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Salt Lake City Weekly The Dambuilder's Final Frontier

Against the Stars brings Boston's finest one galaxy closer to the mainstream.

By Bill Frost

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  The Dambuilders are looking for a hit. After four years of hovering just below the commercial radar on a major label, they may have one in "Break Up With Your Boyfriend," the second single from their latest pop masterpiece Against the Stars (EastWest).

This utterly unique Boston band has been at the top of many a critic's and obscure music geek's hit list since their 1994 label debut Encendedor and its bizarro-video clip for "Shrine," a single that made it's way into Billboard's Alternative Top Ten that year. Since then, things have been kind of quiet on the Dambuilders front: 1995's Ruby Red didn't garner much notice, and the band has been lying so low that many of their hardcore fans (myself included — this is no unbiased column) thought that they may have left us without saying goodbye.

Fortunately, all prayers were answered a couple of months ago with the release of Against the Stars and the first single "Burn This Bridge." Like every Dambuilders song, "Bridge" is pure pop nirvana vacuum-packed into three minutes, but the band is counting on the aforementioned "Break Up With Your Boyfriend" to be the one to finally break them.

So naturally, lead vocalist/bassist Dave Derby, violinist/vocalist Joan Wasser, guitarist/vocalist Eric Masunaga and drummer/vocalist Kevin March are out on the road to push Against the Stars for all it's worth. They even took some opening slots for hit-of-the-moment Third Eye Blind — which is why they were delayed from making it to Utah last month, even though no one bothered to tell us press-types before we started announcing it. Hey, we were excited — it's not often that a band this cool comes to town.

Now it's official: The Dambuilders will be here on Wednesday, Oct. 22. Kevin March was kind enough to phone me from a tour stop in Syracuse, New York, last week to answer some inane rock-hack questions that I'd thought up on the fly:

It's been so long since the Dambuilders have played Salt Lake City that I can barely recall the last time — can you?

We played there in '94 with Lush and Weezer right after Encendedor came out. Weezer's first album had just come out as well and they were as unknown as we were — their tour van broke down that day ... now look where they are!

Against the Stars was recorded in your basement, right?

Yes, it's also where we've rehearsed for four years. We decided to capture the songs while they were still fresh, as soon as we wrote them. I've since had to move out because the landlord sold the place, so — in more ways than one — we'll never be able to go back again (laughs).

Eric produced Encendedor, but not Ruby Red. Now he's back at the helm for Against the Stars: Is he just the best guy for the job?

Eric knows what we should sound like; he knows the band. Plus, unlike a regular producer, he could bring the recording gear into our basement. What we feel makes our band special is the fact that we like to take a lot of time experimenting with sounds and layers. In a normal studio with an outside producer, there's pressure to rush because of the time and money you're spending. This way was much more pleasant.

Do you ever get tired of being one of those "critic's bands?" You know, the type that get piles of rave reviews but don't really move a lot of product?

(Laughing) Sometimes I don't feel like we're a critic's band! At this point, we're ready to be successful, but I don't think we have to trade one in for the other. It's not like we're "selling out" or anything. Before, we were louder and more dissonant — the new album may be more melodic than previous ones, but it's still the same band.

There are some changes, though: This album marks the first time that Joan sings lead vocals, for one thing.

She's also playing guitar and keyboards, which really helped the progression of things. The way we recorded was so relaxed that we'd finish songs quickly with no vocals or lyrics. When the time to finish them came, Joan just ended up singing two of them [the hyper-Blondie "Itch it" and the cyber-sultry "Luster"]. I'm really happy for her — it's refreshing to hear her sing.

You've also finally come up with an album cover concept that looks as futuristic and sci-fi as the band sounds [In case you don't have a copy of Against the Stars, it resembles galactic video-game gone art-deco — now go get one].

We went a little new wave on this one (laughing). At first, we were going for a retro-'50s design, but then we went completely futuristic. We had those weird instruments custom-made to be almost functional — but they aren't playable, unfortunately.

It's a great song, but would you ever really advocate that someone break up with their boyfriend?

If that's what they need to do, then yes. You know when you should: Don't let it linger.

Do you have any spectacular stage effects planned, like lasers, fog or flying saucers? It's legend that the Dambuilders like to wear cool costumes live.

As far as the effects, no: We don't have transportation big enough to haul that stuff just yet. But we do have some outfits that we wear, depending on our moods. There's no concensus, we don't all dress up on the same nights if we don't want to. Joan's got some great shoes this tour — she always looks good.

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