Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dog House Band appears in Oxford American

Oxford American: Writers Who Rock

A crew of ragtag writers make beautiful music—in their spare time.

I first met David Gates—former editor at Newsweek, Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction—in the mid-aughts, when I was a graduate student studying writing at The New School MFA program in New York City. We shared an enthusiasm for country and old-time music, though it became clear quickly enough that Gates was a layman scholar of these traditions, whereas I was just fumbling around. He turned me onto The New Lost City Ramblers, Joseph Spence, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, George Jones and Gene Pitney. I admired and envied the seemingly superhuman scope of his musical knowledge, and also the fact that he didn’t just listen: He played.

Gates told me that he’d started on clarinet and saxophone in his early teenage years, then moved on to guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Over the years, he’s played in bluegrass/old-time, jazz, and rock & roll groups, and I get the impression that he’s been in a band more often than he’s out of one. I’ve gone to see him play many times. When he was between groups he used to sometimes sit in on guitar with a Brooklyn-based indie-country act called Andy Friedman & The Other Failures, but now he’s got The Dog House Band, a group comprised entirely of writer-musicians and musician-writers, born out of the Bennington College Low Residency MFA Writing Program, where Gates is a long-time faculty member.

The Dog House Band began more or less by accident. During the bi-annual ten-day residencies at Bennington, Gates and fellow-Bennington instructor Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenberg Elegies, editor of AGNI) would spend their evenings hanging around the Dog House—housing for faculty who bring their pets to the school—with a couple acoustic guitars and (quoth Birkerts) a “bottomless bottle of Maker’s Mark.” The two played mostly country, blues, and folk songs, and the sessions were open to anyone who cared to listen in or join in. “Gradually,” Gates said, “we began discovering congenial people in the program. The singers Ben Hartlage, Erica Plouffe Lazure and novelist Rebecca Chace, and the bass-player Lee Johnson”—a mixture of faculty, students (some now alums), and university employees. Johnson, for example, was working at Bennington as an A/V guy. Tom Bissell—2010 Guggenheim Fellow and author of several books including God Lives in St. Petersburg—sometimes sat in on banjo.

In the early days The Dog House Band was a mostly acoustic group. They cut one record, Let’s Doghouse: A Tribute to Liam Rector (2008), a spirited collection of covers (Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down”), traditionals (“St. James Infirmary,” “Angel Band”) and one original (“Elephant Graveyards”) penned by Chace.

Since then, The Dog House Band has grown to nearly twice its original size. Greg Phelan, a Bennington student, plays organ and keys. Vic Rawlings, a musician and instrument-maker, has a girlfriend who graduated the program and does some A/V work for the school; he plays electric guitar. Lily White, a professional jazz musician and veteran of bands led by the likes of Jimmy McGriff and Dizzie Gillespie, is a current student—she plays saxophone and sings. James Wood plays drums. Val Haynes sings. Wyatt Mason, a celebrated critic and magazine writer, told me he taught himself guitar with the explicit goal of being able to participate in the Bennington jam sessions. He now finds himself the band’s rhythm guitarist. (Chace and Hartlage are no longer full-time members, but they sit in when they can.) Lazure—a student when she joined the band, now on the faculty at Phillips Exeter—put it this way: “Our music shifted from old-timey homespun country with an upright bass, to a 10-member ensemble with a big rawkin sound.” But, she says, “two elements have remained a constant through our evolution of the past five years: the camaraderie and the music. There's genuine love here, and admiration for each other and for the sound we can produce in a relatively short stretch of time.”

Given how little time the band has together—and remembering that what time they do have is explicitly devoted to the in-depth study of an entirely different art form—it’s unsurprising that DHB focuses on covers and standards. But the more time I spend listening to them the less I think this matters. A good cover is thrilling because it combines the intimacy of the long-familiar with the novelty of an original insight. The new DHB sound has enabled them to take on more songs in a wider variety of styles; it’s also given them the opportunity to re-imagine the repertoire they already have. Think of Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, or Iron & Wine on the tour they’re on right now.

"Drinkin' Thing" by The Dog House Band

Mason, who records the band’s practices and shows, hooked me up with a recent DHB show in New York City (they headlined a party for The Paris Review) and a semi-official bootleg, Don’t Make Us Go Back to Our Lives. Both recordings are stunning. Gates and White shine on Gary Stewart’s “Drinkin’ Thing,” which Mason rates as “probably the best thing we’ve done so far.” (For my part, I like their straight-faced cover of Josh Thompson’s red-state anthem, “Way Out Here.”) Lazure smolders and Birkerts raps on their must-hear mash-up of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

Don’t Make Us was not recorded by Mason, but by Paul Kolderie, whose mile-long list of production and engineering credits includes—get ready for this—Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone, and several albums apiece by The Pixies, Morphine and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Kolderie was introduced through his wife, the writer Robin Vaughan, when she was enrolled in the writing program. There is a standing offer from him to produce the next DHB record. Nothing’s certain yet, but Mason says they’re shooting for 2012.

As with every DHB member I spoke to, Mason’s exuberance extended beyond well-earned pride in his band to evangelism for the joy of music in general. The group is talented and they’re dedicated, but their ambition isn’t to top charts—it’s to sustain and build on the happiness they’ve found in playing together. Their pleasure and purpose derive directly from the music and are regarded as ends in themselves. I found myself getting a little jealous. When I confessed to Mason, near the end of our conversation, that I don’t play an instrument, he exhorted me to pick one and learn it, insisting that I would look back on it as the best decision I’d ever made. “There’s a lightness and joy that you get through playing which is only to the good,” he told me. “It’s a special way of being alive.”

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