Michael Dean Damron. Photo by Jocelyn Dean.
If you know the name Michael Dean Damron, it's likely because you've witnessed one of his raunchy, sweat-drenched, politically charged tirades as frontman for raucous cowpunk outfit I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House. Even if you didn't agree with, or understand, half of the gospel he was spouting, you probably appreciated the fervor with which he delivered it.
Though that band has been more-or-less defunct since 2005 and the tone of Damron's solo records has been a tad subtler, his message continues to carry the same bald-faced honesty. If Damron's old group could be likened to a loud-as-hell muscle car with a souped-up engine and flames painted down the sides, then his solo work is more like a trusty old pick-up truck with a modest look but plenty of power.
Talking with Damron on the phone from his home in Portland, it's obvious that he misses his old band in a lot of ways, but it's not because he wants to go back in time. It's more like the yearnings of a lonely wanderer who'd rather make his own way than compromise his standards.
“There's chemistry there, and if you can't find that kind of chemistry with other people, it's kind of destined to fail,” Damron says. “It's been, like, four years now, and I've yet to find that with anybody. That's why when you find that thing, it's really magical. It's almost like finding a wife or falling in love. It's really hard to capture.”
Three albums deep into his solo career, Damron sounds fairly comfortable with where he is, and his songs can still pack a serious emotional wallop even though most are mellower, singer-songwriter fare indebted to greats like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and David Allen Coe.
“I really like where I'm at, just being a songwriter. It's a whole different world, but I feel comfortable in it,” he says. “Everything in that band [ICLASOBITH] was shrouded behind noise and politics. I'm not as pigeonholed, and I think it's opened me up a bit.”
To say his old band wore its politics on its sleeve would be an understatement, and Damron sounds like a man who's grown tired of raging against the machine. He says it became akin to banging his head against a brick wall every night.
“I got tired of the politics a long time ago,” he says. “It just keeps going down the drain, and you can only scream and bitch and shout about things for so long when nothing really gets accomplished. It's maddening after years and years, and I don't think anything's changed. I think Barack [Obama] is doing some good stuff, but Goldman Sachs gave him a shit-ton of money, too, so where do you draw the line of who's a criminal?”
The songs on Damron's latest, 2009's Father's Day, take on issues just as heavy but of a more introspective nature. The title track and much of the album is a somewhat paradoxical tribute to his late father, who had a dark, abusive side but also qualities that Damron says he learned from and wanted to honor. The title-track tells the story of a tortured man who still knew well enough to warn his son not to follow him down the dark path.
“My dad was a total paradox. He was abusive but he was also very beautiful and a good man at the same time,” says Damron. “So, it's kind of a tribute, and, in a weird way, saying ‘Thank you' for being so hard on me because that made me who I am.”
Damron even fearlessly takes on a cover of Van Zandt's “Waiting Around to Die” and manages to make it just as haunting and stoic as the original, with his desperate vocal rasp and whining harmonica accented by lonely acoustic strums. It might be because Damron actually had the chance to spend some time with Van Zandt during his younger days.
“When I was living in Dallas, Texas, back in the '90s, I got to see Townes at the bar I worked at many times, and I actually got to sit down and shoot the shit with him a couple times,” Damron recounts. “He reminded me of my dad—like, physically and structurally. He looked like my dad and reminded me a lot of him in other ways. So I was really stoked to be able to put that song on the record and tie it all in.”
Father's Day finds Damron applying his usual thick layer of brutal honesty but to a bit more uplifting end. “Angels Fly Up” takes a hard look at death, questions a higher power's willingness to allow the world's suffering and ultimately finds comfort in every person's common burden of mortality.
Did he set out to exorcise some of his own demons?
“Maybe,” Damron acknowledges. “I can always conjure that stuff back up in my head, but I definitely think everybody should try to redeem themselves before they check out of this world. But I don't think it's morbid at all. I think it's just another part of life and a culmination of all of your experiences. It doesn't matter who you are, wealthy or poor or whatever, everybody has to cross that bridge. I'm just trying to find the beauty in it so it goes down easier.”
Michael Dean Damron plays with Chad Price and Micah Schnabel on Saturday, May 1, at Radio Room. www.myspace.com/michaeldeandamron.