FADING TRAILS 2014: A SIT-DOWN WITH DAVE DOUGHMAN - SWEARING AT MOTORISTS: EMBRACING THE ART OF DISCOMFORT
"There are so many instances where I’m trying to laugh myself through the stark reality that I’m living in." - Dave Doughman
Words by Jasper Willems
Video Stills: Margarita Kouvatsou
As Fading Trails 2014 lands in Utrecht, Dave Doughman is getting increasingly antsy. In just six days, he’ll find out whether or not While Laughing, The Joker Tells The Truth, the first studio-effort by lo-fi mavericks Swearing At Motorists in over eight years, will see the light of day. Last month, January 8th to be precise, Doughman launched a Kickstarter-campaign to self-release the album.
To call Doughman (who moved from Dayton, Ohio to Berlin in 2005) a magnetic individual is an understatement: whenever and wherever he sets foot, he courts an audience with his madcap antics. On a whim, he’ll swerve from wide-eyed reverie to sincere avidity: boldly cracking jokes and skittishly teetering about both the existential and the mundane.
Before agreeing to do this interview, Doughman covertly switches the wooden chair set in place for a (sic) “more comfortable” leather seat.
After briefly negotiating with Re:VERSION's Margarita Kouvatsou, he agrees to sit on the wooden chair. "I’ll be comfortable in any chair, it’s totally fine!"
"Don’t underestimate comfort", Margarita kindly stresses.
"Don’t underestimate DIScomfort", a suddenly stone-faced Doughman responds. "Because once you’re in an uncomfortable state, you have to adapt to the situation. Sometimes, really beautiful things come out of that. So…you shouldn’t underestimate comfort NOR discomfort!"
Out of the blue, he starts singing a lyric from Neighborhood of Sirens, the final track off 2000’s More Songs From The Mellow Struggle:
"Look in the mirror/I am not alone/the smell of pomade/recalls talks of girls/And how their clothes fit better/and some discomfort is good"
Indeed, never a dull moment with Mr. Dave Doughman…
Hypothesis: artists are always in risk of becoming complacent once they’re pre-exposed to some level of success.
A lot of the time, debut albums are like the best, you know. You have your whole life to make your first album, maybe less than a year to make your second. I enjoy those the most, because there’s this whole life leading up to that, you know? Not to say there are no good albums coming out further down the road. As an artist, you always like to think you continue to get better. I really enjoy the immediacy of those first few records. I’m saying this as an artist who spent two decades recording under the name Swearing At Motorists.
Those The Garden-twins, for instance, really embody that immediacy you just mentioned.
The Garden is a great band! I had so much fun last night, watching them dance. I kept jumping on stage to re-adjust the kick drum-mic, which kept sliding out of place. As an audio-engineer, you’d really want to hear that kick drum, you know? The engineer wasn’t doing it, I figured going on stage to adjust the mic was better than not hearing the kick drum at all, so…
…you were kind of pulling a Mark E. Smith out there.
(laughs) Yes. Mark E. Smith, wow! I recently got to hang out with that guy! That was wonderful! Recently I’ve been getting more work as an MC, hosting events, which I’ll be doing at the Beaches Brew festival too. But this happened at Week-End Fest in Cologne, where I introduced each band playing there. I kind of treated it as my own talk show. It was interesting hanging with Mark E. Smith. That photograph you see: I had this really shaky grin on my face because I made him laugh. I was just thinking to myself: “I can’t believe I’m making Mark E. Smith laugh!” We were having this discussion about how Americans tend to overuse adjectives: “Amazing!” “Fantastic!” “Incredible!” “Awesome!” While more often than not, the thing you’re describing isn’t that awe-inspiring. Or fantastic. Mark said: “When I was a kid, if you said ‘fantastic’…that meant someone was gonna die at the end of the story.” If you look up ‘fantastic’ in the dictionary, it has a lot to do with the supernatural.
Photo (w/ Mark E. Smith): Christian Faustus
Speaking of ambiguity, let’s discuss the title of the new Swearing At Motorists-record, While Laughing, The Joker Tells The Truth, which is pretty thought-provoking by itself.
*takes deep breath to relax himself* Originally, the record was going to be called On The Vanity Of Existence, because I was reading entirely too much Arthur Schopenhauer the last few years! It’s an essay taken from his book On The Suffering Of The World. But I figured it might come off as pretentious. While Laughing,The Joker Tells The Truth is actually a phrase that’s been with me for the past fourteen years. If anything, this album definitely deserves that title, because there are so many instances where I’m trying to laugh myself through the stark reality that I’m living in. It was a phrase I first heard from a dear friend of mine: Greet Vyvey, our very first tour manager when we came to Europe back in 2000 (Swearing At Motorists were supporting Songs:Ohia). She lives in Ghent, Belgium. One evening, she used the phrase While Laughing, The Joker Tells The Truth to describe me, how I am on stage. The subject matter I tend to be dealing with can be very heavy at times. So I use humor in between songs to kind of lighten the mood for both myself and the audience.
Tell me a bit about the song you just performed for us, “The Darkest September”. When you came in after the session, you told me you never performed it live until now.
*takes deep breath* You’re putting me on point here. That’s like…I’m gonna tell you the story about this. That song was not…wait, one second…wow, you’re really putting me on point!
*playfully mimics the sound of a tape played in reverse before resuming his answer*
Backin’ it up there…
*pauses and takes another deep breath*
That song is definitely the most personal thing I’ve ever written or recorded. Originally, it wasn’t going to be on the album. We recorded it in one take. One day, a feeling struck behind that song. I found myself in a church with some recording equipment, got behind the piano and just sang. And at the end I figured…that was it. I could not do it any better than that. Nor did I want to try, because it took a lot out of me. When I got the album artwork back from William Schaff, I made the mistake of opening it up in public. I was in a coffee shop checking my e-mail. I opened the attachment and I started crying. Because he captured the vibe exactly - not what I was trying to get across - but what I was feeling.
I’ve never been an artist with an agenda. I don’t really think of myself as an artist, but as a person who’s very fortunate that other people think of me as an artist. Because I had these songs in my head…I would go crazy until I heard them coming back to me through the speakers. Once I saw the artwork, I realized he had heard what I was trying to tell myself. It touched me so much, I really wanted to put The Darkest September on the album…because it is the most personal song. That song is pivotal to understand where I’m coming from, to connect all the dots. Because I’ve said this a zillion times, my albums are the soundtrack to the B-movie me and my friends are living. I never thought anyone was going to buy my records, I never made them for anyone but myself.
When making records, you seem to subject yourself to a lot of scrutinization.
That’s one of the thing about this record, though…people ask why this record took me eight years to make. Because I had to live it first. I wasn’t ready. I used my son as an excuse for a few years, because I was terrified. I’m just now realizing this after four years. I didn’t make a record all this time, because I subconsciously knew that it was one step closer to going on tour, which meant leaving my son a lot. We have such a great relationship, I love my son more than anything in the world. Fatherhood is so fulfilling, with so many great challenges and rewards. Not to sell myself short, but I was missing something. I was missing an emotional outlet that translated into something tangible. A record that I could put on and listen to, that other people could listen to as well.
So you deliberately shut out the idea of making music to take care of your son?
No, I really wanted to. It was crazy! From ‘94 until ‘06, when his mother got pregnant, all I did was music, full-time. When he was born and I held him in my arms, it was like this electricity went through me that charged my batteries for a couple of years. I didn’t need anything other than being a part of this little guy’s life. It was absolutely wonderful. But I can’t change who I am. That’s so cliché-sounding, but making music is my way of dealing with the world, to figure out my place in the universe.
Was it a challenge for you to reconcile Daddy Dave with Musician Dave to become Ultimate Dave?
Well, I’m not the first musician or artist to ever have a child. When I still lived in Berlin, David Bazan came through town during his Curse Your Branches-tour. We had this really nice long talk. He helped me rectify the situation internally I think. He’s a father too, although his situation is obviously a little different because he’s married to the mother of his child. After speaking with him, I started thinking “of course! there are so many musicians, on all levels.” You don’t have be traveling around in a nightliner bus to have your child with you. Just strategically plan when you want to tour.
So that’s when you decided to begin a Kickstarter-campaign to self-release While Laughing, The Joker Tells The Truth.
Yes, because I need to manage a schedule that’s beneficial for both my son and myself. I need to record or tour whenever I get the chance. A label like Secretly Canadian was an amazing thing back in the day. Working with these guys, those were fourteen of the best years of my life. But they have become such a big distribution company now with Jagjaguwar in the mix. They need a schedule they can stick to so all their artists can get the attention and promotion they deserve. I can’t really adhere to that schedule nowadays, because I would have to wait in line for my turn.
Were you reluctant to do a Kickstarter-project at first?
Very reluctant to do it. It’s really stressful. We have six days left now and we’re only at 58 percent of our goal. We might not make it. But I had to take the chance, because it’s just a percentage of a few thousand who have bought my records in the past, something I’m very fortunate with. We chose to self-release it instead of doing it with Secretly Canadian and keep an option for distributors from different territories. The record was already finished before we decided how to release it. That’s the route we’re hoping to go. We’ll wait and see what happens seven days from now.
Do you have a back-up plan, in case you don’t make it?
There have been labels who contacted me saying, “hey we’re very interested in working with you.” Obviously, we’ll explore those possibilities. But right now, my focus is to do what I can every day to pull this off this ourselves, because I would really like to succeed at it.
Does it worry you that there is no proper authority overseering Kickstarter to combat racketeering?
No, what I find amazing about Kickstarter is that everyone is taking each other for their word. It’s easy to be cynical, but also nice to think that people are willing to put their faith into something. And become a part of it. I hope artists understand they have this amazing privilege: to use this platform and say: “I have this vision, but I need your help to realize it.” To me, Kickstarter is about becoming more self-sufficient, being able to do this ourselves. Because the landscape has changed. We put our last album out back in 2006 on Secretly Canadian. You didn’t have things like Bandcamp or Twitter. Facebook wasn’t really taking off yet. With the use of social media, things can spread a lot quicker by word of mouth. It’s really just a click away. To me, it was about taking the challenge. To see what happens. I’ve been doing it the other way for years, let’s see what the alternatives entail.
That’s the most sensible way of looking at it. Have you seen Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk speech? The threshold seems to be whether or not you’re humble enough to ask.
Yes I have. I think that’s the most incredible thing about our project. Only 180 people have pledged, which is not even 2% of the amount we sold of our last record. But we have raised almost nine thousand dollars! That means 180 people care about it enough, with an average of 40 or 50 dollars, to possibly make this a reality. The frustrating thing is, we feel like we’re not getting the word out somehow. Because I refuse to believe that, out of the thousands of people that bought my records over the years, only 180 people want to have the new one. I didn’t get one reply from any of the blogs that I approached about this. I offered everyone exclusive videos, the chance to stream songs, the chance to stream the album. I didn’t even get the courtesy of a rejection from anyone.
You still live in Germany right?
I do, I live in Hamburg now. I moved from Berlin to Hamburg in 2010, so this is my fourth year there.
How have you been perceiving the US since moving to Europe? Has your initial view become warped in a sense?
It’s really weird to see it both from the perspective of social media, when speaking to my friends, and the news. I get two different versions of the United States. It’s really crazy to see the difference, how the mainstream media in United States is able to kind of whitewash a lot of things. What makes it on the national news in Germany versus things I’m seeing in tweets, on Facebook-status updates or e-mails from my friends: they don’t add up too well.
Has the big picture become more murky or more clear because of that?
I think it has become clearer. I recognize bullshit a lot quicker now.
Last question: how did you stumble upon your current drummer, Martin Boeters?
Martin works at a music store in Hamburg. He became drummer of Swearing At Motorists back in 2010. I came from a St. Pauli Bundesliga match when I heard a voice over my shoulder saying: “Hey, you’re the singer of Swearing At Motorists!”
I turned around: “Hey, you must be my favorite person in Hamburg! How do you know that?”
He said: “I booked you in Astra-Stube in 2004 and I did sound for you.”
He asked if I was looking for a drummer. I told him I was still playing with this guy, and that I was doing a solo-set this Friday. I asked Martin if he wanted to be on the guestlist. There, he got so unbelievably drunk!(laughs)
After my set he came up to me and said: “That was amazing! You were so great, so inspiring! You’re playing with Till, huh? I’ll be right back!” And he disappears. I was like: ”Ehm, okay…cool?” Five minutes later he comes up to me to tell me I’ve been traded: “You’re not playing with Till anymore…but with me!”
And I was like: “Well, okay, I guess…”
“We’ll rehearse on Tuesday!”, he said. “Just come by the shop on Monday and we’ll talk about it.”
I remember thinking like the whole weekend: “Omigod, this guy just fired my drummer…I hope he’s good!” I was just stoked by his enthusiasm. Okay, this guy was so touched by the music that he wants to be a part of it, to such extent that he ends up firing the other guy! I gotta give it a shot! That Tuesday we rehearsed and it was brilliant. And here we are, three years later!
On February 8th 2014, Swearing At Motorists successfully reached their 15,000 dollar Kickstarter goal. You can visit the Facebook page to find out when and where While Laughing, The Joker Tells The Truth will be available to the public. The album was produced by Dave Doughman & Rick McPhail (Tocotronic/Glacier of Maine) at the Upper Room in Hamburg.
For the first time ever, Swearing At Motorists performed ‘The Darkest September’ from his upcoming album. Check out the unplugged version of the song, recorded at EKKO by Re:VERSION during the last day of Fading Trails, in Utrecht.
*Stay tuned for more Fading Trails content on Bamshakalah in the coming days, including an exclusive mini-documentary with live footage, interviews and impressions across the board.*