D.D Dumbo’s ‘Utopia Defeated’
The scene is a small backyard in Austin, Texas. A slender, young guitarist stands alone, picking out an intricate, percussive riff on his cherry red Danelectro 12-string electric guitar. As he plays, his foot taps the switches of the effects pedal at his feet to create some instant musical magic. It’s a loop pedal, and he uses it to set up a four-bar pattern that repeats continuously. Once the guitar loop is cycling he switches his attention to the microphone, singing a series of alternating “aahs” and “hees” that soon stack into a background chorus. Next he takes the mic off its stand and points it towards the two drums beside him. With a drumstick in the other hand he sets up a simple beat that now plays in sync with the looping guitar and vocals. In less than a minute, this lone guitarist has turned himself into a one-man band, complete with backing singers. Now he can begin his song in earnest, playing and singing live against his rhythmic four-bar mantra.
The blood seeps out like the wounds of a walrus
In salty ice, in frost and blubber
The birds, the sun, the bugs that adore you
The endless glory
Since he was filmed in that Austin backyard in May 2014, a lot has changed for Oliver Hugh Perry, who performs under the name D. D Dumbo. Last week, D. D Dumbo released his debut album, Utopia Defeated, and the opening track is “Walrus”, the song I just described Perry performing so adeptly by himself. On the album Perry performs it much more conventionally, playing an array of real instruments in real time, albeit carefully overdubbed and double-tracked. It is a change for the better because his African-inspired guitar lines dance around as freely as before but there is also a spaciousness and depth to the arrangement that allows his quirky songs room to stretch out. Colourful production touches, such as the use of a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar in the bridge section of “Walrus”, underscore the subtleties of his arrangements.
When he began recording Utopia Defeated Perry made a deliberate choice to unshackle himself from the confines of the one-man-band format and the result is a multilayered, panoramic production that adds considerable texture and weight to his idiosyncratic songs. Funnily enough, by meticulously multitracking himself on a plethora of instruments, Perry has become even more of a one-man-band in the studio. With the exception of a few drum parts and occasional percussion contributed by co-producer/engineer Fabian Prynn, every note, noise and nuance that is heard on Utopia Defeated was arranged and performed by Perry himself. His musical gifts are truly formidable.
“Satan” is the second track on the album and it became its first single, earning rave reviews from a number of critics around the world. It begins with a gentle drone, rudely interrupted by a galloping rhythm section that takes off apace. Urgent xylophone chords punctuate the feel, reminiscent of “The Sounds of Hatari” by Henry Mancini. Perry’s lyrics describe an encounter with an advanced alien race whose superior knowledge cannot prevent superstitious humanity from destroying itself in a “looming deadline murder suicide”.
They don’t eat people
They don’t watch TV, no
Or worship Satan
Or read astrology
In another lyric, the singer metaphorically prays for us all despite being, as he says, “a godless sapien”. Pretty harp glissandos and a vaguely Elizabethan motif played on clarinet provide brief glimpses of light amid the darkness of this grotesque danse macabre. This track is a real show stopper.
I interviewed Perry by phone recently and asked him why he strayed so far from his well-established live persona in the studio. “Since I started this project it has been a loop pedal, solo thing,” he said, “and I wasn’t even intending to record the album in a really elaborate, multitrack way. Really, I wanted to incorporate the two, but it ended up being no looping, all layering.” He admitted he still hasn’t quite figured out how he’s going to reproduce the songs properly on stage. “I kinda knew this was gonna happen but, at the same time, I wanted it to.”
Perry’s vision for the album was supported wholeheartedly by his British label, the prestigious 4AD. They gave him exclusive use of their recording studio in Wandsworth, south-west London, for three months, along with their in-house engineer Prynn. Rather than limiting themselves to a one-size-fits-all loop backing track, Perry and Prynn wanted the rhythm tracks to follow the dynamics of the songs. Apart from guitar and drums, Perry also plays keyboards, clarinet, flute, recorder and trumpet, as well as the aforementioned Irish harp and xylophone. The use of real instruments adds harmonic colour and character to the arrangements, and it all works to highlight the songs’ intricacies.
“In the Water” follows directly on from “Satan” and is my current favourite on the album. It’s a poetic rumination on the cycle of life as experienced by a dying whale. It’s pensive and beautiful and, despite its subject, feels closer to a rhapsody than an elegy. I should mention Perry’s considerable vocal prowess at this point, too. He has a distinctive voice with a clear and pleasing tone that makes his melodies sparkle. At times I was even reminded of the vocal timbre of Gordon Sumner (aka Sting), and I asked him if he’d been told that before. “Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot lately,” he said. “I haven’t ever really listened to him that much but I’ve heard others mention it.”
4AD became interested in D. D Dumbo after hearing the Tropical Oceans EP, which was released in October 2013 on The Blue Rider, a boutique US label. Perry had recorded Tropical Oceans by himself in a shed that he was living in at the time, outside Castlemaine, Victoria. Originally intended as demos, he put the self-produced EP up on Bandcamp and soon word of mouth – and of blog – started to spread his music further afield. In late 2014, 4AD signed him for the world directly out of Britain, which was quite a coup for the young musician. Only a handful of Australian acts have been signed to an international record label without being signed to an Australian company first. The fact that D. D Dumbo did it based on some homemade demos and without the benefit of high-powered management is a remarkable feat. Clearly 4AD thinks D. D Dumbo has a lot of potential.
And why wouldn’t they? The music of D. D Dumbo is the product of a very personal vision and its creator takes his inspiration from a wide variety of artists and cultures, with most of them having very little connection to current rock or pop. The musicians Perry cites as important influences include rural American blues artists Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lead Belly, film composer (and lounge music favourite) Henry Mancini, and African legends Ali Farka Touré and Hukwe Zawose. In fact these last two have their names conjoined by Perry for “Alihukwe”, track five on Utopia Defeated. “Alihukwe” evokes the polyrhythms and whirling drones of African desert blues and its words appear to recount a pilgrimage to Mali to experience the culture of his musical idols firsthand – a confronting experience from the sound of it.
I look but my eyes don’t see through a lens that clears the surface
Frogs are biting at my feet in a lonesome public sauna
Your blood is a million limbs, your heart a thousand others
Seven dwarves describe the mood and everyone is your distant brother
Another musical touchstone for the artist is Captain Beefheart, the redoubtable Don Van Vliet. Beefheart’s chaotic flights of fancy and outbursts of blues fury have been a constant source of inspiration for Perry and he points to the lyrics of “King Franco Picasso” as having the stamp of Van Vliet.
Ah yes, the lyrics. This is an area that presents some difficulties for me as a music critic. Let me say immediately that I think Perry’s lyrics are very good, so that’s not my problem. It’s this: whenever I interview a songwriter I’m always careful not to ask about their poetic imagery point-by-point because they may not be able to give me a rational explanation. Creativity springs from the subconscious and literal interpretations are often superfluous, or even ridiculous. On Utopia Defeated the lyrics are very impressionistic, with many images of creatures, humans and otherwise, under stress. There are a lot of very dark themes that recur: decay, corruption and extinction. For the most part, Oliver Hugh Perry has a dystopian view of the world, and it can be nightmarish at times. But he also sees images of beauty and hope among the wreckage wrought by human folly and nature’s careless brutality. The strange thing is, if you judged Utopia Defeated on the music alone, you would probably describe it as an upbeat pop album. It’s an interesting dichotomy and one that I think elevates D. D Dumbo’s songs to a higher plane. Personally, I like a little salt with my sugar.
FESTIVAL Hepburn Springs Swiss & Italian Festa
Various venues, Hepburn Springs, Victoria, October 19-23
INSTALLATION Ross Manning: Melody Lines
Carriageworks, Sydney, until October 30
CINEMA Adelaide Film Festival
Various venues, Adelaide, until October 30
VISUAL ART No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until January 29, 2017
VISUAL ART Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, until October 26
FASHION Adelaide Fashion Festival
Various venues, Adelaide, October 19-23
HORTICULTURE Lee Mingwei – Moving Garden
NGV International, Melbourne, until January 29
Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne, until November 5
FESTIVAL Bruny Island Bird Festival
Various venues, Bruny Island, Tasmania, until October 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "Fraction Beefheart". Subscribe here.