Alex Dathorne, built large and powerful like a bulldozer, folded his arms and slouched a little in his chair. "After spending a week throwing people's butts into prison," he said in a voice was seasoned with a relaxed, Kentuckified drawl, "it's nice to come out to hear a smooth-soundin' band. And that's a good thing."
We were at the Mercury Paw on a Friday night in mid-October, watching Dewey and the Navigators set up their equipment to do their sound-check, preparing for the release party for Who are the Navigators, their debut CD billed as a "13-song journey through the American soundscape." Dathorne is a prosecutor with the Commonwealth Attorney's office and the boyfriend of Michelle Ciccarelli, backing vocalist for the Navigators. Ciccarelli is also a lawyer. The baritone sax player, Steve Frederick, is to take the bar exam in February. Frontman Andrew "Dewey" Kincade is a former paralegal. If someone tripped over loose carpet and fell, the business cards would have been dealt out faster than a hand of blackjack in Vegas. And with a giant of a state prosecutor in the room, God help any poor chump who might suddenly decide to rob the place.
The Mercury Paw is on the block of Main Street in Louisville in between First and Second streets. Its brick walls, table lamps, and exposed rafters in the high ceiling give it the feeling of a hunting lodge without the roaring fire and lifeless stares from stuffed heads of three-point bucks. The space it occupies was once the home of City Lights (twice) and the Zodiac. There are still some remnants of its previous incarnation as the Club Ritz, a short-lived attempt at a gentlemen's club. A chest-high wall encloses an area that was used for lap dancing (some chairs and a couch upholstered in black vinyl remain, but obviously not used); a small stage sits against the wall in the center of the club, in front of a tall, multi-paned window; and the main stage abuts the back wall, still shaped as a dancer's runway. Members of any band that performs there must queue up behind each other when they perform, instead of fanning across the stage, which makes them look like they're waiting in line to buy stamps.
Still, the Paw is one club in Louisville making an effort to bring in a variety of music, booking dissimilar acts back-to-back in one evening. Two other bands opened for the Navigators' release party that night: an all-female ensemble called Supervillians, and Lexington's Rabi Feber, whose short set treated us to ear-bleeding, mal-melodic speed metal. So the folk-flavored, tonal, easygoing sounds from Dewey and the band gelled well with the club's goals for that evening.
Dathorne later admitted, "I thought Michelle was singing with a garage band. I'm surprised at how good they sound."
* * *
"I've always had a reverence for songwriters who could capture the sound and feel of the times," Dewey states in the promotional material for Who are the Navigators, "and still write something that won't go out of style. I've worked in a lot of genres, but that's something I've always tried to do." Indeed, the selections on the CD demonstrate Dewey's claim. Styles on Who are the Navigators (reviewed in November's LMN) run from simple folk ("Miles Away" and "Billie Angel"), to country ("Sweet Merlot"), to rock, both straight ahead ("Ain't No Reason") and fuzzed-out punk ("Blame it on the Man"). Thematically, Dewey takes on disconnection from the world in "Tuned Out," miscommunication in a relationship with "Christ, I've Done it Again," fantasies of stepparent incest with the slow, sexy blues of "Wicked Stepmother," and the monster machinery of the music industry in "Cheap Thrills."
Throughout all thirteen selections Dewey and the Navigators are guiding their listeners through a tangled forest of sound and image that alternates between dark and uncertain, then bright and clear. Through songs about misdirection and displaced erotic passion, then through selections that speak blunt criticism and confrontation, reminding us of our capacity for being pretentious and pompous when Dewey sings, "So quit your yap `n shut your trap / An' get off your damn high horse."
The name for the band came while the release was in production. "I think [our name] fits so well is because the music kind of jumps around. We were in the process of navigating so many things - if this was a band project, a solo project. . . .When the album started, we had no idea it would lead to where it did."
* * *
"I remember Dewey walking around the playground with a tie-dyed tee-shirt for pants," said band drummer Dan Chaffin, dredging up a grade-school memory. "And I thought he was dirty. As it was, we just got into a band together."
We were in the snug control room of the Ugly for Comfort Studio in the basement of the house Dan shares with former Owen's Little Problem band manager Amy Edgington. The house is near the peak of a steep-graded street off Brownsboro Road, close to the Louisville neighborhood called Clifton, the buffer between Butchertown and Crescent Hill on the city's east side. Dan, his father, and Navigator guitarist Matt Frederick built the studio and control room where Who are the Navigators finished production. Initial work on it had begun at Dangerous Music in New York City.
The project brought together a core group of four friends in their mid-twenties who have known each other since elementary school at St. Francis of Goshen in Oldham County, about a half-hour east of Louisville. Working with Dewey, guitarist Matt Frederick, drummer Dan Chaffin (who describes his drumming as idiosyncratic and uses all kinds of devices besides stick to play his trap set, including hollow tubes that look like runners batons), is bassist Dave Humphrey. Other peripheral members of the band, besides backing vocalist Michelle Ciccarelli and saxophonist Steve Frederick (who is also Matt's brother) are Joel Serdenis on mandolin, and percussionist Todd Stump. Several other musicians contributed work on the CD's tracks.
The four core members have performed with each other in various earlier bands - in interchangeable combinations - including Satori (with Dan and Matt) and the Starving Naked Cowboys. Up until last year, Dan, Matt and Dave played together as Owen's Little Problem, an instrumental trio whose musical style was magnetic, defied classification and was packed with solos. Their sound was compared to Pat Metheny, Smashing Pumpkins, and even, to one eccentric listener, Earth, Wind, and Fire ("Must've been our horns and backup singers," Matt said).
Their history together (beyond Dewey's tee-shirt pants from grade school) contains a gig that unintentionally featured the most astonishing display of aeronautics since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Performing in Satori during a battle of the bands show at St. Francis High School, teenaged Dewey had earlier tucked a pair of boxer shorts adorned with hearts down the waistband of his pants. His plan was to pull them out at some point in the show and throw them into the audience, like Elvis did with his sweaty towels. Toward the end of the show, he pulled them out, tossed them into the audience, then - in a freakish act of geometry conspiring with the natural forces of lift - the shorts unfolded into a perfect planar surface. They sailed over the audience and landed on the head of the guy running the mixer board.
Their gig was instantly tanked. The sound guy pulled their plug.
Collectively, the band sometimes feels - and works to rid themselves of - the minor headache of that early group, what they call "The Curse of Satori." They felt it had followed them to Dangerous Music in New York, where they made the first recordings for the CD. Two former Satori songs, "Wicked Stepmother" and "Mosquito," were included in those sessions.
"`Wicked Stepmother' was the first thing we tried to record when we got there," Matt said, "and it was stale and flat."
"We also did `Mosquito,'" Dewey said, "which made it onto the Harvest Showcase CD. And we almost scrapped that, too. Those are two songs we've been playing so long, they were indelibly marked on our psyches. They didn't have the freshness of the other stuff."
Yet consider both songs: "Mosquito," which appears exclusively on the 1998 Harvest Showcase CD, begins with guitar and bass doubling on a six-note intro for several bars while Dan taps out a light rhythm on ride cymbal punctuated by high-hat every four beats. An organ fades in. The intro has a "Theme from Shaft" quality, a sound like that of super-cool music from a gritty 1970s cop show. That sound runs consistently through the whole piece, and contains a solo from Matt subtly working his wah-wah pedal.
Or "Wicked Stepmother," the one mentioned earlier about a boy's dangerous infatuation with his father's new young wife. The entire sound is stumble-drunk slow, reflecting the confused, hazy, horny thoughts of the song's narrator, helped along with Steve Frederick's underlying baritone sax work.
"The key to getting away from [the curse]," Matt said, "when we're playing the Satori songs is Dave. He wasn't in Satori. With Dave playing bass like he does on those songs, he almost automatically reinvents them."
With Dave being the miracle worker to break the curse by inoculating the older songs with an antidote of fresh playing, those songs, and all the others, benefit from Dewey's lyrics, which he writes and keeps in a big blue binder as thick as a cinder block.
His lyrics avoid the simple scheme of verse/chorus. Instead, each verse is long, layered, and builds to a climax that kicks off the chorus. Only two writers have used such a structure well and gotten away with it: Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan. Dewey nods to the latter as his biggest influence.
"Along with his binder of songs," Dave reported, "Dewey's constant companion is his Bob Dylan songbook."
"I would put that as a bible for songwriting," Dewey said. "Even his throw-off songs that never made it onto an album. You'll find one and go, damn! He would surprise you. If you look through his canon, you will rarely find a song that is just verse/chorus, verse/chorus.
"To me," he continued, "the whole project is like this: the words should fit with the music, and I don't think the music's predictable. And I think the very structure should not be predictable, either."
"When you're talking about form and structure in the songs," Matt said, "for us it's a lot more about being true to some sort of emotional context and creating a mood within the song, and being true to the evolution of that. I always think about trying to put an arc across a song, at least for our more artsy stuff. `Cheap Thrills' doesn't really have an arc. It starts, then it's over a couple of minutes later. But it has a vibe."
"It's an idiot-proof song," Dewey said. "It's one you can start playing, and you aren't going to mess it up."
"By the same token, none of us would be happy playing idiot-proof songs all the time."
The song in question, from Who are the Navigators, is one of the shortest on the CD. It is simple, straightforward, peppy rock. It begins, then ends. But what of the arc Matt described? It is the emotional context and mood within a piece that he also discussed. The parts of a song that draw you in - its tone, lyrics, hypnotic effects, unique instrumentation - and bear you across to the end. It is a quality among the best songs (regardless of genre), poems, and novels have: the ability to transplant you into a realm of vivid experience. Examples? Think of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, "A Day in the Life" from The Beatles, Dylan's "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," the entirety of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
Think of "Wicked Stepmother."
Probably one of the most controversial songs created by a local group (and, admittedly, discussed most frequently in this article), "Wicked Stepmother" is the Navigators' foremost example of that arc, from it's soft, bluesy opening words, "She moved me like no other / How could I tell her that I loved her," to the chorus of, "It ain't `bout blood / But that don't mean it's not a sin." Dewey's persona of the young narrator sings and wails of the hormone-pumped emotions roiling through his entire being. It is hypnotic, hot, compelling, allowing the listener to experience the conflict and torture the persona feels.
But it is not, Dewey assures, written from firsthand experience.
"The only discomfort about that song," Dewey said, "was wondering what my parents were going to think."
Written during the days of the band Satori, Dewey created it during a dry songwriting period. "My girlfriend had just sort of. . .well, left me and went to Pittsburgh. I was in an apartment in Old Louisville, didn't have a car. I could walk to [the University of Louisville], where I was taking a few classes. Essentially, I just stayed at home all day and gave myself songwriting assignments. One of them was to do a sexually taboo song. The result was `Wicked Stepmother'."
"When Dewey was younger," Matt said, "he went through a phase where most of his songs had the words `naked' and `precipice.' So we called him the `naked precipice' for awhile. During that period he wrote a song with the lyrics, `We perform for you / Naked and cold / Frightened and dirty.' I started writing a series of songs called Cold, Naked, Frightened and Dirty.' The Cold song is the only one that's any good."
With a well-crafted CD out in the stores, Dewey's binderful of lyrics ready for melodies, musicianship from a cluster of men who've been playing together since their teens, and a supertanker-sized load of dry humor, to what do Dewey and the Navigators want to steer toward next? Showing off their product to a major label? Creating another CD? Doing nothing?
"There's sort of a myth," Dewey said, "that to succeed in the music business you have to find a major label. But that's taking an even bigger gamble." Dewey has apparently chosen not to take that gamble by creating his own label called Snug, along with promoting and booking himself and the band through his other operation, Odd-Sock Entertainment.
"Part of the reason this studio exists," Dan added, "is so that we can do our own stuff on our own time without paying a big studio for the entire production. It's so we can avoid that go-into-the-studio-for-two-days-because-that's-all-the-money-you- have mentality toward making a record. We don't do other people's stuff in here. This is for us. It's not for anybody else. We're annoyingly greedy about it, but we can't make any money competing with the studios around here."
"I can't tell you how many people have said, `How'd you get this [the CD] recorded?'" Dewey said, smiling.
Matt said, "We could make an entire album and not release it, and financially be none the worse for wear. I think people are either going to be signing with the industry or going out on their own. And the cool thing is there will be an increase in the number of people who might be able to make a living going out on their own."
Dave contributed a well-known example of major label risk and the dependence some performers have on the industry machine. It conveniently boxed up the apparent direction of this band is taking with its own studio, label, and drive to create memorable songs.
"I hear Alanis Morissette is facing enormous, potentially career-killing odds by selling billions of her last album. She's faced with a void to fill, so that if she sells even half that many copies of her latest album, she's history. Everybody in the industry's going to write her off.
"There's something to be said for a slow and steady road up."
* * *
Dewey has a regular Wednesday night semi-solo gig at the Hideaway Saloon on Bardstown Road, near the intersection of Bonnycastle Avenue, above The Place to Go hairstyling shop. As he says, "You never know who's gonna show up," to play with him.
The Navigators will join him on January 2 at Rudyard Kipling in a show with Satchel's Pawn Shop. Dewey and the Navigators are also scheduled to perform on January 15 and 16 at the Hideaway. Show starts around 10 PM.
To keep up with the band and receive the newsletter called The Compass, call Odd-Sock Entertainment at (502) 412-4721, or write to PO Box 8177 Louisville, KY 40257.