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Mark Zubia, leader of long-running Tempe supergroup Los Guys, will tell you that his band is not most bands. In fact, Zubia will tell you that he loves his band mates — bassist Paul "PC" Cordone, keyboardist Tim Rovnak, guitarist Jim Beach, and drummer Gary Smith — and uses words like "lucky" and "fortunate" that they are not only his band mates but his friends.
"It's 100 percent organic. We've never had a band meeting, we've never had a rehearsal, other than onstage," Zubia says, dabbing his forehead with a soggy napkin over a bowl of ass-kicking menudo at his favorite Mexican joint, Rosita's Place, in Phoenix. "I've spent a lot of time [in the past] over-thinking songs, the arrangements — now I just wanna play a song how it comes out first."
New Zubia-penned originals are, for practical purposes, learned onstage, with Los Guys performing a live high-wire act only a Flying Wallenda could truly appreciate. Zubia takes it easy, not sweating the songs and not worrying about what people say about his sound or his image, which unapologetically harks back to Mill Avenue's golden era.
"We tried (having a rehearsal) once because some other guitarist was going to sit in," Zubia laughs. "But we just ended up drinking beer and smoking pot, so rehearsals really weren't the way to go."
The roots of Los Guys, who will soon celebrate the release of their second studio disc, Between Dark & Dawn, go back to a Sunday afternoon in 1994 at the late, great Tempe music haunt Long Wongs, when Zubia, then a member of Tempe legends Pistoleros, was killing a few beers, getting a day-drunk on. "(Los Guys) did not start as, 'Hey, let's get together and play music!'" Zubia recalls. "One of PC's bands — I can't remember which one — had [a standing gig] every Sunday at Long Wongs, and one Sunday, we're just all at Wongs, hanging out and drinking on a Sunday afternoon, and the opening band canceled. PC and Mike Kellems said, you know, call Greg and the four of us will just fill in. They knew some of the songs and they said to just show them some chord changes on what they didn't know, songs that my brother (Pistoleros singer Lawrence Zubia) and I had written that we didn't use (for The Pistoleros), and some covers. And, from that, we started playing every Sunday, and it was probably pretty bad at the beginning," Zubia laughs. "It was . . . loose. Let's put it that way."
Los Guys began as just a little something for Zubia to do while he focused on The Pistoleros, who rehearsed regularly and were, as Zubia says, "trying to, you know, do The Thing."
With the "Tempe sound" getting bands like Gin Blossoms, Dead Hot Workshop, and The Refreshments signed to major labels, The Pistoleros did The Thing, scoring a major label deal with Hollywood Records and releasing one album, Hang On to Nothing, for the label in 1997 before being dropped. Although the band self-released a self-titled disc in 2001 and have, as yet, never officially announced a breakup, Zubia says now that The Pistoleros are "on hold."
"I wouldn't go so far as to say we'll never play again," he says, "but there will have to be a reason to play."
So, after 15 years, Los Guys is more than just a side project. After playing Keith Richards to his brother Lawrence's dynamic Mick Jagger for most of his life, Zubia, who possesses his own expressive, soulful voice, has found himself fronting a full-time band.
"I'm not always comfortable," Zubia admits. "I like being the side guy. But now, for better or worse, I really don't have the balance I had for so many years with Pistoleros, where I could do one thing one night and another thing another night."
After compiling a discography that includes a half-dozen albums in collaboration with The Pistoleros, Los Guys, his brother (Voices on the Street), and Emmett DeGuvera of Valley country rockers Tramps & Thieves, the prolific Zubia has delivered his magnum opus with Between Dark & Dawn.
Throughout the disc's 11 tracks, Los Guys deliver a clinic on the fabled Tempe sound. Whereas some musicians who were at the forefront of a musical movement try to reject their roots when the inevitable backlash hits — witness Chris Cornell trying to shrug of grunge to the point that he enlisted the help of beat virtuoso Timbaland, on his latest solo disc — Zubia embraces the fact that he was there at the big bang of Tempe music, and his new work is considered an extension of the genre.
"It doesn't bother me," Zubia says of the label. "The Tempe sound is a mix of folk, country, rock, and pop, and that's what we do. The funny thing is that, now, there are musicians that I know that weren't around for all that, and they don't equate our sound with a Tempe sound. They just equate it as Los Guys."
After all those years playing in town, Zubia has connections, and the disc also boasts a little help from his friends, including Gin Blossom Jesse Valenzuela (vocals on "Apology"), Valley pedal steel whiz John Rickard on the Merle Haggard-inspired "Ain't Been Here," and Tempe singer/songwriter Shelby James, who lends some smoking Sonny Boy Williamson-esque harp work to the rousing Lawrence Zubia-penned honky-tonker "Whiskey."
Zubia credits his singer/guitarist father Raul, a professional mariachi musician, for a steering him toward the singer/songwriter direction that has encapsulated his career, from his teenage years playing in bands with his brother to his work with The Pistoleros and Los Guys.
"Growing up, I learned to appreciate songs, as opposed to like, having a shredder for a dad, because Mexican music is very melodic and it's about the song and the lyrics," Zubia says. "And, of course, he listened to Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, [and] Merle Haggard, so there were a lot of country influences too."
His bowl of menudo finished ("I think I hurt myself," Zubia laughs), he reiterates how much he appreciates being in a band with PC, Rovnak, Smith, and Beach, states that Los Guys will probably never have an official band meeting or rehearsal, and cautions that he won't suddenly add blistering guitar solos and leather pants to his act.
"This music isn't for anybody who's looking for experimental music," Zubia says, wiping his glistening, menudo-torched forehead one last time, "but if you're into a melody, a story, a song? That's what we do."