by Bob Hanshaw
For the second time, a half dozen of Tucson’s most interesting bands took the trek to Cowtown Keeylocko this past Saturday – an hour southwest of town, near Three Points, taking the Ajo Highway down to a maze of pitted dirt roads that ends at a small circle of shambled buildings. 3 MPH is the posted speed limit; you may not drink any beer that you might have brought “YORE SELF;” there is no spitting or “Reckles eye bawling” allowed.
And a hundred or so dedicated listeners squeezed themselves into the Blue Dog Saloon at the center of the complex, and the bands squeezed themselves into the Blue Dog’s tiny, extremely dusty stage, and strange magic was made there. Everyone still and attentive – almost reverently so. The stars brighter than they ever are in the city. Quiet conversations around the trash can fires outside the saloon, between sets. The scene getting to know itself a little better, looking a little deeper. Music, transformed into a sort of thrumming joy: bigger than a party, but less obtrusive, more inside.
And Ryne Warner was the architect of all this. Along with John Melillo (Algae & Tentacles), Warner made it his mission to get out here and force people to listen to music stripped of the jaded, insubstantial feeling of the bars in town.
He is something of a drifter – he’s lived in Ohio, Portland, Florida, New Mexico, Prescott, Tucson, and is already contemplating what might cause him to leave. But his search is for permanence, for that in music which is eternal. Even if that means zigging and zagging endlessly to uncover it where it is.
GETTING ILLMATIC IN APPALACHIA
“I’m from Ohio, from southern Ohio. Right where Appalachia meets the Midwest and Amish country… If you went straight from our front yard, it was all flat, all cornfields. And our backyard was all caves and hollers. So we were pretty much right on the line where the geography changed.” Geography means a lot to Warner, how it relates to people’s sense of place. Perhaps it’s not insignificant that he grew up in a place of transition.
Warner’s mother, though not a musician herself, had a guitar around. “She grew up in the ‘70s, I don’t know, she probably played a Cat Stevens song on it once or something… I just remember grabbing it out from under her bed and messing around with it.” He wrote rudimentary songs on it as a kid, and that excited him. But it wasn’t quite the time for guitar just yet: Early ‘90s hiphop was his first love. Illmatic came out, “and I just got swept up in it, I was in love with it.” It was the production that hit him the hardest. “Drony, dark old jazz samples, and I was just obsessed.”
It did end up being just another transition point for him. “I would write rhymes sometimes. But obviously I was the only white kid at my high school who was into hiphop… so I just ended up hanging out with some of the punk rock kids, and transitioned into just going to hardcore shows.” He had to drive 45 minutes to get to shows from his rural town – “My high school was right in the middle of a cornfield, it was like Children of the Corn” – and that isolation, that effort, fostered a sense of purposefulness in music-making that has stuck with him ever since.
AN OHIOAN IN PORTLANDIA
Warner ended up in Portland around the time he was 21. “I was so green,” he says, smiling. But Portland has a good public library, and from the beginning he was surrounded by a community of musicians who “had extensive knowledge of really esoteric music” for him to dive into. He did.
All that came to fruition when Warner started the very first incarnation of Ohioan at 24. “It started as a quartet with accordion, clarinet, cornet and tenor sax. Just me and my girlfriend at the time and our two buddies… We had one song, a 30-minute song, and we practiced that one song for a year and would only perform that one song. And then we finally recorded it, and then [the rest of the band] were like ‘You should write some other songs, please.’”
He did that, too, and eventually Ohioan had spun out into a 13-piece jazz band, who worked on a full-length record. “[We] went into this warehouse attic above a mechanic shop and just drank a bunch of wine and did it in a night, pretty improv-style.” And then Ohioan became a sextet, a “spacey country band,” making liberal use of the steel guitar after Warner became “obsessed” with the music of steel player Susan Alcorn.
Warner didn’t play the pedal steel, “but I found this one guy who played and was down to let me be his Captain Beefheart, and boot-camp him with my vision of what this pedal steel-centered record would be, and just ditched the whole big jazz band.” He continues: “That was maybe the most obsessive I ever got with a record and a sound. I did that for like 2 years, just obsessively burning money, remixing things, doing 7 more tracks of things… I think everybody makes that record and learns that lesson about how deep to look into the void.”
It’s pretty clear that Ohioan is simply Ryne Warner with various configurations of friends around him. “I have no problem acknowledging that it’s my band,” he says, “and so I don’t expect people to have commitments to it. You know, if they have another band that they want to focus on, or a tour, a husband, or a child, or anything else that should take priority in their life, they should do it, and I’ll find a way to keep doing it.”
The sometimes bizarre and right-angled stylistic turns that Ohioan has taken do make sense, over time. At least they do for Warner himself. “It was just an outlet to learn… I can look back on it now and see the cohesive whole, what sounds have stayed the same through the years.”
The current version of Ohioan, still very fluid, plays a unique kind of music in Tucson – something that draws from minimalism, repetition, improvisation and groove, yet easily fits into the kind of structure that holds the ear. It’s filled with smoky “desert rock” timbral tropes: the electric guitar tones, especially, are closely married to the ones Calexico, Brian Lopez, Gabe Sullivan, Howe Gelb seem to use so often. But the musical content is beautifully organic, and in that way, also sort of alien. It’s very difficult to describe accurately. It makes all the sense in the world that it came from such a wandering background.
LIGHTNING STRIKES IN KEEYLOCKO (PT. II)
The previous event at Cowtown Keeylocko has been briefly discussed in this series before. Then, as now, John Melillo and Warner set it up together; that time, as a way to support their mutual friend Seth Olinsky of Lightning Records and Akron/Family. Warner clicked with Olinsky early on:
“I met Seth at a festival in Portland that we both played. And after Ohioan played, he invited me to get onstage with him and play percussion.” They both ended up in Tucson around the same time, about 3 years ago. Olinsky was just beginning to conceive of Lightning Records with his partner Ali Belectic, and asked Warner if he wanted to release a tape for their first compilation. “I had some home recordings that I had lying around. And I was going through a pretty gnarly divorce, so I didn’t want to be around other people because I was such a mess… I was just doing singer-songwriter stuff at home, just to stay busy. And I was like, ‘This is all I’ve got right now’… but he liked it, and people seemed to like it, and he put it out.”
Olinsky didn’t really have a part in the Keeylocko concerts. He planned the release of the first Lightning quarterly in Joshua Tree, around the same time Melillo and Warner were setting up the Cowtown show. “[John and I] just thought it would be a good solidarity move for the crew, you know… just making it seem like this big multi-state happening.” But it really happened because of Melillo and Warner’s shared love of transcending the normal context, and limits, of music.
“[We] kind of pursue and demand the same things from music, and so just end up wanting to work together.” What are these demands? “We really like exploring the ways we can mess with the context of how people experience music. And finding ways to remove the elements that we don’t feel are really necessary.” Such as, for example, the “weird ways that you get dirty, interacting with commerce, and playing bars, just feeling like an incidental element in the way they make money.”
Keeylocko was meant to be an antidote. The parallels to Warner’s early experiences with hardcore shows are striking. For those shows, “everyone was there for the music, and it was a very cathartic music, and it got people together in a really beautiful way. And the sense of community that was there, it always felt like a really intentional thing.” And indeed, when people get out to Keeylocko, it’s an intentional isolation: “It’s not just a stop in their night. Kind of trap them out there… So people [are] committed to the experience and engaged in it.”
TUCSON IS A BOOMTOWN
This series is oriented toward giving people a sense of the best music, and the best musicians, that Tucson has to offer. It’s directed as much outward as inward, as much to show people what the city is all about as to help the Tucson music community know itself.
But Warner, unlike any other profiled artist so far, gave me a sense of the risks in our collective headlong rush to make Tucson better. He came from Portland, after all.
“I obviously bring my baggage of what I went through… it was my home, and I go back and it doesn’t even look like my home anymore, and none of my community is there. I had that taken away from me.” Portland experienced its economic and cultural boom during the near-decade Warned lived there, and “this one little aesthetic of it, this one lifestyle, got magnified and thrust upon the whole city, and kind of whitewashed the whole thing.”
One reason Warner came down here was to escape, to “step it down a notch to a smaller city. And I guess my bigger plan is just to keep doing that, to keep stepping it down.”
Tucson’s cultural renaissance is, perhaps, inevitably accompanied by gentrification. “Why is World Of Beer just the perfect example?” he laughs wryly. When the money comes in, the rent goes up, and the best things and people get forced out. “There’s a lot that stands to be lost… Money doesn’t give a fuck about your family or your community.”
On the other hand: “I think the way geography plays out here, in resources and weather and all that, you’re just confronting your limitations and dealing with harsh truths a lot more… I think it’s built into Tucson to be a little scrappier and a little more self-reliant, and a little more resilient” than Portland proved itself to be. “And hopefully, people will still keep their wagons circled, ride this one out and enjoy it for what it is, and then – when and if it does pass – be able to just keep keepin’ on and doing what [they were] doing before.”
“People are smart.”
KEEP IT SACRED
“I think that the majority of people in America only engage with joy through escapism… whether through inebriation or through goofiness or trying to lighten the load and get away from things or ignore things.” For Warner, more satisfaction is to be had through “confronting the hard truths… and just transcending that.”
Part of his personal expression of that has been playing places like Keeylocko. But “if people like it, if people are inspired by it… They can do more of this.” Warner claims no ownership of the place. He’d even prefer to come to an event someone else organized there, and just “howl at the moon.”
But he’s no less committed to his chosen role in the broader realm of music. “As we lose more and more things in this world, as musicians, that’s our job, is to keep [music] sacred, and to remind people that it’s not just a consumable, it’s not just an aesthetic… It’s a really sacred thing that has existed since we have been human beings. And we’re almost guardians of the grail.”