Making Music At The End Of The World

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Making Music At The End Of The World

Posted by on Oct 5, 2020

How a forgotten desert resort inspired Sheverb and their new album

by Art Levy

In late February 2020, Sheverb slammed through one more song in front of a rowdy crowd at the Ski Inn. The Austin band had traveled twelve hundred miles to make an album in the semi-abandoned Southern California town of Bombay Beach. For a month, the locals embraced the band members, shared meals, and danced to their songs. An impromptu, vibrant community grew around the music and art, like how a little bit of rain makes the desert bloom. Darker clouds loomed on the horizon.

The members of Sheverb packed up their instruments and squeezed into their van. “I remember downloading a bunch of podcasts on my phone to make the drive home,” says guitarist Betty Benedeadly. “And there was like all of these podcast headlines about a pandemic, and I was like, ‘Is this fucking real? What is going on?’” They had spent a month off the grid and now the grid was cruelly reasserting itself. February crept into March, the band settled back in Austin, and the pandemic moved in too, first shuttering South By Southwest, then the entire Austin music scene. “I remember those first few weeks being like, man, why the fuck didn’t we stay [in Bombay Beach]?” says Benedeadly. The last song of Sheverb’s last set at the Ski Inn is the last time the band has played together.

Bombay Beach art. Photo by Betty Benedeadly.

The American West lives as a paradox: nothing ever dies, and nothing ever stays in place. Derelict buildings and ghostly billboards of unknown origin or age dot the distances along I-10. Communities and landscapes come together and fall apart in an endless cycle across decades, centuries, and eons. Time itself can feel invincible.

Southern California was once bordered by two massive bodies of water: the Pacific Ocean to the west, Lake Cahuila to the east. The lake dried up in the late 16th century, only to reemerge three centuries later thanks to a manmade accident. In 1905, when engineers tried to divert the Colorado River for agricultural irrigation, it bucked its banks and poured back into Lake Cahuila’s former cradle. The Salton Sea was born.

A half century passed, and soon tourism brought Southern Californians and Northern snowbirds to lakefront towns like Bombay Beach, which sits on the Salton Sea’s eastern shore. Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and the Beach Boys enjoyed the town’s luxury resorts. The sea provided the scenery, fishing, boating, and water skiing. But decades of pesticide and fertilizer runoff from the surrounding farms destroyed the Salton Sea’s fragile ecology, and with it, Bombay Beach’s economy. By the 1970s, the sea was twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean. Water levels shriveled; the stench of rotting fish and the exposure of toxic runoff deposits led to odor advisories in Los Angeles, over 150 miles away. Bombay Beach was headed towards another American Western myth: the ghost town.

Bombay Beach. Photo by Betty Benedeadly.

Instead, Bombay Beach hung on. A few hundred residents still call the place home, living in a landscape crowded with the memories of a glamorous past. Buildings rust in the salty air and desert sun. The nearest gas station is twenty miles away. Bombay Beach’s latest claims to fame are of the footnote variety: it is the lowest community in the United States, sitting 223 feet below sea level; and the late Anthony Bourdain once ate a meal at the Ski Inn as part of a No Reservations episode.

Mixed in with the retirees and Bombay Beach lifers is a small community of artists, perhaps attracted by the post-apocalyptic energy that seems to permeate the town. Since 2016, they’ve thrown a yearly arts festival called the Bombay Beach Biennale with such place-appropriate themes as “Dust,” “The Way The Future Used To Be,” and “God’s Silence.” Benedeadly first found out about the town through the Burning Man community. In 2018, Sheverb’s tour—which included non-traditional “venues” like Terlingua’s Starlite Theater, an alien-themed beer fest in Roswell, New Mexico, and the experimental Arizona town Arcosanti—culminated in their first experience of the Ski Inn and Bombay Beach. The town’s aesthetic matched the band’s artistic vision. Sheverb formed around a love of Ennio Morricone’s sweeping spaghetti western soundtracks. For its second album, Benedeadly says the group wanted some cross between surf music, psychedelic rock, and a distinct end-of-the-world atmosphere. Bombay Beach ticks all of those boxes.

Sheverb’s van outside the Bombay Beach Arts & Culture Center. Photo by Betty Benedeadly.

On February 3, 2020, Sheverb arrived back in Bombay Beach with a van full of instruments, recording gear, and creative fire. The band planned a month-long residency to record a full album, but the music itself was not planned; it would arise from collective jamming and living in the town. The members turned an old barn into a studio and slept together, commune-style, in a house provided by the Bombay Beach Arts & Culture Center. A typical day started at nine a.m., and the band played for upwards of eight hours per day, breaking for lunch and explorations of the town. They ended recording promptly at six p.m. each night out of respect for the locals. “We went into it with the intention of building community and we tried to be really respectful neighbors,” says Benedeadly, and that respect went a long way. Occasionally, Sheverb opened the barn doors so the community could hear what they were up to. “They would listen to our music all afternoon while they were doing yard work,” says drummer Xina Ocasio. “They loved it.”

The barn, turned into Sheverb’s recording studio. Photo by Tony Pekearo.

 

Benedeadly says the album itself took on the character of the town, turning into something that specifically wasn’t “clean and polished and glossy.” The music of Once Upon A Time In Bombay Beach shimmers like heat waves off the Salton Sea, a hall of mirrors reflecting country twang, psychedelic drone, and pulsing rhythms.“The Other Side” closes the album on a cosmic note. While the surrounding songs were arranged into a cohesive shape, Ocasio says the band intentionally left “The Other Side” loose to honor its open-ended energy. The song morphed every time the band played it, and the version that ended up on the album was captured in one take. “‘The Other Side’ was kind of like the culmination of that musical language and vernacular that we developed as a group during that month,” says Benedeadly. It quotes guitar riffs from every other song on the album—multiple experiences folding into a collective whole. The recording ends the same way the album begins: with the sound of a train, that American mythical creature, churning across the stereo field. Weather, people, machines—they all hurry through the American West, but the West stays slow.

 

 

After wrapping recording, Sheverb hung around Bombay Beach for a few days, interviewing locals, grabbing burgers at the Ski Inn, and reveling in the unhurried pace of life. The band’s final performance at the Ski Inn earned rave reviews from the audience. William Sandell, a Bombay Beach resident, loved the band so much he pitched in a hefty sum of money to help Sheverb cover post-production costs for the album, earning himself a credit as Executive Producer in the liner notes.

It’s easy to forget that music is power. It can build something more lasting than a passive listening experience. Since Sheverb’s inception, the group has sought to break down the barriers between audience and performer. “It was very dynamic going both ways,” says Benedeadly. “I feel like even the community of Bombay Beach got a little changed. I don’t necessarily want to say it got stronger, but you know, [it] definitely was impacted by…the presence of art to hold space—music to hold space, to bring people together and maybe bond in a different way than is typical or usually happening.”  There’s possibility, even in a place that’s usually an out-of-the way stop for tourists to worship at the feet of the apocalyptic ruin and move on. The experience showed Benedeadly “the insanely potent role of music and art to be the channeling vector to create that community.”

The pandemic has only sharpened this idea of community. With no ability to play shows, the group has focused on telling the story of their experience of Bombay Beach by turning the album into more of a living, multimedia artifact through videos and photos. It’s helped the members navigate the pandemic’s emotional toll, giving meaning during a chaotic time. Benedeadly points out how strange it is that the music itself hasn’t been brought forward. Without live performance, the songs sit like time capsules, buried in the Southern California sand, intensely saturated with time and place and a feeling of pre-pandemic living. It’s another paradox: by staying still, the music’s meaning has shifted. At the end of the album, “The Other Side” hovers in the air like a mirage, suspended between past, present, and any number of possible futures. “If the month of Bombay Beach was my peak month, then the moment we recorded that take of ‘The Other Side’ is the peak experience of that month,” says Ocasio. “Now when I listen to it, I get goosebumps. And I can remember being in that moment, and it takes me back. It’s like a key.”

When Sheverb started, the members looked to reclaim and reimagine the American West, making it a more honest space that includes women, indigenous people, and other groups marginalized by the traditional, violence-obsessed narrative. They emphasize community, not the rugged individualism of a lone cowboy. On the last evening of their residency, the members of Sheverb stood holding hands on the Salton Sea’s shrinking beach, the sun sinking and scattering colors in the way that only a desert does best. The moment graces the album cover: their faces are silhouetted, no longer individuals. They’re whole. They turn from the sunset, the experience of a lifetime just beginning to unfold right as it’s ending.