The Damnwells | Love and Doubt and Wasted Time

It is hard to imagine him doing anything other than making art in one form or another.




About eight minutes into my conversation with Alex Dezen, he tells me “The Damnwells fans are startlingly normal.” Considering he’s been the front man and songwriter for the band since its inception 10 years ago, he would know. Dezen actually comes across as fairly normal himself. He has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from University of Iowa, he doesn’t have any tattoos (yet), and he finds Farmville popping up on his Facebook timeline really annoying.

Still, amid that normalcy, he’s not boring or hard to talk to. He’s engaging and communicative about his thoughts on The Damnwells and their history, life on the road, and his possible plans for more schooling. There’s an excitement to him about the act of creation. He’s not only a songwriter but an author and photographer, and it is hard to imagine him doing anything other than making art in one form or another.

Right now he is bringing that art to the masses by touring in support of The Damnwells’ No One Listens to the Band Anymore. Fellow Damnwell, bass player Ted Hudson, doesn’t normally tour with Dezen. To resolve this, at the show on October 5 at the Old Rock House, Carley Tanchon will open the show, followed by Harper Blynn performing its own brand of fun, expressive rock, and then will stay on stage, accompanying Dezen during The Damnwells’ set. Harper Blynn has toured with Dezen several times in the last few years, and when you see them all on stage, it’s obvious they’re friends and work well together, meaning the music is performed with heart and just a bit of indie rock star bravado.

Knowing Dezen has been touring off and on for the last 10 years—almost a third of his life—I had to ask him if he was easier on his body now than he was back when he was in his early 20s. He laughed at the question, and assured me he did. “Yes, absolutely. I also tour with a bunch of girlie men so we eat healthy, and we don’t drink really too much.” When speaking about touring, Dezen does sound as if he sees it more like an adventure with his buddies than grueling weeks on the road. This might be because, despite the album being named No One Listens to the Band Anymore, that’s hardly the case on the road these days. The headlining shows he’s playing now are filled with people who know and love the music. That hasn’t always been true, as The Damnwells spent years opening up for other artists. Dezen compares that to being a traveling salesman. “You get up on stage every night and try to convince a room full of people to listen to you. It can be really tiring.”

Dezen doesn’t sound tired anymore. He’s a recent MFA recipient, having gotten a Master’s in Creative Writing from University of Iowa in May 2010. He taught Rhetoric and Creative Writing while there, and despite his experience—and skill—in songwriting, he focused on prose as opposed to poetry. He has novel he’s written, which is currently in its fifth draft. He almost published a short story, but pulled it because he felt it wasn’t ready.

As you might imagine from learning that, he also has dozens—if not over a hundred—of demo songs stored away in a vault in his manager’s office. I mention that he’ll always have those to fall back on if he decides he never wants to write another song. He tells me—and I almost expected him to—that no one will ever hear those songs. Why, I wondered, since there would surely be people out there interested in hearing whatever musical musings Dezen has come up with. He explains, using the creative writing terms though speaking about music, “The whole point of the rough draft is that it’s supposed to inform the better draft later.”

This doesn’t mean that fans of The Damnwells will never hear anything that hasn’t been recorded in a studio. I asked him how the advent of things like Twitter and Facebook has impacted interacting with fans, and if it was overall a good thing or a bad thing. He responded, quite impassioned, “The only thing Twitter and Facebook is good for, I believe, in the world is for bands.” That seemed like a rather sweeping statement to make about two social networking sites that are linked on what seems like every website. He explains: “For bands, it’s essential. You can sit in your apartment, write a song, record it, put it online, and just Tweet or send out a Facebook event. You send it out to thousands of your fans, and they can go listen to it right there and then. Before that? You’d have to write a song, make a little demo on your answering machine or something, arrange it with the band, book a show. It’s like six months from completion of the song to anyone being able to hear it.”

The path of the most recent album to release is another sign of the differences in the dissemination of music that have arisen in the years since The Damnwells’ first album, Bastards of the Beat, was released in 2003. The two remaining band members of the original Damnwells found themselves without a label, but with an album that needed recorded. The album before that, One Last Century, had been given away for free; all people had to do was provide an e-mail address. Armed with that list, The Damnwells signed up with PledgeMusic, allowing fans the chance to donate toward the cost of the recording. In exchange, the fans got a chance to feel a part of the recording process, as the band posted songs and provided insight into where they were in the process. They had aimed to raise $20,000 and ended up raising almost twice that, allowing them to donate part of it to United Against Malaria.

Despite the obvious passion of fans of The Damnwells, Dezen has considered going back to school or teaching again. He has family in academia and seems to relish the lifestyle a bit, calling fiction writing his first love. He mentions, though, that the great thing about academia is you can go back whenever you want. There were people in his MFA program in their early 30s—and people in their early 70s. No matter where Dezen’s path takes him, though, we can be assured he’ll be creating something with insight and heart, and hopefully he’ll keep us along for the ride. | Teresa Montgomery

The Damnwells will perform, with Harper Blynn and Carley Tanchon opening, October 5 at Old Rock House. The show starts at 8 p.m., tickets are $10, and the show is all ages.

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