As if to prove she’s indeed at one with Mother Nature, Simone Stopford isn’t in a rundown motel or filthy tour van when the Georgia Straight reaches her near San Diego.
Instead, the singer-guitarist for Tucson, Arizona, psych unit Burning Palms is hanging out on a beach that she describes as nothing less than magical. Normally, that would suggest that Stopford is enjoying some decidedly un–rock ’n’ roll downtime, perhaps recharging her batteries before a round of touring for the band’s brilliantly trippy debut disc, Burning Palms. Laughing, she says that’s not exactly the case.
“We’re camping on the most beautiful beach, just north of San Diego,” Stopford says. “It’s really wonderful—just breathtaking. Tour life really isn’t that bad, you know.”
In fact, learn to play your angles, and it can be pretty grand.
“We figured out a while ago that camping is—weather permitting—way better than staying in a flea-ridden hotel,” she offers. “Plus, we’re all pretty outdoorsy, so we went as far as to get ourselves sponsored by a camping company up in Portland. They actually sent us some tents and sleeping bags and a whole bunch of gear.”
Stopford’s love of wide-open spaces explains how she ended up in Tucson with Burning Palms, which she cofounded with vocalist Julia DeConcini. Born in England, she spent years living around the globe as a publicist, A&R rep, and MTV marketing director. During a stint in Australia, she picked up a guitar left behind by a departed boyfriend and began writing songs.
“What’s interesting is that when I first started writing in Sydney, I was sitting in my bedroom for hours on end up in an attic,” Stopford says. “As I was writing, I really had strong visions of a desert setting and sunsets, and a strong feeling of nature, and of God being bigger than us. I wasn’t in that environment at all, but somehow ended up there.”
Burning Palms sounds like the desert in the same deliriously heat-baked way as the Meat Puppets’ Meat Puppets II or everything released by the Texas-spawned Black Angels. From the creeping nightmare “Young Hunter” to the sunrise-in-the-Sahara mysticism of “Church of Ra”, there’s plenty to make you wonder if Stopford pops peyote into her morning coffee.
What really stands out, though, is her flair for sonic fireworks; just when the mystical morphine-drip ballad “Ajo” is at its quietest, she roars out of nowhere with a salvo of double-distorted guitar violence.
While she sounds insanely self-assured as a musician, the move from boardrooms to playing in a band didn’t come easy.
“Honestly, I’m up there every night playing guitar, singing, and now playing bass as well,” Stopford says self-deprecatingly. “But I really don’t know what I’m doing. I can probably play three or four chords if you asked me to. I’m more just playing sounds that I’ve made up. I have thought about taking lessons over the years, and even just sitting down with some YouTube instructionals would probably make me a better musician, but I’m nervous that if I learn to play properly, I’m going to fall into the trap of writing really obvious stuff.”
And whether she’s camping on tour or writing her own rules for psych-rock, Stopford is obviously determined to play by no one’s rules but her own. That she’s pulling it off is a bonus.
“I actually get the giggles a lot of nights because I can see guys standing in the front row staring at my hands, really focusing on what I’m doing, trying to follow along,” Stopford says with a big laugh. “Then a confused look comes over their faces and they stop watching after a while because they realize it’s all just a bunch of nonsense.”
Burning Palms plays the Cobalt on Thursday (October 1).