If you're looking for a definition of what really makes for ambient music, there's no one better than Brian Eno. Ambient music, he says, ”must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” That's not exactly the genre of music that one might look to for an engaging live experience. Yet for the past year, multimedia artists have been pushing the visual and sonic boundaries at the Dallas Ambient Music Night, or DAMN for short.
Cody McPhail noticed a lack of outlets for the genre steeped in minimalism married with an engaging multimedia aspect. “I felt like there was something lacking in my life and one day it came to me: There were no specific showcases for ambient musicians to gather and perform at here in Dallas on a regular basis," he recalls. "I have been making music all of my life and in the last 15 years or so I have been focused on making music inspired by the sounds of Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Tortoise, Kiln, Subotnick and many others.”
DAMN started a little less than a year ago, in January of 2015. This was not McPhail’s first rodeo; he had experience helping to put on a similar night in Austin from 2003 to 2004. According to McPhail, “These shows changed my life and I felt like I couldn't make the same thing happen here in Dallas until recently.” After an inspired performance with the ambient project Waterfalls at Aurora in 2013, he began to set the wheels in motion. At the beginning of this year Dallas Ambient Music Nights was born.
Dallas does not exactly have a reputation for being a hotbed of ambient minimalist outfits, but it turns out there is a bonafide plethora of bedroom acts that had just been waiting for a proper outlet to perform their craft. “In the beginning, I was booking from a wellspring of persons that I knew who were making music I knew would fit in perfectly with the DAMN aesthetic," McPhail explains. "After it caught on that I was putting on shows that were not typical in any genre-centered way, nor was I having dance music as the centerpiece of shows. This brought a ton of bedroom musicians out of the woodwork and they began asking me to book them.”
Labels like Pour Le Corps and Austin’s Holodek both have an impressive list of Texas artists operating in the bliss. When asked how many ambient artists are in the metroplex, McPhail quickly rattles off a series of names. “Derek Rogers, Fond Phantom, Water Falls, Cinema, Atop, Adam Pacione, Black Taffy, Hello! Scenic Dreams!, Ulnae, Wormsign, Thorrific!, Melting Season, Science Fictions, Triangulum, Gin Hell, oldsol, Apocrypha, Moth Face, Kent Evans, Joshua Westerman, the Tiniest Lightbulb, Wire Nest, the Owl & the Octopus, Chad Mossholder, Sean Miller, Black Dolphin, Martin Back, Self Portrait," he says. "I am forgetting people but that is off the top of my head."
It's an impressive list that implies that there may be more going on here than just a monthly event. The DAMN events are ushering in a bonafide niche music scene. Evan Henry (a contributor to the Dallas Observer) has been using his Dallas Distortion Music label to release compilations on cassette of some of the artists featured at DAMN. “DAMN V.1 and DAMN V.2 feature work from Black Taffy, whom is Donovan Jones of This Will Destroy You, myself under the name ATOP, Brian Tomerlin and Derek Rogers,” elaborates McPhail. The third compilation will be out at this week’s ninth DAMN event at the Black Lodge on Saturday, featuring selections from Fond Phantom and Martin Black.
The multimedia element of the DAMN events ties the whole live experience together, bringing a visual element to an otherwise low-key live performance. McPhail explains, “Film is a big passion of mine. Music is first but they go hand in hand in my mind. If you are listening to music you are either looking at something or have your eyes closed. Both produce a dual effect of visual and sonic fusion, which is great therapy.”
DAMN has provided an outlet for a growing number of multimedia artists operating out of DFW. Video artists like Sean Miller, Michael Morris, Brian Tomerlin, Evan Henry, Samantha Gibble, John Barker and Thor Johnson all produce completely different styles on screen, but their personalities are in the work and the process. Not stopping at video to accompany the ambient music, McPhail explains, “We have also been employing visual physical art at the showcases. Artists like Ali De Vito, Thor Johnson and Janeth Davalos have been showing their beautiful work at the last three DAMNs and I love having the element of permanence that physical art inherently has, along with the temporary nature of live shows. A good balancing act within the showcase gives it extra depth.”
Since its inception, DAMN has moved around to different venues almost every month. Always being at a new space brings an added level of mystique to the event. “DAMN moves in order to try and find the perfect space," McPhail says. "I have found a few spots that I love, but they are not perfect for what I want DAMN to be. I will keep changing venues until I am at least 80 percent pleased with how the showcase interacts with the location. That will be as perfect as I think we can get. I am aiming high and want to put on a Dallas Ambient Music Nights in the Dallas Arts District. Perhaps at the Meyerson?”
A lofty goal, but not out of the question considering how consistently well received these events have been.