Aztec Two-Step in Dirty Linen magazine Feb/March 1994
It’s Kind of Like Selling Proctor & Gamble
By Stephen Ide
Dirty Linen Magazine, February/March 1994
They ran across the ocean/
Over the deep blue sea/
Without the slightest notion of
What would be
…no heavy a.m. rotation
tho they were well received
no poly tech-vocational prep degree
“A Flock of Seagulls,” a track from Aztec Two-Step’s latest album, is in many ways autobiographical. The acoustic-pop duo, together now for 22 years, has reached the edge of fame, recorded for large labels and still has a great deal of name recognition. Yet, like Jack Kerouac’s characters Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, Aztec Two-Step’s success has floated with the winds of time.
It was 1972 when Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman earned critical acclaim for their self-titled debut on Elektra. That recording (reissued in ’93 on ERA Records), led to three subsequent sessions with RCA, and brought the duo closest to fame. It included one of their best-known songs, Fowler’s Beat Generation anthem “Persecution & Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On The Road).”
“I was living out my fantasy of being a rock ‘n’ roll star, really, in the height of our popularity,” said Fowler, now 46. “We performed with a six-piece band, four side musicians that were all really good musicians. Some of them leaned in the jazz area. It definitely had an effect on what we were playing and how we recorded.”
Despite their big-label releases, however, a new musical swing was sweeping the country. The market for an acoustic-pop duo dried up. “From the late 70s, early ‘80s on, with the disco fever and dance music and then new wave, it certainly kicked the ladder out of acoustic [music] or folk or whatever you call it,” Fowler said.
“Radio stopped playing the kind of music that we were doing and started playing more of the other stuff. Real true FM disappeared for artists in our genre.”
But Aztec Two-Step persevered, their music marked by Shulman’s dynamic guitar picking, melting two-part harmonies and occasional harmonica from Fowler. On stage, Fowler might don a velvet cape for the king in their tongue-in-cheek “Velvet Elvis” or they might reveal their sensibilities and influences in the Lennon tribute “Johnny’s An Angel.” Their upbeat, personal songs helped develop a cult following, a tight partnership and belief in their music that kept them inspired. “We’ve been able to gradually work in new material throughout our whole career,” Fowler said. “And people have always gone, ‘gee that’s great, when are you going to make a new album?’ It’s the fact that we’ve had this cult core, as they say, where there really has been validation. Week in and week out we step out on stage and get validated for what we’ve done and what we do … We bring a tremendous amount of performance experience and performance savvy to our arena when we play and we know that we’re good! God, if we could get on Letterman, you know?”
Frankly, Fowler says, they’re tired of waiting for success, but it’s kept them motivated. “It’s kind of like selling Procter & Gamble products. They have a new product and they go up to Syracuse, New York, and they spend a little advertising money on it and if it flies in Syracuse, then they go nationwide with it. Well, we’ve flown in Syracuse, thank you very much. And we’ve flown in Portland, Maine, and we’ve flown in Sand Hope, New Jersey, and on and on and on. We know that we’re really capable of achieving much more. And I think that’s the motivation for us to stay together. I think, quite honestly, had we had a tremendous amount of success, like a Simon and Garfunkel or Hall and Oates, we would have done the same thing they did, which was probably go our separate ways and gotten back and done a project here or project there. But the glue that’s really held us together is this commitment to achieving what we know we could have if we just tough it out.”
Fowler writes many of the duo’s songs and admits that they have always aimed for “singles” in their work, hence his passion for love songs. But others are reflective of moments that have affected him or are just part of a creative process. On “Of Age,” for example, “A Flock of Seagulls” was partly inspired by the rock band of that name. “I was sitting out on this porch up in Westchester [N.Y.] with a girlfriend of mine and a flock of crows flew overhead and I was playing this music and I went, ‘Oh, a flock of crows,’ and I thought ‘Hmm, that doesn’t sound right.’ And a flock of seagulls came into my mind. So it became a flock of seagulls. I really was writing as much about us as I was about them.”
“Of Age” [Beacon Records] shows the singer-guitarists have not lost the spark that drew people to their music 22 years ago. [See record review below] It’s their first album of new material since 1986’s Living in America, which received critical praise and won a New York Music Award as best folk album. “Ban Vinai,” another song from “Of Age,” takes on almost a spiritual nature as it speaks of the Mien and Mong hill tribe people of Laos who become refugees at a Mekong River camp in Thailand. Fowler’s sister works for an agency that places refugees in new homes in the United States and Fowler spent some time among them. “There were 50,000 people in this camp, very beautiful, very well run. It wasn’t like some kind of hell hole. It was a very beautifully run community. Every week hundreds of families would be shipped out to go to the free world. A lot of the organizations would bring NFL T-shirts and Americana kind of stuff that they were wearing … They were so excited about coming, it just made me think about what the underbelly of America is like, especially for people of foreign descent. There’s so much prejudice, hatred of people of color and accent and bigoted situations. I just wanted to write a song more about reminding myself that this stuff exists and the payoff line about selling yourself for money [‘You can forget about the milk ‘n honey / if you sell your soul for money’] certainly applies to my profession. I’ve certainly been probably as guilty of it as the next person in trying to go for a hit single when I should have just not and just been true to my writing.”
Despite having simple melodies, Aztec Two-Step has rarely scoffed at advanced productions for its albums. With exception of their acoustic retrospective, their music has always been marked by the sound of innercity horns, drums and a ’50s or ’60s folk-pop presence with a contemporary edge. Even their debut, which many regard as a simple, folk collection, included an orchestral string section and sounds from the outdoors.
Aside from “See It Was Like This … ,” an acoustic retrospective on Flying Fish Records in 1989, Fowler says it’s taken until now for a label to become interested in picking up the group. The album name is appropriate, he says, because he and Shulman, 41, have stood the test of time since meeting at a Boston open hoot in 1971.
“It really was a partnership,” Fowler said. “Neal was a young, brash kid from New York City who just oozed confidence and cockiness and the whole nine yards. I was like this very retiring, shy kid from Maine, who really had a hard time on stage. I was very shy. He really helped bring me out of my performing shell, so to speak. And think, having had the material and the gorgeous looks, you know [he laughs], and the hair, how could you lose with that combo? His brains and my good looks.”
The duo has survived financially on its concerts, however, finding acceptance in college crowds as much today as 20 years ago. They recently completed a tour of the Midwest, from Bloomington, Indiana to Columbus, Ohio, Minneapolis and Appleton, Wisconsin.
“We never were fortunate enough to sell enough records to make royalties from them. So everything we’ve always done has been by word of mouth … Needless to say, we don’t have the country houses or the Rolls Royces, but we have made a living and we’re doing what we want to do. That in and of itself is certainly one definition of success, to do what you want to do and to be recognized … People are there to see us and to hear those songs that they remember usually from our first couple of records.”
Fowler, whose son is a college sophomore, said older fans are introducing their kids to Aztec Two-Step’s music and the younger folks are coming to concerts, though the ’70s’ full-band performances have been scaled back. In a way, it’s brought the audience and the duo full circle. “Subsequently the music evolved back to its original state, which was just Neal and I out there performing,” Fowler said. “It was the arrangements that changed more than the actual music, because basically it was just myself writing these songs on an acoustic guitar for the most part … That’s pretty much what it comes down to today. It’s like simple melodies.”
Beacon Records BCN 10126-2 (1993)
It’s been six years since this New York-based duo has issued new music, and its latest is a welcome treat. _ ea! Shulman and Rex Fowler’s Of Age recalls the acoustic folk-pop that gained them popularity some 20 years ago, but it also delves into fresh, topical songs with much of the production, perhaps more, that marked their earlier work.
The songs are classic Aztec Two- tep, reflecting a wiser, albeit older, duo with more to offer than in the past. The album hits with a solid whack of reality. “War” enlists The Uptown Horns (Crispin Cioe, Arno Hecht, Bob Funk and Larry Etkin) in an upbeat juxtaposition of a society bathed in urban violence and a passion for battles. Shulman’s “Shanty Town,” with its simplistic guitar, harmonica and voice paints a stark picture of the homeless being everywhere in America. The song’s images of a nation unwilling to recognize what’s right under its nose makes this an anthem for the failings of a dispassionate system. “Ban Vinai” explores ideas of rugged individualism, referring to the strength of refugees in Southeast Asia. Elsewhere, as on previous albums, the duo peppers its work with songs about love and relationships, from the trite love and worship of “Beth” to the revealing and honest “I Only Sleep With Strangers,” which looks at the pain that comes with love and commitment.
The only disappointing aspects of this album are the loss of the duo’s trademark of smoothly blended vocals. The mixing makes them virtually nonexistent. The lead voice is always prominent; the harmony vocal follows and it sometimes gets lost. Also, Shulman’s lead acoustic guitar work is less out front. But these points are of small consequence. The full production adds plenty of other instrumentation (keyboards, electric guitar, violin, mandolin, percussion), and the album, both melodically and conceptually, is among the strongest the duo has ever produced, harkening back to its early ’70s debut. They had me spinning the disc over and over. Recommended.
Beacon Records/ P.O. Box 3129/ Peabody, MA 01961