Photo: John Carlisle
Stephen Valdean – Drummer
Grant Sperry – Bass
Brenda Hattingh – Organs/Acoustic Guitar
John Pecorelli – Guitar
In Caló, a dialect of Mexican border Spanish spoken by Latino street gangs in Los Angeles, the word “rifa” is something tacked onto the end of gang graffiti. It means “rules” or “controls,” explains John Pecorelli, guitarist and songwriter of the band Rifamos. Pecorelli used to live in a neighborhood full of gang members, and eventually became interested in their history and culture and started doing some research.
“I heard that they were sociopathic murderers, all of them, but they were cool to me. They helped me when I had car trouble, chased away guys who were breaking in to my car,” Pecorelli says.
“So rifamos are people who rule. Such as us,” he says while the rest of the band laughs, gathered in their painted cinderblock practice space, which gives off some serious jail cell vibes. “We wanted a name that didn’t really mean anything to most people.”
Formerly called Rodentia, Rifamos includes members of SugarTown, Revolver and Blood Poets. They play the kind of western and surf music that could be the soundtrack to the lives of bandits and outlaws who ride through the deserts of Mexico and the American Southwest, revolutionary characters like Pancho Villa or George Hayduke. In fact, the song “Blevins” is named after one such character: Jimmy Blevins from Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses.
The band is proud of their other influences as well, and this encyclopedic knowledge of all things cool comes through in their music. The recipe is something like this: mix together Spaghetti Westerns, 1950s monster movies and 1960s surf and garage, let it stew in its own reverb for a while and voilà, You’ve got a bizarre, spooky, instrumental four piece with killer chops. Imagine the epic drama of Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” mixed with fun, traditional surf in the vein of The Chantays or more recently The Deoras, throw in some Estrus Records bands like The Makers and then string it all out on that magical, hallucinagenic cactus Lophophora williamsii. On some songs, like “Drogas,” the band drops into a sludgy, stonery daze like something you might hear from Mondo Drag.
“There’s almost two bands in one,” says drummer Stephen Valdean. “There’s the heavier, riffier, sludge stuff, and then there’s the tex-mex, mex-mex, stuff.”
“Surf and spaghetti western songs are very similar,” says Brenda Hattingh, organist, acoustic guitarist and the most recent addition to the group. “They go well together.”
“Yeah,” adds Valdean. “Big open spaces, big waves.”
Although the band has been together for two and a half years and has a good handful of recordings posted on Facebook (facebook.com/losrifamos), they have yet to drop any sort of official release. Obvious to anyone who listens to them, Rifamos takes their songwriting seriously, but for these old college friends, the main reason they play is to enjoy themselves. Pecorelli says, “It’s just fun to write songs, practice them and play out once in a while.”
Their quest for fun has led to national recognition, however. Filmmaker Clint Wardlow has used some of their music in his documentaries and recently asked Rifamos to write a song for a horror movie that he is working on called Cannibal Owl, based on an old Apache legend.
“We pretty much just ripped off ‘Into the Void’ by Sabbath,” says Pecorelli.
“We think we’d be good for Quentin Tarantino films,” says bassist Grant Sperry. “Or David Lynch. Maybe a strip club scene.”
Pecorelli says that the band’s secret to their success is “as much reverb as possible, and it’s still not enough.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe it is the reverb, but more likely it’s the weird influences and experiences that pop up in the band members’ day-to-day lives. For example, Valdean works for a company that manufactures machines that monitor electromagnetic frequencies. Their main customers are the United States government and its legions of spooks—the FBI, CIA and NASA—but the devices are also popular among ghost hunters and UFO fanatics, who believe that paranormal beings emit electromagnetic waves.
Also creepy, Hattingh works as a magician’s assistant, which means that she gets sawed into thirds on the reg. She also performs as a clown under the name Boobiliboo. Like some kiddie version of Jesus Christ, she claims that her best trick is turning peanut butter into jelly. “I’ve found that what’s funny to little kids is also funny for drunk adults,” she says.
So not only do the members of the band know how to create some of the best western-influenced rock n’ roll this far north of the Sonoran Desert, but they are experienced entertainers as well.
Rifamos will be playing at Craft Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 13 at The Gallivan Center. The only real excuse to miss their set would have to be something life threatening, like the bite of a gila monster.