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Twenty-two years ago, Keith Walker was kind of a big deal. Not that he'd ever tell you that.
In 1989, British rock tabloid NME hailed a young band from Dublin called Power of Dreams as "stars of tomorrow." Today, the Power of Dreams drummer is sitting at a bar in Tempe discussing Sister Cities, the Tempe-based indie rock outfit he currently drums for. National magazines haven't crowned the band future celebrities, but Walker has a knack for spotting talent when he sees it. A chance run-in at a Sister Cities show last year gave Walker raw material to mold, initially signing on as the band's manager.
"I turned up at a [Sister Cities] show one night and I was completely floored," Walker says. "I thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen. It reinforced my belief in local music."
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Sister Cities has one of those rock 'n' roll band names you can't help marveling at: It perfectly describes their transnational lineup. Four members, three home countries — it's almost enough that we could go on about the melting pot that is the United States. How only in America could four people come from three different countries and go on to achieve success in our dusty desert town. Sparing the nationalism, this is really about three dudes and one lady who just want to create good, American indie rock.
The band's sound wasn't always indie, and that's where the whole unavoidable "countries collide" thing comes in. On a 2010 venture to Rocky Point, Mexico, former drummer Courtney Robinson and front-man/songwriter Brett Davis met Ana Barraza and somehow persuaded her to leave everything behind, move to the United States and join their fledgling band. It wasn't until Barraza joined on guitar and keys that the band's sound began to develop, organically mutating from stiff-upper-lip garage rock to a breezier, Beach House-meets-Cold War Kids indie pop.
The new sound quickly caught on around town. The band used its Facebook page to push fans to request its songs on KWSS' The Morning Infidelity, and the band took the number one most requested slot several times.
When Walker joined, he boosted the band's profile, endearing fans across the pond to the band.
"He's too modest to say it, but Keith was actually in a popular band in Ireland with number one singles and stuff," Davis says.
The single was "Never Been to Texas." (If your mouse finger is quick enough, you can pause the YouTube video to catch some pretty sweet shots of Walker's formerly feathered coif.) Power of Dreams disbanded after their 1994 effort, Become Yourself, and Walker devoted himself to playing in Arizona bands like the Celtic-flavored The Bollox, with Authority Zero's Jason DeVore, and the now-defunct Phoenix indie quartet The Ex-Kings. Power of Dreams reunited for a series of gigs in 2009, but earlier this year, Walker left the band, focusing exclusively on Sister Cities. The rest of the members are at least a decade his junior. He adds what the band likes to call a "seasoned element."
Walker encountered the band while original drummer Courtney Robinson manned the kit. He was impressed and began managing the band, booking gigs, and nurturing its members' talents. When Robinson left, Walker was a natural fit to take over, joining Barraza, Davis, and the singer's high school pal, bassist Spike Brendle.
The band's sound has changed a lot since Sister Cities' earliest incarnation. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Sister Cities recording that predates Barraza and Walker, and the old songs would just serve to confuse newer fans, people who have witnessed the group's dream-pop sound at gigs like Bar Smith's hipster dance party, Sticky Fingers, or last year's McDowell Mountain Music Festival.
Sister Cities' songs present an interesting duality. On one hand, tracks like "White Dress" have an upbeat, almost happily absent-minded vibe, but the lyrics are heady, suggesting through the casual language of scattered thoughts that there's really something else going on under those poppy melodies. "Don't you say anything / Wrapped up in your ways / While the sunlight kisses your waves," Barraza and Davis sing, their vocals melting. The pair's vocals give the song an androgynous tone as they sing: "Cause when it works it works, but it doesn't most the time."
"The Other Boys" is the band's strongest link to their rough-rock past — its incessant New Wave bass line giving way to a crashing stomping chorus.
The band's best song, "Toolbox," finds Walker's drum work restrained as the song builds slowly with stuttering, reverb-laden guitars and synth toward an anthemic chorus. "Undone, always, if it gets too hot, you can cool off in my shade," Davis sings with sexy detachment.
The songs have an air of polished professionalism. The group recently returned to Flying Blanket Studios, where they cut the songs with Mesa producer Bob Hoag. Hoag has built a reputation as a local hit machine, working with Gospel Claws, Black Carl, The Format, Mergence, and others. Sister Cities doesn't bother hiding their loyalty.
"We wouldn't work with anyone else," Davis says.
Sitting down to chat with the band is a lesson in humility. You get no sense of ego from Walker, despite his background in more successful bands, and Davis' boyish good looks and nice-guy attitude knock away the naturally occurring lead singer syndrome. They're a serious band, but they're not serious about putting on airs, a rare thing for a band whose profile is steadily rising.
And to think we almost lost them. Well, not really. A rumor floating around town suggested that their August 4 gig at The Rhythm Room gig would be their last in Arizona. The Rhythm Room's website stated "Final Arizona show" below the band's name on the venue's calendar, leading some to speculate that the band was blowing town, perhaps heading to Europe to capitalize on Walker's cult following there. The group clarifies: This will be its final Arizona show before they venture off to Barraza's native Mexico to visit her family, eat street tacos, drink beer, and enjoy a beach vacation that will perhaps further influence their sound.
Un-Google-able band names are no rare thing for up-and-coming indie acts, and Sister Cities are no exception. Searching "sister cities" reveals cheesy photo-ops of sister city programs across the country, displaying people from different cultures enjoying jolly belly laughs together, shaking hands and forgetting that they come from completely different worlds. Coincidentally, ironically, or a combination of the two, Phoenix is sister cities with both a town in Ireland and a city in Mexico. If you were so inclined, you could call it fate — but Sister Cities' success has more to do with hard work, constant gigging, and humbleness almost to a fault.
What make this "Indie Rock", what qualifies something as that these days? It seems that label is handed out pretty liberally...I'm interested to know what the writers, or the New Times editorial staff, uses as criteria. Is it how a band self-identifies? Is there a list with boxes to check off? Curious.
I've seen them a few times and they're ahead of the local-band curve. This band will reinvigorate the Phoenix local scene. GO TO A SHOW.