Set to stun

When people see The Deathray Davies walk on stage for the first time, they might be a little puzzled, taken aback, perhaps, by the number of bodies onstage. After all, no one would expect this local pop-rock ensemble to be a sextet, complete with two guitars, bass, drums, keys, and, yes folks, tambourine. (The sight of which, incidentally, prompted one audience member at a recent performance to ponder aloud, "Who's that Afro'd cheerleader guy with the tambourine?") It's especially confusing since both of the group's albums, including the brand-new The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist, are largely the work of one man, John Dufilho.

"It's all about entertaining and charisma," says the cheerleader himself, Kevin Ingle, referring to the group's size.

"It's a big stage presence," adds Dylan Silvers, the band's keyboard player. "With six people on the stage and everybody moving around, you can't go wrong."

But Dufilho, the man behind the band, fesses up to another reason, which sounds more like the real one. "I'm not that comfortable being the center of attention for anything," Dufilho explains. "I kinda like being on the side and having a lot of stuff going on. I'd just as soon people watch everybody else and let me go on singing."

Dufilho's shyness comes as a bit of a surprise, especially considering that he not only fronts The Deathray Davies, but also performs with two other bands, the Hundred Inevitables and Legendary Crystal Chandelier, practically spending as much time on a stage as off. Of course, to say that he fronts Deathray is something of an understatement, since the entire band is his vision and started out as his own small project a year or so ago, originally just some tapes he had recorded with him playing all the instruments. He was in another band at the time (the now-defunct Bedwetter, which also included Deathray bassist Jason Garner on drums), as well as playing in Legendary Crystal Chandelier. Eventually, however, The Deathray Davies replaced Bedwetter, and the songs he was recording added up to a full-length album, last year's Drink With the Grown-Ups and Listen to the Jazz.

Just before last year's installment of the annual South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Dufilho got some friends together (including Garner and guitarist Peter Schmidt, who's still a member of the band) to help him stage the songs that he had recorded. He had been invited to perform on the strength of a tape containing a handful of tracks, before he'd even thought much about playing live. At Emo's on the opening night of the conference, Dufilho (in spite of a nasty stomach virus) performed with Bedwetter and The Deathray Davies. For the latter, it was only their second show.

From that shaky starting point, though, The Deathray Davies have evolved into much more than a side project, says Dufilho. To wit, the $1,000 the group won in the opening round of Lucky Strike's Band to Band Combat contest at Hard Rock Café was distributed evenly. "I think it started as my thing and everybody just kinda helping out, and it's developed into this thing where everybody cares about it," Dufilho says. "It's developing into a real band and less just my project." Ultimately, the band's recent success and widespread critical acclaim have resulted in more opportunities than any of the members could have anticipated even a year ago.

Which, as it turns out, isn't just because the band as it exists now has been together for only about three months. (Silvers and drummer Bill Shupp were the last to join.) The lineup has changed enough times to boggle the mind (or possibly fill out a kickball team), which is indicative of the many successes that Dallas-area musicians have enjoyed in recent months. Each and every current member of The Deathray Davies (and the majority of former members) belongs to at least one other local band, and most of the musicians who left Deathray did so to devote more energy to their other bands. All of the guys in the band now are spreading themselves pretty thin lately, particularly Silvers, whose band [DARYL] also recently released a new record. "I don't sleep enough," he says. "I've been making a lot of sacrifices lately, but it's [for] the enjoyment of playing so much."

In fact, all of the guys express how much they enjoy participating in all of the bands they're involved with. But if you want to watch them squirm, ask about the future: What happens if The Deathray Davies have an opportunity to tour? The various responses to that query can be summed up by Dufilho's answer: "As long as we can make it work."

What that means is that the band will exist as it does as long as the members' other bands--which include Legendary Crystal Chandelier, [DARYL], Stereo Rookie, Crash Vinyl, and the Hundred Inevitables--don't start to suffer as a result of The Deathray Davies' successes. That's the last thing anyone wants, seeing as how the Dallas music scene has really developed into quite a family in recent years. To hear Dufilho tell it, it's pretty much utopian bliss in Deep Ellum. Close enough, anyway.

"There's a really, really cool scene that's happening right now," he says. "There are a lot of bands that are actually helping each other out and not competing against one another. And we're all just good friends as well, you know? It's a pretty geeky club, but it's a good one."

While all of the aforementioned bands have extended themselves as resources to The Deathray Davies, no group has done more for them than the Old 97's. When Rhett Miller and the gang asked The Deathray Davies to come on tour with them earlier this year, it turned out to be the best kind of exposure that Deathray could have hoped for, playing to packed houses up and down the East Coast. The band played in venues as large as New York's Irving Plaza, and every performance was met with great reviews. "We're definitely indebted to them," Dufilho says. "Or thankful."

Looking at all the shows the guys have played and all the work they've put into this band, just to keep it going amid all of their other projects, you can't help but think that they should really be thanking themselves. Apparently, the band's timing made its journey toward recognition an uphill climb, since Dufilho and Garner moved to Dallas from San Antonio during a lull in Dallas' music community. Or, as Dufilho succinctly puts it, "When we moved here, the scene sucked."

Silvers, who's been playing in local bands since he moved to Dallas five years ago, explains it best. "A little bit after all the big bands got signed, and that was right after they [Dufilho and Garner] moved here, everything went to shit for at least a good year," he says. "Not that there weren't good shows, you know; there were bands like Centro-matic around. All the old good bands were still there, but little bands couldn't get started. I mean, it was hard to get a band going and play someplace because none of the clubs would let you play. Man, we were all beggin' to get Tuesday-night slots, and that was just a year ago."

Thanks to the hard work of all the bands on the scene right now, the clubs are once again wide open to budding local musicians. (Well, more than they used to be.) The Deathray Davies have worked the clubs harder than almost anyone else. (Dufilho mentions that the only negative criticism of the band that he's ever read has been in the Dallas Observer, in which it was jokingly implied that Deathray plays too much.) Several members of the Davies have also been making acoustic appearances almost every Sunday night at the Barley House under the pseudonym I Love Math.

"The person who's helped us out really more than anybody else in town is Richard [Winfield] from the Barley," Dufilho says. "He's been awesome to us. And it's great because it's Sunday and it's free, so we don't have to take it too seriously." Despite Dufilho's relaxed attitude, the shows are solid and continue to grow.

All of The Deathray Davies' shows, including the acoustic gigs at the Barley House, draw plenty of people these days, and the fanbase is getting bigger with good reason. The band is always moving, always laughing, and it's obvious that they want to entertain the audience with more than just music when they put on a show. And it's pretty evident that the laid-back mood and the Davies-just-wanna-have-fun atmosphere is what keeps all these sleep-deprived guys committed to the band. For the most part, The Deathray Davies are just out there trying to have a good time, and they keep playing together because the shows continue to be fun and relaxed.

Ingle particularly feels this atmosphere at the Barley shows, which he says are by far the most laid-back. "It's probably the best place to play," he says. "Sunday nights at Barley House, I'm just worried about trying to drink a lot and still shake on time."

Still, what maintains the laid-back atmosphere is the music. With its reliable, playful simplicity, The Deathray Davies sound is that of the British invading a garage, complete with loopy keyboard parts and plenty of distortion. Dufilho says that his main inspiration for this music comes from bands like the Kinks (fronted by the band's namesake, Ray Davies), but he admits that there's an undeniable early-punk undertone as well. "Jason and I were into the Clash, Sex Pistols, all that stuff," Dufilho says of his and Garner's tastes. They've developed them together over the years, playing in Deathray, Bedwetter, and other bands before that, such as Thirteen. "I'd say there's a lot of that influence going on."

With the band's second album, The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist, the diverse influences that contribute to Dufilho's music continue to be apparent, as does his unique creative vision. As with Drink With the Grown-Ups and Listen to the Jazz, all the songwriting on The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist was done by Dufilho. Working with Matt Pence at The Echo Lab in Denton, he also played most of the instruments, save for a song ("The Bitter Old Man Blues") he recorded with Centro-matic's Will Johnson and Pence, and guest appearances by Lindsay Romig and James Henderson. Garner shows up on a handful of tracks as well, and Ingle appears on one, singing about his cat Mr. Red. The entire band (which at the time featured Chomsky's Matt Kellum and Sean Halleck) shows up on the final song, "Chinese Checkers and Devo Records," which Dufilho enjoyed, since he swears this will be the last album that's "just me."

There are, however, some big differences this time. "I actually tried to play tight and sing in tune on this album, so there's a difference there," Dufilho says with a chuckle.

Fans of The Deathray Davies might already know every word to some of the songs on the new album, which features some favorites from the band's frequent live shows, like "Square," "I Put Opium in the Food," and "Clever Found a Name." Each song, with its simple riffs and melodies, will entertain anyone who is familiar with pogoing. It's pop-rock with a garage twist, or as Garner puts it, "zany geek pop."

The recordings reflect the wacky, just-havin'-fun spirit that the Davies embody during the live show. Even the darker tracks, especially "Evaporated," are extremely impressive reflections of what the band is capable of, without departing too much from the energetic sound. "Chinese Checkers and Devo Records," with its unique recording style (it sounds as if someone keeps adjusting the volume knob) and many contributors, ends the album on a definite high note. All in all, the album is impressive, which is what people have come to expect from The Deathray Davies in a pretty short period of time.

"What always surprises me is how much people seem to like it," says the always humble Dufilho, who loves nothing more than to spread the credit around. And despite the added pressure and time commitments of an album release, not to mention the possibility of a few mini-tours in the coming months, none of the other guys shows any signs of backing away, despite their many commitments. Hopefully, this incarnation of The Deathray Davies will stick around for a while, maybe even long enough to head into the studio together. As far as Dufilho is concerned, that's a done deal.

"The next one will be a full band," he promises. "We're already starting to record it. We're raring to go."

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Erin Judge