Santo & Johnny put the instrumental bug in Friends of Dean Martinez



By Steve Newton

You could foresee that by calling your band the Friends of Frank Sinatra, you’d be leaving yourself open for a spot of legal trouble—or worse—should Ol’ Blue Eyes catch wind of the misleading moniker. But could you forgive an instrumental quintet from Arizona for not concerning itself—at first, anyway—with the repercussions of calling itself the Friends of Dean Martin? According to Bill Elm, steel guitarist with the Sub Pop recording act from Tucson, it doesn’t pay to mess with Dino either.

“Sub Pop wouldn’t put out the album till we had written permission from him to use his name,” says Elm, calling after a sound check at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, where R.E.M. started out. “So we were talkin’ to his agent, and his agent said it was alright to use his name as long as he didn’t see it advertised anywhere and we didn’t sell any records. He said that if we did that, then [Martin] wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Since the band and its label figured it would be nice to at least try selling a coupla records, they decided to modify the offending title to Friends of Dean Martinez. Nobody named Dean Martinez has complained yet, so the group is taking its scenic sound on a tour that will bring it to the Starfish Room on Wednesday (October 11), opening for buddy Vic Chesnutt.

When the band gets here it will reel out picturesque tunes from its new release, The Shadow of Your Smile, named after the romantic lounge number by Johnny Mandel. As well as an alluring version of “Shadow”, the CD contains such melodic gems as Erroll Garner’s “Misty” and Charles Trenet’s “I Wish You Love”, but it’s mostly filled with originals that feature either John Convertino’s elegant vibes or Elm’s soaring steel guitar. The main inspiration for the band’s formation was Santo & Johnny, the instrumental duo famous for the hit “Sleepwalk”.

“I was a big fan of theirs,” says Elm, “and when I got the eight-string steel that I play now, I found I could actually start playin’ a bunch of their tunes. Once I got that thing we decided to start up a Santo & Johnny cover band, and that’s where the Friends started out.”

On some of the band’s own tunes, like guitarist Joey Burns’s “Chunder”, a lonely, high-plains feel brings to mind the spaghetti-western work of soundtrack king Ennio Morricone. That’s news to Elm, though.

“I’m definitely a fan of westerns,” says the 24-year-old picker, “but, honestly, I didn’t even know his name until I started seein’ it in articles written about us.”

TFDM includes current members of the rock acts Giant Sand and Naked Prey—both of which Elm previously played in—but for now all five Friends are making the instrumental project their main priority. Elm has his own reasons why.

“I get turned off a lot by vocalists and lyrics,” he says, “and it’s nicer to have music you don’t have to think about really, that you can just enjoy.”


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