Like nearly everyone in Phoenix, songwriter Stephen Steinbrink (you may recognize his project named French Quarter, as well) has a love/hate relationship with the city. It's easy to love the pockets of true community, the DIY art spaces, punk rock house shows, and the affordable, delicious Mexican food, but the summers are brutal, the politicians are maniacs, and the sprawling nature of the city makes it hard to get a real sense of what Phoenix even is.
"I feel like there's always sort of a baseline of oppression," Steinbrink says, finishing up some Salsitas and discussing his new album, I Drew a Picture, and the decision to leave Phoenix -- not just to tour with bummer-pop songwriter Emperor X, but for good -- following a stay in Olympia and an East Coast tour via Greyhound bus.
Steinbrink's productivity, the unrelenting pace he's maintained while releasing a couple dozen full-lengths, EPs, singles, cassettes, and other limited releases over his decade of playing music in Phoenix, does nothing to diminish the the strength of I Drew a Picture. Inspired by Steinbrink's obsessive deconstruction of The Beatles' mono remasters (heard clearly on the World Wide Web mediation "Jpeg of a Friend"), a dog-eared, well-annotated copy of Andrew Ross' Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City (about, you guessed it, Phoenix), and a free stay in small historic house on McKinley, the record balances the most focused pop of Steinbrink's oeuvre, like "It's All Uphill" and "Shame and Congratulations," with the cutting folk of the Jackson C. Frank-echoing "The End of the World," and the damaged funk/soul of "Paper Flowers."
"The other day I saw my neighbor get held up at gunpoint," Steinbrink says, a crooked grin on his face as he a pops an incomplete CD-R of the record into a car stereo. "The guy with the gun wanted some stuff from inside the house, and the other guys was like, 'No way, you fucked up, man.'"
In a theatrical Road Warrior-esque fashion, I Drew a Picture examines that same sense of desperation, imagining a Phoenix where the water has simply run out, where packs of apocalyptic punks wait in line for bags of rationed rice, where the Salt River has turned Mill Avenue into a canal before drying into thick mud. It's a record focused on death -- a dry, thirsty one at that -- but it's darkly funny, too, armed with the same smirk on Steinbrink's face as he tells me about the stickup.
Steinbrink isn't sure where he's going to end up after his tours. He's got an opportunity to stay in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the same place bluesmen like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Syl Johnson made their names. He's not sure where he's going, but he knows it's time to leave Phoenix. Steinbrink pulls up a quote from a 1999 issue of The Economist on his laptop and shows it to me:
"When Arizona became a state in 1912, the first man it sent to the United States Senate was a loquacious cowboy called Henry Fountain Ashurst. In his first address to the Senate, Mr. Ashurst boasted that Arizona was "poised to become a veritable paradise." Only two things were needed, he said: "Water, and lots of good people". According to legend, a senator from New England responded, "If the gentleman from Arizona will forgive me, that's all they need in hell."
Steinbrink laughs. We both laugh.
Stephen Steinbrink is scheduled to perform tonight with Emperor X at Trunk Space.
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