“Every artist I know is trying to figure out a way to stay alive, and it’s becoming more and more difficult.”
Sometimes, we all have to make hard choices about giving up something we love in order to survive. And for musicians, that can mean sacrificing instruments near and dear to their creative hearts just to keep the lights on or pay the rent. This was the dilemma that recently faced Alex Dezen, frontman and chief songwriter for the Brooklyn-bred four-man collective known as The Damnwells. In this world exclusive video premiere, Dezen invites the Digital Trends audience to see just how far he’s willing to go in this solo clip for the quite self-explanatory This Is the Last Song (I’ll Ever Write on This Guitar).
“I just hope that people enjoy it, or feel it’s weird, or it makes them uncomfortable,” said Dezen of his one-man ode to the 1971 Martin D-35 guitar he had to sell on the Internet in order to stay afloat. “It was a guitar that I used often. Look, I would have rather not sold it. But circumstances were not able to provide a meaningful way to continue my relationship with that guitar.”
This Is the Last Song appears on Dezen’s heartfelt self-titled solo album, now available in various formats from Rock Ridge Music. “This is a personal memoir/autobiographical record, and I hope that people will have an active opinion about it,” he asserted. “I’d rather that people didn’t like it than just put it on in the background.”
Dezen takes a different approach to his solo material. “I was not trying to make a record people could just throw on in the background and be like, ‘This is some sweet music I can play in the coffee shop while I’m looking at my email,’” he told Digital Trends. “That may be what a lot of people expected me to do. I remember I got an email from someone who said about the last Damnwells record [2015’s The Damnwells], ‘Your music used to be so coffee shop chill, and now it’s not.’ And I was shocked. It was never coffee shop chill!”
It’s hard to imagine listeners being passive about such stark, direct tracks like the acoustic-driven Ode to Ex-Girlfriends and the Beatlesque piano ballad I Don’t Want to Be Alone When I Die, but Dezen said it happens. “You’d be surprised at how passive people can be about their consumption of art. I guess the difference is, this is not a pop record. I didn’t make a pop record. People just assume with my past with The Damnwells that it’s a form of pop music in one derivation or another. Like The Replacements is pop music, for all intents and purposes — it’s just not popular now.”
We caught up with Dezen after a recent band rehearsal to discuss shooting the clip for This Is the Last Song, his reluctant acceptance of Spotify, his frustration with Instagram’s new feed customization practices, and retaining much love for physical formats.
Digital Trends: I’m amazed you were so willing to sacrifice such an important piece of gear in this video.
Alex Dezen: (chuckles) The guitar that I smashed in the video was pretty much broken and not working. It felt bad to smash it, but the director, Mike Dunn, went, “I think it’s going to be really cool!” Ultimately, it added a sad and pathetic twist on a sad and pathetic song, so I was game.
Well, you got to have your nice Pete Townshend guitar-smashing moment, so that must have been a little cathartic as well.
In the video, it makes sense, because here’s this ode to this guitar, and here’s me going through all the motions that you do with a guitar — jumping off an amp, doing some high kicking, doing windmills. But the song is about how much I miss the particular instrument that I sold — the 1971 Martin D-35, which was a really nice guitar. Just recently, I listened to a couple of tracks I’d used it on over the years, and I realized, “Oh, wow; it really did sound good. I shouldn’t have sold it!” (chuckles)
Whatever was negotiated between the main music distributors and Spotify is criminally unfair.
If you did a Google Map search on that guitar, could you pinpoint exactly where the buyer is right now?
The guy lives in DC. His name is Brian Shirey; I mention his name in the song, too. He’s a fan, and he wanted to have the guitar because of its significance, which I thought was nicer than selling it to a random person — which I did not want to do. In that regard, I think it’s in a good place.
Did you sign it for him, or personalize it in any way?
I wrote out a list of songs I wrote on it or used on recordings. I shipped that with it so it was notarized like, “Here’s what it was used on.”
No “this guitar kills fascists” kind of notation?
(laughs) No, no, none of that! The truth is, if I had sold it on the open market, I probably would not have gotten as much for it as this man paid for it, so I was very thankful he was able to swoop in and buy it from me, as opposed to selling it to someone who was going to haggle with me.
I don’t know if this was on purpose or not, but it looked like you were playing some of the guitars in the video quite tentatively.
I don’t think I was doing that on purpose, but I’m fingerpicking the whole song; I’m not really strumming. So that’s what maybe makes it seem like it’s tentative.
I took it as you not being as comfortable playing those guitars as you were with the Martin you’re singing about.
Well, that might be in there somewhere. I remember when we were shooting, Mike Dunn would have me do a whole take of playing each guitar throughout the entire song. And I also have a tendency to look like a deer in headlights in most videos (both laugh), so that might be part of it too.
What’s the location? Where did you shoot the video?
At this bar in Orlando, Florida called Redlight, Redlight. Mike is friends with the owner. Against my better judgement, I feel like Orlando is an up-and-coming place for young artists. There are a lot of cool bars there, a lot of bars owned by young people in their 30s. I think it’s really nice to see people investing in their communities.
I also like how we have that nice coda of you — spoiler alert — sweeping up the place after it’s all over.
Exactly right. The point of that is … it’s not a real rock star moment.
Most people are probably accessing your music now through streaming. How do you feel about that?
It depends on the day. I’m happy that people have access to the music without too much intervention or too much middle-manning preventing them from being able to gain access to it.
I’d like to be paid more for it, but we’d all like to be paid more for what we do. I do feel the royalty rate is unfair. Whatever was negotiated between the main distributors and Spotify is criminally unfair. But I do think the future of the consumption of music is probably streaming.
I hear that. I pay the premium on Spotify so somebody can get something out of it. And at least we still have vinyl.
Yeah, other areas of album-making are going to have a boom. Vinyl is becoming a big thing now — but not quite as big as people think it is. Some people think it will revolutionize the record industry — it will not. It’s a tiny niche in a dwindling marketplace. Those are just the economic facts of it.
Vinyl is cool, but it’s a tiny niche in a dwindling marketplace.
Everyone I know is trying to figure out a way to stay alive, and it’s becoming more and more difficult. Instagram just changed their algorithm to what they call customizing your feed. Basically it means that, for me as an independent artist wanting to get my content to the people who actually want to see it, I’m probably going to have to wind up starting to pay for it like you do on Facebook and Twitter. I think that’s awful.
They certainly have the right to do it, but what they’re going to wind up with is an absolutely non-nuanced advertisement stream. You’ll be seeing the ads of those who can afford to pay for the boosts more prominently in your stream as opposed to, “Oh, that guy I like in that band — he went to his mom’s place for dinner last night. That’s cool. Here’s a picture of them all hanging out around the table.” You won’t be able to see that anymore, because it won’t be featured as prominently in your feed.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to survive. The streaming aspect is just a part of it. So do I like streaming? I like it personally, because I can have access to any song I want to hear without having to hit up my record collection. But at the same time, with that convenience, you certainly lose the dynamic of sharing in a physical form of the music.
Since we’re talking about vinyl, what was the first record you got that had an impact on you?
I just pilfered my sister’s record collection. I had an older sister, so that made it really easy. The record store was down the hall.
The first music we really listened to was probably Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen. There was a box set with the E Street Band, and it was live. It’s where he’s sort of standing at the front of the stage.
Yeah, that’s Live 1975-85 (1986). The cover has a side view where he’s looking all tough, and it’s on a black background.
That was there, and also some Cat Stevens and some Replacements records, like Let It Be (1984) and Pleased to Meet Me (1987). There was a lot of cool stuff that I could pilfer from my sister’s collection.
I think a lot of that has filtered into the DNA of your own songwriting style.
Oh good. Cool. Well, I approve. I try not to worry too much about where and how those influences come up. I just try and let them happen, you know?
Maybe the organic use of that songwriting DNA in your solo and Damnwells material will inspire some listeners to go find out just who The Mats [i.e., The Replacements] are.
Yeah! That was the experience of having the records and the CDs. You’d look at the back to find out what record label they were on, and then go and look at what else was on that record label. And see who the players and producers were, and maybe go see what other records that guy produced. It was fun to do that stuff.
I guess the only thing I lament about the streaming world is that the liner notes seem to have disappeared. It’s a real shame. That’s like the credits, man! Maybe that was more of a niche than we realized.