LORD, HE WAS BORN A TRAVELIN’ MAN – STEPHEN EL REY TAKES THE HIGH ROAD TO SUCCESS By Sandra Castillo
Many years ago, this writer was in deep conversation with my father, who had informed me of the time he had hitchhiked all the way from California back to his hometown in Kentucky, after his short-lived stint in the U.S. Navy. For many, the idea of thumbing a ride to arrive to one’s destination is about as inviting as allowing a skunk into the passenger seat of one’s car, even if the drive is less than a three-minute excursion to get to the place one needs to go. However, there are those fearless spirits, who are born with a certain bravado, tempered by a lust for life and all that it offers, which makes standing by the side of the road to hitch a ride to get to the other side a very feasible one.
Such is the case of singer-guitarist Stephen El Rey, who, according to an excerpt from his bio, “learned the art of hitchhiking,” when he was only 17-years-old. That wanderlust heart of his led him to busk in the streets of San Francisco, where he honed his musical chops to entertain the masses, while mastering the true art of survival.
Born in the high desert of Victorville, California, at George Air Force Base, but who grew up in San Diego, Rey’s love and propensity for music emerged from his nomadic childhood, which was surrounded by the songs he heard emanating from the belly of the jukebox at his grandmother’s local cantina. Impressed by what his ears picked up on, by way of 50’s Rock and Roll and the rollickin’, hard-stomping, Honky Tonk sounds of artists who walked their talk and delivered the musical goods to prove it, Rey would go on to attain the same, years later, when he firmly established himself as one of Southern California’s pre-eminent singers/gunslingers. He also garnered a strong work ethic when he visited his grandparents in El Centro on the weekends and worked with his father on the ranch and on trucks.
Not only is Rey an accomplished musician, he is also an artist, songwriter, whose work has shown up in films and documentaries, and an actor, who made big waves in Director Dave Sims’ 2016 cinematic tour-de-force, CAVERN. The independent film was heralded on so many artistic levels and awarded the prestigious REMI, for its stark, riveting depiction of “survival, alienation and redemption in the remote Mojave Desert.”
Rey is an enigmatic, dynamic performer whose turn at the mic gives music a much-needed shot in the arm. If one were to combine the swagger and raw sex appeal of Elvis, Gene Vincent and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, this would easily define Rey. With such songs as “Howlin’,” “Big As Memphis” and “The Old Fashioned Future” in his stable of musical gems, one should not be surprised why the man with the rebel heart is definitely the one to watch.
RG Magazine recently spoke with Rey after returning home from a brief tour up the coastline of California. His candid revelations about life and music turned the page in the next chapter of his ongoing saga.
One’s early environment is a determining aspect in helping to shape one’s interest towards certain things, later, in life. What factors influenced you enough to pursue music?
The earliest mechanism that revealed itself to me would be when I didn’t quite feel safe or right as a child. Whatever unhappiness or sprigs of fear crept in as a child, I found music. I knew, then, at that moment, it was music that was the strongest thing that made me feel safe and right. A healing quality that made me feel good, made me feel almost normal. Music gave me an escape. A pocket radio became a second appendage.
You mentioned that you felt like an outsider growing up. Even though your parents spoke fluent Spanish, they never bothered teaching the language to you and your sisters. How much of a disadvantage was this, personally, for you?
I experienced extreme bigotry and racism as a kid. Unable to speak Spanish, I didn’t fit in with the small minority of Mexicans or Indians at school, and I didn’t fit in with the majority of family, on the weekends in Imperial Valley. I quickly became an outsider. I was a ‘wedo’ to the family and a ‘bucktooth beaner’ and ‘spic’ to the kids back home. However, when alone with my grandparents, I loved the music and smell of spicy food and strange taxidermy in their home. They had a jukebox in their dining room, and I was obsessed with it! I could never stay away from pushing the buttons that looked like big, white horse teeth and the music that followed and made my grandmother dance.
That said, music is a language where I can somehow be considered bi-lingual.
Your teen-age years were wrought with many challenges and at one point, you experienced a bout with homelessness.
Yes. By age fourteen, I stopped playing sports, left the church and wanted nothing to do with my family or school. I was an outsider and every chance I could, I wanted to get as far away as I could from Lakeside and El Centro.
It makes sense to me, now, that I would find a voice to develop and resonate with other like-minded outsiders in the city and discover Punk Rock and skateboarding. I started running away from home and going to shows…hitchhiking, etc., even breaking into cars but not to steal…just to sleep and keep warm out of the elements.
I wrote…pushed a pen and started trying to craft songs around this time and was encouraged by a high school teacher to continue writing. I was part of his group that published a book of art, photography, poems and epigrams every year. I also started to play in my first bands around this time, as well.
I was seventeen when I left home. I moved to San Francisco with another artist/punk rocker. We busked the streets of Berkeley. We would make just enough money to buy a slice of pizza at Blondies and a pack of cigarettes. We waited and painfully stood in soup lines with our stomach growling and pissed with the homeless and laid our heads down anywhere we could…even sneaking in the very churches we denounced.
Along the way, you met an individual who had a profound impact on your life as well as your distinctive sense of fashion, that served as a kind of visual template for you.
When I returned to San Francisco, after leaving home, once again, in San Diego, I followed a girl who had received a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. I was underage and 19, by now, when I used to sneak into this jazz club where she worked as a cocktail waitress. The bass player would arrive early before the rest of the band and play the piano solo for the early birds. He would thread a napkin or sometimes his handkerchief through…dampening the last three strings of his bass and then lay the bass on the floor, tapping the open E-string with his boot while he played the piano. I was intrigued with everything about him and his trim, tailored Italian suits that were not brand new…down to his Florsheim shoes. He was kind of a Chet Baker, James Dean character, with this 1960’s New York sense-of-fashion. It was the eighties. I came around and hung out enough to hear his stories and everywhere he’d been and traveled with his bass. I found thrift stores and wore suits to look like him…with the exception of my duct-taped cowboy boots.
One evening, he called me over and put his treasured bass in my hands, instead of on the floor. I was done for.
Who are some of your favorite musicians and/or artists?
Link Wray, Charlie Festhers, Chopin, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, James Dean, Billie Holiday, American novelist Cormac McCarthy, Johnny Hartman, Howlin’ Wolf, Evel Knievel.
As far as consummate, hardworking musicians are concerned, you definitely garner the lion’s share with this endowment, as you’ve been part of a coterie of many reputable bands over the course of your career.
Yes, I have. I’ve worked with Red Truck, Lady Dottie & The Diamonds, Sammi Yaffa’s Mad Juana, Cash’d Out, El Vez, The Schizophonics, Stephen El Rey Sextet.
Several monumental events have just recently crossed paths with you. Care to divulge them with the readers?
For starters, I just found out I was nominated for an award for the Ameripolitan Show, which will take place on February 13, 2018 at the Graceland Hotel in Memphis. Unlike the Los Angeles and San Diego Music Awards (which are dedicated to local artists only), the Ameripolitan includes artists from all over the country and overseas.
Also, about a month ago, out of hundreds of songs submitted through Reverbnation, an original composition I wrote, called “Next Life,” was selected for this year’s “Gondola” sessions. They will film me singing the song, solo, actually, on the gondola in New Zealand or Telluride.
How would you describe your music to a person who is experiencing it for the very first time?
I have a propensity for things that slowly disappear in this country…hand-made things, pistons, people, love, loss…maybe that best describes my music.
Your musical odysseys have taken you to some amazing places. What are some of your favorite places to perform?
I love performing in New Orleans, Memphis, Brooklyn, Nashville, Austin, Oceanside and Pioneer Town.
It should be noted that some very prominent people have connected with you, as musical constituents, in your endeavors along the way.
That’s true. I’ve recorded demos with various record producers and have stayed with Richard Dashut, the record producer who worked with Fleetwood Mac on their blockbuster album, Rumours. I’ve also taken flights to Florida to record with Stan Lynch, drummer with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Prior to flying to Florida, Stan would also fly to San Diego to hang out and work with me.
By the looks of your anthology of music, you are quite the prolific artist. How has 2017 been for you, as far as recording is concerned?
I just recorded almost 20 songs this year: eight songs in Santa Fe, Mexico and three songs at Lost Ark Studios in San Diego. In September, I recorded five songs in Memphis with the Memphis Players: George Sluppick on drums/percussion; Greg Allman’s horn players, Art Edmaiston on Tenor and Baritone Sax and Mark Franklin Trumpets; AJ Croce, who played piano in the studio, lives and drove in from Nashville, to work with me. Ex-Memphian engineer and record producer, Mike Butler, played guitar. Currently, I’m trying to release the “Memphis Session.”
There is someone in your life with whom you are extremely close and we must mention. This extraordinary woman is your own flesh-and-blood, your daughter, who just recently graduated from Columbia University this past spring.
Yes, Luna Eve Rey is the most fascinating and tremendous person in my life. She is a moon beam. I have never known the kind of love and happiness I feel when we’re together. She is my best friend. She never ceases to amaze me. She earned a full ride, an academic scholarship. After graduating last spring from Columbia University, she received a fellowship from TFA-“Teachers For America.” She is currently teaching 7th grade writing in Houston, Texas.
What does music mean to Stephen Rey?
Everything is music to me…regardless of what I’m doing. Even if I opt for complete silence with my thoughts…I hear music in the rhythm of wheels over gravel roads, the pistons and chain in a motor or the rustling of leaves, the ocean…I love the sound of 3 a.m. phantom trains and boxcars on the track in the distance.
Music just helps me try and match the rhythm of the day.