By Bill McMillan
An interview with Don Caballero drummer Damon Che
In a time when bands struggle to escape labels, critically acclaimed group Don Caballero are showing that the only way to do so is through originality. Although the band is often squeezed into the “math rock” category, Don Caballero has continued to expand their highly unique style since their debut For Respect in 1993. With the release of Punkgasm on August 19, 2008, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania trio proved once again that there are no words to describe their sound.
JERK spoke over the phone with the band’s whirlwind of a drummer Damon Che (nicknamed “The Octopus” because of his long arms) to discuss touring, songwriting, and Van Halen.
JERK: How’s the tour going? Damon Che: It’s been going really well. We’re pretty much in the support formation that’s going to last into 2009 it looks like as far as performing live in support of the new record. A lot of things behind us but a lot to go still.
Have there been any particularly good shows? Um, all of them? Pretty much. Well, Columbus was kind of dingy. I don’t want to put down Columbus but we had a little trouble there that night. In general, everything has been really refreshing, really enjoyable.
Fans seem to be taking in the new album pretty well? I think so. I mean, we tried to make a really good record and we hope our fans can enjoy it and I think we accomplished that.
Do you have any rituals before you go on stage? Our only ritual would be having fun before we go on I think. Which, hey, that’s better than not having fun right?
Any music you listen to before you go on? We did most of our music listening in the van when we’re travelling I think, but we’re not such music junkies that we have to have a box radio backstage or anything like that.
Any new records you’re into lately? Yeah, this year, I really liked Sloan’s newest release because I didn’t really care for the last three records, so I was really surprised about how good the new one was. The new Constantine rules. I’m a big fan of El Toro Del Mar. Don’t know how crazy I was about the second record. It was good, but it just didn’t rock me like the first one did. Those three things come to mind.
Did you take a different songwriting approach for this record? No, one thing some people have been saying this time is they think the new record sounds like it was jammed out, as opposed to written, and that is not true. It was very pre-ordained and nailed down, put in place before we recorded it. And that’s pretty much how the last one was too I think. We waste very few table scraps in our process. Everything gets used for something: gravy, broth, soup bones. We don’t waste soup bones.
There’s more singing on Punkgasm than any Don Caballero release before. Was there a reason for that? We knew we could possibly be getting into that as a talking point and so far I don’t think I’ve done a single interview where somebody wants to ask about that. And that’s fine; it’s cool to inquire. It’s just like another sonic texture to the overall recipe. And we just felt like it, I mean we were having too much fun to let anybody’s concern over the details effect us. We tried to make a great record and I think we did. If fans disagree, they disagree. That’s all we can do.
So it wasn’t like a planned thing? The songs I sing on we literally wrote in sound check. It was just like I heard Jason [Jouver] playing bass and I said “Oh, keep playing that,” and G[ene Doyle] was doing some kind of loop and I just started singing. It just happened. There was no war room or battle plan or drama board or anything. It just happened that way.
How do you know when a song is done? Well we usually let the timer up, and then when it runs out…no I’m kidding. When does it end? It can sometimes be done until the last minute. Sometimes somebody gets an idea in the studio before we finished a track. Somebody runs down, one last thing, and try it. Maybe Al will suggest something and say try that again and double it up or something. I don’t know. That’s a valid question I just don’t know if I know the answer.
Yeah, it’s hard to tell sometimes. Well sometimes you’ll record a song and put it out and then live it’ll start turn into like a way feistier beast than it originally was. That happens. That’s why a lot of bands like to tour their material before they record it. And we did that with about half the material on this record, we played live before we recorded it. Then the other half was just straight from the recording studio.
Would you say your music carries a specific message? I would say our message is one of good music, I think is our primary objective. Not to say we’re a great band, other people aren’t, but I think we try to set an example that maybe leaves more of an impact than a lot of things in our genre, contemporaries, what have you. I mean there’s certainly no verbal message. The lyrics, if there are any, are kind of already there. So yeah, we definitely want to send a musical message like “check out this music”, that message.
So there’s no like “we’re so angry” or “we’re so sad” kind of thing happening then. Well, you know, there might be emotions involved. Me personally, I think I’ve kind of learn to decompress emotional buildups and emotional charges just through my own personal growth techniques. We don’t have powerful emotions like we’re so angry we play the song this way or we’re so sad we play the song this way. There’s nothing like that. There’s more of a fun accent that’s put into emotion in our music than anything else I would say.
I’ve read that people think you play a fairly modest kit for such an accomplished player. It’s not super stripped down like a garage rock player’s kit and its not obscene and ridiculous like some kind of drum kit that looks like a whole room in Guitar Center or whatever.
Are you tempted to add on to your kit at all? If anything, I’m crazy for not making it smaller. So no I’ve never been tempted to make it bigger. It’s been bigger in the past and I’ve actually stripped it down in some ways. I don’t have a cowbell anymore. I used to have a ton of roto-toms and now I just use one. I mean it’s just so much to carry around. You’d have to be kind of crazy to make your kit bigger. That’s just my opinion. I mean unless you’ve got like a road crew or something.
Do you still nail down your kit? I had a riser I constructed to solve that problem, but that’s become such a pain in the neck I think I am going to start just plopping a few nails down. You just have to be really careful. I sent one flying one time and the kid told me it was about an inch from his eye and I’m like “Oh, God.” So you just got to be really careful. I might just try bringing a rug and seeing how I do. I learned this technique where, if you just set the spurs to the bass drum on less of an angle and make them straighter, that seems to solve the problem a lot better than if you have them on the angle for some reason – it just wants to keep going. I don’t know why. You would think that having it on the angle would make it less likely to slide, but for some reason putting them straight up actually keeps it from sliding more. We’ll see as I go along.
Any contemporary drummers your into right now? I don’t know how active, but Jack McNeely’s always a pleasure to listen to. James Lowe – always a pleasure to listen to. There are a lot of good drummers out there. There are drummers better than me out there. They probably would have no desire to do what I do. They’re probably making 85,000 bucks for a car commercial right now. See that’s the big thing is we’re trying to make a concerted effort to not be a drum centric project, or band or whatever. Like I don’t want it to be all about the drums. I mean I want to play good drums but, if I had a dime for every time somebody comes up to me after a show and is like, “Hey man my buddy told me about you and he was like ‘You gotta come down to this shithole club and check out this drummer!” I’d like to make records where music fans like the whole thing and it’s not just some drum centric kind of thing so we’re trying to alleviate that drum centric thing. We’ll see how well we do.
Is that something you began feeling recently? Like I said if I had a dime for every time. It’s been for the history of the band. I’ll talk to people whose friends said come down just because you gotta see the drummer and I don’t want to be in a band like that. I want the whole band to be exciting, enjoyable, etc., not just the drum aspects.
Since you use lyrics so sparsely, where do the song titles come from? They’re an extension of the creative process. Let’s say you wanted to make baseball bats for a living. You’d probably want to come up with a good name for it other than just like “our lame boring baseball bats for sale.” You’d want to give it a name like Louisville Slugger or something wouldn’t you? That’s really all we do with the songs, just try to give them good names.
So it just comes out of the feeling of the music? Well usually we use working titles that are pretty boring. There’s the answer to your other question – once we christen it and give it a name, that’s when it’s done.
You’ve played guitar and bass in a few other bands too right? Well, yeah. I’ve played guitar on past Don Cab records and I play guitar on this new one.
Do you take anything from the drums to the guitar or bass? I’ve been known to. I did get a four star review in Guitar Player magazine once for a record I did play guitar on. I haven’t been received in popularity as well as what I’ve done in Don Cab on drums. It’s my second instrument. Obviously, percussion’s my first. But I like to play guitar so, just haven’t been received very well the times I’ve played guitar.
When did you start playing with the butt ends of your sticks? I think it was 1988 when I first started flipping the sticks around just to get that cannonball effect, just to have a bigger plunk. At first I thought, “Wow, this would be great to play them backwards to get a bigger plunk but I’ll bet you I won’t be able to play as fast if I do this” but it didn’t seem to slow me down. So I just kept playing like that.
I’ve read you try to emulate Alex Van Halen’s snare sound. Is that true? I try to get that sound yeah. Drumheads are like apples on a tree. You can put a head on, but just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s going to be really nice and ringy. Sometimes you get one that you swear is the best one you’ve ever had. Most of the time you get one that’s middle of the road and you can live with. I don’t believe in tape or cotton or pads or anything I just like try to get the most open song I can. And I even take the strainer off a little bit so it’s not so ratty-tat-tat marching drum sounding. I know pop bands like to have crack in the snare head. I prefer like a plunk, literally like the word “plunk.” To me I always loved that about Van Halen. Alex Van Halen didn’t really start sounding like that until Fair Warning to be honest. Fair Warning, Diver Down, and 1984 were the records where the plunk sound was the best I thought.
So you’re a pretty big Van Halen fan then? The David Lee Roth era sure. I mean I consider those the six most important records ever made, the original David Lee Roth ones.
So you look to Alex Van Halen in your own drumming? Alex Van Halen? Oh yeah, he’s one of the best. He’s one of the greats in my book, absolutely.
What’s the last song you heard that you wished you had written? I think it was this Goo Goo Dolls song on this CD my girlfriend had laying around.
So you’re not totally anti-pop then? Oh no. Just because I make crazy music that could never really be that popular. I like anything that’s good really. You can have good underground music that’s only so popular and you can have really good music that is very popular. And you can have shit underground music and you can shit popular music too.
Are there any venues you really like to play at? Anywhere that has a nice dressing room and people that come out to see us is really all I could ask for. Because when you go up to some shithole club and there’s no dressing room and you end up having to hang out in some alley in the back because it smells like piss because you can’t smoke inside. That’s like the worst show for us. I don’t even mind not being able to smoke as long as there’s a nice dressing room actually.
What does the future look like for Don Caballero? Well, yeah. We have a pretty elaborate campaign to support the new release in terms of live performances. Who can ever say what the total future holds? I mean, on one hand the economy could tank and there will be no more touring rock bands. Or for some other stupid reason like everyone goes so green you’re not even allowed to drive a van anymore or something. Or things could turn out just fine and we’d end up touring an even bigger set of dates or something because things got better or something. Who knows? Anything could happen.