Over the last three years, The Damnwells have toured as much as possible and honed a sound that melodically carries their listeners into the fray and returns them just a little changed in the end.
Here is one to add to the list of thankless tasks: opening for Cheap Trick. Forget about succeeding at this task; let’s just talk about surviving it. “It wasn’t like we were stuck out there every night and people were booing us and throwing beer bottles at us,” says Steven Terry, drummer for The Damnwells. The band could have rightly feared that. Cheap Trick fans are very earnest about their band and no opening act should or will get in the way. However, something odd happened to this up-and-coming Brooklyn band: the crowd actually paid attention. “The crowd was very receptive to us, and that means a lot to a true rock ’n’ roll fan. Playing with Cheap Trick is like a dream come true. I was a huge fan of Cheap Trick before I even got that opportunity. You know, being able to sit in and watch these guys every night is like going to class.”
That is an apt statement that could come from any one of the four Damnwells. The band personifies the words “music aficionados.” The Damnwells—Terry, bassist Ted Hudson, guitarist Dave Chernis, and singer/guitarist Alex Dezen—came together in the classic “chance meeting” way when Terry tagged along with a friend to a recording session featuring Dezen. “Some drums happened to be miked and set up and I sat down and played a few songs with them,” said the former Whiskeytown drummer. “One thing led to another and we just went off with it.” Hudson was also at the session. The threesome started performing together and, with the addition of Chernis, the band was complete.
Over the last three years, The Damnwells have toured as much as possible and honed a sound that melodically carries their listeners into the fray and returns them just a little changed in the end. Asked about their relentless touring schedule, Hudson effused, “One thing we just fuckin’ love is playing shows. The hardest times are periods of inactivity. We just start thinking and worrying, fixating on stuff. Not working…it drives us insane, but as soon as we get on the road, though it can be punishing, it is our element. It is what we ultimately want to do: to tour.”
Dezen provides the songwriting heart to the Damnwells. “Alex is a very prolific songwriter,” says Hudson of his bandmate. “Sometimes it is all we can do to keep up with him.” Having written hundreds of songs, Dezen provides the base for the band’s moody and evocative songs. Bastards of the Beat (Epic), the band’s first full-length, was recorded in between touring stints over the last two years. “Our recording philosophy is somewhat pragmatic,” says Dezen. “Whenever we have the opportunity to get in there and record something, we do. If it gets a positive reaction, especially from outside the band, we keep it.”
As part of the touring survival package (i.e., gas/food money), the band has been selling PMRs (their term, meaning “poor man’s records”) while on the road. These early, stripped-down efforts (on one occasion, I saw Hudson carefully stamping The Damnwells’ logo onto each CD sleeve) formed the basis for Bastards. “So we went around for two years recording it and we finally said, ‘shit, we should put out this record,’” Dezen continues. They already had most of the songs recorded and went in to add a few more. Bastards was released last October on the tiny label Sixthman. “The Damnwells’ philosophy is we wait for no one,” says Dezen. “We couldn’t just wait for anyone to decide to sign the band.”
However, that is exactly what happened. Even before the release, the band had been generating a lot of A&R interest. “They had been sniffing around for awhile,” Alex explains. “The rep from Epic would show up at our shows from time to time and then just disappear.” Epic made them an offer that allowed the band to sell off the remaining versions of Bastard and re-release it virtually unchanged with heavy industry support behind it. The album streets on April 6.
Bastards of the Beat offers an ideal distillation of the band. Dezen’s songs are portraits of despair and heartache, held together by an intelligent wash of instrumentation that gives the melancholy a charge. “Basically, Alex writes the music and the words,” says Hudson. “It is about creating something that is whole. We work together to arrange the harmonic side of things in a way that is conducive to the song. It takes a little while to flesh out the tune, and we sometimes work on them for awhile. We work on the parts themselves and on the vibe we are creating. It is something that is very organic, something that takes shape gradually; sometimes it is just there, right under your fingers and you know it intuitively.”
The album begins with a bang by featuring a song called “Assholes.” “You are the first person to ask me about that song,” says Dezen when I quiz him about its origins. “I wrote it at a time when I was moving out of my apartment. You take that opportunity to throw out some stuff that you’ve been hoarding for years—like a chemistry book you drew a picture in in high school. I was going through pictures of people I knew and thinking how they all grew up to be assholes.” Many of Dezen’s songs tend to veer towards these sorts of truths, whether it is about the people you mistakenly admired when growing up, relationships that sour, or being alone in a crowd.
For the band, the release of the new album is both exciting and a bit anti-climactic. “It has been done in my mind since last fall,” reports Chernis. “When I finish one project, I kind of let it be and let it spend some time out there in the world. We are looking forward to the next one, though we won’t be able to do it the same way as before.” Assisting on the new disk will be Tim Hatfield, who has worked with Eric Amble, the Misfits, and Keith Richards. “There is a certain thrill with being in a really legendary room with an amazing engineer—it is sort of an elitist thing, but it is thrilling,” Chernis says with a laugh.
Though their thoughts may be racing toward their next release, The Damnwells will continue to do what they have been doing for three years: tour and win new fans. “It is one fan at a time,” says Hudson. “Literally some of our best shows have been played in front of a handful of people. It might just be the sound guy and three other people in the room, but if we make four fans that night, fine, that is worth it.”
Currently, the band is out on the road in support of the new album. Besides the possibility of some more Cheap Trick openers, the band has been out touring with the new Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs) project, The Twilight Singers, and Josh Ritter. “We are starting to pick up shows with bands that are up and coming,” says Terry. “We fit in that motif a little better. It is better for us to be out on the road with bands like that and building our fan base.”
Whether it is in a big rock show or at a smaller, more intimate venue or in the privacy of your home on their new disc, The Damnwells create a special place for their listeners that connects with both hearts and minds. These bastards of the beat are here to capture fans; if you know what’s good for you, you’ll go willingly.
Come see the Damnwells when they headline the Playback St. Louis Second Anniversary show on April 24 at Lil Nikki’s on South Broadway.