True Hearts: The Damon and Naomi Interview
Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang will probably always be best-remembered as the rhythm section for Galaxie 500, but their output is far bigger than even that legendary band’s oeuvre. As Damon and Naomi (and husband and wife), the duo has been writing and releasing music from their home studio in Cambridge, MA (with the help of Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara). In addition, Damon and Naomi stay very active in many art forms, as you will see. Fresh off a tour for their latest False Beats and True Hearts, I spoke with Krukowski about Ophelia, eccentric poets, and how goshdarn much it costs to live in Camrbidge these days.
ELM: How did your tour go?
DK: Good, we’re just very tired.
ELM: Did you just get back yesterday?
ELM: Well, thank you for talking to me, you must be exhausted.
DK: No, no, it’s fine. So tell me what this is for again.
ELM: I’ve been listening to the new album and was wondering if you ever felt like there was any kind of a central theme going on throughout the songs?
DK: Did you hear one?
ELM: Not yet, but I maybe haven’t spent enough time with it.
DK: Well, no, there’s nothing hidden there, I was just curious if you detected one.
ELM: What did you do differently for this record than others you’ve done before?
DK: For one thing, we had a piano for the first time, that actually changed a lot. I don’t know if you heard that very clearly, but we’d never had an acoustic piano before to work with and Naomi’s been playing keyboards more and more and more, and it’s become very important to our songwriting, and that’s been true for a few records.
But this time, after the last record, she definitely said, ‘I want a piano’ and we went out and got one, and she wrote a lot on the piano, and then the piano’s on every track, I think all but one. And so for us that was actually really kind of a fundamental switch, it may
not feel that way to others, I know, just in the way that we put our own music together, it was a big change.
ELM: How do you two divide up songwriting?
DK: We don’t really, we each come up with ideas and we play them for each other. That’s kind of the way we’ve always done it. We’ve always more or less sung our own lyrics, though, because you kind of have to believe in what you’re saying and that’s been a kind of a division. But it’s not so hard and true though, there have been times when we’ve
sung each other’s lyrics as well.
ELM: Do the two of you have very different processes or are they pretty much the same?
DK: Well we work together, so it’s by definition the same process. But Naomi will start a song on keyboards, or piano now, and me on guitar, so that’s different because–do you play an instrument?
ELM: I play piano and guitar.
DK: Yeah, so you know how, of course it works very different with piano too, and the logic of moving harmonically between chords is different, and you just naturally do different things. I think that has a lot of influence over the type of progression we come up with, or the
type of ideas so that’s one thing. So on this record the songs that start on piano, those are Naomi’s, and the songs that start on guitar were my ideas, but at the same time, you might not be able to tell that by the end because there’s piano and guitar in every song. It may
just be something coded into it that we know about.
ELM: And do you have any kind of when it routine that comes to your writing?
DK: No, we have no routine. We just write songs when we’re working on songs, I guess. But we don’t write songs all the time, we write songs when we’re moved to and when we’re working on a record. So typically we’ll come home from touring our new album and we might not write for a long time. But there’s a couple reasons for that, usually the songs we’ve written now they kind of bring us up to the present, and I think we don’t usually write songs again until
those songs are no longer accurate to what’s going on for us right now.
I mean especially when you’re performing a lot, you’re singing the songs every night. And either they express what you want or they don’t, and it’s at the point where they stop feeling like they’re expressive of what you want to be singing that we usually start writing again.
ELM: I like that answer. What helps you write?
DK: Our instruments, I think we just fool around on our instruments. I mean you have to want to play an instrument, and I think instruments are just a source of pleasure, so I sit down with my guitar and just play it, for fun, and eventually you play something you haven’t before and that’s a new song.
ELM: You have your own studio there, do you record anybody else on your label?
ELM: Do you guys do your own production?
ELM: What’s it like approaching your music from that end?
DK: Well, we’ve recorded ourselves since 1997, that was our first record in our home, and we’ve been doing that for so long, it’s not really an approach, it’s just how we do it. Home recording just became very possible because of digital equipment, it required a lot less to
set up your own studio. So we started doing that, but that was a long time ago for us, it was a lot of albums, and producing just means that we’re the ones supporting ourselves, really, there’s nobody else here, there’s nobody else involved. We bring in other musicians to work
with, but we don’t bring in any engineers or anybody like that, so we’re still running around equipment, for better or worse, and when we started with the album Playbacks in 1997, we didn’t know, really, how to set up mics or anything, we just had to experiment, and we’re still doing that. And this time, I had never mic’d a piano before, so I had to figure out: how am I going to get this piano to sound the way we want it to. And that’s all production is. Then there’s a range???? Which is another aspect of recording. And that’s something that we do, both on our own as we’re finishing the record and recording it, but also with the musicians we work with because arranging something is something musicians do with each other, we don’t tell people, we’re not making everybody fit into our scene, it’s more music happening, and so how everybody fits themselves into a song is more an aspect of a generation.
ELM: Are you interested in that production and engineering side for other people as well?
DK: I think I am but I’ve done it a couple times just for friends, and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed but I’ve never had the opportunity to do for pay or something like that, and so I don’t really know how how it would feel. I’ve only ever really done it for ourselves and
friends. It’s a process that I really love and enjoy a lot, but I’ve never had the experience of sitting behind the board for a band I didn’t like or didn’t care about and that’s what professionals have to do, of course. And that must be a whole other way of thinking about it. But yeah, it fascinates me.
I mean, I listen to records with that in mind a lot, I listen to a lot of older records and thinking about how they were recorded, and thinking backwards through the process to try and figure out how to capture those kinds of sounds, how to get that kind of effect, and that’s something I spend a lot of time doing. But I don’t spend time behind the boards for anybody else.
ELM: Do you feel comfortable talking about sort of what songs are about to you?
ELM: I find myself being really curious about ‘Nettles and Ivy.’
DK: Well that’s Naomi’s work, so I guess I can’t speak to it. But I find it very beautiful anyway.
ELM: The same story for Ophelia, I’m guessing?
DK: No, that’s my lyric. That’s Shakespeare, almost every word in that lyric is taken from Hamlet. Well I switched it a bit and added some things and I sort of did an English to English translation for one part of it. But I essentially took it from Ophelia’s mad scene and to go back to Hamlet, I haven’t seen it since we finished the song but I think I took most of it from there. Certainly the chorus is verbatim. I don’t know if you remember the play, but Ophelia sings, she sings these crazy songs. So I was using some of that.
ELM: How did you get the idea to do that?
DK: The figure of Ophelia seemed to fit the feeling I was singing about, so I went back to the play, it really like came to my head and I was sort of wondering why, so I went back to look at it and I found some crazy language in it that I kept.
ELM: Do you and or Naomi do any other art forms?
DK: Yeah, Naomi takes photographs, you can see them on Naomivision.com. And I write poems.
ELM: Who are your favorite poets?
DK: I don’t really have favorite poets. But there’s a lot of information on that on our website.
ELM: Who are your favorite writers in general?
DK: Well we have a publishing company, so we publish a lot of our favorite writers. Exactchange.com. You know, I think our literary taste is very clear from that list.
ELM: Is there anybody you’re super excited about right now that I need to go out and pick up?
DK: Someone new? No. [laughs] We publish older work, what’s sometimes called ‘historical avant garde’, from the ’30s and ’40s. Through the ’60s our texts go but kind of not past that point. We don’t publish contemporary literature. I’m not a big reader of contemporary
literature, so I’m not the best person to ask for that.
ELM: Have you read Mina Loy?
DK: Yeah, In fact we were gonna publish a collection of hers, but the editor never gave it to us, we even announced it and everything, “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, ” it’s an incredible poem. But yeah, I love Mina Loy.
ELM: Yeah I really love how she was like…well, let’s make lamps out of garbage, and, oh my futurist ex boyfriend is writing this incredibly misogynist manifesto, let me invent feminist futurism.
DK: Yeah, I don’t know that she was so whimsical, actually, her writing is
very carefully constructed and considered, but yeah ,she was a very free spirit.
ELM I definitely am in love with her lifestyle as well as her work.
DK: Well the lifestyle I think, I don’t know if you read the biography, it ended up with a lot of trouble, so you might cruise through the biography before you try the lifestyle.
ELM:That’s probably a good idea.
DK: Yeah, Arthur Cravan, her lover in the ‘Song of the Children,’ is a fascinating figure, too, but again not a lifestyle that many can really mimic.
ELM: So I should read her biography, is there anything else I should read? Aside from what’s on your publishing imprint?
DK: Well, if you’re interested in her I’d suggest looking into Arthur Cravan, who was her lover, and Cravan was an American, well his origins are obscure, but he was living in Europe during the Dada period, and an English language Dadaist, who is overlooked a lot,
whose career, his lifestyle and his work had a great impact on a lot of other artists. He had a magazine called Maintenant which means “now” in French, and he was probably Swiss-born, although again that’s really obscure, and he disappeared very young, no one knows exactly how or where.
ELM: One more question for you, this is something I ask everybody, if you could raise awareness of any social cause, what would it be?
DK: Well we just got back from a tour of the US and it was very saddening to see how corporate life had just invaded every level of society, and the lack of healthy local small businesses everywhere was really saddening to me, and just thinking back on our first tours of the US, how different the country was, and how different city life was, it was really depressing, I just think that corporate life has just snuffed out so much of communities and we’re stuck with these big box stores and chain stores and the jobs of people, and it’s just a very…our country is in a sad state, I think. It was really distracting, somehow, on this trip, driving around, just really, I felt depressed about the state of our country. And I don’t see it turning around.
ELM: Yeah it’s sad too, I remember hearing before I moved to Boston that Harvard Square used to be a funky, independent business place, but then the rent got so high that Urban Outfitters, etc, came in and things were pushed out to Davis Square, and now things are getting pushed out of Davis square, and…
DK: Yeah, it’s sad, when we moved to Cambridge it was rent-controlled, it really goes back to that, and rent control meant the rent was set by the city government, and our rent was artificially low from market rates, because of that, but because of that we were able to stay in Cambridge and live as artists, but not only that, our neighbors were all the people that did art in our community, so our superintendent to our building was also our postman, and everybody who had shops in the street, Mass Ave, Central Square, lived in Central Square, everybody who worked there. People who worked at Harvard in the libraries, or the university, or who ran the S&M store on Mass Ave, were our neighbors, drug dealers were our neighbors [laughs] it’s cut two ways the thing was that we lived in a neighborly fashion with everybody who also worked in our community. And rent control was removed in the mid-nineties, I think it was ’94, and immediately what happened was everyone who worked in Cambridge, who had a normal job in Cambridge, had to move out of Cambridge, and we had already bought the apartment, so we could stay, but now our neighbors are all millionaires, and they don’t work in Cambridge, and our postman doesn’t live in Cambridge, our postman has to drive into Cambridge from Revere, and that’s what’s happened to our whole community, it’s become segregated by income, and that kind of segregation has led to a very different place to live. You live in Madison, Madison was another center of ’60s radicalism, as was Cambridge, Berkeley, and you know I think those communities had a legacy that was still very alive in
the ’80s and has now really dissipated or disappeared and it’s very very sad to see even the centers of the rest of what’s left of counter culture made normal by current corporate standards, it’s very sad. But it’s bad for everybody, that’s what I think. So, that’s what I would say. Social cause that everybody needs to be aware of? The total victory of Capitalism is a disaster.