Exclusive Interview with Dessa Darling of DOOMTREE

Dessa Darling of DOOMTREE talks No Kings, Stage Fright, and That Being Famous is Worth at Least Five-hundred Bucks

Wes: Listening to the new album, No Kings, I hear reference to the ten-year mark. Is that the decided mark for the collective being together?

Dessa: Well, yes, but DOOMTREE came out of a lot of really long friendships, so marking when the collective starts is always a 12-24 month discrepancy between us. The core of DOOMTREE started about ten years ago, and it grew to it’s current roster as it is now from there.

Wes: When you all set out so long ago, did DOOMTREE as a collective have any specific goals in mind, or was it more of a haze and the idea of seeing how far you can push this envelope?

POS: I think that is more true to it. I know some of us came in to it like we just wanted to make music. Like, when I was 14 I wanted a van because I knew I was going to want to be out touring. I don’t even think that right now there is a goal. It’s more, “ Can we do this? Can we keep doing this?”

Dessa: To some extent you have some friends with dreams about living as artists. It starts just becoming a vehicle for that. DOOMTREE was a business and an entity that we built to help us reach those personal ambitions. There aren’t exactly a lot of major label reps coming to shows in Minneapolis, so you start to do that for yourself in this market instead of waiting to be discovered. I think the dudes started DOOMTREE as a way of getting stuff done and building the support that we needed to make music well and distribute it effectively. 

Wes: What’s the feeling that you got making this album? When I listen to some of it, I get the impression that there is a bit of swagger and even a slight chip on your shoulders. The Grand Experiment, Bolt Cutters, No Way, I get the impression it is a bit more assertive, aggressive. Is there some of that in this intentionally or does it just come out?

Dessa: I think that is part of it. I also think that kind of message can be expanded to talk about finding your own way in to not just the independent rap game, but as a way in your personal relationships, how you make a living, and how you decide to spend your money and your time. It’s about charting your own course and making up your own mind and resisting some of the hierarchical that want you to conform to a pre-written game plan. I think No Kings is about living your life independently. I guess that relates to rapping to, but we’ve got some pretty non-traditional lifestyles amongst us and it takes you a while to embrace that brand of independent thinking. This album was about that mode of thought and mode of conducting yourself. 

(unfortunately we lost POS on the line, but Dessa posted up and took it from here)

Wes: After scraping for fans and venues and sales for so long, DOOMTREE is pretty well established as a group and independent artists. Do you feel a bit freer or less anxious knowing this foundation of fans will support and rep the group, coming out to your shows?

Dessa: I think it would be really tough to land in a totally secure place in the music business. It’s naturally turbulent. The industry changes, the taste changes, so if you have a desire to be a part of it, you have to develop a stomach for the turbulence. Ultimately, you need to find some satisfaction in just making music you believe in. It’s the only factor you can control, the music you make, but you can’t ever control how that music is received. For me it took a while to get used to the idea that you’re not secure now and you might never be secure. Just don’t spend all the money you make, because you might not make any more, and then you’ve got to learn to extract all the satisfaction that you can from the music you make. 

Wes: With so many individuals coming together with such different sounds, how does the collaborative process for an album like No Kings come together?

No Kings, released Nov. 22, 2011

Dessa: It is a pretty organic process that emerges through the record making journey for us. On this record, Cecil Otter, Lazerbeak, Paper Tiger, and POS collaborated on the production with Cecil Otter really taking a leadership role. They made the beats together, and for a week the emcees went together to a cabin in the woods and sequestered ourselves with the beats and played them on repeat on the house speakers for hours until we had a concept that we could all get in to. Everyone pieced together their verses or would work collaboratively on a chorus until the song was done. It’s not a matter of each member of the band having to sign off on whether we all like each track. If you’re dissatisfied then you voice that satisfaction and you make little tweaks. 

This album was a bit more cohesive because each member was able to decide their own level of involvement in the album. We were really worried about making the best songs we could instead of making sure everybody has the same amount of verses on every song, which can very easily homogenize and dilute a good record. We didn’t worry about equal representation. We just worried about making the best songs that we could.

Wes: Has it is always been this easy to make an album, with this organic process in the past, or was this album a little easier to make than others in the past?

Dessa: I have to say that this one was easier. Writing collaboratively has been a real grind for DOOMTREE in the past. It’s just hard. It’s like trying to ride a bike with four other people; I’m sure it can be done, but it’s really tough to get this thing pointed in the right direction and moving steadily. For this record we tried to find different methods of working together to reexamine the processes we were using to collaborate. Locking ourselves in a cabin was a totally different way of working things out. In the past, you’d make a beat, or a lyrics, and email it to somebody else. Maybe they’d write a chorus or maybe they’d forget all about it. Months would go by of this piece meal, halting progress. Where, with this record, we had a very definite deadline. We started it and released it within nine months. We knew that what didn’t happen at that cabin, didn’t get done. There was no internet access and no reliable phone coverage. You didn’t have any distractions. You were really forced to stay at the grindstone. If I weren’t sequestered in that cabin, I might be tempted to say, “I’m not getting anything done today. I’m gonna go work on something else.” Because I couldn’t do anything else, we got the bulk of the writing done for the record.

Wes: I’m sitting here imaging a Shining moment. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Dessa: Booze helps. (laughs) We’d wake up and make breakfast, and then we’d turn on beats and loop them for hours, bang out our verses, have lunch, bang out some more verses, and by the time night fell, we’d usually set up a mic in a closet and we’d demo everything we’d written that day to make sure we’d captured it. We can decide who’s verse should come first. Then we’d wake up and do the same thing again. 

Wes: Are these albums still started in a closet? I’m a fan of yours on Facebook, and I see references to closets and mics, is that still where things start or is the work getting done in the studio.

Dessa: We do most of our recording with Joe Mabbott at the Hideaway Studio. He works on a lot of the great music that comes out of Minnesota. I don’t like recording my lyrics in studio, so I record all of my lyrics in my closet. 

Wes: With everything made, written, created for No Kings, are there any lyrics, or beats that went the way of the Dodo? I know you guys have never done it, but is there anything lying around for a B-sides type of release?

Dessa: It was Darwinian in the sense that a particular lyric or particular beat wasn’t best adapted for this project. There are a couple beats that didn’t make the record that I wanna try to rap on. There were a couple of Paper Tiger beats that I thought were awesome. They maybe didn’t fit the aesthetic that was gelling for No Kings, but it wasn’t a decision of quality as much as it was about consistency. 

Wes: For you as an artist, is a track ever done? Are you ever really satisfied with a song or is it a matter of having to just walk away and stop tweaking? If you tweak forever then you’ll never release anything.

Dessa: Yeah, I think it can be tough to call a track “done” sometimes, because I tend to tweak and re-tweak the tiniest detail. Other times I think “this track is pretty damn close to what I hoped it would do,” but not I need to go and think up a new world to fill because I don’t want to achieve the same objective twice. The mountain summit does sometimes jump away from you every time you’re getting close, you never quite reach it, but other times you are proud of that one, sit there for five minutes, and then try to write the next one.

Wes: Is there still the nerves when you release an album like this, either as a solo or collaborative project?

Dessa: I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I still get stage fright. I still get weird and anxious before I got to record. I can be headed to my closet to record and think of a million reason to put it off. Man, I should really…dust. I can invent reasons not to do it, because the idea of a song, an album, or a performance, is perfect right up until the moment I try to execute it. No execution can match the perfection of an idea. I am human. I am limited and flawed. I only have so much range in my voice, only so much breath, I only have so much energy. The idea in my head, I never hit a flat note in my head. I’m never off beat in my head.

Wes: Is DOOMTREE a working model for supporting fellow artists through collaboration? You kind of bucked the trend by being a bunch of individual artists that came together, unlike the bands that start together and then break off to explore a solo career.

Dessa: Yeah, when I joined DOOMTREE, a lot of business friends of mine would tell me how unsustainable this was, but it kept unsustaining itself. I think we’ve got a lot of years ahead of us. A lot of that comes from flexibility. We’re willing to change what being in DOOMTREE means. Maybe it doesn’t mean we need to put out an album every two years. Maybe we just put one out when we have a good album. Maybe we don’t have to have cameos on all of each others stuff. Maybe it just means each of us helps support the work of the others. When I put out my record, Lazerbeak was enormously involved. When SIMS put out his record, I wrote the press releases, and Paper Tiger did the one-sheets. I think being in DOOMTREE is about believing in each other’s work and sharing resources and skills, and that’s really all it has to be. We’re preparing for a new Lazerbeak record, and he and I are going to go drink beers tonight and put all his press materials together. 

Wes: Getting to the meat of it, what can fans expect from a full crew stage show when they come out to see you on tour starting in January?

Dessa: I think there are moments where each of us in a DOOMTREE set gets to express our styles. You’ll see Cecil Otter take the stage, and you’ll see him do something like Rebel Yellow, and it is unmistakably Cecil Otter. Generally, the set for this tour will be really collaborative. It’s not like anything else in my life to be up on stage with DOOMTREE. It’s athletic, it’s unflagging, and we’ll do more than two hours of music in all likelihood, and by the end of it all of us have sweat through our T-shirts and you can see the tenderness between us. We look like friends. There will be moments of absolute abandon. One of us will take a stray elbow because we are jumping so hard. Mike Mictlan will be getting passed over head by hand. It’s a great dynamic range and you can tell that we are people that are doing this that love the hell out of each other. 

Wes: Looking back on where you started and where you are now, can you put your finger on any moment where you kinda stepped back and went, “wow, this is real”?

Dessa: There was one moment with SIMS on tour. We were traveling in a van with all of our gear, it was all of us or at least most of us, and SIMS got a call from VISA, because he owed them money. He gets out of the van to handle the call. He was pacing around, talking and talking and talking. We’re all waiting so we can get back in the van so we can go. He gets back in the van and says he told these people that as soon as he gets back from tour I got you, but there is no amount of conversation that we can have that will allow me to pay you before I get back from this tour. So, the VISA people are asking, ok, what kind of tour is it, when do you get back, when can we expect to get paid? SIMS says it’s a musical tour and the guy on the other end says, “Wait, is this SIMS from DOOMTREE?” And I remember SIMS’ VISA bill was cut in half by the end of the conversation. The guy asked, “Are you on tour with Dessa? Are you on tour with Stef?” and we all said hi on the phone and I just remember that SIMS’ 50% discount on his credit card seemed like the height of fame to me. Like, this is just as good as it gets. It was just the first time where it really seemed to matter in someone’s life. I was so excited for SIMS that he didn’t have to pay a big bill, and I was so excited by the idea that someone in a far away call center knew who we were, and even that he cared if we were going to put out another record. It’s not really a celebrity moment, but that one really sticks out in my head.

Wes: So I have to ask, what is on the horizon from the members of DOOMTREE that we can look forward to in the coming year?

Dessa: Yes. I just listened to Stef’s (POS) new album…it is brave and bold and amazing. You are going to be able to hear, I think, a preview of that, some of the songs, at the LA show. Cecil Otter is working on a project, a solo disc, and that is called Porcelain Revolver. Lazerbeak is also going to have a new record coming out in the third week of January called Lava Bangers, so that will actually be on the merch table by the LA show, too.

Thanks to Dessa for taking the time to talk with us. For more information on No Kings, tour dates, DOOMTREE, Dessa, or anyone else in the collective, just visit doomtree.net for all the info worth having.

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