Out of the Living Room: An Interview With the Generations Frontman, Petie Ronstadt
Ronstadt sees his band at the precipice of a major shift on the promise of festivals and national tours, but he's never forgotten his roots.
In Southern Arizona, Ronstadt Generations y Los Tucsonenses are an establishment. Both Generations and its “Tucsonenses” subset represent the traditions of the American and Mexican West in music, and not unlike Petie (vocals, acoustic/electric guitar, banjo, tuba, stomp box) and Michael G. Ronstadt’s (vocals, cello) famous aunt, Linda, they do so often with a modern twist of their own.
Notably, the band joined forces with then-frontman, Michael J. “Papa Mike” Ronstadt, to release In the Land of the Setting Sun during May of last year -- just three short months before Mike’s death on 7 August 2016 as his battle with liver cancer came to an end. Since then, the album has received a bevy of nods from critics across the music world, including here at PopMatters in The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2016.
By all means, the band is finally receiving the attention is arguably deserves -- and at such a cornerstone of their career, too, as Petie takes the reins from his father as band leader all whilst becoming a father himself. When PopMatters sat down to chat with the Tucsonan folk artist at a local coffee shop, his adorable seven-month-old daughter Annabelle was there with him. “She comes with me everywhere I go,” he says with a smile.
Our conversation covered a range of topics, from Petie’s upbringing in one of America’s first musical families, to his father’s influence, the past album, where he is now and where he and the band are going next.
Please give us a brief retrospective on Ronstadt Generations y Los Tucsonenses, what they stand for, and their evolution over the years.
Ronstadt Generations y Los Tucsonenses began as just Ronstadt Generations, and it was an exploration of the family’s musical history meant to be brought to a performance setting. We aimed to take music that was performed in our family’s living rooms and present it to people in a way that was worth listening to during a concert.
Through the lovely Tucson musical community, we grew with a rhythm section and we called them Los Tucsonenses in tribute to my great-grandfather’s band. This band that he started was the first philharmonic band in Tucson, and it was this kind of souse-styled brass band called Club Filarmónico Tucsonenses, or the Philharmonic Club of Tucsonans. So, we threw that in as a tribute to them and the band expanded from just being my father, my brother, and myself on guitars and cello and various other instruments to having a drummer, a bass player, and a sax player. It’s a different color pallet, but a fun one to play with, for sure.
In the Land of the Setting Sun is the last record featuring Papa Mike’s work before his death. What sort of dynamic did your dad bring to the fold? What elements of that dynamic still exist with his passing? How has the band changed, or how is it changing, moving forward?
Well, he conceived the idea of the band so it was kind-of his brainchild. His original conception was a show, and not necessarily a band, called the Ronstadt Generations Project. It was a show highlighting the history of our family’s musical evolution, going back in time. The show almost materialized a couple of times, but it eventually conceived itself as a band. So, he was the driving force and somewhere along the way he let me -- at least in our stage presence -- take charge of our show and form the sets and what we were doing.
He was a good mentor, and it’s definitely been a change, not having him around. I ask myself, “What now?”, and the first call that I want to make is to him to ask how to go about what I’m doing next and I can’t make that call. But, you know, he’s still very present. We’re still doing a lot of his music and he lives through that, and he lives through all of the things he taught. Even the Mexican songs that he sang, songs that my brother and I are trying to learn and sing now -- you know, I thought I would have more time with him to learn that. There’s nothing like being tossed into the deep end and learning how to swim, so, that’s good. I still think the band has the same soul, but it got younger without him there.
Sometimes, as young people do, we like to get a little rambunctious and that’s kind of fun testing that new dynamic. Our listener base includes a wide range of ages, but my dad’s followers are all very prevalent at our shows and they still are. What we’ve noticed is that as the band has shifted younger with its age, so has our audience a bit, and when you’re a 30year-old, sometimes it’s nice to play to other 30-year-olds. [laughs]
The great thing about the older listener base is that a lot of them are retired, and they’re very supportive. They come to every show, they support and buy records and we definitely appreciate them as much as we always have. It’s just nice to see people your age out there dancing and having fun and enjoying what we’re doing. I think with music in general, especially with older styles and genres -- and even just music that’s influenced by older genres -- there’s a newfound appreciation amongst Millennials and the generation just a step above them, so that’s neat to see that evolution and that appreciation for what we do in them.
With that said, I love our older generation listeners, too. One of the things that my dad had always thought is that radio segments our audiences by genre, by age, by everything. Hearing his stories about being a kid and, in the evening, having his parents, grandparents, and siblings gather around the radio show to all enjoy this same thing through a common musical identity, I’ve noticed that it’s something that’s lost in today’s world.
Hopefully, with this re-popularizing of older genres of music, it’s something that the younger generations can grab on to and older generations can say, “Wow, our kids are listening to stuff that we listen to!” Maybe that’s something that will get everyone gathering back around that radio again, at least figuratively speaking.
Your band has performed a bountiful mix of covers and originals on their releases thus far, and when choosing between such a broad selection as influential American and Mexican songs, there’s a lot to work with. Has there been a process that you go about with when choosing songs—both covers and originals—for an album to set a certain mood or to develop a particular theme around?
The albums all came together in different manners. Going back to Prelude, which was the first album with all of us (Los Tucsonenses) on it, the band just all kind of culminated at the Chicago Bar here in Tucson. So, we were just throwing everything to the fridge and seeing what stuck.
When I choose covers to sing -- and I’m sure this was similar with my dad -- there were two stipulations. One, it has to be a song that means something to me, otherwise there would be no point in singing it. Two, we knew it had to be something that we could do something different with than what’s already been done. If I sing a song like somebody else, I feel like I’m not adding anything to it and there isn’t a point in doing it. We’ve had songs that we’ve included in our sets before that we’ve dropped because we didn’t think we could do something differently enough that it became our enough.
That was something about my aunt, Linda's, career that was so great. She wrote very few songs out of her catalog, but all of the songs that she performed were iconically Linda Ronstadt songs. Even if they were a Buddy Holly song, or a Jackson Browne song, or whatever, if you heard that song, you knew it was a Linda Ronstadt song, too, because she did something so uniquely her own with it. So, that’s something that has definitely been a goal.
When you’re playing four hours every Monday night at Chicago Bar and you have two and a half hours of original music, sometimes you just have to fill in stuff. Another big deciding factor in doing covers and originals, though, has to do with when I was in an indie band prior to Ronstadt Generations y Los Tucsonenses and we were doing just originals. You can win one or two people at a time if they haven’t heard you before and you’re playing at a new venue, but if you sneak in a cool version of something that they’ve heard before, it makes ten or 15 people turn their heads and go, “Hmm, interesting. I wonder where they’re going with this.” Then, you can sneak in more originals and have them stick around for them.
That was part of the process of playing at a bar and not wanting to become a bar band, but wanting to do something still that people could come out to see and relate to. With a catalog that just grew when we did Prelude, we just went into the studio and said, “Let’s record everything we can record in a couple of days.” So, we just blasted through twenty songs, or something like that, and picked twelve or thirteen of them to be on the record. The rest of them became the follow-up, Epilogue.
So, there was no real huge thought process that went into that beforehand, except for the originals. We figured that we had to put in some originals, we had to study some Mexican stuff, but beyond that, it was just saying, “Let’s do a bunch of stuff and see what we can fit into a record!”
With In the Land of the Setting Sun, that was much more of a concept album. I had two concepts, actually, for In the Land of the Setting Sun and a follow-up record called We’ll Meet Again Someplace Sweet (named after his song “Bowl of Dust”). We went into the studio to record two records and ended up not having time to do that, so we just went for In the Land of the Setting Sun.
The concept behind that record was to bring together songs that define Tucson and define us, leaning on what the band had become over the years in its evolution with original material that was becoming the shape of the band while still peppering in some traditional Mexican music. Technically there are still covers on that album with the Mexican stuff in mind, but all-in-all, that record is very much uniquely us and not anybody else.
It’s really cool and it lends itself to be a journey through the Southwest -- a tapestry of sound made of the southwest. There’s an old Tucson sound, and there’s a lot of music that represents a new Tucson sound, like the Gabe Sullivans and Brian Lopezes of the world. They’re definitely the pioneers of the new Tucson sound, while we’re trying to make the old new again, as cheesy as that may sound.
How were you introduced to musical performance? You come from a musical family. Was it just something in your lifeblood to take on this Americana band with your dad and brother, or was it more of an evolutionary process to reach where you are now as the Generations frontman?
It was an evolution. Growing up, there never really seemed to be any sort of separation between music and performance and music and family congregations. You sit there and listen to the family sing -- and I did a lot of listening when I was younger, not a lot of playing -- and it always seemed like a performance. It always seemed like something that was theater worthy that was happening in the living room and that was always pretty amazing. There was a seed planted then.
When I started playing on my own, I started playing violin in elementary school before eventually moving to upright bass and electric bass. That took me through middle school and into high school, with a little bit of tuba thrown in there too. I got a lot of my performance experience then, and with school bands and stuff like that. When I started playing bass, I was also playing with a church youth band that gave me a lot of experience. We did a bit of touring to perform at churches and youth camps and stuff like that, which was fun and helped introduce me to the more “show” side of things.
When I started my own band, Goodbye Kiss, it was the first band I was ever really a frontman for. I didn’t really look at myself as a frontman even though I lead the band, though. I rejected the notion of being a frontman like a lot of indie rockers try to do -- “It’s about the music, not about the people!” You know, that kind of thing. [laughs]
That gave me some good experience with how to lead a band, though. We did some traveling, mostly very unsuccessfully. We were going to places to thirty people and making $50 to put in the gas tank with six guys crammed into a van -- that kind of deal. It was what I did instead of college, so that was a good education in a way.
Going from there, everyone became an adult and wanted to have adult lives with jobs and stability while I was still trying to find stability in the music world. Then, the opportunity came along after realizing that it’s really hard to get together to play music out of high school and to perform with my dad in the Santa Cruz River Band with Ted Ramirez. I still played gigs with my dad and brother here and there before that time, so I was immersed in that music too, but I got the opportunity to study traditional Southwestern music.
Being one with the upright bass is such a foreign concept with most rock music, so being able to study that in traditional Mexican music was so unique to me, in the form of that rejection of being one with the bass in contemporary music.
Ronstadt Record Co., that’s your label, your studio. When was it established, and how? When did you first establish interest in a producer role? What has your role as a producer taught you? Has it enhanced who you are as a musician in any way, or vice-versa?
On paper, Ronstadt Records became a thing in 2012 with the release of Prelude, but -- and this is going to sound weird -- it only became a thing because I was designing a t-shirt with a Kickstarter campaign. On that first Kickstarter of ours, one of the incentives was a t-shirt. I was trying to design it, and I took our old Ronstadt Hardware logo in an attempt to make it say Ronstadt Generations. It was too hard to make “Generations” look right, so I went for Ronstadt Record Co. instead with a few other modifications to the original hardware logo.
When I went to do the disc design for Prelude, I decided to use it there too since it looked almost like a vinyl record and could look really classic. So, that’s where the whole Ronstadt Record Co. thing started, but then the logo was put on all of our CDs from there. From there, my buddy and I have a studio in town called LandMark Sound Recorders, so I had the means to record for the many bands that ended up culminating under the Ronstadt Record Co. name.
We were going through Ohio a lot, and every time we went through we would play with Serenity Fisher and the Cardboard Hearts. Serenity is now my brother’s girlfriend, they’re a couple, but even when they weren’t, I always liked the band but always thought that the CD that they had out at the time never captured the music of their live show. So, I said, “If you’re ever out in Tucson, I can make you guys a record!” When they finally said, “Okay, we’re coming into town. Let’s do this!”, though, I said, “Oh, crap!” I realized I actually did have to do this now. [laughs]
When they came into town, though, we recorded that dream pop-esque record and it turned out really well. We always had the ambition to record more on the label, even just as a family with Ronstadt Generations, but life happens and my dad passed and things kind of went into a lull. So hopefully now that some time has passed, we can pick that back up and someone can tell me what I need to do -- someone to manage me a little bit!
[laughs] Maybe Annabelle will do that in a few years. She’ll be my taskmaster.
We still have plans, though. Don Armstrong and I are recording something for him, coming up soon! But, you know, Ronstadt Records needs a new manager, so I can just produce stuff. That would make me happy. [laughs]
What’s up next for Ronstadt Generations y Los Tucsonenses? Are there any particular goals you’re hoping to meet over the expanse of 2017?
We’re trying to make a road band out of the full band. We’ve toured a lot as a three-piece and as a four-piece, and even as a smaller group, in theaters and in folk venues and restaurants and all sorts of places. We’re more of an acoustic group, and I think that now Aaron Emery (drums) moved to L.A., and my brother lives in Cincinnati and it’s just Alex Flores (sax) and I in town, the band as a whole will become more of a road band. We’ll be getting together to go out and perform as a full band.
It’s nice in the sense that it’s a great excuse for us all to come together. When Aaron moved, it was bittersweet. We know that he has great things to accomplish as a drummer and L.A. is probably a great place for him to accomplish those things, but on a selfish note, he’s the best drummer I’ve ever played with. It’s been a bummer to not have him around here to play with all the time, but it makes for a nice excuse to get together and book a bunch of shows to go hang out, play music together, and make art. That’s always a fun thing!
Hopefully, 2017 will launch us into that world, and we’ll be playing a lot of festivals, with concerts here and there and all around the place. Aside from making great music that we’re proud of, we just want to do that and make a living doing it. Hopefully, we’ll put another record out sometime this year, too. We just want to show the world what we can do.