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Simply Magical: The Music of Damon and Naomi (an interview)

by dave heaton

The music of Damon and Naomi is hard to pin down with words. Slow and mysterious, their transcendent folk songs have an intangible glow. Both their own web site bio and their label bio essentially say "Damon and Naomi play instruments and make music," giving no clues and instead pushing you toward the music itself. But that's mainly what I can do too…if you haven't heard any of their recordings, I suggest you do so as soon as possible. Since 1991, they've released four studio albums, an EP and a live album/DVD. The group started as a side project under the name Pierre Etoile, while both Damon and Naomi were members of the now-legendary dream-rock band Galaxie 500. After that band broke up they tentatively moved towards making music on their own, eventually getting comfortable enough with the idea to record a series of exquisite albums. Their most recent two recordings both highlight the group's continual collaborations with the great Japanese psych-folk band Ghost. In 2000 was the album Damon and Naomi With Ghost, which has a full sound perfect for laying your ears upon and dreaming the day away. This year saw the release of the live CD/DVD Song to the Siren, an audio and visual document of a tour they undertook with Ghost guitarist Kurihara as a third member. In an interview with the magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope described the tour in a way that, to me, is about as apt and description of their music in general as you'll find. He said, "During the tour I was gradually able to grasp their unique sense of timing and breathing. Particularly from around the middle of the tour on there were a number of amazing moments when we got this real synergy between the vibrations of the audience and the vibrations that we on stage were putting out. I guess that's what people mean when they talk about 'magic'." Magic is a vague word perhaps, but it's one I think of when I listen to Song to the Siren and their other albums. The Song to the Siren album and its accompanying visual tour diary, itself a worthwhile work of art, are just two of the things I had the chance to ask Damon and Naomi about during a recent e-mail interview. While I didn't make them describe their music, I did find out more about them and what they're up to these days.

Regarding the "Live in San Sebastian" half of the Song to the Siren set, what led you to decide to release a live album? Was it something you had been wanting to do? What was it about that particular show that made you choose it?

Naomi: What we have always loved about live albums is that the bands can't rely on the layering of the studio. You only have as many instruments as there are on the stage and when you listen to a live recording you can hear so clearly what each member is contributing. We had toured a lot over the previous year with Kurihara, as a trio, and we were very proud of the show. We thought it was important to document it and we were happy to get such a good recording.

Damon: My interest in live albums goes all the way back to an ill-advised teenage obsession with Frampton Comes Alive. Later on, Naomi and I collected a number of live recordings, both legit and bootleg, by musicians we admire, and we've used them over the years almost like tutorials: the Velvet Underground's 1969, the Soft Machine Turns On, Joy Division's Still, Dylan's Royal Albert Hall show, Tim Buckley's Dreamletter . . . It's different even than seeing a band, there's something about a live album that just lays it all out before you. Anyway as a result a good live album is something we've always been on the look out to create, as well -- but the circumstances have to be right, otherwise it's just another gig on tape. For the same reason, we pushed to release the live Galaxie 500 record, Copenhagen, from a recording we had that we thought was special. It's a document of what that band was about, in a way that the studio albums can't represent.

How would you describe what Kurihara adds to your sound?

Damon: Kurihara is a full-fledged guitar hero, but he's also an incredibly sensitive player -- he listens as skillfully as he plays. I think he adds a musical complexity to our arrangements, as well as his very individual voice.

How did doing an album with Ghost and performing live with Kurihara (and, at other times, with other members of Ghost) affect your music? Does it make it at all harder for you to record or perform just as a duo?

Naomi: The members of Ghost are all such great musicians one certainly feel inspired to "gambarimasu" --or "try one's best" in their company, no matter the circumstances. We have always really believed in and loved the effects of collaborative work, and all our collaborations with them have really been a joy. It certainly is a surprise, right after we have been on a long tour with all of Ghost, or as a trio with Kurihara, to play as a duo again. But, actually, since that is the way we have mostly played for years, we fall back into it quite naturally. We just have to change the structure of some of the songs back to duo-format -- we can't keep those long spaces for four-minute guitar solos!

By now it's probably an old story, but how did you originally meet Ghost? Had you been fans of theirs for a while?

Naomi: We were fans of Ghost before we met them in 1995 -- when we heard their records we were instantly taken with the music and actually I wrote them a fan letter that they never received! At the time we were playing in a very psychedelic band called Magic Hour with the guitarists Wayne Rogers and Kate Biggar (they now have a band called Major Stars). Magic Hour and Ghost toured the US together in 1995 and we had a great time together -- we loved their music and we all got along very well. Damon and I then went to Japan, later that same year, to do our first live shows as "Damon & Naomi", and we asked Ghost to accompany us on stage. So actually, working with them dates back to our very first live shows.

I love the DVD half of Song to the Siren as well; what can you tell me about the decision to film the tour? Did you always plan to release it, or was it something you were doing for fun that you later decided to release?

Naomi: I had always taken many photographs on tour, but the mini-DV camera was entirely new to me. The addition of sound as an element was, at first, utterly bewildering. But then I became fascinated by it. So, no, I didn't start the tour with the idea of making a film, I was just trying out the camera without any specific ambitions for it. But, as the tour went on, it struck me what a great medium it was to capture things I had never captured through my usual camera, so I started filming in order to document the tour. I still had no thoughts about putting it out or not, I was just interested in capturing what I could and seeing what I could do with it. We were lucky that, after I finished editing it, when we showed it to Sub Pop, they immediately wanted to put it out. Which meant I had to learn, after having just learned how to make a film, how to make a DVD!

It's a lot more than just a concert film: it's a travelogue, it's about people you met, etc. I'm wondering if you considered releasing it more as a film, presenting to people in the film world who are not necessarily familiar with your music? (by submitting it to film festivals, for example)

Naomi: I would love it if more people saw the film; I feel very happy about the movie in that I think it represents so clearly what our tours are like for us, some of the wonderful people we meet and perform with and the amazing things we see. But, on the other hand, I know it is made with a very DIY ethic -- and I feel shy about submitting it to the "real" film world.

Switching subjects to some of the other projects you're involved in…I think Musicians for Peace is really important given the current political climate. Could you tell me more about what you hope to accomplish with it? Is the purpose mostly to spread information via the web site, or do you foresee planning events or demonstrations of any kind?

Damon: Musicians for Peace was a hastily assembled, ad-hoc group of musicians who got together to attend a peace march on Washington DC, shortly after last September 11. But then since the war talk didn't dissolve, it seemed like the group couldn't, either. It's really just a website, and mailing list, that functions as a clearinghouse for information, but maybe more importantly as a way for people to publicly declare their opposition to what the US government is doing right now, and to see they are not alone in taking that stand. There was so much silence after September 11, and silence can be interpreted as assent. That's why we've been keeping at it, even if maybe there's nothing concrete to be "accomplished" with it -- I don't think the government gives a damn what musicians or artists think, in any case. Although, as the 60s proved, musicians and artists can encourage people to think for themselves, and that's dangerous for any government.

You also run Exact Change. How long have you been doing that? What originally made you interested in book publishing?

Damon: We've always had more books and records in our house than anything else, and eventually we started making records, so it seemed only logical: why not make books, too? We started it while Galaxie 500 was still a going concern, and at the time we were making enough money that we had a little more than our living expenses, so we spent it on publishing the books. Later, we were forced to turn it into more of a real business, which has been -- and remains -- a tremendous challenge. It's very hard to publish the kinds of books we do, and make it work financially. But these are the books we believe in, so we keep trying. Just don't get me started about Borders and Barnes and Noble . . . I'll sound like a real crank!

Of all the books that you've reprinted through Exact Change, are there any that you're especially happy to see back in print?

Naomi: One of my personal favorites on our list is the author Denton Welch. A gay writer from England, his three autobiographical novels were first published in the 30s and 40s. He is intensely sensitive, nostalgic, and has a great, very visual memory: he can describe a chipped tea cup that he treasured years ago in a way that you feel like you yourself have seen it. And he's very funny, in a wry English way.

Damon: I'm proud that we are also now being offered original manuscripts, by translators, editors, even sometimes other publishers, of what I think are very important works. If only we could afford to print them all! We have to limit ourselves, for practical reasons.

One more Exact Change question: I'm really intrigued by the Chris Marker Immemory CD-ROM that's listed on the web site as forthcoming. What can you tell me about that? Will this be the first publication of it or has it been available before?

Damon: Immemory is incredible, we just put on the back cover that it's like a 21st-century Remembrance of Things Past, and that's no exaggeration. It's the filmmaker Chris Marker's memoire, and valuable for that reason alone. But it's also the most fascinating use of digital media I have experienced. It was previously published in French, by the Centre Pompidou, and once we saw it we felt we had to try and release it in English.

You're playing Terrastock 5 soon, and I'm pretty sure you played at some of the other Terrastocks too: how would you describe the atmosphere at those festivals? ("I wish I could be there" is the thought lurking behind this question.)

Damon: We've actually ended up playing every Terrastock so far -- it's a special event, because it's so rare that you get to be with a lot of other bands, and still be in a comfortable environment for music. Industry events, like CMJ or SXSW, are really more about business than they are about music. And huge festivals -- not that we're experts, but we did play a couple once upon a time -- are just impossible situations for music. Terrastock is basically a chance for freaks to get together, both music fans and musicians -- it's like hanging out for a few days in a very good, living record store.

What else are you up to in the upcoming months? Do you have future tours or recordings planned?

Naomi: We are excited to be touring with Ghost in October -- opening for them on their East Coast dates. (see for details ) And then a festival in Spain in November, sponsored by the label Acuarela. Otherwise we are slowly putting together some new material, but no specific recording plans yet.

One final question: On their recent live album, Luna recorded Galaxie 500's "Fourth of July." Have you ever had the desire to revisit an old Galaxie 500 song, to see what a Damon and Naomi cover of Galaxie 500 would sound like?

Naomi: It is no mystery to us what the two of us playing a G500 song would sound like -- we played them, as a duo, at home, during the time we were working on them in G500. The only difference is that, back then, we never worried about the lyrics -- that was mostly Dean's department, except for the songs I sang and one or two other exceptions. That is one huge difference between our song writing then and now, that the singing and the lyrics have really come to mean something very powerful to us. This is one reason why we really don't play any G500 songs -- it would be very hard to sing those lyrics with conviction or emotion, other than nostalgia. And I am really not nostalgic for that time!

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