Darktown Strutters Steps Up Its Game
As eventful as 2009 proved for Darktown Strutters' Kara Howell and Wes Darrin, 2010 looks to be an even more impressive year for the now Oak Cliff-based "satanic-disco" duo that's been playing shows seemingly every few days for the last few months.
For starters, the band is in talks with Banter Media, the management and PR firm behind Lefse Records, which happens to be the label that Banter created to release Neon Indian's much-adored debut, Psychic Chasms. Also, Darktown Strutters' debut vinyl EP will finally get pressed and, by March, it will finally make it onto the turntables of the band's fans, who've been waiting to get their hands on a copy since it was first announced back in November 2008.
Originally slotted to put out a 12-inch single as one of the first three releases on local music blog We Shot J.R.'s vinyl-only label, the band headed into Dallas' Klearlight Studio to lay down the tracks in the fall of 2008.
"We were brand-new, and the label was brand-new, so it made sense to team up and help each other out in that sense," vocalist Howell says. But, with the status of the label currently in limbo, Howell says she and Darrin eventually "decided to go a different route. You know, things change, priorities change and people change."
Thankfully, the guys behind Klearlight have decided to start issuing some of the unreleased material that local acts have recorded at the studio on its own new label, tentatively named Restore Vinyl (Tentatively, Luna Matto and Darktown are the first releases, with PVC Street Gang and others to follow). Klearlight's Jimi Bowman explains why the studio's moving to pressing albums as well: "We think some of this stuff is worth putting out, and a lot of these bands don't have the funds or wherewithal to get it out there, so we see releasing these as good for the studio and good for the band."
But there was one thing that Howell says has been misunderstood about the recording sessions, and it does sort of make the studio look like the band's patron saint: "I want this to be cleared up, " she says. "No one put any money into the album. Klearlight is the best thing that ever happened to our band. They were our biggest fans; they basically gave us carte blanche in the studio when we recorded it. And now, they're putting the album out."
That album will undoubtedly help matters as Banter shops the band around to bigger labels. Another thing that may help is all the buzz the duo has garnered in recent months, including glowing write-ups on blogs like the UK-based 20 Jazz Funk Greats, which described the band's track "Lucifer Rising" as "a potent piece of black-eyed soulless soul." It also may help that Neon Indian frontman Alan Palomo recently listed the duo as his "Favorite New Band" in a Pitchfork interview. (In fact, it was Palomo's recommendation that first alerted Banter to Darktown.)
But perhaps the biggest change the band went through in 2009 was leaving its base in Denton for Oak Cliff, which Howell explains required a whole new approach to the band.
"In Denton it's just so easy to get tacked onto a bill," Howell says. "There's so many little places around town to play and different bands to play with. And playing a last-minute show in someone's basement wasn't a big deal. In Dallas it's, well...there's a lot more detail and thought that we're having to put into it. The band's actually more like running a business down here."
"When we first started," she continues, "we kind of blew up really fast within Denton, and we started being asked to play shows all the time. But then that kind of tapered off, and we were really busy with our jobs, and when the offers stopped coming in, I just thought, 'I can do this, and I can do it better.'"
So Howell took the reins and started actively booking gigs. And, ever since, she's had Darktown Strutters playing like a band possessed.
"Before, it was like a hobby, because we had day jobs—good day jobs," she says. "But we both got laid off at around the same time, and that's really another reason why I started booking us so many shows. Because this is how we are making our money. Now, I definitely consider myself just as much of a savvy, bitchy businesswoman as I would a musician.
"We've both basically turned into semi-full-time musicians, because we've ended up with a lot more time on our hands. We've become a lot more serious about it, because the more shows we play and the way that people react, we're realizing that it's going over really well."
And it's appealing to a wider audience than Darrin or Howell ever imagined. Initially, Howell admits, she thought the band would appeal solely to the "social misfits" who had grown tired of the "ugly sounds of the modern world." But the band's been kind of shocked at the reaction from audiences after its gigs, like when a "cute older couple" who was sitting in one of the front booths during a recent show with Binary Sunrise at City Tavern approached the band afterward to let them know they enjoyed the show.
And after Darktown Strutters played a birthday concert for Howell at Oak Cliff's Tradewinds—just a dive bar, not much of a venue—Howell says the bar asked Darktown Strutters to be the "house band."
"That just happened," she says. "So, we'll be playing there once a month."
According to Howell, Tradewinds is actively trying to promote Oak Cliff musicians, with more local music nights to be announced in the future.
Ironically, one of the only things holding back Darktown Strutters is the key to the band's eerie sound—The Beast as it's known by everyone who's helped move around the formerly 200-pound organ.
"We had to cancel a show in Arkansas and one here a while back when my organ had some major surgery," she says. "We had to have the speaker cabinet removed."
And, after last weekend's show with Fizzy Dino Pop and Sore Losers, Howell says, the band will be taking two or three weeks off while the organ goes into the shop once more.
The band's next show will be in Fort Worth on February 13 at the Chat Room with True Widow and The Great Tyrant. Sound like a good bill? Well, Howell says, she, while wearing one of her many new hats, put that one together too.
People and priorities really do change: "I'm literally hoping someone might hire me to do this," Howell says.
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