The Damnations may be one of the few bands that worked hard to get dropped by a major recording company.
The Austin, Texas-based quartet, founded in 1994 by sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly, puts a high value on independence. They avoid labeling themselves, preferring to let their songs define them.
"We don't really fit into anything," said Boone, the bassist and keyboardist in the band. "We all agree that we can do that, and not fit into something preconceived. For some people we are a country western band. For us, the songs develop as they develop."
The Damnations' new CD, "Where it Lands," hardly sounds like a country western recording, although it does feature two songs by fellow Texas songwriters Doug Sahm and Kevin Russell. The band covers the song "Corona" by the punk band The Minutemen, and the original songs range from driving electric rockers and rootsy Americana numbers to banjo-driven instrumentals and haunting ballads. Most songs feature the sisters' harmony.
"We like to be able to experiment in whatever we do," Boone said. "It will sound a certain way because we have the instruments we play and our influences."
In addition to Boone and her sister, guitarist Deborah Kelly, the band includes their good friend Rob Bernard on acoustic and electric guitars. All three sing and write. The group recently added former Scratch Acid and Ministry drummer Rey Washam to the lineup.
Time and Place
The Damnations, 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 12 and 13, The Alaskan Bar, mix of original music with rock, folk and country influences. No cover.
Just before the band hit the road for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska last week, the sisters moved across the Texas capital to a classic old Austin house with high ceilings and a big porch. While Kelly struggled to hook up her computer, Boone stood on the hardwood floor surrounded by unpacked boxes and talked about the band's music and evolution.
The Damnations just returned from a series of gigs in Louisiana, and they regularly play in Austin, Houston and Dallas. The band plays at the Alaskan Bar on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 12 and 13, and in Haines the following weekend. Boone said they enjoy playing in the smaller roadhouses and country bars.
"Sometimes we do better in little towns, where people come out just once a week," she said, "They're hungry for live music and appreciate it."
The downside is requests for "Freebird" and other hackneyed classic rock fodder - something that doesn't happen too much in Austin.
"Sometimes people think we're a cover band, like the band that played their high school prom or something," she said. "We like cover tunes, but people are really into songwriting here. Austin holds itself with a lot of pride that they pay attention to songwriters and people prefer you play your own stuff."
Boone said Bernard and Washam lean toward the harder edge, but Bernard shows a telling Beatles' influence on his melodic song "Animal Children" on the new CD. And although Boone says she and Kelly tend toward folkier stuff in their writing, she penned a thrashing rocker, "New Hope Cemetery."
"I thought it would be fun for this lineup to play," she said. "A lot of the time when you're out on the road you realize the ballads you wrote in your bedroom aren't all going to go over when people are drinking and want to be brought up."
Just a few years after Boone and Kelly put the band together they made a recording at an Austin radio station. They had become regulars on the Austin music scene and they wanted a CD to sell at shows. "Live Set" contained original songs and a few covers, songs by Lucinda Williams and the Carter Family. They sold 1,000 copies in short order and "Live Set" came to the attention of Sire Records. They signed on and recorded "Half Mad Moon" in 1999, just before Sire merged with London Records.
The band toured nationally and in Europe, and the album got strong reviews, but Boone said London didn't seem interested in really working with the group. After a struggle, the band got London to release it and went independent.
This has been a busy year. In addition to recording "Where it Lands," the band worked on two new projects, creating the music for an independent film and for an Austin dance company's cabaret burlesque show. The cabaret numbers culminated in a performance.
"I went on a tangent of doing cabaret stuff," Boone said. "I had just written three songs that hadn't found their way into the Damnations - they have now. We did the musical stuff and they did the dance end of it. We dressed up and painted our faces, and we had a trumpet and violin player with us."
She said the film score was for "All About John," a documentary about an expatriate American living in France around the World War II era.
"I'm working on stuff all the time but a lot don't make the final cut, maybe one song out of five," she said.
Road testing new material in front of an audience night after night is the best tool for developing songs.
"With 'Half Mad Moon,' we made the record and then we went out and played. Then the songs gelled and reached the peak of what they could be after we had recorded it," she said. "You just start to understand them, the subtleties and dynamics - somebody brings it down in a spot and that sticks, and then everybody does it that way. It the studio, you're just getting it down."
Boone said the band will play two 45-minute sets Monday and Tuesday night. There is no cover charge.
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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