Features Interviews

A Golden Sky: In Conversation with Damon & Naomi – Part 1

We talk to Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang about lockdown, songwriting, and their fantastic new album, ‘A Sky Record’.

In 1991, following the end of the influential Galaxie 500, Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski, and Naomi Yang moved on swiftly in search of new terrains; Wareham eventually going on to form dream pop ensemble, Luna, while Krukowski and Yang would forge the memorable songwriting alliance as Damon & Naomi.

Having met at high school in New York, Krukowski and Yang went on to attend Harvard University, and maintaining a partnership extending beyond music (Yang a filmmaker, Krukowski a poet; together they run their own label, 20/20/20), on the surface and merely observing from afar, their partnership strikes a similarity with another from the pantheon of alternative rock: Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker.

Since the end of Galaxie 500, the Cambridge-based couple have embarked on an ethereal journey that has spawned landmark releases such as More Sad Hits (1992), The Wondrous World of Damon & Naomi (1995), and many others.

Along the way, Krukowsi and Yang drafted in Michio Kurihara of Japanese experimentalists, Ghost; a band Damon & Naomi collaborated with in 2000, releasing the With Ghost LP.

Kurihara is virtuoso personified. Possessing an unrivalled range of sound, as well as his endeavours in Ghost, Kurihara has provided those notable, thick sheets of noise for Tokyo drone exponents, Boris; the height of that particularly collaboration reaching fever pitch with 2006’s Rainbow.

On A Sky Record, Damon & Naomi’s stunning new album, Kurihara’s involvement is paramount. With Krukowski, Yang, and Kurihara fortunate enough to record together in Japan prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, A Sky Record feels like a better album for the experience.

Filled with Yang’s contemplative lyricism and Krukowski distinct melodies, Kurihara’s gorgeous dreamscapes breathe new life into these songs.

A Sky Record is not only the record that best defines what most of us have experienced during the pandemic. After thirty years of making music together, Damon & Naomi have produced their best record yet.

It’s an album that provides a newfound homespun warmth. Modest yet rich with pastoral textures that arc and linger (The Gift, Season Without Time, The Aftertime), it’s music that provides gentle brushstrokes across the canvass, absorbing the darkness of the past 18 months and creating something that imbues hope.

To talk to Krukowski and Yang is a memorable experience, and one since Sun 13’s inception that has been the most satisfying. Speaking via Zoom mid-way through last month, the pair are affable, obliging, and undoubtedly funny, with conversation going off on tangents beyond the realms of music and art.

Due to its length, we have decided to run this feature in two parts.

Space and Time: In Conversation with Pile’s Rick Maguire

Sun 13: A Sky Record feels like the quintessential lockdown record. Was it all written and recorded during lockdown?

Naomi Yang: “No, actually we started it before. We started [it], like, 2018, or early 2019. We intended to finish it in 2020, so it started in the normal world (laughs). And then it just happened to be finished in the middle of this insane world we’re living in now, so it definitely was influenced by it.

“We’d already had a sense of wanting to do something, to us, that felt a little different before this happened, and then I think it was almost like the whole lockdown thing underscored the mood we were in already, which was to try and do something that was kind of peaceful and gentle.”

Damon Krukowski: “But you’re right, because the lyrics were written in lockdown. The lyrical content was post-pandemic.”

NY: “Yeah, that’s true.”

S13: The title feels two fold. Like, it really does feel like a sky record, that floating, dreamy feeling. But it was inspired by the German label, Sky Records, wasn’t it?

DK: “Yes, exactly. So I don’t know if you know the label, but it was a German label in the ’70s that had a lot of the kind of krautrock stars recorded for it, but post their band records. So these are like solo and side projects, after Neu! had broken up; Can no longer had their original line-up. So it was people from that scene, making records, but the records are instrumental. So that’s different than ours, of course. But they were very… they have a certain ambient quality to them. They collaborated with [Brian] Eno who worked on some of those records on Sky.

“They’re not ambient in the classic sense of ambient records, but they do come from that same period, and they have kind of like, rock band people making a more relaxing kind of feel. They were recorded in the countryside rather than city. And they have this sort of outdoorsy back-to-the-land ’70s quality. So yeah, we were listening to those a lot.”

NY: “We were really enjoying them. Even before the whole pandemic and lockdown happening, we were living in the world of Donald Trump, and so much strife and chaos, so when we were thinking about the record, we were taking a lot of comfort in these Sky Records. Our music tends to be fairly slow and introspective, but there was always a certain amount of angst, I think. At least for us, in a lot of the lyric and a lot of the sometimes… so, so sad. (laughs)

“We were sort of like, ‘The world doesn’t need more of that right now’. So when we started thinking about this record, and listening to the Sky Records, we were like, ‘Let’s make something that’s really peaceful, that brings some comfort, maybe’. And that was the idea. Then everything got even crazier, but that was the idea of the record. We literally said, ‘The world doesn’t need our angst because there’s so much going on already’.”

DK: “But we don’t make instrumental music, really. So we knew eventually we would have to sing, as well. We didn’t really know what direction that…”

NY: “We like singing”.

DK: “Yeah.”

NY: “Even though we love listening to instrumental music (laughs), we weren’t going to give that up. But it was like, ‘How do you make something with that feel that allows for singing and allows for lyric?’”

DK: “Yeah, ’cause the Sky Records don’t have that, so the title was literally like, ‘What if we made a Sky Record? What if we were making our record and sending it to them as a demo?’ Or if they’d said, ‘Would you make us a record?’ What would we hand in? That was kind of like the assignment.”

Wild Fire: In Conversation with Steve Von Till

S13: Talking about that chaos, Naomi, the line that jumped out was during the song, The Gift. ‘Shape things that you can change / Nothing need stay the same / Cherish the simple joys’. I think that feels like the biggest message from the record.

NY: “I literally was writing that as last spring was happening, and everything was just kind of… we were all being asked to make our world smaller and smaller, and this sort of became apparent to all of us [that] this isn’t just going to be over next week. It was sort of how do you respond?”

S13: I guess with that message, and the fact that our lives individually have shrunken to the point of more simplicity, we’ve had time to reassess our own lives and reflect. Moving forward, do you think there’s a bigger chance of people finding their centralised core?

NY: “That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? I mean, it’d be wonderful if something came out of all this besides tragedy. [To Damon] You were talking to someone that was saying it was almost like a pause?

(Damon can’t remember at this point)

“I mean, it’s definitely been interesting to talk to people who say things like, ‘I can’t go back to the way I was doing things before’. I don’t know, it’s changing, but of course, you have to have a certain amount of desire to change things. And a capacity for being introspective (laughs). No, I mean, I would hope…”

DK: “Yeah, but I do think there’s a lot of positive things that are coming out of this. I can’t remember who said that to us about the pause, but the sense of it was, everyone felt very much on a track. Speaking about the U.S. and the situation we were going through, and part of the solution that seemed to just be like, ‘Keep pushing forward’.”

NY: “I think it was our new neighbours.”

DK: “Oh, that’s right, It was!”

NY: “We were having outdoor brunch to welcome some new neighbours.”

DK: “Yeah, that’s right. And they were saying that they and their friends, they’re younger than we are, and they’re sort of like, in first flush of their careers and having babies and that kind of thing. And they were saying they felt like people were very into their own thing. Like, ‘I’m just gonna take care of myself, and get the best house, and get the career the best I can’.

“And then suddenly, everyone was thrown into their community, ironically, by the pandemic. So yes, we were each isolated, but on the other hand, we’re each isolated somewhere, and with a very small circle that we could still reach to. And so they were saying that they felt like a lot of their friends suddenly focused on their very immediate community, and started to think, ‘I need to have a better community, I need to contribute, and I need to be somewhere that I can feel good about that’. And that’s very, very helpful.”

NY: “It’s kind of like the think global act local.” (laughs)

DK: “Yeah.”

Damon & Naomi - A Sky Record

S13: Once again, Michio Kurihara features. The aesthetic of the album reminds me of that song he released from Sunset Notes, A Boat of Courage. Your record gives that same kind of uplifting feeling. How much input did he have to the overall shaping of A Sky Record?

DK: “Yeah, huge. As always, when we work with him, we collaborate as much as possible. And actually, when we first found the Sky Records that we were listening to…

NY: “Oh, our cat’s walking over our keyboard…”

(All laugh)

DK: “…We told him about them because I thought he would love the Michael Rother records, in particular. He made a bunch of Sky Records, and Kurihara loved them. So he was thinking about these records, too.”

NY: “As we were starting to write, we were telling him, ‘This is what we are thinking of, and this is our plan, and this is our hope for the record’. He always wants to know what our vision is for a song, and then we just let him do what he does. But he always wants to respond, like, ‘Well, what were you thinking of? What’s the lyric of this? What’s the melody? What’s this about?’ Because he really likes to have something specific as he shapes what he’s going to do.”

DK: “And then there was a very specific connection to Sunset Notes, which is that we recorded all his parts at the same studio [where] he made that album in Tokyo, and that’s the first time we got to do that. Usually Kuri’ comes here to our home, and we record here in the house, and we’ve made records with him that same way, going back 20 years.”

NY: “He uses the amp that’s here. His amp lives here, as he can only bring a certain amount of equipment on the plane. In Tokyo, he had access to all his own equipment, and also the studio, Peace Music, has an enormous collection of beautiful, old equipment that we don’t even know what it is.” (laughs)

DK: “Well, it’s effects pedal. It is literally like a museum. An effects pedals museum.”

S13: Wow.

DK: “It’s amazing. So [Soichiro] Nakamura, who is the engineer and owner of the studio, Peace Music, is an old friend of Kurihara’s. They’ve recorded many many projects [together], including his solo album, and Nakamura collects vintage effects. So he and Kuri’ could speak to each other and think about each sound that they wanted [for] each part and use Kuri’s own collection and also Nakamura’s.”

NY: “They were having discussions about each sound that Kuri’ was putting down, which is not something that we can do with Kuri’ here because we just don’t know enough about all the subtleties of effects pedals and guitars.”

DK: “When it comes to that, we’re just fans. We sound so ridiculous. He’ll be like, ‘Should I do it this way?’ We were like, ‘They both sound great’. (laughs). We’re so useless in that regard.”

NY: “He could have a long conversation. They’re like, ‘Well, if I adjust it this way… ’ We don’t know what they were saying, it was in Japanese. We were like, ‘Okay, this one! It sounds awesome!’”

DK “We were just sitting on the couch. You know, like, ‘Yeah, sounds great!’

NY: “Yeah. But there is that connection to Sunset Notes because it was recorded at the same studio.”

DK: “Literally, the same studio, same amp, Kuri’s own amp and Nakamura’s engineering, which was wonderful. So the rest of the album was recorded the way we always record. Our parts were all done here in our home. Before we went to Japan, we put down keyboard and a rhythm acoustic guitar, that’s how we always start our recordings. That’s the rhythm track, and then the very next thing that happened was we went to Japan.”

NY: “We also write the melodies.”

DK: “Without lyrics. So we had guide vocals that are like, ‘La la la’. You know our songs, not ‘La la la’ more like, ‘Ahhhh’.”

(All laugh)

NY: “It’s very important for Kurihara to have the melodies because he’s very careful about where he places his guitar, he never wants to be stomping on the singing, and he wants it to be kind of beautiful. And then when he hears, he can open up.”

DK: “Right. So those were locked down. We sent that over for him to listen to and prepare. And then we were in Japan for a tour. So this is right before lockdown; it was November 2019. We’d been invited to a small festival that got us over there, and we played a couple club shows with Kurihara as a trio. Then we spent an extra week and stayed and just went into Peace Music every day. And Kuri’ put down all his electric guitar parts. So that was very fortunate timing, because then, you know, two months later would have just been unthinkable. But instead, two months later, we were home with all his parts done. Because we couldn’t prepare a tour, we just kept adding overdubs here at home.”

Damon & Namoi (photo credit: Trevor Smith)

NY: “And working on the lyrics, which definitely was harder than it has ever been before, because we had no lyrics, and then all of a sudden, we were in the middle of a pandemic. It was like, ‘Well, now what do you write about?’ We didn’t want to write about our petty troubles. But of course, we wanted it to be an entire record, like we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so it was weird. It was like a balance. You want to say something meaningful, but we’re not thinking about anything else, but you don’t want to only write about this. It was really hard to figure out what to write. The right tone, I guess.”

DK: “We were blocked for a long time. We couldn’t imagine how to finish the record. So we just kept adding instrumental overdubs. I think it was healthy, because we had something to do and I think the record got richer for it. But we didn’t know what to say over it. And then Naomi kind of had a breakthrough, then it all fell together really quickly.”

S13: Well, I’d say How I Came to Photograph Clouds is one the best song you’ve written…

DK: “Oh, thank you so much. That’s a sleeper.”

NY: (Laughs)

DK: “I feel like people are starting to notice that now. We didn’t emphasise it on release. But I’m seeing that happen on social media and stuff.”

S13: Do you remember how the song came about?

DK “That is really interesting. It was actually the first track we made for the record. In its original version, it was us pretending to be a Sky Record.”

NY: “Truly. We were like, ‘Let’s pretend we’re in that.'”

DK: “So what didn’t make it to the final edit is, like, a minute long preamble to where the song sort of starts. That was me and Naomi…”

NY: “It was like five minutes longer. We were like, ‘This was so great’.” (laughs)

DK: “It was just like jamming with each other.”

NY: “And like, so pleased.” (laughs)

DK: “Totally like, you know, ‘Imagine we really were Germany, recording with Conny Plank and just this instrumental drone-y thing’. We put this down, and we were so pleased. That was the first thing we did. Then we slowly came to realise that it was unlistenable.”

(All laugh)

NY: “In our mind, it was perfect!”

DK: “Yeah, so anyway, it had this long drone thing. And then this song happened out of it, so ultimately, we cut the drone, but it survives in the weird bridge in the middle, then in the weird outro. So it has this weird, knotty structure to it, but it really was the basis of the whole album. Then it became the song that we had so much trouble with, but was always the last we could complete at each stage. Every stage, down to the mix. It was like hardest to mix, the hardest to do everything for, so I’m really happy you like that.”

NY: “I think it was the last lyric.”

DK: “It was the last everything! And I think that’s probably why we didn’t emphasise it on release. It was like, ‘Arggh that song’.” (laughs).

NY: “That’s Susanne’s favourite song, too.”

DK: “Yeah, it’s funny. It’s definitely a sleeper.”

NY: “A friend of ours [Susanne Sasic] that has a credit. She actually did the photographs on the album cover. My friend who came with us to Japan. She has a very exacting taste in everything.”

DK: “Yeah, it’s hard to impress Susanne. So yeah, it’s a badge of honour. I’m really happy to hear that. Maybe we should give it more life? Maybe we should start to re-push that song, because I think we gave it short shrift, because it gave us so much trouble.”

Constant World: In Conversation with Matt Christensen – Part 1

S13: Yeah. And it’s the penultimate, as well. So you’ve got the big hitters out of the way, then this track comes in and it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ It got me thinking. There aren’t too many penultimate tracks that are my favourite…

NY: (Laughs)

DK: “Yeah, it’s something that [Masaki] Bato from Ghost, told us. By example, you don’t want to finish with the biggest number. You always want to have something after that. I’ve heard him do that both live and on record many, many times. It’s a very attractive thing to do. Even sequencing that song was very hard to put on the album, because it sort of takes up a lot of room, and it’s loud. It’s the loudest one on the album, literally, like when we’re mastering, I warned the mastering engineer that that was the loudest part and we wanted it to be the loudest point. But it’s sort of like, ‘Okay, but then where do you go from there’ And Bato’s example has always been very important. You finish big, then you continue. So that’s why it’s penultimate; it’s that sort of feeling that takes up the most space, you’ve also got to follow.”

Read Part 2 here.

A Sky Records is out now via 20-20-20. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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