TEX MEX SHAMAN: AN EXPERIMENTAL CONVERSATION
By Mike O’Cull www.mikeocull.com
Tex Mex Shaman, a.k.a. Stephen Watkins, is a wildly creative avant-garde guitarist and composer who makes abstract, conceptual funk rock music that shows little concern for typical sonic conventions. His latest release, Fever In The South, combines rock guitar, funk beats, loops, samples, and more into highly-individualized tracks that exist way outside of the mainstream and prioritize art and expression over all else. He keeps most of his personal information on ice, preferring to let his music do the talking and avoiding the spotlight and personality cults that often get in the way of doing meaningful work.
Tex was cool enough to stop by the Mike O’Cull Music home office for a chat recently to give us all some insight into what he does and how he sees the world. Experience his magic on Spotify at https://open.spotify.com/artist/2VEaPZdJfnXEnJ7qTDhJPM?si=vvHsAzFKTzOtDWfEe-PsDg.
How did this all get started?
Well, as I understand it, the Big Bang is the prevailing theory regarding a description of the origin of the Universe as we know it today. Under this theory, space and time emerged together some 13.8 billion years ago…Oh, you probably meant the … Well it’s been almost a year and a half now that The TexMex Shaman project has been in the works. This is one of a handful of musical projects I’ve been involved in over the years. I started writing for it in the summer of 2018 and began getting serious about the goal of releasing an LP around October of last year. To be honest, I never really thought about it as a working project until then, but once I did, I knew I wanted to go full on with it. The motivation to do so mostly came from me being in a serious funk over a relationship that had ended around that time. I was just getting nothing done. It was ridiculous. That plus the fact that it had been so long since I’d recorded anything and it all made sense. This project pulled me off the couch and got me back into the game. It has been very therapeutic and as fun as you can imagine. That’s the power of music though right?
What influenced you to develop your own unique style and approach?
For me, and I’m like this with most everything, I really enjoy novelty. Most of my primary influences were the mold breakers or the trend setters. I don’t really consciously think about sounding far out or different though you know? If I think too much about it when writing, it comes out sounding flat. It’s more like that’s simply what comes out when I play and successfully manage to shut off my mind. I started early as a teen thriving on the metal at the time - Priest, Maiden, Metallica … you know, tons of others, but once I got into college and you know all the stuff that happens when you’re 21 and know everything … well I learned I didn’t know much when it came to musical variety. I picked up so much during that time and have also had the best friends on the planet when it comes to sharing new music that we all get off on. I absorbed a lot and it has been reflected over the years in what I write.
What’s new in your career?
Well, at one time I did call this my career, but now it’s a whole new rodeo. This is a passionate side gig for me let’s say. I’ll tell you though, living lean as an early 20 something year old kid with stars in his eyes and on the other hand, having the means to do a project like this now, as a man in his 40’s, I’ve learned that if your heart is in the right place you will be rewarded regardless of the outcome. The key is not to focus on the outcome, right? You enjoy the journey. This upcoming release Fever in the South - The Full Release LP has been a very new experience for me. I’ve never recorded for vinyl before. The printing company I’m working with had to kick back a few of my songs for remix/master due to me just not being aware of the best way to record digitally to be listened to on vinyl. So I’ve learned that lately which to me is very interesting stuff. I’ve kinda got back into social media with this thing too. I had dropped off most of them …Facebook, Twitter etc.. pretty much for the last 6-7 years. When this project got serious, I had a buddy in marketing tell me I hadn’t even begun to advertise unless I was doing it on Facebook, so I created new TMS accounts and that’s been interesting to get back into - and I do think it’s required these days when trying to be heard for sure. It’s that signal to noise ratio that kills me.
Is your music political?
Not really, although I have nothing against that kind of music or people who want to make that kind of statement. It can be, and often is, powerful stuff and has been the catalyst for lots of change both socially and politically. That can’t be overstated, you know? I’ve always felt more of a pull towards a different message in my music. One that is rooted less in that kind of ‘us vs them’ energy and more … I don’t know what, like spiritual almost. I feel more compelled to write about or make music that alludes to a certain vibe or feeling that can be universal. I think of music a lot like a paintbrush for the soul. I paint emotion and feeling using sounds. Wait, who’s that guy with the straight jacket Mike?! Kidding. I know it sounds crazy but that’s kinda what I write towards. Since a lot of the stuff on the TMS project is instrumental or the vocals are mostly samples, I can afford to focus on more of whatever it is I feel as opposed to “verse, verse, bridge, chorus repeat” you know? That lends itself to really breaking free from most constraints that could restrict any song that might be limited by its genre. None of this is to say political music can’t be spiritual at the same time though.
What’s the one piece of gear you can’t make music without?
Well, I’m never far from a wah pedal let’s put it that way. I used to use it like ketchup on french fries, but lately I’ve rediscovered my talk box which is pretty cool too. Both are used throughout the new LP
What does the future hold for you?
After creating this project over the past year and a half, I’ve realized that this kind of thing will be with me the rest of my life and I’m super happy to have rediscovered that. With technology where it is these days, and I’m sure you know this, you can make some damn good music and make it sound damn good too right in your own bedroom. So why the hell not get a SoundCloud account and put that shit out there? And of course any other opportunities that might come up and are worth getting new shoes for will be considered haha.
What’s your “guilty pleasure” band that no one knows you listen to?
Ahhhh … well I would say the Bee Gees but I think I’m kinda proud to say I like them haha. I’m trying to come up with one - it’s probably gonna have to be some of the cheesy glam from the 80s. Like beyond just Mötley Crüe and Poison - I like(d) a lot of that deep cut L.A. sleaze.