Music vets Oliver Ray (Patti Smith Group) and Winston Watson (Bob Dylan), along with compadre Chris Sauer, reprise the notion of Arizona desert rock in their own vision.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
To hear Saint Maybe tell it, the ancestry of rock ‘n’ roll extends well beyond music.
Somewhere in that ancestry is the first Neanderthal to paint on a cave wall, the forgotten wisdom in old peasant sayings, the ladder to heaven from Jacob’s dream and also the rock he laid his head upon to sleep.
Saint Maybe exists in that space where the sacred and the profane meet, in that yearning to find elements of the divine in every day life.
“The idea is sometimes just to spiritualize things in a way, to ritualize and strive to create a space of reverence for the mystery of everything. That’s definitely the lyrical theme of the record and perhaps of our band,” says guitarist-singer-songwriter Oliver Ray. “It feels like we’re meant to play together, just chemistry wise and it’s not always like that.”
Saint Maybe’s own ancestry passes through a pair of rock ‘n’ roll’s iconic pioneers – Ray played guitar in Patti Smith’s band and Winston Watson drummed for Bob Dylan – and the band’s debut record arrives with both the accumulated decades of experience playing music and the spark of a new creation.
“It’s one thing to step into something that’s already made. It’s another thing to shave the sheep, spin the wool and make the thing that you’re going to step into and go out into the world and that’s what we’re doing with this,” Ray says.
(Below: “Someday All of This Will Be Gone”)
An eight-song, 45-minute album, Saint Maybe’s Things As They Are (just released on limited, gray-marbled vinyl from Tucson’s Fort Lowell Records) is a triumph, along with Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill one of the top psychedelic rock records of the year. During an after-hours chat at Café Aquí, the coffee roastery just south of downtown Tucson that Ray operates, Ray, Watson and guitarist Chris Sauer talked about Saint Maybe’s roots, how coffee informs songwriting and what the band seeks in live performances.
“We feel like part of a lineage somehow with those people that we played with, or our common references, and it’s almost like a perennial philosophy of rock ‘n’ roll,” Ray says. “There are certain bands where this one spirit flows through and it’s this same thing even if it doesn’t sound the same. This one feeling that I get from seeing live shows, I don’t get that seeing live shows much now. So, it’s like OK, let’s try to do that ourselves, let’s preserve that and keep a certain tradition of music alive.”
Ray spent 1995 to 2005 playing in Patti Smith’s band. On tour, he met Watson, who played with the Dylan band from 1992 to 1996. Fast forward to 2009: Ray had left Smith’s band and learned the art of coffee roasting in Guatemala; after jamming with old pal Sauer in the Vermont/New York band Psycho Needles, he ultimately convinced his fellow guitarist to move to the Arizona desert.
The pair went to see Tucson’s annual Wooden Ball show at Club Congress and noticed Watson drumming with the desert blues-rock combo Greyhound Soul. Ray and Watson hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, but fondly remembered when they’d bonded, the two young kids on those A-list tours.
“That was in a way the birth of the band without us really knowing it, that night,” Ray explains. “I’d passed through Tucson in 1991 and said ‘This is a cool town, I bet I’m going to come back here.’ It was weird, I always thought I was kind of fated to be here and I probably put that in my sales pitch to Chris, sold it as this kind of place where something mystical was happening.”
Most of the songs on Things As They Are are ones that Ray had been working on for years, starting in Guatemala when he was “processing everything that I’d gone through in the 10 years before.” The publishing name Ray picked for his songwriting, Hierophany Music, reflects that intersection of the sacred and the profane and the life those songs get from Saint Maybe stays true to his vision.
“What I love about the band and why I feel this is a band, is [the record] actually did come out the way I imagined it would and we didn’t have to communicate about it or calculate it. It wasn’t a struggle. We’ve really been trying to stay out of our heads, not saying ‘We played it this way last time’ or ‘It sounds like this on the record.’ That just shrivels stuff,” Ray says. “The way that we work is kind of like an anarchistic band. We’re very respectful anarchists of each other but we do what we want to do.”
Saint Maybe plays a feverish type of psychedelic rock built on twisting and slashing guitars and an insistently propulsive beat. They borrow from the great bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s that took to the stage every night in pursuit of something new and fresh, all while looking out at the unknown horizon. Ray calls the band’s debut a “love song for the end of the world.”
The record came together over two years, with Saint Maybe using the best Tucson has to offer, including Craig Schumacher (Neko Case, Calexico, Iron & Wine) contributing keyboards as well as producing in his Wavelab studio. Also on the album are French-born jazz guitarist Naim Amor, singer-songwriter Tracy Shedd, and bass players Thøger Lund (Giant Sand) and Chris Giambelluca (John Doe, Jackson Browne, Andrew Bird). In between sessions, the band toured the East Coast and California and opened for Patti Smith in Mexico and Los Lobos in Tucson.
“When I opened up our record, it brought me back to when I was a kid and I brought home Houses of the Holy or something,” Watson says. “When the records came in, I couldn’t get it in my hands and on the platter fast enough and after all that’s been done, that’s pretty big payoff for me. Handcrafted anything now is what everyone is just dying for, and we have that.”
The band’s name comes from a comment by a friend they jokingly call the “band rabbi” – even though none of us are practicing anythings,” Ray says: “Saint Maybe and the Church of the Second Chance.”
“It seemed perfect for us at that moment in time. We like Saint Maybe because it’s that sacred and profane mix, which is the same thing with rock ‘n’ roll,” Ray says. “It’s not like going on a meditation retreat, but there is the same amount of possibility of transcendence or ultra-presence or whatever you want to call it. Rock ‘n’ roll can deliver that too.”
Sauer says that even from the band’s first show (at the now-defunct Red Room venue), he had a sense that things were unfolding, that the band wasn’t playing to make something happen, but rather playing to let something come out.
“There was a sense of organic presence that was pretty tangible right from the beginning and that’s exciting because no amount of rehearsal will bring you to that,” he says.
“There’s a shamanistic element to rock ‘n’ roll,” Sauer says. “Forty thousand years ago, there were some people in some higher part of the cave and they were beating drums and dancing around fire and bugging out and the people down watching them started bugging out because they were bugging out and here we are now playing on stage. We strive for that.”
Watson says his experience in Saint Maybe stands out because of his greater personal investment in the band. Playing with Bob Dylan or Alice Cooper or Warren Zevon had a different feel.
“I literally had no place to put all my feelings and stuff, and in Oliver’s case these are visions I was invited to color and take my end of it. Contributing to it [is] what kept me up at night. Not everybody does that,” he says. “In the other stuff, it’s so important, there are so many people watching and wondering how you got there and you have this responsibility. When you try to negotiate that, it’s not natural and it’s not your friends and not what you’re used to, but people are counting on you so you go and do it.”
Watson finds that in Saint Maybe, he can communicate in his own voice, which makes the band and the record more of a personal triumph.
“When we were playing in Mexico City, I remember looking up, just for a split second, stepping out of character and being a fan from behind my drum kit, which isn’t what you’re supposed to do when you’re responsible for keeping the screws turning. It’s just the way the light was hitting everybody and how beautiful it was. It could’ve been anybody – but here we are, the little band from the desert, communicating with a bunch of strangers. It was an affirmation that whatever it is I’ve been trying to communicate my entire life is still kind of working.”
For Ray, it was his other passion, roasting coffee, that let him understand Things As They Are just represents a moment in time, not the sole testament to his band and songs. Getting Café Aquí off the ground – complete with its custom-built roaster Simone (named after Nina Simone) – meant some letting go for Ray.
“It’s been really helpful, amazingly,” he admits. “This is the first record of my own songs that I’ve put out and had to be responsible for. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for two decades almost. I’m a little hesitant about releasing stuff, a little creatively uptight and insecure.”
“That simple act of turning the sign from closed to open, opening the door and roasting the coffee and letting it go out the door informed for me the whole process of making the record.”
(Below: Live at Club Congress in Tucson)