Everything about Sam Damask’s solo project is DYI, but as he's an established musician and engineer, the term might not apply to him. Damask is a longtime bassist who first started playing blues jams escorted by his father at age 13. On Friday, he made his debut at Trees as Grand Commander, his stage name — or else a one-man band in which he plays all parts — with the sole company of a double-neck bass and guitar.
For his project's first video, for "Bad Bad Rabbit," Damask envisioned a courtroom tale in stop motion animation, and set out to learn the craft himself. The single, which rumbles along the tracks of progressive-rock guitar solos, was inspired by the highest courts of public opinion.
”I wanted to make a story about the bewilderment you feel when you’re wrongfully accused by someone whose mind you can’t change,” Damask says.
The video is the result of Damask’s tenacious and lonesome labor, which entailed months spent poring over online tutorials, rifling through the internet for figurines, and learning how to laser-cut and work with wood, followed by two months of filming while practically locking himself (while half-nude) in a storage unit.
Damask opens the unit’s door on the second floor of an Addison storage space to reveal the remnants of what appears like a miniature Tim Burton movie: a table held up by brick in the middle of a dark room, next to a rail of varying species of animal figurines and baroque set pieces.
“I wanted to do it in isolation,” he says of the shoot. “The thought of hiring anyone to do any of it never entered my mind.”
He explains the tedious detail-heavy process of making stop motion animation, which is achieved by taking a series of pictures.
“At first it looks like a middle schooler’s art project,” he says.
Damask studied finance in college in Dallas, and went to Boston University for electrical engineering, where he was more interested in teaching himself how to mix and play guitar. He received a science grant to build a neutron detector and used part of his stipend money in the pursuit of art to pay for a rehearsal space. On the weekends, Damask worked at a repair shop that paid him in musical gear, and he amassed enough of it to start his own studio.
Damask runs his “side hustle,” as he calls his home studio, out of his bedroom. His album was a particularly reclusive solo project — written, recorded, engineered and mixed in his bedroom. Damask welcomes the opportunity to exercise self-discipline.
“It’s not money, it’s not a trust thing,” he says of his autonomy. “I look back on the musical situations I’ve been in, and there were always excuses or reasons why something didn’t work, so I wanted to start something where I didn’t have anybody to use as an excuse; it’s all on me.”
The name Grand Commander has no political connotation for Damask.
“I saw the name in wings,” he says of his band logo. “It kind of got my imagination going. It sounded like a superhero, and I was looking for a name representative of a stage presence with larger-than-life personalities, like Kiss or AC/DC.”
In the last decade, Damask has been part of Magnatite, as well as Little Brian, a Denton-based instrumental band of 11 or so members who wore hazmat costumes while playing a cross-section of funk and metal. At the moment, he says, he’s not interested in revisiting costumes, but he considers it for a quick twinkle-eyed moment before changing the subject to his new synthesizer, which he built out of a Super Nintendo controller to mount on his guitar.
Damask describes his songs as “funk-art rock with some folky songs.”
“The point of Grand Commander is that I can do whatever I want,” he says. “It’s concept-based art-rock, sometimes funky, sometimes folky.
“I went down a YouTube spiral — it was one of those nights,” he says of the images that informed the video’s narrative. “I kind of always had these scenes in my head, and I was tired of it being just in my imagination.”
He calls his vision for the band “the meeting point between slapstick humor, action movies and absurd surrealistic comedy.”
“It seems like that’s a luxury afforded by the technological world we live in,” Damask says, in reference to the DIY nature of his art. “I can do this stuff because there are huge communities of people making tutorials so I can do it myself.”
Damask remembers an incident that took place a month before he’d concluded filming, when the storage unit management nearly shut down his set. He had been given a power converter after explaining his project to a manager and was unaware that he was breaking the rules of storage renting by working inside the unit — sometimes for 10 hours at a time, in order to evade the risk of the camera shifting in his absence and upsetting the precision required for the technique.
On a particularly sweltering day, he took his shirt off while at work on the video, when a regional manager walked in to his unit and imagined that his lower half — covered by the table — was also bare, and there he was playing with little toys and a camera.
“The guy sees lights,” Damask remembers. “He sees the camera, and he freaks out and tells me I have 48 hours to get out.”
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He sorted it out with the location manager, however.
“She said, ‘Yeah [the other manager] thought that you were dancing naked,’ and I told her, ‘Look, I’m just moving rabbit figurines around; it’s the furthest thing from a porno.”
Damask isn’t planning on doing more stop-motion animation for a while. Instead, his next video, he says, “will be 100 percent in virtual reality, created in a 3D space.”
“Grand Commander is the part of me I don’t get to share with the world on a daily basis,” Damask says. “The crazy ideas that make you chuckle, that someone would think you’re nuts. I feel like I have an absurd imagination and I just want to give it a voice, and now I can make songs out of it, like finding spiritual enlightenment out of a rabbit temple brethren.”