A Homegrown Band Serves Up A New Platter.
By Lisa Weeks
IT'S A BUSY late-night Friday at downtown's Club Congress as the Drakes work through their set at their Serve It Up CD release party. The crowd is gathered in close, fully engaged by the music--a particularly good sign in a town where, all too often, everyone except a few diehards usually remains a respectful distance from the stage, observing rather than participating.
But that's the kind of enthusiasm inspired by The Drakes, a band whose solid following turns out time and again for the band's tight stage presence, feel-good chemistry and infectious melodies--more than a few in the crowd are mouthing the words to familiar songs. Here in this casual, good-natured atmosphere, hype-free and brimming with energy, who can help but sway her hips a little?
After a short pause and some on-stage shuffling, Trope Records co-owner Jeff Kazanow joins the band for a surprise round of back-up vocals. Kazanow grins sheepishly at the cheers before rejoining the fray below, the easy warmth between band and benefactor plainly apparent.
All around, The Drakes seem to have hit the high notes with their new label. Talking about their debut release on Trope, Gene Ruley, Chris Martin and Tom Stauffer--Drakes unaccounted for were Bill Green and Brett Klay--had plenty good to say about recording their new CD.
The band is especially happy about Trope's artist-friendly management style, which they've found supportive but not controlling. The band credits Tom Trope with providing "pretty much anything" they wanted. Ruley notes that even though they had an outside producer, Craig Schumacher, the band had a lot of say in how Serve It Up sounds, as well as looks.
Previously signed to Epiphany, an experience they insist was positive in spite of taut smiles and obviously mixed feelings, the band ultimately said thanks-but-no-thanks to that label's Thou Shalt Promote Thyself philosophy, not to mention the semi-weekly trips to Phoenix. Serve It Up was recorded in fits and spurts from August to December, giving them enough time to settle in, re-record when necessary, and turn out a product with which everyone's happy.
The band doesn't speculate beyond vague curiosities about how the record will be received. Too mature and experienced to become entangled in a mythos of their own creation, The Drakes are ambitious but realistic. The point is making good music, live as well as recorded, not kissing ass while waiting around to be discovered. "We're not holding off jockeying for the big break," says Stauffer.
A "bit older than the rest of the band," Stauffer recalls the music scene in Tucson during the late '70s and early '80s, "when the drinking age was 19 and bands played seven nights a week, no cover, in bars all along Fourth Avenue." Those lucky enough to have been around for the party recognize that as a formative time for the current alternative music scene in Tucson, the present character of which Stauffer attributes largely to the early efforts of Dan Stuart, Howe Gelb and Chris Holiman, among others.
Twenty years later, the bars may be different and the drinking age 21, but the faces are somewhat familiar.
"We've all played with a whole bunch of people," says Ruley. "It's all very incestuous in that way. There's the same core group of about 25 or 30 people, and every once in a while there's a turnstile effect where some people come in as others go out."
Such close interaction over such a long time is bound to be influential; certainly we've all heard the moniker "desert rock" without quite knowing what it means beyond a vague Neil Young, southern rock, country feel. Ruley agrees the band members' consistent tenure in Tucson has influenced The Drakes "probably more than we think," though in no specific way.
"You used to hear it more clearly, but it's harder to pin down now," Stauffer says, adding that more experimental, tangential bands of recent years like Doo Rag and Pork Torta have added to the mix. "There's been a lot of new blood coming in, not the typical, usual suspects."
As to more mainstream pop influences, Holiman laughs, "Gene and I totally grew up listening to all those schlocky bands like Kiss, Yes, Led Zeppelin."
Ruley confesses he was once a "big fan" of XTC and admits to "being more influenced by stuff from a long time ago, things I don't even listen to anymore, that just sort of bubble up."
During the latter half of the '80s, Ruley and Stauffer performed together in the late, great River Roses, and Stauffer and Holiman played together in Bullhorn. The Drakes were conceived around 1990-'91, after Ruley left the River Roses and he and Stauffer began writing songs together. The present lineup has been together since 1994, and although their early influences may be different, their reason for being together is the same: It's all about making music.
Maintaining a good attitude (and your friends) through the cozy Tucson version of musical chairs can get tricky. "You're forced into being a nice guy," says Ruley. "It's a family-type situation and you're forced into getting along." Tucson seems to have more than its share of musicians, and it naturally follows that competition is an issue, especially bearing in mind forthcoming events like Austin's South By Southwest (SXSW) conference and the Tammies.
"It's competitive, but not cut-throat," observes Stauffer.
"It does make it competitive when you hear someone else's record come out," Holiman admits. "It pushes you to new levels of musicianship and production."
But all agree that because the stakes in Tucson are not quite as high as they are in larger, "music industry" cities, everything's more laid back.
"After all, it's not like we all moved here to make it big," Ruley says.
But really, though, what musician doesn't want fame and fortune? Ruley has a fond memory of last year's SXSW fest.
"It's really something when you're walking down the street," Ruley says, covering his mouth, widening his eyes and pointing, "and people are whispering, 'Hey, aren't they in The Drakes?' "
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