march 2012

Brian Lopez: Moving the spirit with the force of the artist's determination to communicate his deepest feelings

Artists On the Verge 2012

Brian Lopez: Ne Plus Ultra

A Long and Winding Road Leads To a Bilingual Solo Triumph

By David McGee

It's not enough to say of Tucson's Brian Lopez that he is a young man of drive, discipline and vision, laudable as those qualities are, and how essential they are to success in almost every endeavor. Couple his estimable attributes to an artist's sensibility and you really have something special, something to count on for the long haul.

Brian Lopez is an artist, and with his debut solo album Ultra he has begun the real work of going inside himself to find out what he has to say to the world. And lo, it is good.

Brian grew up in a typical American home. Parents married young, had several children and Brian was raised with more of an athletic upbringing than a musical one. Competition shaped him, gave him a "drive to compete and excel." As a child he was deeply into the Beatles. Learning to play their songs on a "crappy Fender Squier" he immediately started a band and became "one of the cool kids" because he could play any song requested. He toiled in several bands not worth naming, put himself through college on a classical performance guitar scholarship and graduated from the University of Arizona with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music (and a double minor in Spanish and business). And though he could hold his own with the jazz cats and jam with the classical guitar guys, his heart was always in rock 'n' roll. He first began gathering national attention in 2005, as a member of a three-piece rock band, Mostly Bears, which grafted psychedelic sounds onto basic rock ‘n’ roll and came up with what Lopez calls “desert space rock.” Signed to Lopez’s current label, Tucson-based Funzalo Records. Mostly Bears first appeared on record via a 2007 home-recorded EP, Only Child, followed by a studio album, The Ed Mitchell Clinic, both released by Funzalo. When internal tensions led to the trio’s demise, Lopez took a six-month sabbatical to Barcelona, Spain. Upon returning to the States, he resolved to “transcend my brand of psychedelia with Latin rhythms and progressions, to switch languages lyrically and still provide a universal sentiment musically.”

Brian Lopez, ‘El Vagabundo,’ a snippet of the song from his debut solo album, Ultra

Ultra is the long-form result of Lopez’s redefined aims as a solo artist. Yes, there are the Spanish language songs, and as all the best foreign language songs do, these transcend both psychedelia and language barriers, moving the spirit with the force of the artist's determination to communicate his deepest feelings. But there is more, much more to behold on Ultra, revelatory as it is of Brian Lopez being very much a product of his times, speaking to his times. Also being a product of his environment, Ultra boasts an underlying sense of the desert, a near-palpable feel of heat and of wind in its songs' evocation of the natural world. "Leda Atomica," "I Pray for Rain" and the stirring "Red Blooded Rose" (the latter being so well crafted lyrically, so evocative musically and so impassioned in its delivery as to make it an early contender for a career defining, trademark kind of song) are sit-up-and-take-notice statements marking the emergence of a remarkably insightful songwriter plumbing his soul in order to speak directly and unambiguously of his youthful passions and conflicts alike. Consider these admirable songs as expressed by a voice capable of transforming itself, in the blink of an eye, from a muscular, aggressive attitude to one vulnerable and aching, and Brian Lopez's unusual and manifold gifts come into focus.

The temptation looms, so deliciously, to go for it and call him "the Latin Jeff Buckley" but (a) Mr. Lopez doesn't feel such a comparison is appropriate and (b) there may well be an alternative comparison more apt than the late, lamented son of Tim.

As per (b), think Ritchie Valens. Yes, Ritchie Valens, he of "La Bamba" fame who perished in the same 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper but at age 17 had been the first to infuse American rock 'n' roll with some Latin mojo; and, as posthumous home and studio recordings have revealed, young Ritchie was going even deeper into his heritage and indeed, into world music, to expand the borders of early rock 'n' roll at the time of his passing. Although of Latin heritage but a native born American, Valens, like Brian Lopez after him, was not comfortable speaking the Spanish language--his aunt Ernestine had to write out the Spanish lyrics of "La Bamba" for her nephew to record. Another thing Ritchie Valens and Brian Lopez have in common: a rock 'n' roll heart, unflagging, inquisitive, daring, beautiful.

From Ultra, ‘Montjuic’

On Ultra Lopez's infatuation with the sonics and atmospherics of Radiohead's OK Computer is evident, as is his scrutiny of how Thom Yorke goes about making the personal public without losing either his dignity or his soul. Like Yorke, Lopez is a thoroughly modern young man who has deep roots in a certain traditionalism that enables him to get his points across much in the manner of a folk singer while presenting his findings in an undeniably modern setting. In Brian's case, though, the music is a heady synthesis of brute force rock 'n' roll and Beatles-like classicism (literally, in that his current band configuration for Ultra includes violin, cello, accordion, upright bass and lap steel) centered on rock, country, pop and traditional folk all at once. (This is assuming that anyone reading this agrees on Rubber Soul as being one of the founding documents of country's mid-'80's New Traditionalist movement--Rosanne Cash says so, why not you?). Even at this early stage in his career, he's toured Europe as the guitarist and backup vocalist for French chanteuse Marianne Dissard. He's played with Calexico, and recently he's been touring with Howie Gelb and his band Giant Sand, who've helped to build the careers of artists such as M. Ward, Neko Case, Granddaddy and Scout Niblett. Ultra is the product of a long and winding road Brian Lopez has been traveling for years. It's taken him through some interesting byways of song and style, with more than a little personal growth occurring along the route. In his own words...

'The Beatles Set The Bar For All Us Songwriters'

What drew you to music in the first place?

Brian: From a very young age I had a love for the Beatles--even now, and most likely until the day I die. That band just set the bar for all us songwriters. I'd listen to Beatles tapes all the time. The first CDs I ever bought (with my dad's money) were Abbey Road and Nirvana: Unplugged. Yes, the grunge age hit and the Beatles had to take a back seat to all the Seattle grunge bands--this coincidentally was around the time I started playing guitar (6th grade, 12 years old.) I remember buying tablature books to all the bands I was hearing on MTV--Nirvana, Pearl jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden. I loved all that, and could play the easy bar chords that ran throughout their music. My parents bought me a crappy Fender Squier guitar and I'd jam all night long to this stuff. I was the coolest kid at school because I could quickly learn to play just about any song that was popular on MTV. It was great.

Not much later (I believe this was in 8th grade, 1997) I came across Radiohead's OK Computer and it changed my world. The arrangements were so thick and the melodies so infectious--like nothing the Grunge Movement could offer. This album was rock 'n' roll up front, but also resonated with musician's musicians--I'm talking orchestra conductors, jazz aficionados; these people understood this album too...and here it was on MTV? A short while later I was taking classical guitar lessons, music theory, and all that, so I could make music of Radiohead magnitude.

Then I studied music at the University of Arizona. I put myself through college with a classical performance guitar scholarship. I graduated with a BA in Music in 2006, and a double minor in Spanish and business.

 'We Were a Part of Something New'

When did you start playing live, for audiences? Was it always with bands? Were you ever a solo artist?

Brian: I started playing live for audiences when I was 12, with a band I called Hero. We were horrible. But we played quite often, mainly to family members and close friends. All through high school I was enrolled in the "Advanced Guitar" class, which basically put together 30 of the school's best drummers, guitarists, bassists, singers, and keyboardists, and vocalists and we rehearsed sets of modern rock music to play for other high schools during events they had (i.e. pep rallies, and...pep rallies). So I was basically enrolled in Rock Performance class for four years. It was great.

A solo acoustic version of ‘Leda Atomica,’ from Ultra

In college I was in a band called Gorilla Behind Bars (if the public hears these recordings, my career will be over). We were all great musicians but really didn't know what we were trying to say, do, feel; we were just...there. So that came to an end when I was about 20--seven years ago--then I moved and came back to form my first legitimate band, Mostly Bears. We started playing in late 2005. We were a three-piece rock band that really just got more and more attention locally until Funzalo Records came along and signed us at a very young age. They released Only Child, our home recorded EP, in 2007. I think it climbed all the way to #60 on CMJ, much to our surprise. We then released our first studio album, titled The Ed Mitchell Clinic, which peaked at #30 on CMJ. We travelled the country back and forth a few times, played South by Southwest, CMJ, got tons of media praise--we were "the little band that could." Tucson loved us. We were like nothing the town had ever seen before, not riding the rails of the Calexico or Giant Sand ghosts. We were a part of something new. A new generation of music in Tucson. It wasn't quite there, but we were on the cusp of something and had an entire town's support.

But, as it happened, the band slowly began to fall apart. I started moonlighting with my friend Sergio Mendoza's Mambo orchestra, Y La Orkesta and all of a sudden the orchestra blows up and we begin touring one-offs and festivals with Calexico--stages bigger than I had ever played on with Mostly Bears in the five years we were together. The Okestra was booked on these stages in a month's time. I started meeting bigger musicians backstage at the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco; I started to dig Mambo music and all kinds of Latin music. It opened me up to so many musicians and so many types of music. Soon I was asked to tour Europe with a French chanteuse named Marianne Dissard (2009), and she let me open her shows with a new "solo" project I had been doing for a month or so. To my surprise the European audiences loved my solo set. They bought all my CDs and made me want to focus on the solo stuff more. I went back to the U.S. that winter, after the first Euro tour, and found the Mostly bears rehearsals and development stagnating. There was so much tension in the practice room. It was horrible. So in between Mostly Bears rehearsals and shows, I slowly began building a catalog of solo material, accumulating a backing band, and quietly began playing around town. The shows got more and more attention. I went back to Europe with Marianne again in 2011 and it was, once again, amazing. I sold out of CDs quickly.

Now Mostly Bears is quite dead (due to a multitude of reasons that I don't care to discuss) and I am releasing my first studio album as a solo artist. So here I am. Hi!

'I Had No Sense of Who I Was Back Then'

Your Barcelona sabbatical has been referred to in other press notices as something of a spiritual quest to explore your roots. What in fact was it all about?

Brian: I did not go to Spain to get in touch with my roots; that is not the case at all. Sure, it helped improve my Spanish, but musically, it did nothing. I started getting back to my "roots" while moonlighting with Y La Orkesta (the Mambo orchestra I mentioned earlier.). For a whole year, we basically played Perez Prado covers. When you hear that much mambo, it's hard to get it out of your system! Then you hear salsa, samba, and lately I've been into Cumbia music (specifically psychedelic Cumbia music). Y La Orkesta took me back to what I inherently am: Latino. At home, growing up, nobody spoke Spanish. Naturally, Mexican culture is all round you when you live in Tucson. My best friends' names in middle school for example: Reynaldo Valenzuela, Ysidro Olea, Pedro Otero. The funny thing is none of these guys spoke fluent Spanish, including myself. I remember kids making fun of the native Spanish speakers at school. It wasn't "cool" to have a thick Mexican accent. I was one of the lighter kids at my school--my mother is half Polish and has very light complexion and I acquired a hint of this Polish-ness, physically. So I had no sense of who I was back then. Mariachi music was "dumb" to us. We wanted to hear electric guitars, not vihuelas and guitaróns.

A powerful version of ‘I Pray for Rain,’ from Ultra, live at Solar Culture, October 17, 2009

'Competition Shaped Me Into Who I Am'

Did you come from a musical family? Did you have parents who played music and encouraged your interest in it?

Brian: Neither of my parents are musically inclined. Unfortunately there is no storyline here. My mother and father married young, at age 20; nine months later my brother, Greg, pops out. You do the math. Ultimately the parents divorced; rather standard American household, really. My dad coached men's basketball at Pima Community College. So I had much more of an athletic upbringing, which is quite the opposite of your typical "artist." Competition shaped me into who I am. Sports definitely instilled in me a drive to win, the desire to compete against and outmatch your competition. In many ways this competitive spirit is relevant to music, and in other ways it is not--on the business side of music, it most definitely is; on the creative side, it's not. Growing up a coach’s son, you are expected to do more than everyone else, especially as a point guard. You have to lead the team. Everything goes through you and your teammates will react to what you do. Not much different than being the main "guy" in the band--you know, the guy who books the shows, who writes the songs, who organizes rehearsals, who answers all the band-related emails, does the interviews. There’s no difference. Sports got me ready for that role, no doubt.

Lucky for me, realizing that at 5'11, 165 pounds, my future in basketball was not going anywhere. So I took the classical guitar scholarship at the U of A instead. I most certainly don’t regret that decision for one second.

      'Thom Yorke's Melodies Can Make You Cry'

When did you start writing songs, and which artists influenced your songwriting approach?

Brian: I started writing more as I was finishing up high school and moving into college. With Mostly Bears I really began cutting my songwriting teeth. Elliot Smith played a big role in my style around that time, as a songwriter, actually. I loved his music--so complicated structurally, yet simple aurally. I loved his lyrics--dark and melancholy is what I've always preferred. Elliott Smith was also a huge Beatles fan (particularly of John Lennon), so I must have heard a bit of that in his music. Also Radiohead, of course, played a huge role in my writing. They have a way of evoking deep emotion in their songs. Thom Yorke's melodies, in particular, can make you cry, even without lyrics; just his timbre and the melody will make you cry. In fact, my voice would get compared to Thom Yorke's all too often when I played in Mostly Bears. It was annoying and probably detrimental. Ironically, these days, I get compared a lot to Jeff Buckley, whose music I hardly know.

Brian Lopez’s Ultra is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024