James Campbell has one of those archetypal voices that you’ll swear you’ve heard before. It has a slightly raspy quality through which cheerfully world-weary melodies growl forth. When he slips into the opening bars of the Platters’ 1958 version of “Twilight Time,” it’s as if he’s singing from the past, present, and future.
Heavenly shades of night are falling, it’s twilight time
Out of the mist your voice is calling, it’s twilight time
At a 2018 rehearsal with his band, The Long Gone, in a homey Santa Fe living room, vocalist Sarah Mohr stands next to him while he plays guitar. She moves her shoulders to the music, every bit the glamorous chanteuse in a lacy black top and red skirt, and then joins Campbell for the next verse. Her voice seems to rise from the smoky depths of some jazz club. Their duet is a seamless if unusual melding of tones that makes perfect sense for this old standard. (Watch it at vimeo.com/303943537)
Through an adobe archway, Matt McClinton plays bass, while Miguel Velasquez plays drums near a red couch. The band rocks a sound that is simultaneously rich and raw, like grunge fused with French cabaret, with a steady backbeat provided by Elvis’ ghost.
The Long Gone got together in 2017 and released its first EP, Kiss Me Goodbye, in fall 2019. (It’s been nominated for a 2020 New Mexico Music Award in the Best Pop CD category.) All five tracks are original material written by Campbell, 56, who grew up in a musical family in the Boston area and started writing songs when he was 13.
Campbell and Velasquez, a 42-year-old second-grade teacher at El Camino Real, were the first members of The Long Gone, soon joined by McClinton, who teaches private bass lessons through Candyman Strings & Things. He’s also a server at La Boca, where Campbell is the chef and owner. Mohr, 33, is the restaurant’s manager. How she joined the band is a question that makes them all laugh.
“I didn’t say she could be a part of it,” Campbell says. “She just started singing, and we decided we wanted that.” Later, he says that Mohr told him that she was a singer during her job interview. “Shortly after she started working, I had a guitar nearby and I invited her to sing something with me. I was very impressed.” Mohr’s training is in jazz, but Campbell says she just didn’t know she was a rocker.
As close as the band members are during normal times, a video interview with Pasatiempo in late May is the first time that they’ve been within six feet of one another in months. They only recently resumed rehearsals, during which they maintain social distancing. Now, they’re gathered around a computer in a dining room at La Boca, which is in the midst of renovations. The thin gray light and drop cloths contrast sharply with the memory of their warmly lit rehearsal video. All four are dressed in jeans and slightly rumpled shirts. As a group, they look kind of shaken.
“We’ve had a very important part of our being taken away,” McClinton says. “Not just playing live but being separated from family and friends. It’s what the whole human race is going through right now. You can’t really sugarcoat it and pretend it’s not difficult.” Prior to getting the band back together, he says that he’d been depressed, but playing together again has helped.
“The positivity and the power of turning up the amps and hearing Miguel beat on the drums, and James and Sarah singing — it changed my outlook.”
During their three years together, The Long Gone has played gigs at numerous Santa Fe restaurants and bars. They say they’ve found a real home on the large stage at Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery, where they are never shoved into a corner like bands are at some venues. The pandemic pulled the rug out from under the entire live music industry — but, they say, it’s not just that musicians are missing income from gigs right now. Santa Fe is a town where people will go see several bands on a Saturday night, hopping from one venue to another, willing to pay multiple cover charges and tip the bands.
“People like to see live music,” Mohr says. “It’s an art form that needs to be experienced in certain ways. People hunger for it, and there’s going to be sadness at not having it in their lives.”
Lots of musicians have been streaming concerts online during the shutdown, either from major (if empty) stages or from their homes. Velasquez says the sheer volume of things to watch is overwhelming and admits that other than tuning in several times a week for Morning Voice on Facebook Live with local musician Jono Manson, he’s only caught one or two concerts. Although they’re grateful for the technology that keeps everyone connected and makes it possible to offer music to the public, as a group, The Long Gone is tired of social media and having to watch or listen to music through a computer.
They know that it could be at least a year until crowds once again fill bars and other performance venues in Santa Fe. And it’s not as if they’re going to stop making music. So, the plan is to get into the recording studio this summer. McClinton produced Kiss Me Goodbye, which they recorded at Frogville Studios, with engineer Jason Reed. They’ll use the same team again and invite plenty of session musicians and guest performers to join them.
“I’ve written about 500 songs at this point, and we keep trying them out to see which ones work for this particular band. It’s quite a process, but it is really starting to come together,” Campbell says, adding that they’re moving toward a retro sound that incorporates some of his major influences, including The Kinks, Nick Lowe, The Beatles, The Band, and classic American R&B.
As a full-time restaurateur and an avid bandleader who’s not afraid to hustle for gigs, the shutdown is the first time Campbell has stopped to rest in years. He says he gets bored if he has too much downtime, so he’s been writing songs to add to the cache. It was slow-going for the first few weeks, when he didn’t feel like he had the peace of mind to be creative. “And then I just gave into it. There’s nothing we can do, so let’s move forward. We have to live.” ◀