What The World Needs Now
Dead Rock West brings real "soul music" with More Love

By Lee Valentine Smith

The core of Dead Rock West is the creative duo of Cindy Wasserman and Frank Lee Drennen, harmonious friends and creative collaborators since the late '90s. For over a decade the two have performed in various amalgamations of the band - from duo to trio to full-on band revues with a slew of special guests. And quite often those special guests, pals and supporters of their indelible music are notable indeed.

Their current record More Love was produced by John Doe of X and their small but wildly varied catalog features members of X as well as their current touring partner Peter Case. From homages to the Everly Brothers on the excellent It's Everly Time to their most recent issues, the California-based group has consistently produced some of the most life-affirming roots-rock music in recent memory.

Currently on a short tour with old pal Case, the duo - who'll appear on Jim White's new album to be released next month - recently spoke with INsite just before taking the stage in California in the rarified air of legends X, Meat Puppets and Mike Watt.

You're playing two big shows with X, Meat Puppets and Mike Watt. How does that feel?

Frank: Mind you, we're the first of the four on the show, but even swimming in those waters is kinda freaking me out.

There are a lot of musical genres on that one stage and then you're coming to Atlanta with a guy who also blurs the stylistic lines, Peter Case.

Cindy: We're pretty excited about that. He produced our record Bright Morning Stars a few years ago. We've always been big fans.

Frank: When I first picked up the guitar, he was the first modern guy on a major label that was a classic folk song writer but a real rock and roller who really spoke to me. Ever since I started playing, I've wanted to be on the road playing with him.

He's a good storyteller on - and off - stage.

Frank: I road managed a couple of short tours for him. Sometimes it was just the two of us and I'll tell ya what, that guy can tell some great stories.

Cindy: He can tell you about his life and his career. He's got great stories about being on a tour bus with Bob Dylan. That's not too shabby, right?

You're right about his style. He's just as good at thoughtful folk songs as with jangling rockers, and it always sounds like Peter Case without forcing it. But so do you. Your catalog isn't massive, but it's diverse and that probably explains why X and Peter Case enjoy being around you.

Frank: Well thank you. We talk about what we call the holy Southern California trinity or whatever you'd want to call it. That's John Doe, Peter Case and Dave Alvin. They're distinctly different songwriters, guitar players and singers, yet they all remain true to themselves. And that's all I want to be is just a better version of myself. I just look at any time we get to spend with those guys to be a good time to just watch and learn.

That "Holy Trinity" of SoCal guys, which is a great way to put it, have warmly embraced you.

Cindy: Sometimes I do have to sort of step back and go, 'Oh this is so cool.' Who'd have thought we'd be working with people that we're actually big fans of. It's been really neat.

Frank: I think it's just because we won't go away, they let us stick around.

Now that you actually know these people who you've listened to and admired for years at a distance, does that change their mystique in your eyes?

Frank: Well of course it does. Everyday details can't exist inside a mystique because it's obscure. So the closer you get to that person, the mystery of who they are and how they think and create can only be deepened when you see how they actually live their lives. Like being on the road and you get up and everybody's getting into the van at the same time. They're just as tired as you are. Seeing how they deal with it has just made me admire them all the more. Youthful energy passes, but that muscular energy that's purely physical, that's what endures. Case has survived open heart surgery and he's been the whole nine yards but when he gets up there to play and sing, all bets are off and he's going for the throat. But he's going for it as a man who has a lot more wisdom and experience now. There's a deeper resonance to the overall presence of all those artists.

Cindy: We were on a show with him and Dave, called Roots on the Rails a while back. He's been through all this stuff with his health and everything but he's just as powerful as ever - or maybe even moreso. I was blown away by the energy coming from just one person on a stage. Then we did some west coast shows where we'd just sit in with each other. That's what led to this tour, we wanted to work and travel together.

Frank: I'm no musical authority, and who the hell is, really? But I must say that Peter Case is an absolute legend that we need to be embracing now. His first two solo records alone sealed the deal and that's not even mentioning what came before and after.

After a devastating year like 2017 where we lost everyone from Chuck Berry to Tom Petty to Tommy Keene, we need to let our heroes know we appreciate them - to be able to tell them in person is an added bonus.

Frank: You know, as with any folk or rock and roll culture or any sort of artform where you really have to show up and see it to know what it's really all about, you need to see people like Case or Doe or Alvin, to really learn from them. They learned from older guys so people need to see them while they can so they'll know what good stuff really is all about. We are entering into a whole new era, as the first and second wave of rockers are dying off, literally. We're in this new era where people from the '80s are in their 60s now. They're the perfect answer to when these people say, 'Oh you're too old to rock.' Well excuse me, but fuck you. Rock and roll has never been this old before.

As always, good music is timeless. And as we age, the more we can appreciate the past.

Frank: It's weird isn't it? I get turned on to so much music that is 'before my time.'

Cindy: Change can be weird but it's all a part of the process.

Frank: We aren't the old guard but we aren't the new guard either. Maybe we're the in-between guard or something. But being able to work with these people means I have a responsibility to learn as much as I can from them. A lot of what they trade in is not the business side of it, it's the heart and soul of it. So we have to experience it and then pass it down.

And to show More Love in general. That's why your record seems so appropriate now.

Frank: You know that song specifically came from a place of relationship but at a certain point I realized that it's also a plea. It was unintentional at first but it's a plea to the country and the world in general to just come on man, stop it. Let's just respect more and love more.

Cindy: Before cellphones and the internet, people used to just go to the movies to escape. To me, that's what the record is for me. To connect with people directly about love and relationships and maybe not think about all the terrible stuff that's going on and appreciate what we have around us.

So in that respect it's soul music and very political at the same time.

Frank: Yeah it's not escapism, to me it's refocus-ism. It's an act of actively refocusing on something else. It's choosing to focus on stuff that helps to deepen the soul. Our spirit is the part that's in the sky, our body is here on the earth and the soul is the bridge between the two. So when you take the time to break away from what's happening today and take the time to enrich yourself with art and music and poetry, it gives the soul time to relax and deepen and reflect. When you do go back into the world, maybe you'll go back with a little bit of a different perspective.

Dead Rock West plays Red Light Café with Peter Case on January 19.


CLICK HERE TO View THE Digital version of the January 2018 ISSUE.


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