Sound of Lexington

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Western Movies
Featured Band
June 17, 2017


(Picture from Western Movies FaceBook page)

(please enjoy this article and the pictures below.  This blog post will be updated with  a link to the band’s videos on Barefoot KY TV later in the week)

Article written by
William Ellis

Western Movies

Led by the song writing / recording artist Chris Sullivan, the eclectic musical group Western Movies is a band of six musicians: the aforementioned founder and band leader, Chris Sullivan (vocals, lap and steel guitar, saxophone); Warren Byrom (vocals, trumpet, guitar, melodica); Sam Meyer (drums, percussion, melodica); Scott Wilmoth (upright and electric bass); David White (drums, congas, percussion); and Otto Helmuth (vocals, guitar).  Guided by a panoply of funk and cool jives, Western Movies often sound forever and a day like they just stepped off the West Coast in 1965 or off the set of Pulp Fiction.  That is to say, their music is, by intervals, simply quite mindful of the guitar driven Dick Dale & His Dell Tones’ riffs which pioneered the genre known as “surf music” in the early 1960’s.  Dale’s distinctive, guitar-driven “Misirlou” was re-introduced to America (and the world at-large) in 1993 when the tune helped to distinctly mark (and even brand) the film sensation Pulp Fiction – i.e. playing along with the “credits” scene, early on (directly following the Honey Bunny scene) of Quentin Tarantino’s award winning film.  In effect, Dale’s “Misirlou” became Pulp Fiction’s widely recognized anthem.  Before Dale distinctively enlivened the tune with his band’s 1963 “surf guitar” infused version, “Misirlou” was actually a traditional Eastern Mediterranean melody of unknown origin. (Perhaps here is a good place to note that Dale was influenced by, amongst other things, belly dancing.)  So the traditional tune “Misirlou” was originally popularized in America by Dale only to be rediscovered anew (and worldwide) thirty years later with Tarantino’s 1993 blockbuster film.  Dale, who is also understood to be the ‘father of heavy metal,” played a modified Fender guitar and experimented with “amplification.”  In this light, he was the first to use “reverb” which lent his guitar a “wet” sound.

Dale’s innovative guitar reverberations influenced Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s western guitar style in director Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” western film trilogy (specifically, the Clint Eastwood-driven “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and—the sardonic, world-class black comedy– “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly”).  These “Spaghetti Westerns” (“Spaghetti” because they were Italian) were filmed (and scored by Morricone) from 1964 to 1966 (actually the consecutive years of their Italian releases).  As Morricone’s scores remained stylistically in-step with Leone’s desolate and violent storylines, Morricone expanded the possibilities of musical scoring partly by his inclusion of a Fender electric guitar amongst his accompanying, odd-ball, use of “gunshots, cracking whips, whistles, voices, Jew’s harps, and trumpets” in a quest to “punctuate” the stark moods of Leone’s Westerns with abiding atmospherics.

Many techniques similar to Morricone’s musical innovations for Leone, as well as quite the same spirit for variety can be found on Chris Sullivan’s solo album, “Western Movies.” The website for the album states that, “as a song-writing / recording project of Chris Sullivan. . . . [Chris’s album] Western Movies is a travelogue of organic musical styles ranging from surf pop and old-school lounge to exotica twang, instrumental film music, and cinematic acoustic folk blues.”  Sullivan’s solo album is often bluesy with a somewhat recurring deep and resonant twang; and it is, at times, a bit musically reductive, or minimalistic. Sullivan declares that he originally began writing many of the songs on his album as film scores but then, sometime into the project, shelved that idea.  Similar to Tom Scholz’s’s famously-realized 1976 Boston premiere album (but sounding altogether unlike it), Chris Sullivan played and mixed all of the instruments on his premiere album and wrote all its songs.  So the album is actually – as is stated on the Western Movies website – entirely a “Chris Sullivan production.” The 15-song album begins auspiciously with Sullivan’s tenacious “Telecaster” (featured here – by the band Western Movies – at Sound of Lexington) and continues on with a rich variety of songs. Almost all of these maintain an (often) loopy lounge atmospherics with wispy combinations of intervening musical innovations culled from international genres of music. Sullivan’s musical creations are stylistically achieved often with a fickle, avant garde swagger to them. Quite a few of Western Movies songs are Nick Cave-ish (especially “Arizona”), no doubt due to Sullivan’s deep vocal resonances and syncopated cadences.  Some of them (“Back on the Road”) sound more like Tom Waits is performing.  Most of Sullivan’s songs maintain a kind of antique, foreign feel – many are almost absurd – slipping into their own solipsisms of refined minimalist technique (check out “Techno Prisoners” and “Pepe va al Cine”).  Some of Sullivan’s songs maintain a discrete Latino pulse (“Hillbilly Barracuda,” “Pepe va al Cine”).  “Hawaii 5 Orbison,” is all dreamy and all musical.”   Like Morricone’s scores for Leone, errant voices sometimes appear and reappear (such as the cartoonish voices found on Sullivan’s “Techno Prisoners”).


Sullivan’s solo album’s musical creations sound sometimes like Dick Dale and Nick Cave got together and had an Eraserhead baby.  By this, I don’t mean Sullivan’s album (like Lynch’s phantasmorgical movie) is necessarily sublime, but rather phantasmorgically surreal or, more at, phantasmorgically . . .  serene.  Sullivan’s stylish music is wide-ranging and quite unusually (and euphorically) intriguing.  On the album, Sullivan’s Stratocaster proceeds straight from it’s Dick Dale-ish “Telecaster” and “Arizona” to the lost desert directions of Sullivan’s funky and foreign midnight dreams.  In short, Sullivan’s album soon becomes overwhelmed with the structural minimalisms of Pepe va al Cine and Hawaii 5 Orbison, and with the Jagger-esque pageantry of” gran frommage.” Sullivan’s songs bristle with inventiveness and elusive originalities. The quixotic progression of Sullivan’s reverberant “twang” is often as pleasure-producing as it is somewhat alienating.  Similarly – towards its large cult following – David Lynch’s 1977 film, “Eraserhead” produces much giddy and grotesque comedy within the pipe-riddled quadrants of its exaggeratedly bare, vapid, and shockingly bizarre momentums.  Erazerhead, by texture, mood, and plot – by any measure – is, . . . well . . .  alienating.  Yet, by psychedelic amplitudes of light (as if exuding from a New Orleans streetlamp), Sullivan’s musical creations present a composite collage of avant-garde textures that are as overwhelmingly euphoric as they are sometimes ghostly and expressionistic (see “Shipyards”).  In fact, Sullivan’s songs’ emphases on foreign dalliances more than often grant his audiences twang-wrangled passports to exotic vistas.  Sullivan’s album’s pleasure-producing, or, serene aspects are, of course, almost diametrically opposed to the plodding and horrific monotone of Lynch’s film “Erazerhead;” yet, I guess, because Sullivan’s songs tend to obliquely unveil expressionisms, Western Movies – through its surreal and mirage-like textures – is not only pleasurable, but alternately Dadaist and thus somewhat alienating by virtue of its carnivalesque exotica.  This quality of evoking both pleasure and alienation in its intended audience is in line with the escalating comedic absurdities of Lynch’s rather thick and overwhelming sublimities. Just as the anima is a small part of the animus – and vice versa – there is yen-and -yang reciprocity to Sullivan’s and Lynch’s inverse yet similar artistic relationship.

Sullivan’s Western Movies’ songs are brash.  All fifteen of them are inimically culled from Sullivan’s international exposures to musical conventions and tendencies.  Sullivan’s songs thus maintain, by some metaphorical similarity, a faint resonance towards the phantasmorgical shock and dominant foreign-ness of the Erazerhead baby (Lynch’s Kafkaesque, diseased-ridden, mole of a sub-human struggling for breath). In this way are Sullivan’s foreign musical nuances rather similar to the large white Poodle chops inanely spreading like a foaming moss upon the cheeks of Lynch’s absurd and giddily-dancing blonde.  It is Lynch’s premiere film’s starling capacity for originality towards which Sullivan’s musical treatise metes comparison.  The similarity exists in the burgeoning “foreign-ness” of Western Movies’ musical flavors.  (Not in the otherwise dystopian nightmare which Lynch is consistently unveiling.)  And yet, come to think of it – Sullivan’s thematic album cover is a (Sullivan designed) depiction of a desolate desert. (Note – as qualifier for this similarity – Sullivan’s album cover’s desert is, however, adorned with Daliesque neon cacti and the like.) Yet somehow just the theme of a desert insinuates the vacant spirituality found in Lynch’s futuristic, Industrial nightmare.

Furthermore, consider that icon for whom Sullivan exists as a sort of (cine-making) apprentice –Ennio Morricone.  Just as the “cinematic acoustic folk blues” man, Sullivan, dots the pointillist etchings of his musical vistas, so, similarly, does Ennio Morricone – via a Dale inspired (and Les Paul created) Fender guitar (and through other odd instrumental effects) – flesh out the overtly large and desolate landscapes of Sergio Leone’s narrative text (i.e. the American West).  Morricone, his quasi-emulator Sullivan, and Lynch all apply innovative (and considerably foreign) techniques to rivet and further shock their audiences’ attentions towards a rather pungent sense of alienation.  This process of pre-loading the totality of an artist’s vision with some prevailing sense of alienation that flows from the nacreous root of their embellished worlds, helps to rivet their audiences’ focus further onto the unique material they are, out of their peculiarly innovative methods, presenting.  To clarify the common denominator or balance of alienation which persists between the unique musical tact of Sullivan’s first album, Morricone’s unique scoring of Leone’s films, and Lynch’s grotesque, first movie, we must examine the essential natures of each artist’s unique methodology.  Whereas the persistent strangeness of the music as played in many of Sullivan’s tunes prompt his audience’s estrangement (consider the ironic terms concerning the epistemic status of love via “Invisible Man;” or the alienating clash of societal interests in “Arizona”;” or the alienating and ironic Dadaist imperative repeated throughout “What Can I Do?”) it is also Sullivan’s often Dadaist and intentionally abbreviated narratives which invoke his audience’s core alienation.  Similarly, Morricone’s constantly was presenting his audiences with alienations out of the novel quality of his technique and as applying to the alienating subject matter of Sergio Leone’s violent Western comedies.  Otherwise, Lynch’s premiere cinematic tale is a full out assault – a deadened planet full of zombie-like alienations in an epochal world. This does not mean, however, that the thematic alienations implied in Sullivan’s musical and narrative excursions (nor the authentic use of oddball instruments by Sullivan’s mentor, Morricone to accommodate Leone’s desolate visions) rise quiet to the sublime level of Lynch’s devilishly stark and dystopian Nightmare. No, Sullivan’s and Morricone’s enigmatic styles aim much higher than Lynch for aesthetic pleasures and produce much more pleasure than they do abject horror.

Speaking of nightmarish horrors, Chris Sullivan was hit by a car while riding his bike in 2010 and says that “brush with mortality” motivated him to singularly create, produce and mix his own album (though actually with some assistance towards producing a finished product from Jason Nesmith). While Sullivan says he loves collaborating with other people – i.e. he has played and traveled in various bands throughout the years – recording the Western Movies album by himself “gave” him a “freedom to create . . . like [in] painting.” Or as in writing.  As Sullivan once stated “I don’t have a pre-conceived notion of how something is going to turn out when I write, so I enjoy the process of discovery that comes from multi-tracking everything myself.”  Using “a combination of tape and multi-track digital recorders,” Sullivan mixed his solo album after normal daytime (or ”open”) hours at Pinnacle Productions, a West Main Street audio / video production studio here in Lexington which produces documentaries during the day.  During his painstaking nocturnal producing, much of the time Sullivan was running on fumes – “barely remember[ing] recording” the “four-o’clock-in-the-morning” tunes which, in many cases, turned out to be “more interesting” than the tunes he had “more consciously labored over.”  Such is the nature of the id in creation, that many times, after intensely concentrating upon a given project, the lifting tension – and sudden pleasure – of getting away allows the artist to just relax and create.  In this sense, the pleasure of the id both eliminates and pre-loads the bugaboo of one’s mental critic – although, it could be effectively argued that this is perhaps attributable to all of the conscious work previously compiled.  Note that this combinative principal of conscious work collaborating with the later (unconscious) function of the id is also why inventors experience breakthroughs in dreams or, while taking their minds off their projects in say, the shower.

Sullivan labored to give his Western Movies a “three-dimensional, cinematic feel.”  Just as Morricone worked and improvised to musically accommodate the narrative import of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti westerns, so did Sullivan “try . . . to create a [musical] setting that fits the narrative of [his] song[s].  So I was surprised to learn that Sullivan claims his album’s title, “Western Movies,” comes from The Olympics’ song “My Baby Loves the Western Movies,” although he does attribute an overall influence of a “cinematic feel” towards his album’s creation.  Sullivan also acknowledges that “Spaghetti westerns inspired” a few of his album’s “tracks.”

Sullivan was originally born in Arizona, but lived in Switzerland and later in Spain.  While living in Spain, he had the good fortune, at the age of 6, to be given guitar instruction by a “Flamenco guitar virtuoso.” Sullivan declares that his young and diverging interests in various international genres of music were originally formed through “Spanish folk songs” that were taught to him by his early Flamenco master.  He also attributes his love toward various international genres to “troubadours” that he encountered in the streets of Spain.  Sullivan cites, also, the diverse musical “interests” of his parents towards forming his burgeoning interests in varying forms of music. Shortly after living in Spain, Sullivan moved to Kentucky where his mother brokered his first musical “gig.”  Dressed in a “little tuxedo,” rhythmically inclined, 8 year old Chris Sullivan was “singing” out “telegrams for $30 dollars an hour.”  Fast forward to 18 and Sullivan is playing in a “psychedelic garage. . .  band” with his (Nashville-based) Belmont roommate Otto Helmuth.  Within two months, Sullivan and Helmuth (appearing as the band Serious George) are touring the country, playing with national acts such as The Silos and the Will and The Bushmen.

The roommates soon signed with SBK Records, and were playing all over. When the gig finally ran out, at least, for a period (Sullivan and Helmuth were eventually released from their SBK contract), Sullivan ended up in Alaska as a “commercial fisherman.”  His next journeyman’s shift involved working at a “Utah ski resort” while camping in his “van.” During the time he held these positions, Sullivan annually canvassed his way to Seattle in order to take part in the golden age of grunge.  To keep his experiences circulating, in 1997, Sullivan enrolled in UK where he was mentored by poet-laureates’ Guerney Norman and James Baker Hall.  Also at UK, Musicology professor Ron Pen instilled in Sullivan the importance of “preserving music in the present” by taking “the past” and making it your “own.”

Sullivan has played in various bands with various monikers throughout the years – bands sometimes retaining the same core members, sometimes not:  “Gold Tooth Night, Rug Merchants. Wigwam, The Buchels, Pollywog, The Forks . . . The Big French.”  He has been on the Lexington music scene now for over twenty years.  In 2000, Sullivan, struck south.  Soon fixated on syncopation and the Cuban dynamic of music, Sullivan rumbaed across the Southern hemisphere like Dean Moriarty to eventually form his band, The Big Maracus (with Enque Gonalez).  (Sullivan’s The Big Maracus is still active today.) The band has at its core an eclectic, Latin emphasis.  In Cuba and in Brazil, Sullivan found “some of the heaviest most hypnotic music [he] has ever experienced.” He came to understand music from a Cuban focusing on syncopation that Sullivan found in the sway of Latin rhythms. Returning to Lexington, Sullivan formed his band “The Swells” with long-time collaborator Warren Byrom and with Andy Mason as a multi-instrumental “archeological project.”  Sullivan had earlier met Byrom in Pollywog, a band, Sullivan describes, as “play[ing] Kleemer-Burlesque-go-go music.”  To this day, these two collaborating musicians are in many of the same bands. (Fortuitously, Sullivan’s long time collaborating college roommate, Otto Helmuth, now lives in Lexington and often still collaborates with Sullivan – such as with the band, The Swells and with Sullivan’s band Western Movies.)

Described as “sail[ing] in from another century,” The Swells (though not quite as narrowed or as flashy with their musical selections as the prior band Pollywog) put out a wide periphery of jazzy, bluey, and semi-buried, “roots” tunes. The Swells have been based in Lexington since their founding in 2000, and have had many “memorable outings,” such as, in 2008, playing along with The Hot Club at Cowtown at the “closing . . . of the original Dame on West Main Street.” They are famously known for their rather swingy and erudite arrangements of “everything from Link Wray to jazz standards.” Previously, Sullivan’s co-collaborator Warren Byrom lived for a spell in New Orleans, and Sullivan and Mason often visited with Byrom and played with him on the New Orleans streets. In 2001, the trio “busked” their way across the cafe-strewn ambiences of France and Spain where their jazzy blues were “well received.”  Almost “ten years after,” in 2009, The Swells published an album, “Public Domain” whose title exquisitely points up the band’s well-conceived knack for choosing historic yet rather “obscure” cover tunes.  Once again – at least toward his years with The Swells – the teachings of Sullivan’s UK musicology professor, Ron Pen, came sharply into focus.  The Swells “Public Domain” featured Sullivan’s “Telecaster” as a song. (“Telecaster” is presented for you here at the Sound of Lexington as a recent Western Movies video –see above.)  Sullivan’s “Telecaster” was made as a tribute to the inventor of the electric guitar and multi-track recorder, Les Paul – a man for whom Sullivan claims (in song and life) to have driven “fourteen hours” to see (and this when Paul was in his “nineties”).  Another song (a cover) found on The Swells’ “Public Domain” album, which (typical of The Swells) routinely tries out various styles from artists of various genres (from Irving Berlin to Errol Garner to Marty Robbins) is the cover for Robbins’ original, “Five Brothers.”  Robbins’ songs’ narrative and accompanying textural tack almost presage the thematic intimations of Sullivan’s 2016 solo album “Western Movies.“  In Lexgo‘s 20ll article, “New album shows off The Swells’ stylistic extremes,“ “Five Brothers,” like a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western (or an accompanying Ennio Morricone score) – is described as an “all cow-poke drama, a country yarn with Rawhide – like a harmonica that follows a bloody lyrical trail.”  Coincidentally, a majority of the core members of The Swells now comprise Sullivan’s Western Movies’ band. Many of them are members as well in the Big Maracus, Sullivan’s still active Cuban-based band.

You’d think that with all this involvement in bands and in making solo albums and traveling to exotic places on musical expeditions, Chris Sullivan wouldn’t have much time for anything else.  Yet he manages to “build playhouses” in his spare time and also works as a “stagehand” for the “Lexington Opera House.”  Sullivan’s Linked-In professional profile contains the requisite spiel of irreverence that we’ve come to expect from our most revered artists – ever since, say, the Beatles’ comedic films.  Sullivan’s on-line (pseudo) resume not only exhibits the semiotic free-play of his artistic spirit, but indicates the security he possesses about the decided nature of his life’s ever-expanding purpose. His sense of humor is as intricately and immediately intact as the accomplished intensity of his musical acumen. After a full page of his tongue-in-cheek comments, Sullivan finally puts forth what he’s actually proud of: “PROJECTS: Telecaster – Western Movies – Wrote, played all instruments, recorded and filmed stop motion film and video. “  Fortunately for us, he accomplished all of this.  And is keeping on keeping on. See him out playing in various bands (Western Movies, and / or The Swells) at various venues this summer around and about Lexington.  Or take a road trip to see Sullivan and his bands in Nashville Purchase his album, “Western Movies,” on-line (at the Western Movies site) for “$7 USD in a high quality download in MP3, FLAC and more!”


(pictures by Carolyn Burnette, Devon Riley and from Western Movie’s FaceBook page)

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