Despite being an 80's New York noise rock band with sonic ties to Glenn Branca and no wave, the Dustdevils are a far different group than the Sonic Youth who they are frequently compared to. Michael Duane's group, which at points had consisted of Pavement's and future Sonic Youth-er Mark Ibold, Glenn Branca compadre and sometime Don Caballero member Dave Reid, New Yorker rock critic Sasha Frere-Jones, and countless others, is unfortunately an example of a great act that never really got its chance to shine in the ethos of American indie rock.
"Struggling Electric and Chemical", the group's 1990 album, is sonic gold, opening with a cover of the Fall's "Hip Priest," in which frontwoman Jaqi Dulaney casts the track into a sultry stomp that Mark E. Smith was never capable of. The real masterpiece on the album is the second track, "The Revenge of Cruiser Gurner," complete with a coda that sounds like the child of King Crimson and Sonic Youth.
I was able to interview Michael Duane via e-mail, who provided me with a fascinating history of the group, scars included. Check it out after the jump.
Well, I'd been playing with that bloke David Gedge from The Wedding Present for far too long and I needed a change, as he's a bit of a tyrant. I had met Jaqi [Dulaney], decided to play and part of that play turned into DUSTdevils, which in retrospect, seems like a project to describe our highest highs and lowest lows. The core of what we were doing was to create music that had never been heard before, sometimes we managed that. The band was about us and none other, we made music for us...
The name of the band came from a poem by Aleister Crowley called "Dust Devils"... It seemed to make sense at the time...
Being English, and Jaqi Dulaney being from Australia, was there any sense of being outsiders in the world of New York rock'n'roll in the mid-80s? Why did you decide to move to the United States at the time?
We started making music in New York around '83 or '84. Then we went to the UK and released the records on Rouska, two LP's, two 12 inches, and a flexi disc. We did a bunch of shows there, toured Europe twice, and got played by John Peel a bit... but for the most part were largely ignored. I mean, we were a bit shit at that point, but we did manage to make a couple of good records despite the fact. "Gutter Light" was pulled out from a moment of desperation (we were so down and it sounds relatively happy!). "Rhenyards Grin" was just me trying to make am Echo and the Bunnymen LP... but it didn't quite work.
By the time we got back to New York in 1988 we'd done quite a bit, "Geek Drip" was already recorded but Rouska wouldn't pay for it. Thankfully, I had a quality cassette version on my person, which eventually got wonderfully mastered by Wharton Tiers & came out as Ole 002. Band people were wary of us when we came back, I can remember Tod Ashley (Cop Shoot Cop, Firewater) telling me years later; "We thought 'Who the fuck are these fuckers!?'" But after seeing us live a few times, they let us off, as we were doing something.
Dustdevils are frequently cited as one of the first "Matador bands." How did your relationship with Matador Records begin? Do you feel comfortable with that idea, as your music was released on some other notable companies such as Teenbeat?
I used to correspond with ink on paper back when Gerard [Cosloy] was working at Homestead Records back when ink and paper were the only option... Gerard wanted to see us play live, so we did, at King Tuts Wha Wha Hut in New York, maybe 1988. Chris [Lombardi] was there too, I think.
I don't think we were ever "signed" to them or such, we were just friends, and they put up money for us to record and stuck the records out. It wasn't much thought about, we were all just making music and making it available, that is what mattered. I love Matador to bits, all they started from and all they are now: best friends 'til the day I die.
Teenbeat... I was such a big fan of the early Unrest LP's. Those records are so damn wonderful. Mark Robinson kindly put out out 7 inch "Is Big Leggy", so it seemed obvious to do a joint release when it came to "Struggling Electric & Chemical." I doubt it benefited any party involved... I did end up playing bass for Unrest in DC though, and despite me playing like shit, it was such a damn pleasure. DUSTdevils opened for them at DC Space.
What is the relationship that New Yorker writer Sasha Frere-Jones had with the Dustdevils?
I think i met Sasha through our drummer at the time, David Reid. Sasha played guitar for us; I always kind of wanted to sound like Slovenly (probably the greatest band that has ever existed!) and also wanted to do a three guitar thing (with every note on sloppy but in the right place). We rehearsed a lot, John Easley from Sorry or Jaquie Nimetz was singing for us during that time and James Kavoussi from Fly Ashtray/Uncle Wiggly was on the other guitar. We never recorded or played live in that format, but we did make some fine music. A slightly later version, still with James Kavoussi and Jaqi back in the can be (almost) seen [at the bottom of this post].
You've said that before joining the Dustdevils, Mark Ibold had never touched a guitar, and you'd only wanted him in the band because he is such a "great bloke". I read an interview with Sonic Youth about Mark joining that band as a full-time member, and I believe Thurston Moore said something to a similar effect, as for him Mark being a member was somewhat less musical and more about the "good time"-vibe that he brings along with him. How did you first meet Mr. Ibold? What do you think is so appealing about him?
I met Mark when he was working at Free Being Records on 2nd Ave and St. Marks Place. I got to know him well, and as we'd been through a couple of shit bass players, really, I just wanted someone I liked in the band.
I was very hands off with teaching him how to play, I may have moved his fingers on the frets once or twice, but that is it, he wanted to play. He went home from rehearsal, did his homework and soon was playing some stunning stuff. Mark is a complete natural, he just needed to find a bass to do it on. He is just a lovely person too, but that should never go against what a great musician he is, just listen to "Neck Surfing", which he pretty much originated. Mark is a musician and a half, his levity is a bonus.
The rocky relationship that you had with sometimes front-woman Jaqi Dulany seems to have had a strong effect on the group. Is the depiction of this exaggerated in the public history of the Dustdevils? Do you have any contact with Jaqi today?
Jaq and I had intense relationship, it reached great highs and equally deep lows. It was more good than bad. We did fight, and that did come across on stage at times, very much in our songs too, but we worked very closely together. One time after she'd caved my head in on the sidewalk on Ludlow St, I mentioned that the resulting scabs on my face looked like islands in an ocean, hence the lyric of "Receiver" from Extant, which is pretty much about us losing respect for each other.
The very first time I hit back, I left... at least we made some great songs. The last time we spoke was 1998, when we got divorced...
Are you still active in playing music? Is any thought of a Dustdevils reunion preposterous, or could you see a possibility of that?
DUSTdevils reunion is preposterous to say the least, it would have to be new songs and that is never going to happen...
I've been making more music in my dotage than you can shake a stick at; I didn't do any more for a long while. I busted my arm badly in a car wreck that made me unable to play for many years... so, I became a sound engineer for a charity that provided access to making music for homeless people/ refugees, and met this bloke, Patrick Hurst, very messed up, but a complete genius. We ended up forming a band around his songs that became Ancients. We almost finished an LP, but sadly, he took his own life before we could get it done. The unfinished LP can be found here, it's well worth a listen.
I'm always playing with Steve Cerio (Drunk Tank, Railroad Jerk). It's a slow process, but we have done two LP's. Maybe another will happen... I also played on the latest Jackie-O Motherfucker LP, "Ballads of the Revolution." I'll probably be making more music with Tom (Greenwood) in the future.
The main thing I'm doing right now is Dustdevil & Crow. I'm working with Bendle from The Door & The Window and 49 Americans. We've done two LP's so far, they are available at the Free Music Archive here. We just started another one.
I just like making music, I guess....
EDIT: Michael just emailed me with a Free Music Archive link to some unreleased Dustdevils material. Check it out here! Rock on!