BY STEVEN TWEDELL
It’s just a name, but it’s been a pain for the Damn Rathers.
Andy Mason, the band’s founder and singer/songwriter/guitarist, had been brainstorming, and one night an old girlfriend suddenly woke up with one of those light bulbs over her head: Damn Rathers.
He liked it initially, but tired of it when the band changed from an alternative country sound to more pop-influenced music. The band agreed to change the name to AM Static.
“Once it was officially AM Static,” guitarist Bob Burriss explains, “everybody, without exception, said, ‘Oh man, I like the Damn Rathers better.'”
Not to worry.
Turns out a band in Chicago had already claimed the moniker. The artwork for the record had to be scrapped, and they only managed one gig with the AM Static name.
Also the drummer for the Blueberries, Mason founded the Damn Rathers as an outlet for his songwriting. Max Johnston, formerly of Wilco and Freakwater and now with the Gourds, was looking for someone to play with. Mason volunteered his services and the two went on tour with Herb Reith as the Pony Stars, opening up for Max’s sister, Michelle Shocked.
“Max gave me a good kick in the ass,” Mason said, ” he gave me the confidence to put these songs out there.”
Over beers in a local bar, the band discusses their history. In addition to the name game, the band has endured lineup changes, four years of cementing a sound, and the long process of cutting a disc before they had the finished product, Rough Draft, in their hands.
And not surprisingly, Mason likes his chances.
From the songs to the artwork, Mason wanted it to be just right, and he took his time.
“Well,” he admits, “I got kind of selfish with the whole process. Obviously, with the recording of the songs, I had specific visions for certain songs and that’s why I recorded them by myself, and it’s also why I had them come in and do certain things. And the artwork was the same deal. I was too much of a perfectionist on it.”
But he gives credit to the band for making it complete. “It’s different than I even envisioned, and that’s good.”
Burriss adds, “When the band plays the music, it takes it to a different place, not necessarily where he had envisioned it, but that’s the difference between the two. There’s the way that it’s written and the way that it’s interpreted by the other people that play with him.”
When he first returned from the Pony Stars tour, Mason had the songs but no band. “I needed a band of my own.” He started playing gigs at the Hip Joynt with Matt Renfroe (former bass player) and Tim Welch (drums) joined soon after. Burriss caught them one night at Lynagh’s and asked to join. “It’s the only band I’ve ever asked to join,” Burriss said.
Mason adds, “We’ve kind of fallen a couple times-not been a band, but [they] were always there in the equation.”
Brian Arnett (formerly of 10 Ft. Pole) started playing in the group a little less than two years ago, and the lineup hasn’t changed since.
With all the experience, it’s no surprise that there is plenty of overlap with other bands. Burriss just started helping out with the Household Saints and is getting ready to finish up a stint with Triple Thick. Arnett plays with Rabby Feeber. And Welch has, according to Arnett, “been in every band in Lexington” (Red Fly Nation, Catawampus Universe, and Lily Pons barely scratch the surface.)
Even with all the other commitments they all agree that the Damn Rathers is the main project.
All the songs were written by Mason with the exception of two, cowritten with Burriss. And the rest of the band is fine with that.
“This band,” Arnett says, “for me anyway, is all about playing Andy’s songs,” and the others concur.
The album is heavily influenced by the Beatles with finely honed hooks and heartfelt lyrics. Mason likes to call it pop without the insult. He’s in love with the format, but is wary of pop’s connotations.
“To me it’s something that’s catchy, derivative of the Beatles,” he says, “but [the genre] has turned into something different.”
He is quick to distance himself from Top 40 radio. “The record companies control what’s being played. You put that much money behind something, it’s got to take off.
“I’m interested in making songs that stick in your head, combining different styles,” he says, “I have a fondness of blues and jazz, and I want those elements in my music.”
Drawing from influences as varied as Gram Parsons, Big Star, and Elliot Smith, Mason has crafted 14 songs that manage to sweep into plenty of different corners of musical attitude, with a heavy dose of Elvis Costello. “That’s kind of the area I was more into when I was writing some of these songs,” he says, “the angry Elvis Costello.”
Like Costello’s music, these songs are universal with their comments on lost love, on searching for meaning in the everyday, or simply on the ease of slipping into a daydream when the time is right.
Later in the evening as the Yonders take the stage (with Tim Welch on drums), Mason is quick to admit that the rest of the band has helped out even more than they know.
“Tim’s a music connoisseur,” says Mason, “I have to credit Tim a lot with turning me on to some musicians that have helped my songwriting.”
Arnett agrees, “Tim knows every song ever made by any band.”
Mason is sure of his future only in that he knows he will be playing music in some form or another for the rest of his life, and he knows the rest of the band will, too.
“My personal goal,” he says, “is to be able to make a living playing my songs. I feel strongly about the band as a whole and want them to be a part of it.”
He eventually wants to make a more collaborative album with the band. He also wants to record a solo album.
When asked if he is happy with the new release, he smiles and says, “Extremely happy. It wouldn’t have come out otherwise. And that’s one of the reasons it took so long. I had to be happy with it.”
Damn Rathers play Friday, July 21 with Altered Statesman and Lab Partners at Yat’s.