“We all share
underwear”: Meet the most promising artist to emerge from the Tucson scene since Calexico.
BY FRED MILLS
They say cleanliness is next to godliness, but for a music
critic, discovering a fresh new voice and being able to tell the world about it
is the thinking-person’s version of heaven on earth. Such is the case with
Tucson’s Gabriel Sullivan, who came along on the fertile Old Pueblo scene
several years after yours truly left the Southwest (following a decade living
there) but who has a sound so instantly evocative – and to these Tucson-primed
ears, immediately familiar – that it’s not just a no-brainer that I’d wind up
singing his praises. It’s a goddam imprimatur.
As you’ll learn from the interview below, Sullivan’s been
playing music for about ten years, along the way honing his songwriting chops
and multi-instrumental skills. The genesis of the recently-released album By The Dirt (Fell City Records), he
says, came about a year and a half ago with the realization that the
music community was responding favorably to his music, which at the time was a “dark
gospel roots” outfit called The Fell City Shouts. Working up a head of steam,
he began writing songs in earnest, and finding a voice to go with those songs.
Find a voice, he most certainly did – “Making the transition
from being a mute guitar player to screaming my head off into a microphone was
a real blast,” notes Sullivan – and as I put it in my BLURT review of the
album, with a nicotine and brimstone-strafed throat positioned halfway between
Tom Waits and Nick Cave, he sounds downright purgatorial in places.
By The Dirt features Sullivan backed up by a host of Tucson talent, including Calexico’s
Joey Burns, guitarists Mike Hebert and Nick Luca (Luca also engineered the
album, which was mostly recorded at Wavelab Studio), drummer Andrew Collberg
(himself a singer/songwriter of steadily-rising stature), violinist Vicki Brown
and vocalist Brittany Dawn. As I also noted in my review, the record’s core
sound – noirish twang, atmospheric blues, country-folk and barnburning desert rock
– is nothing if not true to its geographical origins. But a single listen will
confirm to anyone with a working pair of ears that Sullivan’s still as unique
as they come; for me, it was one of those pull-the-car-over-and-sit-there-and-gawk
moments when I initially received the CD in the mail at my PO box and decided
to pop it in on the drive home. The fact that he’s only in his early twenties
yet has crafted a collection of tunes that sounds like it was made by a
road-wizened veteran twice or thrice his age, suggests that he’s got a long,
fruitful career ahead of him.
Me, I’m just proud as hell to be able to introduce you to
the guy and let him tell you a little something about himself.
BLURT: What were your
early musical loves – records, concerts, other songwriters and singers – that
you feel have gone into shaping your current musical tastes?
SULLIVAN: Well, I grew up with my Dad playing me Howlin’
Wolf and Hank Williams, and my Mom playing me Al Green and Prince. [It] really
made for an interesting home life. Sometime around the sixth grade I all at
once got a skateboard, a guitar, and a Rancid record and I fell completely in
love with it all. From there I found Pantera, Operation Ivy, Black Flag, etc…
Wasn’t ’til a few years ago it all came full circle and I realized that Hank
was the most punk rock guy there was. I’ll still always listen to Bad Brains
I know your age will
surprise folks who hear your voice first, as it certainly sounds much older and
far more weathered, so I wonder what have been some of the reactions to your unique
“You know, that
smoking’s gonna catch up to you.” My favorite, I think, is, “You
sound like a ska version of Joe Cocker fronting Led Zeppelin.” That
comment really touched me. And confused me!
Your record sounds
and feels like Tucson – something, perhaps, that only someone who’s lived there
might fully appreciate, but the way you convey the vibe of the Old Pueblo is
accessible to anyone, too. What about the city has resonance for you?
great. It’s got something for everyone. I think anyone who plays music here,
whether they’re conscious of it or not, reflects Tucson in a lot of ways. On top of the
unbelievably inspiring landscape, the simple life that comes with Tucson makes playing music
something you can do very easily, and truly enjoy. The musicians are tight
knit, the bands are incestuous, we all share underwear. There’s nowhere like it
in the world.
a big city with a central part of town packed with people doing amazing things.
Summer time, and the living’s easy. Ya know?
Tell me a little
about getting started and how things evolved for you up to making the album.
This music, specifically this last album, has been something
that I think I’ve been trying to get out since I started playing music 10 years
ago. I’ve played in punk rock bands, metal bands, and instrumental electronica
bands playing everything from drums to accordion, but I never had the guts to
sing in any of these bands. It wasn’t ‘til about a year and a half ago that I
really decided that I had a few things to say, and that I had to start singing
to do so. I started learning to sing Townes Van Zandt songs, some things fell
into place, and before I knew it me and my lady friend, Brittany Dawn, were
playin’ some dark gospel roots tunes in a project called The Fell City Shouts.
People seemed to think we were makin’ music worth listening
to, so after releasing a CD and doin’ some touring, I sat down and scratched
out the 13 songs that made up By The Dirt.
Making the transition from being a mute guitar player to screaming my head off
into a microphone was a real blast.
How about making the
album? It’s got Joey, Nick, Craig Schumacher and others on it…
Recording this record was one of the funnest, soberest, most
trying things I’ve ever done. I was introduced to Nick Luca through a good
buddy of mine, Andrew Collberg. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better to be
in the studio with day after day. Nick played a big part in helping me find the
right musicians and introducing me to everyone I needed to know. A couple of
those folks were Joey Burns and Craig Schumacher, which was a huge honor for
me. Joey ended up gracing my most Tucson-specific song, “Sewer Cats,” with some
beautiful accordion, cello, and upright bass that really brought the story in
the song to life. Recording with Joey was a real inspiring lesson in what it is
to be a “musician.”
After some digital failure and a day of crying, I had the great
pleasure of re-recording five of my songs with Craig Schumacher. We ran guitars
through 1/4″ tape and made sounds that would’ve made Hendrix proud. I
can’t say I’ve ever seen anybody in the recording business who is as much in
love with what they do as Craig is. He really pours some soul into the mixes he
does, and it shows.
Your choice of cover
songs for the record – Rainer Ptacek’s slide-guitar blues “Life Is Fine” and
Chris Gaffney’s haunting “The Gardens” – seemed astute, and appropriate to my
ears, given the context.
Well, the Gaffney song was one that I knew from the
beginning had to be on the record. He was someone whose songs I had grown up
with around the house and one song in particular, “The Gardens,” had always
stuck with me. It’s about a neighborhood in Los Angeles, but I think it’s a song that
anyone who’s had their fair share of rough times can relate to.
Rainer was someone I unfortunately had not discovered until he was already
gone. [Ptacek passed away in 1997, while
Gaffney died last year – Ed.] But when I first saw the video of him playing
“Life Is Fine” on the Jools Holland show some years back, I knew that
this was someone who was channeling something more than just a song. Rainer’s
music was some of the most soulful, from the heart music that has ever been
At this point in the
interview I should disclose to our readers that I’ve known your dad for awhile,
and since I also know his musical tastes, I can hear his influence in your
music. So in closing, what would you say to kids who feel they have to rebel
against everything their parents represent in order to make their own identity?
Haha! Yeah, my Dad certainly has a huge impact on my musical tastes. But it wasn’t until I had
explored every form of music that would piss my parents off that I truly
appreciated the tunes I had grown up with.
So, kids – go get a Bad Brains record. And parents – let
them. They’ll come back!
[Gabriel Sullivan will
have his official CD release party August 28 at Tucson’s Club Congress. For more details,
along with song samples from By The Dirt,
check out his MySpace page.]