Bill Elm/Friends of Dean Martinez

Five Guys Walk Into a Bar …By Xavier Omar Otero

Once lauded in Russian Playboy as “The Greatest Guitar Band on Earth!” After a long hiatus, this Tucson powerhouse is back. So if ever you are, let’s say, gunning through the desert southwest on a psilocybin-fueled hellride toward rebirth, in that surreal expanse, the sound of Friends of Dean Martinez starts to make perfect sense. In other words, the band, which features past and present members of Giant Sand, Calexico and Naked Prey, is still an esoteric mix of Americana (yes, we hate that word too), ambient-electronic, psych-country, inspired by the late ’50s/early ’60s instrumental surf, with Bill Elm’s plaintive steel guitar at the forefront.

Some quick backstory: They formed in Tucson in ’93, with Clif Taylor (AKA Chick Cashman) on guitar, Van Christian (Naked Prey) on drums and Elm on steel. “The initial idea for the band came from an acid trip spent listening to Santo & Johnny records,” Elm says. At a party, Christian started in on drummer Tommy Larkins about the project. “Since we had no band [name], Van had to make one up on the spot,” Elm continues. Friends of Dean Martin it was. “Van thought it sounded like a political organization.”

They played their first gig at the Arizona Children’s Home supporting a Ronald McDonald clown.

Elm: “We had a total of four songs in our repertoire, that we struggled to play.”

Back then ambitions were humble, “There wasn’t anything else to do but drink Tecate and play music. The ultimate goal was to get to the point where we could play in the lobby of Hotel Congress on ‘Downtown Saturday Night,’ get some free drinks, maybe dinner,” Elm says. Even so, “It was in my mind a lofty ambition, because Rainer [Ptacek, singer/songwriter, guitarist of legend] used to play there and pretty much anything he did was beyond cool.”

Over the years, Friends of Dean Martinez suffered lineup changes. The band lived and worked for a time in Los Angeles, California and Austin, Texas before coming home to Tucson. The current line-up is pretty much Old Pueblo aces, an all-star fest: Naim Amor (Band of Angels, Amor Belhom Duo) on guitar, Joe Peña (Greyhound Soul, Band of Angels) on drums, Tommy Larkins (Jonathan Richman) on percussion, Elm on steel guitar and organ and Thøger Tetens Lund (Giant Sand, Marie Frank) on upright bass and an electric upright (t-bass), which, you’ll note, he built by hand.

Lund, an Aarhus, Denmark native, first heard about Friends of Dean Martinez while living in Copenhagen in ’03. “Howe [Gelb] gave me a copy of Live At Club 2 (Glitterhouse, 2002). I loved Bill’s guitar sound, the space and the melodies.”

“What I consider the original lineup would be the one from the first record with Joey Burns (Calexico) on guitar, Christian on drums, John Convertino (Calexico) on vibraphone, Larkins on percussion and me,” Elm adds. This lineup dissolved during the recording of the second record. “It became clear that Burns and I were going in different directions musically and I had always known that he wanted to front his own band.”

The band’s first national tour was supporting Vic Chesnutt. Then their ship rolled in. “When we got our first record deal with Sub Pop, we had to get permission to use Dean Martin’s name and weren’t successful. The label thought Dean Martini would be a good alternative. We thought it was awful,” Elm says. But Elm’s then-roommate nailed it. “Fuck Martini. Martinez!”

And so it was, Friends of Dean Martinez signed to Sub Pop, home to Mudhoney and Nirvana, in December of ’94. They’ve since released 11 albums, beginning with the ’95 chestnut The Shadow of Your Smile.