[Interview] Alex Dezen Keeps It Real But Rejects Authenticity
After several years as the frontman of The Damnwells, Alex Dezen moved to Los Angeles and began a career as a solo artist. Before his recent show at The Vinyl in Atlanta, we caught up with him to learn more about where he finds himself in his career today, where he fits into the music scene at large, and what it’s meant for him to leave behind the focus on Americana rock, in pursuit of something more personal.
Welcome to Atlanta. You’ve been here before, of course.
Yes. With The Damnwells I’ve been here more times than I can count, but this is my first-time solo.
For people who don’t know your story as well, tell us how you got to here.
Well, I am a human being named Alex Dezen. I played in The Damnwells for 16 years. We toured all over the country and a couple of spots in Europe. We made a bunch of records and some of them were pretty good. We toured a lot at a time when rock 'n' roll was kind of on the outs. While we were touring, I felt like rock 'n' roll was on the rise, on the outs, on the rise again, and on the outs again. So, we kept going and saw things rise and fall.
The Damnwells was one thing; what I’m doing with my solo stuff is different, but not different enough that I wouldn’t play a Damnwells song. I play plenty of Damnwells songs in my set because they’re all my songs, and I don’t feel like it’s going backward or anything playing songs that I wrote 15 years ago.
Where do you feel like rock 'n' roll is now, or where it’s going? Do you think it’s something we should fight to keep alive?
Well, I think people take an inkling to revive certain genres based on what they’re listening to when they’re young. When I was a kid, my sister listened to rock 'n' roll. She listened to The Replacements and Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar and Cyndi Lauper. And there was a lot of other stuff we listened to like Echo and The Bunnymen and The Cure. So, it’s hard to say if people should aspire to keep rock 'n' roll alive.
When I was in The Damnwells, we definitely felt like we should keep rock & roll alive because it’s an important thing. But, I don’t know. It keeps changing, and I’m actually enjoying the fact that it’s changing because I’ve definitely felt for a while that I was pretty boxed in, that I couldn’t do stuff that I wanted to do because The Damnwells were an Americana rock 'n' roll band, and if we had other elements to the music or some other types of grooves or instrumentation; that people would reject it… which they did… we put out a record called No One Listens To The Band Anymore and the opening track has a synth solo, and there were a lot of people on Facebook and other social media platforms who said, “Oh, I guess The Damnwells are just another boy band now with a synthesizer.”
That’s something about rock 'n' roll that I think is a problem. Prince wore makeup and Lady Gaga has a meat dress, and that’s what they do, and it’s no different than Americana or rock 'n' roll parading around as authenticity. Like what we’re doing is authentic. That’s a total fallacy.
Well, who’s going to accuse Prince of not being rock 'n' roll?
Absolutely. I totally think he was. To me, this thing of authenticity is just another color.
Do you think there’s resistance in the rock scene or in Americana against using electronic tools in music creation?
I just think that’s a fool’s errand. I mean sure, if you’re rich enough that you can afford to make your record on two-inch tape, then you’re already kind of not rock 'n' roll. I can’t afford to do that, so I don’t. I can afford to do what I can afford to do, and that’s what I do. I make my records almost exclusively digital, other than guitars and basses and vocals.
So when you lay down drums on a track, are you building that in MIDI or playing the drums and recording it?
I’m not doing either one. I started collecting WAV samples years ago. I have WAV images of a snare or a kick sample, and I’m building the drum track by placing the stuff where I want it to be placed.
That must take forever…
It takes a long fuckin’ time! The benefit of it is that when you start to do production that way, it’s almost like pointillism. You’re controlling it at the micro level, so you can create any vibe you want without having to explain it to someone. You do lose a lot of the collaborative elements of rock 'n' roll, but what you gain is total control over what you create, which is what a lot of electronic musicians like Skrillex and Diplo get. I mean, those guys are just sitting in a dark room just moving stuff around and there’s some incredible stuff that comes out of that. I mean, there’s some stuff that comes out that feels like it’s almost alien, but I think some of those same skills can be applied towards rock 'n' roll or folk music.
Can you see yourself going more electronic at any point, and sampling old rock records?
No way. That doesn’t excite me, and it just never has. Not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s never where my head's at. With this record that just came out, I wanted to make a Fleetwood Mac meets the darkness, not the band. I couldn’t create it in an analog way, but I could create it in my studio in my apartment by compiling samples and putting them together.
I know you’re a big lyrics guy. I have tried many times to enjoy Bob Dylan, and I just can’t. Can you explain why he’s so significant?
Yeah, I was that way for a long time. Bob Dylan is so important because he was the first person to say something loudly and quietly at the same time that means so much to so many people in so many different ways. He was like the Jackson Pollock of songwriters.
You could try to pinpoint him as being the voice of his generation, and then he would turn around and write “Subterranean Homesick Blues," which makes absolutely no sense. He would write “Blowin’ In The Wind” and then “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and that was all contained in the same human being.
So, while he was saying some profound things that were important which I think moved some people to become activists, or moved people to take a look at their privilege or who they were or where they were coming from, he also was able to give people a sense of imagination. That’s a pretty incredible thing to do, and he continues to make some pretty incredible inroads in music. I think that what he did ultimately, was make it trendy for an artist to allow the listener into their life, and then to also turn around and kick them the fuck out.
Do you feel like Americana runs the risk of promoting abstract and baseless nationalism? Should we be more censorious of country music?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. Well, country music, yes. Country music does absolutely promote an incredibly distorted white nationalist view almost 90% of the time. But, that’s what those people want to hear, and I’m separating that from Americana.
Free music is an assumed norm now. The Damnwells did one free album, and then went back to a more traditional model, but you garnered tons of email addresses in the process. At what point is that fan data worth more than record sales money?
Well, everything’s worth more than trying to sell an album, that’s for sure. I don’t care if people buy it, steal it, stream it, set it on fire… that makes no difference to me whatsoever. I’m not trying to make money selling albums. That’s a fool’s errand nowadays.
So, I’m right there with emerging artists in that way. We are all emerging artists whether we’re big stars or nobodies. I get a lot of flak for this from people, but I’m just not interested in trying to hit people over the head with a $10.99 album. I just want them to hear the music and I don’t think there should be a barrier between what I make and people who listen to it. That’s when Capitalism fails. Capitalism wins when I can fill a venue with people to see me play. Because that’s an experience that can only happen that time in that moment in that place, and it can’t be replicated. I don’t care if you stream it, or take pictures, or post videos on YouTube and Instagram; you’re never going to replicate that experience for anyone unless you’re in that room.
That I don’t mind charging for. I just want people to be able to hear the music, and that’s a very difficult thing to do even if you give it away in this day and age. Even when The Damnwells were doing really well, at the merch table we always had the Fugazi model which was that tickets should be five bucks and albums should be ten. You shouldn’t charge more than ten dollars for a fucking CD. It’s a useless piece of plastic. Vinyl, maybe it’s a little bit different because it’s expensive to make.
What’s next for you?
Well, when I finished The Damnwells and made my first solo record, I finished it. It all came out at one time in a vomitous mess, and I made it into an album and I mastered it and got the art done and everything; and then I immediately started writing record two before record one came out. So, by the time record one came out, record two was done, which is the record that just came out. So, record two is out and record three is already done. So, what I need to do now is make the art for record three when I get home in a month and then start on record four.
I feel very confident and at the same time very experimental. I feel like not as many people care, which is a bad thing, but also a good thing; so I can just do what I want. If I put out this record that I just released as a Damnwells record, I think you’d see people saying this is bullshit and this is not what The Damnwells are. But, since I don’t have to worry about that, I can really do whatever I want.
There’s so much music that has been hugely influential on me that I never really represented when I was in The Damnwells, and I’m trying to explore that now. And that’s hard for people to understand because they assume that The Damnwells is an authentic Americana band, but what they don’t realize is that authenticity is not something that is devoid of other affectations. It is an affectation, and that’s what I figured out. Authenticity’s not a real thing. It’s made up. It’s a way to describe something that appears truthful, but in fact it’s not truthful at all. So, how can you possibly have the benchmark of authenticity be in any way meaningful or truthful?
That was something that was a heartbreaking discovery that I had towards the end of The Damnwells, which was that I can refuse to do things digitally, or I can continue to refuse to play to a clique. I can follow these random catechisms of rock, and all that it does is limit me from being able to do potentially anything or something groundbreaking or something profound. And, when I made the first solo record, which I feel was the most personal thing I ever did, and I don’t plan on doing it again anytime soon, but I did that because I realized how much bullshit everything was.
Alex Dezen is truthful if he's anything, and I appreciated his candor and fearlessness in talking about the music industry that he has so much passion for. Joshua Fletcher and Mike Dunn opened up the night and joined Alex and his band again on stage at the end of the show. Several of these guys have known each other for years, and it always feels like a family reunion when old friends play together. Alex's performance was uncomplicated but polished. It felt like he was playing the songs he wanted to hear himself sing. I dare not use the word "authentic" to describe him, so I will simply say that his performance felt honest.
Photos by Megan Friddle for Bullet Music.