Even under normal circumstances, resuscitating creative projects long left unattended is a challenge. When local rockers Old Californio re-entered the studio this year to finish their long-shelved album “Songs from the Sea of Cortez,” it helped that most of the instrumental tracks were recorded and all but three already had vocals.
Still, save for some isolated gigs at a Utah saloon, guitarist Woody Aplanalp, bassist Jason Chesney, singer and songwriter Rich Dembowski, and drummer Justin Smith hadn’t all worked together since 2013, and the logistics of overdubbing and mixing tracks were complicated by coronavirus restrictions.
Most of those sessions took place at Aplanalp’s San Gabriel studio. It was Aplanalp who suggested the band start working together again; Dembowski describes the album as “Woody’s baby in a lot of ways.”
They shouldered responsibility for getting it finished. Chesney added remotely recorded tracks from Nesmith Ranch in Monterey, where he’s been holing up since the pandemic shutdowns hit, and Smith supplied more vocals and percussion from his home studio in Altadena.
“The conditions we’re in right now are a little limiting,” Dembowski acknowledged, “but fun and creative.”
The original tracks were “all live takes,” according to Aplanalp, recorded in Dembowski’s house in Pasadena. Drums and piano were set up in the dining room and living room, amps in the bathroom, and a mobile soundboard in the spare bedroom—and as they describe that close, convivial process now, when we’re all hunkered down under stay-at-home orders and nightclubs have been shuttered since March, it sounds unreachably exotic.
Dembowski likens revisiting the world of those early recordings to entering a “time capsule.” He cites the organic sound of the Byrds, the Outsiders and especially Ronnie Lane & Slim Chance when explaining why he wanted to record in the living room. Funnily enough, the “close-to-the-ground” honesty of those seminal influences parallels Old Californio’s present desire to “get back to basics” and play for the love of making music with people they care about.
“Songs from the Sea of Cortez” takes its title from the 1951 book “The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research,” an uncommon collaboration between Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck—one of Dembowski’s chief lyrical influences—and marine biologist Edward Ricketts. Like the book, it is thoroughly informed by California as a geologic reality as well as its history as a mecca of cultural, political and creative reinvention.
Opening track “Saint Cecelia” sends up a prayer to the patron saint of musicians, sweetened with jangly guitars, fiddle and harmonies. The philosophical “Too Tired” ponders when enough is enough; when do you finally give up on what isn’t working? The country-wheeled “Broke, Blessed and Penniless” could be a make-the-best-of-it anthem for 2020, while “A Savage Grace” is an uncommonly literate rocker about personal agency and fate. It, too, speaks from the past to the present, over acoustic fingerpicking that gradually swells to a crescendo of martial drumbeats and Aplanalp’s angry guitar:
“I will tell no lies
I come not to preach but bring only opinion
And I believe in the right
Of every man to sit in abnegation …
Ah, but this cannot be
Our final end, you and me
To be victims of our own plight
Slaves to our own appetites”
“It is very relevant in terms of a mythological place we’ve got to make new for ourselves, because tomorrow is challenging and we can’t rely on old concepts,” Dembowski mused. “We have to reinvent ourselves now, and it’s a little bit scary.”
Back when Old Californio originally began recording, the band was a familiar presence at area venues such as Buccaneer Lounge, the Echo, Old Towne Pub and T. Boyle’s Tavern. Their penchant for 1960-’70s psychedelic pop, California country-rock and namechecking local landmarks informed their 2009 album “Westering Again” and 2011’s “Sundrunk Angels.” “Westering” included “Just Like Joseph Campbell,” a tribute to the late mythologist; his work influenced “Songs from the Sea of Cortez,” too, notably “Lyre of Orpheus.”
“I like the idea of when we were brave enough to see ourselves in the stars, and can we get there again?” Dembowski explained. “That’s a big undercurrent (in) ‘Sea of Cortez’ … mythology, telling mythological stories. How do we reinvent ourselves through storytelling, through narrative? That is really what draws us all together.”
“Lyre of Orpheus” ends with an evocative guitar solo Aplanalp layered over Chesney’s rubbery bass line. At Smith’s suggestion during overdubbing, he augmented that with a slide harmony—giving it, he said, “a sound that we hadn’t heard before in our band.”
“There’s more music coming,” he emphasized. “We’ve been working on a lot of new material.”
That includes two singles issued November 29, the mariachi-infused “Sweet Cantico” and the soothing “Old Californio’s Lonesome Rambling Ways.” Last month they released “Songs from the Sea of Cortez” through Bandcamp (oldcalifornio.bandcamp.com). It is available on Spotify and other streaming platforms.
Looking backward to Steinbeck and Ricketts’ collecting sojourn may have seeded the album’s songs. But it was recently re-reading the book—at a time when “people were trying to have their voice heard somehow”—that sparked fresh awareness in Dembowski of his Hispanic roots as well as California’s Indigenous, Mexican and Spanish heritage and its present-day diversity.
“These are trying times. Our life is different and weird. But you look around at the pace of geology and the turning of the sun and the stars—it’s something pretty constant to tune in to. That’s still an inspiration."