The route that San Francisco band Dead Country Gentlemen is taking is, in many ways, the classic rock 'n' roll dream. The duo left any semblance of a regular life behind, guitarist/vocalist Cameron Ray going so far as to give up his apartment four months ago to embark on a life that will see them remain on the road for 12 months of the year.
It's a Kerouac-esque, road-dog vision of the touring artist—one of little-to-no overheads, adventures and cultural discoveries in far-off places, and a lot of coffee in a lot of coffee shops. There can be no ties back home (if the traditional concept of a home still exists to musicians who are, to all intents and purposes, homeless). These two men are simply dedicating their life, at least this current chapter of it, to the music of Dead Country Gentlemen.
The group formed in 2015, originally as a trio. Art being as subjective as it is, Ray decided early on that the concept of being the "best band in the world" was nonsensical and unobtainable. However, the title of "hardest-working band there ever was" is up for grabs. That, he says, is the mission.
It makes sense, then, that when we call to talk to Ray and French drummer William Brunet, they're on the road, driving through the mountains of Northern California. The conversation is fractured, as the signal fades in and out. But then, that seems appropriate for a band with a sound that Ray describes as "Stressful."
"We get compared to Royal Blood quite often," he says. "There's a lot of Sabbath-esque riffs in the music. We don't listen to Sabbath, but I think we listen to a lot of people who were influenced by Sabbath."
There's certainly an element of psychedelic blues and trippy progressiveness about a song like "Hard to Quit," which would appeal to fans of proto-metallers Black Sabbath. But the monolithic skull-crush is replaced by contemporary indie rock elements, dark-wave and post-rock, made particularly vital by the fact that there are only two of them.
"When we started, it was actually a three-piece: drums, guitar and keyboard," Ray says. "But as the music went from a blusier sound, it took on a darker direction and it became harder to incorporate the keys. Then I found myself loving the challenge of working as a duo. It forces me to be a better songwriter, a better performer, more knowledgeable, and I love that challenge. Will, the drummer, also had to adapt his playing. We're able to build a chemistry and a synergy a lot easier because there are only two of us on stage. We find we're having these ephemeral moments. The most beautiful print is not the popular print but the original piece of art. The only time you'll ever have that is the time that you're there."
Remaining on the road does present its own challenges, not least the fact that there are only so many states and cities. The key, it turns out, is tapping into the fact that there are a whole lot of small towns in this country.
"As far as staying on the road, it involves playing a lot of smaller markets," Ray says. "Last night we played Grants Pass, Oregon. Small towns make it really easy to stay on the road. Those shows get really exciting, because oftentimes people get really excited to have you there."
That's a fascinating business model—taking underground music to places that might ordinarily be used to hearing cover bands at the local sports bar, to young people who are delighted to hear something original from the glamorous heights of San Fran without having to travel miles to the nearest city.
That said, it's not the traditional and accepted way of doing things. Bands are supposed to remain in their own neck of the woods, playing every dive in town with every similarly minded group, until they've raised a bit of a buzz and enough money to buy a van. Then, and only then, can they drive out of town and perhaps dabble with a regional tour in and around their state. Turns out, Dead Country Gentlemen tried that.
"I did that for a while, but you have to play to your strengths," Ray says. "For some projects, it's marketing, social media, really building a following. But our strength is our performance, our live show. We put on a live show that other acts can't really beat. We're both really intense performers and we bring this huge ring of amplifiers."
Living on the road also makes it hard to get into a studio. DCG gets around this by making sure that they hit San Francisco every other month, which allows them to spend some off-time recording.
"Every time we pass through San Francisco, we stop and get something done," Ray says. "We have a five-song EP that we released in 2015, and we actually just released a single on Spotify, iTunes, all the services, called Wicked Ways. We are playing that on tour, so that's pretty exciting."
Ray and Brunet have made an art out of finding the best coffee shop in each town, as well as the most desirable tourist destination. They spend a lot of time in each other's company, so they have to be able to agree on the albums that provide the mid-journey tunes (current faves are Bring Me the Horizon's Sempiternal and Manchester Orchestra's A Black Mile to the Surface). That's how they manage to avoid driving each other crazy, and remain out on tour. And that's why they're coming here.
This week's Tucson show marks the first time the band has played here, although they've performed two well-received sets in Tempe. Ray is excited to get here, and he's promising something special:
"To be one of the loudest bands you've probably ever seen," he says. "One of the most intense performances you've ever seen. Loud, intense, and stressful. In a good way."
That's really all we can ask for.