Roger Clyne is in a reflective mood. The Peacemakers' front man has had plenty to think about over the last year. He got married, became a father for the third time, lost his record deal and saw his band break up under acrimonious circumstances. He went on to form a new group and has spent the better part of 1999 recording and finally readying a new double album for release next week. It's a lot to ponder, but Clyne, leaning back in a booth at a Casa Grande bar some 50 miles south of Phoenix, is contemplating the moment last year when he says he had "to stare a day job in the face again."
After the Refreshments' breakup in the summer of '98, Clyne found himself in the unenviable position of being a musician without a band. He was also newly married, a father of one child with twins on the way and without any visible prospects to support his family. Beyond that, he had just turned 30, the milestone that most musicians, even commercially successful ones like Clyne, dread. "Thirtyitis," as it's commonly known among aspiring rock 'n' rollers, is the crossroads where most performers have to decide either to pack it in or pursue their dreams all the way to the end, however bleak the financial prospects may be. "I decided I wasn't going to let an arbitrary number stop me from playing music. The culture tells you you have to stop if you're not a bona fide contributing member of our economy or our political system, which arguably musicians are neither," says Clyne, laughing. "So I looked 'thirtyitis' in the face and went, 'I don't think it really exists.' Actually, it does. But for just a second. You can cure it and get over it if you just commit to being a musician."
Recommitting himself to his craft, Clyne began playing a series of informal gigs at Nita's Hideaway last summer with former Dead Hot Workshop and Dialectrics guitarist Steve Larson, and later at Long Wong's with his Refreshments bandmate, drummer P.H. Naffah. Clyne's musical circle would later expand to include guitarists Scott Johnson and Jim Swafford and bassist Darryl Icard. Their fun, drunken and often sloppy happy-hour shows proved to be the catharsis Clyne was looking for. The positive response to the new songs he had begun mixing in with old Refreshments favorites also helped rejuvenate his desire to pursue music as a full-time career. After a couple of lineup (and name) changes, which have seen Nashville transplant Danny White take over for Icard on bass and Steve Larson come aboard for Swafford on guitar, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers' debut album, Honky Tonk Union, and a limited-edition compendium live disc, Real to Reel, are set to hit stores on October 15, the same day the band plans a massive CD-release party at Tempe's Hayden Square.
The original intention was to conduct an interview with Clyne at the Red Rock Bar, a charming dive located off Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak, which served as a kind of guiding inspiration for the batch of countryish story songs written for the new album. Unfortunately, upon arriving, the bar was closed, so we settled for an equally atmospheric cowboy lounge, Cotton's Wonder Bar, within the Casa Grande city limits.
Clyne is a thoughtful subject. He speaks with the passion of a committed activist, whether he's discussing his family, his band, the commercialization of Tempe -- the city in which he's lived almost all his life -- or the growing local phenomenon that surrounds his music:
New Times: Let's talk about the band a little first. You've assembled a pretty amazing collection of local musicians. But what about the guitarists? Both of them (Scott Johnson, former Feedbag and Gin Blossom and Steve Larson, formerly of Dead Hot Workshop and Dialectrics) are completely different kinds of players.
Roger Clyne: Scotty was really complimentary because he's pseudo-virtuoso. You can kind of tell him what you're thinking and reference a certain sound or a style, and he'll pick it up. It can be anyone from Djhango Reinhart to Luther Perkins. He can do all that stuff. It's just that he has so much at his disposal, he's really helped the band's sound grow from the gate."
NT: On the other side, you've got Steve Larson, who's played in bands that are associated with a much different style of music than the Refreshments.
Clyne: It's true. Dead Hot and the Refreshments were kind of bipolar. But I've always been a fan of Steve and his playing. He's a friend of mine, too, but I've always been a fan of his playing first. It's very spontaneous and unpolished. Almost raw in a way. One time, Buddy (Edwards, former Refreshments bassist) and I were talking about guitar players and he nailed Steve. He said, "He's the most soulful white guitarist in town." And I agree with him.
NT: At a certain point, after the Refreshments were dropped from Mercury, you were approached by a couple of different major labels with the option of continuing the band, using the name and replacing some of the members. Did you give any serious thought to doing that?
Clyne: I did consider it. I considered all our options very seriously. But the more I thought about it, the idea of replacing members that were part of the Refreshments was really unappealing."
NT: But on some level, it had to be tempting. Having already established a name and sold some records, it must of been hard turning your back on that, knowing that if you did anything else you would have to start from scratch.
Clyne: We would have had more recognition and more momentum had I replaced members and kept the name and gone on as the Refreshments. But I don't know if what we're playing now would be as well accepted under the same moniker. In my estimation there's a lot less lampooning going on, and there's a lot more maturity going on. I'm not sure people wanted the Refreshments to be able to grow up at all. The difference between record one (1996's Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy) and record two (1997's The Bottle & Fresh Horses) was that (the second one) was critically lauded. Critics liked it but we lost a lot of our fans. I don't want to say we lost all of them, but you could see it in the difference in sales.
The Refreshments was a band that was part of a time and a place, and we excelled at what we did. I haven't made a conscious change of direction, but I think the other side of the coin is I've evolved artistically in a certain way. Obviously my life is different than when I was 24 and the music reflects that. I looked down the road a ways and thought it would be more of a problem in the long run keeping the name than a benefit.
NT: Have you ever thought that you or your songs were given short shrift because of the "party band" image associated with the Refreshments?
Clyne: The only time I ever really thought it was a "problem" in any way was in my own head. I thought amongst my own peers in town or even nationally, that our songs that weren't so simply a pop construction or a fun bar song were being really overlooked very blatantly. Not even acknowledged. Like, "Oh, well I heard 'Banditos' and 'Down Together' and that's the extent of the depth of the record." Although I'm pretty close to the canvas. I disagree with that."
NT: Do you think most of the resentment, at least within local circles, came from the fact that the Refreshments' rise was pretty meteoric? It was less than two years from the time you formed to when you released your major-label debut -- and you had a local hit record in the meantime.
Clyne: I'm sure it did. But I took comfort when that happened. I was talking to Doug Hopkins one time at Chuy's when the Mortals (Clyne's pre-Refreshments band) got to open for the Gin Blossoms. We had been playing around town for almost four years and had no real following. But I asked him, "When did you know it was happening for you?" He said, "You'll know when it's happening for you when people you don't even know start talking shit about you." That was a nice little thing to remember when the Refreshments were being slagged.
NT: Judging solely on the new material, is it fair to say that you're probably not going to be writing any more songs like "Banditos?"
Clyne: Yes and no. It's not because I don't want to, it's just that it's not what's coming out. I'm writing songs more like "Beautiful Disaster" and "Green & Dumb." But at the same time, I don't think I've made a total departure from my past. Songs like "My Heart Is a UFO" is a natural song for us to play -- -I don't even know what that song means (laughs) -- but somehow it references a sense of humor that was prevalent in the material before. I haven't turned my back on that. I hope I never turn my back on a sense of humor, if I do I'll probably be in a lot of trouble."
NT: Has your music been shaped to a degree by your life -- specifically the things that have happened with your family and your career in the last few years?
Clyne: I went from being a single young man where it didn't matter if I got drunk and slept in the parking lot at Long Wong's to where I'm a father of three. I had my best friend die, my beloved band that I loved broke up, and because of that some of my best friendships have been tainted. But at the same time, I've been really blessed when I try and sort these things out through my music; I find that I have a connection with an audience or a crowd that's been really supportive, that most artists around here don't get. That's why I never bemoan the stuff that's happened to me, and I've always been thankful for all the stuff that I've been blessed with.
NT: But what kind of practical effect did the experiences of the last year have on your music?
Clyne: It made me commit to it more than ever. I realized when all that stuff was starting to strip itself away that being involved in the music business and partnerships with people can -- with all that joy -- bring you a lot of disappointment and pain as well. But thank God for disillusionment. Then there are no more illusions, and you see the thing for exactly what it is, and I still love it and I'm not going to quit.
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NT: The Refreshments, and now the Peacemakers, have had an unbelievable local following. Not so much just in size but in the zealousness of your fans. Anybody who goes up on your Web page (www.azpeacemakers.com, which has logged 550,000 hits in September alone -- although most of it repeat users) can see how active and committed the people that follow your band are. How do you explain the phenomenon?
Clyne: I'm sort of afraid to understand it. Because I'm afraid I might then be guilty of trying to engineer it in a way, even subconsciously. I just stay as appreciative of the phenomenon as possible without understanding it.
I know we work really fucking hard when we're on stage. If I don't get off stage sick from dehydration and/or alcohol poisoning (laughs) -- not so much the alcohol -- but if I don't get off stage and every inch of my clothing is completely soaked, I don't feel like I've done my job. We're not breaking any new ground by talking about this, but it's that old Springsteen ethic that says "You have to get their asses moving before their hearts and minds will follow." We try to make sure that every night somebody's ass is moving (laughs).
The Peacemakers are scheduled to perform on Friday, October 15, at Hayden Square in Tempe, with Los Hermanos Rancheros, and the Blazers. Showtime is 8 p.m.