If Michael McDonald is the patron saint of Popdose, I think it’s safe to call The Damnwells our house band. With the release of their new album No One Listens To The Band Anymore, it was inevitable that one of us would end up doing an interview and as it happens, we decided to tag team it with both Matt Wardlaw and Michael Parr teaming up (ganging up on?) on frontman Alex Dezen. Here are some words from both to lead into the interview:
As I see the 40th anniversary remasters and legacy editions come around from the heritage acts that we grew up with, it often makes me ponder at that moment and think about who the current bands are that have the potential to amass similar catalogs of quality music. Bands come and go, release albums and then break up or produce output that is inconsistent from album to album. So who then among us will be the bands and artists that we can truly call legendary? You’ve got your answers for that question and surely, I’ve got mine – one person who clearly seems to be on the right path is singer/songwriter Alex Dezen of The Damnwells.
Dezen has now released four solid albums under The Damnwells banner, the latest of which is their newly released album No One Listens To The Band Anymore. After I heard One Last Century, an album that they gave away for FREE, for God’s sake, I didn’t know how they could possibly raise the bar any higher. (And I do need to give big credit to my friend Matthew Burgess, because it was his endless blog posts about the band that made me finally take a listen when the free download came around.) But what you have to understand about Alex Dezen is that he is one of those guys that songwriters both envy and hate – a guy with the seemingly effortless ability to toss out expertly crafted pop songs with lyrics that resonate right to the core surrounded by a selection of hooks that come out of nowhere and smack you in the face, again and again. To quote from the Batman movie, “where does he get those wonderful toys?”
– Matt Wardlaw
I’ll admit, I came unfashionably late to the Damnwells’ party, joining in for the band’s 2009 record, One Last Century, on the recommendation of Popdose Grand Poobah, Jeff Giles. It was love at first note; within weeks I knew every word to every tune, spending hours listening to the record on repeat.
When the opportunity to pitch in to fund the follow-up—via the infinitely cool PledgeMusic—I was among the first to sign up. The payoff was hearing and seeing the creation of the brilliant No One Listens to the Band Anymore. Sure, it’s only March, but I can safely say this record is going to grace my top 5 of 2011. – Michael Parr
Matt Wardlaw: Before we get into this, I think we have to note that for a lot of us here at Popdose, the early release of No One Listens To The Band Anymore to PledgeMusic supporters was our version of “Radiohead Day,” with a similar level of excitement like the Radiohead fans had a few weeks back when that band released their new album.
Alex Dezen: [Laughs] You guys are very nice! I think the only people who may feel that way are you guys, but that’s very nice of you.
Matt Wardlaw: The Damnwells got a lot of press for giving away the last record for free via Paste Magazine. Now that you’re on the other side of it, how much did that move the ball forward for the band and what did you take away from the experience?
Well, I think that it definitely moved it forward in a big way, because I think more people heard that record [One Last Century] than any other Damnwells record. It’s really hard to say because who knows how many times Joe in Minneapolis downloaded the record because he had it on one computer and then wanted to put it on another. But I think that more people downloaded that record than had bought any record previously, so in a number of senses, it definitely did better than any other Damnwells record. But I think in retrospect, you can call it like a spiritual move. At the time, it was very pragmatic; I was unable to tour because I was in graduate school.
The band was kind of in flux – the drummer [Steven Terry] and original guitar player [David Chernis] left and it was just me and the bass player [Ted Hudson]. And we couldn’t really tour around the record, so our manager Wes Kidd said “well, why don’t I get in contact with some people to see if maybe we can give it away for free somewhere.” And I was like “well, that sounds like a stupid idea – how are we going to make money?” And then it just kind of worked out that Paste wanted to get involved and host the download and so they’re like “oh, this is great.” But then as it went on, the response from fans was so positive and just so heartwarming that it felt really good just to be able to say “here’s this thing that we worked on and here’s this thing that we bled for and we’re just going to give it away for free.”
And there were no conditions – the only condition was that you had to give us a fake email address or a real one. So it really was an unconditional kind of thing. And it felt really good – it was so liberating. I didn’t have to worry about anything – I just put it out there. In fact, it was so liberating and wonderful that I wanted to do it again but I realized that my wife would probably leave me because we’d have no money! [Laughs]
Matt Wardlaw: As you mention, the band was kind of in flux at the time you released that album. Were you frustrated when it did take off with the lack of ability to capitalize on that?
I don’t think so, because I kind of stopped thinking. I haven’t thought about records and stuff in such a linear way for so long. And by linear, I mean, okay this thing happens – how do we turn this into something bigger – and then that into something bigger, etc. Because all it does is drive me crazy, because you can’t control it and as much as you may want to control it and as much as people may say this is what you have to do to capitalize or to try to make the most out of this thing, this is the way to do it, here’s the plan of action, I just don’t think any of that stuff has ever worked. And if it does work, I think it’s just pure chance.
So the way we were able to capitalize on that record is we were able to stay alive. I don’t know what’s a better result [than that]. I mean, if it weren’t for that record, the band wouldn’t even exist – it was the glue that got us from Air Stereo to this record. And in many ways, One Last Century is the most important Damnwells record that there will ever be, because if it wasn’t for that record, there would be nothing now. I feel like we were able to capitalize tremendously. Now in a more business sense, we were able to get thousands and thousands of email addresses, so when it came time to try and raise money to make this next record, we emailed all of those people and we were like “hey, you got the last record for free, how about jumping on board early on this one and helping us?” So it definitely works in that way too.
Matt Wardlaw: One of the first bands that I remember doing the fan-funded album thing is Marillion in 2000 when they sold 12,000 pre-orders of the album that they were planning to record with the funds that were raised. I remember that at the time, the popular opinion was split between those that thought it was a cool thing to do to support their favorite band. And then there were the people that were aghast that a band would request something like that from their fans. Obviously, we’ve come a long way since then, but when you started to plot the course for the next album, how secure were you with the idea of pursuing funding from the fans?
Not very secure at all – it felt very awkward; it felt like we were maybe taking advantage of their good nature and all of those things. Nobody likes to ask for money – you can call it pledging, you can call that Kickstarting or whatever you want to call it, but it’s begging, I mean that’s what it is – and that doesn’t feel good. And then at the time, I was in graduate school and I was heavy into reading about the history of like, how did writers make money? How did artists make money? Because the guys who painted beautiful churches in Europe, how did they afford to be able to do this stuff?
And you know, there’s a patronage system that’s been in place for thousands and thousands of years. I’ll paint a portrait of your family if you’ll let me stay at your villa and feed me. That has been organized and in use for a long time. So it felt like maybe if we thought about it that way, it seemed like it was more of a legitimate thing. And maybe that’s just me trying to convince myself that I’m not begging, but that is kind of how it feels. You know, we’re artists, we make this music, if you’d like to hear it and experience it, then we need some patronage, we need some help. So I don’t know – it’s older than the record business, the patronage system.
Matt Wardlaw: This is the first project of its kind that I’ve participated in and as interactive as the whole project was with updates, advance demos and early mixes, it really raises the bar for what I’ll look forward to in the future as a music fan. Because it’s a whole different world and experience than say getting a few bonus tracks for downloading it from Amazon. From the artistic perspective, did it make you feel more invested in the process than you might have felt with previous projects?
Oh yeah. There’s been this long history of bands being really mysterious and quiet when they’re in the studio making a record. From not telling anyone where we’re doing it or what it’s going to be called or what songs are going to be on it. Because we want to be able to capitalize on telling fans the information at one particular time. And with this one, everyone pretty much knew what songs were going to be on the record and they’d actually heard mixes of some of them before we even went into master it. So it definitely changes the game – it feels like it’s a lot of work for the band, but like you said you’re going to be expecting that from bands, because that’s just kind of the standard of where it is now. I don’t think the band can survive if they don’t have a Facebook account and who would have thought that that would be a requirement 15 years ago or even 10 years ago?
Matt Wardlaw: PledgeMusic is the fundraising vehicle that you used to fund the album, and your album is also the first release on the new PledgeMusic label. How did you initially connect with PledgeMusic and how did it end up that they became the “label” for this new album?
Well, we had finished the production of the record and it was being mixed and on its way to being mastered. We had gotten a couple of offers from a few different labels and we were just figuring out what we wanted to do and Benji [Rogers], he’s the head of Pledge and he was kind of like “well, we have this thing we’re working on, so don’t do anything just yet until I pitch you an idea.” Benji, it’s unbelievable – the guy says he’s going to do something and [everything he says he’s going to do] it just happens, it’s totally bizarre – so we gave him the benefit of the doubt. And we were like “okay, figure out what you need to figure out on your end and get back to us.”
And then when he approached us about this label thing, it seemed like it was the easiest and most effective way to do it. We could have gone with an established record label, but then it’s the same thing, it’s the same kind of process that you go through. I don’t know if that stuff works anymore, buying ads in magazines, spending all of this money trying to get songs on the radio and I don’t know, that’s definitely a part of it, but I don’t know if that works by itself. There are so many other facets to making a record successful and now there are so many more opportunities than there were. And I feel like Benji and the people at Pledge have a real good grasp on the way to market a record, the way to connect with fans in the new world that we live in, this brave new world of technology, Twitter and Facebook and all of that stuff.
Matt Wardlaw: Speaking of that brave new world, one thing that sometimes falls by the wayside with this new way of doing things is airplay on radio and other related musical outlets. What sort of plan is there in place to get this music heard by the masses beyond interviews like this one, the planned gigs and stuff like that?
Well, I think a lot of it is already built into this system. Because the way PledgeMusic functions is that essentially everyone that pledges becomes a part of the process of the making of this record. So it’s not just a fan going into a record store and anonymously buying a record. The fan has to go online, pledge for the record, give their information of where they’d like this stuff to be sent. And then there’s a dialogue essentially between the band and the fans. And I think the fan becomes more than a fan, they become patrons. And so they become mouthpieces for the band.
Because it’s not hyperbole – these people literally made the record happen, so they are part of the process of this record. Each and every one of these 1400 and whatever people that pledged, they are part of the project. So it’s in their best interests I feel like, to tell people about it. Because it’s a point of pride and it is for me – I pledge for other people’s records and it’s always a point of pride for me like “yeah, I fuckin’ gave that person 10 bucks to make that record.” I believe in it. So that’s a huge part of it, that is a very organically and naturally occurring street team. The record labels used to try to get kids from college to become the street team and they’d go put posters up around town and whatever, but these are people that they don’t need to be recruited – they’re in it. So there’s that whole thing that other bands and labels don’t have in their arsenal of marketing tools.
And then we’re going to do conventional stuff – the single is “Werewolves” and it’s been added at almost a dozen radio stations or something so far, which is great. We’ve gone down that road before and we’ve had some success at Triple A radio and stuff like that. I don’t really know too much about that and I try to keep my head out of it because it’s confusing and I have to respond to everything emotionally because I’m this touchy-feely writer and you can’t respond emotionally to radio adds. So yeah, we’re going to do conventional stuff too – touring and promotion and try to get on late night TV, I don’t know.
Matt Wardlaw: What I was getting at specifically in regards to the One Last Century album had to do with songs like “Bastard of Midnight,” which was a song that I felt really had “single” potential written all over it. With this new album, I think there is a lot of songs like that which feel like they have immediate potential to be singles.
Cool, well that’s good! Yeah, I think it’s just a matter of finding the place to put that song or finding a way to disseminate that song. It’s all about timing and whose hands you get it into and stuff like that and that stuff’s totally out of my control. In any way that I can control it, I will, but it’s basically out of my control so I try to keep my head out of it. But thank you, I appreciate it. I mean, it’s pop music, really. Bob Dylan is an incredible artist, but a lot of what he does is pop music in one way or the other, not by today’s standards certainly, but it was. [Laughs]
Michael Parr: With you immersing yourself in the writers’ workshop and teaching in Iowa, how did that inform the writing and the recording of these songs?
It was such an amazing opportunity, I felt like I was alive for the first time in years. I spent so long in New York struggling with the band, touring and opening for people and trying to hustle and I’m just not very good at hustling. Being in Iowa and having my salary taken care of for two years, health insurance and all of that stuff was so huge. It took an enormous weight off of my shoulders and I wasn’t living in New York and I wasn’t living in LA. I didn’t feel the pressure of this churning/bubbling city around me, I just felt at peace. So it freed me up to kind of explore all kinds of things and write music and write fiction, read books and just live this monastic life for two years. So it informed it in many, many ways, just all great ways. I wish I could go back!
Michael Parr: Talking about the writing of the record, I have a demo of “The Experts” from 2006 or so. How many of those stashed songs did you have that got retooled or reused for this record? Do you have a huge cache of songs like that to draw from?
Um, I wrote a bunch of songs right after we were dropped from Epic Records and right after I lost my publishing deal and that was one of them. I had written them and tucked them away somewhere. And then when we were going to make this record, we went through the archives and what songs we could record and Jay Barclay, who’s kind of been like the honorary member of the band for years now as a guitar player brought that song up and was like “this song is cool, let’s do this one.”
That’s actually a song I’d written with Ted, the bass player, so it was cool to have another collaboration type song on the record. So there aren’t too many. That one is certainly on there and I think “Let’s Be Civilized” is from around the same time, but for the most part all of those songs are brand new. The last song, “The Same Way” is from around that time, so maybe there are three songs that were older. You know as a writer, it feels cheap to put a song you’ve already written on a record. I mean, the song had never been released, it had never been on a record and it had never been recorded with a full band before, so it had never seen the light of day, but it just feels old. So I was a little bit weary of putting those kinds of songs on there, I wanted to write new stuff, but I like to take the advice of people around me and take it to heart. So I think that we made the right decisions on that, but there aren’t too many from the old stash.
Michael Parr: I’m going to ask about a few of the songs, starting with “Werewolves.” That song specifically, I remember when you posted a snippet as part of the Pledge benefits, and I think you were calling it “Constantine.” Hearing that, and then seeing the video of you playing it somewhere in Iowa at some point, how did that evolve into “Werewolves?”
It just started as a sketch of a thing, and that’s actually “Werewolves,” that song that had the lyric about “Constantine” became “Werewolves.” I had this song that I’d been working on for a while and since I was at the writer’s workshop, I spent most my time as a fiction writer, revising. It’s like ten percent is creative output, the rest is mechanical revision. So I kind of applied that same idea to writing that song “Werewolves.” I had so many different choruses for it, a bunch of different lyrical options and I couldn’t find one that really worked. Then I finally did, it just kind of came together.
Michael Parr: With “The Great Unknown,” aside from the obvious nods, how did that one come together? I think it’s interesting, starting off a song with such a noticeably recognizable line.
[Laughs] What are you talking about, I wrote that line! How did that come about? I started messing around with the idea of referencing other songs in songs a long time ago. The first song on Air Stereo, “I’ve Got You,” has all of these references to ‘80s super rock ballads and stuff. I don’t know, there’s just something about being able to take the past and filter it through the present, it makes the past seem so much more rich, profound and vibrant.
Really, that’s what those songs mean to me, like when you listen to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” that’s such a crazy song. I mean, you put it on now and you’re like oh my God, that’s so funny! Did you put that song on like 15 years ago? Actually, longer than 15 years ago – I guess I dated myself, so maybe 20 years ago or something, Jesus. But you put that song on 20 years ago and you were like “hell yes!” you were owning it. And it’s just kind of become culturally funny now, but those songs still meant something at the time and they meant something that was really profound. So when I look back on that time when I first heard those songs or when I first listened to the Beatles or when I first thought about those moments in my life, I look back on them with real nostalgia and then I think about all of the things that have happened to me since I first heard that song. I guess that’s when you know you’re doomed to be a songwriter for better or worse is when every moment in your life is associated with a song lyric or a chord change.
Whenever I hear those things, I think about where I was, the color of the trees, the interior of the car and the smell of the grass, the carpet coming up on the top steps or whatever. When I put those things into songs, it just feels like it’s bringing the past into the present and I think that’s the job of any good storyteller is to really look at the past in a new and interesting way that’s personal to you.
Michael Parr: In regards to your songwriting, I’ve noticed from dialing into a few of your Ustream concerts, there always seems to be new tunes. Are you constantly writing and is that an ongoing process for you? What do you do with those new songs when you’ve written them and you’re not in a recording cycle?
It’s interesting, I’ve been doing a lot of writing for other people over the last couple of weeks so I’ve just been doing a lot of writing in general and I’m going to New York next week to write with someone else. So, I’ve just been in that space in my head, I’m just kind of thinking in that way. I don’t want to turn it off, so I want to keep the juices flowing I guess to use a terrible cliché, I want to keep it going. The thing is, it’s true, I’m not in a place to be making another record but I can’t stop writing, so it’s a little worrisome because I know what’s going to happen. When I go to make another record, I’ll have all of these songs I’ve written now, but they’ll be old by the time that I make the new record. So, I’m trying to figure out a way, like maybe I can put out a solo record in the next week or something. I always have visions of grandeur like that, but they never come to fruition. The good thing about being a songwriter and being able to write with other people is that there’s an opportunity that someone else can take a song and they can play it, so that’s pretty cool. So, I think if that can happen, that’s kind of how you keep the song alive.
Michael Parr: Another observation from the Ustream concert, you seem really in tune with the fans, specifically when they’re making the requests for the super-obscure songs and you seem to know some of them by name. Are these some of your friends dialing in or are you really that in touch with your fan base?
Those are just people that are fans. I think that because we spent so much time early on opening for other people and hanging out after the shows, selling merchandise and meeting people, taking pictures with people, that’s just what a band has to do. This was back when I was in my 20s and we were all young and had a lot more energy. We would just stay and hang out with fans and make a connection and that’s just kind of what bands have to do. It wasn’t a chore back then, it was just a choice – we wanted to meet people, hang out, party and all of that stuff, it was a lot of fun.
For bands that don’t have that, bands that start their first tour opening up for some huge band, you can’t really wander around the arena going “hey, I was in the opening band, do you want to hang out with me?” You can do that when you’re playing at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis or the Mercury Lounge or the Bowery Ballroom or whatever, you can be in the crowd and we’ve always been that way. We’ve always just been down to talking with people and making that connection. So, I know a lot of those people just from shows and it’s really cool. I’m getting a little bit older, so it’s harder for me to go out into the crowd. Now that we’re doing headlining shows and playing for people, it’s harder to go out into the crowd after the show after singing for an hour and a half. Talking to people, selling merchandise and then going to the hotel, getting up and driving and doing the same thing again, my voice can’t take it. Sadly, I will be talking to pretty much no one for this tour after the shows but it was important early on to be able to make that connection with people and that’s how we know them.
Michael Parr: I know that you did a couple of shows at the Rockwood Music Hall. I’ve been to Rockwood a few times and know that it’s about the size of a large living room, so you kind of get to know everyone intimately whether you like it or not.
It was important for us to do that show, because we can’t play those venues anymore because we’ve sold two shows out there in one night and it only holds about 150 people, so we played these two sold out shows. And we can’t really do shows like that anymore because we’re hurting ourselves to do that because we can’t make as much money as we could if we were playing somewhere else. But it was important for us to take this record and go and play it for small groups of people so that we can go back to feeling like that band in the club, just trying to win people over.
We played those two shows at Rockwood and we played sets of entirely new music – I think I went up and played like maybe two or three old songs by myself. It was just new music and that was it – no one had heard these songs before. It was such a gift to be able to do that, get up on stage and play for a packed house of people who are there to see your music they’ve never heard before. So after those shows, we’d walk around and hang out with people and talk to people and do that whole thing like we used to do. Because it’s important – as much fun as it is to play in arenas [among others, the band has toured in the past opening for the Dixie Chicks], it’s really hard to make a connection with people from the audience. I’ll tell you, it’s nearly impossible – you are at least 10 to 15 yards from the first row and you can’t see anything. It looks like you’re playing into space, like you’re playing into the stars. So, being able to be in the club and make the connection with people is important and we wanted to make sure we could do that at the beginning of this record.
Matt Wardlaw: For these live shows, who will be in the band? I’m assuming that it’s you and Ted and Angela at the core – who will be filling out the rest of the lineup?
Well, this band Harper Blynn, a great band from Brooklyn, is going to open up for us on the whole tour and they’re also going to be our backing band. So it will be them and it’s going to be great – those guys are amazing players and it’s going to be really cool. They’re much younger than I am, by probably about seven years or something, so I’ve been on the bike all week, trying to get up the energy to stay up on stage for an hour and a half or two hours with those guys, because they can really bring it. It’s going to be cool!
Matt Wardlaw: As far as folks playing on this new album, I recognize Matt Johnson from his work with Jeff Buckley and others, and Peter Adams from his work with Justin Currie – how did you connect with the various people that contributed their talents to this album?
Jay Barclay, our guitar player is an amazing guy and just is a great music director – he knows a lot of people and he makes stuff happen, so he was really the force behind getting Peter Adams and Matt Johnson – although Ted played with Matt Johnson in a band many years ago with my sister. So Ted knew him as well, but Jay really made that thing happen. Jay is a touring musician, he’s a guitar player and he’s a music man. He knows a lot of people in music so he was really the guy that was able to make all of that happen.
Matt Wardlaw: Hearing you talk about listening to a song like “Don’t Stop Believin’,” remembering where you were the first time that you heard a song, I’ve been thinking lately about songs that I heard for the first time on a jukebox. And in that vein, the first time that I heard “Feast of Hearts,” it struck me as a song that would sound great on a jukebox.
Well, unfortunately there are no more jukeboxes, so that shows you how much success we’re going to have [laughs]. They all have that stupid weird internet thing where you can type in any song and it doesn’t have the same kind of verve as putting a song on [to play on] the jukebox.
Oh yeah. I used to be and then I had to move around a lot and my record player is in storage. But I have all of these records in storage. Listening to vinyl records, we have been able to technologically and sonically evolve beyond the analog and there are better ways to listen to the music. But the experience of turning on the stereo, letting it warm up a little bit, turning on the record player, taking the record out of the sleeve, the process of doing that, the tradition is just so relaxing and so amazing. I haven’t been able to do that with my own music until now, so it was really important for us to be able to make vinyl happen. Listening to vinyl, we’ve never been able to match the experience of listening to music on vinyl, because it’s such a tradition. So hopefully that can happen with other people.