Read music, speak Desaparecidos

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The reunited Omaha group.
PHOTO BY ZACH HOLLOWELL

When the first – and only – Desaparecidos full-length came out in 2002, it touched a raw nerve. Released a year after 9/11, with pro-Bush rhetoric still burning in our collective ears and mass confusion and fear still bubbling, Read Music / Speak Spanish took a specific Midwestern town, looked around, said, “what the fuck is going on?” and applied that rage to the rest of the country in a gleefully noisy Saddle Creek Records release. Omaha, Nebraska was home-base for both Saddle Creek and this group of riled up indie rock musicians.

And it still is; guitarist Denver Dalley, bassist Landon Hedges, drummer Matt Baum, keyboardist Ian McElroy, and perhaps most notably, vocalist-guitarist Conor Oberst, otherwise known as Bright Eyes – reunited in the past year in Omaha to start practicing again.

Though, as Dalley notes in our conversation, the band never officially broke up, it was just waiting for the chance to play together again. That ended up taking a decade, but what has emerged was worth the wait: two equally furious tracks, one (“MariKKKopa”) digging into villainous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, now on a federal civil rights trial for a “pattern of discriminatory policing,” and with another lawsuit on the way brought on by the Justice Department for similar charges. Arpaio is the man who created the controversial outdoor "tent city" jail in sweltering hot Arizona and forced inmates to wear pink underwear.

For a specific generation of Saddle Creek-obsessed fans, these two songs were a welcome relief, another breakdown of the so-called American dream. Even better, the original lineup is touring again, and rolls into San Francisco this week for two shows. Before they left, I talked to Dalley about all things Desaparecidos:

San Francisco Bay Guardian The big question is, what spawned this reunion?

Denver Dalley Even though we kind of went our separate ways back in the day, there wasn't like an inner-band thing, like we weren't getting along. It was just a timing thing. And I think there was starting to be expectations, and we were getting away from the whole reason we'd started.

But even back then we left it as "we're on a hiatus." Which I know a lot of bands say these days. But we really wanted to leave it open, we didn't ever say that was the end, or that we'd never do it again. So for a long time it was a scheduling thing. We'd always say, 'oh yeah, some day we'll do it.'

Then when we did that Concert for Equality [in August 2010], we all had a lot of fun hanging out and doing that again. And then once they were done touring on the Bright Eyes record – because they did a pretty extensive world tour – the timing was right.

We started having band practice again. Not just rehearsing for a tour like a lot of us have started to do in more recent years, where you're kind of a hired gun or there's a purpose for something. We started having band practice again like we did when were 19, and it was a lot of fun.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Everyone has gone off and done so many other projects, to get everyone back together a decade later...

DD When we were talking about getting back together we were saying like, the romantic 'maybe it was just that time and that place, it wouldn't be the same' but once we started in the band room again it really did feel like it did 10 years ago, we picked up where we left off.

We still have the same energy for it. We were all joking, "oh we're all old men now, we don't want to look like old men up there." But no, it totally sounds the same, if anything the songs are even more angry and energetic now.

SFBG It's certainly a more aggressive sound than we've heard from Brights Eyes or [Dalley's band] Statistics, was that an intentional direction?

DD Yeah, definitely. Some of that just happens when we're all in the same room. We all have a lot of fun discussing issues and I think sometimes there'll be...well you know, the lyrics are totally up to Conor, but we can all go into something and be like, "we should have a song about this particular issue," and be all fired up about it.

It's just a natural process, it's not like "oh that song sounds too ballady" or "that songs not tough enough."

SFBG You're based in Omaha. How did you get interested in writing about what's going on in Arizona, and Sheriff Joe?

DD Conor really does follow the whole issue, the whole debate, everything that's going on. He must just spend a lot of time doing internet research. The Concert for Equality was to combat that law in Arizona. Sherif Joe is just kind of the prominent character, the figurehead for a lot of that stuff, and so blatant and ridiculous, and he's kind of the poster-boy for a lot of unnecessary and weird stuff.

I still can't get over that sample at the end of “MariKKKopa.” It's just unreal to me, I just can't wrap my mind around it.

SFBG He's kind of a modern-day villain.

DD Yeah, man. Views aside, everyone's obviously entitled to their own opinion and I can respect other people's views, but a thing like that, how can that possibly be a matter?

SFBG Something I often wonder  – what happens after a specific scene blows up? There was this huge watchful eye and media attention on the Omaha/Saddle Creek scene in the early 2000s, and it seems like a lot of that attention has gone away. So what's the vibe like there now? Have bands returned to a more DIY sensibility, or is it forever changed?

DD In general, touring expenses have gone up so much we've all joked about how bands that went from crashing on couches to hotels, they're going back to 'hey, can we crash on your floor tonight?' It is crazy how little it used to take to go out and tour and you could get by. But now to even fill up the van with gas, it's just a different world.

But Omaha to me, I kind of equate it to when a group of friends – like that time when everything was on the up-and-up and there was all that buzz and attention that you were talking about – I felt like we were in high school; we were all there and in each others' lives and at each others' shows, then it was like we all went off to college. We all went our separate ways and did different things, moved to different places and had different projects.

Now it feels like a lot of people are coming back from school now, and meeting up again. It's different, there's a younger crowd here too, which is awesome. When you can come back and say, 'I don't know hardly anyone at this show,' and before it was like, I could tell you everyone's name at this show. It's cool but it's different.

SFBG So even though the band was on a hiatus and not technically broken up, it is kind of high school reunion?

DD Yeah! For sure. Definitely. [Laughs]

SFBG Have you seen a strong reaction from fans?

DD Obviously, a great deal of everything is because of Conor's popularity. There's no question. But I feel like that record came out a really important time. It was so close after 9/11 and everyone was being really careful and guarded and "God Bless America" everywhere, and I think it was almost a relief in some ways to have this record that was kind of, calling out what the American dream has become. It wasn't anti-American but maybe anti-American Dream. And I think it was a relief for people to realize, "oh yeah, it's not wildly inappropriate to have constructive criticism and say things at a time like this."

It does have a cult following and people are definitely exciting. I feel like it's half and half, where people are like, "I'm so excited, I have my tickets for the show!" or, "I had no idea you guys were playing again."

SFBG Will there be a new full-length with the two new songs?

DD I don't know? Honestly, when we were practicing, those songs came together and we were at the studio already and thought it'd be fun to have something new out there. While we would all love to do a new record and hope to, there's no actual plans to. If I've learned anything from the past, it's who knows when things will happen and when schedules are going to align. We'll have to write them I guess.

Desaparecidos
With the Velvet Teen
Tue/28, 9pm, $25
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
(415) 621-4455
www.bottomofthehill.com

With the Velvet Teen
Regency Ballroom
Wed/29, 8pm, $25
Regency Ballroom
1290 Sutter, SF
(415) 673-5716
www.theregencyballroom.com

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