Under the influence: Gabriel Sullivan
Debut chamber music composition begs question: Is there anything this kid can't do?
Gabriel Sullivan is one of the hardest-working musicians in Tucson. If you have seen local live music in the last year or so, chances are good you have seen Sullivan onstage.
He is currently working on assembling his own new big band, Taraf de Tucson, featuring Chris Black on violin and accordion, Jake Sullivan on drums, Sean Rogers on bass, Clay Koweek on guitar, Dante Rosano and John Villa on trumpet and Jason Urman and David Clark on saxophone. Sullivan is writing and arranging all the songs in Taraf de Tucson, in addition to singing in his preternaturally gruff baritone and playing guitar and piano.
Sullivan also plays regularly with his duo with Black, Bajo Turbato, in which he plays bajo sexto and a big bass drum, and another duo with partner Brittany Dawn, The Fell City Shouts. And as if that weren't enough to keep him busy, he plays with his punk band, American Black Lung, as well as joining the large ensemble, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, and his new mentor and dear friend, Salvador Duran.
This Saturday, Sullivan will be one of the featured composers at Chamberlab I, an event at The Screening Room organized by Chris Black, where two string quartets and a contrabass will play the compositions of Black, Sullivan, Howe Gelb and others.
Sullivan has composed a four-minute piece for string quartet and bass called "Dansa Del Torero." He is thrilled to be a part of the event. "It's been a learning experience and a treat. I hadn't charted formally in years, and I was nervous. But I handed them pieces of paper with no recordings, and I heard it on Sunday. It's so cool to hear a thought you put on paper turn into this thing you imagined."
Sullivan was late for our interview, as he was out procuring a giant Bud Light bottle-shaped pinata for Duran's 60th birthday celebration. He and Mendoza became close with Duran while rehearsing at his art studio space on Toole; Sullivan says that everything happened organically: "It was the kind of place where [American Black Lung] would be practicing downstairs, and Sergio's band would be playing upstairs, and Salvador would be painting. There was a huge family of musicians for a few months there."
Such cross-pollination has generated a multigenerational, multicultural music scene of much depth and breadth, and Sullivan finds himself, delighted, at the center of that maelstrom.
You, Brian Lopez and Sergio Mendoza should really do a Crosby, Stills and Nash type of thing.
Yeah, we know. We've talked about it. I'm trying to get us three in the Red Room.
When did you start playing music?
In sixth grade, I got a skateboard and a Rancid record and a guitar. It was all downhill from there.
I also started playing percussion in the school big band. Without that, I think I'd be lacking a lot musically. I think every musician should know how to hit something in time and do it well.
In addition to electric guitar and drums, you must have picked up steel and nylon-stringed acoustics. What else?
I started playing guitar and percussion at the same time. I got those, and then there was a phase when I got obsessed with instrumental electronica, and like Sigur Ros and Album Leaf and Mum, and that's when I went and got keyboards. I recorded and put out an album of these songs where I played all the instruments.
Like your own "Pretty Hate Machine."
Yeah, pretty much. It was fun, and now I can sit in with people on all these instruments. Anything you don't have to blow into, I can get by on.
Who are your favorite guitarists?
Tom Morello [Rage Against the Machine]. I've been really into Paco De Lucia recently, and flamenco music in general. And Keith Richards is essential. No one will ever sound as trashy and perfect as Keith.
So rhythm guitar seems important to you, citing Keith and all. Most people think a rhythm guitarist is just a guitarist who doesn't know scales.
I think that's true, and I think that's what's good about it. I don't think Keith Richards knew how to play his guitar that well, but he knew how to do what he could do, and it was tasteful, in time, and perfect.
In both Romany and conjunto/Tejano stuff, that was the whole point. you had one instrument where all the rhythm and all the chords were. All you needed was that and an accordion to do leads, and you had a whole band.
What were you listening to, aside from Rancid, as you learned to play guitar?
My dad played me the Stones and Howlin' Wolf and Hank Williams my whole life, and at the time, I was like "fuck that." Anything your parents are doing, you don't want anything to do with that. So I didn't pay attention, and then I heard punk rock. I picked up The Clash, Operation Ivy, and Black Flag and Bad Brains, and all my friends and I got these records, and we were like, "Let's do this!"
I had a metal band in high school, Hand of Doom (after the Black Sabbath song). The guitar player from that band is in American Black Lung.
Meanwhile, that Howlin' Wolf and Hank Williams must have been sinking in somewhere deep.
It wasn't until about five years ago when I got back into my dad's record collection. I realized that Hank Williams was the most punk rock dude ever. I started digging through all that, and worked my way to modern musicians who draw from that. Townes Van Zandt has become my biggest songwriting influence.
What's your favorite Townes Van Zandt song?
[Sullivan pulls up sleeve, reveals tattoo reading, in big block letters, "To Live Is To Fly."]
I heard him, and it floored me. I think the first song I heard was "Waiting Round To Die." It was terrifying.
I am drawn to free thinking and a free mentality, which I found in punk rock and metal and hardcore. I think Townes was perfect at portraying all of that, in words that anybody could attach themselves to. And I think of Hank Williams the same way. It's poetic and beautiful, but anybody can understand it, anybody can latch themselves onto it.
Are you creating a binary here, where something like Dylan in his Rimbaud-laden mid- to late 60s phase is on the other side?
Yeah. I love Dylan, and I think any musician should study Dylan, but not everybody can connect to that. but you hear "To Live Is to Fly" and you get it. It's right there. So for me as a songwriter, it was all about Hank Williams and Townes.
Lots of people who have heard you might add a third: Tom Waits.
It was another few years before I heard him, but yeah, I had gotten into Charlie Patton and Howlin' Wolf, and these wild, trashed-voiced, hard-living dudes, and then I heard Tom Waits, and it was another breakthrough.
What record was it?
I bought "Mule Variations" when it came out, because I thought it looked cool. We were on tour, and I saw it at Amoeba in San Francisco on vinyl. I had to wait three months until I got home to listen to it, and then, it was, like, over.
Other songwriters who have provided example for you?
Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska." You get to hear the raw songs. He never intended to have them heard that way.
So let's say you've been given a 24-hour lockout at the studio of your choice, in any time period. Where do you go?
I would have to say Sun Studios. It had the whole package in its heyday. Like Wavelab is now, discovering talent, and being a place where musicians gather.
Who plays in your imaginary band at your imaginary session?
Charles Mingus on upright bass, Tom Morello on lead guitar, Keith Richards on rhythm, and [Tucson-bred] Arthur Vint on drums. Nobody feels as good as Arthur to play with.
What's your favorite makeout song?
Mum, "Green Grass of Tunnel."
If you were a superhero, what would your theme song be?
I'd have to go with [Romanian gypsy band] Taraf de Haidouks.
Beatles or Stones?
Stones, "Exile On Main Street." No question. I got in a big argument with Sergio over this. He has a Beatles tattoo on his arm. I think the Beatles were writing songs about doing drugs, but you could go to a Stones show and see them all fucked up on drugs.
Bob Dylan or Neil Young?
Dylan. His new Tex-Mex record has taken the cake for me. It's cool to see musicians change it up and challenge themselves.
Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday?
Billie Holiday, but really, I'd say Tina Turner. That was punk rock and rock and roll. I've been watching her YouTubes like crazy.
Are there any songs you can't stop playing or listening to?
Yeah, Salvador showed me a Peruvian song, "Ojos Azules." He showed me the chords, and I found an old YouTube. It's an amazing song. I love it so much I am covering it now.
What singers do it for you and why?
Howlin' Wolf. He's wild, and it's never the same thing twice, and you feel and hear every ounce of aggression and sorrow and happiness. It's all right there. You know who he is.
As far as living people who approach that high bar, I would have to say Salvador. Nobody does that. There is such character in his voice, and his live performance just adds to everything that comes out of his throat, whether it's animal noises or rapping — he's as good as it gets.
Agreed. He is absolutely real and bodied, and yet —