Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers

Still Burning a Hole in the Night Sky

Music Features Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers
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Bob Dylan used to prattle about three chords and the truth, back when it seemed possible to go that route and get your music heard. But that was a few short decades before the music industry he helped support became a shambolic demon interested only in consuming itself—along with the lives and careers of everyone inside its rotting belly—before giving up its last in a long series of greedy moans and collapsing into its own entropic excess and the dust of history. It’s not that Dylan’s premise was wrong, and it’s not that it isn’t still happening; it just gets harder to hear under the wing-tip shoes of the accountants and lawyers who, with increasing panic and terror, run what once were record companies.

But rock ’n’ roll is still out there, it’s just off the death machine’s radar. ¡Americano!, the fourth album by Roger Clyne and The Peacemakers is proof that the crazy, reckless, restless, swaggering soul of American rock is still burning a hole in the night sky. ¡Americano! is drenched in the imagery of its terrain, the Arizona desert, but like fellow dust dwellers Chuck Prophet and Dan Stuart of the legendary Green on Red, Clyne’s songs reach far outside their frame of reference, peopled as they are with archetypal Yankee saints with hollowed-out eyes—outlaws, working men, gamblers and wanderers; in other words, heroic spirits who never stop looking inside for the truth or to the horizon for that transcendent moment when everything changes. Guitars blaze, quake and quiver, drums slip, thud and thunder with killer melodies and hooks and the occasional reggae or mariachi rhythm laced through the middle to keep it all honest and interesting. Like Steve Earle, Clyne writes and sings with the determination of a man who has one final statement to make before he disappears, his message delivered into the red sunset of an American mythical identity that’s become a confounded shadow of its former self—not only on the world stage, but in its own backyard. Like John Mellencamp, there’s a righteous sneer in Clyne’s voice and his poetry that understands contradictions and flaunts them. And like Bruce Springsteen he’s interested in conveying his experience of living for the sake of connection. Unlike the current singer/songwriter pantheon who get the job done by channeling country and folk music, The Peacemakers use roots rock played with a raucous edginess (often in overdrive), and a reliance on pop hooks to maneuver the topography. ¡Americano! isn’t some current incarnation of tired, dead Americana as played by faceless country-rock bands trying to get coverage in No Depression; it’s dangerous, razor-wire rock ’n’ roll that kids won’t dismiss and adults might remember if they haven’t had all that glorious wildness beaten out of them by ordinariness and the simulacra of what’s called “everyday life” here in the land of Homeland Security. Issued in February, ¡Americano! is an auspicious beginning for the rock ’n’ roll year.

No newcomer, Clyne knows all about the clanking monstrosity called the music biz. He was coughed out of its bowels in one of those death-rattle lurches a few years ago. He and drummer P.H. Naffa were once members of The Refreshments, an Arizona-based modern pop-and-rock band that issued a trio of albums, two of them recorded for the majors. Their middle slab, Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy, scored a pair of hit singles—the rollicking, catchy “Banditos” and “Down Together.” Clyne is also responsible for the infectious snake attack that is the theme song for the animated TV series King of the Hill.

“Yeah, I’m glad I’m out,” says Clyne from his home in Arizona. “It was the dream: young man in a bar band plays South By Southwest and gets signed and enters what appears to be Shangri La. The dream seemed complete when we got to call all the shots on our major debut’s production and picking a single. I mean, who gets to do that now—other than The Flaming Lips?

“We toured, got airplay, sold records and played on Conan O’Brien’s show. But the dream was an illusion,” he explains with a sardonic edge to his voice. “Once our label was swallowed in consolidation, one thing led to another and the label withdrew its support and our second record flopped. We were given a 90-day option in order to get back on track, and we ultimately refused it and it all fell apart. Am I ever glad.”

He and Naffa opted for a trial by fire. “First we started a country-and-western lounge act just to play Holiday Inns or whatever here in the West,” he explains. “We needed to do that to rekindle the fire of joy for playing together. We evolved into the first version of The Peacemakers in 1999 for the release of Honky Tonk Union, our first album. We’ve continued trying to shape it, and further it, and keep it honest through changes in members and management. My goal is the music and to keep an honest business model that allows us to keep doing it. I have no aspirations for anything else.”

After several personnel changes, and three more recordings, The Peacemakers have shapeshifted into their current incarnation featuring songwriter Clyne on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Naffa holding drum chair, long-time collaborator and bassist Danny White and new guitar slinger Steve Larson who adds the same kind of edge that Warner Hodges gave to Jason and the Scorchers. He’s a force of nature who’s always pushing the limit. The Peacemakers have gained a massive regional following, all of it on their own terms—making and distributing records on their EmmaJava label, selling merchandise, disseminating band news and commenting on art, the environment, anything they care about actually, through a brilliantly designed website.

Clyne says, “I am not interested in trying to appear to be 24. I am not gonna dye my hair, and I am not gonna write for radio or current trends. What we do, we do for keeps. We write about the big stuff, life and death and love and family and dreams that get trashed and reborn. If that sounds cliché, fine, but what I hear on the radio lacks not only spirit, it lacks soul for the most part. The people who run the music biz have no interest in those things if they ever did. In mass culture, creativity is dead or encouraged to become a television commercial. Here on the fringes the music expresses something about the way we live every day.”

Paul Simon once wrote, “the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” His only error was speaking in the past tense. Clyne and The Peacemakers are new prophets offering instruction and reflections on thoughts many members of our society seem to share in these dark times. In “Your Name on a Grain of Rice,” as guitars ring through the middle and a skittering backbeat underlies his words, Clyne embodies all the contradictions in his lyrics “I see the sun settin’ over America / I’m tryin’ to leave my darker side behind / Feelin’ my way down a blue desert highway / Wish my rear view mirror could tell me a lie … I am a father, a son and a restless spirit / I can see the light but I can never get near it … I see the fighter planes tearing across the desert sky / Do I curse them or cheer them on / I still can’t decide, but the silence they leave behind / Sounds like what I feel inside…”

“The way I see it, there is no room for cynicism, there’s too much work to do,” he explains, his voice rising slightly over the crackling wire. “I try to reject it because for me, and I know for my band members, art and life are inseparable. I write from the point of view of all the people who reside in me, and from all of those who have confided in me and are trying to find a way. As long as people are trying to find a way, then there is no room for a cynical response no matter how hard the road is. As we play out and tour, we have begun to understand that The Peacemakers do not have fans, but we have developed an audience because the people who come to see us empathize not only with what we have to say, but they trust the experience of their own lives and want to keep faith in them, we feed back what they give to us. This I find inspiring.”

Asked what this means for The Peacemakers who seem to exist in the seams between rock ’n’ roll’s tough rootsy past, its desperate present and uncertain future, Clyne replies, “I hope I am fortunate enough to be doing this until I am an old man. For me music is ‘re-humanizing,’ and we make records and play shows because that’s what those things do for us, they add humanity to our lives. Why would I want to stop doing this, trying to get better at doing my part, at re-humanizing my world and the world my kids have to live in? It’s not like there is a deep answer here, it’s just one song at a time, keeping a focused view of the land, the music and its people, instead of trying to find the answers in a strip mall.”