Independence Day

The Damnations

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Damnations singer/bass player Amy Boone has been vomiting all morning. This is no way to begin another day of recording at Music Lane studios, or even the way to begin another interview, but there you are. The pressure's on, and so's the coffee. Five cups and as many trips to the porcelain goddess later, and Boone is feeling slightly more stable. "I think I have an ulcer," she announces quietly.

Everyone nods in agreement. It's no surprise. Outside the recording studio on East Fifth Street and San Marcos, Boone and her sister, Deborah Kelly, who also sings lead and plays guitar, have a lot on their minds. The two sisters from Schoharie, New York, and now Austin, talk about the new album, an impending summer tour, their South by Southwest showcase, and their recent decision to turn down a record deal with Watermelon/Sire Records. That last little item, backing off a record deal, says a lot about the band's success - and Boone's innards. She's always been the worrier in the family, and lately there's been a lot to worry about. Success, for one.

Unfortunately, warding off "too much too soon" may be impossible for the Damnations; for a band that's been playing seriously for less than two years, this one is awfully close to breaking through. To the glee of their growing local fans, Kelly and Boone, with Rob Bernard on banjo and lead guitar, and Keith Langford on drums, have been stomping out their own popular corn mash of avant folk. But while the Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman fight over the credit of "discovery" in review after glowing review, other fans in other cities are starting to take notice. Their Live Set CD from last year was intended, Kelly says, to be a "demo tape" to sell at shows.

"But it's gotten a lot more attention than we planned," she says.

In fact, it has gotten favorable reviews in several Texas media outlets, including The Dallas Morning News and Texas Monthly magazine. Should you believe the hype? Not everyone does; the Statesman's Don McCleese called them a generic version of the Indigo Girls.

What is more accurate is to say the Damnations are on one helluva bandwagon with the "primitive" arts resurgence at the end of this millennium. In the final century of our Western civilization, during which any generation will be able to recall an authentic lifestyle built from an agrarian self-reliant society, primitive is now "in."

What was seen by our parents and grandparents as hard and unforgiving times becomes a simpler life in the face of what awaits us in the 21st century. Music, whirling down from high-tech Eighties synthesizers and high-energy Nineties grunge to a distinct "low-fi" sound emphasizing the error and frailty of human hands, has taken an odd, folksy turn - thus the popularity of the Damnations sound.

It's a European, ethnic mix of the plucked banjo, tinkling piano (played on the Live Set CD by Boone), and the drawn out whine of the women's voices sung in occasionally discordant harmony that conjures America's Blue Ridge Mountains and immigrant mining days of the Thirties. You can hear it throughout Live Set, especially on the last song, "Half Mad Moon," which will likely be the name of their new CD.

Mostly, though, what you hear is the inner voice of your soul saying this is America, this sound, this yearning for something better, something more beautiful than the harshness of this, something very much like what you dreamed of before you arrived here. Which isn't to say the Damnations are folk purists. Not by anyone's account. True, they grew up in northern New York state where folk revivals during the Sixties (their mother was a devoted fan of such festivals, where Bill Monroe was celebrated and copied), but they also took as much from the Pogues, Tom Waits, X, Willie Nelson, and Aretha Franklin as from Doc Watson and the Carter Family.

In fact, their independence in tastes protects them from labels like "country-folk" or "bluegrass," and it may ensure their success. The hype that follows them around like a dog that hunts is pretty good for getting gigs, but they want to grow as a band first. Which is why they refused to sign with Watermelon/Sire.

"We just want to do our own thing for a while before we get locked into some control thing with a label," explains Kelly.

"We'll try that DIY thing for a while, and if it gets too difficult, we'll turn it over to someone else," says Boone. "It's a gamble."

Their SXSW showcase is the quintessential new Texas review: the Damnations, Gourds, Old 97's, Reckless Kelly, and possibly Kelly Willis will all share the same stage that night. All that's needed is Whiskeytown to make the bill complete. Asked what they will do if the music festival brings them more attention from record companies, Kelly and Boone look briefly at each other and grin devilishly.

"That'd be all right," states Kelly.

"I want to stay independent," argues Boone.

This is an ongoing debate in the band - to be now, or not to be now.

"We run a democracy in the band," explains Boone, and then laughs at her own joke. "Really, we want everybody to feel like it's our destiny, to be in this band, to have whatever happens happen. But we'll go with whoever gives us a van," she laughs.

At that moment, Bernard walks up, having just arrived at the studio. The question is put to him: Does he want to remain independent for a while, or grab a big deal if it comes?

"Depends on what you think of as big," he responds.

In lieu of a more specific answer, he asks Boone to do what he calls her "Veruca Salt impression."

"I vant a van, and I vant it now..." Boone whines.

The van issue may seem insignificant to most non-musician types, but to the Damnations it's huge. At the heart of it is independence, the ability to do one very big thing they've been waiting to do for a long time: break away from the Gourds. Not that they don't love them, but being the "sister band" of the Gourds will only get them so far.

Certainly they've gone the distance. Right now, they have no van of their own and they share their drummer with the Gourds, which means they play together a lot.

"We've kinda been on the coattails of some amazing musicians," says Boone.

"That's because we've got really good taste in music," quips Kelly.

"At the same time," continues Boone, "we've gotten a lot of press, but no one's really written about what we do. We're afraid of the hype, because it limits us in what we're `allowed' to do with the crowd. If they come expecting what the press has said, they're bound to be disappointed."

What should a new listener do? Don't try to define it, says Boone.

"Just ride the wave and enjoy it."

The Damnations' SXSW showcase is Friday, March 20 @ Liberty Lunch, 10pm.

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