I haven’t been out to West Texas in years, but I spent a lot of time there when I was younger. Enough time for its spirit to soak into my bones: wide open spaces, brutal heat and rugged beauty, isolation that can make you lonely or make you feel at peace. It all comes back to me when I listen to Friends of Dean Martinez, an Austin-based instrumental band that was born in the desert city of Tucson, Arizona.
I’ve seen comparisons to Pink Floyd, and I can kind of hear that. I thought of it as a kind of Southwestern postrock in the vein of Godspeed You Black Emperor. A friend of mine told me FODM’s music has weltschmertz, a German word that translates as “world pain.” The closest English equivalent would be pathos. I think that comes pretty close to the mark. It’s beautiful, moving stuff.
The current lineup includes Bill Elm on pedal steel and organ, Andrew Gerfers on drums and Mike Semple on guitar. Elm plays the pedal steel with something called an e-bow, which gives the instrument an ethereal, otherworldly sound very different from the traditional country steel sound. Quite a few other musicians have been part of FODM at one time or another, including drummer John Convertino, who co-founded the group and later became part of Calexico, another group know for its Southwestern ambience.
In this video, the band members talk about the band’s origins, their musical philosophy and some of their projects, including the music they created for a documentary about the Salton Sea (a fascinating subject in itself – look it up).
I listen to them any time I feel caught up in the rat race and my mind needs some wide open spaces. I especially love their cover of “Wichita Lineman,” the Jimmy Webb song made famous by Glen Campbell.
I want to thank Roots Note Music blog for reminding me I needed to write about these guys. The author recently made this post about Robert Randolph — another musician who made me think differently about the pedal steel. I remember I used to dislike the instrument back when I was a country-phobic kid. I thought it sounded like a cat being tortured (I’ve changed my tune on country music quite a bit since then). Randolph turns the pedal steel into a source of incredible funkiness, while Bill Elm of FODM produces dreams. I really love people who can make me enjoy something I used to think I didn’t like.