Brian Lopez reflects on life in the shadow of Black Mountain on ‘Tidal,’ his new album

Reawakened and reconnected to the intrinsic joy of music making — sallied forth following an intense psilocybin dream — Tucson native Brian Lopez emerges from the eddy with “Tidal,” his first collection of original desert noir in five years.

Recently — sheltered from the swelter of a July day by the thick adobe walls of a quaint bar in the heart of Barrio Viejo — Lopez made time to talk.

Returning home following a stint slinging guitar with Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno then pulling double-duty touring with Calexico, Lopez is enjoying a brief respite.

“The gig with Gaby was for two weeks opening for Los Lobos. Most of the dates were on the West Coast. That was in March,” Lopez said. “Calexico is going to be an all year thing. We did two weeks in Europe in June. I will be playing with them (as part of the band) and opening shows, doing support.”

“We go back out to the East Coast — kicking off in New York City — right after I release the album.”

* * *

Lopez spoke of his early life coming of age in the shadow of Black Mountain.

Originating from the O’odham word, “Cuk-Ṣon” means “spring at the base of the black mountain,” later co-opted by the Spanish into “Tucsón”

“I went to Roskruge (Bilingual Magnet K-8 School). They held bilingual dances where half of the dances were cumbias. There was also a mariachi program,” Lopez reflected. “You are influenced subconsciously by all of that.”

“There are no musicians in my family. At least none that ever played professionally. I am kind of an outlier in my family. I started playing guitar when I was 12 (in the sixth grade). I was taught by Steven Holmes.” Holmes served as superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District until 2022. “He was a young guy then; an ex-metalhead,” Lopez said, fondly. “Amazing musician. He had just moved back to Tucson from L.A. where he played in a metal band.”

“At Roskruge they had 20 nylon string guitars and one drum kit. One day, Holmes said to the class, ‘If you want to learn to play drums get on this side of the room. If you want to learn guitar, get on that side.’ I really wanted to learn drums.” But the odds were not in his favor. “‘You’d have to share the drum kit with how many kids?’” Lopez mused. “So, I went with the safe bet. It worked out great. I found a group of four dudes that wanted to play Nirvana stuff. We learned how to read guitar tablature. That’s when I fell in love with playing guitar.”

Lopez showed aptitude on the instrument straightaway.

“It became my obsession. It took the place of basketball; at the time that had been my passion.”

Fast forward to high school. While attending Tucson High School — with magnet programs in performing arts — Lopez realized that he had to step up his game.

“I got this idea that I would go to college to study classical guitar, without knowing how to play classical guitar or read a note of music.” Lopez said, his voice trailing off into laughter.

Self-described as stubborn and driven, during his junior year at THS, Lopez started taking classical guitar lessons. Senior year, he took advanced placement AP music theory. After all was said and done, Lopez earned a three on the AP music theory exam, which meant he could skip the first semester of college for the equivalent course.

“I ended up getting a classical guitar scholarship at the University of Arizona,” Lopez said, proudly. “That is what paid for my education.”

“Looking back now, I don’t know how I did that?’” Lopez said, scratching his head. “It’s such a regimented field. You have to dedicate all of your time to practicing.”

Before graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music and a double minor in Spanish and Business, in 2005, Lopez traveled to Barcelona, Spain. The six months he spent immersed in the artistic culture of Catalonia and Spain — walking the streets teeming with life, music, and Antoni Gaudi’s modernist architecture — would come to influence his songwriting and music.

After graduating from college, in 2006, Lopez was ready to enter the workforce.

“I started working on the business side of things at Funzalo Records, which was based in Tucson at the time. I worked on the publishing side and also worked on the management side for a bit,” Lopez said. “That was my introduction to the music business.”

An early experience that would prove bittersweet.

* * *

Lopez then moved from behind the scenes to living on a lighted stage “in touch with some reality beyond the gilded cage.”

”From there I started Mostly Bears (lifting their name from a Tucson novelty store) with bassist Geoffrey Hidalgo and drummer Nick Wantland. We were three young dudes playing prog and indie rock,” Lopez said. “We did our first national tours together.”

Difficult to categorize, Mostly Bear’s sound has been described as “Radiohead circa 1996 getting in a gang-fight with Arcade Fire.” They would release “The Ed Mitchell Clinic” (Funzalo Records, 2008), their only studio album.

“That band broke up quickly.”

“Towards the end of Mostly Bears, I saw the writing on the wall. That band was not going to be my vessel,” Lopez remarked. “That’s when I started writing solo.”

“It kind of went from there.”

* * *

Drawing its life breath from the desolation and beauty that coexists side-by-side in the desert, in the early 2010s, Lopez was part of a group of emerging Tucson artists — including Gabriel Sullivan, Salvador Duran, and Sergio Mendoza — who were creating a sound characterized by vast expanses, shadowy ambiguity, and a centuries-old sense of mysticism tied to the cultural roots of the Southwest.

In 2011, Lopez launched a solo career. He collaborated and toured across Europe with French chanteuse Marianne Dissard that year as well.

Lopez’s breakout as a solo artist came in 2012 with the release of “Ultra” (Funzalo Records). “I recorded an album,” Lopez said, demurely. “A European label picked it up and it started doing well there.”

Rolling Stone (Germany) called “Ultra,” “Psychedelic chamber pop with a surrealist touch of Dalí.”

Lopez would go on to work with Calexico, Giant Sand, Devotchka, and XIXA.

* * *

Then came 2020, when the world ground to a halt.

“During the lockdown, I was using my solitude productively. Spending late nights recording ideas,” Lopez recalled. “I got to a point where I had several ideas fleshed out… But you can get lost in the abyss of notes. I needed an outside presence to tear things apart.”

“So I asked Gabriel Sullivan to take a listen to the demos.”

Sullivan was in.

Along with engineer Frank Bair, Lopez and Sullivan entered the studio — an undertaking that would span seven months — to record what would become “Tidal” (Cosmica Artists, 2023), an album produced by Sullivan and mixed in Los Angeles by James Sáez.

During the early days of the pandemic, CDC restrictions limited the number of occupants to a room.

“I couldn’t have a band,” Lopez exclaimed. “We had to be our own band. Gabe played a lot of the instruments.”

“It was an interesting time to be creative.”

Necessity being the mother of invention.

“We had to fly audio files [on USB drives] out to people. Like to John Convertino who played drums,” Lopez noted. “It was a big Frankensteinian record in that sense. A lot of different people contributing without being in the room at all. In many instances, being across the world; Transatlantic collaborations. And that was really cool.”

With elements of folk, chamber pop, spaghetti Western, waltzes, electronica and more, “Tidal” aptly captures that diversity.

“When I listen to the album I can hear it. Each song is wildly different,” Lopez asserted. “That is what makes ‘Tidal’ unique.”

* * *

There is a mysticism to “Tidal,” as Lopez transfigures a noetic experience — rife with profound personal insights attained when one passes through the portal of psychedelia — into music that leaves the listener with the feeling that something significant has occurred.

“Psilocybin was a big component.”

“When I was younger I had done mushrooms a handful of times and always had the worst possible experiences,” he said.

“I decided to try them again with my girlfriend. She was very curious. So, I agreed,” Lopez declared. “‘So let’s go on this adventure ourselves.’”

“It was a random day. We established a few rules. It ended up being the most profound experience,” Lopez enthused. “And the effects lingered for a long time. Without knowing it, I had a lot of creative blocks. That trip just opened the floodgates. That is when I started writing more and just appreciating life. As simple as that sounds, life took on a whole new meaning to me.”

The psilocybin trip raised many questions.

“I knew that I had to fall back in love with music if I was to continue doing this as a career.”

Rejecting the glut of self-defeating thoughts that bogged him, Lopez arrived at stasis.

“Fall in love with the craft,” Lopez said. “Everything else is beyond our control.”

“The psilocybin got me to that point.”

Feels like I am floating out to sea
The greatest tidal wave is what I will be
My arms embrace eternity
A psilocybin dream is what I will be
Carry me, carry me
— excerpt from “Psilocybin Dream” by Brian Lopez

* * *

According to the National Institutes of Health, “psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin have shown substantial promise for the treatment of several psychiatric conditions including mood and addictive disorders. They also have the remarkable property of producing persisting positive psychological changes in healthy volunteers for at least several months.”

* * *

In “Psilocybin Dream” Lopez sings about an encounter with the Holy Ghost and of coming home to the Lord.

“I’m pretty much an atheist. Growing up in a Catholic environment has always stuck around in my lyrics,” he said.

“Something about that song… Walking through a garden, seeing the Holy Ghost there… I can see it now. ‘What does it mean?’” Lopez mused. “I have no idea. But it made me feel very safe and aware of my place in this gigantic chaos. I felt at ease and that is something that I’ve never felt in my entire life.”

* * *

With its haunting melody, the song “3000 Stories” touches on an issue relevant to life in the borderlands. Lopez detailed its origins.

“Vanessa [Barchfield], my girlfriend, was a journalist at AZPM (Arizona Public Media). She did this story called ‘What Remains’ for Arizona Illustrated,” Lopez noted. “She interviewed scientists (at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner) who held the bones of migrants who had passed away in the desert.

Since the year 2000, nearly 3,000 sets of human remains have been found in the borderlands of Southern Arizona.

In 2020, Barchfield received the Radio Television Digital News Association regional Edward R. Murrow Award for “What Remains.”

“Seeing that story just stayed in my head,” Lopez reflected. “It is essentially an homage to the forgotten people with real ambitions and goals whose stories can never be fully told now.”

“I didn’t want it to be a sad song. There is real beauty in that song. Even if there had been no words… I wanted it to have this beautiful melody that represents these people.”

Lopez hopes the song helps raise awareness with listeners around the world to a tragic situation that takes place year-after-year along the American-Mexican border, often with minimal media coverage.

* * *

With its lush, cinematic orchestration and Ennio Morricone-esque spaghetti Western motifs, the song “Road To Avalon” is a collaboration with Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall.

“We were done with basic tracking for the album. I just felt that we needed a song with a different feel; something in 6/8 that swings a bit, a waltz,” Lopez said. “I had this sketch in an old voice memo. I went to the studio and said to Gabe, ‘Hey, can we start tracking this…’”

“Then my good friend KT came to visit,” Lopez observed. “Previously, Lopez has supported Tunstall as a solo artist, in addition to playing in her band. “She had just moved to New Mexico and was passing through town. She came by the studio and had a coffee.” 

In a fortuitous moment, Tunstall casually mentioned to the guys, ‘Hey, if you guys ever need some vocals on something…’”

“I wrote that song with her voice in mind. Not a love story, but more of a Bonnie & Clyde adventure,” Lopez said. “‘There is trouble and we need to escape into the dead of night’ kind of vibe.”

“‘Road To Avalon’ came out great,” Lopez said. “It is not quite as much of a duet as I thought it would be. But, ‘maybe better?’ It is one of my favorite songs on the record.”

* * *

A featured track on “Tidal” is the autobiographical song “Black Mountain.” Lopez shared one of his treasured memories.

“I grew up across the street from the Santa Cruz River in Barrio Sobaco,” he said. “We lived there until I was about 11.”

Barrio Sobaco originated circa 1930. It got its name because of the way Riverview Street curves around in the shape of an armpit. In Spanish “sobaco” means armpit.

“My brother Greg is six years older than me. So I thought anything that he did was cool. He had some neighborhood friends and together we’d go play with our GI Joe’s down in the Santa Cruz,” Lopez recalled. “It’s not really a river, just sand.”

“Black Mountain is a snapshot of my life in Barrio Sobaco during the late ‘80s early ‘90s,” he said.

For Lopez, it is these memories of simpler times — in barrios that generations of Tucsonans have called home — that form indelible imprints that will last forever.

I’ve seen a lot of faces
I’ve seen a lot of places
The images come and they go
It’s this Black Mountain memory
I recall most
— excerpt from “Black Mountain by Brian Lopez

* * *

It is hard to imagine — after hearing Lopez enthuse about the new album — but there was a time, not long ago, when he contemplated quitting music altogether.

“I feel like I did quit on myself. It was after all the music business shit. I was working with lawyers trying to get rights back from publishing after getting screwed on money,” Lopez said then added, “And, not enough people caring in the end to make it worth my while. I started questioning myself, doubting. It went on for about four years.”

“That mushroom trip really put me onto it.”
Peering through a glass prism, metaphorically — placing adverse life events in the past — Lopez realized, “‘You’re really fucking good and you owe it to yourself to give it another shot.’”

“This really is a second act and it feels good.”

“Tidal” is available on CD, vinyl and for streaming now on brianlopez.bandcamp.com and your favorite streaming platforms.