The Damn Truth’s debut album Dear in the Headlights has huge sound. So huge in fact, that as a listener you can actually feel the epicness of their vision and this in turn connects you to the legendary status classic rock n roll has always held in your heart; big drums, a guitar that rips through chords and drips gold, psychedelic bass that turns your vision kaleidoscopic, and a voice that literally opens your mind. You can actually see the spinning colours when you close your eyes. ..As a consequence you feel a tremendous amount of nostalgia; probably a little too much nostalgia for The Damn Truth’s liking. I asked them what they thought about being called a revival band.
“We mind,” says Tom Shemer simply, and he’s only half kidding.
The drummer, Dave Traina, agrees. “What are you going to do about it? People are going to label you no matter what. You are what you do. You could be the most innovative band and people will find a way to tell you that you sound like something they’ve already heard.”
For any band, being told you sound like Janis Joplin fronting Black Sabbath is never a bad thing. It’s not the comparisons that itch, their sound has been likened to the greats of classic rock; it’s about respecting an album that they poured their hearts and souls into, an album that demanded they delve into the darker parts of themselves. Dear in the Headlights is the sum of their individual experiences as humans. For them, defending themselves against the revival claims is more about honouring the process and what came from it, than denying that they sound one way or the other.
Their experience in the studio was enlightening, to say the least. I asked them if they cared to comment on the correlation between music and madness. “Oh, ya. The line is a thin one, man,” says Lee-La, the singer. “I think it’s not only music though, it’s artistry; to be able to put yourself in that place where, you know- you’re doing this- you’re naked in front of the world. I try not to think about it otherwise I’ll get lost in that part of it. For me, it’s my healing. Whenever I’ve been down, anxious, angry, in pain, I would sit and write. I feel like if I’m not writing, I’m screaming. I would break things.”
Do good artists need to touch madness? Downtown’s lyrics would suggest there’s some truth to the notion; I feel so grand, my friends, they all say I’m crazy. I’m not crazy. “I don’t think it’s direct; that to be a successful artist you have to have something off-putting about you,” says Tom. “But to be in a band, and maintain your relationships; to do this four way marriage, and family, and the rest of the stuff that comes with it. That’s where the madness would probably come from. If madness were to accompany being artistic, it would definitely come from everything being thrown together, but trying to focus on only one thing.”
You don’t seem insane to me, I say. David Masse smiles, “You put four people into a room with amplification, and anything can happen.” He continues. “We work in a collaborative way, so her madness affects everything, his madness is affecting everything. On a day to day basis I think everyone has to deal with madness. That’s the nature of the beast.”
In fact, their grassroots approach to recording is something undeniably classic about them. “We use a really old school tape,” says Lee-La. “There’s a lot of things we really like to capture. We just record the four of us in a studio. Then afterwards we re-record the harmonies and layer them on top. That’s the core of it. That’s how they used to do it in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s really important for us because that’s how we work best. I love looking into these guys’ eyes and feeding off of them.”
“It’s true,” agrees Tom. “We do draw a lot from the past in terms of the way we work as a band. We don’t go into the studio and do drums, and then bass, and then fix it all up. We just play in a room. We’re a live band.”
You can really hear this on the track, I Want You(He’s a Lightweight.) The recording session even captures the light static on their amps, and Lee-La as she inhales. If you listen closely, you can even hear them pulling energy out of one another, all the way to the climatic finish which I know culminated in a Technicolor-group-head-bang. I know this because I participated in their particular brand of gypsy-love-dance party when I danced my face off at The Horseshoe when they played there for NXNE. “We just like to play as if technology isn’t there to save our ass,” says David.
Fun fact about The Damn Truth, they were actually a backup band for someone else before they broke free and went out on their own. That was where they first fell for one another, where their onstage presence was first formed, and it is a powerful presence at that. “You never know what to expect when you go on stage,” says Lee-La. “ You never know what the people are going to give you, what the band is going to give you; what each and every one of us is going through that certain day. Every day is a surprise. We love it. I always find different things to tap into, and the more we play, the deeper it’s gonna get.”
I like that they’re looking into the future. Even though I looked into the past when I first heard them, I have high hopes that the rock movement coming out of Montreal will be the next big wave in the Canadian music tide pool. Tom nods, “There are a lot of really great bands coming out of Montreal all the time,” and about their sound specifically, Tom says, “The rock crowd there right now is thirsty for it.”
Lee-La nods. “The Besnard Lakes are definitely doing something interesting. I like them! They’ve got a psychedelic tip to them I like that a whole lot.”
Psychedelic folk is another label that has been applied to them. “If there were to be a rock revival coming out of Montreal, that would be a great thing,” says David. “Reading about the Beatles back in the day and The Stones and Hendrix, and knowing they hung out together. These epic musicians all at the same place at the same time, it’s a great thing. If we could be a part of something like that, that would be awesome.”
If that’s the case, they must be having a hell of the time on the bus, I say. “We don’t have a bus. I was projecting into the future,” says David, then points. “That’s the bus right there.”
Is that what you guys drove in? The one with the duct tape? That’s spectacular! …Well, that’s all. I don’t have any more questions.
“You can’t leave it at duct tape,” says David.
All too correct, sir.
The Damn Truth’s sound will raise questions in your mind, but isn’t that what the best bands do? Notions about the cyclical nature of art and of innovation may not escape you, but that to me is the icing on the cake. Rarely does a band with such strong ties to the golden age of rock present themselves as the exception to the rule. Rarely does sound come at you presented as a conundrum: How does this music take me back and push me into the future at the same time? The chords make me want to lie out in the sun picking petals off of wild flowers, makes me want to spin in an open field as the sun rises up in the East, makes me want to dust off that velvet top hat and descend into a cavernous pub so I can melt into the music calling out to me. I’ll settle for a leather fringe vest and the front porch of my two-storey walk-up; summer BBQ throwing smoke into the air, and me tipping my hat to every single person who walks by nodding in appreciation of Dear in the Headlights which is blaring through the screened window. I’ll yell “The Damn Truth!” at them, they will slow to a halt, and together we will share a moment of deep music appreciation, because the songs tell us the good times are just around the corner. No other message is more rock n roll. No other message is more The Damn Truth.