It's the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, and Gary Mackender, the creative force behind the Carnivaleros, is alone in his car, driving on autopilot.
Beneath his trancelike demeanor, however, creative synapses are firing in all directions. At some point, he'll click on a portable tape recorder that will capture newly created lyrics, along with the semblance of a melody or two. These musings will eventually end up on Happy Homestead, his third and most accomplished Carnivaleros CD.
"I like to take long driving trips, and about once a year, I go back to Kansas. Usually by the second day on the road, some things will start to come. I wrote 'Happy Homestead' between Tucumcari (N.M.) and Guymon, Oklahoma," he said in a recent interview. When asked if he was accompanied by his wife, Connie, he was quick to respond with a smile, "Oh, no. I have to be on my own, or my mind starts to break apart!"
There appears to be something mystical at work when Mackender makes this annual pilgrimage. "My family still owns the property my great-grandmother homesteaded and farmed in Gove County, Kansas. There's just something about going back to my old stomping grounds, the prairie, that moves me. I write what's going on around us all, but some are obviously more personal than global."
Despite having nine other musicians contribute to the making of this recording, Happy Homestead best represents Mackender as an evolving solo artist. On his two previous CDs (Step Right Up! and Lost in the Graveyard), the Carnivaleros had opportunities to learn and perform many of those songs before being recorded; however, almost all of these tunes were written by Mackender during one of the group's extended hiatuses. Without a regular working band, Mackender was free to experiment in a way that might not have been possible had he been gigging.
As such, only a handful of these tunes will ever be performed live. "We're only doing four of them—the first four," he said, although that number is actually five if you count "Black Cloud Over Oracle" (which recounts Mackender's infamous encounter with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office at the 2006 GLOW Festival). "In order to gig, you need to have dance material, and so some of this is just not appropriate."
If you only knew Mackender for his music, it might surprise you to learn he has a day job as a University of Arizona systems analyst, running a virtual-reality multimedia lab. This, however, is a backdrop that has allowed him to almost single-handedly create the new CD. "I'm in front of a computer all day creating content. As it was just me sitting down with song ideas, I was here (in the home studio), and I was ready and excited." In addition to writing these tunes, he ended up playing accordion, organ, drums and, in some instances, bass.
This, of course, leads to the question: Just who (and what) are the Carnivaleros?
"I started writing for a fictitious ensemble when I first came to Tucson in 1990, until I got caught up in the Mollys whirlwind (he was their drummer) from 1993 to 2000. But that still fed the notion of a polycultural, polyrhythmic music group, but with instrumentation that was not socially acceptable." Enter the accordion.
His self-authored bio on CD Baby states how he dragged his accordion across the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia while touring with the Mollys, and learned how to play it by slipping away to practice late at night after the gigs, when everyone else was asleep. Mackender said of the accordion, "It's even more organic than the drums. It responds to every move; it breathes, it wheezes. It can be loud and demanding, yet it can whisper and seduce. I've discovered material on it that would never have presented itself on the piano, which is where I used to do all of my writing." Much of this includes a mix of dance-oriented zydeco, Tex-Mex polkas, blues, swing and Eastern European-themed instrumentals.
"Chris Giambelluca (on bass) is the one constant, I suppose. He and Carla (Brownlee on saxophones) were there at the beginning, in 2001." But they, like everyone else who has ever played with the Carnivaleros, have periodically been in and out of the band due to a variety of other musical concerns. Mackender acknowledges, "Not only does the band change from year to year, but sometimes from performance to performance. And that's just the way it is here. Fortunately, I've been graced by so many wonderful musicians and friends who have said yes when I have asked."
Actually, many of the players who have been Carnivaleros are bandleaders in their own right. Guitarists Mitzi Cowell, Michael P. Nordberg and Danny Krieger all have their own groups, while Brownlee has also had her own band off and on. The current lineup for this season's slate of CD-release gigs includes former Mollys Catherine Zavala (mandolin and vocals) and Marx Loeb (drums), along with Cowell on guitar, Giambelluca on bass and Brownlee on saxophones.
The Carnivaleros are also unique in that Mackender readily admits he is anything but a traditional lead singer. "I have a limited vocal palette, but I do what I can do."
Because some of these songs are so personal, however, there is an authenticity to his vocals that cannot be denied. Mackender is also seeing how and where he can share the vocal spotlight. "Catherine and Carla are strong singers, and so I'm passing the vocals around where I can."
As for that tricky creative process, Mackender is quick to point out how it can strike anytime, anywhere.
"Between January and August of last year (when this album was being written), sleep was really intermittent. Something at night would start showing its face, and so I'd get up and write it down. Fortunately, I'm sleeping soundly now."