Stories written in steel
FFWD Magazine

Posted by on 10 May 2004

Friends of Dean Martinez create instrumental paradise

Bill Elm is a steel-guitar player, but don’t for a second think that makes him a country musician. In fact, many of the haunting steel-guitar-laced tracks on the new release from his band Friends of Dean Martinez seem better suited to the soundtrack of a David Lynch film than to any Nashville honky-tonk. Sure, the two-disc release, entitled On the Shore, includes one country standard ("Tennessee Waltz"), but Elm’s gritty playing transforms this traditional ditty into an edgy, almost angry track of longing.

"I like the sound of it," says Elm about his choice of instrument. "I mean, I’ve always liked Hawaiian music. Plus, with the steel you can play all those notes in between the frets. It’s more of a vocal instrument." This is especially true when you put that instrument in Elm’s masterful hands. His steel alternately growls, moans, whispers and speaks with a voice that firmly eliminates the need for a singer on the Friends of Dean Martinez roster. The unconventional instrumental act Elm started a decade ago has been described as everything from "the house band in a ghost town saloon" to a group that can "extract the beauty from emptiness."

Calgary music fans can attempt to stick their own descriptions on the act when it appears at folk fest. Throughout the history of Friends of Dean Martinez, the band’s lineup has remained fluid, more from necessity than from any kind of plan. "I wasn’t trying to have a lot of people (in the group) – it was more that I haven’t always found the right people that were going to be solid," he says. Joining the band’s ranks for On the Shore was Elm’s friend Mike Semple. "We went to high school together," says Elm. "I have known him for a long time. It’s nice to have him in the band now because we know where each other are coming from. It’s like a brotherly kind of thing."

An accomplished guitar player and songwriter in his own right, Semple is away this summer on the American Lollapalooza circuit with his other band, Campfire Girls. Taking his place in Friends of Dean Martinez at Folk Fest will be guitarist Billy Pittman, who will make this appearance an extra-special one. The group doesn’t tour often anymore, largely because family man Elm doesn’t like to spend too much time away from his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

"I’m just not as into hopping into the car and driving around anymore," he says. In addition to the band’s concert at folk fest, Elm will participate in the Masters of Mischief slide-guitar showcase, which will also include the steel-guitar-driven band the Henrys and Blue Rodeo’s Bob Egan. Elm is definitely looking forward to this particular performance, saying, "The one with all the slide players sounds fun. Bob Egan is great." He then modestly adds, "I don’t know how much of a jam person I am." He chuckles. "But I guess we’ll see."