Cuacha Doin'

With the rerelease of their 1988 debut, the Sand Rubies finally seem ready to start making music again

If the band's sound did somehow reflect an intangible sense of the desert, Slutes says it had less to do with any geographical concerns than with the pool of local luminaries the band looked up to.

"When Rich and I got together, we very much jibed on that Tucson sound and there definitely was one -- especially back then," Slutes notes, rattling off a list of names, including twang-tinged desert alums like Naked Prey and Green on Red.

The Sidewinders also drew equal inspiration from the uncomplicated work of Paisley Undergrounders the Dream Syndicate and jittery post-punks like the Feelies. "With those groups it was always very simple. Simple strumming, no jammy stuff," says Slutes. "We followed that model out of necessity. It was defensive songwriting in a way -- we were playing to our own limitations."

Still together after all these years: The Sand Rubies, David Slutes (left) and Rich Hopkins.
Kristin Giordano
Still together after all these years: The Sand Rubies, David Slutes (left) and Rich Hopkins.
The Cuacha-era version of the Sidewinders, onstage at Club Congress during Christmas '87.
The Cuacha-era version of the Sidewinders, onstage at Club Congress during Christmas '87.


Scheduled to perform on Friday, May 18, with Tom Gillam at Long Wong's in Tempe. The band will also perform on Saturday, May 19, at the Sail Inn in Tempe, with Mojo Farmers. Showtime for both is 9 p.m.

Limited as it might have been, there is something thrillingly barren about the "four chords and a cloud of dust" ethic that guided the best of the Sidewinders' early numbers.

On Cuacha the darker sonic hues and anthemic themes of later albums had yet to be discovered -- in their place was an overtly jangly, almost Byrdsian quality to songs like the lilting "I Guess It Doesn't Matter" and the unabashedly pop falsetto refrain of "Magazine."

Still, the one constant in the development of the Sidewinders sound was Hopkins' guitar -- a barrage of single-string riffing and feedbacked solos. While most critics assumed the dissonant quality of Hopkins' style was a Neil Young-derived influence, he points to a more simple factor in the development of his playing.

"See, I hadn't really been a lead guitar player for very long at that point, and when I was soloing I'd run out of stuff to do, so I'd just go stand next to the amp and start feeding back. People were loving it, and I was like, 'Man, I've just run out of things to play' -- that's the only thing I could come up with.'"

Entering into Tucson's Sound Factory with engineer Steve English for two separate blocks of recording in late '87, the group laid down 10 tracks, including an early version of "Blood on Our Hands" (which would be rerecorded for Auntie Ramos two years later), a Hopkins/Curtis-penned ballad, "Inside" -- which featured the drummer's soulful vocals -- and a pair of early Hopkins/Slutes efforts -- "What She Said" and "I'll Go Home," the latter a reconstructed version of "I Shoulda Told You" -- the original number the precocious Slutes decided to sing over back in 1985.

Midway through the Cuacha sessions, Garber quit the band unexpectedly to start a new group with former Giant Sand drummer (and Pedestrians singer) Billy Sedylmayr. Though they had lost their catalyst, the group didn't miss a beat, as Garber was quickly replaced by Old Pueblo vet Mark Perrodin. Perrodin's elastic four-string stylings (which are featured on a quartet of Cuacha cuts) were a perfect fit for the Sidewinders, where he would man the rhythm for the better part of the next six years.

After completing work, the band drove to L.A. for an all-night mixing session with Eric Westfall -- a producer whose credits included Giant Sand's debut and who would go on to help shape the sound of the Sidewinders' next two long players as well.

Asked for his assessment of the record today, Hopkins sounds like a man forced to view his picture in an old high school yearbook. "It's weird. It seems like we were a very young band -- which we were. It's hard for me to relate to it now -- we just hadn't developed. Still, I'm very proud of that record. In its own way it's great. Without [Cuacha] nothing else -- nothing that came afterward --would've been possible."

Spending the day with Dave Slutes and Rich Hopkins, it's hard to believe that the relationship between the two was ever as rancorous as local legend would have you believe.

A morning photo shoot with the two turns into a festival of joking and good-natured ribbing. It would seem the animosity that sparked their 1993 breakup has completely dissipated, and so too has the mistrust that lingered during the group's mid-'90s reunion -- all that remains is the warm glow of camaraderie.

Over lunch, the pair prove themselves engaging raconteurs, capable of regaling an audience for hours with an unending litany of tales from their experiences in the music industry trenches.

But as the two reflect back on the Cuacha era, there is a hint of sadness in the conversation. It's a period -- viewed through the sepia-tinted lens of nostalgia -- that remains special to each of them. Written and recorded while they were still young men trying to find their own voices, Cuacha represents an all-too-brief period of time in the history of the band -- one unspoiled by concerns over fame, fortune or ego.

Upon the record's release in January of '88, all 2,000 copies of Cuacha were quickly snapped up. By this time the Sidewinders had catapulted to the top of the local music heap, surpassing longer-running outfits in terms of popularity, if not respect.

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