The Damnwells' press photo doesn't promise much else: four young men (Alex Dezen, vocals/guitar; Dave Chernis, guitar; Ted Hudson, bass; Steven Terry, drums) standing in an anteroom in New York City looking slightly vexed by something. Well, they shouldn't worry about the quality of their Epic Records debut, Bastards of the Beat. It's a brilliant collection of elegant, bittersweet, catchy rock ballads. Finding inspiration in the earlier sounds of the Lemonheads, the Replacements and Uncle Tupelo, the Damnwells are skilled in creating crushing guitar-pop like "What You Get," heartbreaking jangle-anthems like "Kiss Catastrophe" and spare, alt-country shuffles like "Newborn History." Indeed, the band's powerful eclecticism keeps you guessing as to what's coming next. A mystical, piano-driven lullaby? Try "Texas." How about a horn-stacked soul number? Well, there's "I'll Be Around." Stripped-down vox and acoustic guitar ditty? Give "I Will Keep the Bad Things From You" a spin. Bastards has it all.
Recently, Tucson Weekly spoke with Damnwells frontman Alex Dezen via telephone to figure out what makes this accomplished 26-year-old singer/songwriter tick.
Tucson Weekly: "Texas" is one of the most beautiful ballads I've ever heard. The image of this guy driving across the hugest state in the union, dreaming of his lover, almost falling asleep, is heartbreaking. Is it based on personal experience?
Alex Dezen: Actually, no. When I sat down and wrote that song, it was definitely from a craft perspective.
TW: Argh! You're killing me.
AD: Yeah, my sister, who's also a performer in New York, was in a long-distance relationship, and so I wrote it about her. But there's also this weird phenomenon in Texas, where people don't think twice about driving from San Antonio to Dallas. It's a longer drive than going from Boston to New York, and it's something East Coasters can't understand.
TW: You're only 26, and yet you write ballads as easily as you do full-on rock songs.
AD: I don't write both at the same time, because I can't switch back and forth. I can't just sit down and say, "Now it's time to write a rock song." But I do tend to write in batches. If I feel I'm writing too many ballads, then I'll try to toughen things up with the guitar. I'm still trying to pull off the perfect amalgamation of rockers and ballads.
TW: But which is easier to write?
AD: Rock songs are easier. We all love Cheap Trick and Zep. But it's probably easier for Zep to play "Heartbreaker" than "Going to California." Yet it's "Going to California" that has affected me more. At the same time, in an effort to appease audiences, you can't just have them standing around listening to quiet, atmospheric ballads.
TW: The opening track, "Assholes," only gets as far as the first verse. Yet the song's complete lyrics are included in Bastards. What's up with that?
AD: We decided we wanted "Assholes" to be an opening statement or theme, rather than an opening track. The CD has a secret track, though, that allows you to hear the whole song. So it's there--you just have to look for it a bit.
TW: The Damnwells toured with another great songwriter in the summer, Jesse Malin (The Fine Art of Self Destruction, The Heat). How did it go?
AD: We're friends with all those guys (in Malin's band) from New York, so we had a blast. I've only been down to Jesse's bar (Niagra) once, but I should really get down there more often. I just never seem to leave the house.
TW: Do you consider yourself part of the new wave of New York singer/songwriters that includes Ryan Adams, Jesse Malin and Pete Yorn.
AD: I don't think about it, though they're certainly talented songwriters. We weren't part of the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' scene when they were making history in New York, either. There's definitely a resurgence of interest in songwriting, but I'm not a solo artist, and I have no plans to become one.
TW: Do you write every day?
AD: (Novelist) Tom Wolfe says you should move heaven and earth to get a job at a newspaper so that you're writing every day. I'm constantly writing for the next album, so that hopefully, in my mid-30s, I'll have a better understanding of what it takes to write a song.
TW: So then are you gonna write a novel one day?
AD: Jeez, it's a struggle for me just to get breakfast this morning. I don't know--writing more than three pages of words might break my concentration. Then again, maybe I can turn some of it into a larger work.