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Exclusive Interview: Brian Lopez Returns to His Solo Work with Psychedelic Masterpiece TIDAL

If you’ve spent time in the Sonoran desert that surrounds Tucson, Arizona, you know it’s an unusually lush and colorful example of a desert, full of wild flowers and alive with hummingbirds, quail, and doves. It’s hard to ignore so much beauty. It’s only natural, then, that the music of Tucson native Brian Lopez so often inclines a wide brimmed hat to the place where he lives and writes. His fourth album TIDAL, more than any other project of his, reflects the Sonoran landscape in full bloom. 

TIDAL is a breezy, dreamy album, a collection of psychedelic chamber pop unfurling like the wings of a newly hatched butterfly. If this album is especially vivid, it may be because it represents a new start for the singer-songwriter. It was written and recorded during the early days of the pandemic. The great pause that the pandemic brought gave Lopez the opportunity to re-evaluate the basic assumptions of his life as he knew it. Over zoom on a recent morning, he explained: “COVID is kind of when I had time to reflect on my relationship with music in general, and if I even like doing it. I had just been doing it for so long and never really sat down and took stock of where I’m at.” 

Lopez might be the hardest working man in Tucson’s music scene. In addition to his solo work, his desert rock band XIXA (pronounced: shee-shah) keeps him fairly busy, as does the band’s studio Dust & Stone, where many local musicians also come to cut their records. He’s also toured across Europe as a member of Tucson bands Calexico, Orkesta Mendoza, and Giant Sand. Then there was his earlier life with indie rock band Mostly Bears, which released an album and toured in the 2000s. A global pandemic is probably the only thing that could have gotten him to take a step back. Once he did, he made a conscious choice to start fresh. 

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“I decided that I would fall in love with the process of writing and recording again, and have more intention when I do it. That’s how TIDAL came to be. I just started demoing again. I was really motivated, really inspired, demoed, went to the studio,” he recalls. The studio in question was Dust & Stone and his main collaborator and sole producer was Gabriel Sullivan, who is also guitarist and co-frontman of XIXA. In order to follow CDC guidelines, only four people could be in the studio at a time, so the in-house skeleton crew was of necessity. Sullivan is a multi-instrumentalist and played bass, drums and other percussion, while Lopez played all the guitar parts and synthesizers. 

At first the duo thought the project would be relatively quiet and lo-fi, as the previous solo albums had been, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own. “As we kept building, it was sounding bigger and bigger, especially after we discovered that we can just send audio files across the world to any of our music friends and have them contribute to the songs,” Lopez remembers. 

Tucson’s music community is close knit, but far from insular, with links spread far and wide. Lopez has toured with Tucson-based French singer-songwriter Marianne Dissard and Scottish singer and songwriter KT Tunstall. Those relationships would prove vital to creating the multi-layered sound of TIDAL in the isolation of quarantine. Calexico’s John Convertino contributed drums from his basement in El Paso, Texas. KT Tunstall added airy vocals to the swelling psych waltz “Road to Avalon.” Lauren Cervantes of the Austin soul band Black Pumas sang on “Black Mountain.” 

Lopez on tour recently with famed desert noir band Calexico
Lopez (L) and Joey Burns (R) of the famed desert noir band Calexico on a recent tour.
Lopez (L) and multi-instrumentalist Sergio Mendoza with Calexico
Mendoza (L), Lopez (R)
Calexico trumpeter/vocalist Jacob Valenzuela (L) and Lopez (R)

“TIDAL is very much a collaborative effort, like a transatlantic, multinational Frankenstein album, for sure,” the musician says with pride. Happily, the stitches don’t show, though the love and intention that went into the record are apparent. 

The earlier solo albums, 2012’s Ultra, 2014’s Static Noise, and 2018’s Prelude are linked together by a stylish darkness and the world building tendencies of songwriters like Nick Cave and Tom Waits, with a distinct sense of place that sets them apart from anything else, except other bands from Tucson. As a classically trained guitarist, Lopez’s compositions are built around delicate fingerpicking that suggests various threads of music heard in the Southwest, be it Tejano or country and western, without ever committing to any one. Then there’s his famous croon, a controlled falsetto laden with shivering vibrato that has drawn comparisons to Jeff Buckley and Devendra Banhart. 

Brian Lopez’s new psychedelic masterpiece, TIDAL. 
Lopez with fellow XIXA frontman and TIDAL producer Gabriel Sullivan

On TIDAL, the guitar and voice are unchanged, maybe refined. In spirit and mood, the album leans away from the desert noir that characterizes Lopez’s first three albums and his work with XIXA to borrow instead from the pixie-led psychedelia of British folkies like Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, and Donovan. As with the aforementioned Brits, the shadows are never far away; still, this record has a comparatively light heart. TIDAL is the mature, baroque, sunlight-and-shade album that a few lucky artists get to make in their careers: Beck’s Sea Change, The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, Pet Sounds.

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In truth, the shadow of death glides quietly throughout TIDAL. Maybe that befits an album born during a worldwide plague. Album opener “3000 Stories,” has a light tone, with hints of Tropicália, but it’s a mournful remembrance of the thousands who have died in the desert along the Southern border, looking for safe passage. Still, it’s a song that prays for better.

Though heartbreaking, “3000 Stories” sets the tone for an album that rings more personal and honest than ever, still rooted in fertile Sonoran soil. “Black Mountain,” for example, is a bittersweet ode to childhood that could soften the crustiest grown-person’s heart. 

“It’s about growing up in Barrio Savaco in the ’80s and early ’90s. Just simple, simple times, something that’s very foreign to me and most adults. As you age and put on more responsibility and the world gets a little bit more chaotic, it’s hard to tether yourself to just being a bright eyed, young child without a care in the world, other than playing G.I. Joes or riding bikes or playing basketball with your friends,” Lopez says of that song. Barrio Savaco is a neighborhood on Tucson’s west side.

He finds room for more oddball moments as well. “Margot Kidder” is a tribute to the actor and progressive activist best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman movies opposite Christopher Reeve. Kidder also suffered from mental illness and died by suicide. Lopez had been reading about her by chance. “I found the duality of her life to be very sad, but interesting, and, frankly, relatable to a lot of us. On the surface, we’re projecting one thing, but behind closed doors is just a completely different thing. The song kind of follows. There’s a part that’s in major mode, which is one side and then it goes to a minor mode,” he offers. 

“All Souls” is another brush with the next world, in tribute to a friend who passed away, which takes inspiration from Tucson’s Dia de Los Muertos celebrations. Further on there’s plenty of sunlight: “Magic” and “Face to Face” are full-stop love songs of a kind that aren’t made much anymore. Finally, the muted epic “Psilocybin Dream” finds a balance between this world and the next, or collapses the duality. It’s an Ennio Morricone score for ego death. 

A Psilocybin Dream from TIDAL. Photo: Puspa Lohmeyer

Psilocybin is the only specific influence on the album that Lopez will really cop to, however, he cites Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as ever-present inspirations. “Lyrically, these are people that I look up to more than anything. I found my own voice kind of mimicking them and then, finally, slipping into what my thing was. It takes a long time, obviously,” he shares. His time has been well spent and reflects his passion for songwriting.

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There’s another XIXA album underway and Lopez has at least one side project going just for fun, plus songwriting for other artists. Currently, he’s working on an album with Mélanie Pain, the singer of French indie pop phenomenon Nouvelle Vague, with whom he has toured as a guitarist. The privations of the pandemic have eased. These days, there’s a lot going on, but he says he’s focused on his solo music, affirming, “It’s my most authentic, true self musically. I’m always gonna do solo stuff.” Indeed, time is only making his songs ring truer and bringing them closer to home.

Brian Lopez will be playing album release shows January 5 at Valley Bar, 130 N Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ and January 6 at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress



Beverly Bryan is a journalist, music curator, and critic. Her writing about music can be found in SPIN, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and many other places. There’s a chance she made that playlist you like.

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