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Roots Rockers Flathead Have Played with Everyone

There's a musician's adage that goes something like "Being in a band is like being married to all of its members at the same time." It's not surprising most groups collapse after a few years under the weight of petty personal issues ("You're a dick, dude!"), or the dreaded, clichéd "artistic differences." Being married to one's significant other is hard enough, and musicians who play in a band have to endure a skewed version of polygamy that would have even Bill Paxton's character on Big Love down on bended knee and begging his vengeful God for release.      

That makes the 18-year run by Arizona roots rock legends Flathead all the more remarkable. It's a stretch that has seen the band record three outstanding albums (including the stellar, brand-new Get It Said), outlasting two double-term presidencies and a multitude of Valley live music club closures, and even outrunning the defunct "Tempe sound" purveyed by Gin Blossoms-influenced bands along Mill when Flathead formed in 1993.

At a time when Byrdsian "jangle" described most Tempe acts, Flathead hit the same clubs with a stripped-down sound rooted in the twang-drenched Dick Dale-via-Don Rich guitar lines of Telecaster master Greg Swanholm and high lonesome Louvin Brothers-styled two-part harmonies. To say Flathead merely stuck out in Tempe's Gin Blossoms era is a vast understatement. There was nothing like Flathead this side of the roots-punk scene in '80s L.A. which spawned the likes of X, The Blasters, Rank and File, Los Lobos, and Dwight Yoakam.

"The Tempe jangly thing, that was everything," recalls Ramirez, lounging with Swanholm and Flathead bassist Alex Otto in Swanholm's Tempe home, which doubles as the band's rehearsal space and de facto recording studio.  "Everybody sounded exactly the same, and we sounded completely different. It was kind of refreshing for people, so a lot of people would come out to see us."

Sounding "completely different" from the Tempe flavor of the month was never by design. Swanholm was weaned on his parents' Waylon Jennings records and grew up in Chandler at a time when traffic would occasionally be stopped by a herd of sheep crossing the road. Ramirez is a native of the same Lawrence, Kansas, cowpunk scene that would later spawn retro-countrybilly BR-549 singer Chuck Meade. Swanholm and Ramirez began running into each other at rockabilly shows in 1992 and hung out for six months before each realized the other was a musician. Sharing simpatico musical backgrounds, the two began rehearsing as a guitar-and-drums duo (pre-White Stripes and Black Keys) in a furniture store where Ramirez worked, taping a microphone to a hand truck — they had no mic stand — and playing Johnny Cash covers and a few of Swanholm's early originals.

"I don't remember ever having a discussion [with Ramirez] about how we were gonna sound, what material we were gonna play, who was gonna do what," recalls Swanholm. "We had zero premeditation at all. We were both just bored and wanted to get together and see what happened, and it was really cool."

The duo played a few parties, and after being told, "You guys are great — when are you gonna get a bass player?" more than a few times, Flathead hired the first of what would turn out to be several bassists, a succession that has included Valley roots rock goddess Ruth Wilson and one of Swanholm's early musical influences, Grave Danger wild man Kevin Daly, before hiring Otto, their longest-tenured bassist at seven years running.

Most bands mark time in their careers by when specific albums were made or when a certain high-profile show was played, but Flathead has always marked time by how old Vince's son is, as local drum prodigy Spencer Ramirez was born the week of the band's first show at The Mason Jar, where they opened for alt-country punk deities Meat Puppets in 1993.  

"I happened to be working for Vera Renstrom, Cris and Curt Kirkwood's mom, at her furniture store," recalls Ramirez. "One day we were driving to Mexico — it was a Mexican import store — and I said 'Yeah, I really love your sons' band, especially Meat Puppets II and, you know, my band plays similar kind of stuff and I'd love to open for them sometime.'

"And she gets right on the phone and says 'Curt, Vince has a band and they're gonna open for you. When is your next show?' And it was like a week from Saturday at The Mason Jar and she said, 'Okay, they're playing.' So we got to play, and that was the first real show."

As a harbinger of things to come, Flathead was able to fit in on the bill with the Grateful Dead-meets-Black Flag Meat Puppets and even won over the Jar's legendary owner, Franco Gagliano, known for his glam-rock shag perm and endless supply of fancy, colorful footwear. (Gagliano would continue to book the band in the ensuing years, even as the club segued from a punk bar to a metal bar before its demise in 2005.) After 18 years together, Flathead can still fit in on a variety of bills in all types of venues, from rockabilly to punk to country, with subtle changes to fit the audience they play for.

"We've played with Ralph Stanley, Dave Alvin, X, The Cramps, and the list goes on and on," Ramirez says.

"I think what we can do really well is adapt to the show, and we're pretty good at reading what's appropriate for that particular show," Otto says. "The songs are good, and it's all in the delivery. I've been in a lot of bands and have been on a lot of tours, and Greg just writes damn good songs. I say this all the time: Nobody goes to Flathead to watch me play bass. They wanna watch Greg play guitar and they want to hear Greg and Vince sing, and they wanna hear those songs." 

"Last December was kind of a cool thing because we had some more diverse gigs, like [Western swing legends] Asleep at the Wheel, which was more sedate with dancing and two-stepping and stuff, and all we did was turn it down a little bit and slow it down a little bit and the rest was exactly the same," says Swanholm. "Then we played the Rogue with a spaghetti Western band, then the Handlebar J, a country bar, then we played the Rialto (in Tucson) with Roger Clyne and The Peacemakers — and that was great — and then we went and played The Sail Inn with the hippies and we're playing in between a Grateful Dead cover band and a Phish cover band. They were great to us over there too.

"It was something else, man," Swanholm laughs. "Like 'Wow, this shit keeps working.' Funny how that works."

Reflecting on 18 years together, during which time Swanholm and Ramirez have remained true to their original bare-bones vision, it's hard for them to believe that the first rehearsal in a furniture store when the band had no bass player, no mic stand, and no career aspirations would lead to one of the most influential roots rock bands the Valley has ever produced.

"I didn't even think we were gonna play at the furniture store anymore," Swanholm laughs.