Luke Henley // September 5, 2018
As Alex Simon tells it, it took years for him to realize the musical persona of Tone Ranger—a lifetime, even, until the right-place-right-time stars aligned here in Santa Fe. Seeing him for the first time performing his self-described "cosmic lap steel" music, fused seamlessly with buoyant and crisp house beats, I would have guessed he'd been doing it since birth. Another possibility was that he simply appeared after the storm clouds rolled on from the desert with his music one day, a mythical origin story for sounds whose creator's intention and execution seem so well met as to be identical forces.
The truth is more mundane but no less interesting. Simon worked in recording and composition in California for years before finding his way to Santa Fe. During that time he developed a vast toolkit of recording and arrangement techniques, but eventually wanderlust set in and Simon took an opportunity for farm work on Navajo Nation land. A few months into his time there, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests began, and he left for Standing Rock.
There he helped set up recording equipment in a tent erected to preserve Indigenous peoples' stories, protests and songs.
"That was really my induction to the desert, via Navajo Nation," Simon says. "I was immersed in an Indigenous community out there and then, with Standing Rock, deeper immersion. I came to Santa Fe with that intention of working with Native communities and just trying to understand more about Native America today."
This immersion and recording work also led to his Sovereign Sounds project, which facilitates recording projects in the Indigenous communities of the Southwest. He operates primarily in New Mexico but also with the Tohono O'odham in Southern Arizona's Sonoran Desert. The project's goal is to provide tools and opportunities for members of these communities to tell stories, start podcasts, record music and more. And the benefits were easy to see.
"I thought that if I gave people the tools to record … [they] could record in any setting—we just need to get materials there because there are so many functions for [Sovereign Sounds]," he explains. "They can record modern music, they can record language, they can record cultural stories, they can record songs that could die with an elder."
Simon then traveled to Santa Fe, making his home in a desert he says has enchanted him since age 7. In just a year and a half, he has focused his musical persona into a performing workhorse and released a mission statement of an eponymous EP in August on San Francisco-based Jumpsuit Records.
While Simon is more than comfortable using hand percussion, vocal elements and his ever-present lap steel guitar to create ambient music, the new EP is firmly planted in a dance setting. Part of this is due to the performance side of Tone Ranger, an attempt to engage with audiences on a celebratory level. After years of a serious-minded compositional perspective, Simon discovered a desire to make dance music.
"I want to be that guy, you know, putting the hands in the air and everything," Simon says. "Having people dance to my music was actually the most satisfied I could feel as a performer, because they're embodying the music."
The music comes from a place of integrity, but that doesn't restrict its ability to be fun as well. "Fun is a good thing!" Simon exclaims.
Tone Ranger's self-titled EP is available digitally, via streaming services and in CD form at shows. Its blend of natural instrumentation and crystal-water beats is well worth your time and money. Perhaps worth even more of your time and money are his live performances, which are joyous and inviting affairs for fans of electronic and Western music alike. Simon's deft playing of the lap steel while managing live-mixing and his laptop proves a beguiling demonstration of virtuosity in multiple fields. Find him at both the Jumpsuit Family Gathering festival in Taos on Thursday and Saturday Sept. 6 and 8, and in a more intimate setting locally at Ghost this week.