Tucson sounds: Nobody's business with Willis Earl Beal
'I enjoy the concept of being a has-been who never was.'
There are a lot of talented musicians out there who never get a shot at "the big time" and there are a few that take their chance at fame and run with it, all the way to the bank or to pop music infamy.
And then there is a strange, ethereal class of musicians who fall somehow in between recognition and obscurity, talented and potent but somewho a bit too unearthly to carry the mantle of fame for more than a few brief moments. Leadbelly. Syd Barrett. Nick Drake. Townes Van Zandt. The late Daniel Johnston.
Tucson's ambient blues troubador, Willis Earl Beal aka "Nobody" falls in this class. A self-taught street musician who has at times been homeless, Beal gained his proverbial 15 minutes of fame when one of his flyers was discovered by a national indie magazine, leading to a recording contract. His strange and unlikely story was covered by media outlets from Popmatters to Vice. He released a couple of albums, got his songs included in movie and T.V. soundtracks, did a short lived stint on the television show the X Factor. He toured with Cat Power.
And then, seemingly as quickly as he rose to small fame, he disappeared. But not fully.
In the tradition of all the best misfits, drifters and outlaws of cinematic history, Beal came to a dusty western cowtown to reinvent himself, literally becoming a "masked man" on the streets of Tucson. Calling himself "Nobody," Beal set up shop as a a street busker in the Fourth Avenue underpass, this time letting his music speak for itself without the benefit of record industry clout or sensationalist media attention.
Odds are, if you travel Downtown and the Avenue much, you've heard and seen "Nobody" performing his masked ambient folk blues, Robert Johnson by way of Bob Dylan by way of Brian Eno. Now that you know his name, it's time to get to know "Nobody." In his own words, for a change.
TucsonSentinel.com: For those of us who don't know you yet, introduce yourself. How long have you been in Tucson? Where did you come here from?
Willis Earl Beal (aka Nobody): "In the past, I've been known mostly by my full name, Willis Earl Beal, but since coming to Tucson, I perform as "Nobody."
WEB: "I arrived here five years ago with my girlfriend, Amie, from Portland, Ore.We met in Washington, went on a DIY tour, relocated to Portland where we remained for about two years before relocating again to Tucson, driving here in a 1992 Buick Century."
TS: How did you fall in love with music? And when did it occur to you to learn to play?
WEB: "My initial interest in music was quite superficial but still emotional. Unlike some others, I did not grow up with a particular passion for music. I listened to whatever my parents listened to at first. I reacted to tones and melodies more than specific artists or hit singles. I reacted to vibrations more than content. Feelings and dreams governed my childhood more than ambition. When music compelled me, it didn't happen until the age of 23."
TS: What's your origin story as a musician?
WEB: "I woke up 35 years ago as a newborn in a Chicago hospital. When I turned 23 I relocated to Albuquerque, N.M., with about 500 dollars to start with and no place to live. For about three months I was homeless, but once I got a job and a pad, I inexplicably began making music despite no previous belief that I had the talent or determination to be a musician."
"I began to design CD covers for my sound experiments and I started making cassette tapes and drawings to leave around in different places."
"At first, the artwork was more important to me than the sonic content.The experiments got a lot spacier once I got an eight-track mixing board with direct to disc capability and a decent keyboard. The music started out sounding pretty rough before evolving into a more ambient sound."
TS: And that's where the story gets pretty interesting. Some of your art and music was discovered and publicized by Found Magazine, you eventually got a recording contract and did some touring and even some television. How did you end up here?
WEB: "Long story short, I became some kind of 'myth' and got a record contract with XL records. I traveled around singing songs and lived in a few different places before crash landing here with my girlfriend."
"When I got here, despite my best efforts and the efforts of a few others, I wasn't able to break into the local music scene exclusively, so I became a street performer on 4th Avenue, wearing a mask, singing songs to my homemade backing tracks and calling myself 'Nobody.' These days, I'm starting to get recognized locally, but my goal is to sustain my simple lifestyle by getting local gigs and working."
TS: It must be, on the one hand, somewhat gratifying to have been recognized so quickly and so widely for your work, but very strange to have lost that spotlight so soon after getting that attention. What has that been like for you?
WEB: "I started out poor, got a lot of money and opportunity before I was ready, lost my shit, and now I'm finally a struggling musician after having been in the public eye with my music featured in movies and television, for which I get periodic royalties. I enjoy the concept of being a has-been who never was."
TS: Or maybe just living a music career with the steps kind of out of order! Have you been in any bands in addition to playing solo?
WEB: Well, I once had a band called 'The Church of Nobodys' but it didn't last. I wanted a more intimate sound and I couldn't afford them anyway. My decision to return to performing as a solo artist was met with some consternation from my benefactors but I did so, nonetheless. Eventually, I became an independent artist, which I am to this day. "
TS: Favorite artists and bands ever? Currently?
WEB: "New Bob Dylan, circa 1997 to 2016."
TS: Interesting answer! But I dig it. Any favorite Tucson musicians or venues so far?
WEB: "I don't really get out much except on the Avenue and lately, I've been somewhat in hiding."
TS: Well, that's a shame. But you haven't been totally in hiding since coming to Tucson. Besides street performance, you've had a few local gigs including recently opening for Seanloui and performing as part of the Black Renaissance showcase at HoCo Fest. Compared to your prior brush with notoriety, what's it like to be an independent artist in a small local scene?
WEB: "Independence is not so independent when the bottom falls out. This is where 'performance' kicks in. Performance is the natural state of the human being. We do it every day until we croak."
TS: One way or another, we definitely do.
Willis Earl Beal aka "Nobody" performs around Tucson at local venues and as the mysterious masked ambient blues troubadour one often encounters in the Fourth Avenue underpass. Meanwhile, you can listen to his music on bandcamp and YouTube.
The Business of Music Episode V: A few thoughts from James Clement Few
This week's edition of the Business of Music series takes on the subject of making the leap from supporting player and band member to solo singer-songwriter. A terrifying transition for a lot of musicians. More so as a drummer transitioning from behind the kit to behind the microphone. It works sometimes (see Peter Gabriel.) It doesn't sometimes (when will someone finally convince Dave Grohl to stop fighting Foos and start drumming again?)
Longtime local drummer (and my former Sonoran Sound Society bandmate) James Clement Few is making the leap from drummer to indie solo artist and shared his perspective with your trusty local music columnist.
TucsonSentinel.com: For readers that don't already know, what is your instrument of choice and what bands and projects have you been part of?
James Clement Few: "Well, I started on drums when I was about 17, or so. While drinking shitty beer in the alley between our houses, my buddy Rob Rowden suggested we start a band, stating his 'ability' to play guitar and commenting that, as I was always tapping on shit, I should play drums. I agreed. I’ve since taught myself to play guitar and started recording thanks to GarageBand."
"That first band was called Little Rubber Dog Toys, which changed into Disgruntle. Then I was in a band called El Diablo which ended up being my own personal Syd Barrett story, as the genius bassist went crazy. I’m actually hoping to get a copy of that demo, recorded at SubSpace Sound many years ago. Then I was in Los Putos Del Norte, the Provocative Whites, the Psychonauts, the Gunrunners, several projects with Bryan Thomas Parker (including Sonoran Sound Society, with you!) and for a few years I was part of Lady Lark with Tristyn Tucci and Christian Mba Oyono. Most recently I was in the band the Paris Accord."
TS: Do you mainly play solo, as part of a consistent band or all of the above?
JCF: "Mostly I’ve been in bands that I’ve started, with some exceptions. Now, it’s just me."
TS: How did you get started in the music business and how do you feel about the "business" side of it, vs. the idea of playing for the sake of playing.
JFC: "I like every aspect of it, really. The culmination of it all being the live show."
TS: Any experiences outside of Tucson in terms of pay, venues, appreciative audiences and the like?
JFC: "We had a great tour with The Provocative Whites. Mostly! A few meltdowns. It was also a really cool experience to record with at (Steve Albini's) Electrical Audio in Chicago."
TS: Experiences in Tucson/Arizona regarding the same issues?
JFC: "Well, the exact same issues would be impossible, because of time, location and other aspects of physics and stuff."
JFC: "Always enjoyed playing at Club Crawl. Double Zero and Plush/Flycatcher were my favorite places to play, excepting the DPC, of course."
TS: How can venues do better at compensating (and promoting) musicians while still meeting their overhead and staying afloat?
JFC: "It’s a two-way street, really. Some venues have delusions of grandeur when it comes to appropriate show promotion, and even how the place is portrayed in general. As far as the bands are concerned, many also have delusions of grandeur, and don’t realize that asking friends to your show and asking them to help you move is a toss up for what they’d rather not do."
"So putting a song on YouTube, posting on Facebook, etc. and then expecting the club to take up the slack is unrealistic, at best. The easier it is for you, as the artist to put something out, the more difficult and less likely it’ll be effective in a real world sense."
TS: How can musicians better support each other without hurting their own prospects?
JFC: "Don’t be exclusive hipster douchebags, don’t hold grudges, stop being over-sensitive."
TS: What would you say to those who fall more on the "love" than "money" side of the musician spectrum? Is it possible to make a living or at least a decent side gig out of music without losing passion and originality?
JFC: "Well, I tell you,if anyone thinks that playing music is any kind of shortcut to anything, they’ve got another think coming."
"Learning to play something that won’t sound good for a really long time, then starting a band that won’t sound good for a really long time is not going to get you anywhere near sex or money. Unless you count the existential fantasies of success that you have with the rest of the band, and even then most of the time they’re faking it. That being said, I think it is possible. It’s just very difficult."
"Most bands aren’t very good, regardless of your worldview. Take myself. I really don’t think I’m very good. But, when I try to give it up, I’m hounded by my own mediocre crap. So, writers write, painters paint, creators create, etc.
TS: Is it necessary to "pay ones' dues" in the music business still? How should newer players approach this?
JCF: "I don’t know, I guess so. It’s a situationally convenient thing to say, mostly. If you feel like you need to suffer through something to reach an ideal, music(or any art) shouldn’t be what you’re doing. Move up a corporate ladder. At least then you’ll be allowed to want money for your work."
TS: Is Tucson still an "old boys" club when it comes to professional music? Are things getting more fair for women and people of color in local music?
JCF: "There are a lot of fantastic female musicians here, you included, and I can say that with empirical certainty."
TS: Thanks, Drummer!
JFC: "One genre that there isn’t a good support of here is hip hop, at least outwardly. It doesn’t seem like there’s a halfway bar between parties and a bigger, more discerning venue. Seems like you’d largely have to jump from nothing to big venues. Big Meridox is/was awesome."
"In terms of people of color in the local music scene, my former bandmate Christian Mba Oyono is a certifiable musical genius. Also, Sam Taylor was a Tucson legend, and his grandson is carrying on the Taylor name with a project called L*A*W* and Neon Prophet remains a local institution."
"Shit is there if you look, but like anywhere, people of color don’t get a fair shake with anything, still to this fucking day. I think it’s getting better. I’m a white male in America, though. I don’t have actual perspective. Just empathy and hope."
TS: What's on the horizon for you musically these days?
"I’ve got a project that’s just me, the first song being produced exlcusively on my iPad using the mobile version of Garage Band. Excepting my voice, there isn’t one real instrument in the whole song. An experiment, to be sure. But to write even one song where 98 percent of everything is just me, is fucking brutal for a myriad of reasons. Personal subjectivity, especially with any creative-type crap, brutally honest personal subjectivity is just as difficult to understand and/or navigate as writing something truly good in the first place. I think?"
TS: What upcoming live gigs if any are on the horizon?
JCF: "I don’t even want to contemplate the nightmare of putting together a band who all have to be much better than me, which I guess isn’t a lot to ask, and who haven’t already fired me from one project or another."
TS: It would be a goddamn shame for you not to drum in some band or other. But I (and by extension we) look forward to your solo stuff. Art is hard, man!
Speaking of Bryan Thomas Parker, check out the video for new song Better Off in this week's video links.
Check your local listings...
Each week this column compiles a choice selection of live gigs in and around Tucson with the help of good venue and band event announcements and other resources. If you've got a gig coming up and you'd like your event listed in this space (or if your local band has a major announcement or a new release) drop me a line at email@example.com. Or message me on Facebook (juliejenningspatterson) or Instagram (@spitegeist).
Saturday, Sept. 21
- Daddy Long Legs - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
- Loose Lips w/ Untied Snakes & Biblefights - 9:30 p.m. Surly Wench
- The Weekend Rifle Lovers - 10 p.m. Che's Lounge
Tuesday, Sept. 24
- Sheer Mag w/ Tweens & The Trees - 7 p.m. Club Congress
Wednesday, Sept. 25
- Ladytowne Live - 7 p.m. Club Congress
Thursday, Sept. 26
- F*ST! Presents: The F Word vol. 2 - 8 p.m. Club Congress
- Jazz Guild of Tucson - Jam for Vets - 8 p.m. Irene’s Holy Donuts
- Taco Sauce, Claire Morales, the Rifle - 8 p.m. Owls Club
Friday, Sept. 27
- Walk Out, Rock Out, Night of Wildness - 7 p.m. Encore
- End of Swan - 7 p.m. Hotel Congress Plaza
- Mason and Burning West - 8 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern
- Vasectomy/Holly Overton/Weekend Lovers/DJ Jaime J. Soto - 8:30 p.m. The Ervice
- Silver Cloud Express EP Release w/ Nelene DeGuzman - 9 p.m. Sky Bar