TEMPE, Arizona — In the early ’90s, the Pacific Northwest became the “IT” region of the moment for new music.
Record companies were scouring all the clubs for the next Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.
But not long after Seattle exploded onto the music scene, the focus shifted from the flannel shirts and coffee of the Northwest, to sandals and tequila – and in some cases sombreros – of the Southwest.
“Everybody thought this was going to turn into another Seattle, and it kind of did, for a little bit which was really fun. And I was smack dab right in the middle of the whole thing,” said drummer and longtime Arizona resident Paul “P.H.” Naffah.
In 1992, the Gin Blossoms found widespread success with their album New Miserable Experience, fueled by their first single, “Hey Jealousy.”
Suddenly, the group of local Tempe musicians who commonly practiced together at a large warehouse, saw one of their own move on from playing local frat houses and clubs to the next level of success.
“It made everybody else a lot hungrier, I think. And it made everybody realize it was possible, for sure,” Naffah said.
Not long after the Gin Blossoms earned their success, Naffah found himself as part of what was being billed as The Next Big Thing out of Arizona, The Refreshments.
The Refreshments – Naffah, Roger Clyne, Brian Blush, and Art “Buddy” Edwards – released their cult classic album Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy with their first single, “Banditos,” and soon found themselves all over alternative rock radio, MTV and even on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. They also wrote the theme for TV’s King of the Hill.
The Refreshments mainstream success was short lived. But Naffah and Clyne continued on with Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, and established themselves as one of the most exciting live independent bands on the road today.
On Wednesday, Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers (RCPM to fans) return to Salt Lake City at The Depot with a heavy dose of Peacemaker and Refreshments songs alike. The band’s SLC fan base has grown significantly over the past five years. The band noted that last year’s show had one of the loudest audiences on their tour.
For Naffah – one of the best still relatively unknown drummers on the road today, despite playing professionally since he was 14 – the thrill of playing on stage hasn’t lost its luster after more than 20 years.
“I live for that two hours on stage. I love playing. When the playing is good, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like that at all. It’s like you’re in this whole zen moment,” he said recently from his home in Arizona. “When you’re in this flow, there’s nothing like it. You’re not thinking about anything. Everything is just kind of like in slow motion and coming out perfectly. You can see what’s coming up ahead, what’s coming around the next bend.”
Naffah’s journey to the warm Arizona sun actually started in the Windy City. He grew up in a suburb of Chicago, not far from childhood friend and current RCPM bass player Nick Scropos.
One Christmas, when Naffah was about 11 or 12, Santa Claus brought him a drum set. Naffah also had older sisters who had a record player and boyfriends who introduced him to “just a whole world of incredible music.”
“It was everything, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Who, and the Beatles and it just opened my whole world. And from that moment on, I was always at the local record store buying records and doing all that stuff to try and figure out who I was and what I liked as a musician.”
Naffah remembers drumming constantly to a cassette of AC/DC’s Dirty Deed Done Dirt Cheap.
As an interesting side note: Naffah and his family were long-time Chicago Blackhawks season ticket holders. There was another season ticket holder that sat behind him regularly named John whom he would strike up conversations with. Only later would Naffah realize it was late Styx drummer John Panozzo.
By 14, Naffah was good enough to be playing local clubs – some of which RCPM still plays today.
“I’d always play with all the older guys, with guys that really wanted to make a career out of music and were actually writing their own music. So I got to learn how to work with song writers and a young age. I was just a kid that was absorbing everything that was going on around me. I think it was an invaluable lesson for what I do today.”
As for those bars he played in, Naffah said several times the band would have to sneak him in because he was too young to enter.
Naffah was also a football player in high school, fullback and defensive end. And he did the team’s long snaps, something he admits even today he enjoys doing when RCPM has a break on the road.
But what sports also instilled in him was a work ethic and discipline that he still holds today.
“If you work hard at something, you can accomplish anything you want,” Naffah said.
By 18, Naffah left Chicago for Arizona. All it took was one visit to the sunny campus of Arizona State University and he was hooked.
It was there that Naffah became embedded in the local music scene. In Tempe, many of the bands found space in a local warehouse called Argo to practice. Naffah and Scropos reunited to play in Rain Convention. On any given day, bands such as the Gin Blossoms, Dead Hot Workshop, August Red and The Feedbags would be practicing, all divided into small rooms by cement cinder blocks.
“It would be deafening. I mean, you would go in there and it would be so loud that you would actually have to start jamming to communicate musically instead of verbally because you couldn’t hear each other,” Naffah said.
But Naffah said that was also a huge point in his career and many of the other musicians.
“It was everybody’s kind of formidable years of learning,” he said.
The Tempe musicians had a sense of community with each other, in addition to friendly rivalries, and it wasn’t uncommon for different bands to jam with each other when a guitarist or a drummer didn’t show up for practice. (The earliest version of RCPM was an all-star Arizona band of sorts, featuring members of The Refreshments, Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop).
“Learning from each other, and watching each other, and being jealous of each other, and adding that jealousy drive to your ambitions and what you want to do in music. I felt that for sure. I’d see other drummers and other bands and say, ‘That’s great. I want to do that,'” Naffah said. “For me, personally, I used it as a learning experience, and I would listen to tons of music and try to emulate what I heard and just observe things.”
The success of the Gin Blossoms gave the other bands an added hunger, he said, and prompted many to practice more and learn to write better songs.
But just as he was about to graduate from Arizona State University, he found himself without a band and not knowing what he was going to do next. Naffah, who wasn’t ready to give up on his rock-n-roll dream, admits he was jealous of others in booming Tempe music scene and miserable for not being a part of it.
It was during that time that his sister – who was responsible for introducing him to new music as a child in Chicago – told him to listen to a tape.
“We were walking along the beach somewhere, and she said, ‘Here, listen to this song, and it was ‘Nada.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a pretty cool song. Who is this?’ She said, ‘That’s The Refreshments, you dummy, you need to come see them.'”
That was Naffah’s first exposure to the local band that was gaining skyrocketing popularity in Arizona.
His next experience with them was when Naffah got a call out of the blue from Refreshments’ guitarist Brian Blush, whom Naffah had met during the rehearsal days at Argo when Blush was part of August Red. The Refreshments were about to be signed to Mercury Records, but it was contingent on finding a drummer. The band had recently fired their drummer and were in desperate need of a replacement.
Naffah was put through a couple of hours of auditioning spread out over two rehearsals. But he would later find out he got the job after the first song.
After he was signed, the band put Naffah on six months probation to make sure he would work out.
Nearly 20 years later, Naffah and Clyne are still together.
After The Refreshments broke up, Clyne and Naffah continued on as Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers.
“Roger and I felt we had a lot more get up and go in us,” he said.
Since 1999, the band has released six full-length studio albums – two of them reaching number 1 on the Billboard Internet Sales chart, and another that reached #2 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart as well as #4 on iTunes rock album sales.
This June, at RCPM’s annual three-day musical festival called Circus Mexicus held in Rocky Point, Mexico, Clyne and Naffah will reunite with Blush as The Refreshments to play an opening set before RCPM’s four hour marathon show. It will mark the first full set by The Refreshments set in 15 years.
Until then, Clyne and Naffah start their Rolling Cantina Tour in Salt Lake City on Wednesday with Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, still one of the tightest and energetic live acts on the road today. Tickets can be purchased online with Smith’s Tix or at The Depot box office.