Your 20s are often profoundly transformational. Now, much older and wiser, musician Mario Arnez reassesses his youth and counts up several essential realizations. “I used to feel like I had to do everything myself, along with a slew of other notions I had picked up,” he says.
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“Another idea I had back then was about how independent and recklessly single I could be, which I ultimately decided wouldn’t pan out well,” he continues. When he and collaborator Steph Stewart began writing songs together, eventually forming bluesy alt-country band Blue Cactus, alongside players Alex Bingham (bass), Gabe Anderson (drums), and Whit Wright (pedal steel) something special took shape. “Things fell into place and we settled into our partnership.”
With their brand new song “Rebel,” out today (March 26), the group funnels such an emotional, personal development right into the songwriting. “I was thinking of how much my life had changed over the past few years, how important Steph is to me, and how crucial our collaborators are,” offers Arnez. “I think ‘Rebel’ came out as a sort of nostalgia for that time in my 20s combined with gratitude for stumbling into the next phase of life with something intact.”
“Rebel” anchors the band’s forthcoming second album, Stranger Again, slated for May 7 via Sleepy Cat Records, recorded pre-pandemic at Bedtown Studios, located inside a gorgeous lake-side house in rural Virginia. “We went in to record these songs having played some live just enough to have a good feel for them while they were still fresh,” recalls Arnez. “Most of the tracking was done in three takes or less. At this point, Alex had been playing bass with us for over a year so it was a great hang in addition to being a productive week.”
I was a rebel then, now I just get along, Arnez sings over a blustering sandstorm of guitar work. Too many things going out the way I’m going.
With the bridge, there emerges an almost psychedelic turn with the vocals, a counterpart sung between Arnez and Skylar Gudasz. “I wish everyone could experience being in the room when [musician] Joe MacPhail does his best Benmont Tench through a massive Leslie cabinet. I thoroughly enjoyed playing five guitars on this track,” he says, “and I’m a fan of that phaser on Gabe’s drum fills. Studio tricks aside, this is meant to be played live, and it always propels me back to being onstage or in a crowd. I hope it brings others the same sense of excitement that I have for shows coming back and finally being able to feel that energy again.”
The new record, engineered with Ryan Johnson and Saman Khoujinian, comes off the heat from Blue Cactus’ 2017 eponymous debut. The arrangements and dusty musicality feel rootsier and more driving, signaling they are only getting started.
Out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the band’s most obvious influence is Tom Petty, whose death sent them into a spiral. “There was a period I was only listening to his music and Big Star, which greatly informed this song,” says Arnez, listing off other points of influence like Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and The Beatles. “Gillian and David have crafted such profound, unforgettable music that their songs practically have a presence of their own onstage.
“I can still marvel at The Harrow & The Harvest anytime and get cut wide open. I first heard ‘Yesterday’ one night when I was in high school,” continues Arnez, “and I listened to it on repeat until sunrise. In college, my beloved music theory professor used The Beatles to teach a lot of different concepts including song structure, so those were some of the first songs I formally analyzed and got to know on a different level.”
Frequently in his writing, “a line or phrase [arrives] that becomes the focus, and then a bunch of associations start flooding in,” he says, “and hopefully most of the song gets written in that moment. I feel great if that all happens in an hour or so. If I drag it out or I start overthinking everything, the song kind of gets frozen until it can get repurposed or rewritten. Steph and I usually share songs with each other once we’ve gotten them to the point that they are either mostly fleshed out or at least have a clear direction.”
Listen to “Rebel” below.
Photo by Chris Frisina