Tucson's Resonars strum with '60s-style hum on new record 'Electricity Plus'

I found Matt Rendon, the principal songwriter and only original member of The Resonars, surrounded by a roomful of cherished instruments — Epiphone, Rickenbacker, Mellotron, Ludwig, Slingerland, and Gretsch — and a wall of beat-to-shit Marshall and silver-faced Fender amps, still quite capable of breathing fire.

Some people collect photos. Some collect tools, and relics.

To see him perched in front of the mixing console at Midtown Island Studio — Rendon’s professional 8-track, analog recording studio — with his headphones in place, one gets the distinct impression that there is truly no other place in the world that he would rather be sitting.

Throughout their body of work, The Resonars have held true to a sound and vision that was cast during their youth, forging a sound that has been compared to the noise of an electrical current flowing between two contact points.

Such is the case with the recent release of The Resonars’ ninth studio album. “Electricity Plus” (Coma Cave Records, 2024) is an assemblage of guitar-driven psychedelic garage rock — influenced by the sonic fury of the British Invasion and the lyric-based songcraft of ’60s folk rock, featuring Rendon’s trademark harmony vocals, Keith Moon-esque, Devil-may-care drumming — along with a few unexpected plot twists to add intrigue to the beat of the story.

Here, Rendon recounts stories from the long and winding road — one rife with detours, blind curves, and dead ends — with “so much to learn, so much to find” on his intrepid journey from “Gold To Blue.”

A time of awkwardness

Banging on a makeshift snare drum (a Folgers coffee can filled to the brim with pennies) and sundry pots and pans commandeered from his mom’s kitchen is how Rendon’s foray into rock ‘n’ roll commenced.

Much the same as Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s 1951 masterpiece “The Catcher in the Rye,” throughout the course of his life, Rendon has felt that he doesn’t quite belong.

“It may seem weird, but I often feel like an outsider within my own circle of friends,” he said in a recent interview.

While other kids were out skateboarding or going to punk shows, bonding through common interests and similar tastes in music, Rendon single-mindedly fed another compulsion.

“I never had that,” Rendon recalled. “I was up in my bedroom, going backwards through music history, listening to ’60s music.”

During the awkwardness of youth, deeply engaged in his own scholarly process of research and musical discovery, Rendon felt that he stood a “World Apart.”

“So, musically, yes. I am an outsider.”

Formation Of The Resonars

“I received a four-track cassette recorder after I graduated from Suffolk Hills High School,” he remembered.

“My good friend Chris Ayers suggested, ‘Hey, you should bring it over to record my band,” Rendon said. “That is when I met Mario in the summer of ’86.”

A beloved figure on the Tucson music scene, Mario Lizarraga Cordova died in May 2022.

“Mario and I got along immediately. I love Chris, but he didn’t share our love of ’60s music.”

Soon thereafter, when Rendon started forming his own bands, Lizarraga Cordova became his go-to bassist.

“Then we found OJ (née Dustin Moyer). So, now we had a drummer.”

During this time, the fledgling rock band “just sorta goofed around.” It wasn’t until guitarist Eric Royer entered the fold that they began to consider other possibilities.

“Now we’re a band,” Rendon remembered thinking with a smirk on his face. “And are ready to rock.”

All that was missing was a name.

One perfectly ordinary day, while rummaging through a closet in the band’s rehearsal room — a beer-sodden space christened the Coma Cave located in his parent’s backyard — a dust-laden business card came floating down from the top shelf.

“Hmm. What is this?” Rendon mused.

A gift from the fifth element (the unknown other in medieval science that connected all people) it may have been.

Apparently, Rendon’s older brother Rick — who went on to become a businessman — had played drums in a short-lived band during the 1960s.

“According to my sister, they never actually played any shows. They just rehearsed,” he said.

Applying the principles of backward reasoning — placing ambition ahead of practicality — the band had business cards printed up.

The card read, “The Resonars available for all parties.”

At that moment, Rendon decided to reappropriate the name.

“It’s still not the greatest name,” he reasoned. “But, it felt like it was just meant to be.”

In 1998, featuring standout tracks “Definitely Crescent Ridge” and “Three Sisters and a Brother,” The Resonars released their self-titled debut album on Star Time Records.

A DIY project from the outset, the first issue was mastered from a 4-track cassette tape. Later, in 2021, Star Time reissued the album, releasing a limited-edition vinyl run of 300 LPs (in their original jackets).

At the root of it all

With the passing of the Civil Rights Act — a landmark piece of legislation prohibiting discrimination — polarity shifted in society during the 1960s. Rejecting traditional values and the unpoetic conventions of adulthood, youth culture exploded. Frayed blue jeans, long hair, casual sex, psychedelic drugs, demonstrations and marches, hippie communes, rock, soul, jazz, and R&B music all became symbols of personal freedom and self-expression.

To understand Rendon’s artistic process, one has to travel back in time to 1966.

“Because that was the point in time when American bands like The Byrds and The Beau Brummels along with all of the British Invasion bands stopped leaning on R&B covers and started to create their own music,” he asserted before adding with a knowing smile, “Together with the influence of marijuana and LSD.”

Rendon contends that the zeitgeist of 1966 is not only a high watermark for rock ‘n’ roll but also for R&B, soul, and jazz, in addition to apparatus.

“Recording technology is catching up. Studios are moving up from two and four-track machines to eight-tracks,” he said of the technology of the day.

A game-changing advancement in a pre-digital world, allowing tracks to be built up layer by layer.

Motown’s first recording studio (that under the stewardship of Berry Gordy Jr. turned a converted garage into “Hitsville U.S.A.”), Owen Bradley’s Barn (literally a barn turned studio amid acres of farmland, instrumental in the development of the Nashville sound), and the more posh Columbia Records Studios (whose fabled Manhattan complex, nicknamed “The Church,” widely consider it to have been the greatest recording studio in music history) all upgraded to eight-track machines.

“Experimentation is at its highest point.”

“California Dreamin'” by The Mammas & The Pappas, “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by Four Tops, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” by Nancy Sinatra, and “Cherish” by The Association topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in 1966.

Inspired by the nascent Flower Power movement, as the doors of perception swung wide open, The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” — a track “leftover” from the exhaustive “Pet Sounds” sessions, hailed by music critics as one of the most important recordings of the rock era — reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart in December 1966. Brian Wilson’s production is widely lauded for using the recording studio as a musical instrument.

Digging deeper

“I am accused of being a copyist,” Rendon stated with a devil-may-care attitude. “There is a revivalist tag that gets placed on Resonars music and I am aware of that.”

A talented multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/producer and engineer, Rendon is capable of taking whatever musical direction he may fancy.

But there is more underneath the patina left by assimilating the music of the 1960s.

“With these people that I admire — who I often emulate in my playing — there is a common root that stems from black musicians dating back to the post-war era and the 1920s and ’30s,” he said. “Country musicians as well. They called it hillbilly music back then.”

Originating in the American South during the 1860s from the work songs and spirituals of enslaved people, blues has been instrumental to the development of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.

“I needed to know who Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley were before I could continue on,” Rendon said. “For better or worse, I kinda got stuck in that thing, despite some backlash.”

As pioneering Chicago blues musician Willie Dixon famously said, “The blues are the roots. The rest are the fruits.” Dixon sued and won a settlement against Led Zeppelin for snatching an apple from his tree when the English hard rockers were crafting “Whole Lotta Love.”

Midtown Island

“I call it Tucson’s rock ‘n’ roll recording studio for friends and family,” Rendon said.

Originally intended to be his personal creative space — built to the exact dimensions as his beloved Coma Cave — Midtown Island was founded in 2013. It stands behind the house that he shares with his wife Cherish and creatures and now operates as a fully-functioning recording studio.

Rendon has engineered and/or produced recordings by Rebel Set, Tracy Bryant, thee MVPs, Lenguas Largas, Sweet Nothin, Nanami Ozone, Marianne Dissard, Groovy Movies, Class, Anchorbaby, Cat Mountain, Freezing Hands, Lemon Drop Gang, Sergio Mendoza and many others.

Despite Rendon having disparagingly referred to it as “Tucson’s leading lo-fi dump,” it is unequivocally clear that Midtown Island Studio is a passion project done in true DIY fashion.

Making of the new album

Work on what would become “Electricity Plus” commenced in late 2020/early 2021 for all practical purposes. But adapting to life in the shadow cast by the specter of a deadly pandemic required some adaptation.

“That was right around the time that I started booking sessions again,” Rendon recalled. “But the process of how I was writing songs, I wasn’t able to do anymore.

“Previously, on “Disappear” (Midtown Island Records, 2020), I was doing a three-day process.”

“On the first day: taking mushrooms and writing. Microdosing, not getting all weird,” Rendon detailed. “Second day: recording (backing tracks and vocals). “Third day: mixing.”

Proceeding methodically, on the third three-day sequence he would record a cover.

“The idea was to learn some new things from other players, let that seep in, then continue on.”

“But once COVID started to lift, I didn’t have that kind of free time anymore,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons that the album took so long to finish.”

Rendon learned to apply discipline. Pushing himself to take advantage of any downtime between booked sessions in his busy recording studio to work on his own material.

“It’s difficult. Sometimes after I finish a seven or eight hour session recording bands, all I want to do is plop on the couch and watch YouTube.”

Despite having tightened up his time management skills, the evolution of “Electricity Plus” encountered missing links.

“I couldn’t get a good sequence going; nothing was coalescing.”

Rendon credits going on tour with The Exbats — stepping away from the project for 34 days while traversing Europe with the Bisbee band — as crucial to gaining new perspective.

“When I got back, I sat on the porch and listened to everything that I had done so far — maybe 19 or 20 songs — and was finally able to see through the fucking haze.”

He threshed and flailed, placing the keepers to one side, discarding the rest.

“I decided to add two songs from an existing single — the irrepressible “Little Grey Man” and “Gold To Blue” (Hypnotic Bridge, 2021) — to the record.”

“When I put those songs inside the sequence, the whole thing sprang to life.”

Finally, in November 2023, the project reached a state of readiness.

“Let’s fucking do it,” he exclaimed.

The difference between

While still being a decidedly lo-fi recording, “Electricity Plus” has raised the bar.

What distinguishes the new album, sonically, from previous work lies not only in Rendon’s years of experience recording and producing other artists, but in part, to new apparatus.

“For one thing, we now have a Mellotron,” he said.

Designed to reproduce the sound of the source instruments sampled, the Mellotron is a keyboard from the 1960s — that unlike a conventional synthesizer generates tones from sounds originally recorded onto magnetic tapes — that deftly produces the verisimilitude of a string ensemble or horn section. The Beatles utilized a Mellotron on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” as did David Bowie on “Space Oddity,” and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on “Kashmir.”

“I have always wanted to have a string section or horns on a Resonars record. I am now able to do that,” Rendon enthused, before adding, “I now have hundreds of dead musicians from 1963 to help me with my songs.”

“There is a dirge on the album called ‘Spidery Light,'” he noted. “I remember when I first played it back — when the horns and strings came in — I was like, ‘Fuck.'” “It jumped out, in the way a lot of ’60s music jumped out at me when I was a kid.”

“The Mellotron has a dream-like sound. It blows my mind how it can elevate a song.”

Also, between the last album and this one, I got these compressors (Urei LA-4s) and a Neumann U-47 clone (a take on a classic microphone by WARM).”

“I have also been listening to a lot of classical music and jazz. Cherish (Rendon’s wife) loves jazz, so it is always on in the house.”

Rendon also credits his fascination with the work of Laura Nyro in cultivating his experimentation with non-conventional songwriting structures common to pop music.

“Things don’t need to be kept in the typical verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle eight, verse/chorus, then out type of song structure,” he held. “You can go to different places.”

“I was trying to employ a sense of adventure into the songs.”

“Also on this album, Johnnie Rineheart played drums on a couple of tracks,” Rendon noted.

Rineheart also contributed his compositional skills on two vintage synthesizer-driven pieces.

“The songs ‘Electricity I’ and ‘Electricity II’ are all his,” Rendon said.

A sense Of accomplishment

“Electricity Plus” is an album of nuanced diversity. Several of the tracks strike a blow aimed squarely at the solar plexus — overdriven and heavily-compressed guitars stab like icepicks — contrasted by those rife with lush orchestration.

Then, we arrive at the cross-cultural amalgamation — part honky-tonk twang meets 16th century choral music then distilled through a sea sponge harvested directly from the “Octopus’ Garden” before being poured over ice — that of “At Journey’s End.”

“I wrote ‘At Journey’s End’ as an experiment, to see if it would work.” Rendon demurred. “And it did.”

Same is true for “One Nobody Knows.” A song deeply influenced by his love for the tight vocal harmonies and multi-tracked (ever-so-slightly pitch shifted guitars) that were signature motifs in ABBA’s string of international hit singles during the 1970s.

“I could hear it all. I knew what I wanted it to sound like,” Rendon said. “If I can pull this off it is going to be really grand.”

“Now, I just gotta figure out how to get it onto tape,” he said. “That’s the song that I feel a larger sense of accomplishment with on the record.”

When asked if there is a common thread that runs throughout the album, Rendon answered, “No, not really.”

Although he did acknowledge that a few remembrances from childhood — like that of climbing mulberry trees on Saturdays at Longfellow Park with his friends, capturing the joyous insouciance of youth, as eight-year-old kids surveyed the great big world below, “feeling like kings” — found their way onto a few of the tracks.

Losing a friend

“I’ve been playing with Mario as early as I can remember,” Rendon said.

Lizarraga Cordova played bass and other instruments with bands such as How To Build A Rocketship, Some Of Them Are Old, and others in addition to The Resonars before his 2022 death.

“In the early days, being in The Resonars was hard,” Rendon reminisced. “We made it fun. But a lot of people didn’t come to the shows. No one seemed to care. The Tucson music scene has never had much reverence for psychedelic or garage music.”

“I separate all that from Mario being my friend.”

“And though his opinions about music were usually cast in cement, he would often bend,” Rendon said. “He was the kindest, most understanding guy.”

“While I visited him in the hospital, I cried like a baby. I just couldn’t be in the room with him anymore.”

“After he passed, there was a service at KMKR (99.9 FM) where Julie Jennings
Patterson (Lizzaraga Cordova’s wife and frequent Tucson Sentinel music writer) is a disc jockey,” Rendon said before his voice trailed off. “I don’t know man, I have never had a friend or family member pass where I was so inconsolably sad.”

“I couldn’t quite understand it.”

“The upside of all that is I can summon Mario anytime I want. I can drop a needle and have him appear and hear his voice,” he said, smiling. “All I have to do is put on “Forever Changes” by Love, “Waterfalls” by Paul McCartney, and if I felt so moved, I can put a Church album on and I’ll hear his voice immediately.”

“I can still remember all of the things that he said and all of the arguments that we had.”

“Mario was the opposite of me. I can be an asshole and super-opinionated,” he revealed. “Saying things that deserved for him to say, ‘Shut the fuck up you idiot. You don’t know what you are talking about.’ And Mario never did that.”

“I realized that I always loved the guy,” Rendon concluded. “I miss him so much.”

No exit

Through his well-honed songscraft, Rendon has developed the ability to create imagery in the listener’s mind.— that of carefree days slumping on a California beach or the face of a girl so beautiful she makes you want to cry.

Now 56 years old, and built like a starting NFL linebacker, there is a contentment that radiates from Rendon’s being that comes not from material success or notoriety. At the end of the day, he doesn’t care all that much about how many albums are sold or the opinions of fickle, trend-hopping hipsters.

For Rendon, being satisfied with the art is headmost.

“It also means that I am never going to stop doing this,” Rendon vowed. “Making music.”

But, as Ringo Starr sang, “It don’t come easy, and you know it don’t come easy.”

It’s a life that has included stints delivering pizzas to ungrateful assholes that don’t tip and of barely scraping by while never losing sight of the grail: to make rock ‘n’ roll records.

The album cover of The Resonars’ 2019 release — a photographic image with the words “No Exit” spray painted upon Midtown Island’s studio doors — best enshrines Rendon’s musical calling.

Existing in a self-actioned realm, not unlike the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 existentialist play, for Matt Rendon there is no exit.