DAMON AND NAOMI
As remarked in our reviews columns last issue in celebration of Rykodisc’s release of ‘Galaxie 500’, a beautifully presented boxed set of all three Galaxie 500 albums plus a further CD’s worth of outtakes, it was way back in issue 6 of the Terrascope in December 1990 that we last talked to Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang about their music. As we all grow older together and change in our direction if not our outlook it’s becoming increasingly relevant that we step back and revisit a few bands and artists from our own back pages - and Damon and Naomi provide the classic example of the truth in that old saw, for did they not follow the break-down of Galaxie 500 by reinventing themselves as an eerily incandescent pairing of melancholy souls who carved a niche for themselves with their revered debut ‘More Sad Hits’ as the bedsit maestros of the fragile, world-weary pop classic; and then confound that statement altogether by joining — fusing almost — with Wayne Rogers and Kate Biggar of the Crystalized Movements/Vermonster feedback guitar axis, the polar opposites of Damon and Naomi in both sound and sonic tactics who together created the demonstrably brilliant Magic Hour?
We never quite got round to running the Magic Hour interview we promised ourselves; it was canned, but never transcribed and suddenly the band were no more and we were left scratching our heads over which new direction the two couples would take. With Wayne and Kate still undecided at the time of writing (although the success of their Twisted Village record store and Wayne’s solo work ensures they’re hardly “resting”), the opportunity for an interview that presented itself when I started talking to Damon and Naomi about appearing at the Terrascope’s Providence bash was one that was too good to miss. We’ll cover the Pierre Etoile project they briefly flirted with before becoming Damon and Naomi per se, ‘More Sad Hits’ itself and the 1995 follow-up ‘The Wondrous World of Damon and Naomi’ (on Sub Pop), their Exact Change publishing house and of course Magic Hour. First of all though, we’re going to talk about the much talked-about Galaxie 500 boxed set, setting the scene initially by talking about the final days of the band itself:
PT: I’d like to open the interview with a question about the final days of Galaxie 500. I particularly like the way Naomi described the ending of G500 in the booklet that comes with the boxed set. I hadn't realised there was hurt and anger and a lost friendship involved there; I suppose I just assumed it had run its course and fizzled out and everyone had moved on to other things?
DK: It's a sorry tale, one I don't particularly enjoy telling, but as your question indicates it's one that has evidently not been told enough. One thing we wanted the box to do was answer questions, but I guess we were a little reticent about this and there is still confusion. So, while it would be nice to just be sad and profound, here are the dirty facts! What happened was simply that Dean quit, more or less out of the blue, on the telephone one day. We have not seen him since, nor spoken since that week. In fact, he didn't even place the call! It was just after the weekend we had finished what turned out to be our last tour, which was an opening slot for the Cocteau Twins in the States; we had an upcoming tour to Japan (this was something Naomi and I were very much looking forward to, as you can imagine, as was Kramer, we were going to take him with us), and when I opened the paper on Monday I discovered there was a sale on for tickets to Tokyo that was ending at midnight. So I called Dean to say “let's buy our tickets”, and he said, no, I quit. No explanation, just “there's nothing more to talk about”, and that was it. A lot of years of friendship, not to mention the band, down the drain in a minute flat.
PT: So it really was completely out of the blue then?
DK: The background to that day is that there had of course been tensions between us at times, and both Naomi and I and Dean had even threatened to quit at moments in the past — but at that juncture there just didn't seem to be anything wrong. We had just had a really good tour, everything seemed very happy in fact, we were talking very seriously to major labels about a move from Rough Trade (at least in the U.S., because their American company was a disaster), we had made plans to start rehearsing a new album, we were going to Japan in a couple of months, it was a very optimistic time. Since Dean has never told us why he did it we have had to guess, and judging by his actions we can only assume that he decided he wanted to sign with a major by himself, instead of as part of the band. As it turned out, he was signed as a solo act (i.e., for all the dough; his new band [Luna] came later as hired hands, from what we've heard) to Elektra by the former A&R director of Rough Trade's New York office, who had just been fired by Rough Trade.
PT: The plot thickens!
DK: Right. The fallout from that day was, for me and Naomi, devastating. Nearly everyone we had worked with in the music business — with a few notable exceptions, including Kramer — stopped speaking to us, we couldn't get anyone to even return our calls. I think we were dismissed as the rhythm section, replaceable I suppose, and anyway not worth dealing with on our own. Rough Trade asked us if we would consider continuing under the name Galaxie 500, and when we said no, that was pretty much it! Thanks, pals.
NY: One of the most confusing parts, was that it really felt like he had killed this creature that we had all invented together, and of course the fact that we had been friends for so long and had been through so much; it was such a rotten way to end it all. It also felt, at the time, like he had taken away our musical voice, for although we had always very actively written many guitar parts and melodies for Galaxie 500, we thought of ourselves as a rhythm section, and there was no way, at that point, that we could have imagined ourselves performing "up front". So we were left with no venue for our music. At the time, Dean told us we could keep the name Galaxie 500, but what were we going to do: hire another guitar player/singer and hand him/her our music to play while we played bass and drums? That was not the spirit in which we chose to work.
PT: Do you think G500 really had run its course by 1991 when it fell apart, or was there more still to be achieved? Where was it heading when it finished?
DK: It's hard to say in retrospect. At the time I felt we were playing together better than we ever had — in fact I remember asking Dean the day he quit, is it the music? And he said, no, the music is great. We had become much better on our instruments from playing on the road, and were suddenly able to stretch out in ways we hadn't allowed ourselves previously — you can hear that in our cover of the Yoko Ono song, ‘Listen the Snow is Falling’, on the last album, and live we were moving more and more in that direction. I think our song writing was better at the end, too, but that's something I feel that Naomi and I have been able to explore on our own. What was lost was the intimacy you build with other musicians, a kind of sensitivity to each other's playing that enables you to do more with the overall sound of a band. That was only getting better as I recall. On the other hand, outside the music, things had definitely deteriorated. Naomi and I had developed a strong distrust of Dean, which in the end turned out to be not nearly strong enough — we were blind-sided, despite our misgivings about the person he was becoming and the ways in which he was dealing with our modicum of “success”. To give an example: during the Los Angeles show on our last tour, Dean (who almost never moved during our shows) suddenly stepped downstage front and centre during a guitar solo, and a white spotlight materialized, focused directly on him. Apparently this had been arranged with the sound and lighting people beforehand. Nothing, but nothing, like that had ever been done at a Galaxie 500 show, and it completely freaked me out — I remember struggling to keep the beat while it happened, I was so surprised. In retrospect I notice that Dean chose the L.A. show to launch this new trick, when the audience was full of music industry people. We hadn't had any spotlights in Columbus or Dallas!
NY: It seems inevitable now, but that's just because that is just what happened. Damon and I had definitely been listening to more and more experimental music: Soft Machine and Can particularly and incessantly. In "Listen the Snow is Falling" we were consciously trying to be very Can‑like! So I think there was room to grow; I think as long as you do not become complacent with your work there is always room to grow. But of course, we were a trio, and to grow further Dean would have had to want to do it as well. But again, he offered us no explanation of how he was feeling at the time, so I don't know. I suppose one could just look and see at what he has (or hasn't) done with his music since...
PT: Was Dean involved in putting together the boxed set at all? Was he invited?
DK: He participated in that he saw and commented on everything and gave his approval, but he wasn't much more involved more than that, he didn't ask to be and we didn't press it on him. We're not on speaking terms, after all: we discussed the list of extra tracks, and other crucial questions, by fax! I initiated the business relationship with Ryko, though the contract was handled by our mutual music lawyer (who did all the Galaxie legal work from the start), and I oversaw the re-mastering with Kramer. Naomi did all the artwork. This was not so different, actually, from the way Galaxie always worked — we didn't have a manager, and I always took care of all those kinds of dealings with Rough Trade. Naomi always did the artwork. And Kramer always did the mastering. Maybe we should have kept the name after all! (Just kidding.)
PT: Is there any other material in existence which didn’t make it onto the boxed set? I was wondering if perhaps Dean has access to stuff you guys didn’t have. Aside from the BBC sessions with John Peel, I’ve heard songs like 'Moonshot', 'Indian Summer' and 'Smile' - where do they fit into the picture, if at all?
DK: No, Dean doesn't have any material we didn't have access to, we catalogued all the tapes we were both holding and then went through them all to choose the extra tracks. We negotiated the final track list a little, each giving up and/or adding some things that the other(s) wanted, plus we gave Ryko copies of everything for their comments. The A&R person at Ryko in charge of the project, Andrea Troolin, probably listened to all of it more carefully than any of the three of us! She talked us into including our early demos, the ones we recorded before we met Kramer. Kramer hates those! I think the Walking Song is pretty embarrassing, but you only get one box set so I figured what the hell, it's funny to hear where we started. With the later outtakes I was more critical, I thought it would kill that fourth disc to load it up with weak material. What’s there is the cream of the crop, though of course my personal list would have been slightly different. So yes we dropped a bunch of outtakes. There is a version of ‘Moonshot’ (by Buffy St. Marie) that we recorded with Kramer, but there is also what I think is a better version on our Peel Sessions and those will probably surface at some point, so we didn't use it. There's an alternate version of ‘Final Day’ that we did at the BBC, too, with Naomi singing; but in that case it seemed worth it to use both versions because they're very different. Those other songs you mention ‑‑ ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Smile’ ‑‑ are things Dean did on his own, before the band broke up. (Like we with our Pierre Etoile project.) ‘Indian Summer’ is by Beat Happening, I can't remember what he did that for, and ‘Smile’ was something Dean did for a Shimmy comp while we were working on the last album (without telling us beforehand, I might add... water under the bridge, water under the bridge...)
PT: How did the boxed set idea come about, were you prompted by a record company suddenly aware there was a lot of interest in the G500 archives, or did you decide yourselves to give that part of your lives as decent a burial as possible for once and for all and just shop it around?
DK: Well I had to do some shopping of the material before Ryko got interested in the catalogue, no one was interested at all for a number of years; but once Ryko did get involved they thought of the box. I wanted to call it ‘In Memoriam’ (no one took me seriously) because yes, it's a tomb! It was kind of emotional torture to put it together — it required reliving a lot of unhappy times — but it also reminded me of the good times, and then putting it all in a box was very satisfying. Now all those messy feelings can sit there neatly in the store for $55!
PT: I've got a lot of boxed set collections ‑ and this is without doubt one of the most beautifully presented ones I’ve ever seen. Naomi in particular must be incredibly proud of it, given that she was responsible for all the artwork?
NY: Thank you very much. I am quite proud of it, it was a lot of work, but it's not like you are given the chance to have a box set every day. I was a fanatic about making sure the cardboard box was heavy enough cardboard. Ryko thought I was a bit nuts I'm sure. It certainly was emotional to go through all the old photographs and ephemera. I also went back to the 19th century books in the Harvard library where I had originally found many of the graphics for the Galaxie 500 posters etc. to find new artwork for the box, and I found this 17th century manuscript in the rare book library from which I took the "outer box" wrap. For the name, Galaxie 500, I used a computer version of a typeface that I had used in the very beginning of the band. The original typeface I had cut and pasted off of a beautiful engraved Italian wedding invitation that had been floating around the architecture office where I had a summer job. There was no "X" on the wedding invitation, so I had to fashion one out of a "N". You can see my crude "X" in all the early posters. But the computer version, of course had a real "X". So in a way, in putting the box together I used a lot of the same graphic material, but updated. It seemed to match the mood of putting together your own history; that it reflected both the past, and who you were today.
PT: At the time of writing (November 1996) there seems to be some problems with availability of the set in the shops - did Rykodisc seriously underestimate the demand, do you think?
DK: That's true, Ryko was extremely cautious with the press run, and consequently sold out on the first day. They then ordered a second run, however now they seem to have run out of those too! They are making some more, but we have no word yet on how long they will continue to do this, our agreement with them gives them the right to delete the box if they want. In April they will release the three original albums, however, and those they must keep in print, obviously. We're hoping they'll keep the box going, too, but there's no telling at the moment.
NY: They (Ryko) are also releasing a live Galaxie 500 album called ‘Copenhagen’, a recording of our last European show ever, from December 1, 1990, at a club called ‘Barbue’ in, obviously, Copenhagen. Kramer mixed the live sound, and it is going to be an eye‑opener for some. It seems like the missing link between G500 and Magic Hour.
PT: Let’s move along to the project which followed the demise of Galaxie 500, Pierre Etoile. I remember you saying about your post‑G500 plans, “we always loved the part of the band that was collective, the jamming, so we'll probably put something together based on that idea”...
NY: I remember talking to you from London around that time. G500 received a lot of press, but DK and I always felt that you were one of the few that really understood G500 in the way that we did, not as a shoe‑gazer‑whatever‑the‑trend‑was at the time. Yes, we did/do really believe in the collaborative nature of a band, and so we were delighted at the idea of being in a band with Kate and Wayne, but of course, that gets ahead of our story!
PT: The EP material was recorded in Boston, when? Was this while Galaxie 500 was still a going concern?
NY: We did the Pierre Etoile project after we returned from what would be the final G500 European tour, in the winter of 1990. Dean told us that he wanted to take a few months break from music and go back to New Zealand for a vacation. Meanwhile, we were thinking about the next record, and writing songs for it. We planned to work with Kramer for the next record, but Noise New York had become progressively more chaotic; before ‘This Is Our Music’ the New York City Fire department had come and torn down the wall between the recording room and the control booth at Noise New York because they said it was a fire hazard. Kramer didn't care, and said that isolation was overrated! We also joked that the records were recorded on 15‑track, because at some point, one channel had broken, and Kramer had never fixed it. So, we had been sort of kicking around the idea of going to another studio with Kramer. Meanwhile, the past summer, while we had been in the midst of making ‘This Is Our Music’, Dean had secretly recorded tracks by himself for a Chemical Imbalance single and some other compilations. This had been hurtful to us because we had been busy struggling, as a band, to get enough material together for the record, and also because DK and I had first learned about these tracks not from Dean, but a journalist who asked us what was up with them. When we asked Dean about them, he said he had to worry about his own career... hence the “tensions” in the studio. So, when he announced he wanted a vacation, we were restless, and thought that we could try and check out another studio for the next record by recording a few songs there and do a little E.P. But we were conscious of trying not to undermine the unity of the band any further, we didn't want our little experiment to compete with the band's reputation, or sound just like the band minus Dean. So we strived to make it as different as possible. That’s why we didn't do it with Kramer and I didn't sing, etc, etc. We named it ‘Pierre Etoile’ as a little joke on the absurdity of the rock star persona/state of mind. Little did we know the joke was on us.
PT: Where was the material finally recorded?
DK: We asked Rough Trade (in the U.K.) what they thought, they listened to a home-made cassette of the songs, and were enthusiastic. They gave us money to record it and we chose a studio in Boston that has a lot of beautiful analog and tube equipment. It's where Steve Albini made that Pixies album (I hated the Pixies, but suspected Albini knew what he was doing in choosing a studio). It was also down the street from our rehearsal space, so we thought that if it worked out, it might be a comfortable place to do the next album.
PT: So was the material written especially for the “solo” project, or were they written as projected G500 songs?
DK: The songs were written by me and Naomi initially as possibilities for the next Galaxie album, but then we did have to write lyrics especially for this project, because we never did that for Galaxie 500 (except on rare occasions). As per our usual working habits, had we not recorded these songs on our own we would have brought them in to rehearsal and taught their basics to Dean, then we would have all played them and fooled with them until we decided we either liked them or didn't, and if we still liked them then at that point Dean would have added lyrics. Instead we just wrote our own lyrics and that was that. The really weird thing is that for one song, ‘This Car Climbed Mt. Washington’, I had already written a lyric. Maybe it's hard to explain how odd that was for me, but it was just a completely unprecedented thing for me to feel like doing; yet when I wrote that melody I just had this feeling and I wrote the lyric for it, too. I still don't know why I did that, it must have been a premonition that everything was heading for disaster. And the lyrics to that song are very much about a relationship heading off a cliff.
PT: Did you tour/play live as Pierre Etoile?
NY: No, we never toured or played as a duo till last fall. We have been too much of a rhythm section to think that a duo, without bass and drums could ever be interesting to anyone, or us! But we have gradually changed our thinking on that. Again, like the recording of the first D & N record, because of Kramer's insistence. He offered to take us to Japan with him last fall if we played. So, how could we resist. We actually had Batoh, Ogino and Yamazaki from Ghost as a backup band. And because we had fun doing that, we started thinking about how to make a duo interesting. And then we toured here last spring, and I think we succeeded. I alternated bass and sruti box (an Indian drone instrument, like a simple harmonium) and DK played guitar. He still doesn't like being up front, he likes hiding behind his drum and cymbals, but I think he's getting used to it.
PT: So by the time the Pierre Etoile record finally came out, in June 1991, Galaxie 500 were officially no more?
DK: After we had recorded it, and Dean had come back from his vacation, we went on the road with the Cocteau Twins. Rough Trade had already scheduled Pierre Etoile for release in the U.K. when the band broke up. And then they said they wouldn't release it! We said you scheduled it, so release it! I think we shamed them into it. But they buried it when it came out, they must have made the absolute minimum number of copies just to satisfy their obligation. Also the U.S. company went out of business almost simultaneously, so it was never distributed in the U.S. I never saw it in a store for sale. Then Rough Trade U.K. had the nerve to tell us that it hadn't "generated any interest in our project" and used that as an excuse to sever ties with us. This was all part of the whirlwind debacle that ensued when the band broke up. While the U.K. office was dumping us so unceremoniously, the U.S. office was taking all our Galaxie 500 royalties (world‑wide, since our contract was with them) into bankruptcy court, out of which they never emerged. It was the worst year.
PT: How and when did Pierre Etoile get knocked on the head, was there a break before Damon and Naomi became a going concern?
DK: Pierre Etoile wasn't originally intended as anything more than a one‑off, but it and we were effectively finished off by all the rejection we were experiencing from the music business in the wake of the Galaxie break‑up. We decided we were finished with making music in public. That was our “Dylan after the motorcycle accident” period. More than a year passed, and then Kramer called. “Stop sulking!”, he said. And he talked us into doing an album for Shimmy Disc. He insisted we drop the ‘Pierre Etoile’ name, he hated it because it was French. He said everyone kept asking him, “What happened to Damon and Naomi?” so that's what we should call ourselves. We said OK.
PT: What had you been doing in the meantime?
DK: We had been working on Exact Change, our book publishing company, which we had started before Galaxie 500 broke up — using the extra money we were earning at the time, in fact — and once the band was gone we threw our energies into it more. We found a national distributor, we started coming out with more books per year, and generally tried to turn it into a real business. Financially, it’s still a challenge — it doesn't make money, and we have to support it and ourselves by other means. Books have a very different life in the marketplace than records, even though in our house they always seemed on a par. And, as we quickly learned, they are very unprofitable — the cost of paper is high and rising quickly, as opposed to CDs, which are already outrageously cheap to manufacture, and getting cheaper all the time. The amusing thing is that we sell about as many copies of a book as we did our first album — 2,000 or 3,000. Our conclusion is that this is the size of a subculture, it doesn't matter which one. You can have an underground record company or an avant‑garde publishing house, take your pick. We publish what we consider to be classics of avant‑garde 20th‑century fiction, by writers such as Gertrude Stein, Artaud, Kafka, Leonora Carrington, Louis Aragon and many of the other French Surrealists, as well as some related 19th‑century authors such as Lautreamont, Nerval, and Jarry. We have also published a book by John Cage, we wrote him asking for a preface to a Gertrude Stein title and ended up with a beautiful manuscript of his own. And we publish the novels of Denton Welch, a rather sentimental but wonderful English writer from the 1940s, a favourite of ours. [NB: Compendium Books in London’s Camden Town carry a fair selection of Exact Change’s titles - Ed.]
PT: So it was Kramer who enticed you back into the studio again?
NY: Right, he was calling us every month, urging us to come down and record, and offering to put it out on Shimmy. As I mentioned before, he was the only one, of all the people we had known in the music business, that was supportive of our continuing in music. Although we had put the instruments in the closet, Damon was still writing songs and putting them down on his 4‑track, but he was very reluctant to get reinvolved in everything, and we had no idea how to have a band any more at that point. But then I started to feel differently about it, frustrated that, although we had lots of other things to do, it hadn't been our choice to stop putting out our music, it had been decided for us. So I started urging Damon to make at least one more record, to finish it all off for ourselves on our own terms, and not just feel like victims. So, by summer I had him if not convinced it was a good idea, willing to record, and so we went down to Noise with, what we thought, would be our last record ever.
PT: What was it like returning to the recording arena again after such a long lay off?
DK: Very emotional. Naomi was very eager to do it and I was very reluctant, which is kind of our usual division of roles. And, as per usual, she was right. It was renewing to discover that what we had loved most about the music — the song writing, the recording, the whole magical process of making it happen — was still there, and still possible for us to do on our own. We had lost our professional status, and our money‑making abilities with it, but doing ‘More Sad Hits’ I think we recovered the creativity. It meant a lot to us then, and still does. I will forever be grateful to Kramer for dragging us back in the studio.
PT: Who played what on the album?
DK: Naomi and I played bass and guitar (respectively) together, laying down basic tracks. Then we overdubbed our vocals and I played drums and some more guitar, and then we left! Kramer did a lot of overdubs on his own, which is how he prefers to work. We had never let him do that with the Galaxie records, but in this situation it seemed to make sense. It was a collaboration, it was for his label, he had renamed us and put us in the studio like a Svengali, etc. So we let him go at it.
PT: Who played guitar on 'This Car Climbed Mount Washington', the reworking of a song which originated on the Pierre Etoile EP?
DK: On the Pierre Etoile version I played the inept guitar lead. On ‘More Sad Hits’ that's Kramer’s screaming lead, which he does by tuning a little sharp and overlaying several at the same time, that you can find on a lot of Bongwater records, too. I love it. We were in the studio as he put that down, and I remember Kramer yelled, “Fuck you, Dean Wareham!” as we listened back to it...
PT: The album also includes ‘Memories’, which is a Soft Machine cover, right?
DK: Yes, Kramer is a big Soft Machine fan, and in fact I recently played drums for a record he is making with Hugh Hopper; but Naomi and I were turned on to Soft Machine first by Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. Geoff was a Canterbury hippie in new wave clothing. Soft Machine, and Robert Wyatt, took hold of my consciousness in a way that nothing had since the Velvet Underground. This was in 1990. Naomi and I were discovering Can at the same time, they both became our touchstones. Wyatt's drumming completely changed my way of thinking of the instrument. And their ensemble playing (Can’s too) made me rethink what it was to be in a band. These are the seeds of Magic Hour, but they were very present for me and Naomi at the end of Galaxie 500.
PT: So how did you hook up with Wayne Rogers and Kate Biggar - how did Magic Hour come about?
NY: The Shimmy record was released in late 1992, and early 1993 we came home one evening, and found a message on our answering machine: “Hello, this is Kate Biggar, from Crystalized Movements. We played shows together twice, do you remember? Well, Wayne and I have lost our rhythm section and we have a bunch of shows and we were wondering would you and Damon like to fill in?” We were quite intrigued!
DK: They had just moved to Boston, where we live, and had lost their rhythm section (the bass player was a preacher, no joke, and had been assigned to a parish too far away to make rehearsals; and their drummer had taken a job in Northampton, Massachusetts, a town that is also too far for rehearsals in Boston but is known around the world as the home of Byron Coley).
NY: Crystalized Movements was a band we had always liked a lot, but their music was completely different from what we had ever done. It was the opposite of the laid‑back Galaxie thing. But we liked the image of our being able to sit in with a completely different sound, as if we were a rhythm section for hire, so we called them back and said, ok, let's try it. So, all the drums and the bass amp came out of the closet again, and we went over to jam. Wayne had sent us a tape of some C.M. songs that he wanted us to learn, but it just didn't work. We hadn't tried to “learn” the old parts to mimic them, and so we just played along in our own way, subsequently demolishing the C.M. songs. But it sounded promising, if not like C.M., and, as Wayne later confessed to us, he and Kate were amazed how we just didn't stop. DK and I felt like we were finally able to live out our Can fixation. And so, by the end of the evening, Wayne and Kate suggested dissolving C.M. for real, and starting a new band together, with new songs. We thought it over for a few days. DK and I were both excited and reluctant. We had retired. We were through with music, etc. etc. But then we thought, as we usually do, what the hell, and said yes. And so Magic Hour was born.
PT: Before discussing Magic Hour, can we take a chronological leap forward and cover the most recent Damon and Naomi album, ‘Wondrous World’? Because that came about while Magic Hour was still a going concern, didn’t it, rather than being recorded and released afterwards as a discography might suggest?
DK: Well meanwhile, Kramer was urging us to do another Damon & Naomi record, and we were debating what to do. "More Sad Hits' really was meant as a swan-song. We figured we'd wait a little and see how we felt. As it happened, it took a couple of years before we wanted to do another, which is ‘Wondrous World’, but during that time we were playing music with Kate and Wayne. Our friendship with Kate and Wayne opened up a lot of music to us we hadn't really known, including a lot of psych and free jazz and Indian classical (as you might have guessed) but also folk, or more accurately "acid‑folk," as the Japanese say. When we decided to do another Damon & Naomi record, I think it was both because we finally just wanted to again, but also because our music had changed from absorbing a lot of new influences. I sold Kate my guitar amp, and bought a 12‑string acoustic, and that's what's all over the Wondrous World. Also I think all our extended jams with Kate and Wayne made us face the fact that on our own, it's just us, and so it's just the songs — ‘More Sad Hits’ we wrote with a band still in mind, out of habit. This one we wrote by singing the songs together in our living room. We weren’t thinking about how we could fill them out later, they felt much more finished right away. The record ended up on Sub Pop because we mentioned we were working on it to our friend Joyce Linehan, who works for Sub Pop here in Boston and is someone we’ve known and trusted for a long time — she used to book a club called Green St. Station, where Galaxie 500 played a gig to one customer and the sound man. Sub Pop offered to pay us and Kramer out of a modest advance, a situation all of us preferred (contrary to popular belief, Kramer doesn't make a mint from Shimmy Disc, and in any case he's always been a strong believer in money up front!). So that's how that happened. However, we weren't prepared for what Joyce later confessed was a “stealth marketing campaign” on the part of Sub Pop. No one seems to know that record came out. But they let us make the record we wanted, and they printed a beautiful package for it to boot, so it's tough to complain. They might be re‑releasing ‘More Sad Hits’, too, they are negotiating right now to buy it from Kramer. Nonetheless it looks like our next one will have to go elsewhere, and we don’t know where really. Sometimes we think we should just release things ourselves, and stop dealing with labels altogether. They always give us heartache.
PT: Turning to Magic Hour now, here we have the classic example of a band who we always intended to cover in depth in the Terrascope but who unfortunately split up before we had a chance to do justice to them (although somewhere there's an unpublished interview writer Kevin Moist did for us which I'd still like to run if we ever get time to transcribe it). They released three albums, the last of which, 'Secession ’96', is arguably the most interesting insofar as in addition to the expected lengthy electric guitar storms it contained two shorter acoustic folk improvisations on which Naomi traded her bass for what sounds like an harmonium and Kate worked with a dulci‑guitar. Did these portend a new direction for the band at the very end of their short career? What sort of reception did this album receive?
NY: Actually it was a Sruti box, a little droning instrument, like a Harmonium but without a keyboard. You’re stuck with the notes you've chosen at the beginning of the song. It is only now that I have a Harmonium!
DK: Magic Hour was mostly ignored in its short sweet life, and that Kevin Moist interview was actually the only real interview we ever did as a group ‑‑ he also wrote one of the nicest reviews we ever got. I guess there aren't a lot of Magic Hour fans in the world, but the few there are work hard at it! The quiet improvisations on Secession '96 seemed to me less like a new direction than the same idea on different instruments — it was surprising how quickly we each fell into our respective roles, despite the lack of amplification. But what was different about those, as your question implies, was that they were improvisations. The bulk of Magic Hour material was actually very carefully worked out, with room for improvisation built in, but within rather rigid structures. That was the question we were constantly wrestling with as a band: how much to rely on structure, how much to allow ourselves to improvise, how to keep the improvisation from wandering off, how to keep the structure interesting. On the track from Secession ’96 called ‘Sunrise,’ the acoustic part was written, but the electric part was an improvisation — in fact we tried to recreate that piece a number of times, in order to refine it, but it just got worse, so in the end we used our first rehearsal tape, on cassette! It's a little murky as a result, but Wayne really believed in that take, and it became clear to us that we were never going to get back to it in a deliberate manner. Other songs only got better as we replayed them. We never understood what the differences came from.
PT: One of the most memorable Magic Hour recordings was their wonderfully imaginative and free adaption of the Cyril Tawney folk song ‘Sally Free and Easy’ on their first album, ‘No Excess is Absurd’. How did that come about, and what do you think of the recent Flying Saucer Attack recording of the song which to my mind owes something in the arrangement department to the Magic Hour version?
DK: ‘Sally Free and Easy’ we found on one of the Trees albums, and played it as a staple of our set when we toured England. We just heard Flying Saucer Attack’s version the other day, and had to wonder if they realise the original has another verse that we decided to drop...
PT: Magic Hour toured both Europe and America fairly extensively ‑ to what
sort of reception?
NY: In places like New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago it really felt like there was a core of people who were getting what we were doing. But aside from London, we were pretty unpopular everywhere in Europe. And, while a bunch of fanzines have been supportive here, most of the British press, yourself excluded, absolutely hated us, and wrote some really mean things, especially about Wayne. But we met with a lot of disdain everywhere. I really was affected by the difficult tours and all the negativity about what we were doing. And although Galaxie 500 was really not very popular outside of the larger urban centres we never generated as much open hostility as Magic Hour.
DK: On our last couple of tours, we were playing only ‘Passing Words’ and ‘Rosebud’ — two half‑hour songs. It was exhausting! It was also a little relentless; we didn’t even vary their order in the set, because they didn't seem to work as well the other way round. But after a while we just couldn't see performing the shorter songs any more; they felt like rehearsals in public, or like reading off a script. Those two long songs demanded a real performance, they pulled us into the moment. Which was the goal of Magic Hour performances, I think — those times when the music took off, we played things we never thought we could play, the song suddenly posed new demands, new possibilities opened up.
NY: The live shows really were quite something, I must admit. Damon and I tended to hang back and do our thing, while Kate and Wayne went quite mad on stage. Wayne would start this trance‑like pacing back and forth with a glazed look in his eyes, and he would literally run me over if I didn’t watch out. Meanwhile, you never could tell where Kate was going to be. Standing up on the monitor, playing her guitar against the club ceiling, or with some old umbrella she found at the side of the stage.
PT: Magic Hour famously toured the U.S. with Ghost of course, but then you paid them a return visit at home in Japan I believe?
DK: It’s funny how that U.S. tour came about. There’s a booking agent over here that kept asking to work with Magic Hour, but we had heard mixed reports about him, so we told him, yeah, we'd work with him if he could get us Ghost as an opening act. “Ghost?” he said, “from Japan?” “Yeah,” we said, “They’re our favourite band.” We didn’t hear back from him for a long time, which is what we figured would happen. But then one day he called and said, “I got them.” We said, “Got what?”. “Ghost”, he said. “I wrote them, and they wrote me back. They’ll be here to do that tour with you.” That's how that happened! The tour was kind of hellish, but it was also a dream. Ghost are a very special band, and they are at the height of their powers. The shows were amazing every night. So then about six months later, Naomi and I were invited to Japan by Kramer. This story has a long history, because when Galaxie 500 broke up, we had been scheduled to tour Japan. Naomi and I were very eagerly looking forward to it, and so was Kramer ‑‑ we had promised to take him as our sound man. When Dean quit, among our first reactions was, “What about Japan?!” Kramer was so upset at losing the trip to Japan he actually tried to talk Dean into going, despite the fact that he had already quit. We weren't even speaking to each other, but Kramer still wanted us to go to Japan together! Then, last year, Kramer was invited to Japan himself — it took that long before another opportunity for him to get there arose. And he did one of the nicest things, he called us up and asked us to come, too. We were going to bring him when we were able, and now he was offering to do the same for us. It was really wonderful, because it brought the uncompleted trip to a conclusion. I think it has helped close out that whole horrible episode for us.
PT: So did you go to Japan purely as Kramer’s guests or as a band?
DK: That was the only hitch: we had to earn our trip. Kramer wanted me to play drums for him, and if Naomi was to come then he said we would also have to play an opening set as Damon & Naomi. The problem was we had never performed as Damon & Naomi, and we really didn't want to. But a trip to Japan! We said yes. And just as when he forced us back in the studio to make ‘More Sad Hits’, forcing us to play a Damon & Naomi show turned out to be a great thing for us. Getting on stage and singing still isn’t something I long to do very often, but it was a really amazing experience to perform our own songs. I felt a different connection to the audience than I ever had before. We asked our friends in Ghost if they would play with us, so Batoh played electric guitar, Ogino played keyboards, and Yamazaki played drums. Kramer played a second acoustic guitar (I played acoustic) and sometimes a second bass (Naomi doesn't like to sing and play bass at the same time, it's either/or), and sang harmony. It was chaotic, as we had only one rehearsal all together, but it was a lot of fun.
PT: How, when and why did Magic Hour decide to call it a day?
NY: After our Magic Hour tour in the fall of 1995, which was more successful than the tour we had had with Ghost the previous spring, but still rather exhausting, we took a break. We have always had a very good friendship with Kate and Wayne; we used to joke that we were terrible at rehearsing but very good at going out to dinner together. Well, we all just sort of stopped rehearsing. We still ate dinner together and went out all the time and assumed that we would rehearse eventually. But then, at some point Wayne and Kate suggested what maybe had been in the back of all our minds, that perhaps we should call it quits. And we agreed. Although we all felt sad about it, it seemed the right thing to do.
DK: I think we see each other more now than we did when we were in a band together. Plus Kate and Wayne have now opened their amazing record store Twisted Village, which is like a clubhouse for all we freaks here in Boston.
PT: What future recording plans do Wayne and Kate and of course yourselves (ie the component parts of Magic Hour) have? Will Damon and Naomi be recording and/or touring again soon?
NY: Kate and Wayne have been enjoying the fruits of a new venture: The Twisted Village Record Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They opened it up last fall, and it carries all the records that every P.T. reader would love. It has both CDs and vinyl and the motto is “We Speak Freak”. It is enjoying wild success, and is the hippest place in town. Meanwhile, they are rumoured to be starting a new band ‘Wayne Rogers and the Other Four’, and of course, Wayne is always working on his solo stuff. Kate is also threatening a solo record.
DK: As for me and Naomi, after our trip to Japan we decided it wasn't so bad playing our songs in public, so last spring we went on our first tour as a duo — this was in support of our album on Sub Pop, which we were worried was being buried. We took an acoustic guitar, a bass, and the sruti box. It was very folky! The best shows were when people sat down, and we had kind of a rap with the audience. Singing our songs in public made me realise how the lyrics can really communicate to people, and I started to give them more respect. Now when I think of performing our songs, I am thinking more and more in terms of getting the lyrics across.
PT: Any plans to record in the near future?
DK: Right now, we are recording ourselves at home. This summer we bought a used ADAT machine and a little mixing board, and we're experimenting with just being our folky selves on tape. You have an example on the track we sent you for the Ptolemaic Terrascope EP — ‘Spirit of Love.’ That's a song by C.O.B., another acid folk band we know because of Kate and Wayne. We’ve sent a couple more tracks recorded at home to some other places, too; we covered a Ghost song, ‘Awake in a Muddle’, for a Japanese magazine called Beikoku Ongaku, which has a CD in each issue (it's kind of a pop magazine, very big on the Swedes, but they interviewed us when we were in Japan); and we did a Pearls Before Swine song, ‘Translucent Carriages’, for a tribute album coming out from Magic Eye in the States. We’re also doing a single for Earworm in the U.K., that will have a new song of ours on the A‑side and the aforementioned Ghost song on the back. And we’ve been asked for a couple other singles in the new year, too, so we’ll see what happens. No label we know seems to be up for a whole album at the moment, so our new work might have to come out in drips and drabs. Finally, Sub Pop is re-releasing More Sad Hits this coming May (while we were completing this interview they bought the rights from Shimmy Disc), and we might tour in support of that. Also, our old Pierre Etoile EP is going to be re-released in Europe by Elefant Records, in Spain.
PT: Any immediate tour plans?
NY: We plan to do a bit of touring in the spring. It’s our folk‑show. Guitar and bass and harmonium. It would be fun to get overseas.
Written, produced and directed by Phil McMullen, © Ptolemaic Terrascope, 1997.