Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Upper Strata’s album, “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes,” retells journey out beyond the desert and back again

 By Matt Marn

Also published in

Jonathan Sanchez, guitarist, lyricist, and lead singer for The Upper Strata, sits quietly listening to his group’s new album, “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes.” His head cocked to the side, he concentrates on the music, hands tapping on the table along with the beat. When his guitar solo comes, he looks to the stereo and smiles.

“Don’t ask me to play that same way again – I don’t know how I did that,” Sanchez said with a laugh.

He passes over a composition notebook full of ideas and early lyrics that would later evolve into “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes.”

“It’s funny how these books take on their own life,” he said. “But that’s kind of what the album is about: our journeys this year. Prescott, Bizbee, Jerome… It’s kind of like a little journal.”

That is the point of the album, Sanchez said. It’s hard to define or classify into a genre, because it tells the group’s own story, their growth – something that should never be pigeon-holed into one category.

The Upper Strata at the Hard Rock Cafe Phoenix, 2-28-13
Much like the Southwest itself – the mining towns, the former attractions along Route 66, the mesas and canyons – they all figure into the album’s often cinematic tracks, turning the region into a character in the works, Sanchez said. “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes” expands on ideas born from years of traveling, writing, and performing around and exploring the Southwest, and learning from the story it has to tell.

Sanchez, along with bassist and partner-in-crime Regula Sanchez-Schmid, did not want the album to be classified into one specific genre or type of music, since they touch on many styles, and people go by genre and all too often judge based on the cover.

“I read lately in a music magazine, people were ragging on the Black Keys, saying how they were not blues, and everyone was joining in, commenting on the blogs,” Sanchez said. “It was kind of disheartening to have someone define what is good or bad, pigeon-holing every artist or song into a genre, or ‘good music’ or ‘bad music.’ It’s like telling a painter not to use red. Why limit someone like that? Is it even helpful?”

The idea of a “phantom” pigeon-hole, the inability to classify something so easily, stuck with them. So they decided to name the album “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes.”

“Besides, we want to think the album is fantastic,” Sanchez said with a smile.

Sanchez said they took a lot of chances on the new album, exploring what they could do.

“We just went nuts,” he said. “We wanted to use real sounds, real acoustics – from recording in the shower, slamming shut a filing cabinet, thumping on a table, or scraping chopsticks inside a wok – rather than just opening a drum preset from some computer program. We tried to use real effects at all costs.”

The group wanted some of the tracks to come off rough and live, without the produced feel you hear in some studio recordings, Sanchez said.

“In the early mixes, you could hear amps crackling, room noise… most of that was lost in the final mastering but some of it still comes across,” he said. “We kept hearing how much better we were live, and why didn't we come across on our CD's the same way? So we tried to get that live quality to be present on most of the tracks.”

The team worked hard on every sound from every track: they got up in the morning, began working on a song, spent all day fine tuning their work, and by the evening, they had come up with a kind of rough copy. Then they recorded it and listened to it through a surround system, as well as putting it onto an MP 3 file and listening to it in the car.

“There were other songs that didn't come together and it had something to do with the chemistry,” Sanchez said. “If it felt forced, we never got anything worth finishing, but if we took it easy and felt relaxed, we got some good stuff. We would throw ideas around, record something, try it again, add something else; in short work in a way you could never hope to in a studio where you pay for every minute. We tested it in so many ways – we analyzed it; this song needs a guitar solo here, pull back on the tambourine there. To do this largely at home – with no studio recording fees, and the freedom to test boundaries our own way; it was much more luxurious. It’s
the process of getting to that point where what you hear in your headphones is what you hear in your mind.”

Whether it is their stories of a building blaze that forever changed a small town, or the story of a little church on a hill built of dynamite boxes, these tales of The Upper Strata’s journey and growth into the powerful storytellers they have become is definitely a story to be heard, again and again.

Check out "Phantastic Pigeon-Holes" on iTunes, or visit The Upper Strata on their website:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Community Spotlight: Benevilla volunteer lives life helping others

By Matt Marn

The tradition of selfless generosity that started from Mildred Olegar’s father helping those in need in his community has continued on through Mildred’s own contributions to those in her own community, both from Benevilla and elsewhere, who need help getting around, shopping for groceries, or even just a friend to listen and talk to.

Olegar has worn many hats as Benevilla volunteer, including assisting participants with grocery shopping and transportation. She has also volunteered six years at St. Clements campus, working with participants suffering from Alzheimer’s. She came in on music days to sing and dance with them.

“They may not have remembered their name or where they lived, but they didn’t need that songbook they handed out. That love and knowledge of music is stored in a different part of the brain than what affected their Alzheimer’s. Music is a powerful force.”

Olegar’s husband had spent many years researching money management at the local library, so the pair could arrange their own financial affairs. Soon, word got out, and many people – often desperate widows with financial and legal woes – came to seek him out at the library for help.

“He began holding lectures in the library,” she said. “Others came to sell bonds or items, but when they learned he wasn’t selling anything, only the truth, they flocked in. They were so desperate for help.”

Olegar has continued that legacy now herself, helping anyone she can. Some say she does too much, but she said the love and gratitude from the people she helps more than repays what she does.

“It’s just a way of life for me,” she said. “I’ve had people say that I’m an angel sent down from Heaven, what would they do without me? …You can’t stop helping when you hear things like that.”

Olegar is amazed by all Benevilla does for their participants. It has grown by leaps and bounds from when she and her husband first learned about it in that library as a resource to help the community.

“It’s just a warm place full of great people with love for their fellow man,” she said. “I’ve never met anyone that feels that friendly, loves what they do, and who gives of themselves to others. And that’s what it’s all about.”

Community Spotlight: Benevilla Physical Therapist helps participants reclaim independence

By Matt Marn

When the unthinkable happens, such as a stroke or an injury, someone can have a long road ahead of them to recovering the facilities and skills they had before. But with a physical therapist like Dawn, who visits many campuses of Benevilla – including Sun City Restorative Day Center – they are in great hands.

Dawn sat down with Restorative Care Partner Jeannette, and Tom, a participant in the physical therapy program at Sun City Restorative. Together, the three caught up on Tom’s progress. Dawn does this with every patient every 6-8 months, when she and the participant discuss changes, progress and challenges in the their physical therapy program.

Benevilla physical therapist Dawn helps participant Tom
Jeannette told Dawn Tom has been doing very well on the stationary bike. The two shared with Dawn updates, and Dawn asked Tom if he would like to add anything new to his program to work toward. Together, they adjust Tom’s personal physical therapy goals, and congratulate him on the amazing progress he has been making.

“As a physical therapist, I talk to the participant and learn about their personal situation,” Dawn said. “I work with them to help figure out some goals to set for them that will lead to success, something reasonable that can be accomplished.  We work toward something that they will be able to achieve.”

Dawn said it all started at Benevilla with volunteer instruction and body mechanics programs, but soon she began talking with other Benevilla staff about setting up a physical therapy program.

“Some people need rehab after a stroke, but sometimes, insurance stops after awhile, and they still need ongoing therapy,” Dawn said. “We can help them stay active, and we can help keep it cost-effective. I also help in other places, like an aquatic therapy session in Sun City, where we keep the cost at $10 per year to participate.”

 Dawn said she can never promise someone will get back to the way they were, but if you sit around all day, you are going to get worse.

“For example, Tom may not normally walk again, but if he sat around all day, he wouldn’t have been able to climb those stairs today.”

Dawn added many participants, including Tom, have worked very hard at their physical therapy progress, and have achieved the goals they set, thanks also to physical therapy staff like Dawn.

Dawn said one participant earlier in the program broke her arm, and her goal was to be able to play the piano again – and she achieved that goal. Another participant had a stroke, and her goal was to be able to dance at her husband’s Christmas party. She, too, achieved her goal.

“We do as much as we can to help,” Dawn said. “In general, the toughest challenge I face is working with anyone not motivated to help themselves. They need the desire to help themselves to be successful. This desire needs to come from within… if they don’t want to, they won’t get better. … And as for Tom, he has worked very hard,” Dawn said. “He is one of the best advocates of the program.”

Dawn attributes her love for helping people recover through physical therapy to a friend and classmate she had in junior high and high school who had cerebral palsy.

“She was very independent, she insisted on walking with everyone, with no special treatment – just her crutches,” Dawn said. “I had to ask her, to what did she attribute her sense of independence? She told me it was all thanks to her physical therapist. Soon, I started to volunteer more and more in physical therapy, and I decided finally it was what I wanted to do.”

Restorative Care Partner Jeanette said participants love Dawn, and truly appreciate the work she does to help them recover what they have lost.

“Any time they have a question, they ask for her,” Jeannette said. “They love her, she does a great job.”
Participant Tom said his favorite thing about the physical therapy is riding on the stationary bike.

“Dawn is a very knowledgeable person, she gives guidance for everyone trying to achieve their goals,” Tom said. “You don’t know how lucky I feel having a place like this. The best thing about this place – I meet a lot of cool people, and make a lot of friends. Everybody gets along with everyone else – that’s the greatest thing about it. We’ve become a great big family.”