Interview: Walter Salas-Humara on New Album, Communities, Revolutions, and Music Formats

Interviews

Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos has a new album coming out this month: Walterio (Rhyme and Reason Records).  When I talked to him about the album, the first track, “El Camino De Oro” (the Golden Road), was the first one we discussed. Salas-Humara said without hesitation: “that song was inspired by the community where I live: Flagstaff Arizona. It’s a close community, which is similar to other small communities, in the sense that it’s close knit; but there’s also a unique combination of people here – ranchers, San Francisco hippies, and Native Americans and Mexican-Americans — indigenous people who happen to be Mexican. It’s a beautiful community here; people really help each other. There are so many altruistic folks, organizing and doing things for people in other parts of the world. You know how sometimes you see younger people working for change but they stop as they grow older? Well here, the people grow older and they don’t stop, they don’t give up and they keep working for change. A lot of the rest of the state of Arizona is conservative but the community here really bucks the trend. The song was inspired by this. The message of the song is that even if the larger community is divided, the community around you is the one where you can really affect change, if everyone communicates with one another.”

Remembering that Salas-Humara was a native New Yorker for awhile, I asked him about the comparison to Flagstaff. “It was interesting coming here from New York City, where everyone I knew had been pretty much like me. Most of my adult life I was in NYC, then I was briefly in Los Angeles, and I was always surrounded by artistic people. Here there are the indigenous people and the ranchers and private property people, so that’s a little different. But there are common connections between the conservative ranchers and the environmentalists and the hippies and the indigenous people, and the connection is nature. It’s the power of the appreciation of nature. Out west, you realize that ranchers really are environmentalists. The messaging we get politically is confusing, and there’s a lot of money at stake with the commodities industries—oil, mining, etc. So it’s a tough mixed message. But the key point is that conservative land owners have a lot in common with environmentalists.”

“Also, in addition to the land being necessary for survival, out here, there’s an incredible beauty in the landscape, we’re up high in the mountains near a giant volcano and cinder cones that have eroded over millions of years into a crescent of mountain peaks. We’re above 1,000 feet so we’re in ponderosa pine forest here. And then right below us is Sedona, where there are the red rock formations.”

We had been talking about the importance of people understanding their common community connections, when Salas-Humara said: “Your own community is a great place to start for understanding people. But travelling is another good way to get to understand people and their differences. It’s great playing in Europe.   It’s so funny because every everywhere has a smartphone now, it’s not like it used to be travelling. Another thing is, you realize how many people there are on the planet. We think of so many countries as having fewer people or less stuff, but they are far more together and have way more people than we imagine. Here in the Americas we are actually sparsely populated compared to Asia or Africa. Many countries have to make it work with huge, huge populations, and they still make it happen. We’ve got it pretty good, but the global population is a lot bigger than we think.”

I asked him about another song on the album that comes across as politically profound. It’s entitled “Will You Be Ready,” and its lyrics shoot right through you: “spray your paint all over the wall, when the government starts to fall, will you be ready?” So I prompted Salas-Humara to say more about this song and its observations. His response was: “you know, it’s hard to know when a society is really ready for a revolution. All of the 20th century leftist revolutions turned into autocratic dictatorships, like in Cuba. People weren’t ready. Philosophers and writers analyzing social movements predicted a long, extended period of capitalism before it could evolve into something else; and they recognized that to be successful, it would require an integration of the social connections, not an abrupt revolution. Historically, these actual revolutions have been too abrupt. Real change is a messy slow process, where nobody is ever completely happy. Progress moves in an up and down fashion, it’s a bumpy road, and takes a long time.   In my lifetime there’s certainly been progress, and the internet has been an obvious game changer. It’s drawn even isolated rural people in to see things that are happening all over the world. Unfortunately, despite this progress, fear is a powerful emotion and the media and politicians continue to use it.”

Turning from this topic to lighter ones, there is another song on the new album Walterio, “I Want To Be With You,” that illuminates the ways that people’s hearts can be like two ships passing in the night, and with one wanting something the other doesn’t. This song has lyrics like: “what do I see in you that you don’t see in me.“ And the music is catchy… so I asked him, “how is it that a song with such serious lyrics can automatically be lifted by tambourine? What makes that tambourine sound so automatically happy?” Salas-Humara laughed: “It’s my wooden tambourine. That’s this one tambourine that’s happier than any of the others. Songs that are really simple and direct like that are often the hardest one to write. It’s hard to convey what’s essentially a very complex emotion in a few words.” He’s right about this one, he did convey emotional complexity in a few words and lightened it with that tambourine.

On his website, his musical downloads, both solo and as the Silos, are set up for the buyer to pay whatever amount he or she can. This struck me as an innovative approach to selling songs and albums, in today’s context of free music. Salas-Humara said: “I’ve come around to accept the streaming, because with the free streaming, the major labels are losing their grip. Now that there’s so much out there that’s not major label, I think the pay scale will balance out over time to be a little bit more equitable. And the global reach makes a huge difference. People anywhere can find music from anyone. So, I encourage people to get my music from anywhere.”

I asked him whether, since digital music is so freely available, literally, he considered that maybe the resurgence of vinyl albums could be a lucrative angle for musicians. He shared his thoughts: “If you’re an actual collector of objects and you like albums the resurgence is so cool. I mean, if you’re old enough to remember albums from back when they were the main choice, you’re pretty old. (laughs) Time marches on, but I think for young people first discovering LPs, this is exciting. I remember as a kid staring at LPs for hours, reading every word on them. You’d really be learning something about the music, the artwork, the design of the album cover, and the people involved. And you’d learn something about yourself along the way, too.   Right nowit costs a lot to make them, but the price is going to have to come down at some point, because new factories are being rebuilt. And some of the equipment for mastering albums is getting refurbished, the mechanical parts of those machines are being combined with computer parts and technical aspects of that. And so many older albums are still out there in record stores too.”

“I wonder if this could happen with CDs too,” he continued. “Albums are so warm and fuzzy, but CDs are very dynamic, they have a huge dynamic range.   They are almost exactly whatever the original source is, and they clone and they never lose their precision. They scratch but they don’t develop a hiss. So there’s something to be said for the CD also; any digital format has potential. CDs are only 16-bit, but that technology is quite old, that’s ‘80s technology. They could be 24-bit. Someday when digital speeds are higher technology — which it will be — and when digital storage is way bigger — which it will be — then instead of listening to .mp3s to save space, and to deliver over cell towers, we’ll be able to listen to .wavs.  It’s kind of like television, there are such sharp screens now. Hopefully the same thing will happen with music.”

Wrapping up the conversation, I asked what he is up to in the next couple weeks. He said he was currently collecting his gear for a Grand Canyon river trip, and that his guitar will make the trip.   “I’m going with a bunch of friends on a private trip, we got a permit which is incredibly difficult. We, along with my guitar, will be on the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Beach which is 230 miles of river and rapids all through the Grand Canyon.”   Walter Salas-Humara’s record Walterio comes out on August 10, and he’s playing a few local shows and then in September headed to Americana Music Awards Fest in Nashville from September 11-17. Then he’ll go on tour with Jeff Crosby in the Southwest, Arizona and California. Then see what happens and in November going to Europe. Check out his tour and music, herehttps://waltersalashumara.com/news-shows

 

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