Mule Train

Sleepwalker's Jamal Ruhe vents his aggressive side with new band Yearofthemule

Elvis Costello once sang about a fictional couple who had "songs for every occasion." You could make the case that Jamal Ruhe has bands for every occasion, or at the very least, bands for every type of song he wants to play.

Ruhe, guitarist for the late, lamented Tempe band One, is currently in four different projects, each with a specific aesthetic and sound. He writes and sings for the artfully ambient trio Sleepwalker (which includes the dreamy pedal steel work of the Grievous Angels' Jon Rauhouse), plays bass for Deckard, is reuniting with his sister Shamsi (who was also in One) to play in a band called Niner, and is about to debut another vehicle for his songwriting called Yearofthemule.

While any musical endeavor by the talented Ruhe is cause for interest, the natural question is why he felt that he needed to front a new band when he already had Sleepwalker.

Well, for one thing, Ruhe is plenty prolific. He estimates that he wrote 100 songs last year, and almost apologizes for only completing about 40 this year ("I've been busy"). So one band would have a hard time containing all those tunes. But a deeper reason for the formation of Yearofthemule is that the new band gives him a chance to showcase a tougher, punchier kind of songwriting than in Sleepwalker. "Sleepwalker is all about space," Ruhe says. "Yearofthemule is about claustrophobia."

Yearofthemule gives full flight to Ruhe's penchant for social critique, reflecting more anger and political outrage than anything hinted at by Sleepwalker's excellent CD The Man in the Moon. In "Handoftheman," Ruhe takes on warped religious perceptions: "What are you going to do with your life?/He's got a plan/And if you write funny beer commercials/He's your biggest fan."

The band's sound is direct and aggressive but informed by Ruhe's inherent musical quirkiness. The unorthodox three-piece lineup features Ruhe playing angular, disjointed acoustic rhythm guitar, John O'Reilly (Ruhe's former bandmate in One) on drums, and Raul Yanez, a veteran of the Hong Kong cocktail-lounge scene, on keyboards. The spare tools employed by the band reinforce--consciously or not--Ruhe's creeping Luddite bent, as evidenced by the following critique: "There's new technology to keep you safe and warm/Computerized electric blankets that make you feel like you were never even born."

Ruhe doesn't like the idea of confusing audiences by incorporating conflicting styles within a single band, preferring instead to find multiple outlets for each type of music he wants to play. He considers the Sleepwalker sensibility to be too introspective and adult to accommodate the tone of his Yearofthemule material. "This is very angry, juvenile, anti-corporate, anti-American music," he says.

One senses that Ruhe, more than most musicians, actually thinks in advance about how he wants to present his bands and the pitfalls he wants to avoid. While many Sleepwalker fans probably wish the band played more often than its twice-a-year pattern, Ruhe wants his gigs to be rare events, not tiresome routines.

"We've all been in bands that have played a lot, so we weren't really interested in saturating the Phoenix-area market with our balderdash," he says. "I go out to see a band, even one I like, if I only go out to see them every other month, it's a big deal for me. If I see a band every week, it's too much. You don't want to cultivate a following that's tired of you."

Ruhe has experienced the absurdities of the music biz (One was signed to Mercury and released before releasing its first album), and he seems more consumed these days with exploring his musical ideas in the least compromised manner possible. Yearofthemule, which he facetiously brands his "quest for world domination through tough love" is only the latest cog in a collective of like-minded musicians that he works with, in the hope that all his cohorts get a chance to express themselves without the usual limitations of a band setup.

"If you take all the members of the four bands I'm in, that's probably 10 bands that they're in," he says. "It's kind of a dream I had of a musicians' cooperative, where everyone respects everyone else's music, so we're all willing to just back them in certain contexts, and in other contexts they'll back us up. The point is to keep away from the whole democracy thing. I'd rather be in a voluntary oligarchy."

Yearofthemule is scheduled to perform at Mustang Sally's in Tempe on Friday December 18, with the Black Sheep Choir and the Dark Knights. Call for showtime.

Double Duty: Yearofthemule won't be the only band John O'Reilly will be debuting with this weekend. On Saturday, December 19, at Mill Avenue Sport Rock Cafe, Reilly will pound the skins for local singer-songwriter Pete Forbes. The gig serves as a belated CD-release show for Forbes, whose album The Gulf Between came out early this year and garnered excellent reviews.

Carvin 'Em Up: Veteran blues-rock guitarist Carvin Jones is waiting on a work visa that will allow him to take his band to England for what could be a permanent stay. Jones' trio played in London during Labor Day week and encountered large, enthusiastic crowds (he estimates they were in the 500-600 range) everywhere he went. "They were going berserk," the flashy six-stringer says.

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