It might seem to casual listeners as if the new album by Tucson rock-band Saint Maybe is appearing overnight—but it's been three years in the making. And bandleader Oliver Ray's path to the first album of his songs is a long and colorful one.
Ray, who plays guitar, sings and writes the songs, is a natural-born rock star: a disheveled-looking poet who is a great storyteller and an explosive talent. His band, which includes primary members Chris Sauer on guitar and Winston Watson on drums, is one of the most exciting to emerge in Tucson in recent memory.
Saint Maybe's terrific debut, Things as They Are, will be released Tuesday, Nov. 20, by Fort Lowell Records. James Tritten, the guitarist for and husband of local rocker Tracy Shedd, operates Fort Lowell primarily as a showcase for vinyl records, but its music also is available via digital download.
Things as They Are is a meditation on the relationship between earthly concerns and spiritual transcendence. The album comes on like a ritual for transformation, a portrait of an artist in the act of becoming. Filled with epics drawing from garage, psychedelic, folk, blues and alt-country, it just plain rocks.
"I am a firm believer in the dynamic of the sacred and profane," Ray said recently. "A lot of it, for me, is about the tension and beauty of rock 'n' roll, and how, through this form, we can perceive the supernatural and arrive at this transcendent plane."
As long as humans have played music, it has been a vehicle for sacred ceremonies, and that's often the case with the best rock 'n' roll music.
"Well, I hope that's the case with mine," Ray said. "It's still too new to tell. I mean, this is the first record I ever put out on my own, and it's really hard to know how it's going to be perceived."
Ray was born in Boston 39 years ago, and his family moved around a bit when he was young, from Virginia to the Bahamas, before settling in New York City in 1980.
"The '80s in New York, it wasn't as cleaned up as it is now, and for me, it was a little scary at first. But I realized it was a fun place to grow up in. I was obsessed with poetry at a young age, and around the ninth-grade started hanging out at St. Mark's Church, where they would have poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and people like that."
For Ray, like so many before him, threads of music and poetry ran through his life in parallel lines that often crossed.
"I've always been a huge music fan. But my first major obsession was with the Doors and Jim Morrison, and through him, I learned of the symbolist poets."
Ray had "messed around" with guitars since he was about 13, but didn't start playing and writing music seriously until he was about 22. A circuitous route led to him playing with Patti Smith, the legendary rock 'n' roll poet, for about 10 years.
"I ended up going to Guatemala for a little while, and there, I fell off a cliff, and got a compound fracture in my femur. I had to be medevaced to the U.S., and they put a metal rod in my femur," he said.
Ray was working for a small book publisher at the time, and met Smith at a publishing event. "She had just started performing again after the death of her husband. We became fast friends, and she heard this song I was writing and asked if she could record it on her next album.
"Fireflies," about Ray's fall off the cliff, ended up on Smith's 1996 comeback album Gone Again, on which he also played guitar, sharing duties with the likes of Tom Verlaine and Lenny Kaye. Ray joined Smith's band, playing on subsequent albums such as Peace and Noise, Gung Ho and Trampin'.
On the road, Smith's band opened a concert tour for Bob Dylan. In the mid-1990s, Ray first encountered Tucson-born drummer Watson, then a member of Dylan's band and a veteran of gigs with a wide variety of top-tier artists.
"We didn't hang out a lot, but as the young guys in both bands, Winston and I spent a little time together on the road," Ray said. And he didn't know Watson was from Tucson until Ray arrived here in 2008.
"I credit Winston with hooking me up with a lot of Tucson musicians since then. And he also introduced me to Craig Schumacher, which was really helpful."
Schumacher is a producer, engineer, mixer and utility player behind many great albums recorded at his much-respected Wavelab Studio. With engineer Chris Schultz, Schumacher helmed most of the sessions for Things as They Are. (A couple of the tracks came together at Jim Waters' Waterworks Studio.)
Other than Saint Maybe, the only other band in Tucson that Ray has played with is Greyhound Soul, which often features Watson on drums.
Ray's other Saint Maybe mainstay is Sauer; the two grew up together in New York. Because they've been playing together for so long, they can communicate musical ideas without speaking, Ray said. "He's a great guitar-player, but he has this really very selfless style and is often willing to be in the background."
Saint Maybe has been seeking a full-time bass player, and Ray said he's finally settled on Los Angeles transplant Boyd Peterson. He and his girlfriend, Leslie Wood, run the vintage shop Thee Collection Agency.
Things as They Are also features an all-star lineup of Tucson musicians, including Fen Ikner, Michael P. Nordberg, Naïm Amor, Connor Gallaher, Chris Giambelluca, Kevin Pate, Tommy Larkins, Thøger Lund, Laura Kepner-Adney and the aforementioned Schumacher and Shedd.
Although Ray may not stay in Tucson forever, he's happy here. "I love Tucson; it's a funky, weird kind of town. My favorite parts are the old areas where things have kind of been left the same, like South Sixth. I feel at home there."
That's where Ray decided to locate his coffee-roasting business, Café Aqui. He got into roasting and selling coffee while living in Guatemala. The café, at 1317 S. Sixth Ave., is generally open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Ray has strived to make his place unique, avoiding "that kind of super-uptight vibe. I just wanted it to feel like your home, you know, sitting in the living room."
A record-release party hasn't been planned, but Saint Maybe's next performance will be at Plush on Thursday, Dec. 13, as part of the 15th annual Great Cover-Up.