BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Muse is magic – untethered to any schedule or artificial timetable. In 2014, Alex Dezen, founder, frontman and main songwriter for the Brooklyn-bred four-piece The Damnwells, released a series of four solo EPs. In March 2015, following a seven year split, the original Damnwells lineup reunited and released their fifth studio album, a self-titled collection featuring 11 tracks. On February 12, 2016, Dezen will issue his first full-length solo set, an appropriately eponymous, deeply personal 10 track self-portrait of a man now ready to lay the foundation for his own identity as a solo artist.
Make no mistake, on his stellar solo set, Dezen does look back on his life, perhaps as far back as age 12 when he purchased his first guitar, a knockoff Stratocaster. But without question, he continues to move forward in his never-ending pursuit of professional perfection of crafting quality songs, while continuing to search for the seemingly equally unobtainable goal of personal bliss few of us will ever obtain. In other words, as only the finest songwriters can do, Dezen’s songs simply mirror the lives of so many of us who understand that the most personal songs are actually the most universal as well. “When words alone are not enough, you need to say it in a song.”
It hadn’t really been planned. I was in Ohio over New Year’s 2015 and I was just thinking about writing songs and I was listening to new music. You know the new Damnwells record in fact had not even come out yet. I just started thinking of songs and I started writing songs and I wrote them all really quickly; they all just kind of came out in a rush. The next thing I knew there was a record that was finished. That was it, it was 10 songs and they were done. I didn’t write like 30 songs and just kind of pick the 10 best. These are 10 songs that needed to come out. They were very forceful in making their presence in the world, so I just kinda said, okay (laughs).
As many fans know well, you’ve written songs and worked with a wide spectrum of artists. Did you collaborate with other songwriters on any of the tracks on your forthcoming solo set?
No, these are all me. I do spend a lot of time collaborating with other people for the writing of other people’s music; this is me saying I needed to sort of say a couple things and put a couple things to music that did not require the sort of witticism of a clever line that I could only get from someone else, or a better melody here. It didn’t require those things. It just required me.
One more general songwriting question before we get into the 10 tunes on your album: you’ve noted in past interviews that for you, melody comes before lyrics and that you choose not to use too many chords in your compositions. How deep is your well of chord selections?
That’s a good question. It’s certainly gotten deeper, and every time that I discover a new chord I’m kind of like a kid in a candy store. I just kinda go nuts and I wanna put it in every song. You know I definitely expanded the chord vernacular on this record. And yeah, usually the melody would come first and that’s the way The Damnwells have kind of always made songs., but for this record I felt that melody is important, just like chords and lyrics and everything, but I did feel that the melody had to serve the lyrics and the music had to serve the lyrics and the production had to serve the lyrics; that the lyrics were the focal point of this record. And I think that for me it definitely changed. The lyrics come first. Coming up with clever melodies, you know it’s so subjective. You might like that melody, I might not. But at least with the lyrics in the way in which I approached this record, I’m not writing pretty lyrics, I’m just writing what I think is the truth.
Your self-titled solo record opens with “Ode To Ex-girlfriends,” the sonically tender tribute to a series of ex’s and their moms. Who or what was the catalyst for penning this song?
I wrote that one sort of around the middle of the project and I just had a line, which was “to all the lovers that I wrote love letters, and all their mothers who bought me nice sweaters/to all them I hereby extend this ode to ex-girlfriends.” I think it was just the line “ode to ex-girlfriends” that was sitting around and I expanded it. And then I had this experience in high school with this girl whose name is Elizabeth Sharkey; she was the last girl I talk about in the series of ex-girlfriends. We never dated, we were never boyfriend and girlfriend, but she kind of did this incredibly selfless thing for me. One of the other ex-girlfriends in the song, Laura, had broken up with me…and started dating this other guy that was kind of like my arch nemesis. And I was pretty down in the dumps about it and my friend Elizabeth was like, well I’ll make her jealous. She was kind of being a good friend…and she blew me a kiss. And I could see Laura just become consumed with rage and jealousy. And it really worked! Elizabeth Sharkey has kind of been a talisman that I’ve carried around with me. Our [Damnwells] publishing company was called Liedke The Shark.
That’s a great story. Let’s go on to track two, “A Little Less Like Hell.” In it you make reference to 9/11, President Obama, caustic YouTube comments, among other recent newsworthy incidents. Let me ask you to talk about the song and this specific line: “But what I’ll never understand is why, regardless of how hard we try/we’d leave somebody on the cross, just to make up for the things we’ve lost.”
First of all, I think we live in a society that requires sacrifice, and I don’t think it’s good – I think it’s bad. To make ourselves feel better about things that have happened which are inexplicable, things that happen which we cannot control, we have to find a guilty party, we have to find someone to hang up on the cross. And I feel like after 9/11 we had to find an enemy, we had to find one fast, and we found a wrong one. So without getting too political about it, it’s really just about, well, we live in an eye-for-an-eye culture. We manufacture enemies when there is a lack of enemies because the truth is, it’s like what many people have said before, I was looking and looking and looking for my enemy and then I looked in the mirror and I found him.
It seems that justice, and the process, gets lost in the pursuit of vengeance and a kneejerk reaction in general.
Absolutely. It’s a vengeance-based culture, especially now.
To me, track three, “Alex If You Can Say I Love You On a Greeting Card How Can It Be True” is a tale of domestic drama. Give us the backstory and tell us what’s going on in that household.
Well, the song is just a literal biographical telling of growing up in my family. The good thing about writing these songs is that when I have to talk about them I can just say, literally all you have to do is read the lyrics. Because it’s not like its coached in some kind of flowery metaphor. You know it was an abusive, f**ked up household. Of course there were households that were far worse, but it was my own kind of hell, for me and my sister and my mother and for my father, too. I had a very practical understanding of what love was, and what it wasn’t, early on. Every time I would see greeting cards that would say things like, “You’re the best wife I ever could have hoped for. I hope we can spend another 25 years together. Happy Anniversary baby. I love you,” I just think it’s so bizarre that we don’t actually have to say those things, we can just buy the card. And if that’s the case, how can it possibly be true. If you say I love you on a greeting card how could you possibly love someone.
Another song on the record is “This Is the Last Song (I’ll Ever Write On This Guitar),” an ode to an ex-axe sold to a fan. Is this a true story?
Yep, absolutely. I had this Martin D-35 guitar forever and I played it on a bunch of tracks, but it was not my primary guitar but it was a guitar that I often used and would often write on. But you know I just fell on hard times and I needed the cash and so I took to the internet and posted this guitar. I included a certificate that said it was used on these tracks, I wrote these songs on it and whatever, and I put it up on the internet and this guy who I mention in the song chimed in and said he wanted to buy it, so I sold it to him. And at the time I was writing for this record and it was all very autobiographical and I though, you know I gotta write a song about the selling of this guitar. So I literally sat down with that guitar and I wrote the last song that I would ever write on that guitar.
Speaking of guitars, tell me the story of who or what made you pick up your first guitar. Did you have the proverbial “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment? The “big bang” where you knew you were gonna do this for the rest of your life?
I mean I definitely had that moment, but it was a collection, like a constellation of moments that all culminated with the purchasing of my first guitar. I’d always wanted to play a music instrument. Even before I could play guitar I’d started a band, like a fictional band with my friends. We even wrote a song which was called “DEFCON 4,” which was a reference to what the military used to determine their defense conditions during the Cold War. And I’d actually gotten it wrong. The chorus was “DEFCON 4 is the end, DEFCON 4 is no more,” but it’s actually reversed; DEFCON 1 means the end, DEFCON 4 means we’re at peace (laughs). So I completely blew that. So I really should have given up then, but I just started playing when I was about 12. I bought a knockoff Stratocaster, but I didn’t really enjoy playing guitar until I bought my first acoustic guitar which was some kind of Ibanez crappy acoustic guitar that my mom got me for Christmas one year.
So where was your first exposure to music? Were you listening to the radio, or did your folks have albums around the house?
My sister actually was the person who got me interested in music. Everything she listened to I would steal from her and listen to. We grew up in the 80s, she was super into The Replacements, we really liked Prince and we really loved Stevie Wonder’s whole catalog and Aretha Franklin, and then The Replacements was kind of the bridge from that to more punk rock stuff like Black Flag and other stuff that was happening at that time. My sister was very into music and very into books and very into, you know, just cool stuff, so I learned all that from her.
The Almost Famous scenario, with the older sister.
One of my favorite songs on the record is “I Don’t Want To Be Alone When I Die,” a piano piece that features some great lyric lines like “I’m so afraid of death but I’m even more afraid of time” and “I’m 37 but still act like a stupid kid” and “Maybe I’ll come back the child my father stole.” Are you afraid of death?
Tell me a bit more about this song.
Well I’m afraid of death because I’ve always had like kind of a panic and anxiety disorder that I’ve been suffering with for years, since I was like probably 15 or so, and I’ve actually gotten way better at dealing with it now. I’m kinda pretty much anxiety-free most of the time, but when you have a panic attack for the first time you never really forget that feeling. You have never felt so afraid. And there’s something about when you come to this point in your mind where you feel like you’re facing death that all of the beautiful things that you’ve learned your whole life about angels and God and heaven, you don’t give a f**k at that, because you’re convinced you’re gonna die. And the only thing you can think is, I hope I can be holding on to somebody’s hand, I hope I can be with the people that I love. I hope that when that moment comes that I haven’t alienated everyone in my life, which is a lot of what my father’s done. It’s kind of reflective of what I’ve witnessed in my life and what I don’t want to repeat in my own life. And that’s really where that song comes from.
The next track I wanna bring up is the McCartney-Beatlesque-”Blackbird” like “Elephant.” Is that all fair to say?
You again reference not wanting to die alone. What is this song about?
Well that’s actually the first song I wrote for the record. It’s not quite as focused biographically, it’s a little bit more scattered, a little bit more freeform as far as the lyrical idea or concept. The record started, the first lyric of the record was “Today I saw an elephant playing on the ocean, playing in the ocean on Facebook.” And a lot of these songs, especially this one, they start with a lyric and then I say to myself, okay let’s write about that. So that sort of just comes out of that.
I mentioned McCartney – he had Lennon. I have to imagine writing and recording a record is always fraught with pressure, at time pleasure and pain. To what degree, if any, did you experience more or less of those things when you’re doing a solo record?
I mean I experienced pure mania. I mean just like up at all hours, working for 15-hour stretches without getting up from the desk, and it’s very satisfying, because nothing else matters because I’m working on this thing, and this thing is really important to me and this is what I do. So I always have something to do. I mean I have this thing that occupies my time and is super important for me to focus on. I don’t know if it can really be classified as enjoyment: it’s just utter obsession. When words alone are not enough, you need to say it in a song. And so when I made this record, it was because it had to be made. It was already coming out; I just needed to find some place to put it.
You may have already answered this earlier, but I’ll fling this here: are you a sentimental guy, or do you feel that the past is better left in the past?
I’m very sentimental. Sentimentality is my bread and butter; it’s kind of how I make my work. I’m very nostalgic, I’m very sentimental. I think to be a songwriter – at least to be a songwriter of confessional songs – you have to be pretty sentimental. I’m very sentimental about places, I’m very sentimental about times in my life, about objects – you know, like I told you about the acoustic guitar that I sold.
Yeah, that’s why I thought you might be pretty sentimental, but I’m glad you’re expanding here, so go ahead, continue.
Yeah, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass to be sentimental, to be quite honest, because it’s not easy when you are caught up in thinking about things that have happened – the way things were. And wanting to return to the way things were. Being that you’re a sentimental person, it does wind up confusing the motion of the narrative of your life. We should be going forward and a lot of times an overly sentimental person is sort of slipping backwards. That can be tragic, and it can be bad. The song “Ode to Ex-Girlfriends” is a perfect example of a song that an overly sentimental person would write (laughs).
Because I just have written so many f**kin’ love songs already, and how many more do I possibly need to write (laughs). I’m so over it! And being that I don’t even know what love is anymore, frankly I don’t even know what business I have writing about it. I don’t know, maybe that makes me even more entitled to write about it, since I don’t know what it is.
Nobody does (laughs).
Right. Isn’t that the scary reality that nobody does, but everybody thinks they do.
Yeah, definitely. Nobody really knows what love is. Final question for you, Alex: you’ve been in the business making music for 15 years with the band, you’ve seen a lot of changes in the landscape, so how do you assess the state of the music business today?
The state of the music business and the state of music are two totally different things. I’ll answer the question about the state of the music business and try to share how I think that affects the music, the world of music. The world of music has never been richer or filled with more music, and its filled with a lot of different kinds of music, and I don’t think that music had been that accessible before as far as literally its accessibility, the ease in which you can get access to it, and so that’s a good thing. The music business has suffered a devastating blow to much of that music. In its attempt to gather up and promote music that it believes will be hugely popular and successful, it has really devastated the world for other kinds of music. By that I mean thru streaming services and such. Streaming music is probably the most powerful way that an artist or band coming up today can get their music out there…without having to use a major record label. But unfortunately, the major record labels are so concerned and overly fixated in creating pop music that pop music has become so incredibly stupid; stupid beyond anything we’ve ever understood before. And because there’s only so much money to be made, major record labels are only gonna put their backing behind something that they know is going to be a success, and so they wind up chasing the same thing over and over and over again and so they wind up recreating the same music, the same pop star, the same thing, the same thing. We need to get out of that because it’s not healthy. The range which we understand and look at pop music is very, very narrow.
Well thank you for this record because it is really, really good. And thank you for a great conversation.
Hey, man, you too. I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.