The word Altamesa technically is not a word. Not in English. Not even in Spanish. Loosely interpreted, it could translate to signify a “higher plateau”, an elevated, rarefied vantage point from which to view the surrounding landscape and environment. It was with this interpretation in mind that songwriter Evan Charles lent the Altamesa moniker to a new musical venture in late 2015. The word was intended by Charles to evoke the sprawling desert plains and desolate panoramas of the American West, the setting in which the project found its first inspirational bloom. It was there, in the shadow of the Davis Mountains that Charles and fellow songwriter Sean Faires first began their longstanding fascination with the wealth of the desert’s silent lore --the beauty and dread of those western badlands and the people that inhabit them.
It was through this experience and subsequent travels with Faires, steeped in the stark literary mold of those great purveyors of arid mysticism McCarthy, McMurtry, and L’Amour, that Charles began building the back catalogue of songs that would lay the foundation for what would become Altamesa. Charles: “There was no ambitious intent behind these songs; they came into existence because they had to. I had no idea I’d ever use them—we were doing rock and roll.” It became clear with time that the pairing of Charles’ raw songs and Faires’ unique musical perspective and approach would yield their finest work to date.
Charles is no stranger to unexpected turns of fate. At the age of 19 he and his band The Daze found themselves suddenly appearing in a featured role alongside David Bowie in the Disney film Bandslam. “That was beyond random. But it was a crash course in the school of music placement, syncing, and big budget projects.” The band would soon dissolve, as they were unable to parlay their fifteen minutes into any meaningful or lasting musical success. Nevertheless, Charles was unfazed by the experience, and would soon forge a new musical direction with his sophomore band, The Sweet Nuthin.
Though short-lived, the band managed to notch a 4-star review in the Austin American Statesman for their self-titled, Scott Davis (Band of Heathens, Hayes Carll) produced debut EP. They would go on to record a full-length record with Chris “Frenchie” Smith (Jet, …Trail of Dead) that would never see release, as Charles once again found himself swept up at the mercy of fate. At the request of friend and mutual fan Faires, Charles would begin to split his time between his own band and a fill-in role subbing for guitar player Ricky Ray Jackson (Phosphorescent, Steve Earle and the Dukes) in Faires’ own brainchild The Happen-Ins.
Faires, another veteran under fire of the music industry, had also seen his share of successes and failures with his own musical projects. It was in 2008 that his group with childhood cohort Jonny Burke, The Dedringers, was heralded as “Best New Band” by the Austin American Statesmen. The band broke up that very month, giving way to the creation of The Happen-Ins featuring Falcon Valdez (Craig Finn, Nikki Lane) John Michael Schoepf (Ben Kweller, Jack Ingram) and the aforementioned Ray Jackson, who were immediately named “Best New Band” in 2009 in the annual Austin Chronicle critics poll. Following a debut release, the band toured with Roky Erickson and Hayes Carll before other professional obligations would lead to a sabbatical for the group before their next release in 2015. It was during this period that Faires and Charles began to forge a friendship, traveling extensively both on tour and recreationally; this was the same span of time that yielded the initial batch of Altamesa’s material, written by Charles, and soon unearthed by the curiosity of producer, multi-instrumentalist, and longtime Happen-Ins collaborator Jonas Wilson.
“I told him he needed to get off his ass and come make a record,” recounts Wilson, whose initial belief in the strength of Charles’ material resulted in the solo record by Evan Charles and Altamesa The Long Ride Home, which the Austin Chronicle would eventually dub a 4-star display. The scrappy, bare-bones record culled the talents of the rest of The Happen-Ins, and would ultimately lead Faires to push for his own involvement in subsequent efforts. “When Evan handed me the record and I saw he had named his group Altamesa, the word itself stuck with me. I thought I knew his point of view and felt that it needed an appropriate sound to mimic the concept. I kinda pushed my way into the band after that.”
The following year would see the burial of Altamesa as a solo project and its subsequent rebirth as a musical partnership with Charles and Faires at the helm. The pair would reunite with Wilson to craft a new direction for the group, expanding upon the foundations Charles had provided with his storytelling and insight to create a vastly richer sonic experience pushed forward by Faires and Wilson. The result is the group’s forthcoming record, Idol Frontier.
Haunted and harrowing, yet lushly fulfilled, Idol Frontier stands as the most intently pursued undertaking for the tandem. Ripened by a fervent resolution to render the stories of the oft-overlooked members of society with relevant pop sensibilities, the record lands in that middle ground between the intuitively identifiable and the elusively mysterious.
Standout features from the album, like “The New West” and “Idol Frontier”, present a menagerie of ghostly protagonists, laid over a bed of Neil Young-style guitar hooks and extra-dimensional mariachi trumpets. In contrast, Charles exposes an inherent sensitivity with “Shadow on Your Heart” a Petty via Lynne twelve-string production that elicits the familiar sting of youthful love and loss, while “Crooked Path” further laments the bittersweet longing for wisdom ages beyond that very same heartbreak. Other highlights include the Joshua Tree barroom Byrds-esque jangle of “Caught Up On Time” and the dusty yet brightly synth-driven memoir of buried dreams, “Troubadour’s Pay (Shadow at Dusk)”.
During South by Southwest 2017, Altamesa performed their work from Idol Frontier for the first time to a larger audience at Luck Reunion to an enthusiastic response. With a short-form documentary Crooked Path: An Introduction to Altamesa having premiered on KUTX.org in November 2017, Altamesa is gearing up in anticipation of a loaded 2018: the band will release six singles throughout the year, all thematically united by a companion strand of narrative vignettes that will marry song and story under the series title From the Idol Frontier.
“It’s interesting to us, after the past year of working on this thing to see how a project like this will play out. We did everything we could to avoid thinking about selling the product until we were certain it was right. We wanted to make good art about something specific, something like our heroes made, something that really speaks to a mood or a place in time. I mean, we grew up digging on dudes like Townes and Guy Clark who saw no real monetary success, but also Petty, a guy who saw massive success and still managed to create that authentic connection with people. The not knowing if something like this project will matter today is invigorating. We’re hard working, and confident. You do what you can to make sure the integrity is there and then you just leave it out there in a way like bread crumbs, and maybe someone will follow that shit to the same place you were when you left the trail to begin with….then we can meet up back there and have a beer.”