Ghostriders - A Conversation with Damon & Naomi
It's difficult to decide if things are going well for Damon & Naomi. On the one hand, they are not exactly making a fortune with their musical ventures, the still play the odd show with only a handful of people attending and Rykodisc, who put out all of their previous albums in Europe fired everybody but one person Damon & Naomi used to work with, so the Massachusetts-based twosome had to look for another deal. On the other hand Damon & Naomi are still doing music more than ten years after the sad demise of Galaxie 500, have the chance to work with great people like Tom Rapp or Ghost, and just played their first ever tour of Spain where well-respected local label Elefant released their current album, "With Ghost". The record will be released in Korea (!) - another first for the band - sometime soon as well. So a lot of things seem to happen in the wondrous world of Damon & Naomi lately, but one thing still remains the same. They are still just about the nicest people you are likely to meet in the music business. They are honest, funny, intelligent and they remain great songwriters and performers as well. I had the chance to meet up with them right before their recent show in Utrecht, Holland.
Carsten: Since we last meet you did several interesting collaborations, with Tom Rapp and now with Ghost. Even though you obviously did similar things in the past, you always did your Damon & Naomi records separately before. This shift does not mean you lack the self-confidence to do another record all on your own, does it?
Naomi: "No! The collaboration with Tom Rapp was really to help him out on his record. We have always enjoyed collaborations, it's something we love about being in a band, more than just wanting to be "the star", so we're very happy to do them. And working with Ghost was an amazing honor."
Carsten: So Damon & Naomi (the band) and the collaborations are not separate things in any way?
Naomi: "No, it's just a natural progression. We don't plan things out, we just do what seems to be the right thing to do at the time. It's less theoretical than you might hope it to be (laughs). It's more like: 'This could be fun, let's do it!'"
Carsten: So how did the album with Ghost came about then?
Naomi: "We had toured with them before in the US [two lovely live recordings from those shows came out on a 7" single on Grimsey a while ago] and then we went to play with them in Japan and after the show in Tokyo, where we played individual sets and then a set together, we just said: 'Let's make the next record together'. It took us a while to figure out how to do that.
Carsten: Did that decision have anything to do with the fact that you may have been (for a lack of a better word) bored with the sound you had on the first three albums, because to me the new album seems to be a bit of a departure in sound.
Damon: "Well, after every new record some people have said it's a depaturre..."
Naomi "... to me the first two are much more related because we worked with Kramer. We also don't make a new one until we have a reason to make one, because it's too boring just to do what you know how to do already. You just have to throw everything away and start anew."
Carsten: Having said that, was the possible collaboration with Ghost THE reason to make a new album then?
Naomi: "I think you're thinking we're much more organized than we are!" (laughs)
Carsten: I'm probably too set in my way of thinking of a band with a record contract and a new album every two years...
Damon: "Well, record companies don't force bands to make records. It's the other way round: Contracts enable bands to force the label to pay them for their next record or drop them. It was different in the 60s, but that was about singles and Top Ten stuff. We make records when we feel like making them."
Carsten: How did you approach the actual recording process with Ghost?
Naomi: "We had the songs to the point where we usually start recording them. Then we made very rough versions of the songs and sent them to Japan with all the chords for them [Ghost] to look at and they actually looked at it very carefully and made their own little cassette with their reinterpretations of what we had sent them - with suggestions and changes in chords, sometimes even changes in lyrics (laughs), which we didn't accept, because it was totally making our English incorrect, but they thought it was superior rhythmically. And we just said: 'We're sorry, we can't sing that, we're native speakers'. So we listened to what they had done which sometimes was very different to our idea of the song. After that they came to our house and we recorded it all together."
Carsten: Do you think this method of working through the mail had a big impact on the record, rather than working with all people in a room at once?
Naomi: "It would have been interesting to do it in the room, but it certainly had an effect on the record because of their input. They are marvelous musicians and they thought about the songs in a way we don't. The whole process was very different from the way they usually record, because they don't spend like two weeks in a studio like most western bands when they record their albums. They book like one day, take two months off and then book maybe one more day..."
Damon: "We have spend about a week recording with Ghost in the studio, which is no more or less than we have took for any of our other records, but they were shocked that you could a record that quickly."
Carsten: It seems that nowadays a lot of bands spend less time recording, but a lot more time mixing their records...
Damon: "We still mix in the old way, which is: You do the mix, you have it on tape, and you either like it or not. You can't fiddle with it. A lot of bands are mixing endlessly these days because they save everything. And then they go back and change just one little bit. You can see how that would lead to taking more time. That is all set up by record companies too. Computerized mixing allows you to change just little things. We never had a relationship with a label where they could do that. We were always very comfortable with the fact that we gave them a tape and that's done. It's an artifact in itself."
Carsten: I was kinda surprised when I saw you live (even as a two-piece) that it still sounded so much like you, even though the records are obviously much more produced and the live arrangements are very different.
Damon: "Ultimately, it's just us on tape, we're not hiding behind anything."
Naomi: "It's like: 'What you see is what you get'!" (laughs)
Damon: "We don't process our recordings very much, we're not using ProTools, we're not correcting our pitch..."
Naomi: "Yeah, there's this pitch-thing, you can put your singing through and it will fix all the bad notes. When we first heard about that, it was like: 'I WANT THAT'!" (laughs)
Damon: "Yeah, but we don't have any of that stuff. We believe that when you're recording, you're just recording a moment of yourself in the studio and we don't have the inclination or the technology [to change it.] We start essentially with what we do live."
Carsten: Talking of the live shows, does it usually matter to you how many people are attending the show? Last time I saw you there were very few people there, but it was a great show nevertheless...
Damon: "It's not the number, it's the quality. We have played in front of big crowds that we really disliked and small crowed that we loved. And vice versa. It really depends whether we connect to them and what they are there for."
Naomi: "It's like: When you have a really small audience, you wish there were more people there, and then the next time you have a really big audience, you notice a lot of people only came because it was a show and it seemed like a good idea to go there and there are only 50 people listening and you think: I'd rather just play for these 50 people and have everybody else just go home... the 300 people that are just drinking beer and 'having a good time'."
Carsten: How did the people react to Kurihara now that you perform as a three-piece?
Naomi: "In a way it has been frustrating, because Kurihara is such an amazing guitar player , but you have to listen carefully."
Damon: "He is a very subtle player. He's not prancing around the stage showing what a genius he is, he is just being a genius. But it still requires effort on the part of the audience to recognize it."
Naomi: "We demand a lot from our audiences."
Damon: "... yeah, we demand attention, quiet..."
Naomi: "...and, you know, a minimal of intelligence... (laughs)"
Damon: "... I'd say a modicum of intelligence..."
Naomi: ".. an effort towards intelligence..."
Damon: "... a gesture towards intelligence! And maybe a little patience and indulgence. We're asking for indulgence, is that too much? (laughs) Actually, we are very harsh and judgemental...that's another of the indulgences we ask the audiences to allow us (laughs again). We're awful to the audiences..."
Naomi: "I'm nice!"
Damon: "Yeah, that's right. Naomi's nice, but I'm learning to be nicer and she's learning to be more horrible! (And after getting a confused / angry look from Naomi) Okay, I take it back!" (laughs)
Carsten: Talking about the design of the album sleeves for a second: Did you ever think about doing something really special, like the pillbox thing Spiritualized had for their last album or even like the little book Pearl Jam had for "Vitalogy"?
Naomi: "No-one has ever offered me a large budget, but I would imagine I'd love to do something special but if I was going to do something special it probably wouldn't look so obviously special, I'd probably chose nice materials [to work with]."
Damon: "The Digi-Pak [for the latest album] we did was a big favor from Sub Pop, because it's very expensive to do and it has silver ink and six colors...it's our version of extravaganza."
Naomi: "So it's actually very expensive, but it doesn't look that way. And even when I have a budget, like [for] the box set, in the end I made this choices, where to me it was like simply luxuries, but not something that is gonna be like: 'Oh my god, what's THAT'?"
Carsten: Do you do sleeves for a lot of other bands as well?
Naomi: "I do it for everyone who asks - and if they pay me, too."
Carsten: Does it actually make a difference if a record is released on CD or vinyl as far as the design is concerned?
Naomi: "With the new album we didn't know that Drag City was going to do the LP version until very close to the end and I hadn't thought about it at all. It was like: Oh my god, it's so big, I almost had forgotten!"
Damon: "Sub Pop sold out the CD version in the Digi-Pak, so now they are going to repress it with a regular jewel case."
Naomi: "Yeah, so before we left I had to re-design the whole thing for the jewel case. It's almost the same size, but everything is a little different and it was like (big sigh). 'Oh, I thought I had finished this'!"
Carsten: Do you notice a difference in sound between the vinyl version and the CD?
Naomi: "It sounds better [on vinyl], it sounds more like a record!"
Damon: "The CD sounds more like the master tape and the LP sounds like..."
Naomi: "...in our minds... In a way we were thinking about this record as being something that someone would pick up 15 years from now and be like: 'Oh, look what happened when these two bands got together'. And that's an LP you'd find, you don't find an old CD, unless it's an reissue."
Carsten: Yeah, that fits in with what Damon wrote in the liner notes to the Galaxie 500 box set, about wanting to have a 7" in a bargain bin....
Damon: "Yeah, but CDs in bargain bins are not romantic, they are just junk!"
Interview: Carsten Wohlfeld (c) 2001