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Dambuilders then and now
Catching up with Dave Derby, Joan Wasser, Eric Masunaga, and Kevin March

Ex-Dambuilders singer/bassist Dave Derby may have named his solo debut proper Even Further Behind (Badman), but nothing could be farther from the truth. Derby had previously released a pair of solo discs under the band moniker Brilliantine after his old Boston outfit, the Dambuilders, imploded somewhere on the road in 1998. Only recently has he gotten up the nerve to go by his own name and "stop hiding," he says. The new album’s title was meant as a wry joke aimed at his own inability — or unwillingness — to jump though music-biz hoops to grab for a brass ring that in any case was pawned a long time ago.

"The Dream Is Over," a ballad from the disc that recalls John Lennon’s "God," suggests much about Derby’s frame of mind these days. "Once I was in love with my illusion," he sings over a strummed acoustic guitar and the mournful accent of lap steel and keyboards. "Once I was in love with my pain/Once I was in love with my one true love/I don’t think I’ll ever feel that again/The dream is over." The track is one of a handful on Behind whose themes reappraise old attitudes and ideals and in some cases refute them. Like Lennon’s meditation, "The Dream Is Over" brings a revelatory coda: "And I finally feel I can see."

"Realizing that the dream is over is actually a really great thing in a way," Derby says over the phone from New York, where he’s lived for the past seven years. "There’s always this cliché of dreams being a good thing but — I hate to use the word ‘maturity’ — you realize that it’s the dream that’s driving you crazy sometimes. It’s something you can never really attain." The song is something of a post-mortem on the Dambuilders’ break-up amid deepening discord within the band and what Derby calls "collective disillusionment." "There’s an awareness that, yeah, it’s kind of sad and there’s a bit of melancholy to it, but now I can sleep and it’s going to be fine. If there’s any kind of underlying sentiment to the record, it’s about putting things in context and looking forward."

Rather than reprising the idiosyncratic, noisy clatter of the group he formed in the late ’80s with his friend guitarist Eric Masunaga, Even Further Behind reflects the years Derby has spent collaborating with British singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole, whose post-Commotions band, the Negatives, he joined a few years back (at one point, Cole joined a touring version of Brilliantine, and he helped produce Behind). "Middle Class Hero," with its sly wordplay and cultivated vocal air atop the crystalline guitars, and the crisply ravishing "Cigarette Cowboy," which features ex-Dambuilder Joan Wasser’s violin, sound like homages to the pop sophisticate Cole, whom Derby credits for getting him back on track after he’d tried to quit music. Derby and Cole expect to hit Boston sometime next month, but you don’t have to wait that long for Derby: this Saturday he’ll be performing solo at the Middle East, where it’s a safe bet he’ll do "Boston," a new song aimed at reconciling past lives with those of the present.

Behind represents only a fraction of what Derby and his old Dambuilders mates have been up to lately. He and his business partner, former Eve’s Plum guitarist Michael Kotch (who appears on and is a co-producer of Behind), run Derby & Kotch, a New York–based commercial music-production company that has enlisted both Wasser and ex-Dambuilders drummer Kevin March for projects. Wasser is recording material for a new venture called Joanaspolicewoman, and she has an album by her short-lived post-Dambuilders band Black Beetle due out this fall. In addition to running his Cambridge-based record label, Sealed Fate, Masunaga owns and operates Modulus DVD, a multimedia sound-mastering studio in Boston’s Chinatown; he recently did DVDs for Low and Superchunk. And March has his hands full playing drums for Guided by Voices, whom he was invited to join as a full-time member last year after his first post-Dambuilders band, Those Bastard Souls (an outfit that also included Wasser), opened for GbV on tour. Next month, March hits the road with GbV, who are touring behind their new Earthquake Glue (Matador). They’ll play the Paradise on September 3.

Although the ex-Dambuilders have kept in touch with one another to varying degrees, what’s most recently brought them together is their discovery of what Derby describes as "a whole trove" of old demo recordings dating back to the Ruby Red (Elektra, 1995) sessions. Two weeks ago, Derby, Wasser, and March, all of whom live in New York City, listened to those tapes for the first time since recording them in 1994. Last week, Masunaga, who lives in Cambridge, shipped off another box of sessions he’d stumbled across, these recorded around the time of the band’s final album, Against the Stars (Elektra, 1997).

Masunaga is ambivalent about releasing the tapes ("These are tracks that were not selected for an album for a reason, and I still feel the same way"); Derby, March, and Wasser like the idea. But all four agree that the demos reflect the direction the Dambuilders were headed more accurately than do the major-label releases, especially the slick, Don Gehman–produced Ruby Red, which proved a critical and commercial disappointment. "That was a very creative period in the band," Wasser says of the Ruby Red demos over the phone from her Brooklyn home. "I just heard them yesterday with Kevin and Dave, and they have a lot of energy, so we’ll see what happens. I really feel happy about the music we made because it was very spontaneous and we just did it without thinking, ‘What are we trying to accomplish?’ We just did it for the love of making music. It feels very punk rock — doing what you want because it feels beautiful to you."

Until he was asked to join GbV last year — a band he first met when they opened for the Dambuilders at the Penalty Box around 1994 — March says he never found a creative outlet as remotely fulfilling as the Dambuilders, a group made up of four radically different individuals whose music was as diverse as the members’ personalities. "I feel like we were doing something original, but it never got the exposure that it could have gotten, and I don’t want it to be forgotten. We were very focused as a band, and I don’t think there was ever a record that was put out like that by us." He believes a compilation culled from the demos — the Dambuilders often recorded in the basement of his Boston apartment — would offer a gritty glimpse of a band in their prime who never got their due.

Derby claims that "I never was bitter about how we fared in the marketplace because we completely exceeded all the expectations I ever had. Maybe we didn’t come to the decision [to disband] at the same time, but I think we probably all now realize that we did what we could and wanted to leave when we thought we were at the best of our abilities." When Masunaga listens to the Dambuilders, he hears an outfit that was "pretty young and vicious, and it’s nice to look back. It was the most satisfying time of my life up this point." Still, he adds with a laugh, "this is going to sound kind of negative, but there are some extreme facets to our sound and our music that are almost too difficult for radio and public consumption." Some of those tapes, he says, reflect those elements.

More appealing to Masunaga is the prospect of performing together again, whether it be a one-off show or a full-blown reunion. "Oh yeah, I’m definitely open to that. It’s been talked about as early as last summer, but none of us really got it together and followed through with anything. Everybody’s been incredibly busy." Derby, who’s talked with March about the possibility, says he too "wouldn’t rule it out. I would love to do one, but it has to be something everybody would have to feel like doing." Wasser — who’ll join Derby on some live dates this autumn — has mixed feelings. "You know what? I don’t know about that. One thing I’ve learned is that when something ends nicely, don’t open it up again." Wasser says her priority is finishing the Joanaspolicewoman album, finding a record label to put it out, and touring. Also complicating matters is her touring schedule as violinist with Antony and the Johnsons, a much-buzzed-about New York–based chamber-pop ensemble.

Still, with the band’s turbulent final days beginning to be a distant memory, the time is ripe to revisit the legacy of one of Boston’s former brightest hopes. "There was a point before we got signed that Dave and I were measuring our relative levels of success and our goals," Masunaga remembers. "We just hoped that somewhere, 10 years down the line, some kid would be able to find our record in a bargain cut-out bin, take it home, and it would blow his mind. I think we’re getting near the 10-year mark pretty soon."

Dave Derby performs solo this Saturday, August 16, upstairs at the Middle East, 472 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 497-0576.

Issue Date: August 15 - 21, 2003
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