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A Golden Sky: In Conversation with Damon & Naomi – Part 2

In the second part of our two part feature, the Cambridge-based pair about talk about John Cage, Cocteau Twins, and more.

A week after publishing the first part of our two part conversation with Damon Krukowsi and Naomi Yang of Damon & Naomi (and formerly of Galaxie 500) like all records, the pair’s latest oeuvre, A Sky Record, continues to bring light and shed new skins, revealing more and more with each listen.

It’s essentially what all great records do, with A Sky Record most certainly among the finest releases in 2021.

During this second part of the feature, we begin by discussing the ideas behind the stunning booklet that accompanies A Sky Record.

Featuring musings from Glasgow-based experimentalist Richard Youngs, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, chief collaborator, Michio Kurihara, lighting/ production designer and photographer, Susanne Sasic and more, in many ways, A Sky Record wouldn’t be what it is without the accompanying 48-page booklet.

For those who missed the first part of this feature, you can catch up via the link below.

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

S13: Talking about the photography, and I want to talk about the booklet, but first I wanted to ask you about the cover art. It’s the kind where you look at it and think, straightaway, ‘This is going to be a great record’.

(All laugh)

Naomi Yang: “I’m going to tell Susanne that.”

S13: What was the inspiration behind the photograph?

NY: “Well, you know, when you have something called A Sky Record, immediately there’s some very obvious things to do. The question to me was like, ‘Well, do you put a picture of sky or clouds? Or do you ignore it?’ Susanne had taken these wonderful photos on that tour, and this show that we played in this small town in the north, called Tsuruga.

“Damon and I were rehearsing and getting ready for the show, and Susanne was free to just walk around. She takes fantastic photographs, and she just took the most beautiful photographs of this rather strange town that has this desolate feeling, but it’s also still a working town. It wasn’t like a decaying town, but it sort of felt lost, like preserved in time.

“I love those photographs, and she had this one photograph that had a little bit of sky peeking through, but it wasn’t only a picture of a sky. And that trip had meant a lot to us, because it was when we got to record with Kuri’, so it had a lot of resonance, those photographs that she took. They have this cloud peeking through and this little square of blue sky. So there’s sky in it, but not in an obvious way.

“I thought it was good, because it was really sort of a graphic design question. The problem like, ‘Well, how do you approach something that’s so literal? It’s the name of the album, it’s of something you know, without?’ You do an image search and you find a million pictures of clouds, but I just felt like everyone would look at it and forget about the cover, because it would be like you’ve seen it a million times already. So it was like, ‘How can you incorporate that without being obvious?”

Damon Krukowski: “The town is an incredible place. The reason we were there and it had a lot of power for us, too, which isn’t really explicit in the record, but that town is where my father as a child arrived as a refugee from Europe. My father was born in Poland, Jewish family, and escaped during World War Two, and they went east. They went over the Soviet Union by rail, and then they went to Japan, then eventually to the US, which is why I was born here. And that little town…”

NY: “…There was like a real escape.”

DK: “Classic survivor story. And most of the family was killed, but his nuclear family survived, and where they got to when they finally got out of Europe was this town, because it’s a small town, but it was the main port facing the Soviet Union. The boats that come from Vladivostok, that’s where they land. It’s a port city.”

NY: “So while the refugees from Europe that were able to escape through Japan landed in that town.”

DK: “The town is very aware of this and celebrates its heritage as a place where refugees arrived. They all left immediately, because there’s nothing to do there; they all went on to bigger cities, and then out of the country.”

NY: “And that was part of it. It was a transit visa. So it wasn’t like Japan, saying, ‘Oh, come and live here’.”

DK: “Yeah, nobody stayed there, they all passed through. And the town’s very aware of it has a little museum for it, and the festival. The reason we were invited, there was a festival in this tiny little town in honour of this aspect of it being a route. The organisers learned that my family was connected to this, so they invited us to play, so we were there because of this. And so, for me, it was a real amazing visit. The town hasn’t changed.”

NY: “Now it looks sort of like ’70s, early ’80s.”

DK: “Physically, it’s amazing. It’s not like skyscraper Japan. It’s like lost in time provincial, nothing’s changed, or little has changed. And so, I went to the dock, there’s only one dock where these boats land! I put my back to the sea, and it was like, I was seeing what my grandfather and grandmother and my father and his little sister saw, arriving in 1940. It blew my mind. So that was the other thing behind these photographs that Susanne took. She was also documenting this experience we had of this town.”

S13: So there’s a whole lineage of all these different scenarios coming together throughout this record?

DK: “Yeah, exactly.”

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S13: So the accompanying booklet was a really good idea. Very much outside the box…

NY: “It was so frustrating to us. The idea that the record was going to be released, and it was just going to be nothing. [A] digital only release is just like, ‘Where is it?’ I don’t know, maybe it’s just being older, where you’re like, ‘I want something physical’.  (laughs)

“We were talking about it and the whole crisis of how hard it is to press vinyl now in a timely way. But all these other printers can just do it. I was like, ‘If we had to print a book, we would just send it out and get it back. Why don’t we make a book? Let’s make liner notes, or extensive liner notes that you would get if you were doing a deluxe version of LP’. But there’s no LP right now, and there’s no way anything else is physical.

“But it was actually really fun, because we did collaboratively, so it was great that even though we were doing it all virtually, we got to collaborate with people in order to put that together. So we asked Susanne for a portfolio of her photos from Tsuruga, and we asked other people who had been with us along the way of the journey to making this record to contribute.”

DK: “But it was a little bit like doing the boxset reissue of an album that wasn’t out yet. You know what I mean?”

S13: I like the idea. It’s good for a retrospective aspect, but from a new record point of view, it’s so forward-thinking, and it should happen, because there are people out there who still love physical product, as opposed to the current Spotify culture that’s enveloping music and art.

NY: “We printed it really beautifully, so we could get lavished attention on it.”

DK: “Yeah, it was really fun. We would never have been able to do it if we’d been making the LP on time.”

NY: “We would never of thought to spend the money on it.”

DK: “It basically cost the same as producing an LP. There’s just no LP inside. So it’s kind of like the dream booklet. Like, if we were top of the charts, like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass or something you can put a big booklet inside. We’ve never had that opportunity except with boxsets, so it was really fun to do.”

Damon & Naomi - A Sky Record

S13: Back to when you were in Galaxie 500 up to now. Do you remember your main creative challenges at the beginning and have they changed over time?

DK: “That’s really great. I feel like the main creative challenge at the beginning was to make anything sound okay (laughs). I think we don’t really rely on exactly what’s worked before. This is the funny thing that happens in a band; I think you can see this happen to many bands that have any measure of success. Not that Galaxie 500 was such a huge success, but we got our share of attention and good reviews. There’s a big temptation to just keep doing that exact same thing, because the industry is very happy with that, the audience is happy with it, or a certain segment of the audience, and you can grow everything commercially that way. So it’s like, ‘Write another Tugboat. Just do that again!’ We’ve always resisted that, which has made commercial life a little difficult for us, but I feel like it’s always put us back in that same challenge.”

NY: “Although some people do the opposite. Some people make it completely different every time, right? Some people make giant leaps.”

DK: “That’s pretty rare. Yes, there are exceptions.”

NY: “I feel like, for me, the biggest creative challenge was actually really taking music seriously, because it was so much fun. (laughs) I wanted to be a painter, and I felt like that was real art, because it was so hard.”

DK: “It made you happy. That was part of it.”

NY: “I mean, a lot of times the music is challenging and hard, like writing lyrics. But I feel like the transformation for me was actually integrating music into a full artistic life; like, all this counts. So I feel like, for probably the whole time we were in Galaxie 500, I didn’t believe it was… it was too fun to really be art.

“After Galaxie 500 had ended, Damon and I had the good fortune to meet the composer, John Cage, because we were pushing some of his writings. We went to his loft in New York to meet him and it was so exciting. We were talking to him about the book that we were going to publish and talking about what the cover should be, then at one point he said, ‘Oh, are you musicians?’ And we both didn’t answer.”

DK: (Laughs) “We couldn’t say yes and we couldn’t say no!”

NY: “Galaxie 500 was over! We have all these records behind us and all this touring, but it’s like, we were there with John Cage, and it was like, ‘What’s the answer? Does that count? Does that count as music?'”

(All laugh)

DK: “Yeah, exactly.”

NY: “But we couldn’t say, ‘It was just band’, we think he must have thought we were like idiots, because we we’re both tongue tied. But, now, I would say yes, but at the time I felt so ambivalent about taking what we did seriously, because it was fun. I feel like that was an enormous creative challenge at the time.

“Everything has been that way, like integrating my photography or integrating all these things as like, ‘Well, it’s not like there’s one thing’. They all are about making things and it’s trying to communicate and share things with people, and maybe bring something to other people or something that I’ve enjoyed in other people’s works; that would be the most wonderful thing. People could get something out of what we do, like the way when we listen to a Sky Record or a record we love; you feel like it transforms you. It’s a funny idea, because the challenge at first was to take it seriously.”

DK: “This is similar to what I was trying to express, but I don’t feel it’s ever been about taking it seriously, but…”

NY: “…Not taking it seriously. I mean, I always think about when we were on tour with the Cocteau Twins, some of the biggest audiences that we played in front of for Galaxie 500, and it was like, ‘Is this… am I making art? What is this?”

DK: “You were miserable. Because you just said how fun it was, now we’re like picking out the lowest of the low.” (laughs)

NY: (Laughs) “Well, no, but I mean, it felt too easy. All right. I guess I can’t answer your question. Like it was convoluted answer.” (laughs)

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DK: “If I were to try and analyse your answer, because you picked out a moment when the commercial situation that we were facing in the industry was really, really terrible. Major labels were approaching us, and there was this whole world of the music industry that was different than we knew.”

NY: “I guess that wasn’t fun. It was like you were just a number. How much are you going to sell?”

DK: “How much you’re worth, you know? And how can we make you worth more? I mean, literally, like people [were] crawling out of the woodwork and showing up backstage. Like, what can we do?”

NY: “There was like this whole frenzy, right before Nirvana hit. It was a crazy frenzy where everyone, all of a sudden, wanted an indie band.”

DK: “Yeah. So it’s like, all this whole new cast of characters showed up.”

NY: “That was sort of the flipside of, ‘Is this making art?'”

DK: “Oh, yeah, that was about making money. Suddenly, whatever the ‘all the fun’ that you were describing before, was actually drained away.”

NY: “Okay, so I had a completely coherent answer.”

(All laugh)

DK: “I lived it alongside what you’re talking about, but what started as just purely hanging out and having fun, where it didn’t even seem like making art, had suddenly jumped to, ‘This isn’t art at all, this is just like a product’. Where we’re being manipulated and turned into a unit producing style, or something. Like, ‘Can we turn this into attitude and style enough to make money from it?’ And at that point the band exploded, but we kind of bailed. I mean, you wanted none of that. That’s why you were unhappy on that tour, as I recall.”

“Anyway, there was a challenge there of just reconciling being in the commercial music business and doing what you wanted to do. That would be my take on what you just said.”

NY: “Okay, well that makes it a little more coherent. What do you think?”

(All laugh)

Damon & Naomi (photo credit: Anabel Vazquex Rodriquez)

S13: Speaking of coherent, with your songwriting, do you have a daily structure and routine?

DK: “The way we’ve worked most recently, well for a number of years, is I stockpile riff ideas on the guitar that are really just like fragments. And then Naomi started doing that on piano. So we have sort of two stacks of musical ideas. And then when it’s time to make a record, then we go back through them and play them for each other, then look at what works together as something we can develop.

“Then we develop them as that basic track idea for us, which is acoustic guitar and piano or keyboard and see what hangs together at that point. Then later comes lyrics and arranging. So that’s kind of how it works. When we’re actively doing that, I’ll sit down… because playing the guitar is a pleasure.

“Getting back to what Naomi said about the pleasure of it; for me, playing the guitar is really a pleasure, but I will put it aside for long periods and not do it, and then sort of go back to it. For me, there’s that feeling of you go back when you have a fresh new feeling of, ‘Can I make something I really want to hear again?’ To me, it needs to be something new, so I’ll go back when I sort of have a feeling of where I want to go next. And that may come from listening to other music that I’m discovering or getting a new guitar, which drives Naomi crazy. We don’t have a lot of space.”

NY: “They pile up. New record, new guitar.”

(All laugh)

DK: “Or just like some new feeling, or sometimes I really feel like playing guitar again, it’s been a while. Then when you go back, it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, things are different!’ I’ll teach myself a new skill, try and learn to fingerpick, try and learn a new set of chords that I hear in Brazilian music, you know? Some kind of challenge like that. So that’s kind of the technique, but then we’ll go long periods without playing. I mean, right now we’re not playing.”

NY: “Yeah, but I wish we were. It’s very strange not to go on tour with this record, because, when you do, the record kind of gets to take on a life of its own. The songs really evolve and grow, because you learn them better, so that means that you can be a little freer with them. They kind of get a little more relaxed and each take off in their own way. You don’t have the opportunity to do that when you’re not going on tour, so it’s kind of weird; putting out a record, and then it’s just like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s it!’ You don’t get to take it everywhere.”

A Sky Record 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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