Sunday, February 2, 2014

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Alex Dezen (The Damnwells)

(photo by Amber Bollinger)

Hey, Alex, thanks for taking the time to chat – I know you are busy.  I listened to the first “Bedhead” EP this morning and it was fantastic.   What was the impetus for recording some solo stuff?

All Damnwells songs begin as a demo of sorts, and when I first started making demos they were kinda crappy, you know, recorded on a cassette tape or 4-track.  As years went by, I have gotten more and more proficient in recording myself and that has never really been represented on any Damnwells record because the band is a collective collaboration where I’ll usually write or co-write the song but we will all work on the arrangement.  So often the demos sound much different than the final product, and I just thought that it was time to put something out by myself – it’s been almost 4 years since the last Damnwells record, so I thought why not put out some of those things that I have written and recorded during that time.

So these are separate recordings from things that you intended to go on the 5th Damnwells record?

Yeah, they were recording entirely by myself or with one other person with very few overdubs and minimal takes.  It’s pretty raw and straightforward.

How do you determine what becomes a Damnwells song, what’s going to (other band) The Rebecca West, and what’s going to be solo?

It’s kind of a random lottery [laughs].  I wish that there was a more scientific logarithm or something, but I generally have in mind when I am writing, “Oh this would be really cool with drums and bass and guitar” and that becomes a Damnwells song.  Or, “This would be really cool with a bunch of harmonies and a folk treatment” and that becomes a The Rebecca West song. And then with these other songs on the EPs, they seemed much more solo in nature, and I would try to throw one or two on each Damnwells record.  For example, on “No One Listens to the Band Anymore” there’s “The Great Unknown” which is for all intents and purposes a solo song, but it’s done with the band.  And on “Air Stereo” there was “Shiny Bruise”, so they’ve made appearances before but they’ve always kind of been the black sheep.  So these EPs give me the opportunity to put out some stuff that wouldn't quite be right for a Damnwells  or Rebecca West record, and it gives them their own home. 

That’s great.  As for the band, it was a cool little surprise that you were getting back together with David and Steven.  How did that come about and what brought them back into the Damnwells fold?

When we ended things with Steve and Dave, there was no bad blood. Steve had a kid and was stressed out, and Dave was getting married…we were just all getting older.  We had spent a lot of time on the road, hitting it hard for a long time, and I think we just felt like the return was getting less and less. We were putting so much out there.   But I think like any tried-and-true rock and roller, the siren call of playing music and getting on the road is hard to ignore.  We’ve always been in touch and Steve and I have talked about how we should have a reunion – once a year we would exchange an email about it.  I think that there was a lot of questions about what the next Damnwells record was going to be – I had recorded all these songs in LA that I had written with other people – and I was talking with Salim Nourallah, who ended up producing this record, and we were hanging out in Dallas and he floated the idea that we should make another Damnwells record with the old guys.  We literally just sat there and called Steve and Dave and they both said ok…it was that easy.  It took all of 5 minutes.  Well, seven YEARS and 5 minutes [laughs]

Salim’s an interesting guy – I mean, not only has he worked with bands like the Old 97’s, but he’s a singer, songwriter and producer.  What did he bring to the table?

In the studio and left to our own devices, we would probably overplay and overproduce, and make stuff sound too glossy.  Wouldn’t any guitar player LOVE to record 18 tracks of guitar! And I think that can really be the downfall – even just doubling a guitar can sometimes take away from the impact of a song.  He’s really good at being able to limit us.  There’s a thing called the “safe tempo”, which is 120 bpm – most songs on the radio are about 120 bpm – sort of up – mid-tempo.  And we have been trying to stay away from that, either playing faster or slower and trying to make the songs sound the way they should when these four guys are playing together. Just trying to capture what we sound like is an art that I don’t think anyone in the band is equipped or qualified to create, so we need someone else to do that.  Salim is someone that we have known for years and we trust him.  His interests are making the band sound good.

So how is the album sounding – is it more direct than the last one? How does it feel compared to the rest of the catalog?

Well, it’s kind of early yet to really say.  A lot of our early stuff is really overproduced, especially the stuff we would do on our own.  I don’t think it sounds like anything else in the catalog – it sounds a lot more like what you experience when you are packed into a club and we are playing.   It doesn’t feel tired, which is probably what you would expect from a band that has been playing together for 15 years.  There is a lot of energy and a renewed sense of what we are.  But it doesn’t feel hasty – it just kinda sounds like where we left off when we recorded “Air Stereo”.  The next logical step would have been this record. 

I saw you guys on that tour and I think it was the day or two after Dave had left.  The venue in Buffalo was…

Oh yeah, Buffalo [laughs]

Yep [laughs].  The promoter did a shitty job promoting the show and there were 12 people in the crowd, and I could tell that you had been out on tour for a while.

When Dave had left at that point, he had actually left because his father had died, so he was coming in and out of the tour.  One thing about this band that should be noted is the level of commitment that we all have.  When we were doing our first headlining tour for “Air Stereo”…a little history, which you might know: we had originally recorded the record for Epic but were dropped and ended up putting it out on Rounder, and we were out on tour with the Dixie Chicks and the Fray and then Rounder pulled the plug right when the record was actually starting to chart on radio, and right after that we went out of tour together.  So we did not leave our home bases with a feeling of elation or that we had gotten what we had put in – we felt like we had gotten screwed over!   So that was one thing.  But even with all of that weight bearing down on us, we got in the van, played shows and had a great time. Of course, in the middle of it, Dave’s dad passed away so he got a plane to spend a couple of days with his mother and then he came back and just carried on.  At that time, it wasn’t like we were at the height of our fame, but that Dave would come right back into the trenches with us – we all look at that as an incredible act of selflessness.  The level of commitment that we expect from each other and the bond that we have is pretty strong.  I think it was just a matter of time before we were able to make it work so that we could get back together and at least play some shows. 

What keeps you going?  You have the Damnwells stuff, your solo songs, things you write for others – what makes you want to keep putting your art out into the universe?

At this point, it’s kind of a compulsion.  I mean, I am certainly not putting out music expecting to get rich [laughs] – that would be GREAT, but it’s certainly not a motivating factor.   I think that once people start playing music and playing in a band and putting out records, that’s a big part of it.  Even the least material person in the world probably sometimes feels like they could be a big star.  But after a while, you separate the people who are in it for the right reasons, and anyone who is in music to make money is definitely not in it for the right reason.  There is literally hundreds of dollars to be made over dozens of years [laughter] – if you wanna be a millionaire, I would suggest you try investment banking. For me, it’s a real way to be able to create something and put it out into the world and have people be affected by it. It took probably 5 or 6 years for us to see what we had accomplished as a band.  It takes a while.  When people tell me that a particular song has helped them when they are down or that they played one of our songs at their wedding, it feels like you have created something that is an indelible part of peoples’ lives, and that is ultimately the greatest motivation: being able to create something that lives on beyond you. That’s very addictive, you know. 

Being able to have that effect on people has got be a very humbling, but powerful motivator.

Yeah, for sure.  It’s an incredible gift. Steve and Dave have never really been able to experience some of the success that they helped create, because they left 7 years ago.  I’m excited for them to be able to experience it.  There is no way that anyone would have heard those songs if it hadn’t been for Steve and Dave and Ted.

I know it’s a few years ago, but what impact did the Iowa Writer’s Workshop have on your writing.  You studied with Ethan Canin, who I am a huge fan of.  I read “Star Food“ in college and was hooked.

Oh cool!  Ethan was my mentor – I took his workshop twice and had a lot of one-on-ones with him.  He’s taught me an incredible amount about writing songs. I think one of the most important things he taught me, sort of his teaching ethos, is that your writing has to be real and it’s really easy to identify when it’s not believe able.  And that’s usually when it seems untrue.  We talked a lot in his workshop about point of view, and not just which point of view are you talking from, but is what you are writing true to the point of view of the narrator.  If the narrator is an airline pilot, how would he deal with fixing the remote control to his television?  He probably wouldn’t run to Best Buy, he might try to fix it himself.  In writing songs, even though they are mostly about my experiences, getting back to those places where they came from is a challenge, so being true to those experiences and following them through to the end conceptually is definitely something I learned from him.  And also, the discipline of being a writer – Ethan gets up and writes every morning. And I think that the discipline is a big part of being able to create a moving work of art.  It’s 90% discipline.

Is that how you write?  Do you set aside part of the day for songwriting or is it as inspiration hits?

I think that as you get older you realize that inspiration is not something that you can depend on coming of its own accord – it’s something you have to foster and take care of.  Inspiration DOES strike, and if you have the opportunity to sit down and create that’s great, but you don’t always have the luxury.  I try to set aside a couple hours every day when I can sit down and write, but that’s only when I am in the process of thinking about a record.  I don’t do it every day. I think that doing it every day can be stifling and make you fatigued, just like anything – you can’t have sex every five minutes, even something as awesome as that would get boring [laughs]  If I know that there is a record on the horizon, I start writing for it as soon as I can see an endpoint.  I wouldn’t start writing another Damnwells record right now. I used to write all the time and I had amassed a pretty big collection of songs, but to be honest they weren’t always all that great.  I’d rather just sit down and write for something that I think has the promise to be really good than just write something for the sake of it.

So purpose drives your writing.

At this point, yeah.

Does the new record have a title or release date yet?

We don’t really know yet.  We have a couple ideas, but it’s like a baby name – we don’t really want to tell anybody until we are sure [laughter]

You’re not going to go the Guided By Voices route and change the title in the press three times before it’s released? [laughs]

[laughs] No thanks.

What’s next on the horizon for you and the band?

There are 4 EPs coming out this year, so I am going to play some shows to support those. There are going to be physical copies that you can buy from a Bandcamp site. My day job is being a staff writer for Warner-Chappell, so I spend a lot of time writing songs for other people which occupies a great deal of my time. For the most part, though, getting the Damnwells record out is the priority for me.

Alex, thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

No problem…thanks for being a fan!

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