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How much of a band is The Deathray Davies now? Take a look: John Dufilho isn't even in this picture.
Allison V. Smith

John Dufilho = The Deathray Davies. Until The Deathray Davies recorded their third and latest album, the just-released The Day of the Ray, that statement was more or less fact, unless you felt like showing your work, in which case it would look more like: The Deathray Davies - live shows = John Dufilho. Either way.

Three years ago, give or take, The Deathray Davies was a band name more than it was an actual band. And until the group started recording what would turn out to be The Day of the Ray at Aaron Kelley's Edge of the World Studios (later adjourning to Valve Studios and The Echo Lab under the guidance of Matt Pence), it still sort of was. On record, anyway.

Dufilho began The Deathray Davies as a side project of sorts in 1998, when he had more songs than the band he was in at the time, Bedwetter, knew what to do with. Or, actually, the songs he had didn't seem to fit in with that group. After moving from San Antonio to Dallas and befriending Centro-matic's Will Johnson (who proved, on 1997's Redo the Stacks, you didn't need a band to be in one), Dufilho began recording those songs, playing all the instruments himself. By early 1999, he had a finished album, Drink With the Grown-Ups and Listen to the Jazz, and a ticket to the South by Southwest Music Festival, which accepted the "band" based on a three-song tape of unmixed songs.

By the time he played SXSW, Dufilho also had a band, including Bedwetter bandmate Jason Garner on bass and shakers shaker Kevin Ingle, as well as Chomsky drummer Matt Kellum, Legendary Crystal Chandelier front man Peter Schmidt on guitar and Transona Five's Rachel Smith on keyboards. Though that lineup remained fairly solid (Smith moved to Boston and was replaced by Chomsky's Sean Halleck), when it came time to record a follow-up to Drink With the Grown-Ups, Dufilho again went into the studio by himself. The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist, released in 2000, featured Garner on a handful of tracks and the full band on one, but for the most part, the team rode the bench while Dufilho gobbled up the minutes. While Bedwetter had long since broken up, The Deathray Davies still seemed to be something of a solo project.

So it wouldn't have been terribly surprising if, when The Deathray Davies began recording The Day of the Ray (released on Idol Records), the only member to show up for the sessions was Dufilho. But Dufilho wanted it to be different this time around--wanted it to be different when he recorded Drunk Ventriloquist, now that you mention it--letting the band do some of the heavy lifting instead of throwing out his back doing it all himself. The only thing: He had become a recording-studio version of an alcoholic, not used to asking for help or accepting it.

"I didn't realize how used to doing everything I was, and just having 100 percent control of everything," Dufilho says. "So this time, yeah, I just kind of had to let a lot of things go, you know, a lot of my ideas in the sense of realizing that, hopefully, in the bigger picture, everybody's ideas thrown in is going to be greater than...I don't know. I don't know exactly how to put it. Certainly made my job easier, in that everybody else came up with their own parts and that kind of thing, but I had to let go a bit, as far as just learning how to not be a control freak or whatever. I've definitely got a focus, a direction I want everything to go in, and this was more like, well, let's just record a bunch of songs and see what happens. Whereas the first two records were very specific, 'This is exactly what I want, and I'll record until I get it.' This one was more just free, whatever we end up with. I think it's a lot closer to what we do live."

It is, if only because the musicians who do it onstage did it in the studio this time. Garner and Ingle (both of whom have been in the band since the beginning) are joined by drummer Bill Shupp and guitarist Mike Middleton. (Middleton joined the band while The Day of the Ray was already in progress, playing on five songs.) Even new hire Greg Price, the latest in a long line of keyboard players and only in the band for a few months, appears on the disc, recorded on a boom box in the band's rehearsal space and wedged onto the album at the last minute. (As for how long the line of keyboard players is exactly, Ingle jokes that "half the people in Dallas know our keyboard parts.")

 

Why the rest of the band shows up (or, at least, shows up more often) on The Day of the Ray than Drunk Ventriloquist may be because for the first time the entire lineup is committed to The Deathray Davies. Previously, the band was cobbled together from members of various other groups: Chomsky, [DARYL], Legendary Crystal Chandelier, Pennywhistle Park. When Middleton and Price came along to round out the sextet, Dufilho finally had a band he could call his own. No more problems scheduling tours or gigs or studio time. The Deathray Davies may be a couple of years and a trio of albums into their career, but in a way, it's just getting started.

"We were just trying to learn to see what we could do, as far as recording as a band together, since we'd never done that," Dufilho says. "I mean, we're only--what--two and a half years old? Most bands are kind of starting where we did with this third record: 'Hey, let's make some demos and see what we sound like as a band.' So, we just decided to do that on our third record instead.

"The idea was, even for the second record, to make it a full band thing, but it just wasn't even close to being a full band at the time," he continues. "With this one, I was curious to see how it was going to sound, after doing two records just on my own, see what we could do differently. A lot of people tell me that it's just kind of a progression and it's not radically different, but it sounds pretty different to me, mostly just in that everybody can play their instruments a lot better individually than I can play any of 'em...It was very much collaborative."

You can hear that band effort on the disc's 14 songs, which manage to be tighter and looser than their predecessors on Drink With the Grown-Ups and Drunk Ventriloquist. From the start-stop rhythm that kicks off the album on "Is This On?" to the shoo-doop-shoop-shoo-doop singalong gilding the edges of the unlisted "There's Too Much Ulterior in Your Motive," it's the kind of record Dufilho couldn't have pulled off alone, as conscious of big sounds as it is big ideas. Yet, underneath it all, the focal point is Dufilho's songs, not necessarily how they sound. His lyrics are clever ("Talking to you is like pulling teeth/It might do some good, but God it's painful"), never cloying. Even funny sometimes; from "They Stuck Me in a Box in the Ground pt. 4": "A puzzled look from the man in the plane as I jump into open sky/It seems as though he's yelling something about a pair of shoes/Parachute!"

Big ideas are still more important to Dufilho than big sounds; his personal taste is closer to the bare bones, more experimental quality found on the first two albums, rather than the more up-front sound of The Day of the Ray. And he's not done with that side of his recording efforts by any means--he just knows there's a place for a record like this now. In other words: Doing it yourself is fine, and so are lo-fi recordings, but so is this. Or maybe he's starting to take the advice from one of his songs: "You've got to think about the future."

"I'm looking at it more in a bigger picture of, 'I want to make a lot of records,'" Dufilho says. (And he has at least one more album due this year, a full-length from the DRD spin-off, I Love Math, featuring him, Garner and Shupp.) "You know how often I write songs. So I kind of figured, you know, we'll make a loud, straight-up, straightforward, live, rocking record, and I'm sure the next one's not going to be anything like this. It's probably going to swing way back toward even more experimental than the first two.

"I kind of think we're just getting started with what we can do. That's how I feel about it. The thing that makes me happiest is probably songwriting, so I've been back on it. I've probably got another 15 songs, just since January, that we're ready to go on. I've been bugging everybody to hurry up and learn all the old stuff, because I'm ready to move forward already."

For now, the band will concentrate on touring, starting with a seven-week stretch with Denver's Dressy Bessy. And there's also the developing interest from record labels to deal with; for instance, Steve Ralbovsky, the RCA Records A&R rep who signed The Strokes, recently turned up at the band's gig opening for The Breeders at Trees. For Dufilho, that's all fine and good, and sure, a contract would be nice, but only the right one from the right guy at the right label. For now, he's happy where he is, where the band is, and that's what really matters. Of course, now that he's got a band, he's not the only one who can answer that question.

 

"I sort of like entertaining the idea of these people," Dufilho admits. "We've had a few calls even since that guy, some people that are wanting to check us out and keep calling for the new disc and telling us they like it. But I'm not sure, to tell you the truth, because I want to put out so many records, and I know that's not even a possibility with those kind of labels. The trade-off is you get a bigger budget, and you can take more time making one record, and it gets put out in front of a hell of a lot more people...If the right deal came along, that would be cool, but it's not, to me, the main focus. I know a lot of bands kind of center their whole thing around getting the deal and all that, and my band will probably kill me for saying this, but it's not my focus at all. My main thing is just trying to get better as a songwriter and expressing myself."


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