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Most Everybody Loves a Happy Hour Sometime

The Friends of Dean Martinez Bring Their Instrumental Cocktail to O.C.

March 01, 1997|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Friends of Dean Martinez. Political affiliation? Philanthropic foundation? Ironic title of one of those made-for-TV movies about murderous gangsters?

Actually, it's the name of a Tucson-born, Los Angeles-based band that specializes in creating moody, Southwestern-flavored instrumentals. Punctuated by the steel-guitar playing of leader Bill Elm, the Friends of Dean Martinez lay down an assortment that includes rumbas, mariachi surf tunes, country songs and Ennio Morricone-influenced soundscapes.

Fans can experience the surreal mood firsthand Sunday night at the Coach House, where the Friends of Dean Martinez's film-noirish musical landscape has inspired a "Twin Peaks" character look-alike contest. Or maybe the contest was inspired by Elm's admitted crush on actress Sherilyn Fenn, who played the conniving Audrey Horne in the now defunct TV series. In any event, the grand prize is a video box-set of all the "Twin Peaks" episodes.

As you might have suspected, the Friends of Dean Martinez plays on the name of a famous Italian American crooner and actor. When original drummer Van Christian and Elm were partying one evening in Tucson before the band was even formed, Christian told people that the name of their band was the Friends of Dean Martin.

It stuck for a while.

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But when the band was signed to Seattle-based Sub Pop records, the group had to get permission from representatives of the late Dean Martin before Sub Pop would release its 1995 debut, "The Shadow of Your Smile." Elm wrote them a letter, trying to convince them that the band performed at parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs.

"They told us we could use the name if they didn't see it advertised or if we didn't make any money," said Elm by phone from his Los Feliz residence. "They said if we sold any records, though, there'd be a big problem. So we decided it was less of a hassle to add the 'ez' to the name, rather than risk a lawsuit."

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Paving the way for the band's record deal with Sub Pop was label-mate Combustible Edison, a band that played a prominent role in popularizing lounge/cocktail music. Although happy for the inroad, Elm has mixed feelings about being so closely linked to the now-passe "cocktail nation" label.

"It used to bug me that we were lumped in with this lounge style because, for one thing, we're much more diverse musically than that," said Elm, 25. "Secondly, the whole scene seemed like a put-on. People would dress a certain way and sip martinis, all with this campy vibe going on. It wasn't about the music."

It was Elm's attraction to the '50s combo Santo & Johnny (of "Sleepwalk" fame) that inspired him to form his own, similarly styled band.

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He became mesmerized by the duo's steel guitar-based sound during a road trip in 1993, when he listened to their LP "Hawaii" over and over, Elm said. He realized then that S&J's "spooky and cool" sound, coupled with some modern influences, would be great for a band today.

Recruiting percussionist Tom Larkins, vibes player John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns, Elm and Christian formed the Friends of Dean Martin and made their debut at a nearby orphanage. Other unconventional venues followed, including bar mitzvah settings, pizza parlors and the lobby of Tucson's historic Hotel Congress.

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Elm, who's also performed in the Arizona-based rock bands Giant Sand and Naked Prey, has been the one constant among changing band personnel. Joining Elm at the moment are ex-Useless Playboys guitarist Woody Jackson, and bassist George Diaz and drummer Dave LaChance, who double as members of Canadian rock group the Minstrels.

The Friends of Dean Martinez has become Elm's band, and he sees an audience willing to embrace his eclectic merger of old and new musical forms.

"It seems like back in the '50s and '60s, there was a lot of instrumental music being played as background for dining and romancing," Elm said. "I think there's room today for that kind of atmospheric music. Not everything has to be rock 'n' roll and played loud, hard and fast."

Softer, varied textures do characterize much of the Friends of Dean Martinez's sound. Violin, accordion and marimba accent Elm's steel- and Jackson's lead-guitar parts to create a visceral musical collage. The instrumentals move seamlessly between melancholy and up-tempo originals, while faithful covers of Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty" and the Errol Garner standard "Misty" are equally impressive on "The Shadow of Your Smile."

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The Friends of Dean Martinez have finished recording their next release. According to Elm, the 12-track "Retrograde" is "not a real departure but does take our style a little bit further." Scheduled for release in May, it will feature a mix of originals and covers, including two Santo & Johnny tunes, the Beach Boys' "Warmth of the Sun" and Henry Mancini's "Lonesome."

Though it's hard to imagine a Beach Boys song without their signature vocal harmonies, Elm believes his instrumental version has a lot to offer too.

"I think sometimes you can get too focused on the lyrics. In our band, we have a lot more room to let the instrumentals breathe, stretch out and, ultimately, speak just like lyrics do," Elm said. "And we obviously look to put our own unique spin on things. That's the challenging part.

"Sometimes people come up to me and ask me what kind of music I play. I think music fans are attracted to different aspects within a song; so to some we play spaghetti-western soundtracks, and to others, the same exact song is termed Southwestern-flavored lounge music."

* The Friends of Dean Martinez, the Moods and the Family perform Sunday night at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $10-$12. (714) 496-8930.

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