"Mercury in Retrograde," the opening track on Brian Lopez' new "Static Noise," is at once a universal story and a microcosm, a model of both creation and evolution. Its sonic space-field opening, and the art and science of its composition, introduce a collection of songs representing a surge of creative motion over a particularly energy-charged time and space.
But its origin story couldn't be more humble. "Actually the way this started was I just thought it would be cool to have a song called 'Mercury in Retrograde,'" said Lopez. "Phonetically I just liked it." He spoke expansively, unguarded and relaxed at a table in the center of the Armory Park home he shared at the time with Gabriel Sullivan, guitarist, producer and partner in the wildly popular psychedelic Latin dance band Chicha Dust. "When I started reading up on it I found there was tons of stuff to write about ... You're supposed to be able to correct things that happened in the past. "
From such whimsical beginnings, the song leads into 13 tracks of fresh perspective on Lopez, his music and his career prospects, reflecting the maturity earned and the influences absorbed in hundreds of hours on tour domestically and internationally with Howe Gelb's Giant Giant Sand, solo opening slots for Scottish singer-songwriter K.T. Tunstall, dozens of hours in the studio as guitarist on-call for other recording artists, and a soupcon of style points from Sean Slade, whose credits include Radiohead, Pixies, Hole, Ben Folds and Morphine.
Lopez's last set of original music was "Ultra," his first album following the breakup of his just-post-college band Mostly Bears. A too-short-lived, cutting edge, psychedelic/prog outfit, Mostly Bears had swept Tucson like a flash flood, leaving a TAMMIES® award and hundreds of bereft fans in its wake.
'"Ultra' was a result of me scrambling as to what I'm going to do next," Lopez said. "I've always had songs. I have melodies and lyrics going through my head pretty much all the time. With Mostly Bears, there'd be songs they didn't want to do because it wasn't a band thing. I just slowly started compiling a catalog of songs that I was doing on my own."
"The difference was that all of a sudden you heard his voice," said longtime manager and sometime employer Mike Lembo of Funzalo Records and Mike's Management. "You never heard his voice with Mostly Bears. All of a sudden ... there's an angel in that body. There's a voice!"
Lopez acknowledges the deficit. "You should hear the early Mostly Bears demos. It's fuckin' terrible. I listen to them and it's just like ... I am just yelling as loud as I can until my voice cracks."
With "Ultra," the crystal tone, soaring falsetto and expansive emotional range of his voice began living up to the comparisons in his bio: Jeff Buckley and Radiohead's Thom Yorke hardly seemed a stretch.
Highlights were the indelible and brooding "Pray for Rain" and the crowd-pleasing "Killing Moon." There were also two songs—"Montjuic" and "Leda Atomica," from what one might call a Castillian trilogy, of which the first, "Passeig de Grácia," had appeared on Mostly Bears' live album, "Teams of Spirits."
The three songs were inspired by what, to that point, had been Lopez' most formative life experience: a six-month study-abroad program in Barcelona. "I think without that Barcelona trip my life would be completely different," Lopez said, "because you have to think, I grew up downtown, went to Roskruge and Tucson High, the U of A (on a guitar scholarship), all within a mile of each other. So at age 21 it was like 'All right. Let's get out of here'."
The UA had just opened the program and it offered two classes Lopez needed for his business minor. The city's medieval Catalonian charm and seaside romanticism soon overthrew the budding businessman for the burgeoning artist. "I ended up pretty much taking Spanish and art. I had one world economic course and I didn't realize it at the time but it was in Castellano (the Spanish dialect most familiar to U.S. students of the language.' And I thought 'What the fuck?' I was in there taking notes the first day and I thought 'Yeah, I'm gonna have to drop this class.'"
Immersion in the highlights of the great international city's art and culture ensued, inspiring a song about its dominant geological feature, the high, broad hill called Monjuic, which hosts, along with its ruined fortresses and spectacular public structures, a museum dedicated to modernist painter and sculptor Joan Miró.
Surrealist Salvador Dali's painting "Leda Atomica" is the subject of Lopez' song by that name, which, although it first appeared on Mostly Bears' "Ed Mitchell Clinic," was one of just two songs Lopez reprised on "Ultra" from his Mostly Bears era. The other was the equally egghead-y "Maslow's Hierarchy."
"Ultra" was something of a mixed bag. "I like it," Lopez said. "I listen back to it. I'm still proud of it, but it's just so far from where I am, now."
At a point during Mercury's sojourn in retrograde, it appears to slow down and reverse itself, as if retracing its cosmic steps to some past point and starting over. In hindsight, the disintegration of Mostly Bears and the launch of his solo career delivered Lopez to just such a point—slowed down, and open to the kind of schooling that only studio and touring experience could provide. His growing self-knowledge had also prepared him for the rare sort of apprenticeship that intensive work with Howe Gelb could provide.
He essentially started over, on the path from the promising "Ultra" to the accomplished, fully realized "Static Noise."
Perversely, although perhaps predictably so given the man's exceptional temperament, it was Gelb who came to Lopez looking for inspiration. "Brian and his buddies ... woke me up to everything I love about Tucson again," Gelb said in an email exchange. "I had become a very subtle ex pat after the turn of the century due to a very bad end of the '90s here." He refers to the death of his longtime friend and collaborator Rainer Ptacek, a sense of being abandoned by some band members, a devastating series of cancer deaths in his family, and other personal problems as having alienated him from his former life, and creating a feeling of displacement.
"At some point around 2010," Gelb continued, "I became aware of Brian and Gabriel, and I realized there was a brilliant new and vibrant generation of players here ... songwriters and multi-instrumentalists all.
"Somehow the universe was waking me up to the treasures here again, and delivered me by way of Berlin (Rainer's birthplace), an invitation to a special festival there celebrating the world's desert regions. They required (that) I bring three guests from this area. So I went about inviting Brian, Gabe and Jon Villa, who I thought best represented everything that's particular and great and true about our sonic landscape."
Naturally they never got a rehearsal as a full band; the Giant Sand Danes were on tour in Australia. When they finally convened at sound check, band members numbered 10, as Gelb tells it, the sound engineers were overwhelmed. Lopez, Sullivan and Villa performed, and then Lopez called "Cariñito" to bring in Giant Sand.
"It was like throwing gasoline onto a fire to put it out," Gelb said of the moment. "With that spontaneous combustion, Giant Giant Sand was born onstage and live in front of 1,500 people." The band ultimately recorded a CD of new Gelb music and toured the globe as a unit.
Of Lopez's particular talents, Gelb said, "His guitar ability is refreshing in that it's disciplined with a great deal of passion." Gelb waxes equally eloquent about Lopez's songwriting, and the tone and range of his voice. "The thing that holds it all together is his sense of humor and humility. (That) makes it all user-friendly and severely engaging."
Lopez regards his time with Gelb as something of a master's class in songwriting, with the new "Static Noise" its thesis.
"Lyrically, for me, 'Static Noise' is just head and shoulders above 'Ultra'. I think a lot of it has to do with touring with Howe the past two or three years, and just getting into it with his music and, I guess, his process. It's just so poetic. Whether you agree with his music or not, lyrically it's always potent stuff.
"And that was something that I really wanted to take, because I'm more of a melody-driven songwriter I think, so the challenge for me was definitely to keep the haunting melodies aspect, that I've become known for, but also just have more potent lyrical content, something that's a little bit more enduring."
Gelb hears another voice, too, that's part of his own. "When I heard the first few bars of 'When I Was a Mountain' (a sweeping epic of a song on "Static Noise"), I could hear Rainer," he said. "But that's just my damage."
In the two years since "Ultra," Lopez feels he also has cleared out the last affectation of classical training that may have cluttered the path to his most soulful expression. "I did take the basic skills and I think that's done nothing but help me tremendously with songwriting. Without that I wouldn't be doing this, honestly," he said. "It's in your best interests to learn all those tedious things in music, and then it's really up to you. Are you the kind of person who's able to walk away from that, tear it apart and reformat it in a way that suits your personality, that's filtered through you? That's something that's taken me many years.
"I've seen (music training) affect people in a negative way, where they're thinking too much in terms of musicality and structure and formal training, and they lose sense of the soul. You graduate from school and you feel like you're a musical elitist. Nothing's good. It's like 'Early Wagner's crap,' and like 'What are you talking about?'
"I was like a pretentious dick, and then years later, without even knowing, you're applying those music skills to your songwriting, and then years later, you kind of have your own voice. Especially with 'Static Noise' I feel like I'm finally (there)."
The song "Static Noise," from which the album takes its name, is a radically spare illumination of a painfully lonely life. But the music invokes a mid-century movie scene with a white piano, a women dancing in bias-cut satin and, in the air, the fragrance of gardenias. Lyrically, it brings Lopez' lately refined songwriting skills into sharp focus. "That song actually is about a man's love for his broken television." Lopez explained. "A very lonely man, obviously. He's singing to his television, that just plays the static noise. That was just me on piano, a live take. I wanted to hear my fingers pressing the keys. I wanted it to be just like you are in the room with me."
The song was a crowd favorite on Lopez' tour with K.T. Tunstall, a series of dates through which he learned the solo set may be his bright future. "I did a 30-minute slot every night and kind of honed my solo chops along the way, because that's kind of a nerve-wracking thing. I played "Static Noise" on tour every night, and (it) killed. I think it's just because of its vulnerability."
Then there's what sounds like an outtake from a monster movie soundtrack: "World Unknown." Heavy with mystery and a sense of doom, it sounds like spooky, dark caves, recalled in haunted voices. "I love that song, personally," he said. "I was reading on the superstitions of owls. I've had that music forever, and I think that song is more about the music and feel than it is about the lyrics. It's psychedelic, but it's mostly about mythological owl shit."
That Lopez' music seems cinematic doesn't surprise him. He spoke laughingly, "I know! I hear that all the time, but it's never come to fruition, yet, so I'm hoping that this record ... " This record was actually pretty close to delivering on its potential for success in Hollywood. The psychedelia-influenced "Glass House," part rushing Latin-flavored hustle, part interpersonal apocalypse, was considered for the sound track for "The Great Gatsby." Alas, it didn't make the cut. "They just gave it all to Jay Z and Beyoncé," Lopez said. "And Jack White." Tough field.
The perky, irresistibly hand-clapping dance track "I Don't" would fit well into the movie "Grease," its saxophone part a stroke of retro genius. The song's chorus, "I don't want to fight with you no more" plants an earworm, and a lovely bridge about rain features the lines "But ... in the middle of my sunshine/I would like a bit of Rain/Just to wash away the constant light/that you became."
"I Don't" and "When I Was a Mountain" benefitted particularly from the
involvement of producer-engineers Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, whose dazzling list of credits include, along with those already mentioned, Weezer, Hole, Dinosaur Jr. and Uncle Tupelo. Although the album was recorded by Jim Waters at his Waterworks Recording studio in Tucson, Lopez invited Slade to take a fresh look at some of his arrangements. "I always had wanted to work with him, and this was the first occasion where it made sense," Lopez said.
"I was always a fan of Mostly Bears," said Slade, by telephone from his car en route to Vermont, "but once he started performing as a solo artist, he was confident, his songs were great and he gave a great show. I've seen opening acts not make much of an impression, but he made a huge impact.
"I got involved helping him sort through his material, going through the songs' instrumentation and the vocal line. The song I had the most fun with was 'I Don't.' Brian didn't really care about it. (Lopez called it "an Elliott Smith kind of solo-acoustic" song.) I came up with an idea for the drumbeat, then he added the horn section, which I thought was brilliant. It turned into a real hooky pop song."
Tucsonans can hear all the new songs on "Static Noise" in back-to-back parties at Hotel Congress on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 26 and 27. The first night features a stage full of musicians; the second debuts the solo performance Lopez plans to take on the road.
Hopes are high among all involved. Lopez said "I need something to happen. Getting on Conan this time would be good. Last time I was so close to getting on Conan and Jay Leno. I've been close to big things five or six times."
As his manager, Lembo takes a longer view. "Will he keep evolving? Yes. Every time we've done something he realizes he could have done something better. (That's) the kind of artist you want to attach yourself to."
But based on his three decades of hard work, fan-base building, personnel development and sheer creative output, it's likely that mentor Gelb has the truest vision. "It's impossible ever to know when the rest of the world will thirst for a particular sound, but I know a 'lifer' when I see one, and I recognize in the sound of Brian's music something other than anything else that's come before."