Interview: Drew Danburry: “Some of our best songs come from struggle”

Montana based Drew Danburry is having a hell of a year in various ways. Not only has he had to deal with the global madness of the last few months, but how many people have released two albums under a new moniker, launched a new label, moved house and changed job? Drew has or is about to do all these things, but if a meteor comes and lands on us at the end of next week, he will have left behind as a legacy one of the most beautiful records of the year, ‘Icarus Phoenix’, which lands next Tuesday and which he describes as “a love letter from the darkness, letting you know I’ve been there too.” On the day his label Telos Tapes launches, Mark Whitfield caught up with Drew about the new record, why his new label will be only releasing cassette tapes, and the process of starting over.

How has this year been for you with everything going on in the world?
It’s been a rollercoaster to say the least. As I’m sure it’s been for so many others as well. It feels really weird to be starting a label in all of this chaos. Almost like spitting into a hurricane. But all I’ve ever known to do is create and share. So that’s what I’m doing. It seems really counterintuitive in some ways and in other ways, it feels pointless to fight it anymore.

I don’t really expect anybody to support the new label and/or all the hand-drawn animations I’ve been putting out. But it would be really nice. So much care and thought has been put into the label and its releases, it would be such a good feeling for others to feel the same.

Do you feel like any good can come out of the pandemic for musicians and the industry?
The short answer is yes. I do. Move onto the next question unless you want the long answer.

I feel like it’s been a great moment to make use of time at home to get a lot of work done. I just finished recording 28 songs for the next Icarus Phoenix record with a full band and it was wonderful to have other people be a part of the process and as excited about the songs. It was a creative process I’ve been missing for so long. Not to mention I’ve spent so much time on some up and coming animations that I’m particularly excited about. So in some ways, hunkering down and getting to work has been really helpful and amazing.

Regardless, it’s been pretty detrimental for so many. There’s been so much suffering and struggle. But things grow out of the ashes. Some of our best songs come from struggle. I like to try and be grateful and hopeful despite all the reasons not to and sometimes the struggle though painful can yield results that are really quite lovely. That’s my positive spin on all this awful.

Moving on to your new album and project Icarus Phoenix, it’s a great, sprawling beautiful piece of work. How did the idea come about for it in the first place?
We moved to Montana three years ago and it was a very brutal shift mentally. I won’t go into all the details that contributed to where I was at but I essentially felt dead to the world. Without value. A ghost. An empty shell. To everyone around me. I literally was just trying to find a way to erase my existence in the least cumbersome way. I figured if I blew my brains out in a trash dumpster, I would just get taken out with the trash and nobody would notice or care. It was not healthy.

It kind of spawned the song ‘Zero One, for Will Sartain’ which spawned the whole project of Icarus Phoenix. I had intended to stop writing songs and stop playing music (how many times have I tried this? how many times have I recognized how much better my life would be if I could turn this weird obsession off?) and of course songs just started pouring out.

Recognizing this wasn’t a triumphant return but a repetition of sorts. How I’m constantly aiming too high. Hoping for too much. Whatever it is, however people want to see it. It’s this epic effort placed into crafting the perfect album with the hopes that people will care enough for me to get by. It’s a fine balance, because I’m so grateful that anyone pays attention at all. But it’s also a huge struggle and a heavy elephant in my family’s house. A financial black hole of sorts. An expensive hobby. Whatever you want to call it. It’s this constant repetition that ends up really causing a lot of problems but also helps with the neverending existential crisis of life.

What would you say are the main themes of the album?
Accepting myself as a failure. Accepting myself as imperfect. Accepting that life will never be what I hope for, but is what it is. Accepting that what I want doesn’t matter. Accepting that I will continue to do the things I do. I will always strive to make something great. And that whether I achieve it or not is relative. Rebirth. Suffering as a connection between us all. Suffering as the only thing that connects us all. It’s hard to describe all my life philosophies or the mental breakthroughs I’ve had for myself personally. But they’re always there. They’re always in the lyrics. They may not mean to others what they mean to me. But it’s always what I build an album on.

You recorded 40 songs in total for the project and many of those which didn’t make the album did make it on to an album of b-sides – how do you decide which tracks make an A-side or a B-side? Are they interchangeable?
I definitely crafted the A-sides into an “album” whereas the B-sides although hopefully good, didn’t fit into the flow of the A-sides if that makes sense. Jed Jones produced this batch of songs (as well as the first half of ‘Pallid Boy, Spindling Girl’) and I think it really came down to picking songs in an order that felt like they told a story. So, for the most part, the A-sides are in chronological order. You can see or feel (or hear?) me crawling out of the depression so to speak.

Many tracks recorded for the project are dedicated to someone, in the song title itself, which is something you’ve done in the past. Are specific people the inspiration for songs, or do you just sometimes kind of “gift” a song to someone who means something to you?
Usually it’s a gift. Usually I just want to tell someone I love them. I’ve lost touch with so many people over the years and I miss and love them but I’m just not going to get on social media. Ever. It’s such a destructive force in my opinion. If people can navigate that world without it hurting their self-image than I think that’s great, but I don’t see how it doesn’t affect people that use it. It’s kind of how I feel about online reviews. Good or bad. It’s all the same. A good review just builds up expectations to let someone down. You can’t win in the online world. And I don’t intend to play that game or interact in that way.

But back to the actual question. Sometimes, yes, it’s about the actual person, and that would be confirmed in the lyrics. For example, the song ‘Cassie Knows’ from the Icarus Phoenix record is a direct message to an old friend about an interaction I doubt they remember but that kind of changed my life. ‘Ironman and his demons, for Striker’ is a song that I wrote specifically for my son Striker. ‘El Espanto Humano’ is about and for my wife Lynette. So there’s a bit of both. Inspiration at times. Gifts (or love notes) at other times.

The album starts with what I think is one of the best songs you’ve ever written, ‘Zero One, for Will Sartain’ – tell me a bit about the song?
Thank you so much. So much. Kind of like I mentioned before, it encapsulates the whole project of “Icarus Phoenix” and was the first song written for it. It’s kind of straightforward in that it’s about depression, nothingness, being nothing, the constant struggle of just being alive. Accepting life is pain/suffering.

To be more specific, I was in a very dark depression, my in-laws were trying to get my wife to leave me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to exist anymore. I remember one morning, just asking my son if his life would be better if I wasn’t in it. And him just saying, “yeah” and then my wife I guess overheard the conversation and asked me to go see a therapist.

In my head, it all just felt logical, you know? Like, I’m not making my family’s life better, I’m not happy, the people closest to me don’t want me around and maybe it’d just be better if I didn’t exist. I had so much damage after living in Utah Valley for so long, having officially left the Mormon church a few years earlier and just so many other things. It’s hard to put into words but, it just became this monster over time.

But I’m okay now. It was just a really difficult time then. And I think the song kind of encapsulates all of that turmoil in a very simple way.

Another stand out track for me is ‘How Rabbit Changed My Life’ – who was Rabbit and how did they change your life?
This is actually a LONG story, but it involves a seer, some prophecies, randomly meeting an amazing human (named Rabbit) while recording the album, asking them to come sing on the record and then them blowing our mind by knocking it out of the park in less than three takes on each track they sang on. It was such a powerful and surreal moment looking back on all the weird moving parts that led us to the moment we were in and just feeling the magic of it all as it happened.

It basically renewed my faith in some form of higher power. A lot of my life has had checkpoints and intuition and guidance. But I like the idea of a higher power being a frequency we tune into, or a vibration or whatever. Not anything definable. But something that we can access or something that kind of nudges us along if we decide to listen. Maybe it’s the indefinable complexity of our own intuition as existential animals. Who knows?

A track I do have to ask you about too from the b-sides record is ‘Can’t Win, for Pup’ which is a cover but your interpretation of it is just so moving, so tender and raw. Was it a difficult song to sing?
PUP, Big Thief, Jenn Champion, Supermoon, Misty Moon, J.W. Teller, Midwife and Garden Gate are some of my favorite bands in the last few years. PUP especially blew my mind by playing punk rock in a way that felt entirely brand new while still built on a foundation of the genre that made sense.

So when my friend Trevor Campbell showed me the band, it literally changed my life. As you get older, you don’t get that epic feeling as often, of a band taking over your life, so to speak. Of feeling like they’re doing everything the way you would if you could. But they are. And it feels so wonderful to fall in love with a band in a sincere way.

So when I got deep into the album ‘The Dream is Over’ by PUP. I guess I just felt like their song ‘Can’t Win’ was something I felt way too much not to cover it. I don’t cover songs often, but this one really meant a lot to me. I wish I could write songs like them. Instead I write songs like me. haha.

You’re releasing the album on cassette only, and have even set up your new label Telos Tapes to do this for future releases – why did you decide to do this?
In a lot of ways, I just felt like no one is listening anyways, so why not make it exclusive and special? I also feel like if you don’t set boundaries and value yourself then others won’t value you either. At least in our interpersonal relationships, you have to set boundaries with others, otherwise they’ll walk all over you. They won’t respect you.

Why would it be any different with music? So when I mentioned the idea to a few friends (and they were excited about the idea), I just felt like I should probably do it. So here we are. Putting out cassettes. Bandcamp only releases. Telling the world you can’t stream us on Spotify.

Plus, it just feels like no one values music in general anymore. They hear a song, add it to a playlist and then forget about it. No one has to actually hunt a song down. No one has to do any work to get the thing anymore. I’m sure I’m just cutting our chances of anyone listening to us down to an extremely small percentage, but similar to social media… I don’t want to compete with the landfill that is the internet.

I’m just not interested in that at all. Instead, I want to make amazing works of art. And share them with a small audience who can appreciate it.

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2020?
Honestly, we’re moving. Again. I’m really sad about it. We finally got settled in Montana and now every Californian/Portlandian/Seattle-ite is buying up all the property here for cash upfront/sight unseen and working remotely. So now we can’t afford to live here anymore, not to mention, nothing is available. And by nothing I mean there is a 0.05% vacancy rate. Quite literally, almost nothing. We got asked to leave by our landlord so they could move in and we can’t find anywhere to move within twenty miles…

I’m gonna miss the barbershop I’ve been working in. It’s been the best job ever. I’m gonna miss the band that took years to build. But thankfully we recorded 28 songs recently, so there’s that.

But yeah, moving. Starting over. There’s been so much unknown this year. So much up in the air. It feels thematically succinct to not know where we’ll be living or working in the next few months. I’ll try not to have as rough of a go as last time. haha.

The Telos Tapes label launches today – you can buy the new Icarus Phoenix album and other merchandise from the label’s Bandcamp page here


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Author: Mark Whitfield

Mark Whitfield has been the Editor of Americana UK for the last 17 years and still feels like this is his pretend job, mainly because it is.

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