INTERVIEW BY: Caitlin McGeehan
Late-night drives, the compelling serenity and solitude of the open road, and a story– that’s Red Desert Motel. The South Jersey band, Tony Yates and Tim Zatzariny Jr., are laying out the desert landscape of cowpunk music throughout the South Jersey and Philly area. In this interview, the duo discussed their lyrical storytelling and the importance of supporting local music.
Later this year, the band’s track “The Long Haul” will be featured on a compilation LP that will benefit Save Our Stages.
Caitlin McGeehan: The name Red Desert Motel definitely matches your sound. How did you come up with it?
Tim Zatzariny Jr.: When Tony [Yates] and I got together it was about three and a half years ago. I had a vision for what I wanted the band to be, and I wanted the name to be something that fit with the music. I had this vision of rootsy kind of rock, we call it cow punk. There’s all kinds of labels, alternative country etc.
I started making a list, I just recently found it, and some of the names were pretty interesting, the names we didn’t pick. Goat Show, that was one.
I’ve always had kind of a fixation with the desert and western themes. But I think it fits the music we play, and to me it creates a vision of being out on the road in the middle of the night on a long highway. A lot of the songs are about that too: driving, truckers, driving at night, trains. Believe it or not, there is a Red Desert in Wyoming and I hope to visit it one day.
Tony Yates: Get a picture of Red Desert Motel in the Red Desert near a motel.
CM: Where does that inspiration for the storytelling come from?
TZ: I think Tony and I have similar musical influences like John Prine, who just passed last year unfortunately, and Townes Van Zandt. Warren Zevon to me always was a novelist trapped in a songwriter’s/musician’s body. A lot of his songs are stories. That’s something that we definitely aspire to.
Neither one of us are virtuoso musicians — nobody is coming to see 10 minute solos, so we felt like we had to have something to offer people. So we have a very high standard for lyrics and we’re constantly trying to come up with stuff to meet that standard and aspire to have lyrics that are even in the same ballpark as the songwriters that we admire.
I come from a journalistic background, I was a news reporter for a long time. So I think that’s part of it– the storytelling. I’ve done some creative writing too, had some short stories published and have a novel that’s finished but hasn’t been published. That’s where it comes from more than anything.
TY: You can go even further back with Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. It’s all storytelling. It’s a different media whether it’s a novel, a song, or a painting. All throughout history there have been people who document things.
The venn diagram of our [Tim and I’s] influences intersects in a very interesting place, the idea of carrying on in that vein. Like Willie Nelson said, “you can’t write a record if you don’t have nothing to say.” And as we’re moving forward, working on an upcoming album, trying to do some songwriting on our own to include that. I don’t wanna just write pretty songs for the sake of pretty songs.
I’ve always thought Tim is ten times the musician that I am in terms of being familiar with his instrument. But you don’t have to be fancy to get your point across. And nobody proves that better than Woody Guthrie. I think whether it’s commenting on your own experiences or other people’s experiences there’s a lot of…you don’t necessarily need to walk in someone’s shoes to understand. But I think with songwriting and storytelling and acting to a degree, it’s telling a story on someone’s behalf in a way that people can relate to.
People are continuing to have the same experiences, and go through the same struggles and the same joys. It’s not that the experience has changed, they’re unique maybe to the individual, and I think that’s why certain songs resonate. If you can see yourself in it, that’s what catches your ear.
CM: What do you look forward to most when writing and recording your music?
TY: As far as the recording goes, we’ve been very lucky that we’re able to put our own private recording space together. My basement has become our de facto recording studio. There’s so much to learn, but there’s so much available as far as tech goes. The idea of hearing what a song sounds like when it’s just some notes on a page, to then hearing that finished product. The idea that you’re working on something.
I’m gonna start paraphrasing Jeff Tweedy — the idea that it’s some sort of skilled labor, in a similar way that someone would build a coffee table, and you can see this finished product: it becomes this tangible thing. There is a lot of stuff that I can hear in my head that I don’t yet have the technical ability to express and I’m hoping that comes along as we go.
We funded our own EP at Gradwell House in Haddon Heights and they were great, but we’d never done it before. You realize that there are time and financial constraints going into that kind of setting. When you have your own studio, you have the liberty of being able to experiment more, find things, and have those happy accidents.
TZ: Luckily, we’d been playing those songs [on the EP] for a while, so we had them down pretty cold.
If you listen to “Keep It Quick,” our most recent single (which we recorded in Tony’s basement studio) I think you can really hear how we were able to experiment and expand our sound, especially if you’d heard us play it live.
The most exciting thing is the first time we play a song. I’ll show Tony a song I’ve written and we’ll be working it out, and he’s a very quick learner at picking up songs. It’s thrilling to hear something that’s in your head come to life. It can be very addictive. The way people connect to certain songs is very interesting to me and the things that people pick out and attach significance to is interesting as well.
CM: You’ve played some socially distanced shows and virtual shows like the WHYY Virtual Concert Series. What show was your favorite to play?
TZ: We cut that [the WHYY video] here and then we sent it in. We really appreciate, and I know a lot of musicians do, all of the media outlets like WHYY and your station who are taking the time to recognize that musicians need a different way to get their music out there. And I know a lot of bands and musicians that we know were also featured on WHYY, so they got a chance to get their music out there.
As far as favorite gig, I’d probably say the last gig we played before COVID hit, which was at a place called Bourré in Atlantic City.
They have a huge room that holds probably a couple hundred people. We were booked to play part of a St. Patrick’s Day festival, so it was that Saturday before everything shut down. There weren’t very many people and normally the place would’ve been packed. Everybody was so uncertain and I remember everyone being so confused and tense, and not really knowing what’s going on, but still wanting to have a good time. We played a really good show that afternoon, I was really proud of what we did.
TY: Any time I get to get up and play in front of people is good. We’ve learned something from all of the gigs that we’ve played. To be at a point where you have to think back at gigs you’ve played and you’re like “wow, we’ve finally played enough places that it’s not ‘oh those last 3 gigs.’”
Woodbury Heights Pride Festival was a good show, the Porch Festival, we played the Abandoned Luncheonette in Moorestown, which was a cool gig.
TZ: That was fun.
TY: I don’t have a hardened criteria for what makes a good gig. Some of the components: how we played, how I sounded, how the PA equipment was working, what the crowd was like– all of those things come into play. If you can check any three of those five boxes, it’s a win. One of the big parts is getting asked back. We like to play all sorts of different places. As far as the virtual stuff, that’s another area where it’s afforded us the opportunity to focus on one artist and cover [their songs].
TZ: We’ve done about a half a dozen [live streams covering] different artists: Sam Cooke, REM, Neil Young was the most recent one. We‘ll do 40 minutes worth of covers of that band. It lets us do a live show virtually, but it also gives us more songs to play when we play live. We’ve got a gig coming up at Chestnut Hill Brewing Co. on Valentine’s Eve and a bunch of the stuff we’re gonna play is stuff we learned for these live streams. I don’t know if we would’ve learned this stuff if it wasn’t for these live streams.
CM: That’s a great way to benefit both the audience and you guys, learn new songs, play new songs. How has the South Jersey and Philly area impacted your approach to music?
TZ: South Jersey often gets overshadowed by its big brother Philly, and there’s a lot of fantastic bands and musicians in Philly, no question about it. But there’s also a lot of great music and musicians down here too. I wouldn’t call it a scene, but there’s a lot of like-minded bands that play this rootsy style of music that’s outside the mainstream: The Hobo Style, Morning River Band, Super Lemonade.
I think South Jersey’s always been known for hard rock and metal, but there’s a lot more to it than that, especially if you go to a place like Collingswood or Haddonfield. There’s a lot of really good musicians in those towns alone who don’t necessarily play hard rock or metal. I love both of those genres, but I think there is a very diverse mix of music and musicians down here. I hope that once this is all over, we, [as in all the musicians], can take better advantage of that and start doing shows that have 4-5 bands.
One thing that’s really changed everything is the explosion of brew pubs in South Jersey. There’s so many more places to play (at least there was before COVID). A lot of them have spaces big enough for bands, which has been a great advantage, having more places to play rather than traditional clubs that have tended to want cover bands in the past. We do some of that, but we’re 85-90% an original band. The brew pub explosion has really helped bands like us.
CM: How can people support Red Desert Motel?
TY: The biggest thing someone could do would be to share our posts on social media. You might be able to reach people that we can’t.
We didn’t want to have a social media presence that was so glossy that we didn’t live up to it in person. But we realized that it’s a great means to reach a large audience. We’re trying to do what feels right to us and what feels authentic.
Hopefully we put forth the same effort and the same quality of performance and musicianship whether we’re playing for 2 people or 200 people. It feels better when you put forth that effort and you get a little recognition. It would be really dope if people could share, especially as we hope to get on a more regular schedule of doing more livestreams and releasing more music. Share, share, share! Streaming, downloads, all that good stuff.
We’re gonna play as many live gigs as we can safely, and we wouldn’t want anyone to come out or even encourage anyone to come out if they didn’t feel right about it.
TZ: Also, supporting independent bands in general– like their pages. Sharing the music on your social media, telling your friends about it.
TY: Everything we do is non-profit, we’re not doing this for the money. Any time we put up music for download, any of the proceeds go to a charitable org, usually here in SJ, it really is about spreading the word and trying to make music for people.