Lurking somewhere in the dusty bins of your neighborhood record store -- just after Sade but well before Scritti Politti -- is a "new" album by the Sand Rubies called Cuacha -- except that it's really not a new album at all.
It is, however, a renamed, repackaged and expanded reissue of the 1988 debut from Tucson's Sidewinders -- and as such a critical piece of local music history (the use of the Sand Rubies moniker is a concession to the legal wrangle that stripped the group of its name in 1991, and precipitated its breakup two years later).
Though not as fully realized an effort as the following year's seminal Witchdoctor, Cuacha (Latin slang for "shit") is in many ways the most endearing of all the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies releases, displaying a nascent charm and spirit that none of their other albums -- even 1990's career high point Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall -- ever captured.
The Sand Rubies
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.
In a historical context, Cuacha occupies a special place, ranking alongside Green on Red's Gravity Talks, Giant Sand's Valley of Rain, and the Gin Blossoms' Dusted as one of the more important debuts in the last quarter-century of Arizona music -- if only for the fact that it kicked off the career of the state's most archetypal rock band.
While the actual recording sessions lasted only a few days, for Rich Hopkins and David Slutes -- the creative backbone of the band -- Cuacha was an album very much a lifetime in the making.
Tucson's historic YMCA building is located in the heart of the University section of town, just off Fourth Avenue. Situated a few blocks west of the UofA campus, the two-story landmark serves as home to a number of environmental organizations -- including the local Audubon Society and the Arizona Chapter of the Nature Conservancy -- as well as a handful of private businesses.
Rich Hopkins' office is a nondescript suite tucked away in a remote corner of the second floor. There is little to call attention to the fact that this is the headquarters of San Jacinto Records -- the label Hopkins founded nearly 15 years ago -- save for the strains of surf music cascading into the adjacent hallway.
Hopkins' modest quarters are littered with CDs, cardboard boxes and assorted memorabilia: Signed promo photos are strewn about, stacks of fliers sit in a corner and a poster for Cuacha is tacked up on the outer wall.
Already into his early 40s, Hopkins' tanned face is couched by a shag of auburn hair and thick sideburns that give him the robust look of an active outdoorsman. Pulling up a chair, he will spend the next few hours doing something he hasn't done in years: talk about the early days of the Sidewinders in depth.
Hopkins has been reticent to discuss or really examine his days with the group, preferring instead to remain focused on his current endeavors -- chief among them his revolving recording and touring collective, the Luminarios, and the day-to-day operation of his label. Today, though, Hopkins is especially animated as he scrolls through two decades' worth of memories; frequently jabbing his finger into the air, leaning forward slowly to make a point, then relaxing, falling back into his seat and breaking out in a warm, toothy grin.
The adopted son of a wealthy chemical engineer, Hopkins relocated with his family from Texas to Tucson in the early '60s. Hopkins' childhood was a difficult one, reared in an environment he describes as "a pretty serious alcoholic background." Though he was drawn to records and the radio at an early age, music was not given priority in the Hopkins home; both his parents were Ivy League graduates who stressed academia over art.
"Ever since I was little -- because of the problems at home -- my way out was through music, the dream land of music, wishing I could be Leslie West or Jorma Kaukonen or any of the great 1960s and '70s guitar players. That's what I really wanted to do, but I didn't get the encouragement from my parents. It wasn't until I was getting out of college that I decided I wanted to start playing the guitar."
The one exception, he remembers, was a sixth-grade talent show that found Hopkins fronting an amateur combo covering the Monkees' "Stepping Stone" -- a song that would eventually become a staple of the Sidewinders' live sets.
"It was just one song," recalls Hopkins wistfully some four decades later, "but it sounded more glorious and more heavy than anything I'd ever done. I think that kind of feeling of power is what set me off."
Still, it would be years before his musical ambitions were realized. During his teens, Hopkins was already on what his parents viewed as the road to perdition ("basically listening to records and smoking a lot of pot," he jokes) and so he was sent off to prep school in Connecticut in the mid-'70s. After graduating, he enrolled at Ithaca College in New York, where he earned a degree in anthropology.
Back East he began to dabble in music, befriending and briefly managing guitarist Chieli Minucci, who would later go on to considerable success playing with jazz-fusion combo Special EFX. Around this time, Hopkins also took his first tentative steps at learning how to play guitar. Though fond of jazz, the twentysomething Hopkins was already a late bloomer, and the idea of practicing endless modal scales with an eye toward becoming a polished player seemed unrealistic. Hopkins was stuck searching for a direction.
If he was looking for a sign, Hopkins found it during one of his visits home to Tucson, where by the late '70s a full-fledged musical revolution was taking place -- one that would irrevocably change the history of Arizona rock 'n' roll. In 1979, punk came to the Old Pueblo in the form of a bar, Pearl's Hurricane, and a band, the Pedestrians.
The Peds were a raw collection of fledgling talents, led by future notables Chris Cacavas, Jon Venet, Billy Sedylmayr and Hopkins' childhood friend Dave Seger. Although the band only lasted a year, the group single-handedly altered the city's musical landscape and ultimately yielded the founders of some of its most well-known outfits -- Giant Sand, Green on Red and Naked Prey.
Hopkins' San Jacinto Records recently released an extraordinary archival album, a live recording of the Pedestrians' July 1979 debut at Pearl's. Culled from a lo-fi cassette, the disc features a mix of covers (ranging from the Ramones, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello) to a clutch of evocative originals.
Watching this group of local kids kick-start a mini-revolt with nothing but three chords and a bit of attitude would have a dramatic effect on Hopkins. "Seeing the [Pedestrians], I knew that rock 'n' roll was what I was going to do," he says.
Again, that dream would have to wait as Hopkins decided to sign up with the Peace Corps, spending the next two and a half years in Paraguay. Just before leaving -- and in what would be one of his first forays into the business end of music -- Hopkins gave his friend Chris Cacavas $1,200 (part of an inheritance his grandmother had left him) to finance the first demo by the Serfers, who would later morph into Green on Red; GOR would be signed by Slash Records some 18 months later.
When Hopkins returned from his South American sojourn in 1983, he settled back in Tucson and enrolled in the graduate agronomy program at UofA, in an effort to please his ever-demanding father. It was during this period that he met and eventually married Andrea Curtis. Curtis was, as Hopkins puts it, "a crazy musician type," who played drums for local oddball rockers the Phantom Limbs. In late '84 Curtis drifted out of the Limbs and into a new group that was searching for a rhythm guitarist.
"One day she said, 'Why don't you come down and play with us?'" recalls Hopkins. "She knew I played guitar a little, but it was a personal thing, just kind of around the house. So I borrowed Dave Seger's Stratocaster and his amp and went down. And after the first day I knew I was the leader of the band."
The headstrong Hopkins took control of the group, then dubbed the 700 Club. While that band would never play publicly, its lineup continued to revolve until Hopkins and Curtis were the only ones remaining.
Undeterred, Hopkins quickly found a few new members, including singer (and subsequently successful graphic artist) Roger Alan. In the spring of '85, Hopkins booked the band -- now dubbed the Sidewinders -- its first gig at Jack's bar opening for Naked Prey. The group had also begun recording.
In April they found themselves working with a local acquaintance -- an amateur engineer and fresh-faced former Catholic schoolboy with a four-track studio. Hopkins and company went in and laid down the music to the band's first composition, with Alan set to deliver his part the following week. But with the recording and gig rapidly approaching, Alan suddenly got cold feet and bailed on the band at the last minute, leaving them in the lurch for both the show and the session.
Frustrated, Hopkins was pondering his options when he decided to pay a visit to the studio of his engineer friend.
"I went over there and he was being kind of sheepish, but he pulled out this tape and said, 'Here, listen to what I did.' So I put it on and it was our song -- but he'd written new lyrics to it and sung on the track himself."
Although he was clearly taken with the cheekiness of the act itself, Hopkins was even more enamored of the completed track, a love-gone-bad anthem called "I Shoulda Told You," featuring the frenzied, frenetic growls of this enterprising singer.
"When I heard that little demo, man, it just seemed right. And that," intones Hopkins dramatically, "was the first song Dave Slutes and I ever wrote together."
David Slutes is onstage and he's bleeding -- just one of the perils of shaving in between sets.
It's May 4, and Tucson's venerable Club Congress is teeming with bodies. A festive air permeates the proceedings, as 700 or so revelers are in the midst of a pre-Cinco de Mayo celebration with the Zsa Zsas.
Formed in the early '90s, the Slutes-led Zsa Zsas have become a holiday tradition in town. Ostensibly a cover band (or, as Slutes prefers to call them, "the anti-cover band"), the Zsa Zsas are also a Tucson supergroup of sorts, featuring members of the River Roses, Creosote, Topless Opry and other local notables.
Admittedly, the Zsa Zsas are less a trad cover outfit in the Boogie Knights mold than, say, experimental interpreters in the vein of Dread Zeppelin or El Vez. They prove this early on, opening with a mind-blowing medley of "Live and Let Die" into Santana's "Smooth," which twists into "Hava Nagila" and closes with a weird can-can coda -- throwing in snippets of everything from Sabbath to Ricky Martin in between.
The group's act is something more than mere sonic shtick, however, as the clever segues -- "Whole Lotta Love" into "Muskrat Love" -- highbrow musical references and in-jokes demonstrate.
Throughout the gig, the goateed Slutes is incredibly animated: Bounding around the stage in a tuxedo and sombrero ensemble, shilling for show sponsor Tequiza beer and generally hamming it up, he comes off like a cross between a punk pantaloon and a suave Latin Lothario -- David Johansen meets Xavier Cugat.
Oddly enough, of all Slutes' post-Sand Rubies efforts -- including the critically acclaimed power-pop project Maryanne and slo-core exponents Little Sisters of the Poor -- the Zsa Zsas seem to be the most commercially viable. The band is set to fly to New York in June to be featured on a new VH1 show called Cover Wars (it won't, of course, be the first time Slutes has appeared on the video music channel; the Sand Rubies' clip for "Santa Maria Street" was in regular rotation on the network in 1993.)
After playing a full two hours as the Zsa Zsas, Slutes and company break for 20 minutes. The singer reemerges clean-shaven and clad in a spangled silver shirt to perform a second set as a high-camp combo called the Gay Caballeros. "We know all de songs," declares Slutes, in a fey chirp, "Well . . . only de gay ones, actually." And they do, playing everything from "I'm Too Sexy" to a night-capping, over-the top rendition of Celine Dion's Titanic theme -- complete with haunting boat whistles and Slutes' glass-shattering diva shrieks. The evening proves a huge success; the group breaks Club Congress' attendance record for a local band by a hundred.
A few days later, Slutes is back at Congress, but this time it's early afternoon and the bar is empty, save for a few employees preparing for the evening's upcoming show by alt-rockers Cracker.
Leaning back in a large red booth, Slutes looks a good decade younger than his 38 years. The self-deprecating charm and boyish good looks that once wooed females -- from barmaids to record executives -- are still there. Gone, however is the tawny mane of hair he wore as a trademark, replaced by a close crop of dark brown. The Zsa Zsas' gig has left the lithe singer suffering the aftereffects of a cold. Apologizing in advance if his answers are delivered through an antihistamine haze, Slutes recounts his long, sometimes rocky partnership with Hopkins and the events leading up to the recording of Cuacha.
For Slutes, the road to rock 'n' roll was considerably less circuitous than for Rich Hopkins. The son of a prominent Tucson attorney, Slutes gained an early exposure to the music from his older brother, an ardent fan of Bowie and the Beatles, who led his own art-rock combo, the Bonzo Fungus, in Phoenix.
Like Hopkins, Slutes had also been touched by the punk promise of the Pedestrians and the legion of like-minded outfits they spawned. "I remember being down at Pearl's before it closed and pogoing my little head off," says Slutes. "After that it was going to Tumbleweeds every weekend. It was definitely a huge influence seeing all the bands from that scene."
By the mid-'80s, Slutes' musical résumé was relatively short. He'd sung with the disturbingly monikered garage combo Billy Bowel and the Movements, as well as a cover band (and precursor to the Zsa Zsas) called the Vegas Kids. By early 1985, the bulk of Slutes' focus was on recording local acts in his makeshift home studio (he would eventually release a compilation of those sessions, Tunes From Tucson, in 1987) when he made the fateful decision to put his own lyrics and voice on the Sidewinders song he'd recorded.
"What an asshole," laughs Slutes, recalling his own unmitigated gall. "It was pretty bold to think, 'Yeah, it'll be okay if I do this.' But Rich's guitar just made a lot of sense to me immediately. I felt I could naturally sing over it and play with it. For me, it was an easy sound to understand."
A reluctant Slutes was cajoled by Hopkins into joining the band on short notice for its upcoming Jack's gig. Armed with a handful of lyric sheets, Slutes took the stage with the Sidewinders -- then consisting of Hopkins, Curtis, bassist Ron Zastuary and lead guitarist Dave Moskowitz, a pintsize '70s rock relic with a bizarre penchant for Ted Nugent-like onstage acrobatics.
Though the group gigged regularly and the Hopkins/Slutes partnership yielded a couple more songs early on, the Sidewinders floundered for much of '85 and '86, going through a stream of ill-fitting guitarists and bassists. Making things worse was the fact that Hopkins' and Curtis' marriage was falling apart; they would eventually divorce in 1986, though she would stay with the band until 1989.
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.
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."
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.
Cuacha was also significant as the inaugural release of Hopkins' San Jacinto label, an imprint that would become a vital player in local music, putting out recordings by the Gin Blossoms, River Roses, Black Sun Ensemble (see Recordings on page 100) and many others.
Catalogued as San Jacinto's "DRAM 0188" (the designation stands for Dave, Rich, Andrea and Mark; the 0188 for the January '88 release), Cuacha would eventually find success overseas as well, when it was picked up for distribution in the U.K. through Demon Records.
When the band inked its deal with Mammoth Records in 1989, part of the agreement included surrendering the rights to Cuacha -- "for no money," Hopkins is quick to point out.
Since neither Mammoth nor RCA ever rereleased the recording, Hopkins eventually regained ownership of the album in 1994 and periodically began issuing pressings on CD, all of which quickly sold out.
Late last year, Hopkins finally decided to give the disc a proper reissue. The new version -- which has been filtering into retailers over the past month -- features the Sand Rubies designation, a visual face-lift -- updated packaging, additional photos, a humorous "Did You Know?" fact quiz about the band -- as well as a remastering treatment and a pair of bonus tracks (the two extra cuts are not, however, Cuacha-era recordings. The first, "I'm Not With You Anymore," is an Auntie Ramos-era remnant rerecorded in Tucson in 1995, while the second, "Tenderfoot Town," is a Sand Rubies outtake produced by late Neil Young collaborator David Briggs).
Though not expressly timed to coincide with the rerelease, the Sand Rubies have also begun playing shows again, this time augmented by a new drummer, Ernie Mendoza (a member of Slutes' Zsa Zsas), and frequent bassist Robin Johnson.
Though both principals remain busy -- Hopkins has just completed a new Luminarios record and is set to release a collaboration with Billy Sedylmayr in June, while Slutes plans to continue to push the Zsa Zsas while he works on an as-yet-unnamed orch-pop outfit with Johnson -- it seems that the partnership has in some ways come full circle. There is even talk of writing new songs and doing it "the old way."
While the group's well-received 1998 "comeback" LP Return of the Living Dead featured a quartet of new Hopkins/Slutes compositions, the tracks were done in halves -- with Hopkins handing over completed music for Slutes to write and sing lyrics over (an ironically similar scenario to the way their unwitting partnership began).
"If we do [write new material] I want to get back to doing how we used to -- writing in practice with a band -- as a band. To me it just makes all the difference in the world," says Slutes. "The new stuff that was on [Return] was really great -- don't get me wrong -- but I think if we do it again, we have to do it the way we used to during the [Cuacha] period."
"You know," muses Hopkins, contemplating the subject. "It's been so long it's kind of weird and scary. But with me and Dave -- regardless of everything that's happened over the years -- there is something still there. If we could just find that space again, that trust. It's difficult to get that feeling back, but if we want to, we could do it again.
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