Big Medicinehead would redefine American Indian music
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Everyone thinks they know what American Indian music should be - traditional music with country, blues or hip hop frames of reference.
Bob Gemmell, 39, lead singer and chief songwriter for Big Medicinehead and a Suquamish tribal member, wants to challenge the perception of what American Indian music should be.
"People often think that American Indian music has to be something with a flute or some Stevie Ray Vaughn-influenced blues with some kind of trippy spiritual message. But this is a narrow vision. Some of us are now old enough to have grown up with so-called alternative rock and it's about time Indian music reflects that," Gemmell said.
That ethos is reflected in the music of Big Medicinehead. A quick listen to their music reveals several non-typical influences right off the bat. One can hear vestiges of the Replacements, REM, surf music and Bruce Springsteen repackaged into a unique and distinctive sound that would not be easily identifiable as American Indian music.
This is not to say that Gemmell does not acknowledge his roots. Much of the subject matter of the music touches on various aspects of the modern American Indian experience. The song "14 Cowboys," for example, is a song about whites telling Indians about their heritage. Though the whites are sympathetic, they ultimately get the message wrong.
Gemmell said that while his heritage is important and often appears in his songs, he feels his music is more reflective of the modern-day western experience in general. For economic reasons, his mother had to leave the Suquamish reservation when she was a child.
Later she took a job at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento where Gemmell was reared. He says he was always aware of his heritage, but growing up in a diverse place like Sacramento gave him what he feels is a wider view of the West in general. Gemmell says living among whites, Asians, Latinos and African Americans, he gained perspective on their experiences as well.
Big Medicinehead also reflects this sense of integration. Gemmell and bassist Jaco Lascot, Yaqui, are American Indian, while guitarists Bruce Rockwell, J.D. Devros and drummer Jeff Davis are white.
Gemmell says the band members all came from similar circumstances and their shared musical influences easily broke down cultural barriers.
The band originally came together in the late 1980s in Santa Cruz. Gemmell was living there and tending bar in what he describes as a "major dive." Gemmell was already a skilled guitarist and described the local music scene at the time as "abysmal" often featuring white reggae bands and "Volvo hippie rock."
It was against this backdrop that he met Lascot, in whom he found a musical soul mate. Like Gemmel, Lascot was not raised in Indian country. He grew up in New York City and, like Gemmel, was influenced by the sounds of many different cultures, though he was always made aware of his Yaqui roots.
These two American Indians were drawn together by their mutual passion for the alternative rock both found lacking on the Santa Cruz musical circuit. They performed as a duo and soon found there were others who were dissatisfied with the local music scene.
After a few member and name changes, the Gemmell and Lascot band became a regular act at area venues, mainly as Gemmell puts it, "local martini bars." Though the older owners did not like their music, they liked the way college kids began to fill their places.
The band toured up and down the West Coast, opening for alternative country rock legends such as the Beat Farmers. The band caught a break in 1991 when they were asked to perform in New York City at the College Music Journal's annual banquet. The journal is a college radio trade magazine and the banquet often features record label scouts.
After their banquet performance, the band was signed to Broken Records, a small independent label where they recorded two albums, "Rex Hotel" and "Cool Electric Sky." Broken Records immediately started pushing for air play on the college radio circuit and the Big Medicinehead song, "Lonesome Desert Crawl" actually charted in, among other college towns, Lincoln, Neb.
The band also shot a video for the song in New York City, featuring the band on a rooftop with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. Unfortunately the band had trouble moving beyond that step and thought it best to move on to what members thought were adult jobs.
Gemmell decided to go back to school and attended California State University, Monterey Bay, eventually getting a degree in computer science. He later returned to his familial roots by taking a job with the Suquamish tribe and was instrumental in setting up a server and a wireless network for the tribe. He recently earned a master's degree from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
Still, he said, something was missing.
"I talked to the other guys in the band and they felt much the same way. The only problem was we weren't living anywhere near each other," Gemmell said.
Individual band members were spread along the Pacific Coast. Gemmell was splitting his time between his Seattle area reservation and California. Lascot and Rockwell were in the San Francisco area and Davis and Devros were in the Pacific Northwest.
How could they record a new album being so geographically dispersed?
The answer was modern technology. Using their computer expertise, Gemmell and Davis came up with a plan. Each individual member would record his tracks and e-mail them to other members for additions and edits.
Though the new album, "Queen of the Western Hemisphere," will not be finished for several months, band mates have been busy recording tracks. Gemmell wrote several new songs and is in the process of digitally recording the music.
Davis has the most sophisticated recording setup at his home studio, so when the tracks are completed, band members will gather there to mix the album.
"They've already been sending me stuff and the only time we need to be all together is when we are doing the final mixes. I don't know what the final time frame is, but we hope to have something later this year," Davis said.
Davis and Gemmell said their sound will not change much on the new album. "Queen of the Western Hemisphere" will feature the same trademark alternative rock that has been the staple of the band's sound since the beginning, a sound that Gemmell said is not self-conscious but reflects just what comes naturally.
"Our sound is, to me, Native American music for the 21st century."