Deadman, Walking

Steven Collins found what he was looking for at an abandoned Mexican porn theater an hour or so outside Los Angeles, 60 miles south on the seedy side of sleepy Oxnard. Or he thought he would, anyway. That was the plan. Where he ended up was just as strange a location: a mansion high in the Hollywood Hills, a little island above L.A. that's made cameos in such knives-out fare as Halloween: H20 and Scream 3 and is apparently haunted for real. That's what they tell the tourists, at any rate.

Thinking about it all now, Collins laughs a little bit, hunched over a plate of enchiladas inside Sol's Taco Lounge on Commerce Street as he explains how his search for a working definition of Texas music led him and his band, Deadman, to California. Specifically, The Paramour Estate, an "oasis" (Collins' word) where Deadman spent a week recording its first album (Paramour, just released nationally on Lakeshore Entertainment) with Mark Howard, a man best known, if known at all, for engineering U2 and R.E.M. albums. Don't worry, Collins is well aware that most of the nouns in that sentence have absolutely nothing to do with Texas music. He also knows that most of the things people normally associate with Texas music (Pat Green, for example) don't have much to do with it either. At least not the way he hears it.

Which is why Collins was drawn to the former Mexican porn palace in Oxnard. It had been converted into a studio called Teatro where Howard and his partner, frequent U2 collaborator Daniel Lanois, recorded Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, among others, until they shut it down a year or so ago. (Unfortunately for Collins, Teatro closed just before he intended to take Deadman there.) When Collins thought about the album he wanted to make, sketched out the sound in his head, he kept coming back to a record Howard had cut with singer-songwriter Tim Gibbons, 1998's Shylingo. "I heard the record, and I thought, 'Man, this is kind of what I want to do, this kind of sound, Mexican and vibe-y,'" he says. "It was sort of dark, and I was attracted to it."

Time and again, he also returned to another album Howard worked on in 1998, Nelson's Teatro. Shylingo and Teatro were a matched set, deep mines of mood and cantina caresses, records you felt as much as heard. And even though Gibbons was from Canada (where he grew up with Howard and Lanois), Collins heard the same thing on Shylingo that he discovered on Teatro: The heart of Texas' music wasn't in Austin or Lubbock or Dallas or, now that you mention it, anywhere in Texas. Not really. It was south of the Rio Grande, and, for whatever reason, the best place to capture it was near the Pacific Ocean.

"When we got the group together, I remember telling [bassist] Britton [Beisenherz] that it would be cool, sort of for grins, digging in and finding out what Texas music sounds like," Collins says. He's taking a break from his job at Southwest Airlines. "If you ask someone what Texas music sounds like, is it pedal steel guitars? Is it Tejano? Is it country and western? Because country and western comes from Nashville. So that's what we started with. I remember that pretty distinctly now. I think Texas music sounds like Mexico. That's what I think. What we want to do is find a bit of tradition, a bit of the roots in that music, which does sound like Mexico. That was what I was interested in."

Collins has spent the past few years watering those roots, since he began putting together the ideas and musicians that would later turn into Deadman. He had recently parted ways (amicably, he says) with his former band, The Plebians, after seven years and a couple of albums for Carpe Diem Records. Collins and singer-guitarist Greg Vanderpool (who now fronts Austin's Milton Mapes) wanted to try it on their own.

"It wasn't a bad anything," Collins says, referring to the split. "It was just the right time to do that. And I was getting married. I had these songs laying around, a lot of the early stuff, the songs that were on the EP [last year's Quatro Canciones]. Britton had been calling, saying, 'Let's do some work.' I lived at The Village. So he came up and I had a big studio set up in there--very little furniture, just gear. We'd just stay up, working on ideas."

Before long, drummer John Scully and Collins' wife, Sherilyn, joined the duo. Sherilyn may not have been in a band before, but her role in Deadman is far more important than, say, Linda McCartney's contribution (or lack thereof) to Wings. In other words, she's not just the front man's wife. "She'd come in and play organ on things, you know, little sketches, and she just ended up being in the group," Collins says. "I didn't think it would work, at first. Because I thought she might get bored with it. But it's worked really well, because it keeps us together. She's become much more interested in the craft of being a singer, adding parts. She's sort of an integral part of the sound."

He's right: The most striking part of Paramour is Steven and Sherilyn's hand-holding harmonies, their sweet and low voices wrapping around each other like curls of smoke until you can't hear where one ends and the other begins, and pretty soon, it doesn't matter; it's all one beautiful, fragile sound. Their joint custody of the microphone makes Deadman, at times, sound something like a smoked-out version of X, and other times like the Velvet Underground and Nico making a run for the border. In an unexpected way, they even bring to mind the duets of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, had Gaye and Terrell ever found themselves down on their luck and drowned in tequila, and maybe a few pesos shy of another round.

Steven and Sherilyn's Vicodin-veiled vocals stand out and blend in like two Hollywood A-listers fitting into an ensemble company. Listen to them moan and groan their way through songs like "Rosa Marie" or "Three Murders"; their voices lead the way, but they don't leave the song behind them. They're just another instrument, another part to play. The songs certainly give Steven and Sherilyn's shared singing plenty of room to get lost in, making sexy and spooky sounds that bring Collins' personal screenplay to wide-screen life. "It turned out to be a bit more epic than I thought it would be," Collins admits. "I thought it would be a sort of quiet, hear-a-pin-drop kind of record."

Though it's different than he originally heard it in his head (and in his home studio, for that matter), Collins is proud of Paramour, even if he knows people don't have to listen to his record. The record store's full of them, after all. But he found what he was looking for on Paramour, and that's all he needs for now. Sometimes, all that matters is that you make yourself happy, finally answer a question you've been asking yourself.

"It's very important for me personally to make something that, 15 years later, is going to sound as good as it does now," Collins says. "The idea is to make something that's gonna last. And to make something that's gonna move someone. My theory is, there's so many people that are making records. I mean, it's easy to make a record. It's not hard: You go to somebody's house on their computer and you press 'record,' and you can make a record. My idea is, why add another one to the stack? There's so freaking many records. You go into a record store and you don't know where to go or what to buy. My theory is, I don't wanna add to that. If I'm going to make something, I want it to be worth people's time and worth the people's money. Because if you go to Tower and buy a record, that's 20 bucks. That's a lot of money."

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain