The universe is making music all the time

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Younger Than Yesterday: “Kind Of Blue” by Miles Davis, selected by John Convertino

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John Convertino is best known as drummer and co-founder of Tucson Arizona-based Americana outfit Calexico. Since their inception in 1996, Calexico have fused a myriad of styles and genres including: jazz, electronica, punk, indie, film scores, mariachi, Portuguese Fado, Latin, folk and country. The band — lead by the core duo of Convertino and Joey Burns (who had both previously formed the rhythm section for Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand) — have over the last two decades created a vast body of work, to date comprising: seven studio albums; numerous tour albums (collated in the archived vinyl boxset ‘Road Atlas 1998—2011’); soundtrack scores (‘Circo’, ‘The Guard’, ‘I’m Not There’) and a multitude of collaborative works (Iron & Wine, Depedro, Amparo Sanchez) across numerous formats and releases. Convertino has also contributed his wholly unique and visionary drum playing style to a host of various musicians over the years (Neko Case, Amos Lee, Laura Cantrell, Vinicio Capossela) and has been a member of the following groups: OP8; Friends Of Dean Martinez; The Band Of Blacky Ranchette; ABBC. In 2005 Convertino released his debut solo album of jazz improvisations, ‘Ragland’, via German independent label Sommerweg. Calexico are currently in the final stages of recording their eagerly anticipated eighth studio album (written in Mexico City earlier this year and recorded at Tucson’s Wavelab Studios by Craig Schumacher and Chris Schultz) and follow-up to 2012’s ‘Algiers’.

Words: John Convertino, Illustration: Craig Carry


Miles Davis ‘Kind Of Blue’, by John Convertino.

I wish that I could have a more obscure favorite record to share with people, but I have to be honest with myself that there is not a moment on ‘Kind of Blue’ that I don’t love.

The simplicity, spontaneity, and tone of that record is perfection, I can listen to it over and over again and still find something new in it.

Because of that record, I branched off and explored the music of Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ is right up there, and I will listen to Bill Evans any day. Cannonball does a version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ with Miles Davis that kills me every time I hear it. From there you will find Gil Evans and all the amazing work he did with Miles and his own compositions, ‘Sketches of Spain’ is an all time favorite. Then Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. ‘Monk Alone in San Francisco’ is up there as an all time favorite. It’s the music I love.

I was also going to pick ‘The Rite of Spring’ by Igor Stravinsky. The pulse all through that composition, and where it puts my head, are things I love about being alive.

—John Convertino



Album: Kind Of Blue
Artist: Miles Davis
Label: Columbia
Year: 1959

Tracklist: So What; Freddie Freeloader; Blue In Green; All Blues; Flamenco Sketches.

Personell: Julian Adderley (Alto Saxophone); Paul Chambers (Bass); Jimmy Cobb (Drums); John Coltrane (Tenor Saxophone); Miles Davis (Trumpet); Bill Evans (Piano); Wynton Kelly (Piano).


Calexico are currently completing the follow-up to their 2012 LP ‘Algiers’ and have this week unveiled their 2015 European Tour dates which are as follows:

14 Apr – COPENHAGEN Amager Bio
15 Apr – HAMBURG Grosse Freiheit 36
16 Apr – AMSTERDAM Paradiso Amsterdam
17 Apr – EINDHOVEN De Effenaar
18 Apr – BERLIN Heimathafen Neukoelln
20 Apr – COLOGNE E-Werk & Palladium Köln
21 Apr – MUNICH Muffathalle
22 Apr – ZURICH Volkshaus
23 Apr – MILAN Fabrique Milano
25 Apr – LUXEMBOURG Atelier Luxembourg
26 Apr – PARIS Le Trianon
27 Apr – BRUSSELS Ancienne Belgique
28 Apr – LONDON O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
30 Apr – MANCHESTER The Albert Hall
01 May – LIVERPOOL Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
02 May – BELFAST Limelight Belfast
03 May – KILKENNY Set Theatre
04 May – DUBLIN Olympia Theatre

Tickets are on sale this Friday 14 November.


To read the other Calexico contributions in this series:

Joey Burns (R.E.M. “Reckoning” & Minutemen “Double Nickels On The Dime”); Sergio Mendoza (Pablo Milanés, “La Vida no Vale Nada”); Martin Wenk (Clifford Brown’s “With Strings”); Jairo Zavala (Lole y Manuel “Nuevo Día”).


Mixtape: It Makes No Difference [A Fractured Air Mix]

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It Makes No Difference [A Fractured Air Mix]

To listen on Mixcloud:



01. Tindersticks ‘Opening’ (‘35 Rhums’ OST / Lucky Dog)
02. Townes Van Zandt ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning’ (Charly)
03. Roger McGuinn & Calexico ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’ (I’m Not There’ OST / Columbia)
04. Miles Davis ‘Generique’ (‘Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud’ OST / Fontana)
05. Giant Sand ‘Corridor’ (Loose)
06. Lee Hazlewood With Suzi Jane Hokum ‘Sand’ (Ace)
07. The Handsome Family ‘Fallen Peaches’ (Loose / Carrot Top)
08. Mose Allison ‘Young Man’s Blues’ (Prestige)
09. Marion Gaines Singers ‘Grandma’s Hands’ (Soul Jazz)
10. The Brothers & Sisters ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (Light In The Attic)
11. Sonny & Linda Sharrock ‘Black Woman’ (Water)
12. Calexico ‘Low Expectations’ (Quarterstick)
13. ABBC ‘En Route To The Blanchisserie’ (Wabana Ore Limited)
14. Joanna Newsom ‘This Side Of The Blue’ (Drag City)
15. Willy Vlautin & Paul Brainard ‘A Confession To T.J. Watson’ (‘Northline’ OST / Faber)
16. The Band ‘It Makes No Difference’ (Capitol)
17. Mica Levi ‘Love’ (‘Under The Skin’ OST / Milan, Rough Trade)
18. The Langley Schools Music Project ‘God Only Knows’ (Basta)
19. Lhasa ‘Is Anything Wrong’ (Warner Bros.)
20. Tindersticks ‘Closing’ (‘35 Rhums’ OST / Lucky Dog)


The copyright in these recordings is the property of the individual artists and/or their respective record labels. If you like the music, please support the artist by buying their records.


Fractured Air. The universe is making music all the time.

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The Story Of An Artist: Victor Gastelum

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Interview with Victor Gastelum.

“Victor is the fifth Beatle, he is the silent one that no one really ever sees.”

—Joey Burns, Calexico

Words: Craig Carry, Artwork: Victor Gastelum


“Love the run but not the race
All alone in a silent way
World drifts in and the world’s a stranger”

—‘Quattro (World Drifts In)’, Calexico


In an attempt to write the story of the Long Beach California-based artist Victor Gastelum, it is tempting to simultaneously write the story of Tucson Arizona’s beloved sons Calexico. For, across the band’s vast body of sprawling, timeless work — encompassing a string of studio albums, tour records, a plethora of EP’s, soundtrack scores and a multitude of collaborative works — the artwork of Gastelum’s adorn some of the most precious of Calexico’s records since their inception in 1996, following core-duo Joey Burns and John Convertino’s previous spell as rhythm-section to Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand; another one of Tucson’s most revered bands. Victor Gastelum, a native of Southern California, would provide the artwork for one of the band’s earliest releases, “Spark/The Ride”, a single put out in 1996, prior to the band’s full-length debut “Spoke” (released by Quarterstick Records in the following year). The music (both written by Burns) can be perfectly summed up by the description found inside, set in all-lowercase, on a black-and-white postcard-sized insert:

“two western gems from two southwestern gents. joey and john from giant sand moonlighting in the tucson sun.”

The stencil artwork on “Spark/The Ride” is vintage Gastelum, featuring a young man and his low-ride car in a striking 2-color blue and gold combination. The image — like his later work — is isolated on a white background like a flash-aided Richard Avedon portrait, highlighting the iconic feel of the image in its minimal setting. The artwork would be the first of many in a near-symbiotic journey between Gastelum and Calexico over the next couple of decades when Gastelum would go on to produce the artwork for the band’s studio albums “The Black Light” (1998), “Hot Rail” (2000), “Feast Of Wire” (2003), the tour record “Tool Box” (2007), “Carried To Dust” (2008), the limited edition box-set — comprising the band’s tour-only releases — “Road Atlas 1998-2011” (2011) as well as a host of various singles and EP’s (including “Stray”, “The Ride (Pt. 2)”, “Ballad Of Cable Hogue”, “Crystal Frontier”, “Service & Repair”, “Even My Sure Things Fall Through”, “Alone Again Or”, “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, “Black Heart” and “Convict Pool”).

Gastelum’s first meeting with Californian-born Burns came during his spell working as a designer for SST Records (home to such bands as Black Flag and The Minutemen) at the turn of the nineties. This period would also prove crucial in Gastelum’s artistic development through the meeting of another influential artist — the Tucson-born graphic artist Raymond Pettibon — whose iconic, hugely distinctive and influential drawings would be widely seen during the vibrant punk music scene of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Pettibon’s unique and sophisticated combination of image with text would also prove influential to Gastelum’s own artwork. Since the mid 1990’s, Gastelum has had numerous solo and group shows, as well as collaborating with Pettibon — amongst others — for the publications “Faster, Jim” (a special limited edition artist book published by Hamilton Press in 2002, the aluminum book cover is by Gastelum and the slipcase — featuring the artwork “Good Year” — is a collaboration between Gastelum and Pettibon) and “Line Drive”, a portfolio of 12 lithographs featuring 12 artists’ response to the subject of Baseball (Gastelum’s 6-color lithograph, entitled “LA Fury”, features alongside artworks by such artists as Pettibon, Ed Ruscha and Dani Tull).

Born in Torrance, California, Victor Gastelum’s distinctive artistic vision was much influenced by the punk and “DIY” ethos (characterized by the hand-assembled rough-and-ready made collages, photocopies and the often-coined “artless” approach as advocated by the Punk movement) of the period during the eighties when he graduated L.A. Trade Tech. The fact that Gastelum’s own training provided a grounding for commercial — as opposed to fine — art would prove significant. Gastelum would quickly appreciate the art of craftsmanship while learning techniques (stenciling, spray paint, overspray, creating halftones) which he would soon finely harness and adopt in his own personal work.

Growing up as a Latino in Southern California would shape much of Gastelum’s outlook on the world, and his near-outsider status would be similarly shared by his friends in Calexico. As Joey Burns recounted during an interview at Austin Town Hall in 2008:

“He didn’t fit in and like our music, he went a separate route, but benefited from strong influences and character.” 

Gastelum’s work (whether commissioned or personal artwork) has always been characterized by a deep love and respect for craft where each individual artwork holds a powerful individuality and resonance on the viewer. Since beginning his spray paint stencil multiples in the late eighties and early nineties, the lasting resonance of Gastelum’s work can also be attributed to the fact that the works are left open to interpretation for the viewer. As the Overtones Gallery director and curator Elizabeta Betinski has said, Gastelum’s art “leaves room for his audiences to imagine and create stories of their own.”

Herein lies the everlasting spark in Gastelum’s work, on looking at any one of his artworks a whole world of rich narratives begin to drift in. Like the girl in Gastelum’s “girl with 88mm camera”, we can project our own past experiences and feelings onto the lens of Gastelum’s treasured art. The world drifts in. And the world’s a stranger.


“Checked my eyes to see if they had spokes
See if they are moving
See if they had spokes
See if there is somewhere else to ride”

—‘Spokes’, Calexico



Artwork for Calexico’s “Spark/The Ride” (7″ vinyl)



Album art for Calexico’s “Road Atlas” box set, 2011


Interview with Victor Gastelum.

Your own background training stems from attending a school for commercial art. It’s really interesting because when you graduated computers were only in their infancy as such. This almost “DIY”, handmade approach can be seen throughout your work to date, where a deep love and appreciation for craft and technique can be closely observed.
What did your educational training consist of, and what techniques did you learn and later adopt for your own work when you began your spray paint stencil multiples in the late eighties and early nineties?

VG: I attended a two-year commercial art program at L.A. Trade Tech. College where I learned about design, typography and commercial art production. Specifically, I also learned how to use an Xacto knife, spray mount, technical drawing pens, acetate and the different printing processes. I learned how to use photostat cameras, spec type, line screens and a ton of things that the computer would pretty much replace or eliminate. At LATTC, you were taught things that could help you get an entry-level job doing production art, basically the stuff kids, who came from art schools did not want to do. Probably the most important thing I learned there was using an Xacto knife, spray mount and acetate. With those things I taught myself how to make stencil art. I use whatever methods possible to get my images done whether hand tools or computer.


I imagine Pop Art, music (both punk and a diverse independent music scene) and much underground publications — including comic art — must have played a key role in your development as an artist. What were your formative influences on you as a young artist?

VG: Art was always important to me because it was the only thing I was any good at. But I never imagined it would develop into anything other than something personal. Mad Magazine was a big influence on my drawing skills and also provided a cynical view of pop culture and society. I started seriously liking music while I was in middle school. My younger brother started buying records and together we started to go to rock concerts. Then punk rock and hard core started happening and we started buying that stuff and going to gigs. I always loved rock album and poster art, and we read things like Creem Magazine. Punk rock and hard core created the possibility for me to participate with my art. The music, fanzines, record covers, fliers and comics spoke to me. I understood it, and what I didn’t understand did not scare me.



“Convertible Impala No.2” 1993 spray paint on paper stamped and signed on front



“Worker Looking Up” 1992 spray paint on paper stamped and on front [in the notes: “We Got Pressure”]


I found it really interesting reading a quote that Joey Burns has said about your work: “he didn’t fit in, and, like our music, he went a separate route, but benefited from strong influences and character.” As the curator and gallery director Elizabeta Betinski has also stated before, “growing up with Chicano roots in a culturally diverse community” became a key influence on your choice of subject-matter. Would this be an accurate assessment on your work?

VG: I’ve never read the quote from Joey but my spray paint art definitely did not fit in at the time I was first doing it. I wasn’t aware of anybody making stencils as their primary medium. You just didn’t see stencils in galleries or museums. That was a good thing for me because when you are a young artist trying to develop a style you are wishing for something with a little originality and you don’t know what that’s going to be.

I think where you come from shows through in your art. Being exposed to different cultures, foods, languages, music, clothes, graphics, whatever put what I saw on TV and was taught in school into perspective.


In terms of your choice of subject-matter, your work has various recurring images, for example; cars, guns and various “Cholo iconography”, as it has been described before. They remind me of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” insofar as a similar recurring use of distinct subject-matter runs throughout (the highway, automobile, jukeboxes, and so on). Like Frank’s book, your work — as well as drawing on a particular culture and time — equally strikes me as deeply personal. How would you describe your subject-matter and what it represents for you?

VG: My subject matter consists of things I am interested in or know about. Using my subject matter, I’m trying to cause an emotional response. I’m not cataloging cool cars or every masked wrestler I can find, viscerally I’m trying to create a narrative. When I repeat an image I think of it as running it over again and seeing what comes of it or what more I can get from it. I’ll stop drawing them when I get bored. Having as many as possible of a group is like building on the idea. To me, they start making sense more when there are groups. I’ve started on groups and have not been able to keep going and they just seem strange and out-of-place. Even though they individually turned out as good as I expected because there aren’t more I feel like they fail.


Your unique work has been used — as well as for many iconic Calexico sleeves — by Culture Clash, Hamilton Press, Greg Ginn as well as collaborations with other artists including Raymond Pettibon for the artist bound book “Faster, Jim” and has also appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Magazine and “F*cked Up + Photocopied”. Since the nineties you have also had numerous exhibitions — both solo and group shows — across California. How do commissions and editorial work differ for you as opposed to making work principally for yourself and subsequently for exhibition and galleries?

VG: Mostly, it’s not very different. In regards to the things mentioned, people have asked me to be involved because of the work I do. The biggest difference would be maybe a deadline and possibly some preference in subject matter. Also, if something is commissioned for a record cover or a play it is a collaboration because I want the client to get what they think is best for their purpose. Even if it’s a commission it might still end up in a gallery. The other way is true, too. A gallery piece could end up on a record cover. All this work is part of the same thing it is all part of the same body. It’s always work.



“Julio Chavez” 1992 spray paint and stencil on cardstock 30″x20″



“Untitled (welder)” 1995 spray paint and stencil on paper 17″x14″ reproduced as album cover art for Calexico’s “Hot Rail”


If we could now talk next about Tucson Arizona’s beloved band Calexico. Of course you have shared a very close friendship with the band since the very beginning, your artwork provides the perfect visual accompaniment to the band’s distinctive blend of diverse sounds, styles and musical traditions. Your imagery is also so highly evocative — albeit loosely — of Burns’ own writing where inspiration has often stemmed from the Mexico and US border.
I would love if you could recount your first time hearing the sounds of Calexico and the impact and impression the music had on you?

VG: I knew Joey and John were listening to movie soundtracks, and they were buying instruments that were new to them at the time and experimenting. But when I first heard what they were up to, I was very surprised. Mainly because they weren’t following anything else that was going on at the time. Right from the start, they were doing something very original that had no category. One of the first times I saw them play here in Long Beach, they were touring with a bunch of instruments including a vibraphone. These were instruments you didn’t see rock bands playing. Plus I think it was just the two of them alone. They had been playing with Howe Gelb in Giant Sand for a few years already, and they were so talented and had their chops honed. It seemed like they had this confidence and followed through on their vision. It was very much like jazz and atmospheric. In the beginning it was very raw too. Joey was just starting to sing. So, it was just a whisper then and a lot of instrumentals. What they were doing in context of the time was almost shocking and I think took a lot of courage.

Joey and I used to work at SST Records, and we would go to lunch. Joey was just like he is now, very positive, full of optimism and enthusiastic. He would say to me, “I’m going to start a band and you’re going to do all the art work.”  I would answer: “Yeah, that’s a good idea”. Then he went and did it.


Your artwork adorns the sleeves for “The Black Light”, “Hot Rail”, “Feast Of Wire” and “Carried To Dust” (as well as a whole host of other records, for example “Toolbox”, and, of course the many EP’s and singles from this period also).
Can you describe the process for creating a specific sleeve for Calexico? Does it vary across album?

VG: Sometimes, Joey would pick through stuff I had already finished. At one point, I had copies of all my comics and I gave half to my friend the late Chris Takino and the other half to him. So, sometimes he would use from there. Other times we would talk on the phone and come up with ideas, and later he would run them by John. John would come up with ideas too. Everything would be over the phone because we live in different states. He would mail me cassettes back then of rough mixes, and we would talk about what was going on in the world and with us personally. Sometimes, we discussed movies we’ve seen lately, books we were reading. We would talk about friends and family. Out of these talks, things would make some sense to us. We would start making connections. Song titles might come out of it as we chose the images. This is while they are recording. And as they built the songs the images would start coming together. I would also mess around with the typography. Once the title was chosen I might take some fonts, chop them up and see what looked right.



Album art for Calexico’s “Hot Rail”



Album art for Calexico’s “The Black Light”


I must say, one of my all-time favorite artworks of yours is the magnificent art found on the reverse of “Feast Of Wire”. It really draws on — for me — the characters across the album and the often-doomed journeys they are going on (“Not Even Stevie Nicks…” or “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, for example). The image itself seems to echo Hitchcock’s “The Trouble With Harry” or Mantegna’s experimentation with foreshortening during the Renaissance period. What was the thinking behind the use of this image?
Incidentally, is it true you were behind the choice for the album title of “Feast Of Wire”?

VG: That’s really observant of you to notice the Mantegna influence. I did have that image in mind when I made my piece. I knew the Mantegna painting from the inside gate fold of David Bowie’s ‘Lodger’ album art. I learned from art history books I bought in thrift stores and swap meets. I didn’t read them much, but from going through them, I saw that all the masters works were reinterpretations of master works from previous generations. I was trying to make sense of my subject matter. The Hitchcock movie you mentioned I was not aware of. It’s amazing that image looks exactly like mine. My image came from an old science book from the 60s and it’s actually a man standing on a plexi or glass floor. The photo is shot from the below and only appears as if the guy is on his back. I was not a big Hitchcock fan until I saw a documentary film on him and I learned about how he made movies with images and really didn’t care much about actors other than how they looked. Even when I didn’t care for him, I couldn’t deny how pretty his movies were especially in color. The cars, clothes, furniture, architecture, landscapes – everything looks so slick. The “Feast of Wire” title Joey and I came up with together. He was liking “Feast of Snakes” from the Harry Crews book title, and he was also thinking about the idea of communications telephone wires. We just started going back and forth saying feast of this and that and at one point I think I said: “How about Feast of Wire?”



Album art for Calexico’s “Feast Of Wire”



“Alfred H.” 2005 spray paint and stencil on drawing paper 52″ x 36″


Also, I really love the use of stamping on your artwork which you have done at various times over the years. It serves to add another layer of meaning (and subsequently another layer to be left open to interpretation for the viewer). The “Notes” section often contain really memorable passages or quotes (my favorites being found on both “Man On His Back” and “Young Man From Waste Up”). When did you begin stamping your artwork like this? Where do you get the inspiration for the words?

VG: The rubber stamp was my attempt at humility because originally, I would not sign the pieces. I got the idea from Andy Warhol and Mark Mothersbaugh who both sometimes used rubber stamps to sign their art. The stamp was supposed to say “Description” instead of “Title” but I forgot when I had it made. I started doing this before I showed the stencil pieces anywhere as art. It was mostly for my benefit and just trying to figure out what I was doing. I was trying to give them titles and like you said to give a little extra information. Sometimes when you give a little text like that, it gives the image more life and creates more questions than answers. I also made single panel comics using my stencil pieces by copying them with a black and white copier and putting them inside a border with a title at the top and a quote. I would write down quotes as I came across them by overhearing people or making them up myself. Sometimes they came from something I read or heard on TV or in a movie. When I started to show my art I thought it was better to make things a little simpler so I never really showed them with the stamp. I used to also put things inside the mats of my framed pieces like lapel pins, belt buckles, and coins.


Another personal favorite is an earlier work of yours entitled “Man Looking At Watch”. This would later be reproduced on the reverse of the “Crystal Frontier” vinyl. It feels like a scene in a Raymond Chandler novel or a 1950’s film noir.
The cover artwork for 1996’s Calexico 7” “Spark/The Ride” was later cropped and reproduced as the cover image for the truly special “Road Atlas 1998-2011”, limited to 1,100 copies and comprising the band’s extensive tour records from over the years. Could you perhaps talk about these pieces?

VG: The guy looking at his watch was typical of the stencils I made early on. It’s just one stencil, and I took the image from somewhere and it originally appeared pretty small. I used to try and get images from pictures where the image I was taking was not usually the central image or seemed like it was lost to time. I tried to find anonymous images, and I thought this made it easier to make them mine and fit in with what I was doing. I had all these rules that I made up for myself about where I would not take an image from. But in time, I dropped these rules little by little to where I let myself draw whatever I want. The guy hopping the low rider Cadillac is a good example. It came from a car magazine and it was the main photo in the spread. A friend of mine later told me he recognized it from a calendar that was put out too. I had designed an announcement card for a lecture at the Getty Center and Joey liked the image on there and wanted to use it. I made this one for him instead. Nowadays if I feel like drawing something I draw it.



“Man Looking At Watch” 1992 spray paint on paper 2nd print stamped and signed on front


Your work must draw from such a diverse range of sources. I love, for example, the reference to Henri Cartier Bresson’s photography in the black-and-white stencil artwork you made for the “Black Heart” single which is found on the disc itself. How do you collate reference images for your artwork?

VG: I had a collection of year books from the 20s through the 70s, and I made a lot of pieces from there. It used to be easy to get really old books and magazines at swap meets. New and old Mexican and American tabloids were good. Some of my favorite photographers include Larry Clark, Bill Owens, Richard Kern, Weegee and Joel P. Witkin. I wouldn’t use their photos because those pictures are finished. THEY ARE those images. I try and find photos from more obscure sources. So, to me at least, they are starting a new life. I mostly try and take my own photos these days. But when I do use an image, it might be from an ad, catalog or maybe editorial where I’m taking it away and putting the image in a new context.


Where did the artwork for “Toolbox” originate from, Victor? I love also how the new logo for Calexico as it appeared here (and subsequently on “Carried To Dust”) conveys “Calexico” in it’s new context. Since I first saw this image I’ve thought of it as a reference to the song “Gilbert” and it’s main character. I love also how “work” and “identity” itself has been a recurring theme for you (“Untitled (worker on sidewalk)” or “F.B.I. Girl” for example).

VG: Well, the Tool Box guy is a bomb squad cop from the 60s, maybe 50s. I drew him because, even as a photo, it was so strange. It was like a modern-day armored suit. Some friends asked for an image for a 7” sleeve they were hand pulling silk screen, and I guess they weren’t happy with it because they used it really small on the label instead of the front. Years later, Joey saw it laying around my studio and I was happy to let him use it. The FBI girl was from a newspaper story where there was a raid made on the home. She was one of a bunch of other FBI standing around the front yard. I like drawing people from behind so I pinned the picture to my wall at work. I thought she was attractive even though you couldn’t see her face, and to me, she appeared to be Latina. I made her stockings yellow just to make her kind of new wave and more fun. If a person has a uniform on or some kind of work clothes it’s saying a little more about what’s going on. The very clothes create an action.

I enjoy experimenting with typography, and, like with drawings, you never know what will come out. I remember reading something the artist Gilbert ‘Magu’ Lujan said about low rider cars and how taking an American machine — like the car — and transforming it into this work of art was a political act. I thought I could do something similar with typography where I would merge something very modern and minimal like Helvetica with it’s opposite: a very ornate antique gothic script. The type on the “Carried to Dust” cover was inspired by traditional American tattoo lettering. The kind of lettering people would do with a pin, some thread and India ink. I love to draw letters and chop up fonts, but I never know if I will be able to get anywhere. It takes hours, and I know some of them are very hard to read.



Album art for Calexico’s “Toolbox” album



“F.B.I. Girl” 2005 spray paint on aluminium 24″ x 18″



“Nova And The Impala” 2008 A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 19″x24″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”


Onto “Carried To Dust”, the extensive artwork you created for this special album is truly breathtaking. The cover itself of a woman driving reminded me originally of a Hitchcock film still (Tippi Hedren’s “The Birds” character or Janet Leigh’s “Psycho” character perhaps), and later I thought of Minutemen’s “Double Nickels On The Dime” album (which would have influenced Calexico). It wasn’t until much later I found out it was in fact Joey’s wife, Nova. I also love the addition of the religious icon hanging from the rear view mirror, it ties back to your earliest work with Calexico. I would love if you could talk about both the front and back covers for “Carried To Dust” (including the wonderful “Blow Up Guy”) and the process involved in their realization?

VG: The cover idea I remember came from Joey and he was wanting something kind of very “Double Nickels”. John owns a 60s VW bug like the one Mike Watt was driving so Joey took some pictures of Jairo Zavala in the car. Jairo was recording and playing with them at the time. I think Joey wanted something “Double Nickels” but different because he sent me some pictures from outside the car and it’s side view. The car was parked, and they looked very posed and not very interesting and not working out. We went back and forth a few times and finally I told him let’s do it all the way but with Nova driving his Impala down the main street, straight up “Double Nickels”. He took a lot of pictures, and the idea was so good, and Nova looked so cool driving that car that it just worked out. It was an homage to the minutemen and Mike Watt who we both know and admire. The Virgin Mary air deodorizer was just there and worked out perfect. Sometimes things just work out naturally; everything being organic. When you do an homage like that, it’s like when you do a portrait. A portrait is not the real thing, so I think it has to be super deluxe to make up for that fact.

When I started working on that project, Joey and John wanted the feel of my earlier stencils. So I tried to make them simple with each image only requiring a couple of stencils. Joey had seen the movie “Blow Up” which I had not seen until just recently, and he was wanting that kind of mood. I made sketches and e-mailed them to him, and he and John would be like, “yes, no, how about this?” and I started making those images. The Blow Up guy came about from images I have done where people’s heads are missing or cut off. If you take a simple image and change something like taking a person’s head off it becomes more interesting. That’s the thinking behind the guy with a pin in his teeth because it makes you think, what is that, what’s going on? The girl with the angel wings is Mexican actress Silvia Pinal in a photo still from “The Exterminating Angel” by Luis Buñuel. Years ago, I bought a video of the movie at a swap meet. I bought the video for a couple of bucks purely for the picture of her on the box. I didn’t realize I had seen the movie when I was a kid. Anyway, I would normally not mention all that because it’s not important for my purposes. I’m not making a portrait of an actress in a famous movie, I’m using the image for the visceral feeling I can get out of it. But I do not mind the association and connection, I like that too. It also becomes part of the work. I added the wings behind her. I made a lot more images that did not get used. Joey kept pushing for more images and I did the best I could.



“Avenging Angel” 2008  A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 24″x19″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”



“Blow Up Guy 1” 2008 A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 24″x19″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”


The very last question, if every sleeve in music was a blank canvas, which album (from any period in time) would you love most to illustrate and why?

VG: That’s a really funny question and I have known of art shows with that as a theme. I have never been asked to be in one but I am pretty sure I would choose not to participate. I have designed dozens of album covers most of which were just putting stuff together for other artists at SST. In that time, I realized that a great looking album cover could never save the bad music inside. But any art style will be legitimized by a great album, in fact if the record is really big it will create a trend in that style. When I think of my favorite albums, to me the covers are what they look like and that’s it. I think of the music and the cover as together and that’s the way it is. It’s like asking someone if you could change the face of the first person you ever kissed what would you do? I just feel like what’s the point.


All images © Victor Gastelum.


Very special thanks to: Victor, Elizabeta Betinski, Joey Burns and all the Calexico family.


Step Right Up: The DeSoto Caucus

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Interview with The DeSoto Caucus.

“And you meet some very real people there to whom your craft is making a difference, not just to their current mood or something, but to their sanity and survival! You get to travel and go places you never would have found on your own or with your school or whatever. And you’re being celebrated for being yourself, doing exactly what YOU do.”

—Anders Pedersen

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


Frontman Anders Pedersen sings “I take on the foreseen / and I dream of rolling streams” beneath the reverb-drenched electric guitar tones of “Fire Sale” on The Desoto Caucus’s latest piece de resistance, entitled “Offramp Rodeo”, evoking the spirit of Townes Van Zandt and the American West. The brooding folk opus is closer to a road trip or soul journey as the song’s trajectory maps the heart of americana where traditional and contemporary sounds are effortlessly interwoven. Pedersen’s baritone melts wonderfully beneath the soothing rhythms of Dombernowsky’s drums and the seductive bass groove of Thøger T. Lund. “Fire Sale” conveys the bold spirit of “Offramp Rodeo” as the Danish quartet unleash a formidable collection of indispensable, dust-filled explorations. As the year comes to a close, the Danish foursome’s latest record is most certainly one of those overlooked albums of the year.

The DeSoto Caucus are Anders Pedersen (lead vocals, guitars), Peter Dombernowsky (drums, percussion), Nikolas Heyman (vocals, guitar, bass, keys), Thøger T. Lund (vocals, upright bass, clarinet & piano) and Henrik Poulsen on bass. The gifted musicians are better known as the more recent incarnation of Howe Gelb’s awe-inspiring Giant Sand – exploring the American musical heritage these past ten years – following in the wings of previous Giant Sand rhythm section of Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino. The seeds were sewn during the Spring of 2003 when Gelb visited the Danish city of Aarhus and remained there to record his solo record “The Listener”. Lund, Dombernowsky and Pederson, among a bunch of other local musicians were invited to take part in the recording sessions for “The Listener”. A string of compelling releases later, the Danish musicians would prove to be a trusted sonic canvas for Gelb’s visionary masterworks, akin to The Band’s Robertson, Helm and Danko serving Bob Dylan’s beguiling artistic creations.

The DeSoto Caucus’s debut record “Elite Continental Custom Club”, released in 2008, was recorded in the legendary Aarhus studio Feedback Recording. The recording sessions took place in the interim of Gelb’s gospel opus “’Sno Angel Like You”. Having time on their hands (for once), The DeoSoto Caucus was born. This album is full of intriguing arrangements and the instrumentation of horns, keys, violin, vibes creates a gypsy infused jazz odyssey that is reminiscent of The Friends Of Dean Martinez – the timeless sound of Tucson, Arizona, it seems, is never far away.

For the eagerly awaited follow-up, the band wanted to make everything count. It is clear upon listening to the Danish troupe’s sophomore record that each song is the sound of a band at the peak of their powers. The recording sessions took place during the down-time of Giant Sand’s “Tucson” tour, recorded primarily in Heyman’s Stablesounds in the Northern Danish countryside. The spark of spontaneity and masterful songcraft radiates throughout “Offramp Rodeo” encompassing the sounds of M. Ward, Granddaddy, Sparklehorse and Howe Gelb. Much in the same way as Giant Sand, the record’s shimmering quality lies in the aesthetics thus created. Happenstance, in a word.

“All alone in a dense fog when the rain starts” is the opening lyric to “Here’s One” – an endearing lo-fi pop gem – that casts the ideal backdrop for Pederson and co.’s unique blend of absorbing, bitter-sweet tales.


Interview with Anders Pedersen, The DeSoto Caucus.

Congratulations on the new album, “Offramp Rodeo”. I love the lo-fi feel to it, the melodies remind me of Grandaddy and M. Ward. The arrangements are immaculate, I love how there are so many intricate layers embedded in the detail of every song. Please discuss the space and time this album blossomed from?

AP: The album was done over a year or so in Nikolaj’s studio Stable Sounds in the Northeastern corner of the country. When you walk the hills there you overlook Skagerrak. It’s a pretty remote place, and the studio is basically heated by fireplaces and tube amps. When we set off to start the album, the first thing we did was to eat well, have drinks handy, and then talk about the reasons for even recording music when there is so much out there….discussing how albums should make a difference, and obviously, discussing what that meant and what albums we thought did make a difference. PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” had just come out, and knowing John Parish it was obvious how those guys must have been aware not to waste anyones time with un-necessary sounds and songs without significance. We decided to go ahead and make the record, but make everything count. And not settle with any “that works alright”.

When it comes to the guys you mention, Matt Ward is a friend of ours that we were all fans of before we got to know and play with him, and his aesthetics are related to ours, I guess. Same with Jason Lyttle and Grandaddy. But it’s funny to think of where melodies come from, and how guys that grow up under different circumstances in different parts of the world come up with familiar melodies. My best guess is we’re all third generation US popular culture, all grew up with the same records, comics, and movies. Even our parents did. For the arrangements we didn’t want an over-produced smooth album, and ended up treading very carefully because we liked the raw feel of the basic takes and the cue vocal, which is also what you hear on most of the tracks. Some songs we would add a lot of stuff to, just to peel it off again during the final mixes. We also found it very inspirational to lay down basic tracks with say, just an African drum and vocal, adding organ and guitar, before adding the bass last and leaving it at that. Trying not to fall into too much automation of how things are usually done. And of course eating and drinking well was a big part of the work routine. Like keeping the fire going.


Album closer “Firesale” is my current favourite. The many verses on the song transports me to Dylan’s “Desolation Row” or “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. Please talk me through this song and its construction? How quick did the words appear to you?

AP: Nikolaj had the melody line, but felt it needed something, maybe a chorus or something to take it out of its loop, but driving to the studio one day by myself when the others were already there, I started to enjoy that loopiness, almost like a meditation or something. A had a tape of Nikolaj humming the melody that I kept rewinding, and at some point during that drive it was as if I started hearing single words and names in there. Santa Fe was one of them, and driving as I was, I decided it should be a road movie with a lot of verses, like some of the trippier Dylan or Townes Van Zandt songs. We like to think of ourselves as European explorers in the American musical heritage, hence the DeSoto name, so I thought this road movie should be like a modern-day “DeSoto trail”, the route Hernando de Soto travelled upon discovering the south-eastern states in the early 1500’s. My favorite road movies tend to deal with soul journeys of some sort, so to me it became a story about a guy running from something, surrendering to greater powers, maybe the nature, experiencing something that clarifies matters, before he finally tries to reconcile with what ever he’s running from. I got really in to the plot and I guess it was a bit like writing a novel or a script. At least that’s how I felt as I was doing “research”, googling places I imagined the narrator visiting, and stumbling on amazing locations like the Devil’s Inkwell, for instance.


The four members of The DeSoto Caucus (before DeSoto Caucus was born!) and a bunch of other local musicians in Aarhus, Denmark were invited to take part in the recording of Howe Gelb’s “The Listener” record. This was ten years ago. Please take me back to this time and working with Howe for the first time? It must have been a fulfilling experience. I think this particular record is one of the strongest of Howe Gelb’s solo records—I love the European feel that radiates throughout.

AP: When the word started going round that Howe Gelb was in town, some of us got pretty excited….both Thøger (GS bass player, sings and plays all sorts in the DC) my girlfriend (Danish singer and songwriter Marie Frank) and myself had been fans of Giant Sand since the early/mid ‘90s, and had all been to shows that had left strong impressions on us. Howe’s slightly anarchistic approach, more like that of the improvisational jazz player than of your classic front guy in a rock band, was a bit of a revelation. When people now talk of how incredible it is that you can follow Howe’s every move and whim on stage and in the studio, I believe it’s also a matter of his always insisting on not arranging much….you know, we never had a setlist before the Giant Giant Sand started happening and we’re so many people on stage playing that guidelines became significant. And even now there’s always an element of improvisation that’s very important. And for us younger, disciplined, Danish musicians the aesthetics of happenstance have become a way of life almost.

Meeting Howe, taken on the road, and being trusted with some of the best songs I can imagine definitely changed the course of our professional life. Tapping in to such a rich source of wordplay and going on stage night after night with a guy who seriously challenges the nature of rock is incredibly inspirational and educational. You grow up loving music so much you wanna be with it all the time and learn that you must practise and study in order to do that. You slide in to a system of highly trained, rule abiding, correct musicianship, and then one day a guy appears at the back door and introduce you to a different world behind the building, in the alleyways and backyards and basements. And you meet some very real people there to whom your craft is making a difference, not just to their current mood or something, but to their sanity and survival! You get to travel and go places you never would have found on your own or with your school or whatever. And you’re being celebrated for being yourself, doing exactly what YOU do.
And in terms of Howe hooking up with us Danes, I guess we do go about the traditional American music tradition in a slightly different way, all though we all grew up on Hazelwood, Dylan, The Band, Billie Holiday, old blues records, Hollywood and Donald Duck and so on.


I am very interested to gain an insight into the inspiration that you draw from the places of Arizona and Aarhus? It feels that the spirit of both Europe and the desert heat and vast plains of Arizona are deeply rooted in your music.

AP: I guess the nature and folk music of the place you grow up is something you’re not always aware of, but something that will show up in any artistic expression. I will say that I at least feel an influence from nature…the light, the long dark winters are significant to all Northerners. Arizona, and Tucson in particular has become a second home for us, Thøger even moved there and has a family there now. Needless to say the country has left a huge impression on us…as has the culture, maybe more significantly so because of our Scandinavian upbringing…the USA basically still baffles us. At the same time we all love the free-flowing feel of it as a contrast to the very well-ordered Danish society.


When did the members of The DeSoto Caucus first meet? What were the records you all shared a common affinity with?

AP: Thøger and I had a short-lived trio with my girlfriend playing Gram Parsons songs. Nikolaj and Peter went to the music academy together and had a band called Western Stars that is worth checking out. They did two great albums. Peter and I played in a local band together where he was the percussionist…..actually that’s what he really is…also teaches percussion at the academy now. But it was in Giant Sand we all got together. And at some point Howe started asking about our plans…we had none. playing with him was the best we could think of. But he insisted that we had to get something going because he wouldn’t always be around to provide songs and shows. That seemed pretty fatalistic to guys in their twenties, but it got me started on writing in English (I used to write for a band I had that played some sort of Danish folk-beat).
When we started playing there was a shared affinity for some older Danish stuff, and then “Lee & Nancy” by Hazelwood and Sinatra, Lambchop, Mark Ribot’s stuff, Buena Vista Social Club, and the record Ry Cooder did with Manuel Galban called “Sinuendo”, anything Gillian Welch was part of, also dug Lucinda Williams (who turned out to be an old friend of Howe’s) and then Bob Marley’s “Survival” record was and is very dear to us!


As members of Giant Sand — and more recently, Giant Giant Sand — you have been at the forefront of traditional and contemporary American music. What are your favourite recording sessions you have had with Giant Sand? Is there one particular album you feel most proud of?

AP: The Listener is an album with a great atmosphere oozing from it, reflecting a dwelling on hot climate and possibly inspired somewhat by the aftermath of Buena Vista Social Club that we all enjoyed and heard a lot at the time.

All Over The Map has incredible songs, but as we recorded it right after touring a lot with “The Listener” the band was taken by surprise when Howe announced that it was going to be a punk-rock record (the lineup was percussion, upright bass, acoustic guitar/piano and mandolin/lapsteel). Being in the studio with John Parish was very inspirational, and I think the album will stand out further in hindsight.

The album that captures the “Danish” Giant Sand best I guess is “Blurry Blue Mountain”. Recorded live in the studio, pretty much, all the arrangements are based on the live format and some even on jams.


Describe for me please Wavelab Studios in Tucson? What is it about the place that makes for such a special sound?

AP: Well…..first off people make the main difference. Climate matters too. Then Wavelab is one big room, the engineer sits in the same room every one else does, that matters a lot.


Will there be a European tour for The DeSoto Caucus?

AP: We play the Orange blossom Special festival in Beverungen, Germany on Sunday May 19th and start European tour October 23rd in Berlin. No UK dates as of now, but we’ll be there soon, I hope!


What albums are you listening to most these days?

AP: “Total Dust” by Dusted, Bombino’s “Nomad” record that Dan Auerbach produced, Nick Cave’s recent Bad Seeds record.


“Offramp Rodeo” is available now on Glitterhouse Records.



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December 11, 2013 at 11:11 am

The Last Waltz: Rainer Ptacek

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Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

Singer Songwriter, Guitarist (born East Germany on June 7 1951), died of brain cancer, aged 46.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist, Rainer Ptacek passed away on November 12, 1997 after succumbing to brain cancer. He left behind a musical legacy and an unrivalled reputation as a “musician’s musician.” His progressive approach to guitar playing was wholly unique and revolutionary. His unique guitar technique, which incorporated slide, finger-picking, tape loops and electronic manipulation won him huge critical acclaim from luminaries such as Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and PJ Harvey. Earlier this year, ‘The Inner Flame’ was released on Fire Records which is a tribute record celebrating the talented life and music of the great musician and songwriter. ‘The Inner Flame’ features a whole host of rock ‘n’ roll greats. ‘The Farm’ is reinterpreted by Lucinda Williams, ‘Rude World’ is covered by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and PJ Harvey, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando, Vic Chesnutt, Grandaddy and Chuck Prophet amongst others also feature. The special spark arrives at the end in the shape of ‘Be Prepared’, performed live by Rainer, alongside Joey Burns and John Convertino (of Calexico/Giant Sand fame). The compilation opens with the title track ‘Inner Flame’, where Giant Sand alongside Rainer deliver one of Americana’s defining moments ever put to tape. The benefit album ‘Inner Flame’ was originally released in 1997 with the proceeds going towards Ptacek’s medical bills. The re-released version contains many extras not featured on the original release. It is reissued now in 2012, to pay tribute and celebrate the remarkable artist. In the words of Howe Gelb: “We offer up this new version to pay tribute and celebrate the man, the likes of whom I’ve yet to ever encounter again, and allowing a glimpse now of what he had done here on the planet and to share that embrace for ever having known him at all.”

‘Inner Flame’ and Giant Sand was how I first discovered Rainer. I remember picking up Giant Sand’s ‘Selections Circa 1990-2000’ compilation in Plugd and immediately became utterly transfixed by their visionary and beguiling sound. Classics such as ‘Shiver’, ‘Inner Flame’, ‘Corridor’, ‘Yer Ropes’ and ‘Temptation Of Egg’ introduced me to the sound of Americana. ‘Inner Flame’ was my first glimpse of Rainer. His slide guitar and vocals on the song is awe-inspiring. The weight of the song is staggering, with a force to be reckoned with. It’s the spark of musicianship between frontman Howe Gelb and Rainer, together with the rhythm backbone of Joey Burns and John Convertino, that makes for a truly special sonic landscape. It’s cinematic blues covering the plains of Arizona and beyond. The lyric ‘Everything should come from the deepest place’ is one of my favourite moments from the stellar Giant Sand songbook. In fact, it’s the essence of Rainer’s music, where his songs transcend space and time.

Over the years, several releases featured the songs of Rainer, of which I only realized a good time later. One of those such songs is ‘Square’, which was taken from one of Howe Gelb’s many off-shoot projects, The Band of Blacky Ranchette. The album was entitled ‘Still Lookin’ Good To Me’. The album features everyone from Kurt Wagner and Cat Power to M. Ward and Grandaddy. ‘Square’ is a gem of a song, which was co-written by Howe Gelb and Rainer Ptacek. The version of the song found here is recorded live in Austin, Texas and the magical trio of Howe Gelb (vocals, guitar), John Convertino (drums) and Joey Burns (cello) weave their magic. Howe Gelb’s vocal delivery hits you deep and hard, amidst the heart wrenching bowed cello of Burns and Convertino’s evocative drumming. The song is achingly beautiful. A lyric on the opening verse: ‘Times spent with you is always way too few. Finer than the finest dream well displayed on the silver screen.’ The lyrics of the chorus, for me, epitomizes the life and music of Rainer: ‘You’re way too real for wide appeal/You’re one of the last of a kind/Out of the past and right in time.’ Listening to the lyrics echoes Howe Gelb’s words for his best friend, ‘the likes of whom I’ve yet to ever encounter again.’ Certainly, Rainer is just that, ‘one of the last few one of a kind.’ It is only fitting in 2012, fifteen years since Rainer’s passing, that we see his music being released again, where Rainer’s music will be introduced to new audiences.

My favourite Rainer song must be ‘Rudy With A Flashlight’. Funnily enough, five or six years passed before I heard the original version of Rainer’s! The song was beautifully covered by Evan Dando (featuring Howe Gelb) on The Lemonheads’ ‘Best Of’ compilation. ‘Rudy With A Flashlight’ always strikes me with its powerful emotion and its immediacy and directness. The guitar playing by Rainer is astounding. You can hear John Fahey, Ry Cooder and Richard Thompson all at once in his unique style of guitar playing. The opening verse recounts watching his son playing in the yard, ‘Rudy with a flashlight, playing out in the yard, shining it straight up, right at the stars.’ In a later verse, Rainer sings ‘Some times all we need/Is right in front of us/Right in front of us.’ I can visualize Rainer singing with his guitar, while watching his son playing in the yard and in the process writing ‘Rudy With A Flashlight.’ A very special song, that pours with a father’s love.

Several of Rainer’s albums I’ve been listening to lately for the first time. My current favourite is ‘Rolling Back The Years’, which is Rainer with John Convertino and Joey Burns. Three musicians in deep communication with one another at the highest level, through music. It was recorded in late July/early August 1997 in Tucson, Arizona at the Barrio Viejo home of journalist, author and activist, Bill Carter. Rainer was at a high point in his recovery from a brain tumor when these sessions were recorded. ‘The Farm’ is another striking document of Rainer’s legacy. The sessions recorded would be the last recordings Rainer ever put to tape, before his untimely passing in November 1997. Those sessions were released in 2002, after being untouched for several years. A whole host of recordings are available across many releases, where Rainer’s phenomenal talent is showcased.

Throughout 2012, Fire Records will be releasing the vast archives of Rainer Ptacek’s works. The much beloved slide guitarist from Tucson, Arizona who originated Giant Sand’s sound from their inception to creating a stream of remarkable solo albums and with his band, Das Combo, described as mutant roots/power blues. Near the end of Rainer’s life, when asked the impossible question of what he thinks we are all doing here in this life, Rainer answered without hesitation: “to love away the pain”.
Listen to Rainer’s music and you soon feel just that.

‘Inner Flame’ is out now on Fire Records.

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September 26, 2012 at 11:14 am