Roger Clyne Builds an Empire From His Music

Roger Clyne sits at a table at Four Peaks Brewing Company's Tempe stronghold, and he's about three beers into an afternoon dominated by Pumpkin Porter. Through the patio speakers, Coldplay's "Yellow" comes on.

When the song came out, Chris Martin's reedy, thin falsetto crooning "your skin, oh, yeah, you're skin and bones" could be heard seemingly everywhere. Yet Clyne's still an unabashed fan. He speaks reverentially about Coldplay.

"Everyone [in the band] is playing deep-drive. They're running past the finish line on this one," Clyne says, gazing off into the distance. "I just think they believe [in what] they're playing . . . It's yellow, it's dirty -- but it's luminous, too."

Reminded that many critics find Coldplay's music too flimsy to be taken seriously, Clyne continues, "Would it be cheesy if it wasn't overplayed? Or would it be a treasure to you if you were the only one who'd heard it? That's why I can say [Coldplay] has something happening . . . I don't want their acceptance in the world to corrupt them for me."

Looking back on Clyne's career and musical output over his long career, it's not surprising that he would have sympathy for Coldplay.

Many react to Clyne's music in the same way.

Since the '90s, when Clyne's first band, the Refreshments, signed to a major label and scored a radio hit with "Banditos," his music has straddled the line between Southwest mythologizing and frat-friendly party songs about drinking tequila.

See also: Border-Jumping with Roger Clyne

The former music helped lionize him as a hometown hero, and while the latter tunes have contributed to an infectiously fun reputation that has characterized his band's shows since the Refreshments days, they've also brought him detractors.

Known by some of them as the "Jimmy Buffett of Arizona," Clyne's been dismissed as an over-aged bro with a tequila problem.

But they miss the fact that after the Refreshments dissolved, Clyne's songwriting matured and (in the lyrical sense, if not the alcoholic one) sobered up. He's tackled themes of age, death, and existentialism, in addition to honoring life's celebratory moments. He and his bands, the Refreshments and Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, have put out nine full-length albums.

Clyne's lyrics glorify partying and drinking tequila, sure. His songs sometimes contain moments that venture into cheesiness, which have non-fans in his hometown rolling their eyes at the mention of his name. And the reactions are justified. But those moments exist side by side with moments of brutal honesty, sometimes within the same song.

The Refreshments song "Mexico" contains the line "Found a hooker and lost my erection / So I had to lie in the letter to the boys back home," a line from which you can extrapolate an entire story. Who is this narrator? Where did he find the hooker? Was his impotence the result of too much tequila or a last-minute moral reconsideration? And why is he writing a letter? Why are the "boys" expecting tales involving prostitutes? It's a line filled with vulnerability and honesty.

But then, in the same song, Clyne continues, crooning: "The good guys and the bad guys, they never work past noon around here / They sit side by side in the cantina / Talk to señoritas and drink warm beer." The line comes off as seeing the world through gringo-colored glasses, a saccharine "tacos in paradise" naivete about the world and his place in it.

In this regard, perhaps a more apt comparison would be to Bruce Springsteen. "Born in the U.S.A." never was meant to be a song that Republican politicians would play as a patriotic booster at rallies, and Springsteen bristled when Ronald Reagan did just that in the '80s. But that chorus is catchy, and people choose how they interpret song lyrics, even if that interpretation happens to be wrong. There's a gung-ho patriotism in the chorus that exists alongside the desperation at the American condition present in the verses.

Clyne faces a similar situation -- people hear the cheese and immediately dismiss him, while Clyne is left wondering why people didn't dig deeper. Not surprisingly, Clyne prefers the Springsteen comparison to the Buffett one.

But he resembles both Springsteen and Buffet, especially because he's a savvy businessman whose main income in the digital era is from live shows and merchandise. That is, he's an independent artist who's built a mini-empire in the Southwest that's about much more than his albums.

In Phoenix, Clyne packs rooms with thousands of people -- concertgoers at his October 18 show at the 1,000-capacity Pressroom paid $35 a ticket -- and fans approach him on the street and in restaurants for autographs.

They drink his private-label tequila, Mexican Moonshine (available at more than 300 stores and restaurants nationwide), hire his band to play private parties, and, with thousands of others from around the country, make an annual pilgrimage to the Mexican fishing village that serves as the physical manifestation of his deep-felt connection to Mexico -- Puerto Peñasco (a.k.a. Rocky Point) -- for a weekend-long party he calls Circus Mexicus.

Clyne exists in a word of devalued recorded music, but he has sacrificed and persevered and came out king of a hill that he would like to build into a mountain.

But, he says, he wants to do it on his own terms, in a way that honors the principles and values that have sustained him through an often-trying career. He's burned through publicists and managers, he says, because he's not been willing to sacrifice his vision for big-time commercial-music success.

"I think we're on our sixth or seventh management direction, and at some point, I'm either going to be proven totally right or totally wrong," Clyne says. "This madness in my vision -- to be able to take the career to more people and maintain its integrity -- will [turn out to be] impossible and mad or obvious and right."

For now, he has found a partner in Red Light Management, an artist-management service with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Charlottesville, Virginia, Nashville, Atlanta, Bristol, and London.

"I was blown away by what I saw," says Red Light Management's Charlie Brusco of the first time he saw the Peacemakers at a Chicago venue. The Atlanta-based Brusco entered the music industry in the '70s and managed Lynyrd Skynyrd, and now his clients include Styx, Don Felder, the Outlaws, and Collective Soul. "Everyone [in the audience] was singing the words to songs that I didn't know."

Roger Clyne is wrapped up in Tempe's music history, but he was born in Tucson in 1968.

His paternal grandfather was one of the first doctors there, and his maternal grandfather was Stephen Shadegg, a Republican political consultant and operative who ran Arizona U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater's ill-fated presidential campaign in 1964. Clyne's uncle, John Shadegg, was an extremely conservative Republican congressman for almost two decades. The third-generation Arizona native's family moved to Tempe when he was 2 years old.

"It's funny, because when I was a kid, I didn't want to be [a native]. When I was a teenager, I thought, 'Anywhere but here,'" Clyne says. "That was typical teenage sentiment: 'Let me go to California!'"

Part of that sentiment came from working on his grandparents' ranch. Where he now writes songs pregnant with imagery of the Southwest, he once vowed to reject it.

"When I was a kid in high school, I swore I'd never wear cowboy boots, because I used to have to work on a ranch, run cattle, fix pipes, spin fence, all that shit that's not very romantic, just hard work from dusk to dark," Clyne recalls. "I swore I would never own a pair of cowboy boots ever again . . . Then, behold, I started working in music and started learning more about Arizona culture and the Southwest as a whole. Finally, I was proud to buy a pair of boots."

In elementary school, his mother tried to force him into piano lessons, which he skipped to go fishing on a nearby lake. When Clyne was in junior high, he joined his first band. As he explains it, he was searching for something to fit into that wasn't his soccer team, and there were plenty of bands in his school, but no singers. So he stepped in front of a band and started crooning.

Clyne liked punk bands: Siouxsie and the Banshees, JFA, D.O.A., Lords of the New Church. His friends were into metal acts: Ozzy Osbourne, the Scorpions, Dokken.

They found common ground in rock bands like the Rolling Stones, but when it came time to perform, Clyne found himself horribly awkward in front of a microphone, and he bought a thrift store guitar just so he could have something to do with his hands while he sang. Eventually, he had his friends teach him basic chords, and he slowly picked up the fundamentals.

The time spent on his grandparents' ranch whet his appetite for life near the border, and once he and his friends got driver's licenses, they started making journeys through Nogales, Mexico and Rocky Point and camping on the beach.

"It was ATV, Mad Max mayhem, fireworks going off all day and night. Beer. It was dangerous," Clyne says. "There was something wonderful about it. You had to park your car in front of your tent [on the beach] so you wouldn't get run over."

He and his friends discovered a place called J.J.'s Cantina in Rocky Point, which always was open. They had no trouble sneaking in and living the high life as underage drinkers in a foreign country.

"The beer was sometimes cold. I learned later that the margaritas -- I always wondered why they were so terrible -- were made of Tang."

After high school, Clyne enrolled in Arizona State University, all the while playing in bands and bouncing from major to major. He went from liberal arts to fine arts, enrolling in the school of music but eventually failing music theory twice. But what he lacked in formal music education he made up for by immersing himself in the then-thriving Tempe music scene.

"It wasn't all just college students," Clyne says of the scene. "Most people weren't. The college-student bands weren't really well looked upon by other musicians . . . Bands that were cover bands, who were bringing all the [sorority] girls, were looked down upon by the true artists. I sided with the artistic side [over trying] to draw a crowd."

Clyne stayed in school, despite a busy schedule of busing tables and playing shows. He eventually earned a degree, majoring in anthropology and psychology. A professor helped him apply to a post-graduate program at California State University-Long Beach, which offered him a scholarship for a graduate program.

He found himself at an important fork in the road. He had to choose between his love of music or a more stable path in academia. He went to his parents for advice. He remembers his father saying, "'I don't care how much money you make, as long as you're happy . . . just be happy.' It was good advice. I said, 'In that case, I think I want to pursue music.'"

Clyne wrote a letter to his graduate program thanking it for the invitation but declining. He got a one-year deferral in case he changed his mind. At that moment, he was without a band, so he took the opportunity to bum around Southeast Asia, teaching English, traveling, and busking in subways. A year passed, and he asked Cal State for another deferral. This time, the school refused.

Soon, Clyne was back in Tempe, playing in a band called the Soul Mines with a drummer named Dusty Denham. When that band broke up, Denham and Clyne wanted to keep playing. Their bassist friend, Arthur Eugene "Buddy" Edwards, joined them, and then someone introduced the trio to guitarist Brian Blush.

"I don't remember how it came about, but it was just one of those moments," Clyne recalls. "I remember when we first played with him down in Dusty's basement. I remember the first song was an original called 'Carefree' . . . Brian set up his amp, and from the first chord, he started playing this riff, never heard it before, did one run of the verse, one run of the chorus, and then it was '2, 3, 4, go.' It just felt magic. And that's when the Refreshments were born."

The Refreshments were popular in a way no other band of Clyne's had been, and in 1994, the band members found themselves heading to Austin for the South by Southwest music festival. They found out a Mercury Records A&R guy named Peter Lubin had heard their demo and wanted to meet. They grabbed lunch, drank tequila, and after hearing their set, Lubin invited them to New York. Soon, the Refreshments had achieved the holy grail of '90s bar rockers: a major-label contract.

In 1996, the Refreshments released Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy. Mercury Records supported the band in all the ways labels typically don't anymore, getting them radio play, a music video, and regional press as they toured. The single, "Banditos," a song Clyne wrote about being broke in Mexico and fantasizing about knocking over a Circle K, shot to number one on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. They were riding high, with plans to work "Down Together," "Blue Collar Suicide," "Girly," and "Mekong," as radio singles.

And this is where the Refreshments' tale begins to curdle. Clyne says Lubin's team at Mercury granted the band lots of freedom, allowing it creative control while simply taking care of the business side of things -- an artist's dream.

"We signed with a really good staff," Clyne says. "We signed with a staff who wanted to nurture us with what we were doing, [which's] awesome for an artist to hear. So we said, where do we sign? We signed under those auspices."

Unfortunately, reality rudely interrupted the Refreshments' dream cruise. Mercury Records underwent an ownership change, and the new guys in charge cleaned house, removing people with whom the Refreshments had built valuable relationships. Clyne says the new president of Mercury, Danny Goldberg (New Times was unsuccessful in reaching Goldberg for this story), canceled the Refreshments' tour on Fizzy Fuzzy and ordered them back to the studio. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the band's balloon, Clyne says.

"Fizzy Fuzzy had some magic in it," Clyne says. "I don't mean to be self-aggrandizing, but to us, it was lightning in a bottle. So we went back to the drawing board and straight into the sophomore slump."

The band's follow-up, The Bottle & Fresh Horses, was released in 1997, but things sputtered rather than sparkled. The album didn't have nearly as much firepower underneath it as Fizzy Fuzzy, and when the Refreshments went to tour, they noticed that the radio interviews, the press, and the promotion were happening less frequently than under the old management. It turned out to be writing on the wall.

As Clyne tells it, the band made a stand and walked away with heads high. Their contract was about to end, and Mercury told them that it wanted to extend the contract 90 days and give them time to record one final single. If the single was a success, they would get a new contract. If not, it was over. The band took a vote.

"I didn't want to make music like that," Clyne says. "I don't want to make records chasing chart positions. It was a pretty split vote, and the decision needed to be made in the next few days . . . There was a lot of drama surrounding that decision. But [the majority] said, 'Let's walk.'"

At the time, Lubin, who remained close with the band after he was fired from Mercury, told New Times: "The Refreshments are more signable now than when I signed them." And Clyne says the band received offers, but the experience with Mercury left a bad taste in their mouths, and conversations with other labels had a familiar unsettling tone.

"It was echoes of a lot of the conversations we'd had with Mercury," Clyne says. "'Well, let me hear what singles you got. What do you got in the can, kid?' Nobody went, 'I got your catalog, and it's quality' . . . It made me uneasy."

So the band went independent, and Clyne put record labels behind him for good.

Unfortunately, the decision proved harder to execute than anticipated.

"During that writing time -- making album number three -- we had been used to the sort of luxury of being on label . . . Chinks in the armor started to appear," Clyne says. "Priorities were different, with different guys in the band, and that's when the band fell apart. It was all the fun stuff -- there were drugs and women and fights and all that VH1 Behind the Music bullshit. It was very colorful."

The band broke up after a Cinco de Mayo show in 1998. Drummer P.H. Naffah, who had joined the Refreshments just before Fizzy Fuzzy was recorded, wanted to continue making music with Clyne.

"I decided, I'm an artist," Clyne says. "I made a decision a long time ago to follow art. So I was going to keep doing it. And [Naffah] said, 'Well, I'm right there.' That's when we formed the Peacemakers, and it was just him and me. We went back to the drawing board, and we went back to where we should be, which was in front of audiences who give a shit. We just built it up from there and started writing."

By October, Clyne and Naffah had a new band. Clyne insists he wanted to call the group the Peacemakers, but his manager had other designs, literally.

Clyne says he never got a chance to approve the album art for what would become the 1999 disc Honky Tonk Union, which his manager was handling alone. When he finally did take a look, to his dismay, the album said in big bold letters "Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers."

Clyne had to quell a mini-rebellion in the band, insisting that he had nothing to do with it. But not wanting to put fans through more than one name change, the band's still called Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers seven albums later.

Roger Clyne's drawn comparisons to Jimmy Buffett since at least 1998.

Practically every music journalist who's ever written about the Peacemakers has made the observation. It's the escapist idealization of the good life on the beach, drinking merrily and forgetting the woes of the real world. Buffett has steel drums; Clyne has mariachi horns. Where Buffett has Key West, Florida, Clyne has Rocky Point. Buffett has Parrotheads, and Clyne has slightly tongue-in-cheek "Peaceheads." Buffett pulls stunts like throwing concerts in Anguilla and arriving via plane, while Clyne throws a giant weekend party in Rocky Point and gets there via car.

But where Buffett isn't one to shy away from answering the commercial call of country music -- a duet with Toby Keith, "Too Drunk to Karaoke," was the lead single from his 2013 album Songs from St. Somewhere -- Clyne refuses to go down that path, despite pressure from various managers and publicists. He even regrets appearing in a cowboy hat on the cover of Honky Tonk Union.

"I've definitely received pressure to write the country record," he says. "I'll write the country record when the country record's begging to be written, but I don't want to write the bro-country record."

Still, Buffett's success in selling a lifestyle -- not just music -- is constantly in the picture when discussing Clyne's own artistic output. At first, the Buffett comparisons rubbed Clyne the wrong way, but then he started researching the singer, and he developed a grudging respect.

"[I'd always heard], 'Oh, he's the Rocky Point poster child, the Jimmy Buffett of the Southwest,' and I was like, 'What the fuck? What does that mean?" Clyne says. So he looked into Buffett's work. "I'm not a fan of Jimmy Buffett, but I'm an admirer. I think his music is consistently celebratory . . . It attracted people from all walks of life to a certain lifestyle, a philosophy, almost a certain school of thought . . . and I can't articulate what that is. You just [hear] Jimmy Buffett and you get it."

Even Charlie Brusco, Clyne's manager, cites Buffett when talking about how to grow Clyne's empire beyond the Tucson-Phoenix-Flagstaff corridor.

"We look at Roger more as a lifestyle kind of thing," Brusco says. "There's more to him than just the music. Our way of trying to get that out there is to try to brand all the different things that go on in Roger's world into something that's cohesive . . . If you were going to pattern it and look at it as something, [look at] what Buffett has done."

But Clyne and Buffett are more different than they are similar. It's hard to imagine Buffett showing up to an interview wearing a Monkey Wrench Gang T-shirt, as Clyne did. (That Clyne would wear a shirt from a novel glorifying environmental terrorism given his family's Goldwater conservatism makes this even more striking.)

The crown jewel of Clyne's business empire is his Circus Mexicus festival, which attracts anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people each year to Rocky Point. This year's festival was a four-day affair, centered on J.J.'s Cantina, the bar that he and his friends used to sneak into as teenagers, and a giant, sandy plain across the street from the bar his father-in-law purchased and named "Banditos," after the Refreshments song. Seven bands joined the Peacemakers, as well as a handful of volunteers who manned the beer tents during the concert in exchange for rooms in tony Rocky Point hotels.

At the festival, Clyne said he hoped to grow the festival to two weekends, which would allow him to spend two weeks in Mexico playing music and partying. And party he did at this year's concert, and before it as well (his voice was so raspy during the band's three-hour set that he straight-up couldn't sing some of the songs, which frustrated him). But still, thousands of people paid U.S.-level prices for Mexican beer and danced their asses off. Countless thousands of shots of Clyne's Mexican Moonshine were consumed. Clyne's bar featured a rotating play list of soft, easily consumable American rock songs.

It might not have been the most authentic Mexican vacation, but it was exactly what Clyne had envisioned -- a giant escape from reality, surrounded by friends and fans.

No one can accuse Clyne of selling out. His two main business ventures that fall outside the band's albums -- his Mexican Moonshine tequila brand and the Circus Mexicus festival in Rocky Point -- extend very naturally from his lifelong love affair with Mexico and its national spirit. Sure, they might be commercial money grabs, but his manager contends they are projects that come from the heart.

"None of that is forced, and none of it is contrived," Brusco says of Clyne's business ventures. "Roger doesn't just sell tequila because he wants to be in the tequila business; he sells it because he believes this is the best tequila there is."

But Clyne isn't solely focused on his Rocky Point persona. Instead of penning country songs about partying too hard, the Peacemakers' latest album, The Independent (released this spring), contains songs about aging, death, and the isolating fear of not having accomplished enough by middle age.

It's a powerful, introspective album, highlighted by the second track, "Once I Was a Thief," which finds Clyne at his most honest as a lyricist. "Used to break so many hearts / Now I'm just watching stocks / Swore I'd die with boots on / Now I'll settle for my socks / Took the road less traveled by / Got trampled by the mob," Clyne sings. "Once I was a thief / Now I'm getting robbed."

Of course, the album isn't without its lighter, head-scratching moments, such as the "fa la la" chorus on its opening track. But ask him about them, and Clyne makes even those sound purposeful and meaningful.

"I'm a middle-aged man, and I'm in a very strange career," Clyne says.

"I try to paint a portrait in The Independent that through this time in life, you can feel very, very alone. [But] if you feel alone, and everybody else feels alone, there's a certain community, a certain overarching sense that we're all in this together.

"If you share it, the isolation goes away. When everyone goes, 'fa la la la la,' and makes fun of the meaningless of it, all of a sudden you're back in the fold."

Roger Clyne is a man of mantras. Certain phrases come to the fore in conversations about his music, such as his mission to "serve and celebrate life on Earth" and to his business beliefs that "quality should precede quantity" and "create commerce with conscience."

It all comes back, he says, to the decision he made after that year in Asia. He's not exactly living the life of a starving artist -- he owns a comfortable house in Tempe and tours in a bus (though he drives a 2005 Toyota Sequoia). But he wants to grow his operation, expand his desert empire to more temperate climes. He plays to crowds of thousands in Phoenix, but only to crowds in the low hundreds elsewhere in the country. Everywhere they're enthusiastic, Clyne's manager is quick to point out, but they're not anything rivaling his Phoenix and Mexico draws.

Even in Tucson, around which Clyne spent so much of his youth, his band's pull isn't anywhere near to what it is in the Valley of the Sun.

"He's beyond club plays," says David Slutes, who's been booking shows at Tucson's Club Congress for more than a decade. "There's a full-throttle guitar thing that's always been supported strongly in Tucson, from Neil Young on down -- rock that isn't terribly stupid and has some good songwriting. Roger is a wonderful songwriter . . . He doesn't have a ton of hits, but he has a nice cult following."

So the show must grow, Clyne says, but it must grow honestly.

"I don't want to give the impression that I wouldn't like to expand the influence of the art. Some artists will declare, probably honestly, that they're fine where they are. I'm ambitious. That's a fact," Clyne says.

And that ambition is what drives a 46-year-old father of three to spend half of the year sleeping on a tour bus, making margaritas in plastic cups, and sleeping in Walmart parking lots. He's got the future on his mind, children to put through college. He's looking to bring the wisdom and experience of the desert to those in more hospitable climates.

"Our musical landscape is based in real experience, but it turns into metaphor when you make it art," Clyne says. "The desert doesn't have to be our desert; it can be anybody's desert. It can be the desert some person feels in [his or her] heart or soul at a moment in life.

"I remember several conversations with management, booking, where we were told we need to simplify. We need to figure out what to call our music. Is it Southwest? Is it rock 'n' roll? Is it world? I actually don't give a shit. That it defies description probably is a commercial liability, but it's liberating artistically. I don't want to be a tourist trap."

Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers are performing at Talking Stick Resort on Friday, December 26, and Saturday, December 27.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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