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The Damnations (no more TX) finally land

By Clarissa Sansone, May 2002

A struggling band's existence is, well, a struggle. There are the day jobs and the night gigs, the yearning for recognition, the wish that some day their album would be released, and then they could quit their jobs and take up music full time. Even when already signed to a major label. Even with one album under their belts.

Or so it was with Austin-based band The Damnations.

Much time lapsed between the release of "Half Mad Moon" on Sire Records in 1999 and "Where It Lands" on their own label, Joy-Ride Records, in March.

In that time, Sire merged with London Records and fired many of the contacts The Damnations had with the label, according to vocalist/guitarist Deborah Kelly. The tracks for "Where It Lands" were in the can by October 2000, but, says Kelly, "t took a really long time for Sire to give us a budget in the first place."

After recording, it took a year before the label "would do anything with it," she adds, which turned out to be very little.

So the band went back to day jobs. Fortunately, however, they had friends in high places - a friend in the highest place, in fact: Sire president Seymour Stein. "Seymour tried really hard to get us another label," Kelly explains: that label being Curb, which didn't seem a good fit for the non–Nashville-oriented ensemble. Kelly considers Stein "the one person there at Sire that did care" about the band's success.

After they hired lawyers and "racked up a huge debt" trying to wrest the rights to their as-yet unreleased material from Sire, Kelly decided to appeal to Stein directly. She wrote him a letter asking (perhaps beseeching) him to let the band out of their contract and give them the rights to their masters. It worked, " think because Seymour genuinely did care about our band," Kelly says.

"We're a small operation," says Kelly, when comparing The Damnations to a major label's moneymakers. Her appeal to Stein was a way of saying, "Hey, look, we just want to survive as musicians." Whereas to Sire, the money made or lost on a non-blockbuster act like The Damnations was negligible, to the band "t (was) a matter of destroying somebody's career or not," Kelly says.

The Damnations' experiences with Sire taught them some difficult lessons about the uneven relationship between artist and major label. The band found that a label can be "unbelievably unfair" to its artists, Kelly says. What is considered "standard" to a recording contract "s messed up."

"'Standard' screws the artist completely." Record labels, says Kelly, "need to seriously reconsider their dealings with artists."

Kelly looks to the recent trend of artists releasing their own material, as The Damnations did with "Where It Lands," as "a result of just unfair practices from record labels."

And with a resource like the internet to help bands market their own albums and publicize their tours, she wonders at the benefit of a major label to a small-scale band in this day and age: "Why would anybody purposely want to screw themselves?"

In her view, when it comes to major record labels these days, "You're lucky if you have people at your label that last." Kelly points to how, shortly after the band was signed, their A&R man was shown the door. A band's experience with a major "really can be a nightmare, and it was for us for a while," says Kelly. "We were really lucky ultimately."

(Sire does still own the rights to "Half Mad Moon," an album that Kelly says "s just going to be shelved." If the band had rights to that album, they would be able to sell copies at live shows. Will The Damnations ever own their "Half Mad Moon?" "That's my next quest," says Kelly.)

With the rights to "Where It Lands," band members find themselves, Kelly says, in "a unique situation because we own our own record." They shopped the album around a bit, but realized the absurdity of labels offering them a percentage of profits for what was already theirs.

"So we just decided to start our own label," she adds. With this freedom also came the liberty to drop "TX" from the band name, a modifier that had been tacked on by Sire because executives were "worried they would get sued" by any other outfit known as the "Damnations." "t turns out," says Kelly, that the moniker "never was trademarked."

Indeed, the "Damnations" was how the band was originally known when Kelly, her sister Amy Boone - who swaps vocals with Kelly, in addition to playing bass, piano, and Wurlitzer - and guitarist Rob Bernard started gigging around Austin.

Drummers tend to enter the band through a revolving door; they have included Keith Langford of The Gourds (Rob is the brother of The Gourds' accordion player Claude Bernard), Conrad Choucroun, who plays on "Where It Lands" and most recently Colin Mahoney of the Kirk Rundstrom Band, with whom The Damnations have been touring.

Originally from upstate New York, sisters Boone and Kelly moved with their family to New Mexico as teenagers. Kelly had "heard that Austin was a really cool town," had a vibrant music scene and was a cheap place to live, so she moved there in 1987 and attended Austin Community College.

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