"People are always saying, 'Man, you must smoke a lot of reefer,'" says Lowlights' Dameon Lee, laughing. "But I'm like, 'No, I pretty much quit that in high school.'"
Back up there a second... this admission coming from a guy who's made two of the most stoner country albums to hit shelves since the dissipation of the Beachwood Sparks?
"But on this tour I got into smoking grass again," he says. "So I'm thinking I might get back into it."
The mind boggles at what further interstellar travel might occur should Lee choose to record under the influence. With Lowlights he has created a small but solid catalog of hazy space-country, a marijuana-friendly genre splice if there ever was one. But if you find the stoned bliss of recent country-psych purveyors too contrived, perhaps you'll identify with Lowlights' rural, blue-collar ennui. Like Pink Floyd and the Marshall Tucker Band sharing a midnight spliff, Lowlights albums are engineered for driving home from the bar with a head full of smoke.
Former bassist for Albuquerque pop-punkers Scared of Chaka, Lee began writing Lowlights material soon after relocating to Arcata, California, in 1999.
"I didn't really set out to make a space-country sound," he says. "I just sat down to write whatever came out."
The result of this free association was Lowlights' self-titled debut, a sprawling astral fog of Farfisa organ and pedal steel, steered by Lee's wood-smoked voice. The dynamic of intergalactic keyboard flourishes and knee-weakening guitar cries gave the disc an alt-country/Spiritualized vibe, one as equally tripped out on planetary exploration as it was grounded by heartache. Lee offered traditional country lines such as "I guess it's my turn to cry" on "Brown Eyes" while the expansive gaps of the song were filled by remote French horn, like some far-off satellite transmission. Stretched out by a spiraling ring of reverb, the album had a dusty, carefree quality, like a long night of stargazing under a huge Southwestern sky. It's no surprise Lowlights was produced by Dustin Reske of Rocketship, whose own albums are after-hours psychedelia composed of backward guitars and drum loops.
A more song-centric album, Lowlights' sophomore offering, Dark End Road (again produced by Reske), is where Lee truly lets his roots flag fly. His morose, fiddle-driven rewrite of Bill Monroe's "The One I Love Is Gone" is like the drizzly-woods-Americana of Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter with sweeping keyboard shimmers that ultimately lead into the more conventional country title track. The album's most barroom-tailored number, "Emily," contains all the elements of '70s country rock, with a sing-along chorus, acoustic rhythm, and reverb-heavy electric and steel guitars. But it's on "So Long" that the bygone decade emerges full-hog. A slow tension percolates through the song before the band falls silent for an intense pause, only to surge forward with one of the most transcendent rock guitar solos since My Morning Jacket's "Evelyn Is Not Real." It's a soaring, Skynyrd-style epic somehow pulled off without a trace of pastiche.
"That was my friend Ryan [Cook]," says Lee excitedly. "We brought him into the studio just for that solo. I told him, 'Just go off, I don't care what you play, just put yourself in that Jimmy Page headspace and let it go.' He came out with that solo and Dustin and I looked at each other like, 'Umm, do you think we should keep it?' It seemed too ballsy to just put a solo like that on there. But I think it's really important to break out of that sort of indie rock mold and just have a really great guitar solo on a record."
Though he now lives in the big bong country of Humboldt County, California, Lee's music is still rooted in the wide-open desert of his home state of New Mexico. Whether it's the sandiness in his throat, or the desolate-highway breeze of his Jackson Browne-ish road songs, Lee maintains a love affair with his old stomping ground. Unlike most everything within that "indie rock mold," Lowlights make music for chilling out in a small town with a lover on your mind.
"I'm just really into music from the '70s," he says. "You know, those songs that are just verse/bridge/chorus and you get the story over within three-and-a-half minutes."firstname.lastname@example.org