Cause for Creation
Musician and artist Walter Salas-Humara creates for the sake of it
By Barry Montgomery

Many professional musicians spend a huge chunk of their lives on the road, plying their art in an endless string of one-night stands in bars and nightclubs. They also typically make their permanent home in a major metropolis that gives them easy access to record labels, recording studios and industry contacts. Walter Salas-Humara has had his fair share of this lifestyle, dividing the bulk of the past three decades between New York, Los Angeles and heavy touring both with his band, the Silos, and as a solo act.

In recent years, though, he’s been making some serious changes. He’s sharply pared back his touring schedule and taken up a second career in painting. And in late 2008, Salas-Humara checked out of the urban jungle, moving from New York to Flagstaff. The move was motivated by his budding relationship with longtime Flagstaff resident Amy Daggett, whom he’s known since the two attended high school together in Colorado. But it’s clear that Salas- Humara really appreciates the local culture and community, too.

“I really like how un-materialistic people are here,” he says. “People seem to really care about each other, care about the community, and care about the environment. People talk about their work very little. You don’t get the sort of voracious networking that’s so common in a lot of urban places. People talk to you because they’re friendly, not because they’re sizing you up, thinking ‘What can I get out of him? What can he do for my career?’

“The fact that the whole culture here revolves around the outdoors is so … refreshing,” he says, breaking into a contagious laugh at this implicit comparison to life in New York and L.A. Salas- Humara takes full advantage of the opportunities for outdoor adventure our area offers. He’s a voracious skier and also loves hiking and boating. One of his most recent adventures was a week- long kayaking trip down the Green River.

A quarter century of music-making

Salas-Humara started the Silos in the mid-’80s, and the music press often refers to the band as an ahead-of-their-time example of the Americana/roots rock/alt-country genre. But Salas-Humara doesn’t really see these or any of the many other labels critics have come up with for his music as meaningful or accurate. When pressed, he describes it as “organic indie rock.”

“It’s music in the service of the song,” he explains. “Although there are some great solos and so forth, it’s not really about solos or jam- outs. It’s mostly about the songs, with instrumentation that’s fairly natural and a style that I think is pretty clearly rock.”

Guitar, bass and drums have always been at the core of the Silos’ sound, but the band has sometimes incorporated violin, organ, pedal steel guitar or horns into its songs. Although he loves to combine new instruments and elements of different musical genres, Salas-Humara holds true to his “natural” credo, avoiding big production flourishes, studio trickery and fleeting musical trends.

The Silos really hit their musical stride on the album Cuba, released in 1987. Salas-Humara’s dusky voice provides earnest, plaintive delicacy on the album’s slower songs, and a lusty, full- throated howl for its driving rockers. “Tennessee Fire”, the album’s rousing opening track—complete with a maniacal, sawing violin solo that recalls John Cale’s viola work for the Velvet Underground— became a big college radio hit. Among the slower songs, the beautiful “Going Round” makes imaginative use of a string quartet. The album earned truckloads of critical hosannas, and the Silos were named the Most Promising New Band in the Rolling Stone critics’ poll that year.

The critical raves continued with subsequent Silos releases, but unfortunately these never translated into large-scale commercial success. Nevertheless, an enthusiastic cult following has kept Salas-Humara going for the past 25 years, over which he has released nearly 20 albums, a minority of these under his own name rather than the Silos’ banner. He estimates that 50 musicians have been a part of what he calls the Silos’ “musical collective” over this time period. In Salas-Humara’s eyes, no one ever becomes an ex- Silo—he plans on using at least 20 members of this extended musical family on the Silos album he’s currently working on.

Canvas Canines

When Salas-Humara took up a paintbrush six or seven years ago, it wasn’t for the first time, and he certainly wasn’t just another successful musician with a dilettantish interest in the visual arts. “I started out as a painter,” he explains. “That’s the reason I moved to New York in the first place, back in 1982. Back then I did large, abstract color fields—very mid-20th century, in that sort of abstract expressionist style of the late ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s.” He found, unfortunately, that the art world was an almost impossible one to make a living in, and when his music career took off, it ended up absorbing all of his artistic attention for the next two decades.

Salas-Humara took something of a new tack when he returned to painting. “I still wanted to make modern paintings,” he explains. “In other words, I wanted them to be two-dimensional, rather than creating illusionistic space. But I wanted to make paintings that people would like.” He chose as his subject imaginary and sometimes impossible dogs that inhabit a two-dimensional, boldly colored universe. There’s not even a passing concession to realism here—even the dogs with the “correct” number of heads and legs have no noses or mouths, just eyes staring out of otherwise blank faces. Salas-Humara also paints commissioned portraits of actual dogs, which he renders in a slightly more representational vein, but even these are spiced with a sense of playful whimsy.

“My art heroes are people like Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns, but these guys are acquired tastes that not everybody can get with,” Salas-Humara explains. “So I create paintings that combine qualities of the abstract art I like with fun imagery that anybody can relate to, even kids. I originally started off doing these dog paintings as gifts for my nieces and nephews.”

He’s found the Flagstaff art scene to be refreshingly unpretentious. “The arts are supported in a very generous way here,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be the kind of snobby, ‘the art I like is cooler than the art you like’ mentality that goes on in a lot of places.”

Music for a different stage

A few years ago, Salas-Humara also struck up an unlikely songwriting partnership with Jonathan Lethem, the brilliant author responsible for best-selling and critically lauded novels such as “Fortress of Solitude,” “Chronic City” and “Motherless Brooklyn.” Lethem is more of a passionate and very knowledgeable music fan than an actual musician, but his inimitable way with words lets him knock out intricately composed lyrics with astonishing speed. The pair co-wrote the entire 2008 album You Are All My People at Lethem’s house in Maine in just three days. Salas-Humara describes it as “just a collection of songs, really, despite all my efforts to get Jonathan to collaborate with me on a rock opera, or some kind of thematic, conceptual work. He was dead set against it then, but now he’s come full circle.”

The duo is now in the process of writing a musical theater piece. “It’s in the works. We have a bunch of the songs written and Jonathan has written a couple monologues,” Salas-Humara says. “Really the next step is to figure out how to stage it, and then we can figure out how to continue with the music and everything else. We’re interviewing directors now.” It promises to be an exciting new chapter in Salas-Humara’s multi-faceted career.