, Friends of Dean Martinez suffered lineup changes. The band lived and worked for a time in Los Angeles, California and Austin, Texas before coming home to Tucson. The current line-up is pretty much Old Pueblo aces, an all-star fest: Naim Amor (Band of Angels, Amor Belhom Duo) on guitar, Joe Peña (Greyhound Soul, Band of Angels) on drums, Tommy Larkins (Jonathan Richman) on percussion, Elm on steel guitar and organ and Thøger Tetens Lund (Giant Sand, Marie Frank) on upright bass and an electric upright (t-bass), which, you'll note, he built by hand.
Lund, an Aarhus, Denmark native, first heard about Friends of Dean Martinez while living in Copenhagen in '03. "Howe [Gelb] gave me a copy of Live At Club 2 (Glitterhouse, 2002). I loved Bill's guitar sound, the space and the melodies."
"What I consider the original lineup would be the one from the first record with Joey Burns (Calexico) on guitar, Christian on drums, John Convertino (Calexico) on vibraphone, Larkins on percussion and me," Elm adds. This lineup dissolved during the recording of the second record. "It became clear that Burns and I were going in different directions musically and I had always known that he wanted to front his own band."
The band's first national tour was supporting Vic Chesnutt. Then their ship rolled in. "When we got our first record deal with Sub Pop, we had to get permission to use Dean Martin's name and weren't successful. The label thought Dean Martini would be a good alternative. We thought it was awful," Elm says. But Elm's then-roommate nailed it. "Fuck Martini. Martinez!"
And so it was, Friends of Dean Martinez signed to Sub Pop, home to Mudhoney and Nirvana, in December of '94. They've since released 11 albums, beginning with the '95 chestnut The Shadow of Your Smile.
"We never expected or intended to get a record deal, it literally fell into my lap," Elm says. "This changed the dynamic of the band and friendships and was unfortunate in the sense of the split, but obviously it was [for the] best given what Burns and Convertino have [accomplished] with Calexico. And, it allowed me to pursue my vision of instrumental music." Burn says he owes a lot to Burns for his encouragement and support.
Additionally, Friends of Dean Martinez have worked scoring films appearing on the original motion picture soundtrack to Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation —a fictional adaptation of Eric Schlosser's exposé of the fast food industry which also features music by Spoon and Dr. Dog—as well as Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a feature documentary by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, with narration by John Waters. Elm remembers, upon first seeing Plagues & Pleasures, "I felt I could really write music for this. It was a nice fit for what we do, the images, and the story. It felt natural to watch it and want to write music [for it]. It was inspiring."
Between '09 and '13, in collaboration with film score composer Woody Jackson—known for work on Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen— Elm contributed to the soundtracks for the video games Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire and Grand Theft Auto V. The won Best Original Score at both the Machinima Inside Gaming Awards and Spike TV's Video Game Awards, in December '10, for their work on Red Dead Redemption.
After returning home to Tucson, Elm unexpectedly rekindled a musical fire and revisited old haunts.
"The reformation of Friends of Dean Martinez just kinda happened naturally," he says. "The result of playing with Naim Amor in Peña's bands. I never really thought I'd do it again." He pauses, adds, "but we've got some excellent players interested and it feel's like the best suited lineup for the job. We're going to explore the original sound a little more. The band had turned into a bit of a guitar power trio...so we're going to be a little more subtle and intimate for now."
Completing a cycle, Friends of Dean Martinez kind of return symbolically to their beginnings, to a stately Tucson landmark—the former Brings Funeral Home building—where they hold a Sunday night residency. When Friends of Dean Martinez first coalesced, back in '93, they used to rehearse "exactly one block south of the Owls Club [in an old house] at 346 S. Scott," Elm says.
The future of Friends? Lund puts it best. "I don't know what the plans are ... I'm just in it for the sound of Bill's guitar. That's all I know."
Friends of Dean Martinez plays Sunday nights at Owls Club, 236 S. Scott Avenue. Show starts promptly at 9 p.m. The residency continues through March 26. Free. 21+.