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Tucson sounds

Jim McGuinn & Cosmic Cowboys add a rock edge to psych-country canon

A few months back, your friendly neighborhood music columnist was sipping a Guinness on the patio of a certain Fourth Avenue venue with a couple of local music scene comrades, discussing some sort of esoteric rock and roll nonsense that may or may not have included opinions about the bass/keyboard interplay of Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, when she was jarred out of her sense of complacency by a pair of near-simultaneous events. 

The first of these was the ill-timed and unpleasant sensation of ice-cold beer dousing her left foot as some frat-boy type on the sidewalk absent-mindedly emptied his cup before entering the venue. 

The second was an overheard gush of enthusiasm from one musician to another about a new local band they'd seen a few times.

"Dude, you've GOT to see Jim McGuinn and the Cosmic Cowboys. They're great. And he's the son...or wait, I think the grandson, maybe...of THAT McGuinn."

Slumped in her chair still reeling from the involuntary perfuming with essence of stale IPA, your trusty scribe noted the comment with some skepticism. The kid is the scion of "THAT" McGuinn? And the band is calling themselves the Cosmic Cowboys? That band had better be goddamned great.

Shaking her foot in a vain attempt to air dry a badly waterlogged shoe, and recalling a really terrible "retro"-inspired and offensively named band that once tried to get a foothold in Tucson music circles, this reporter's thoughts turned decidedly un-optomistic. She proceeded to imagine all the ways in which said band might not be great, conjuring thoughts of hipsters outfitted like Wes Anderson characters dripping in fringe and buckskins and feather-festooned hats and really terrible 70s porn-style handlebar mustaches.

Flash forward to about a week ago, when your intrepid chronicler of local rock stopped by an in-store gig at Desert Island Records to catch a friend's new band, only to discover the aforementioned Cosmic Cowboys headlining the show. 

While you could certainly see by their outfits that they were Cosmic Cowboys, there was nary a feather nor bit of fringe to be found, all mustaches were of reasonable length, and more importantly, it turns out that the band is, in fact, pretty great. 

Said performance had the added could've-been-a-bug-but-ended-up-being-a-feature aspect of a surprise drummer, Maya Rizek of the bands Yum! and Abes Bones, offering to fill in last minute when the Cowboys' usual drummer was delayed coming back from an L.A. show with the Rifle. 

Playing with an unrehearsed collaborator can be a real trial by fire for a band, especially a group with band members who don't listen well to each other or musicians who get nervous when things go off script. But for some bands, change and improvisation brings out the best in each player and showcases that magic combination of inspiration and intuition that comes from jamming with musicians you love and trust like family. 

Judging by their performance that night, the Cosmic Cowboys definitely belong to the latter camp. And while Jim McGuinn may be, in a sense, joining the "family business," his biggest strength may well be in the close-kit and sonically tight band family he's surrounded himself with.  

TucsonSentinel.com: Hey there, cowboys! Introduce yourselves. What’s your musical origin story?

Jim McGuinn (guitarist, lead vocalist): "This band originated last year out of the lo-fi bedroom recordings that I had been making for a few years. I got [the band] together so we could perform those songs live and start doing shows around town. Once we started playing together, we instantly realized that we had an awesome musical chemistry. The Cosmic Cowboys are Kyle, Artie, Nick, (Matt) and me. We started writing new songs and pursuing a musical style that blends space psychedelia and the desert country music tradition with a good old rock and roll sensibilities. So that’s how the Cosmic Cowboys were born."

TS: How did you discover rock and roll? And how did you fall in love with and start playing music?

JM: "Rock and roll has always been close to me. As a grandson of a well-known musician (Roger McGuinn of the Byrds), rock and roll has always been close to me. My folks always supported my passion in music, and encouraged me to be the best musician I could be."

"I started singing in rodeo choir at the age of 8, and the rigorous practice and repetition of it taught me how to be a singer early on. I first picked up the guitar at the age of 12, and started learning chords. I taught myself everything I know on the guitar - which isn’t much. I’ve always focused on songwriting. I've been making songs since I was 12 years old, and I think I have a good handle on writing a catchy tune and know how to hook people into a song."

TS: Thoughts on recording and live gigging? What have been your past experiences? What about the future?

Kyle Rosas (guitarist): "I personally have been playing music for over 10 years now, and I truly believe that if you’ve been doing something for that long you should either be decent at it, or at least be getting paid. If you’re lucky, you get both."

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"In my hometown of Yuma, Ariz., I used to throw DIY showcases with all my friends to have an outlet for the music we were making. Back in those days, I never really expected anything. I just wanted to show our stuff to anyone who would listen. Later on, I decided to pursue an education in audio engineering and went to CRAS University, followed by internships in Tucson with George Nano at Luna Recording Studios and Steven Tracy at St. Cecilia Studios."

"Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of going on a West Coast tour with the band M. Crane, and recording with other bands in places like Wavelab Studios, Midtown Island, and Waterworks here in Tucson. As far as the future goes, us Cosmic Cowboys are about to record our debut album with Nathan Sabatino at Hi-Dez Recordings out in Joshua Tree, Calif., this spring. The record is slated for release in the fall."

TS: Best gig you’ve ever played live? Worst? Weirdest?

JM: "The best gig we ever played was at Club Congress this February with our friends Scfi-Country from Flagstaff, who we first met in November during Bisbee’s Side Pony Express Music Festival. We started off joking about our similar names but quickly realized our goals were really similar too and we became fast friends. After Side Pony, the band asked us to join them for the Arizona dates on their current tour and of course we had to say yes! So the Congress show was not just our homecoming [from the tour] but also the climax of our time spent with them. The turn out was awesome and at the end of our set we invited Sci-Fi to come back on stage with us for a jam band style encore. I think people must have been impressed, because we sold all of our shirts!"

"Our worst gig was at a certain DIY venue in Flagstaff. Their sound setup wasn’t geared for a live performance, and the sound guy had never run sound there before. He also may or may not have stolen a band t-shirt. On stage, the vocals were cutting in and out and kept feeding back. We ended up cutting a few songs because the audience couldn’t hear the vocals and honestly it was kind of embarrassing.  We immediately packed up our stuff and went to drown our sorrows with 10-cent beers at Flagstaff’s best honky-tonk, the Museum Club.”

"The weirdest show we ever played (and we’d be surprised if we have a weirder one) was in Bisbee last November at the Copper Queen Hotel. There we were, two songs into our set when all of a sudden one of the audience members comes rushing to the stage, yelling 'Your car is on fire! There’s a red car outside, and it’s on fire!' Artie immediately drops his bass and runs outside, because he knows that it’s his car on fire. Who else’s could it be? So Nicky entertained the audience with a drum solo while the fire was being put out and then Artie came back and we finished the set. Rock and roll, right? Anyway, we drove that car back home the next morning and managed to make it back to Tucson."

TS: How would you say that each of you contributes to the band's unique sound? Do you feel like it's important to the band to be able to blend styles and experiences and weave something new as opposed to the way that many bands have a "main" songwriter or stick to a single vision?

JM: "Kyle and I are definitely the main songwriters. However, what we bring to the table is always just the skeleton of the song. Each member of the band writes their own parts, and we communally add to the way the structure of every song comes together. The whole purpose of this band is to bring together different worlds of music into one cohesive sound."

TS: What have you been up to more recently, musically speaking?

JM: "Right now, we’ve mainly been focusing on live performance. We’ve been practicing constantly, learning new songs, and playing tons of shows around. Our main goal at the moment is reaching out to a wide variety of audiences, but also striking a chord with a younger generation who may not have appreciated country music before.

TS: Sounds like something your musical forefathers would endorse! Future plans as a band? Long term and short term?

JM: "We’re gearing up to record our debut album out in Joshua Tree, Calif., with Nathan Sabatino at Hi-Dez Recordings. We’re super-excited about this, especially because Nathan has done a lot of work with bands that we admire, like Dr. Dog for example. In the long term, we just wanna keep playing shows, recording music and eventually go on a national tour. As long as we can share our tunes with new people, we’ll be happy."

TS: Favorite bands and musicians of all time? Influences?

JM: "Collectively, our favorite artists that we feel have had some kind of influence on our sound have been: Bob Dylan, the Byrds (of course,) Jimi Hendrix, Gram Parsons, Dwight Yoakam, Jack White, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, George Strait, The Doors, Fleet Foxes, John Lee Hooker, Connor Oberst, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Blaze Foley."

TS: You can't go wrong listening to Townes and Blaze. In fact, I feel like I hear as much modern alt-country and cowpunk in your sound as psych country, so your'e definitely doing something right. Favorite current bands? Local ones?

JM: "Our favorite artists that are active right now are Sci-Fi Country, the Shivas, the Exbats, Abes Bones, Levitation Room, the Nude Party, Midland, Charley Crockett, Tyler Childers, Bombay Bicycle Club, Mute Swan, Allah-Lahs, the Murlocs, Natural Child, the Babe Rainbow, Marcus King, Sugar Candy Mountain and Casey Golden."

TS: Favorite venues to play past and present (especially local?)

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JM: "Our favorite venues we’ve played at have been Club Congress, Sky Bar, St. Elmo’s and the Quarry in Bisbee, Chuckleheads and the Copper Queen (also in Bisbee) and all of the various house shows we’ve done."

TS: Tell us about your next gigs!

JM: "We just played at the Boxyard this past Thursday, and we'll be playing at John Henry’s on Saturday, March 7, and at Crooked Tooth Brewery on Saturday, March 141"

Jim McGuinn and the Cosmic Cowboys — Jim McGuinn, Kyle Rosas and and Matt McCall on guitars, Nick Cobham-Morgese on drums and Artie Montoya on bass — play John Henry's on 6th Avenue in Downtown Tucson on Saturday, March 7 at 8 p.m.  

A Supreme tribute

Ruth Bader Ginsburg mayb be an unlikely inspiration for ambient electronic music, but earlier this year Tucson musician Jillian Bessett was struck by a quote by the "notorious" RBG about what it will take to fix the gender imbalance of our justice system: "There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine."

In honor of International Women's Day, Bessett is releasing an animated musical meditation on the subject called "When There are Nine." The video (linked below) goes live on Sunday on Youtube.

TS: Tell us how you got the idea for this project. When did you first hear that quote and how did you get the idea to make it into a song and an animation?

Jillian Bessett: "I don’t remember the first time I heard the quote but I remember it hitting hard. I got chills and it really rocked me on my heels. I’ve been experimenting writing songs with no lyrics or just a single idea presented in different ways. Like how do you convey an idea or a feeling with sound and layering and this was one of those exercises. Then as far as the animation goes I was really inspired by my daughter. I’d gone down a few roads trying to hire an animator and my kid shows me this stop motion she made on an app on her phone and she’s like 'mom, why don’t we just make it?'” 

TS: How did the animation process itself work? It's a really unique idea for a video. And a very cool one!

JB: "Thanks! This is a stop motion animation made with construction paper triangles and an iPhone. My daughter and I had a table and two lamps set up in her bedroom and spent an afternoon moving these triangles around. I think we took about 1,000 pictures. Then we input the pictures into final cut and added effects to make it look animated. I’ve never been much of a visual artist so this video was a bit of necessity is the mother of invention deals."

TS: What was the recording process like? Compared to your signature piano pop and soul sound on previous releases, this track is pretty unique, almost kind of avant grade jazz

JB:"This came out pretty quick and easy. We created each vocal line and then repeated it so visually it looks like one rectangular wall of sound. Then took a razor tool and start cutting away till we get to the essential parts.  A buildup here, breakdown here, the sweet 678s here. Then the percussion kinda glued it together and gave it that call-to-arms feeling."

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TS: Is there something about working with vocal looping that opens up new horizons in terms of the way you think about melody and rhythm? 

JB: "Yes! It is a little strange. A lot of my arrangements with this album start a capella and that makes the whole foundation of a song different. If you nix the typical starting point of bass drums guitar then the whole path changes too and you end up with things that seem atypical. So I’m like, 'OK, how can I have interesting breaks and build and release tension when all of the normal guidelines aren’t there?' So I’m not fighting it and kind of just following it where it goes which is exciting."

TS: Is this song representative of your upcoming album or do you have even more surprises up your sleeve? And when can we hear it?

JB: "Yes and no. This is definitely one of the more sparse and serious songs, so it might be an interesting choice as the first single for an album called JOY (ha!)  The rest of the album while still relying heavily on the vocal looping sounds expands with instrumentation and production in a few directions. I plan on releasing a couple more singles this summer and will hopefully have a big fat release this fall."

TS: This track is a loving tribute to RBG and the women of the Supreme Court. The song puts it beautifully and succinctly, but if you'd be so kind, can you share a little bit more about what it means to you personally and to womxn collectively to be so fiercely and fully represented on the Supreme Court?

JB: "There’s this idea sometimes that everything is gravy now! we’re all equal! But equality - the actual evening of the scales for the Supreme Court - would mean there would be only black or indigenous women on the court for the next 200 years and that the power dynamic in nearly all of our institutions would have to switch and have women be in charge in order for their positions on the court to even have leverage. And most people aren’t even asking for that. We just want a seat at the table. Especially when issues concerning our bodies are on the line."

"This song marks for me the shift within myself and the shift I see locally and globally that we ARE coming and the pendulum IS swinging. That the beauty of the femme people I know is in their ability to organize and work together and share space and resources."

TS: Any thing else coming up that Tucson Sounds readers might want to know about?

JB: "Ha well it seems funny after all this solo looping talk but were getting the band back together for a show on March 23 at Elliott’s on Congress. Old school Jillian and the Giant with keys, guitar, bass and drums - but the looper will be there too!"

TS: If you could say one thing to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, what would it be?

JB: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, and may you live forever."

New release of the week: The Wanda Junes

On Friday night, March 6, the Wanda Junes will support their friends and "bandmates-in-law" (stepbandmates?) in the Exbats as that band celebrates the Burger Records release of "Kicks, Hits and Fits." But the Junes won't just be there to lend a hand. Turns out they've got an offering of their own, recently recorded at Midtown Island Studios.

"The Basement Apes" can be listened to in full via YouTube and Spotify - get a taste in the link below.

The Wanda Junes play Wooden Tooth Records along with Stripes and the Exbats this Friday, March 6 at Wooden Tooth Records at 8 p.m.

Check your local listings...

Friday, March 6

  • Joyce Luna - 6 p.m. Sand Reckoner
  • Wacken Metal Battle - 6 p.m. House of Bards
  • Robyn Hitchcock - 7 p.m. Club Congress
  • Exbats Album Release with Stripes and the Wanda Junes - 8 p.m. Wooden Tooth Records
  • Balkan Jam - 8 p.m. El Crisol (Exo)
  • Stavros Halkias - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
  • Burdizzo, Active Arson, Viridius, The Slime - 8 p.m. Owls Club
  • Bryan Thomas Parker & Friends Album Release - 9 p.m. Sky Bar
  • Cyress - 9 p.m. The Edge
  • Entice Burlesque - 9 p.m. Surly Wench Pub

Saturday, March 7

  • Tucson's Got Talent Finale - 6 p.m. 191 Toole
  • Al Foul - 6 p.m. Mercado San Augustin
  • In the Shadows of the Freeway w/ Lydia Otero - 6 p.m. Hotel Congress
  • Tom Walbank and Dmitri Manos - 7 p.m. Crooked Tooth
  • Howe Gelb and Gabrielle Pietrangelo - 7 p.m. Club Congress
  • Malignus Youth Rialto - 7:30 p.m. The Screening Room
  • Nu-Metal Night - 9 p.m. The Edge
  • Greyhound Soul Anniversary Show - 10 p.m. Che's Lounge

Sunday,  March 8

  • Chick Magnet Rummage Sale - 9 a.m. Cesar Chavez Park
  • International Women's Day Market - 12 p.m. Crooked Tooth
  • Hey Bucko! - 5 p.m. Che's Lounge Patio
  • Eugene Boronow - 5 p.m. Public Brewhouse
  • Chernobyl the Secret, A Perfect Being - 6 p.m. The Edge
  • Loolowningen w/ Droll and Rough Draft - 7 p.m. Club Congress
  • Yacht Rock Revue - 8 p.m. Rialto Theatre

Monday,  March 9

  • The Bow Wow Meow - 5 p.m. The Edge
  • Comedy Night at the Wench - 7 p.m. Surly Wench Pub
  • Geeks Who Drink - 7 p.m. Public Brewhouse

Tuesday,  March 10

  • Tinsley Ellis - 7:30 p.m. 191 Toole
  • Orville Peck - 8 p.m. Rialto Theatre

Wednesday,  March 11

  • The Lucky Ones - 7 p.m. Public Brewhouse
  • Chuck Prophet - 7:30 p.m. Club Congress
  • Grip Jensen, Hank Topless & the Dead Horsemen - 9 p.m. Owls Club

Thursday,  March 12

  • Ladytowne Live - 6 p.m. Club Congress
  • Ryan Chrys & the Rough Cuts - 7 p.m. Thunder Canyon Brewstillery
  • Void Vator, Downhill Trend - 7 p.m. House of Bards

Friday, March 13

  • Bernie Southwest Concert & Townhall w/ Seanloui and the Black Roses, Silver Cloud Express, Grand Voodoo Band - 5 p.m. Whistle Stop Depot
  • Febbo Fuentes - 6 p.m. Sand-Reckoner
  • Dueño and Hikikomori - 8 p.m. Wooden Tooth Records
  • Katastro - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
  • Super Gay Party Machine - 8 p.m. Club Congress
  • Shoreline Mafia - 8 p.m. Rialto Theatre
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Michael Ely

Jim McGuinn & the Cosmic Cowboys performing in Tucson at Sky Bar.

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