Nashville’s Dedsa Singed My Hair Off

Dedsa reminds me of a riddle. The kind of riddle a hunched old man would ask as a toll to cross his bridge. Except the answer to this riddle is screaming “ROCK!” while shoving a fist in the air. An eclectic mix of styles and genres, Dedsa gets you to lean in by posing the question “What kind of music is this?” and then yells in your face “Who cares? Let’s have some fun!” Loud and raw, the synth-heavy music is poppy at times and proggy at others, but it is never without energy. I was able to sit down with the band and pick their collective brain about their unique sound.

Dedsa began as a duo of two new Nashvillians, Stephen DeWitt of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Robbie Ware of Monument, Colorado. After arriving in town about a month apart, the two bonded over mutual tastes.

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Stephen DeWitt: We had the same ideas early on of what we wanted to do. Having basically a classic rock kind of sound, but combined with modern synth-dance music and crazy electronic stuff. That has really become a central tenet of Dedsa.

Robbie Ware: Yeah, the first thing we ever did was just Stephen on drum kit and just my Moog, which is monophonic, so it was just one synth note at a time. That evolved into the skeleton of what Dedsa is now.

Eventually the duo expanded by adding another keyboard and bass player, Ben Carreon.

Robbie: We got Ben to move out here about a year and a half after I did. We have been friends for about 11 years and played in bands together in high school.

Stephen: Robbie and I started writing, but we didn’t really get traction until Ben came around. It took us a long time, but we made our whole first album completely in the studio. We would play live shows with tracks, because I’d recorded all the drums in the studio.

It was then that another old friend from home got involved. Drummer Grant Bramlett, moved to Nashville and hit up his high school buddy and bandmate, Stephen.

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 Stephen: Then Grant saw our show and said “You guys sound really good, but you need a drummer.” And we were like “Uhh, maybe, whatever.” We thought maybe we could really do it without a drummer, but it turns out we needed that for the sound we really wanted to achieve. So Grant joined, and that was a big evolution that we didn’t even anticipate.

Robbie: We were kind of against it for a while, just because we experiment a lot, and we were thinking “who could we possibly feel comfortable enough bringing into this process.”

Grant Bramlett: Funny story. When I first came on, I had to learn their set twice, two different ways. The first time was playing to the backing tracks, just adding live drums on top of it. Then I learned it again, pulling the drums tracks out and reincorporating them with a sample pad.

Robbie: Which is not just drums, there’s all kinds of sounds, samples, stuff that I’ve recorded from my Moog… we had to totally deconstruct everything and then we just sort of threw it at Grant. But he did it!

Stephen: Dedsa for a long time was mostly about getting new gear. But really, we’re trying bring a huge sounding show and it’s been a really hard thing to achieve, because there’s so much going on. We’re trying to fit everything in. It’s kind of crazy.

Robbie: There are some songs where Stephen doesn’t play guitar and it’s just two keyboards and drums, but we’re still trying to sound like Led Zeppelin or something. So it was like “What do we need to buy to make that happen?”

 

After years of experimentation, Dedsa’s long incubation period paid off. Their fresh sound and raucous live shows earned them a spot as Lightning 100’s Artist of the Week, a feat most up-and-coming Nashville bands would kill for. Their feature lined up with the video release for one of their new singles, Lighter Click.”

Stephen: The origin of “Lighter Click” goes back to the very beginning of Dedsa. It was one of the very first things we did. We sampled a Stylophone, you know the little toy keyboards?

Robbie: I wanted to play chords on it, but you can only play one note at a time.

Stephen: So I sampled it into Reason, and Robbie immediately played [the riff from the beginning of the song]. So then we put it to a beat.

Robbie: And we sampled a big lighter clicking.

Stephen: Yeah, that’s actually where the title comes from. It has nothing to do with the lyrics.

Robbie: So that part of the song, just the skeleton, has been floating around the computer for like four years. Then when we had everybody, we just kind of dredged it up and said “What can we do with this?”

What they did was create a frenetic, yet mathematical jam. The stylophone loop gives the song an almost Chromeo-esqe groove that sits alongside squealing guitars, jungle drums, and glam-punk vocals. After over four minutes of that structure, the song breaks into the coda. It was a screaming mix of the White Stripes and Yes, full of super-powered synth and guitar licks and jarring time changes. When discussing the creative process of making the coda, the band came alive. After several passes of “oh well, I thought of that when you played this,” it became clear that Dedsa is a truly collaborative band. In this case, no one person could point to any other as the “creator” of that part of the song.

The same can’t be said of the accompanying music video.

Stephen: Robbie basically just decided [to do it] out of nowhere. We were recording “Lighter Click,” and it was coming along pretty well, once we’d worked it out with Grant. And Robbie came forward and said “I’m seeing all these things in my head go to along with the song. Do you think I could do a full length animated video?” and we were all like, “Sure! Go crazy!”

Grant: And he did.

Stephen: I’ve never see anybody work so hard on anything. He went in and dedicated his life to it for like six months.

Grant: How many hours a night, would you say?

Robbie: Anywhere from five to ten.

Grant: Along with working a full time job. So we just didn’t see him.

Robbie: Before I ever got into music I was an artist. I was interested in drawing and animation. I’d done two short promo videos before this, in the same paper stop-motion style. I would just make the videos whatever length, and then we’d cut the song to fit it. But this is the first time where I went to do something set to the music. Ben helped me a lot. He would zoom in on the waveforms on the computer, and figure out the exact lengths of parts, and then do the math to figure out how many frames I had to shoot to make it sync up.

Robbie: And we have like three time changes in that song, and the whole coda is not to a click. So Ben had to go through and figure out how to make that work.

Ben Carreon: I helped put it together at the very end. Making sure everything lined up with the music.

Robbie: I would shoot like thirty seconds or a minute and shoot it over to Ben, and he would start syncing it to the music while I was making more shots.

Ben: It was pretty simple because Robbie got the math right most of the time, so everything just fit into place. But there were a few fine tuning adjustments that we had to make together.

Robbie: It would not have been finished in time [without Ben]. I’m not good with computers, and he figured out a lot of technical stuff that I could not have on my own.

How exactly does the process work?

Robbie: It’s entirely drawn with colored pencil, and then cut out. I have big backgrounds and I move the characters around and then place a big sheet of glass on top. Then I have an iPhone attached to a cymbal stand, face it straight down and take the picture. I watched an interview with Terry Gilliam. That’s how I figured it out.

The resulting art is Monty Python meets Iron Maiden. Robbie described his inspiration for the video.

Robbie: I think my main goal… I love album artwork, and it makes me kind of sad that it’s not as common [as it used to be]. People don’t sit around and look at it. Think of bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. They have this incredible album artwork. I grew up sitting around looking at that kind of stuff, and when I listen to music, that kind of imagery comes to mind. I can’t listen to Yes without seeing Roger Dean’s paintings. But people still watch videos on their phones, so I thought it would be cool to have a video where everything is hand drawn, which is all I know how to do anyway. So it’s sort of a seventies metal album cover brought to life.

It’s quite appropriate for an entirely self-made music video to accompany “Lighter Click.” As with every Dedsa song, it is start-to-finish home-made.

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So you’ve recorded all of your own songs?

Stephen: Yeah.

Robbie: Completely.

Stephen: From the start. I was always interested in recording, since I was a teenager. I got my first drum kit, then I got a recorder. I used to record on cassettes, then I got a little digital thing. I just kept moving up until I bought a console. And it’s changed how we work. We get to have complete control. I’ve had very minimal dealings with outside people who work in mastering or mixing. And I don’t know if I could work with those people, because they don’t do things the way I do. I do live mix-downs. I basically pretend like I’m recording to tape. I don’t like tape, but I use the same work flow, because I think that’s how you make exciting records versus “good sounding” records. I want records that sound exciting, because that’s what music is all about to me. So, you know, there might be some technical things here or there, but ultimately my goal is to singe your hair off.

Grant: Being an outsider coming into this, I was not only really intrigued by their live stage presence, but also the level of detail that went into the recordings. If you listen to the drum tracks alone, there are times when there’s acoustic drums, MIDI synced drums, samples, or a mixture of everything. Different instruments are placed on top and approached in a different way. I don’t think a band of this age and size and financial backing would be able to do that without having [Stephen’s] expertise…

Stephen: … or mania…

Grant: …behind it. But that’s a huge benefit to having our own studio, that’s actually a legitimate studio. Not just a Mac Book.

So how did that process effect your other new single, “I Set A Record Today?”

Stephen: I actually wanted to redo it, but we kept listening to it and we were like “We can’t fuck with this.”

Robbie: The energy was there.

Stephen: It just sounded great every time we listened to it. If you listen to “Little Red Corvette” by Prince… that song sounds like shit. But people love that song! He made that in his basement studio. It sounds like he made it on a cassette.

Robbie: Yeah, if you know what you want, it doesn’t matter what method it takes to arrive there. If the vision is there, just put everything into it. I think sometimes too much emphasis is placed on doing things “correctly” or “professionally.” There’s a lot of songs you listen back to and it’s surprising. There are really popular songs and you put on your headphones and it’s like “where was this recorded?”

Stephen: So like fidelity-wise, I wasn’t 100% happy with [“I Set A Record Today”], but I am 100% happy with the way the song turned out because of the energy.

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How’d that song come about to begin with?

Robbie: That’s a Stephen song.

Stephen: Yeah, pretty much. The over-arching idea of the song is it’s sort of a bipolar character. They feel remorse, then they don’t and they’re terrible. I wanted it to be like a happy Cure song, but then switch to a Stooges kind of feel.

Yeah, it reminds me a lot ofI Wanna Be Your Dog.”

Stephen: That was actually my reference! I told Robbie I need anxiety piano stabs. If you listen to just the piano stabs, they sound really rough. He’s just mashing keys. So they’re buried back there, but they really poke through because they’re so nasty. But that was exactly my thoughts. I just wanted a Stooges section. We’re a very referential band, but we try to reference disparate things. Like, that song also has a Prince-style vocal solo, or my version of a Prince-style vocal solo. And then the guitar solo is a mixture of Ron Wood and like, Johnny Marr. And then I do a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimmy Page lick at the end.

Robbie: Stephen had the vocal melody and everything right there. It pushed Ben and me to find ways to weave different melodies around the vocal melody. It was a cool challenge seeing what we could do to compliment it.

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What emerges from this blender-mess of genres and noises is a spacy, triumphant, rock anthem with a heavy dose of 80’s power.  It sounds like an almost-familiar song, one you can’t quite seem to place, but played by some well-adjusted aliens that found a guitar and some drums. It’s both classic and novel sounding.

I caught Dedsa’s show at Mercy Lounge in Nashville last night. One thing that immediately stands out about the live show is how much it sounds like the recordings. It’s a real testament to their recording process that Dedsa is able to capture the wild energy of their live show. Whether it’s Robbie behind his mysteriously bulky rig, or Ben picking up a bass halfway through a song, their long dark hair usually obstructs their faces, granting the two a bit of a wizard/mad scientist vibe. Between songs, the pair fills transitions with bizarre synth noises that simultaneously perplex and invigorate. In back, Grant alternately flails and pounds on his kit while keeping up the various electronic hits mentioned earlier with a sampling pad. In front, Stephen belts with a dramatic tone and range and throws down powerful guitars when needed. When not, he’ll pick up an egg shaker or jump in the audience for a dance break. All four members carry a super high energy level throughout the show, which meshes perfectly with their music.

You might be able to catch a show yourself, as the band goes on tour in October, playing around the Southeast and Colorado. They hope to finish their next record, which will include “Lighter Click” and “I Set A Record Today,” by the end of the year. Then they’re doing a live action music video. Then probably another one. And then maybe another animated one after that. By making their own records, videos, and genre of music, Dedsa proved that bands can be truly independent without sacrificing their scope or integrity. And they did it their way.