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Friday, March 14 • 11:00pm - 11:30pm
Friends of Dean Martinez

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Maybe not, at least on the cosmic scale. But as Friends of Dean Martinez finishes up its tenth year of creating, playing, and recording, there remains a lot to be said about the band itself--its surprising longevity, its stately aesthetic, and especially its decade’s worth of releases culminating this year with the exquisite Lost Horizon, out on Bill Elm’s own Aero label. Like most bands that manage to pass the ten-year mark, Friends of Dean Martinez have weathered a number of lineup and label changes since 1994, the year Bill Elm, Joey Burns, John Convertino and Van Christian first kicked up an instrumental ruckus as a sort of side project from Burns’ and Convertino’s day jobs in Tucson, AZ’s Giant Sand. From its earliest days, Friends of Dean Martinez--formerly Friends of Dean Martin, until their first label got twitchy--was a group project, but Elm provided its momentum and center, the steel guitar lines that snagged each loping melody and pulled it taut. Where Giant Sand was cerebral and urbane, FoDM was thoughtful and deliberate, crafting unhurried, cinematic music with minimal instrumentation, favoring sophisticated but somehow sinister melodic lines--the way Henry Mancini might sound if he’d scored for Sam Peckinpah. The band’s first incarnation released The Shadow of Your Smile (1995) and Retrograde (1997), both on Sub Pop. When the original foursome split after Burns and Convertino left to form Calexico, Elm relocated to Austin. With drummer David Lachance he released Atardecer (1999) under the FoDM banner, and after fellow Giant Sand alum Mike Semple signed on to play guitar for that album’s support tour, the trio released A Place in the Sun (2000). Both discs appeared on venerable avant-garde label The Knitting Factory Works. Friends of Dean Martinez’s eerie, atmospheric originals and covers of standards like “Over the Rainbow” and “Summertime” drew accolades at home and abroad, from the Austin Chronicle and the Portland Mercury to Thrust and The Wire. Then came a hectic period of touring and recording, a time that produced a series of records for which Elm was more than ever the group’s core, with Semple and a handful of other musicians rotating in and out of the lineup on each album. Germany’s renowned Glitterhouse Records brought out Wichita Lineman in 2001, and Under the Waves in 2003. In the states, infamously outré label Narnack brought out the two-disc On the Shore in 2003; Random Harvest followed in 2004. Ten years is a stretch of time, by any standards. But we devotees of innovative music are a loyal lot, and throughout that period Friends of Dean Martinez have plainly found favor with guitar aficionados, soundscape fans, and top-drawer experimental music labels alike. Five years in, however, the process had become time-consuming and not a little strenuous. Elm, the single consistent member of the band since its formation, had begun to shoulder all the recording and production duties: “Two of us were in L.A. and I was here in Austin, and we were taking anywhere from six months to a year to make each record--not to say the records were any better for taking that time. But it was a planned process; the usual method was to buy a new piece of equipment, then record an album, then buy another, then record another, and so on.” The turn of the century also brought the usual run of grown-up changes for Bill Elm, including a semi-permanent home in Austin and a newborn daughter. And the band, too, slowly settled into a steadier roster. Following On the Shore, the performance lineup of Friends of Dean Martinez began coalescing into the form it takes today: Elm on guitar and keyboards, Semple on guitars, and Andrew Gerfers on drums. It’s this trio, for the first time without aid or need of sidemen, that created the music on Lost Horizon. It makes the best kind of sense that Lost Horizon--Friends of Dean Martinez’s tenth record in as many years--is not only the band’s most confident record, but also its most cohesive. In most respects, this is the first time in FoDM’s history that a stable group, one with a history of collaboration and several performances under its collective belt, has entered the studio to produce an entire album. “This is the first record--ever, I guess--that was really performed by a band,” says Elm. “It was the first time all of us in the room felt that comfortable playing with each other. The majority of the songs in these versions, in fact, were co-written in the studio; we tried hard not to go in with many pre-set ideas about how things should sound. It was fun to actually go in and run through those songs, a couple of which, like [leadoff track] ‘Landfall,’ we’d been performing live for about a year.” Taken individually, instrumental albums may, as Elm suggests, speak largely for themselves. And each FoDM album has indeed exhibited characteristic touches, like Random Harvest’s murkier tonal colors and On the Shore’s aggressively experimental conceits. But Lost Horizon’s testimony is especially serene and rewarding since it sounds from the first notes like the work of musicians who’ve had time to internalize each other’s strengths, and who’ve learned how to listen closely to each other throughout the album. The level of tight interaction on Lost Horizon feels both perfectly natural and hard-won, as in the interplay between the minor chord circles and gritty lead parts on “Dawn,” the jittery interweaving of blistered Spanish progressions with skeletal percussion on “Heart of Darkness,” or the austere plucked acoustic guitar and high-end electric fills on “Dusk.” That Lost Horizon is the work of the trio alone--no guest players--is understandably a point of pride with Elm. But one of the (perhaps) unexpected benefits of the band’s recent stability is the new album’s consistency even past the disparate styles featured on it--and Lost Horizon, it should be said, features virtually all of the performance styles in the band’s playbook. The growling opening phrase of “Hidden Out of Sight” swerves into a hard-metal hook layered with a distorted wah-wah melody, while the clean and radiant lines of “All in the Golden Afternoon” move at a grand, unhurried pace. “Somewhere Over the Waves,” opening with a simple three-note statement over a descending chord pattern, shimmers and flows with just the barest reverb effect smoothing out the whirling ambient noise that runs just beneath the music. “Somewhere...”, incidentally, comes from Friends of Dean Martinez’s recent composition and performance of a simultaneous score for Stuart Paton’s 1916 silent film of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, screened at Austin’s Alamo Draft House Cinema. It’s a project the band has undertaken before--a previous score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari yielded part of the music on Random Harvest--but the unity of purpose on “Somewhere...”, as on Lost Horizon itself, emerges from Elm, Semple, and Gerfers having had the time and space to play off each other’s performance styles. Once the basic tracks had been recorded and produced, the band handed the finished tracks off to veteran Austin producer Stuart Sullivan, who’d previously manned the boards for dozens of acts ranging from Jello Biafra and Junior Brown to the Meat Puppets and Sublime; Sullivan mixed the tracks into their final versions. “I have to give [Sullivan] total credit for the record’s sound,” says Elm. “He didn’t even know our music, but it was great to hand it off to someone else and not know what we were going to get back.” With a light touch of plate reverb and a little softening of the original music’s dynamics via a mix-down-to-tape, Lost Horizon gained whole fathoms of depth; to hear the finished record seems to belie the fact that all this music was performed by only three players. In case you were wondering, Lost Horizon’s title is copped from the James Hilton book of the same name (as was Random Harvest before it). But where Hilton’s book contrasted the mythical perfection of Shangri-La deep in the Tibetan mountains with the
http://2008.sxsw.com/music/showcases/band/64336.html

Friday March 14, 2008 11:00pm - 11:30pm
Lamberts 401 W 2nd St

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