Ask Inaiah Lujan for a lyric, and he'll likely end up singing you a whole song.
"I've got to sing it in order to remember it," he apologizes, reaching for the nearest ukulele and venturing into "American Dream," a ballad he wrote during a hitchhiking tour across the United States.
Long before he reaches the chorus "And I'll give thanks to the cities / Who fed us and kept us clean / And to hell with all the rest of you / Destroying the American Dream" the other Haunted Windchimes have softly joined in, along with a couple of houseguests who clearly know all the words as well.
Like a modern-day version of the Monkees, the Windchimes all live in the same Pueblo house, a comfortable refuge of the sort that realtors like to call cozy. Inaiah and his sister Chela moved here from Arizona, after spending 11 years on a Navajo reservation where their father taught. ("We were kind of adopted into the lifestyle of the Navajo," says Inaiah. "It was a real cool experience to draw from musically.") Desirae Garcia, the group's third member, was a Kansas-born Army brat whose mother a nurse and midwife wore the uniform in the family. A third Lujan, brother Robbie, shares the house and accompanied the group on this summer's tour, performing with them in a side project called the Mexican. Venus In Furs, possibly the only cat in Pueblo to be named after a Velvet Underground song, rounds out the household.
Described by Indy music columnist Adam Leech, an early Windchimes adopter, as "soft-spoken, polite and genuine nearly to a fault," the group is also startlingly unique. Their reverence for the likes of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, artists long dead before any of them were born, is one thing; their ability to play in that tradition with such soulfulness and conviction is virtually unheard of for a group whose oldest member, Inaiah, just turned 25.
Already, the Haunted Windchimes have the charisma, talent and originality to hold their own against the likes of Vampire Weekend, DeVotchKa and other headliners at this past weekend's Monolith Festival up at Red Rocks outside Denver. Of course, making such a leap would depend on a whole different set of factors, from shifting popular tastes to professional connections to sheer luck. In many ways, they are aiming much higher, placing music and community first, creating a compelling, original repertoire and paying homage to the artists in whose footsteps they follow.
And then, there are those harmonies: sometimes sweet, often haunting, always beautiful inspired, according to Inaiah, by artists ranging from the Carter Family to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The Lujans, self-taught, play largely by ear; Desirae grew up singing in her church and school choirs, and learning music theory.
From her Nashville-meets-Delta-blues "Summer Solstice" to Chela's hypnotic "Little Bones" (which, it turns out, is about dominoes, though she left the lyrics open enough to allow darker interpretations), the Haunted Windchimes' originals fit seamlessly alongside covers of Woody Guthrie's biblical "Sowing on the Mountain" and Leadbelly's plantation-inspired "Take this Hammer."
On an early September afternoon, as a breeze rustles the trees and the normally animated Venus In Furs falls asleep to the drone of a visiting interviewer, the Haunted Windchimes proceed to talk about touring in the midst of tornadoes and hurricanes, the art of impoverishment and, of course, the crickets who sing along with Chela and Desirae every time they record their vocal harmonies.
"Something happened to me on the road," says Inaiah of his pre-Windchimes tour back in 2006. "I really got in tune with this different spirit out there, just the idea of not being tied down to anything and really experiencing freedom on a different level."
Leaning forward on the living room couch with a cigarette in hand, Inaiah is explaining the origins of "American Dream." A staple of the trio's live shows, it was written after a long hitchhike from Omaha, Neb., to Chicago. The song's primary inspiration, he says, was that "America is such a great concept, and I definitely think there are ways to tap into the true freedom of it. And one is getting rid of all your money, and just doing what you want to do. So 'American Dream' was a chronicle of me and Mikey's travels."
Mikey, an extensively tattooed and pierced gentleman who's been sitting quietly across the living room, takes over the story.
"He would play, and I would make sure that nobody would mess with him," Mikey says in the soft-spoken tone of a guy who never needs to raise his voice. "For people who don't know me, if I'm not trying to be friendly, you know, the tattoos and all the piercings really put them off. I did have to tell one homeless dude that he had to go away, because he'd walk past and eyeball the money that was in [Inaiah's] case, and he'd walk away and then come back and eyeball it again. I had to go up to him and say, like, 'Hey man, you have to move on, because if I see you again, we're going to have to do the man-dance.'"
The homeless guy went away and was soon replaced by a bevy of off-key frat boys.
"This is around the middle of September, so we're hitting college towns," recalls Lujan, "We would strategically go set up on the corner, like, right after a Huskers game in Lincoln, so there's just like hundreds of people on the strip, and I'd play some Sublime or something that college kids are really into. And they'd just be throwing money in the case, which paid for our food."
Steel City blues
"Look out there doesn't it look just like the 1950s?" asks a Pueblo record-store owner whose shop, appropriately enough, is overflowing with vintage vinyl.
Well, yes and no. The public library jutting up against the otherwise-even skyline is decidedly modern, but Pueblo does have a small-town feel on this sunny, late-summer afternoon. Through the years, the decline of heavy industry has made the former "Steel Town" more quiet by day. Meanwhile, a shortage of live music venues keeps Pueblo and its musicians pretty quiet after the sun goes down.
"There's not a lot of places to play down here." says Inaiah. "And the sad thing about this town is, a lot of places that have the potential to get going just don't end up working out. There is a really good punk rock scene, though that's always kind of up and down. But when it's booming, it's really good. And we go up to the Springs and up to Denver. Taking little trips out of town, it's like a quick fix."
It's not entirely surprising that, except during summer tours, Colorado Springs has become the Windchimes' home away from home. They've played numerous gigs at venues like Kinfolks, the Rocket Room and the Black Sheep.
And it's all because of Rupert Murdoch: Thanks to a local coffeehouse's MySpace page, Inaiah first reached out to Colorado Springs, and one particular resident, back in June 2006.
"They had a handful of friends, and I recognized all of them except for Desi. I figured she lived in the Pueblo area and, you know, I was a lonely guy," he says with a laugh.
"We always say we have to come up with a better story," says Desirae.
"But it was real innocent," adds Inaiah. "We talked on the phone before we ever met, and I was dealing with some really bad insomnia at the time, so I'd call her at all odd hours of the night and we would just talk for hours. We came up with the whole concept of the Haunted Windchimes the first time we ever talked."
The name came from a discussion of ghosts and Inaiah recalling how the windchimes outside his parents' house were always blowing, even though there was no wind. The rest is recent history.
"I guess we were kind of just humoring each other's grandiose ideas and schemes, like, 'Yeah, we're totally going to be in this band called the Haunted Windchimes!' And it wasn't long before I found out she could actually sing when she picked me up and sang along to the car stereo at the top of her lungs."
"I get really funny looks when I drive along," explains Desirae. "I was probably listening to the Velvet Underground, a lot, and Fiona Apple, maybe some Violent Femmes. And the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I wanted a band just like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs! I told him, 'I wish I could sing cool like that, so I could be in a chick band.'"
"We definitely had different tastes," says Inaiah, whose mother sang her kids to sleep with Neil Young and Bob Dylan songs. (This was before child-abuse laws became more strict.) "But we were both open to learning other artists and music from each other."
Summer 2007 found Inaiah and Desirae hitting the road together, while Chela headed west to California by herself to boost her confidence.
"I was playing music just by myself, going to open-mic nights and just getting rid of the anxiety of performing in front of people," says Chela, who found comfort in the presence of strangers. "No one knew me and I was like, 'Yeah, OK!'"
Desirae and Inaiah, meanwhile, played scheduled tour dates for two weeks, then improvised for another four. The primary aim was to acquire road experience. They revisited a lot of places where Inaiah had played the year before Bloomington, Ind., Indianapolis, Omaha, Neb., then ventured into unexplored terrain with a trip to the South.
"That's where the sound just kind of shifted," says Desirae. "We got to Nashville and wrote a song ["Summer Solstice"] that turned out sounding way different from anything we'd ever done before. It sounded kinda like Nashville. And that's when it started changing."
"Yeah, I was really taken by the South," adds Inaiah. "Walking around towns like Savannah, Ga., and just kind of feeling the history there, you know? Whether it be negative or positive, there was definitely, like, a presence in the South and I think we were really tapping into that."
Armed with a bunch of CDs burned by a friend in Bloomington, the pair became enamored with Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. But it wasn't until they reached Louisiana that their love affair with folk/blues singer Leadbelly bloomed fully.
As is so often the case, the revelation came as the sun was rising over a Wal-Mart.
"We were driving through Alabama and Mississippi, just seeing all this beautiful countryside," says Inaiah of the imminent epiphany, "and then we ended up sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Shreveport [La.]. We were busted broke, having just left Alabama, where we made just enough money to get us to Texas, where our next show was, and we had already driven about 16 straight hours. I'd heard you can sleep in Wal-Mart parking lots they won't mess with you and it was so hot and humid in the middle of summer.
"But Shreveport's also the birthplace of Leadbelly, kind of his old stomping grounds. So we learned 'Good Night, Irene' the next morning, right after we got McGriddles, which made us sick. I'd always been enamored with Leadbelly, but that was the first time I actually stopped myself and thought, 'What the hell is he saying here?' And when we sat down and wrote out the lyrics, and I saw the words for the first time, I was like, 'This is brilliant.'"
The duo made it to the Lone Star State, albeit somewhat worse for wear.
"We'd spent our last $10 on McDonald's," says Desirae, "and we were still regretting it as we rolled into Denton on empty."
Meet the crickets
Back home in Pueblo, Inaiah and Desirae reunited with Chela and began plotting Verse/Visa, their second studio album (recently reissued as a split CD with the Mexican's Funeral Pop debut). When it came time to record, they retreated to the Lujan parents' basement, which they dubbed Distant Dream Studios.
The sessions went smoothly, with one twist: an army of showbiz-stricken insects.
"We had a severe cricket problem in the basement," Inaiah says, lamenting the nocturnal choir that found its way onto the album.
"Every time me and Desi would come in with our vocals, these crickets would just start up," says Chela. "It was only when me and Desi would sing."
"But it worked, though," says Inaiah. "At first I'm like, 'God, these crickets are so loud.' But they really added to it. The cool thing about it is that the crickets actually began to chirp in time."
(Fun fact: Varying temperatures influence the rate of a cricket's chirp; the relationship between the two is known as Dolbear's Law.)
The group's sound, meanwhile, continued to evolve.
"On our first album, we knew we wanted it to fit the name and be haunting and have all these minor ballads and long epic songs on the album," says Inaiah. "But I think that after our next album, [the live] An Evening With [the Haunted Windchimes], it kind of changed form and became more folky and rootsy, more what it is now."
Riders on the storm
This past June, an augmented Windchimes (the trio plus Robbie, aka "The Mexican" Lujan) hit the road again. This time, the road hit back.
"The first couple weeks of the tour were really weird," recalls Desirae. "Like the first night we left, we drove into this huge tornado warning. We were driving underneath this massive storm from, like, Pueblo to Iowa."
Somewhere in Nebraska, a hailstorm took out the windshield wipers on their Dodge Caravan. The group made its way to Kearney that night, checking into a motel and learning a tornado had hit the town a half-hour before their arrival. After checking out the next morning, they found themselves driving slowly through streets of demolished cars.
"The same thing happened in Omaha," says Inaiah, although that time, the brunt of the storm hit while they were sleeping safely in a basement (or think tank, as their friends insisted it be called).
"The next morning we walked to breakfast," says Inaiah, "and traffic lights were knocked over; lamp posts were laying on top of cars."
"And our van had, like, one leaf stuck to the side of it," adds Desirae.
Concerned the group's luck might run out before the plague of locusts arrived, Chela made a fateful decision: "I had named us the Four Horsemen, but after that, I was like, 'OK, we have to rename ourselves.'"
"Everywhere we went, there was a disaster," Inaiah adds. "We're like, 'Are we the Four Horsemen? Are we bringing the apocalypse?'"
To be on the safe side, Chela rechristened them the Light Bearers.
"And actually," says Desirae, "the tour took a drastic change after that."
With Mother Nature apparently satiated, human nature began to enter the picture. In Bloomington, the group was staying with another friend when they woke up to find that her car had been stolen. The villain, who'd crashed a porch gathering the night before and then slipped inside the house to grab the keys, had the profile of a serial thief a grill and bicycle having previously disappeared into the night.
"But we were the Scooby-Doo gang," says Desirae, beaming, "so we made it OK because we had a Mexican stakeout party the next night. And so we stayed up with about 10 people on the front porch and another 10 on the back porch, and sure enough, at about 3 in the morning, [the suspect] actually came back."
Once confronted, the woman broke down, insisting she'd gone in the house looking for pills, but knew nothing about the car. The police arrived, discovered she was a felon, and hauled her off.
"We have the article, actually, and the cops took all the credit 'Cops foil criminal,'" Desirae says. "They didn't mention how we detained her. They didn't say anything about the Scooby-Doo gang."
Nor, it turns out, did they return the car, though they did find its driver's manual.
"But the weirdest thing is that they stole Liz's rubber plant," says Inaiah. "And that's what actually threw her over the edge."
"She's so mellow," says Desirae. "She's like, 'Oh, it's just a car, whatever. Maybe it's like the universe telling me that I should just ride a bike more.'"
"Yeah," says Inaiah, "but then she's like, 'Those fuckers stole my fucking rubber plant!'"
Gotta keep moving
While Inaiah and his cohorts have yet to find the American Dream out there, they've caught some glimpses. Surrounded by an array of multi-denominational decorations (a couple of tabletop Buddhas, Chela's painting of Shiva the Destroyer, a prayer flag in the front yard), they can't help but convey an innocence and idealism as timeless as their music. The months on the road have only served to reinforce their belief in synchronicity, karma and the kindness of strangers.
"I think in order to properly sing harmony, you have to be harmonious in the group," says Inaiah, which explains the stunning harmonies of a trio that lives together, tours together and attends community college together.
That personal energy, he figures, can create change on a broader level.
"If you put out good energy, I'm of the belief that you get it back," he says. "Through music, we can communicate with a lot of people and we can all be under the same roof enjoying music and it doesn't matter what color we are or what our political stance is. You know, all that goes away."
Until, that is, the show ends.
"Yeah," Inaiah responds quietly. "When the music stops, the man dies."
Fortunately, the Haunted Windchimes show no sign of stopping any time soon. Through the band's homegrown label, Blank-Tape Records, Chela and Desirae have solo albums coming out. The label is also home to Inaiah's punk band, A Poor Substitute, as well as a Nashville folk-punk collective called Happy Box. As if that weren't enough, Inaiah is trying to take the sting out of turning 25 by recording and posting one new song to his MySpace page each day for the rest of the year.
Meanwhile, the Windchimes just keep moving, to borrow from an Inaiah song that Desirae describes as "so Johnny Cash that it hurts."
"We do 'Folsom Prison Blues' at the end of 'Gotta Keep Moving,'" explains Inaiah, "just to show that these are traditional chords and traditional melodies. And you know, Johnny Cash isn't even the first person to write it."
It may not be as expansive as, say, Elvis Presley's "An American Trilogy" medley, but it still gets job done.
"These melodies get reworked and the stories become different and that's just the tradition of song," Inaiah says. "I think that, to me, the Haunted Windchimes are really just trying to uphold that whole tradition of passing down the song."