These days, the story of a band has a template. Predetermined plot points occur at almost identical intervals as bands form, sign, tour, peak and crash like bottles on an unmanned conveyor belt at Shotz Brewery. Of course, the band doesn’t always have to fall, much less shatter.
Meet the Damnations. Formed by sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly as an acoustic duo in the Adirondacks 10 years ago and relocated to Austin (where they hooked up with ex-Prescott Curlywolf guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Rob Bernard), the band has followed the pattern up to and including what might be ruled a crash, yet they dusted themselves off and carried on.
After establishing themselves as one of Austin’s top live acts and a touring attraction, the Damnations signed with Sire Records and released the critically lauded Half Mad Moon shortly before the label’s merge with London Records. Here comes the predictable plot point: “Things were going really well at first,” Kelly says from a tour stop in Tempe, Arizona. “They were really behind us. They hired a publicist and did a lot of promotion right after our record came out. Then, when they merged with London, a lot of people in Sire that were behind us got fired.”
So they were left with one champion: Sire prez Seymour Stein. Stein still backed the band, but was unavoidably preoccupied with merger dealings. Rather than allow the band and a new record, the presciently titled Where It Lands, to languish as business continued its tortoise-y trudge, Stein attempted to relocate the Damnations to another label. The band was appreciative, but decided it was best to just sever ties. “We just didn’t want to be shopped around to labels that we didn’t know would be good for us,” says Kelly. “We wanted to just get off and just do our own thing and make our own decisions. I ended up writing Seymour a letter and asking him to let us go, and he did.”
They got lucky in one regard: in addition to their freedom, they came away with Where It Lands, a disc that carries on the band’s mongrel musical tendencies (country bred with blues, soul and numerous variations on rock). Of course, it sounds a lot less painful than it was, says Kelly. “I mean ... it dragged out for a long time. Half Mad Moon came out in 1999 and here we are. We just released [Where It Lands] on March 5 and it’s 2002, so there’s like a three-year period where we lost a lot of momentum.”
What they lost in momentum, they seem to be regaining, even as the tour is only two dates deep. A South by Southwest 2002 showcase and afternoon party gig were well-attended precursors, and opening dates in Albuquerque and Flagstaff drew startlingly well for Monday and Tuesday nights, evidence that the band wasn’t forgotten. And then, there’s the record.
“All Night Special” kicks it off, making a duplex out of a roadhouse and a hippie commune; Boone and Kelly harmonizing (consider Grace Slick with a cigarette-serrated twang) over a Stonesy grind. “Root On” finds Bernard layering Beatles over Pistols, crooning “I don’t wanna be no anarchy” as the band trolls a bouncy groove. “Quarter In the Couch” details livin’ easy, but not necessarily free (“calm and cool, I get on easy/Countin’ on that quarter in the couch”) as Kelly’s bass, Boone’s Wurlitzer and now ex-drummer Conrad Choucroun weave a tranquil groove. Elsewhere, the record contains twangy Pink Floyd-isms (Bernard’s “Animal Children”), reverent and irreverent covers (The Sir Douglas Quintet’s “Wanna Be Your Mama,” D. Boon’s Minutemen ditty “Corona”), down-home ditties (“Tora, Tora, Tora”) and balls-out rockers (“New Hope Cemetery”).
If the Damnations are looking to recapture momentum, Where It Lands will accomplish that and ensure indelibility. Now their only concern is finding a drummer (Choucroun left for NYC—the band is currently borrowing opening act Kirk Rundstrom’s “badass” drummer Colin Mahoney) and maybe busting out of the whole “alt-country” thing.
“I don’t feel like we’re anti [alt-country],” says Kelly. “But of course no band wants to be pigeonholed. We have a banjo and a lot of country-flavored songs, but ... we just want people to understand that we’re not limited to that label, if we are going to be labeled as that. When we pull out the Wurlitzer and start playing some stuff that’s more R&B influenced, I certainly don’t want people to be like, ‘Oh my God, give me my money back. I thought this was an alt-country band!’”