What’s Your Deal, Cactus Tractor?

Cactus Tractor

I’m still a bit of a zombie after last night’s Cactus Tractor CD release party, which filled the vast Sister Bar and kept the crowd dancing well past last call.

The bar had turned up the lights, it was 2am, and no one wanted it to end. This is the power of spectacle that Cactus Tractor conjures. They’re fun, sexy, flamboyant, and even a bit spooky at times. (Seriously Paul Hunton’s makeup was legitimately freaking me out.)

I’ve been a fan of two members of Cactus Tractor—Christy Cook and Steph Graner—ever since they were recommended to me and I booked them for my book release party in 2010. Back then Christy and Steph and a third member, Bethany Delahunt, were performing as the Albuquerque Boys Choir: no boys, just three incredibly talented young women with killer songs and harmonies to make you swoon. Since then they’ve joined forces with David Bashwiner and a seemingly endlessly rotating group of other performers, and their charm grows each time I see them.

Before last night’s show I was excited about Cactus Tractor playing Pyragraph’s ReLaunch party, and now I’m beside myself. David—Cactus Tractor’s guitarist, singer and songwriter (just one of ’em)—gave me the lowdown on the band.

1. What’s your act?

Cactus Tractor is a multi-person Bohemian Pop Folk Disco (beau-pop-faux-disc) band based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We have four songwriters, sexy harmonies and a crazy multitude of fun stringed and unstrung instruments.

These include, but are not limited to, the hula horn (invented by Christy), the musical saw (which is dangerous), the violin (which is also dangerous if you’re standing just to the left), the accordion (which is heavy), the charango (which attracts a lot of attention despite its small stature—much like its player, Stef!), buckets-and-buckets-full of harmonicas (which often fall on the ground and cause great consternation), frogs (which croak when struck with a stick—try it out!), and tea towels (which, laid artfully over a snare drum, make for a proper English quiet-funky kit sound).

I think people assumed we were there to mooch off the free pizza. But it was good pizza.

We love playing farmers’ markets, house shows, cafes, beer gardens, petting zoos, nursing homes, and just about anyplace where we will find teenagers uncomfortable to be with their parents.

2. Tell me about your backgrounds as artists/performers.

Our band assembled for the first time in May 2012 to play an art show held by the VSA Day Arts program, which provides education and training in the arts for adults with developmental disabilities. We played songs that VSA artists had written (assisted by Stef, our charango-mandolin-banjo-accordion player). Christy and Stef had already been playing together as two of the three members of the Albuquerque Boys Choir. Tim Psomas from the VSA also joined us on bass, Stef’s hubbie Samuel joined us on harmonica, Brandon on guitar, and so on.

Along the way, we’ve had just about all our close friends play with us, including Monika Skiba, Jason Warshof and Bethany Delahunt. Currently we’re seven people: Stef Graner, Samuel Sullivan, Christy Cook, Paul Hunton, Brandon Baca, Matthew Tobias, and me. Oh, and my dog, Orson. That’s eight. Not-people. Or people-and-not-people.

3. What was the worst gig you ever played? Give me all the juicy bits.

I don’t want to insult the nice person who offered us the gig, because it was a charity event, and we were really happy to be a part of it. I’ll just say that that person probably didn’t check it out with the actual organizers of the event. As a result, there was a full-time DJ already scheduled, on an enormous stage, and we were asked to sit off to the side, about a quarter of a mile away, and play acoustically in a far-off field, almost out of sight, certainly beyond earshot. I think people assumed we were there to mooch off the free pizza. But it was good pizza.

4. Who are your favorite performers at the moment?

I saw Meredith Wilder and Sage Harrington perform last week as a duo for the first time, and they blew me away. I also always love hearing Le Chat Lunatique perform. We came across two amazing songwriters in Santa Fe last week, David Berkeley and Larkin Gayl.

I started to recognize that the strengthening of social relationships is the real aim of music.

And at the same event (the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance), we got to meet Dalis Allen, the producer of my favorite festival in the world, the Kerrville Folk Festival. She’s not a performer exactly, but she’s a sort of meta-performer, getting together in one place some of the most amazing performers I’ve ever heard. That festival is a must-check-out for anyone who’s not afraid of a little road trip to Texas. That is, of tall people and steak.

5. Thanks for playing the Pyragraph fundraiser. What’s the most helpful tip you could share with aspiring performers?

This tip comes more from my academic work (I’m a professor as well). I was studying the evolution of musicality in the human species, and I began recognizing how social music is. We tend to think of notes as being first and foremost in music, but I started to recognize that the strengthening of social relationships is the real aim of music. Or at least, that seems to be the reason it exists in our species.

For aspiring performers, I recommend you play music with people you like, rather than only with people who put the right notes in the right place at the right time. And reciprocally, whoever it is in your life that you want to grow closer to, play music with them. Everyone is musical. Draw it out of them, and you’ll draw them out. Perhaps this will sound like silly advice. I’m okay with that. Play music with me and maybe you’ll see where I’m coming from. Or at least come to our Pyragraph show!

Photo by Kate Burn Photography.

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