Musically, this sure as hell can be an incestuous town. I see it more and more all the time, with the same musicians playing in multiple bands with different sonic flavors, often on different instruments. Especially in Tempe, where a relatively small group of musicians hold down a scene where they're virtually interchangeable, even though the bands span a variety of styles.
Case in point: A couple of weekends ago I went to see psychobilly juggernaut Grave Danger at the Yucca Tap Room on a jam-packed Friday night, where Kevin Daly and company were debuting the band's new bass player, Roy Valencia, who also plays in the Muddy Violets, as well as with Johnny Blood and the Transfusions. Meanwhile, Grave Danger drummer David Kains also does time in the Sonic Thrills and Thee Oh No's.
Valencia replaces original Grave Danger bass player Rich Merriman, whom I saw the very next night playing guitar in the rockabilly outfit Shadowcasters and bass in the country-inflected Maricopa County Prison Band.
While I was there, I was missing out on a show at The Loft with Flathead, the longtime project of original Grave Danger drummer Vince Ramirez. It features bassist Alex Otto, who's also in Thee Oh No's with Kains, and who subbed for Merriman when Grave Danger went to the South by Southwest music conference in Austin last month.
Confused yet? It's easy to lose the threads that tie all of these bands together. With those four that played that weekend, at least, Grave Danger is the common denominator.
Daly, vocalist/guitarist for Grave Danger, compares his scene to the blues scene, where the musicians are so familiar with one another that any of them can pretty much jump up and fill in if needed. Back in the day, in the late '90s, all of these guys had Long Wong's as their playground, where they could function as an interchangeable montage of musicians. There's not really such a place now, which is a shame, and some of the musicians who used to play, well, musical chairs (like Daly and Ramirez) have given up on the multiple-band idea.
Most of the band members mentioned above have known each other for years, and their interactions are second nature. They know one another's individual talents, which is why someone like Merriman, a classically trained guitar player and teacher, plays bass in the Prison Band and was previously playing bass in Grave Danger.
Merriman, Daly, and Ramirez formed Grave Danger about eight years ago, while Daly was playing bass with Ramirez in Flathead. Actually, it's hard to find a musician in this town who hasn't played bass for Flathead -- Otto is the seventh.
Around the turn of the century, though, Grave Danger effectively went on hiatus -- Ramirez quit the band, and Daly was focusing his energies on the Trophy Husbands. Merriman, a Type A personality, needed something to keep him busy. "After not playing in bands for six months, I started writing music and playing guitar, and I formed a band called The Resentments," he tells me. The Resentments, after a lineup change, would become The Shadowcasters.
Though The Shadowcasters are Merriman's primary artistic outlet for songwriting and guitar playing, he likes to have his schedule full. He's also a truck driver for Arizona State University, and a single father. But it's those obligations that led to Daly's replacing him as bassist for Grave Danger.
"The schedule for Grave Danger is very inconsistent," Merriman tells me. "Sometimes some traveling would come up that I wasn't able to do because of my previous commitments."
Exactly that situation occurred recently when Grave Danger was heading to Austin to play SXSW. To go, Merriman would've taken a financial hit, missed his daughter's spring break, and missed a tough musical theory class. So he decided he couldn't make it. "Kevin had been thinking that he wanted the band to primarily play out of town, and we both realized I'm probably not the guy for that," he says.
Daly concurs that the out-of-town schedule for Grave Danger -- the band is playing Salt Lake City and Las Vegas in the next couple of weeks -- led to Merriman's being replaced by a rotating cast of bass players, including Valencia and Otto.
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Hence, the next chapter for both Grave Danger and Merriman's musical career. And after talking to folks caught up in this particular web of musicians, I think that the revolving-door mentality of some of these bands has the potential to cause rifts between friends, but it's definitely an asset to our scene. These are all people who seriously give a damn about local music, and who constantly put themselves onstage to entertain us.
Not all of them are affected the same way by the long-standing incestuousness of their scene, though. Daly, who used to be in virtually every band on the Rustic Records label, confines his efforts to Grave Danger these days. And Ramirez is committed exclusively to Flathead -- he tells me that with multiple bands, you just get too many goddamned songs in your head to fulfill your potential artistically.
Merriman has the opposite philosophy -- he needs as much on his plate as possible, and to be onstage rocking out any chance he gets. I'd think that he would be slightly relieved to have one fewer project to think about, but that's not the case. "If I feel any relief, it's not that I'm less busy," he tells me. "I've recently been playing in three bands, and I would go many weeks without a single gig. That's disappointing to me."
He tells me that if he were ever to interview a potential new band member, he'd pose the following question: "'It's your birthday on Saturday in two weeks. That being the case, do you want to play that night because it's your birthday, or do you not want to play that night because it's your birthday?' I love to play out. I would want to play because it's my birthday, because that's how I enjoy myself."