Hey all you readers! Know what the first ever mass market novel to be published was? James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, that’s what! Tucson’s Friends of Dean Martinez take Hilton’s title for their own latest effort, but rather than the lush paradise of Shangri-la hidden in the mountains, FoDM’s music depicts the stark landscapes of the American Southwest, as it has for the last decade and running. Now a three piece, FoDM consists of guitar, steel guitar and drums, as instrumental pieces wind their way through the dusty Arizona streets, seeking the sustenance of the saguaro cacti all around. Lost Horizon is a perfect soundtrack, and title for that matter, of a film collaboration between Sergio Leone and Gus Van Sant. Whereas both directors tell their stories more through visuals than dialogue, so too does FoDM tell their stories through songs without lyrics.
The Tucson scene is often underestimated. I remember stopping in Tucson on a road trip and staying at the Hotel Congress, an historic landmark once used by John Dillinger, run by a member of the band the Sidewinders, and clerked by a musician who had collaborated with Giant Sand. Members of that band and Calexico had joined in and created the first incarnation of Friends of Dean Martinez. My initial thoughts about Tucson and its music scene consisted of how tightly knit the bands were, and how connectable the sound is to its origin. Arizona is a harsh place. Driving through towns that are given names to belie that harshness (Carefree, Surprise, or Paradise Valley) can often feel like you are driving through a Flintstones set. The combination of the steel guitar, slow snare and white noise can create the feel of that harsh landscape while celebrating its mixed heritage.
Friends of Dean Martinez no longer shares members with those heavy weight Tucson bands, but Joey Burns and John Convertino recently joined original member Bill Elm at the 20th Anniversary of the Hotel Congress’ Club Congress. Elm is now, and pretty much has always been, the driving artistic force behind FoDM. His steel guitar leads the way Santo & Johnny style through slow Southwestern soundscapes. The style draws on surf, fifties’ cocktail music, and cinema in such a way as to almost create a whole new genre. Other films that come to mind when hearing the music of Lost Horizon include the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. The latter is especially fitting as it depicts an anachronistic couple winding their way through the Southwest, evading the law, family, and to a degree, civilization as they wind their way over dusty trail after dusty trail.
Bill Elm’s music is extremely evocative. Hearing the twangy strains of the songs on Lost Horizon, from “Landfall” to “Departure” takes me back to my short time in Tucson, and my two cross country trips. Those journeys were both a blessing and a curse. The landscape of the Southwest, almost completely devoid not only of people, but also of plant life, was both beautiful and daunting at the same time. I worried that if I ever got into a car accident out there on Interstate 10, I would never be found, all the while marveling at the red rocks and magnificent scenery. Bill Elm and the Friends of Dean Martinez capture that dichotomy surprisingly accurately. Their music is stunningly beautiful, but with hints and touches of danger, making it truly indicative of its origin, a place fertile in great music, if not in anything else.