The striking landscape of New Mexico serves as the cinematic backdrop of Oppenheimer Blues, the debut album by Atlanta indie rock band The Last Tycoon. Frontman John Gladwin, who balances his musical career with work in film production, accepted a 2017 assignment for a CBS sci-fi pilot shot near Albuquerque. During the downtime on set, he absorbed the local culture and history – especially as it pertains to the Atomic Age of the 1960s. He channeled the mysterious and mundane experiences of the people he met to craft the 11 songs on Oppenheimer Blues.
“As a creative person, it’s cool to work in different mediums because films can inform the way a story is told in songwriting,” Gladwin says. “Conversely in film, there’s an inherent rhythm. As a musician, you understand rhythm and you understand melody. So when I’m doing a short film for somebody, it informs back because I can read a script and go, ‘Where’s the hook? Where’s the chorus?’”
Indeed, a cinematic quality lends itself to The Last Tycoon in more ways than one. The band takes its name from an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, written while the author was trying (and failing) to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the album’s title alludes to the late J. Robert Oppenheimer, often credited as the Father of the Atomic Bomb.
“He was such a luminary in that era,” Gladwin says, “but to everyone you talk to who was around at the time, he was just another guy and they were all dealing with the normal stuff of their lives – breakups, falling in and out of love, paying the bills, getting a house, having kids. Just your normal blues. The world-ending meeting the personal – I really liked that juxtaposition.”
During his downtime on location, Gladwin befriended some local artists in the Los Alamos area. Through them, he was introduced to a number of elderly Native Americans and Norteños who worked on the Manhattan Project in a supporting role – for example, driving trucks hauling nuclear weapons or cooking meals for scientists. Gladwin captured their unique stories on film for a documentary project; naturally, their memories are woven into the songs on Oppenheimer Blues, too.
Knowing that artists and filmmakers have long sought out the area’s natural light, Gladwin and two friends filmed an epic (yet low-budget) music video for the title track near Taos and White Sands. “Los Alamos Calling” provides a vintage snapshot of mushroom clouds and secret post office boxes, while a spooky, otherworldly atmosphere creeps into songs such as “Coyote Call.” In contrast, “Happy Family” and “Fallin’ off the Moon” bring an appealingly dark humor to the project.
Gladwin says that the opening track, “Where Shadows Grow,” was written by request to use in the title credits of a friend’s movie. Although that movie never got off the ground, Gladwin savored the experience of writing from the perspective of the bad guy – in this case, an obsessed murderer on the road.
“I jumped at the chance of getting to wear the black hat and play the villain. You can do things in a song that are not okay to do in life,” Gladwin says. “It was more of an acoustic blues thing when I wrote it. The movie died but the song was sitting there. So I changed it and put it in a desert because that’s always been a haven for bad guys. From Billy the Kid to Walter White, the anti-hero hangs out in the desert. It’s sort of primal and I thought that was a great way to kick off the record.”
As with The Last Tycoon’s EP Death By Dixie (2015), Gladwin enlisted two very distinct producers for Oppenheimer Blues. Those primal-sounding instincts of Georgia producer Jim White are evident in tracks like “Midnight Taxi” and “Jesus Christ, Union Man.” Meanwhile, Nashville producer Michael Rinne adds polish by using a smoother studio approach. Gladwin believes that clash of styles creates the right kind of tension – like a movie script where unlikely forces align.
In the middle of Oppenheimer Blues, White’s voice, junkyard percussion and banjo playing come alive across a chorus of lies on “Same Road, Different Name.” Next, “Lincoln County Oracle” (which started as a screenplay) takes the story of the Oracle at Delphi from Greek history and drops it into a trailer park in New Mexico. And in “Albuquerque Tonight,” two honeymooners find themselves stuck at a casino instead starting a new life of California.
“I’m not a good love song writer,” Gladwin admits. “This song grew into a metaphor about the way lovers in a relationship have to adapt. You might be in a certain place but you’re hoping to be somewhere else – a flyover to be endured to get where you want to go. At times you want to be in Hollywood but you’re stuck in Albuquerque. And I stole the narrative from some friends of mine who got married in Athens, Georgia, and they were moving to L.A. two days after their wedding. And their car broke down, of course! So this song is sort of a meditation on love over adversity.”
Gladwin – whose own path has carried him from small-town Arkansas to Nashville to Sweden and now Atlanta – says The Last Tycoon will embark on an early 2019 tour across the U.S. Yet, wherever his career takes him, the unmistakable aura of New Mexico follows.
“New Mexico wears the past on its sleeve,” Gladwin says. “This record started out as an exploration of the past, but as we were making it the world changed drastically. It seemed like every day with each new headline the songs took on a new meaning and became more prescient than ever. When a song grows with the times – that’s how you know you’ve got something special.”
ABOUT THE LAST TYCOOON
The Last Tycoon is an Atlanta indie rock band fronted by John Gladwin. Balancing a career in music and film production, Gladwin spent months on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while filming a sci-fi pilot for CBS. By meeting the locals and studying the area’s nuclear history, Gladwin wrote the songs that would shape the band’s debut album, Oppenheimer Blues, co-produced by Jim White and Michael Rinne. The band is named for an unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. (The Press House).