When writing about Things As They Are, the debut LP by Tucson psychedelic outfit Saint Maybe, for my 10 Best Things I Heard in 2012 column, I noted the album's sprawling, wide-open desert quality: "[It] sounds like the space between Phoenix and the Old Pueblo. It feels like a late-night drive, the radio tuned to some far off AM station playing a psychedelic Van Morrison B-side you've never heard."
Songwriter Oliver Ray says that about sums up the record's windswept ambiance. "It seems to stretch across a lot of distance," he says, taking a quick break from roasting beans at his coffee shop in Tucson, Café Aqui. Not long after our conversation, the band announced a West Coast tour, outlining dates with Patti Smith (Ray is a veteran of Smith's band), Don't, Blind Divine, Gabe Mintz, The Low Hums, and others. The tour includes a stop at Crescent Ballroom, on Tuesday, February 12.
"I like it," Ray says of balancing the life of a coffee roaster with playing music. He says the dual disciplines "somehow inform each other." Opening the shop while recording the LP also helped -- or in some ways forced -- Ray to subdue some of his nitpicking tendencies. "I'm kind of a perfectionist when it comes to things," he says. "I'll have projects that I don't think of as perfect, so I'll never let them go."
Luckily, he let Things As They Are go. Opening with "Everything At Once (And More)," an out there garage rock barnburner Anton Newcombe would kill to have written, the record explores Dylan-esque folk on tracks like "Houses For Ghosts" and "She's Alright" (no coincidence -- drummer Winston Watson played in Dylan's backing band), blue-eyed reggae/fuzz rock on "Delicate Prey," and desolate country noir on "Everything That Rises."
Bolstered by an all-star Tucson cast featuring J. Fen Ikner (Seashell Radio), Craig Schumacher (Neko Case, Calexico, Iron & Wine, Animal Collective), singer/songwriter Tracy Shedd, Tommy Larkins (Richard Buckner, Giant Sand, Jonathan Richman), and more, the album is an expansive, old-school rock 'n' roll LP, pressed to swirled grey-and-red vinyl by Fort Lowell Records, which invokes traditional rock traditions while never falling into rote classicism or hackneyed revivalism. Tough trick, but expertly pulled off.
"We've done a couple sessions over the past few years," Ray says, noting that the band would slip into Schumacher's Wavelab studios whenever extra dough was available. "We selected a bunch of material from those sessions to work on."
Following stints in New York, Guatemala, and Vermont, Ray returned to Tucson in the late 2000s. "I lived in Tucson in the early '90s and really dug it," he says. "I always thought I might come back."
The record sounds informed by the Southwest, and Tucson in particular, a literal representation of the cohesion of the musical and artistic communities there. "There's so much going on in Tucson," Ray says.
But there's also an apocalyptic element, and when Ray sings, "We're better off dead than alone," in the driving, menacing "Take It Easy (But Take It)," you get the sense that there's something on the horizon, something almost sinister that he's hinting at. "When the sun goes down, it gets kind of cold," he seethes. "We used to be young, but now we're getting old."
"I often think about nostalgia, or what people call the 'good old days,'" Ray says. "It seems to me like right now -- these are the good old days. They're happening right now. So within that sprawl [of the album] there's this breath, the breathing of being able to rest in the comfort of things as they are, that they are alright. Someday we'll look back on these days. Maybe we'll think 'Oh shit, we had water, we had food.' Whatever it is. Whatever it might be."
We had coffee?
"Exactly," Ray laughs.
Though a cursory look at the track list might indicate a short run time (eight songs), the album's 44 minutes have plenty of winding passages. Ray's not afraid to reference the granddaddy of all jam bands describing the band's willingness to take things off-road:
"There's a bookish quality about [the record]. I love bands like The Grateful Dead, that would stretch stuff out endlessly, and I love jazz, [and its emphasis on improvisation]. It's fun to take the landmarks of a song, or a rock song, and say, 'Here, these are our points, we know where all this stuff is, but in between these points, let's go exploring.'"
After all, he adds: "We know where we're going to arrive."
Saint Maybe is scheduled to perform Tuesday, February 12, at Crescent Ballroom.
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