Asked how he's feeling before he and his band, Doosu, hit the stage at Trees, Casey Hess--speaking over his shoulder as he bolts toward the men's room to relieve his bladder--says that he's relaxed.
Later, in the club's backstage "green room," the adrenaline builds. Drummer Todd Harwell talks of how eager he is to get behind his set. Bassist Chad Deatley, preparing for his first show with the band, looks composed, though a little disconnected. It's humid and muggy in the tiny room--Hess pulls off his T-shirt and spits bottled water on his chest to cool off--but guitarist and vocalist Eric Shutt looks totally comfortable in his shirt and leather jacket, remarkably calm as he slumps on the couch. He says he feels the excitement but never shows it.
A little edginess could be forgiven, because it's been almost a year--11 months, to be exact--since Doosu has played a live show. The Carrollton-based band had been together for four years when, in February 1996, they won a Grammy-sponsored contest. That coup attracted the interest of major labels, including Sony Music, who funded the production of a demo tape, but everything was put on hold when Hess had to deal with major surgery to correct a defective heart condition.
So much was reported in the local press about his plight (heightened by the fact that things took a decided turn for the worse when a second surgery was required to address complications from the first, and it looked for a time as though Hess might not make it) that the band itself--and their music--devolved into a side-note. Hess, while appreciative of the support he received throughout his ordeal--from which he's completely recovered--jokingly refers to himself as "the poster child of Deep Ellum." One might have gotten the impression that Hess, 22, is Doosu.
Yet, as evidenced by the band's recently released six-track EP Quick Bionic Arms, Shutt, 23, is the band's equal other half in terms of songwriting, singing, guitars, and keyboards--the same things that Hess does.
For Shutt, the band's hiatus was like "a drug addict being cut off and going through the withdrawal. Now, it's back to the drug," he says, adding, "not that we're drug addicts."
"I think it's more like an addict turning around and having this incredible outlook on life that the drugs never gave him," Hess says, expanding on his creative partner's analogy. "For what we've been through, it's obviously important."
Asked about his thoughts during Hess' recovery, Shutt hesitates, searching for the right words. His bandmates fall quiet. "For me, it was pretty hard," he says. "The chance of the dude that I've been writing music with for about six years...kicking, uh, kicking the bucket--"
"Dying!" Hess interjects, breaking the tension and eliciting chuckles.
"I knew for a period that the story was going to be about Casey," Shutt admits. "That's fine. I think it's going to come around now and focus on the music. We certainly don't want to be remembered just as the band with 'that dude who almost died.'"
"We knew if we lost Casey that Doosu would be no more," Shutt admits. What kept the band together during this period of uncertainty was their mutual "love of the music that we make," says Harwell, an elder bandmember at 28. "I know that's why I'm in this band."
"It's rare for someone to go through life and feel as passionate about anything," Hess says. "Especially at the early stage that we started the band."
Now, Harwell says, "We want to be able to make music and pay the rent. We still really want that. We stuck it out for a year--not doing anything, waiting for Casey to recover--and we haven't lost sight of that goal."
Shutt explains more about their current plans. "We've been in Dallas for a while now. It would be stupid for us not to try to bring it to another level, and that's what we're trying to do now," he says. "That level being getting out, touring nationally."
For Doosu, the plan is the same as it's always been, and now it's finally back on track. The band chose to release a six-song EP instead of a full-length album for practical reasons. "Budget-wise, we can't afford to make the full-length album we want," Shutt says. The EP strategy is also meant to give the major labels who've been courting them just "a good taste of what we're about."
Bionic Arms marks a turning point for Doosu. Previously, the band was known for songs that would amble along for a long time, but Bionic Arms features songs that clock in at less than six minutes each. Overall, the musicianship is tighter, and--with its rhythmic, poppy hooks--this Doosu is more accessible and radio-friendly.
Hess and Shutt contribute equally to the album, writing two songs each and collaborating on the other two. Shutt's work is generally "harder," grounded in traditional metal and early punk. The second track, "Bleeding Day," embodies these qualities best. Hess' cuts, while rocking just as hard, tend to be balanced by a melodic, almost spacey quality. A Hess song--such as "Arrow"--is more "pretty," if you will, but every bit as catchy as "Bleeding Day."
"I'm the one in the band that uses technology and effects," Hess says, describing Shutt as the anchor who ensures that Doosu's sound doesn't become too "airy." When the two merge their styles for a collaborative song, the result is either the harder, grinding electric guitar rock of "Clovers" or the spaciness of "Sandquilt," which could be a soundtrack for tripping out--if you're taking a trip that lasts only a little over five minutes.
When the band--now joined by Bob Maloney on keyboards--takes the stage and breaks into its first song, it establishes a level of energy that doesn't let up throughout the hour-long show. Most of the audience in the nearly packed club reacts tirelessly to both new songs and old favorites, as the band's energy and enthusiasm carry them into the late-night hours.
On stage, Shutt and Hess trade off the role of lead vocalist more or less equally. It's fascinating to see how the two singer-songwriter-guitarists share the spotlight, each fronting the band in his own way. Hess is shirtless, the surgery scars barely visible, writhing all over his half of the stage as he strums his guitar. Shutt, wearing the most clothes--he sheds only his jacket halfway through the band's set--heads the band with a calmer, cooler poise.
"I'm the 'brick wall' kind of sound, and Casey is a lot 'bigger,'" Shutt says, attempting to describe the difference between their styles. "But when you put those together--"
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"It's like chocolate and peanut butter," Hess jokes.
"Eric brings rhythm, articulation, and intensity," Harwell says. "Casey brings texture, emotion, and color to the sound. It just fits together."
Hess, however, wants to keep things flexible. "It's easy to pigeonhole Eric as the dude that's eating a steak, going,"--he lapses into an exaggerated, gravelly tone--"'Let's fuckin' rawkk!' and me eating a granola bar, going,"--now Hess switches to a soft, effeminate voice--"'I really think that maybe we should sit and have a prayer before we play...'"
"But you used to drink soy and eat granola," Maloney points out.
"Right, right, I used to do that," Hess admits. "But none of that makes a difference. [Eric] knows melody just as well as I do. We both know how to rock."
Doosu plays the Dark Room Thursday, July 3, and Trees Friday, July 18.