PHOTO BY JOHN MCMURRAY
Published in the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine
The music of Roger Clyne is as integral to Southwestern culture as the bolo tie, the crystalline sting of a premium tequila or a night spent gazing at the stars above Four Peaks. What Springsteen is to New Jersey, what Mellencamp is to Indiana, that’s what Roger Clyne is to Arizona and indeed the entire Sonoran high desert country. Together with his longtime band, the Peacemakers, Clyne has forged his own unique brand of rock music—earnest and heartfelt, with lyrics in English and español, filled with tales of desperados and loners. As heard on the band’s newest album, Unida Cantina—or anywhere else in their rich back catalog and frequent live shows—it’s a sound that is redolent of the big skies and dramatic landscape of the Southwest.
“There is a very unique cultural confluence in this region,” Clyne said. “I’ve been to a lot of different places, and there’s nothing like it. I’m very fortunate to be here and to be a native of this land.”
Clyne’s gift for expressing the depth and richness of the Southwest experience is homegrown. As a kid, he divided his time between urban Phoenix and the rural charm of his grandparents’ cattle ranch near Sonoita, Ariz.
“I got to grow up learning about horses, cows, chickens and livestock,” he laughed. “I Iearned to ride before I could probably walk. Spent a lot of summers getting up and working from dark to dark with Grandpa. My songs have so many heroes and villains who wander those wildlands. But at the same time, it was great to be a city kid, too. I had a horse in the summer and a skateboard in the winter. Somewhat under duress, I was listening to Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash on my father’s side. And then, when I had the freedom to chose my own music, I was getting into more of the punk scene: the Sex Pistols, Psychedelic Furs, Lords of the New Church and Violent Femmes. So all that stuff mixes together in my music.”
Clyne first made his mark with his power pop band the Refreshments in the ‘90s. The band was part of the fertile Tempe music scene spearheaded by the Gin Blossoms. “They really paved the way,” Clyne said of the latter group. Something about the Gin Blossoms’ first album, New Miserable Experience, focused a lot of attention on this thing called the Southwest sound, whatever that is. People came out here looking for more bands. The Refreshments got discovered because the Phoenix New Times picked us to go to South by Southwest in Texas in 1995.”
For Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fickle pop culture notoriety, it looked like Tempe was going to be the next Seattle, a new heartland rock mecca. “Everyone kept saying that,” Clyne said with a laugh. “I think it really was only about 15 minutes! The scene was so small. We only had a two-square-mile area, but there were lots of stages to play: The Sun Club, Long Wong’s, Ethyl’s Attic …. It was all right there in the heart of the [Arizona State] University area. That just created this cross-pollination among everybody who was artistic. There was a lot of theatrical stuff going on, painting and even movie making—a lot of creativity.”
When the Refreshments wound down at the end of the ‘90s, Clyne and drummer Paul “P.H.” Naffah launched the Peacemakers, effectively transplanting the Refreshments’ power pop heart into the deeper and more ancient soil of the old Southwest. Many of the songs for Honky Tonk Union, RCPM’s 1999 debut album, were written during campouts in the Whetstone and Santa Rita Mountains of southeastern Arizona. When the album hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s online album sales chart, Clyne and his band were on their way to carving their own unique niche in the American musical landscape. They built their reputation the hard way, touring relentlessly and winning fans one at a time, night after night in bars and clubs across the land.
“We’re fortunate in that the people consider our band a part of their lives,” Clyne said. “Even if the crowd isn’t giant, it’s humbling to be so welcome, so wanted. We want to respond to that. Players want to play. The audience gives you the chance.”
Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers hit a new high-water mark with their 2004 studio album and DVD, Americano!, placing high in Billboard’s Heatseekers and video sales charts. Written during the early stages of the Iraq War, songs on the album questioned the dubious sanity of warfare and indeed what it means to be American here in the troubled dawn of the 21st century. In contrast, the band’s new disc, Unida Cantina, is a bit more personal and introspective.
“If there’s an underlying theme to Unida Cantina, maybe it’s the breaking of illusion, and coming through to a reckoning with truth and real life,” Clyne said. “I’m in my forties now, a middle-aged man. I’m a lucky man. But when I was younger, I never would have pictured myself as a father of three, a business owner and a struggling artist concerned with politics, world citizenship and morality. So, the album is sort of a reckoning for myself and a lot of people my age. A lot of us are in the same sort of dizzy spell now. But I’m still a fan of rock and roll, and fun. I wanted to make this a celebratory, jaunty sort of record as well. Hopefully it is that.”
Buoyed by more long, hard touring, Unida Cantina has proved to be another solid success for Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. Roadwork for the album was just winding down when MyLIFE spoke with Clyne. He was looking forward to spending some time with his family and pursuing some of his extra-musical passions, which include soccer, sailing, local Mexican eateries and tequila. A few years back, he launched his own premium tequila label, Mexican Moonshine, in conjunction with John Bulla, who runs the Heard Museum cafe.
“John and I share a passion for the spirit,” he confided. “We put together a business plan many, many years ago. It’s been slow in its development, but Mexican Moonshine is starting to proliferate in Arizona, and I believe we have it in 19 other states now. It’s still really small and hard to find, but well worth the search.”
Clyne is a long time fan of the Heard, as well. “I love their ever-changing displays,” he said. “They’re always so high quality, and there’s always something new to see.”
While Clyne’s music often evokes desperate men in the remote wilds, he’s also perfectly content to lounge around his house in Tempe. “When I come from touring and the casa is falling apart,” he said, ”I don’t mind nailing it back together. I actually find a certain feeling of usefulness and Zen therapy in putting lightbulbs back in ceiling fans, fixing the tree house out back or replacing a water pump in my car. And now that we just completed a full nationwide tour for Unida Cantina, I’m grabbing my guitar and starting to write again. We’re just going to keep on doing what we do, making music. Just business as usual.”