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It wasn't until 1987 that a quartet of events finally helped shape the ultimate direction of the band. First was the brief -- albeit crucial -- tenure of Scott Sutherland in the group. A Seattle native, Sutherland was an accomplished pop tunesmith, having already enjoyed some acclaim in the Emerald City with a band called the Dwindles (Sutherland would later go on to form Chemistry Set, and release a solo pop platter, Noon Blue Apples, on San Jac in 1999).
Sutherland quickly exposed the band to a wealth of new inspirations -- everything from the lysergic head trips of early Pink Floyd to the garagey fuzz of the Barracudas to obscure folk chestnuts like Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Codeine."
As a songwriter, Sutherland's simple, expertly crafted tunes also had a tremendous impact on the burgeoning Hopkins/Slutes team.
"He just opened our eyes a lot, as far as songwriting and material went," says Slutes. "He was well ahead of us as far as [writing], but it was something that served as an inspiration in a way. It gave us something to shoot for." (The Sidewinders retained one of Sutherland's compositions, "Bell Jar," for Cuacha.)
Next came the arrival of Scott Garber. Garber had been one of the founding members of Tucson's seminal eclectics Giant Sand. Kicked out of the band in '87, Garber signed up with the up-and-coming Sidewinders, bringing along his steady rhythm and the cachet of having been in one of the city's top groups.
At the same time, Slutes -- who'd only been singing up until this point -- decided to pick up the guitar, making Hopkins the lead axman.
"We were both so naive, we thought to be in a band you have to get 'real' musicians -- but those so-called real musicians are usually the guys you find showing off at guitar stores," says Slutes with a chuckle. "So at a certain point --- after we'd been through a bunch of these insane lead guitar players -- I just said, 'Screw it. We don't need these guys anymore. I can play rhythm guitar. Rich, you play lead, we've got Garber to anchor the sound and we'll just do our own thing.'" Additionally, the period saw Curtis -- who for a time was sharing vocal duties with Slutes -- return to the drum kit.
In an ironic twist, the final event that ultimately helped determine the Sidewinders' path was the death of Hopkins' father.
"My dad dying really changed my life. All of a sudden I didn't have to live up to anybody's expectations anymore. I just started growing, feeling a lot more free about my life. And I wasn't going to be judged anymore in a negative way," says Hopkins. "I loved my dad, but he was not real supportive of my wishes and desires to [play music]. Once I was able to drop the pretenses, things just started blossoming and working for the group. I ended up quitting school and my job and I just thought, 'Fuck, I'd rather be in a band anyway. This is what I want to do.'"
The spring and summer of 1987 was a golden period for the Sidewinders. Buoyed by the strength of a solid lineup and newfound sense of purpose, Hopkins and Slutes began working at a feverish pace, penning a dozen new songs that would eventually serve as the basis for Cuacha.
Listening to the album now, you feel the sense of discovery, the adrenalized rush of a creative unit coming into its own. The writing partnership forged between Hopkins and Slutes during those months would go unabated for four years and four albums -- from Cuacha to the Sand Rubies' self-titled debut.
"We just would write new songs and rehearse all the time," remembers Slutes. "This became such a ritual that the next thing you knew we had written almost three records in 18 months. Plus, there was a cohesive sound now developing out of this thing."
That sound was dominated by two crucial elements. First there was Slutes' vocals. The proverbial untamed beast, Slutes' throaty wail was an almost primordial expression -- an out-of-control product of sheer volume and force rather than nuance.
"I really didn't have an inspiration or anyone I modeled myself after vocally," says Slutes. "I just started singing really, really loud. That was the only guiding principle. Fortunately, Rich played really loud, so the two kind of went together."
Slutes' delivery promoted a kind of mouthy belligerence, one that clung wholeheartedly to a punk animus. Yet, at the same time, his natural burnished rasp was rooted firmly in the pop tradition of Ray Davies and John Lennon. In short, his supple tenor was an instrument equally suited to spit-out heartbroken vitriol ("If I slipped, I know you wouldn't catch my fall") or toss-off clever bons mots ("my hands aren't tied but my head's in a noose").
Sonically, the Sidewinders' music would become the archetype for the much-maligned (and frequently disowned) "desert rock" genre. But that, too, would come later -- again with the more sprawling Witchdoctor. In contrast, Cuacha was country flecked and heavily indebted to the era's college rock sound -- specifically R.E.M. and the Thin White Rope.