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Not long ago, Pete Forbes was talking to a Nashville rep for Risk Records. The label rep had called Forbes after hearing the Phoenix singer-songwriter's thoughtful, well-crafted debut CD, The Gulf Between, which was released earlier this year.
"This record is great. I love this record," the rep said.
"Oh, really? Well, what do you wanna do?" Forbes asked hopefully.
"I can't do anything with it," the rep responded, vaguely apologetically.
Forbes is no stranger to this line of dialogue. Few who hear his album--the product of years of planning and roughly a year of recording--fail to be impressed by Forbes' tasteful, intelligent way with a pop hook, and by the subtle, effortless way he sneaks odd meters into seemingly straightforward songs. But mature songcraft isn't exactly flying out of the bins at Tower these days, nor is it monopolizing much drive time on your generic alterna-crap radio station. And, more than ever before, record companies seem unwilling to stand behind any piece of music if it isn't a sure, instant profitmaker.
Forbes may not like these realities, but he understands them.
"Joni Mitchell's new record--which I don't like very much--has a great line," he says. "'Every disc a poker chip/Every song a one-night stand/Junk food for the masses.' It is very true. I had to ask myself when I made this record, 'Do I want to work to a formula that just gets thrown out, or do I want to do music that I really want to do, and take the risk of not being heard, but still being able to live with myself?'"
Though his name may be unfamiliar to many local clubgoers, a valid case could be made that, at the moment, Forbes is the hardest working man on the Valley music scene. Though he's best known as a guitar-wielding singer-songwriter, he's currently playing drums for two local bands, Propelher and 68 Lo-Fi. He also--with some reluctance--plays occasional solo acoustic gigs around town to promote his CD. But the best news for Forbes is that, after several false starts, he's finally put together a live band.
The group promises to be an expert mix of local compatriots and a couple of San Francisco pros who helped him put his CD together. Band members include John O'Reilly on drums, Tony Robinson on bass, Brock Walters on keyboards, and San Franciscans John Ettinger on electric violin and Jon Preuss on guitar. Though The Gulf Between has been in stores for about eight months, Forbes looks upon the band's December 19 debut at Mill Avenue Sport Rock Cafe not only as a CD-release gig, but also his first real opportunity to get the word out about his album.
The Gulf Between began its gestation period in the mid-'80s, when Forbes moved from Phoenix to Denver. Removed from his old musical contacts, he locked himself in his room and woodshedded on his four-track machine, developing a distinctive songwriting touch that melded the thinking-man's pop of Neil Finn with subtle echoes of a youth spent drumming in prog-rock bands and listening to twisted musos like Gentle Giant, King Crimson and Henry Cow.
In 1987, Forbes moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he attended college and continued to hone his music. By the time he returned to the Valley, he had assembled a clutch of solid home demos. When Ettinger heard the demos, he encouraged Forbes to head back out to the Bay Area and record a CD.
The album's basic tracks were cut in San Francisco with Ettinger and other ringers like drummer David Revelli (who's toured with Jewel), and Forbes brought the tapes back to Phoenix to painstakingly overdub guitars, keyboards and vocals at Tempest Recording with engineer/producer Clarke Rigsby.
Although it may not rest comfortably within any current radio formats, there is little denying that The Gulf Between is a dark, understated gem. The melancholy pop-rock of "Clock Tower Face" and "She Will" strikes an appealing balance between Michael Penn and Crowded House, while songs like the slow, moody "The Wheel" underline Forbes' spiritual kinship with Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith, another major talent cast adrift by the trash-compactor approach to music programming in 1998.
Forbes is such an aberration on the local music scene, it's natural to wonder whether he's ever considered returning to the Bay Area, where he's already established noteworthy connections.
"These days, it doesn't really matter so much where you are," he says. "It's just where you can get to if you have to go do something. I've often thought that what I'm doing musically may not be right for what's going on in the Valley. But I think it's a nice complement to what's going on. I'd like to do it here, 'cause I live here, my family's here, my wife has a job here. So there are reasons for me to be here."
Though he's worked day jobs in the past, these days Forbes is concentrating on playing music and spending time with his two young daughters. He's convinced that he couldn't have completed his CD if he'd faced the inevitable energy drain of working in the nine-to-five world every day. And though his multiple musical commitments always threaten to spread him too thin, he's conscious of where his priorities rest.
"Obviously, my main focus is my own record and getting my own group out live," he says. "But I kinda like keeping busy. I figure if you diversify and do some different things, that's good. At some point, I may have to make a decision. It depends on the opportunities that come up. If things pick up with the record, and I get more opportunities to play or a deal comes down the line, certainly that's what I'll do."
Such opportunities depend on the willingness of record execs to trust that talent will find an audience. It's an iffy proposition in an era when the biz is suffused with self-doubt and silent hysteria. For Forbes, solace comes in the pride he feels over his hard-earned album.
"I find myself really clinging to the artists that I like to listen to and buy," he says. "To me, they're all independent artists. Look at Scott Miller of the Loud Family. I really feel like those are the people I look to when I feel down, 'cause I think the kind of music I'm doing doesn't really fall into the mainstream.
"That was sort of the idea behind the title of the record, The Gulf Between. I liked the title, but I don't quite know what it meant till later, and now I realize that I feel like myself and other people in the industry fall into that gulf between this mainstream overexposure on the one side and underexposure on the other. And there's something in the middle that never gets recognized."
Flour Children: Candy-popsters the Pastry Heros spent months putting together a lineup that could translate the group's excellent Horn Rim Fury E.P. to a live setting. It's a sad irony for the local music scene that just as the band's lineup came together, founding members Adam and Catherine learned that they'd be moving to Chicago, where Catherine's job is taking her. So when the Pastry Heros played a belated CD-release show at Hollywood Alley on November 19, it also marked something of a first farewell to the Valley.
The imminent departure of the band's leaders was made more painful by the sublime nature of the Hollywood Alley show, in which the group gently rocked out the Ivy-meets-Cardigans lilt of its breezy material. Adam and Catherine will remain in town long enough to play a few more Pastry Heros gigs, including one this Friday, November 27, at Minder Binder's in Tempe, along with Pollen and Vic Masters.
Steal Away: Hollywood Alley's Desert Trash Blast 2 on November 13 and 14 was an appropriately raunchy two-day dose of no-nonsense punk, but it was not without its casualties. After the Beat Angels' Friday night show, someone walked off with guitarist Michael Brooks' cherry red Gibson Les Paul, sans case. It was an odd sour note for a festival that was generally so successful that plans are afoot to move it to a slightly larger venue (possibly outside at Boston's) next year.
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org