Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Interview - Damon & Naomi

Tonight is a special night for Damon & Naomi fans, as the former rhythm section of famed indie band Galaxie 500 Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang come to the Brisbane Powerhouse for an intimate show. Supports are also strong, with Chapter Music founder Guy Blackman and local experimentalists Primitive Motion filling out the excellent bill. Head over here to get tickets. I did an interview with the pair last month which goes down as one of the warmest, most personable interviews I have ever had (matching the likes of Lee Ranaldo, Lou Barlow, Bobby Gillespie, Beck and Emil Amos for best interview) - it went for forty minutes and still the couple were disappointed it was coming to an end! Enjoy...

After five years as two-thirds of New York act Galaxie 500, and over twenty years as ubiquitous duo Damon & Naomi, real-life couple Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang are finally making their way to Australia. “It’s been a long time coming, for sure,” Yang states. “It feels like we should have been there. We’ve been trying to conceptualise (Australia), because on our maps here in America, it doesn’t look that big. But on American maps it makes the US look enormous, so we have no idea what to expect.”

The incredibly amiable couple have crafted much of their current musical oeuvre with Michio Kurihara (Boris, Ghost), thus becoming a pivotal part of the evolution of Damon & Naomi. Yet Australian audience will have to wait a while longer to see that incarnation in the flesh.

“Kurihara won’t be with us,” Krukowski admits. “Playing and touring just the two of us is something that we still do a lot; he lives in Tokyo, he has other commitments too, so it isn’t always practical. We tour in a flexible configuration, where it can be us or just easily a trio, or four, or sometimes five. We are an interesting band in that we have never had a rhythm section, so as a duo it stands as keyboard and acoustic guitar. When Kurihara is on board he adds electric guitar. If we have more, it’s soprano sax and cello.”

The absence of a rhythm section may seem like an aberration, or even a necessary evil for such an outfit, but like most things about Krukowski and Yang, nothing is that straightforward.

“Damon plays rhythm on his guitar, so there is no need for drums,” Yang laughs. “It came firstly out of necessity, because when we start out as a duo there was nothing we could do about it. When recording we could play bass and drums and all the other instruments, but live we found it much easier to discard all that, Damon started playing acoustic guitar whilst I stuck to bass for a while, but then moved naturally onto keyboards to the point where we didn’t need that element any more. It’s never felt necessary that we needed other people for a rhythm section, not because we consciously didn’t need one, but because our songwriting evolved away from it. It didn’t need filling out in that way.”

“We also shy away from telling people what to play,” Krukowski explains further. “So when we invite musicians to come play with us, we don’t give them parts to play. And I think people often expect that, so instead we try to work with great musicians that can bring their own elements to it, it’s a collaborative effort. Yet it’s always been the functionality of how we write; this goes back to Galaxie 500, the song always started with guitar and a melody, then we would come in after that. We are still in the habit of writing like that, with a piano or guitar in our living room. The first two albums (1992’s More Sad Hits and 1995’s The Wondrous World of Damon & Naomi) we made as studio albums with no intention of going on the road. So when we did decide to tour, it was a conscious decision to keep it intimate, to play how we play at home. We invite people to add their elements just like you would if guests visited your home. Bass and drums, we are somewhat possessive of that, it’s what we do in the studio, so it’s the one area that we could get a little bossy.”

“Although it’d be fun to get Bootsy Collins in some time, get people dancing,” Yang states cheekily.

The “legacy” of Galaxie 500 has hung over Damon & Naomi ever since the band split in 1991, yet the brevity of that outfit speaks volumes about the pair. They have truly grown as songwriters and as people side by side, and it’s allowed them more personal and spiritual development than Galaxie 500 ever would have.

“We came to focus on singing and melody more over time,” Krukowski muses. “We didn’t start out as singers, and I think that’s why it’s so hard to think of ourselves in that way. But when we go on stage now, just the two of us, it’s just us and these songs.”

“In Galaxie 500 we were the rhythm section for a reason – I wasn’t comfortable singing live at all,” Yang adds. “But as a duo we were at the front of the stage, and we had to do the singing live, there was no other way around it. There was nothing else for it, and over time I had to be respectful to singing and embracing the powerful instrument that it is, which was something you think would be easy to take on for a musician. But Damon and I came from a punk, DIY background where everyone was like, “Yeah, singing, whatever!” It was a very different process to be at the front of the stage singing; you are communicating something entirely different when you have language, people are really listening, so you had better be saying something that’s worth listening to. The emotion in the voice that can be conveyed is very different, so that was a huge lesson for us.”

“It changed our songwriting over time too,” Krukowski continues. “With Galaxie 500 the lyrics always came last, always. We changed the emphasis from the get go, so even those first two albums were heavily lyric-based. Galaxie 500 was a short-lived band, and a lot of bands are, but what we had a lot in coming with those kinds of bands is we were focused on what the band sound was. It wasn’t about the songs per se, nearly as much as it was about the sound of the group. Which got to the point that anything we created had to sound like itself, y’know? So it was enjoyable and fun to take someone else’s song and turn it into one of ours, because we made something iconic in that way. As a duo we have never travelled down that path, rather it’s always been about the songs themselves. So when we play with different configurations it’s OK, because we are still playing the song, but exploring it in different ways. We have often reinterpreted songs over time too, which is a freedom and excitement that wouldn’t have been possible to us back then.”

“When you record a song, it’s like you’ve hardly even known it,” Yang stresses. “It’s a work of art that you have relatively just written, you may have played it a few times in its entirety, but after you have lived with it, you have played it for a month on tour, or two months on tour, or a year, you have a better knowledge of what that song is supposed to be. You live with songs in the present, not just the past, and it seems natural that you would adjust the songs as you grow.”

“There is only so much you can do with two people and two voices,” Krukowski finishes. “You can’t always turn the volume up, but you can turn it down. It is the subtle variances that make the most difference. Our growth never ends, we are always exploring what we can do. When you play really quietly you grab people’s attention, and when you want something stronger you have somewhere to go.”

The last two albums Damon & Naomi produced stands by that aesthetic, yet embodied emotions and themes that were very much the polar opposites of each other. Within These Walls dwelled in the disruption and despair that a tumultuous, dark series of events can cast over one’s life at any given moment, whilst False Beats & True Hearts offered a buoyant counterpoint, the light at the end of the tunnel. The immediacy of the new record was something that they really wanted to stress.

“The previous record was very dark, it came out of a dark time for us, and we wanted to move a little more forward and make ourselves a little more public in a way,” Yang espouses. “On Within These Walls the challenge was how dark can we be. It was our state of mind then, and it showed, but once we were writing we wanted to see how far we could take it. And I think we succeeded, it really is such a dark record. So we came out of that and started writing again and we wanted everything to be brighter and more joyous. It’s much more forward and present, rather than “oh, you have to come into our world now.” We are really writers that live in the moment, especially in the lyrics. I think that constant shift in emotions, that rollercoaster ride, is something that everyone has experienced in their lives. Really dark times and a sense of loss can be offset by those better times. Live we have learnt to harness both those abstracts of our music, and to some people when it’s all intermingled it might all sound the same, but it makes sense to us.”

“A musician like Bryan Adams can go through those extremes of emotion all within a minute of one song, from verse to chorus,” Krukowski laughs. “It’s true of us too, but over a much slower arc; over whole albums that take us years to make. But we get there in the end.”

A Damon & Naomi show is one of nuance and envelopment, requiring the audience to step outside of their own selves and immerse themselves in the performance. Yet crowds are fickle beasts, and not always guaranteed to offer the space that is required to maximise the experience.

“When everyone is quiet, then you know it’s a good show,” Krukowski chuckles. “The thing is we have played with a somewhat classical line-up, and when we started out we were quite loud. And when Kurihara plays with us it can be extremely loud – he’s in Boris, who are louder than Dinosaur Jr in my opinion, so that’s to be expected! But maybe it comes from nepotism from the very beginning, where generally we are presenting less than what people are expecting. There is a kind of invitation there, where you have to come into the intimacy of the show and experience it.”

“We actually ask a lot of the audience,” Yang concurs. “We are asking people to concentrate, to listen and get involved, and that’s a very different thing to most live shows that people are generally going to encounter. So it’s a really nice thing when the audience is willing to participate in that way, it can be really powerful and intense, and we are really grateful for that. But we definitely get those situations where there are people coming on stage or it’s a really loud bar, people want to have really loud conversations every three minutes. There was this woman once who was talking really loudly at the front of the stage, it was all we could hear. Everyone else was really quiet in the room. We just tried to ignore it, whatever, and we might have asked her to go talk up the back or something. Then after the show she came up to us and she apologised, and she was all emotional, telling us how she’d just been through a break-up and was keeping emotions at arm’s length, and the music was forcing her to confront them…she was talking as a defence mechanism! Our music is dangerous…”

The past couple of years has seen the other Galaxie 500 founder, Dean Wareham, touring the band’s music on his own, revisiting the iconic material in its entirety without Krukowski and Yang’s input. The situation doesn’t offend the pair so much as perplex them.

“I think of it as his zombie band – The Galaxie 500 zombie band, resurrecting the hits,” Yang laughs. “For me, I would never want to do that. Talking of growth, what is the benefit of that? It’s nice to revisit a song from time to time, to reanimate it, and we’ve done it before. I think it would be one thing if you had this burning desire to discover a new interpretation, but to go out and play the music you used to play when you were 25 in exactly the same way you did when you were 25, it’s a denial, a lack of growth over the past twenty years. It bums me out; I would feel really sad doing that. It’s not an artistic gesture, it’s a financial opportunity. And it’s great to make some money, but that is so far from what music is meant to be a focal point of – to be remembered as the girl who played those songs with those big earrings, to “there’s that old lady playing those songs, with those same big earrings” – it’s just creepy.”

“We thought it was kind of weird and surprising,” Krukowski admits. “Being in bands, you often come up against that kind of problem where you get to see these bands again, and I have certainly gone to some of those shows where bands have reformed in order to see bands play that I never thought I’d have the opportunity to. But at the same time there is a weird feeling for me, because they are not playing to me, really. We have state fairs here in the States, local agricultural carnivals, and there are bands that tour that circuit. When we were kids the bands were the big hit bands of the 50s would be playing these days alongside the biggest pig competitions, with one original member or sometimes no original members left in the line-up. The melancholy of that really sticks with me, so when I see something like the Pixies or hear of another Dean Wareham Plays Galaxie 500 show, even if they are playing these massive places and are in some ways bigger than they were originally, I can’t stop thinking of the local state fair.”

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