Kinky Wizard

Long the king of his castle, ever-prolific Deathray Davies front man John Dufilho is learning to share

"We are certainly not control freaks, but we do as much of it as we can do ourselves to keep our own expression, our own way," says the tall, thin and boyishly handsome John Dufilho regarding the Deathray Davies' fiercely independent spirit. Autonomy is actually built into the very structure of the Dallas, Texas-based band for one very important reason: Its recorded output so far has largely consisted of the work of one man, alone in a studio.

Of course, one-man recordings these days hardly raise most people's eyebrows, let alone are subject to note within the music press, but what separates the Deathray Davies from other individual projects is that Dufilho hasn't just lifted a bunch of samples from his record collection and then, with the aid of a sequencer, a computer and an eon in which to play around, recombined them into something resembling music only insofar as it possesses a tune and a beat. He actually plays a schwack of instruments and sings.

The Deathray Davies initially came about as one of Dufilho's numerous side projects to his main band at the time, the power-pop trio Bedwetter. He put together a short tape of songs that he had recorded himself and sent it in to the overly prestigious South by Southwest festival in Austin a couple of years ago. The SXSW committee loved the tape and he was given a venue and a date to play to the slavering hordes of label types and journalists. Dufilho quickly pulled together a band with which to play his songs live, and the first living, breathing incarnation of the Deathray Davies was born.

John Dufilho (far right) and his Deathray Davies crew 
continue to burn bright on their latest.
Mark Graham
John Dufilho (far right) and his Deathray Davies crew continue to burn bright on their latest.
The Deathray Davies kick things up during their 
high-energy concerts.
The Deathray Davies kick things up during their high-energy concerts.

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Is scheduled to perform on Friday, June 8, with Arlo. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Big Fish Pub in Tempe

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At this year's SXSW festival, the Deathray Davies earned a slew of attention for its packed-to-the-rafters show at the Drink. Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke -- actually shut out of the sold-out venue -- offered a ringing endorsement of DRD's set. "I was tall enough to actually see without going in," wrote Fricke. "And the door was open, so it sounded great. They were killer. I went to buy their record yesterday."

Though SXSW has proven to be a terrific springboard for the band's fortunes, Dufilho is less than enamored of the festival's new direction, one that seems to be straying increasingly from its original mandate of helping break new bands.

"It's ridiculous. It's not so much about bands that aren't known doing stuff, which is what it's supposed to be about. It's a lot of vacation time for label people, I think," he says. "That's what I use it as. I only applied in the first place because I usually go anyway, just watch bands, and figured, you know, if I got in, I could go for free."

Shortly after the SXSW '99 appearance, Dufilho hunkered down in the studio and produced the remarkable Drink With Grown-Ups and Listen to the Jazz, an album that garnered the band praise from critics and an attentive audience. In the wake of the disc, Dufilho, and an ever-changing roster of friends and associates that read like a veritable who's who of one section of the Dallas metro music scene, stepped up the band's performances and landed a support slot on a short East Coast jaunt with the alt-country-gone-pop merchants the Old 97's. Dufilho's influence surely rubbed off on 97's front man Rhett Miller; listen to "King of All of the World," the leadoff track from the 97's new disc Satellite Rides, and compare it to the Deathray's latest for proof. Miller returned the favor, so to speak, turning up on Late Night With Conan O'Brien sporting a Deathray Davies tee shirt.

The Deathray's monstrously successful year was capped by winning the Best New Act category in the Dallas Observer's (New Times' sister paper) music awards.

Even in the midst of this activity, Dufilho found the time to once again lock himself away in the studio and begin recording the band's latest CD, The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist, released last August. "Some songs I had all planned out in my head what I wanted to do. Others I just kind of made up as I went along," Dufilho says. "When I'm recording by myself . . . I have the sound I want in my head, and half the time it gets there [to the tape] and half the time it turns into something entirely different," he offers. Explaining the process by which the sounds in his head get onto a more shareable format, Dufilho adds matter-of-factly that "I just put a click track on and start playing drums and then build things on top of it."

While the Deathray Davies have suffered more lineup changes than a Colombian World Cup soccer squad, the band has begun to solidify around its busy front man. "It's really fun recording that way; I liked it a lot, but I think that I'm done with it and now we're just going to do full band recordings -- which we've already started. We've started the next album already."

Already renowned for his exhaustive work ethic, which includes membership in Big D rockers the Hundred Inevitables as well as the Davies, Dufilho says, "I've been on this frenzy of writing songs and I've got all this new stuff that I'm dying to record."

Dufilho notes the band has booked time with producers Matt Pence (Centro-Matic, Pleasant Grove) and Barry Poynter (Juliana Theory, Mulehead), and both of those sessions could produce separate albums. That's in addition to the recording the band has been doing over the past few months, which, yes, could also end up as another new disc.

On top of all that, Dufilho, Deathray bassist Jason Garner and drummer Bill Shupp have been working on a low-key DRD offshoot called I Love Math; Dufilho says he's recorded demos for about 40 new songs for the side project.

Given the Deathray Davies' unusual conception, it's tempting to view the unit as the musical equivalent of an authoritarian state rather than a group of mutual friends who are brought together as much by circumstance as by a shared interest in music. Dufilho says, "It's kind of [developed] into that . . . into a regular real band, whatever that is. At first it was pretty much me just saying, 'This is how all the parts go, play it like this, don't play it like that.' Which I'm not very good at that role. I wasn't thrilled about being a leader of a band and telling people how to play and what to do. But by the time I finally got comfortable with it, everybody was ready to start making it a real band. So it's slowly [come] together."

The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquistdisplays many of the characteristics of the band's first album and expands upon the group's winning lo-fi mélange of '60s Brit invasion sounds and the more contemporary pulp/pop. Dufilho's lyrics, like his song titles, are by turns serious or more simply punny, but never at the expense of meaning. "I just loathe music that, even if it's catchy, the words aren't rhyming with reason. I like things to mean something," he says.

The recordings reflect the wacky, just-havin'-fun spirit that the Davies embody during their live show. Even the darker tracks, especially "Evaporated," are extremely impressive reflections of what the band is capable of, without departing too much from the energetic sound. "Chinese Checkers and Devo Records," with its unique recording style (it sounds as if someone keeps adjusting the volume knob), ends the album on a definite high note.

Although Dufilho pooh-poohs the notion himself, it seems reasonable to assume that the album's title is a sly reference to his role as the man with sounds in his head that have to be released. "I just liked it," he says. "It just sounded right. . . . There's nothing really deep about it."

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