Locals Only: : Untamed West

Zach Mechlem trades his sitar for a six-gun

Dale M. Johnson

Mack West

Multi-instrumentalist Zachary Mechlem's heritage is Eastern European Gypsy. This is indicative of his far-flung stylistic leaning, which wanders from India to Spain and lifts sound from all points in between. His latest project, Mack West, has found an unexpected home in the Old American West, saturating both music and subject matter with romantic Cowboy imagery.

This is the culmination of an idea Mechlem has had brewing for a while. His solo set has been creeping in this direction, showcasing the Country-tinged songs he had been producing, some for a soundtrack in the works. His music lends itself to visualization, so it's no surprise that the film medium has influenced him.

"I used to watch a lot of horror movies, and I loved the soundtracks, with all the mystery and swells," he says. Along with a healthy dose of Louis L'Amour books and Spaghetti Westerns, this pushed Mechlem in the direction of narrative songwriting with an Old West theme.

With his cavernous baritone and gothic imagery, comparisons to Johnny Cash are inevitable. "I did some Cash and got great feedback," says Mechlem, "but I didn't want to focus too much on that, especially now that he's passed on."

Mack West is a long way from typical Country music, anyway. Mechlem's classical guitar flair and a rhythm section that subtly hints at Rock give their music a unique and intangible twist. The compositions are also a far cry from the formulaic nature of what passes for Country today. Much more Jazz influenced, Mack West gives grooves and melodies adequate breathing room, and vocals are simply another part of the palette instead of the primary focus.

This structure is in line with Mechlem's first recorded foray into the Old West, 2000's The Haight Gang. A concept album with a strong imprint of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fusion, it relied heavily on music to convey much of the story. Mack West drummer Greg Slone played on several tracks on this "Falafel Western."

Slone was a natural first addition to the new band. His background in Rock drumming and fluid technique are a boon to the project, giving Mechlem's compositions an unexpected goose. Slone's playing provides the ideal mix of strength and creativity, elevating the music by not defaulting to a simple shuffle on every song.

"Country's not something that I listen to, so I like that challenge," says Slone, who has also detoured into Reggae and World Music with Lucky and the Zionites, and is co-founder of the Rock outfit, Bastion. "I like experimenting with different styles."

Slone and Mechlem originally became acquainted when they were hired as tour support for MOTH. Many rhythm sections have found themselves in this whirlwind in recent years, and their stint was particularly eventful (the pair has enough great MOTH stories to fill this entire issue). Beyond providing blackmail fodder, the experience deepened the bond between the two, allowing for effortless creative rapport.

They have played a number of shows as a duo, and audiences have thus far been very receptive. "When we set up, people are expecting Black Keys or White Stripes, then it's this stripped down Country music," says Mechlem. "We get a lot of compliments afterward, which is encouraging."

"Musicians you almost expect to be into it," says Slone of their eclectic mix of soaring songs and gritty storytelling, "but when people that are there to see other bands come up and say how into it they were, that's when you know you're on the right track."

John Distler of Hoodwink has recently been added on bass. No other permanent members are in the cards, but the band is looking forward to adding percussion, lap steel, harmonica, trumpet and other melodic instruments when the songs are recorded. "I can't wait to fill them out," says Mechlem. "But what I like about this is that I know we can get by without it."

One of their secrets is booking themselves with the fantastically varied Americana acts on the local scene. Their Double Deuce Roundup at the Southgate House last month was well attended despite inclement weather, and they play on Saturday at the BarrelHouse as part of the monthly Rivertown Music Club. Proceeds will be donated to the local chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Mr. Cash would be proud.

MACK WEST plays the Barrelhouse on Saturday.