Joe Myers: Buyers Beware

If it says Thurston Dreambox on the package, it's actually Tempe guitar phenom Joe Myers Under the Crazy Hat

They ain't built the CD tower that can hold Joe Myers.
Just try slotting any of the Tempe solo guitarist's three homespun releases into your favorite disc organizer with anything resembling ease. It can't be done! First, House With Nine Rooms came in a slim cardboard sleeve. Next, each copy of Sonoran Snake Lady was housed in a handmade wooden box (which had a notch the first release could slip into). Now comes Thurston Dreambox: Under the Crazy Hat, encased in a round tin canister and currently rolling off the shelves of a CD emporium near you.

"See, I never think about canisters rolling off shelves," laughs Myers, relaxing on his front porch in Old Town Tempe on a quiet Sunday night. "That's my career snafu. The after-the-fact thinking. From my writing to our packaging, the last thing I look at is those details.

"It can be completely satisfying. And real frustrating."
That could also describe Myers' enduring search to find a place for himself in pop's commercial landscape. The music he makes is harder to cram into a predesignated slot than the eye-catching packages he and Casebeer, his live-in love of eight years, design together. Even Myers finds it hard to characterize his music without sounding hollow as a lite-beer ad.

"Less folk, less new agey," he puts forth. "I take all these influences and try to be less of them. The new-age tag doesn't work for me at all."

Although he clearly has the chops, Myers is an unlikely guitar hero. He's an astounding technician and instrumentalist, able to sound like a full band by hitting the guitar percussively and using bass pedals. But he's also an accomplished singer/songwriter with a poet's eye for life. Record labels would prefer he be one or the other, the easier to market.

"What should I do?" he asks. "Well, because it's in my control, if there's no one producing or signing me, I just make these hodgepodge albums that have instrumentals, vocals and sparse production. I've got something I know can work. I'm just not sure I can sell it to the bigger companies."

Fourteen years ago, Myers left Indiana for the lights of Glendale, taking along his drummer and brother Matt, who has drummed with Looking for Aldous Huxley and the Fake McCoys and now lives right across the street from Joe. Back then, Matt and Joe's goal was simply to jam in bars and make money so they wouldn't have to work a day job. The classic-rock repertoire Myers drew from them might be a dependable moneymaker now, but it wasn't drying flies then.

"We were in a band called Children that mostly played Doors, Hendrix, a lot of Sixties rock. But there really wasn't any retro thing happening," Myers says. "And Tempe wasn't happening at all--it was really small. The west-side scene dominated, with heavy-metal bands like Surgical Steel and Raven Paine. Children later evolved into a trio called Tribe, which featured Brian Golda [Commander Slim from Space Rig] as bassist. That was five years of being out here with no money, really creative but going nowhere."

Myers later got into a band called Groove Garden that played mostly biker bars. "That's where we could get work," he says. "I grew disgruntled . . . so I started to play solo, electric only." The guitarist incorporated classical styles into his playing, and drifted out of what he now calls "the whole band thing."

"It seemed like a comfortable place to be when you're struggling--away from all the psychological problems with bands that I'd been through so many times. Now I miss the camaraderie of playing with other people, but I don't miss the hassles."

Another plus is not having to split a night's wages three or four ways, although Myers confesses the fiscal advantages weren't the primary incentive. "I liked the solo thing because it was so personal."

The personal touch is what initially attracts many curious consumers to his CDs. "Zia [Record Exchange] usually put some of my CDs on the top of the bins because they know some of the records will sell based on the packaging alone," Myers says.

"People see the packages and say, 'How can you afford to do every one like this?' You make use of your resources."

Indeed, things get downright Mickey Rooneyish at chez Myers around CD production time. "We do a ton of the production like actually gluing and stamping. Everything's in-house except the textiles, and we wish we could do that because we hate when it goes out of our hands," Casebeer cracks. "We have a lead press from 1897 out back that we'll probably use to print the next album."

Of the latest title, Myers has about "two or three hundred Under the Crazy Hats fully assembled and the rest in pieces." When those sell out, like Doritos chips, he and Casebeer just make more.

But what should one make of this Thurston Dreambox feller? When David Bowie wasn't yet being hailed as a superstar, he rechristened himself Ziggy Stardust, the next big thing from Mars. Is Myers adopting a persona similarly poised for stardom?

Not exactly.
"Joe was just getting sick of being Joe Myers," says Casebeer.
Myers says the persona harks back to a childhood obsession with magic. "Now the way I play guitar, I think I bring some of my love of that craft into my playing. People think what I do is really difficult and I don't see it as difficult. I just see it as timing and illusion for the ears."

One signature sleight of hand is Myers' use of alternate tunings. "I change tunings, so every time I pick up the guitar it's a discovery. Now it's a discovery with standard tuning because I never use it. It's fresh to me again.

"I have such a serious musician side that I feel like I'm raping that a bit by being absurd. You can have a level of absurdity that complements the music. But I'll only get so absurd."

So don't expect Myers' assistant to be throwing knives at the guitar between sets. For that matter, don't expect to see Myers playing his regular, long-standing Thursday-night gig at Hollywood Alley to promote the new album. He's stopped the tradition. "I became a seven-year habit for a lot of people, which was nice. I built up a large following, but after a while I feel I was always so accessible there that it was like, 'Let's get a quick beer, a pizza and a song and get out of here.' I appreciate the loyalty but hope to be able to bring it to different venues without the habitual time slot."

Myers has been turning up in the oddest places lately. In recent months, he's opened for Little Feat, the Beach Boys, Steve Morse, Tori Amos and even Don Rickles at Union Hall.

Myers is more amazed that Rickles did not rip him a surplus orifice than he is by the overwhelming crowd response. "I saw Don Rickles backstage and he was so nice to me--totally opposite of what I thought. I saw him operate on a level of professionalism I've never seen opening for any rock band. Everyone wasn't treated like a roadie. Stephen Stills wasn't such a nice guy to his people. Neither was Warren Zevon."

Myers got the call from Evening Star to open up for the Beach Boys at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum a mere two hours before their show last fall, playing to 10,000 people, his biggest crowd ever.

"I'm real easy. One guy, three guitars on a rack, go on and get off real quick. Sometimes I think that's why they use me," he snickers. "The Beach Boys were kind of arrogant, a little distant. Even though they put out zero energy these days, it's still pretty amazing that every song they do is a hit."

Lately, Myers has been spending a lot of time working with composer Brent Michael David, who has scored works for Kronos Quartet, the Joffrey Ballet and the National Symphony, among others. David tapped Myers to play with him at Lincoln Center and work on avant-garde projects like providing the soundtrack for the play Katsina at Herberger Theater Center.

"We also did a silent film in Sante Fe, The Silent Enemy, a quasi-documentary on Native Indians from 1931, which might tour Europe this year," says Myers. "We'll be playing live to the silent film."

Meanwhile, Myers and Casebeer are already brainstorming a theme for the next CD package. So what's next--cramming the CD into a tortilla shell? A diaphragm? Tuna-fish sandwich? Refusing to speculate, the pair does reveal one idea that got away.

"Originally, with Under the Crazy Hat, I was moving toward a science theme, writing elemental songs like 'Alchemy.' Which would've made the packaging . . ."

"A Petri dish," giggles Casebeer.

Joe Myers is scheduled to perform on Sunday, April 20, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.

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