West Texas waltz

Pop-rockers return from the dark side of the Moon Festival

So, in the beginning of 1993, the band found itself with no drummer and no label. The Nourallah brothers used the opportunity to rethink the direction of the band and restructure their sound. By the spring of 1993, they found Bob Franzke (formerly of Shock Opera) to take the drum stool, and they moved to Austin, where an old friend named Adam Green was working as a studio engineer and would often allow them into the studio to record for free. (Green is currently finishing the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album.)

"We went in the studio with new ideas and recorded some totally new songs," Faris says. "We experimented with Spanish elements, acoustic guitars, different percussion. By that time, we were listening to a lot of different things, too. It's funny but if you hear our songs, you can hardly imagine that The Jam and The Damned are two of our favorite bands."

They recorded a demo during the summer of 1993 and started shopping labels. But a friend of the Nourallahs' steered them toward Tony Rancich, who had made a fortune in the pecan business in West Texas and built a recording studio on his grove, which was in the middle of the desert outside of El Paso.

"He went overboard--he bought the most expensive mixing board, the most expensive everything," Salim says. "It is like a dream studio. He invited us to stay there and record for as long as we wanted. It was a hacienda with a studio in it." From September of 1993 through the following January, the band recorded every day.

For a band that loves to explore the recording possibilities, Rancich's 16-year-old Village Productions studio in Tornillo was a godsend. It was a rock and roll fantasy coming true--use of a swimming pool and mountain bikes, and unlimited studio time using all gadgets of ultramodern recording technology at their disposal, including a professional sound engineer, Mike Major.

"We had the ability to experiment with different sounds and multiple track layering," Salim says. "For example, we always wanted to do a spaghetti western type of song because we love spaghetti westerns and the music of Ennio Morricone. We did [the song] 'Land of Dust and Sin' without using any samples. We had Tony cocking and shooting his rifle, and we recorded that. He thought it was really cool, so he was out there in the desert with a rifle and headphones on, shooting and having a blast."

But as with any fantasy, the Moon Festival's ended as quickly as it started. By the end of 1993 the pecan business went south, as Rancich told the band and Mike Major, and he began to draw tight the purse strings he had once opened so easily. Salim and Faris say where Rancich had once given them free access to the studio, he began accusing them of wasting time and money. Major recalls Rancich was "definitely stressed" and created an environment in which it was "hard to work"; Rancich then gave the band a week to finish recording and told them to leave.

"It was a pretty strange situation," Major recalls.
Rancich says the whole recording process was never meant to go on "indefinitely," and that it was "mutually agreed upon" the band would mix the album at a different place because other bands were slated to use the studio at the same time.

"He never signed a contract with us, he had all our reels in his possession, and we had no finished product," Faris says. "Luckily, we managed to sneak a DAT tape out with some mixes done by Adam." After wrangling over contracts and questions of ownership of the master tapes, Rancich finally gave the brothers the tapes, with the understanding that if the band ever made money, they'd pay him back, Salim and Rancich explain.

Almost three years after their Dragon Street debut, in September of 1994, the Moon Festival finally released a follow-up, the four-song Pedestal Fall EP that consisted of material recorded in West Texas. On the strength of the EP and the rest of their material, they signed with the tiny indie Tortilla Records to release a proper album. More importantly, the band would have full artistic control over its release. They finished mixing the album--titled Tornillo, "because of all the things we went through in that town," Salim says--earlier this year with producer Keith Rust at Crystal Clear Sound, and are finally getting it into stores.

"This, for us, is the start," Faris says. "Now, we know a lot about the music business. We dealt with labels and contracts and long tours, so we're much wiser. When we were a young band, we used to think that we needed a 'savior,' a label to sign us and release a 'real' record. Now we know that getting signed doesn't mean much."

Tornillo was, in fact, quite worth the wait: it's an impressive album loaded with subtle harmonies, psychedelic tinges and intricate layers of instruments, held together by strong melodies and hooks. "Is It Too Late" stands out as it rides on a bed of soft galloping drums, bongos, and castanets; and a chorus of Spanish trumpets adds an otherworldly dimension to it, transferring you south of the border and north of this world. In "Pedestal Fall" and "Flawed by Magnificence," they use tremolo guitars to create a psychedelic ambience.

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