By the time the Sex Pistols played their final shows in 1978, Johnny Rotten had changed one of the famous lines in "Anarchy in the U.K."—"Don't know what I want but I know how to get it"—into the much more assured "I know what I want and I know how to get it." Simone Stopford understands. After unveiling her band, Burning Palms, publicly in February, the past six months have been a whirlwind of activity that has culminated in an album to be released Sept. 17 on Lolipop Records and a reputation as Tucson's most exciting new rock 'n' roll band.
If any of this was apparent to Stopford during the last two years, when she was at home writing and recording the songs that would become Church of Ra, Burning Palms' otherworldly, fantastical, and dazzling debut album, she won't be the one to say. Obsessed with mysticism, mystery and myth—all of which reside at the core of Burning Palms' music—Stopford prefers ambiguity over direct statements, and open interpretation over facts. She also has a tricky, insinuating sense of humor, which further breaks down what's real and what's false.
Stopford, a native of England, was a longtime veteran of the music industry, working all around the globe for "various record labels, management companies, P.R. and MTV," she says. About two years ago, she decided it was time to sit in the artist's seat, and she started writing songs. "I was writing all of these songs and recording solo, kind of hermitlike, in my bedroom," she explains. On Apple's GarageBand software, she was putting together the tracks that would later end up on Church of Ra. After writing in Sydney and Los Angeles, she finally settled down in Tucson and continued composing, but raised the stakes for herself.
"When I first came to Tucson, I realized I needed other people to collaborate with in order to take the music from my laptop to the stage," Stopford says. "I wanted to experiment and explore what the lineup would consist of, whether it would be myself and a drum machine, or me and an orchestra. I had no idea. I tried working with a variety of different people and then got lucky and found the perfect lineup. Burning Palms is a collective. It's a family."
While Burning Palms' initial incarnation first appeared on the radar with a music video in February, it wasn't until June that the current group coalesced. In addition to Stopford singing lead and playing guitar, Burning Palms now includes Chris Sauer on guitar, Julia DeConcini adding vocals and percussion, Nate Gutierrez on bass and Elliot Silva on drums. As Stopford tells it, "I had an initial concept (of Burning Palms), but as I started to perform and develop the songs with the band, and have them bring their own layers and personalities, it all really developed." By the time the members solidified, she "felt fantastic. It's a lot of work but I feel it's very worthwhile."
There was another important obstacle to conquer, however: The normally focused and self-assured Stopford was suffering from crippling stage fright. Intrigued by all things in the realm of the sub- and unconscious, she "had to go to hypnotherapy to perform. I was really petrified of performing." She points to her past in the music business as the possible culprit. "Seeing so many amazing, talented artists made me debilitatingly nervous" about her technical ability on the guitar, but "bizarrely enough, it really worked. (Now) I really don't give a damn."
It's telling that Stopford also counts visual artists Laura Hines and Kainan Jarrette as full members of the band. Presentation is integral to the Burning Palms collective approach. "We're all into magic and the unknown," she says. "We've looked at (ancient) Egyptian symbolism, the history of the pyramids, different Egyptian gods. We've studied the films of Kenneth Anger.
"We see ourselves as being pretty theatrical, and we don't want to bore people with our show, which is why the songs are all under two minutes and the show is under 20." Musically, "we want to have a soundscape going through the show and have people hooked in ... to keep the momentum going."
It was these shows that attracted the attention of Matt Rendon, leader of the Resonars and drummer for both Freezing Hands and Lenguas Largas. Rendon also runs Coma Cave Studio, and offered to record the group. According to Stopford, "Matt approached us; he was a big fan. I was very taken aback by that because I'm a big Resonars fan and I also love Lenguas Largas." Although she has a very distinct vision of how Burning Palms' music should be presented, recorded and performed, the two immediately understood each other and the band began recording. "I had some trepidation about working with someone else, but when I first met Matt he said he got our sound: an 'Egyptian sacrificial ceremony in the desert.'" (That is a pretty accurate description of Burning Palms' music.) She continues: "I knew I could trust him. Everyone contributed and it was very natural and organic. It started off as an EP, but we were having such a great time that four songs turned into seven."
And then fate stepped in: In May, Burning Palms performed at Tucson Live Music Space with Wyatt Blair, an L.A. musician who also co-owns Lolipop Records. Like Rendon, Blair was extremely impressed with the group and offered to release Church of Ra before it was even recorded. "We feel very fortunate about that, and Lolipop has already arranged some shows in L.A. in October, and they're helping us book a full tour. I like the idea of these collectives (like Lolipop) forming one huge collective."
As for the music, Church of Ra is a 15-minute-long "mini album," as Stopford puts it, balancing swooning and creepy atmospherics with an overall tone of rapture, both apocalyptic and ecstatic. For Burning Palms, there's probably no difference between the two states, with songs like "Pyramids," "Maze" and "Thorn" conjuring the mysticism and pagan trances that define the group's sound. For reference points, picture a Velvet Undergound with two Nicos singing simultaneously, or a certain droning, tribal post-punk, like Siouxsie & the Banshees. Even Stopford has a difficult time describing it, calling it "layered and crafted," but sometimes the result of happy accidents. And while Burning Palms' music has its precedents, it is quite uncategorizable, which is certainly a hallmark of all great music.
Burning Palms have come a long way in a very short time, but Stopford embraces it, adding, "We're working very hard at what we're doing. Everyone's really devoted to it; it's a high priority. I feel the more people who can share and enjoy our music, the better. I'm definitely not snobby or hipster about it."
Stopford is admirably ambitious and says, regarding Burning Palms' current success, "When you put that much effort into something, it's not that surprising when things are quite seamless." At the same time, the highly knowing and fascinating persona that Stopford created (or maybe it created her), chimes in: "We're lucky. Magic plays into it, don't you think?"