Had he grown a few more inches, Tucson rocker Brian Lopez might have pursued a college career in basketball. Who knows? Maybe he could have gone pro.
"But I'd be fibbing a little if I said I was 6 foot," Lopez says with a chuckle.
Luckily for music fans, Lopez was offered a classical guitar scholarship at the University of Arizona, which further cemented his dedication to music.
"That was kind of where the train got derailed a little bit," he says over a bagel at a Fourth Avenue bistro on a recent Saturday morning.
A little more than 10 years and a few bands later, Lopez is releasing his first full-length solo album, Ultra, an art-rock excursion that is both aggressive and supple, velvety and muscular, blessed with rippling guitars, strings, beautiful songwriting and Lopez's pure, chiming voice. He and his band will celebrate the release of the album with a gig on Friday, March 9, at Plush, with opening act What Laura Says.
Lopez's core group features drummer Jack Sterbis, cellist Mona Chambers, violinist Vicki Brown and current bassist Gabriel Sullivan. Founding bassist Sean Rogers still plays with Lopez when his other obligations allow.
Lopez says his new music is an attempt to "filter everything I have learned through my own whatever-the-hell-I-am: my love of rock 'n' roll and the academic music training, and the string players I have been lucky enough to play with. And all the members of my band. They all inspire me."
Born in Tucson 29 years ago, Lopez grew up in a basketball-playing household (his dad coached at Pima Community College), although he also fell in love with the guitar when he was 12.
He remembers vividly when he started playing in a middle school music class. "There was one drum kit and a lot of really crappy nylon-string guitars. I went right over to the guitars and found out I could play right away. I could play 'Tequila,' which was really cool to show off for friends. I used to buy tablature books, and was really into Nirvana and Pearl Jam and that grunge scene."
In high school, he took music theory and played in advanced guitar class, which basically consisted of a series of pickup groups organized by functions like homecoming and the Tucson Blues Heritage Festival. "I kind of got my first taste of being a showman. I also had various outside bands when I was growing up. None of them were good."
While studying music in high school and at the UA, he wondered if all the theory was necessary. "All that musical training that I did, I thought was so tedious; it was like math or something. I didn't think it was that important at the time. But, man, it's all coming back around now. I can see now how if I didn't take that stuff, I would've hit a plateau and wouldn't be where I am right now."
When Lopez graduated from the UA in 2006—after six months of living in Barcelona, Spain—he started Mostly Bears with bassist Geoff Hidalgo and drummer Nick Wantland, a group that won considerable acclaim in Tucson for several years, and released two CDs along the way.
Lopez appreciates the time he spent in Mostly Bears, in large part because it helped instill in him a work ethic. "It's not like we were the best band or anything. We were just practicing every day—put your head down, and get to work. That's kind of been my mantra in my career. Don't think about it, just do."
He also got an education of another sort while working for nine years at the local independent label Funzalo Records, which also provides management and publishing services. Funzalo is releasing Ultra in the United States, and the record has come out via Le Pop Muzik in Europe.
"I got an awesome tutorial about the music business. I know a lot more about what goes on behind the scenes in the music scene than maybe 90 percent of my musical peers. I learned a lot more there than in music school about what you actually need to survive in the music industry."
Over the years, Lopez has played with lots of Tucson acts—Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, Marianne Dissard, Salvador Duran, Giant Sand—and he believes the musical community itself has been an inspiration.
"I think the musicianship here is remarkable, but more so the camaraderie. The culture within the music community here is really special, and you can't really find anything like it anywhere else. I've been fortunate to have grown up here, in the Tucson melting pot, so to speak. I only recently realized how much it has brought me to where I am now."