Tag: Dustin Hengst

  • Interview With Drummer Dustin Hengst: Damone’s DIY Destiny

    It was sometime in 2004 when Dustin Hengst discovered the tie around his neck. And he couldn’t understand how the hell it got there. 

    Two years earlier, the Texas native was bashing the beat behind retro rockers Damone. The band had recently signed with RCA, and a debut album, From the Attic, came out punching with fists full of catchy, punkish tunes. At first, all signs pointed to a rocket ride to rock stardom. But somewhere during the initial ascent, the gas gave out: corporate mergers occupied the attention of an increasingly lukewarm record label, the album itself suddenly stalled, and Dave Pino—the band’s original guitarist and sole songwriter and lyricist—decided to pack up and quit. Worst of all, the rest of the band was dead broke.

    “It was not a good feeling,” Hengst says of that lean period. “We had toured the U.S. three or four times, we went to China, we went to Japan. And it didn’t take off. At that point, it had been over two years since we’d been signed. And when that label advance runs out, you’ve got to figure out something.”

    So the gig-hardened rockers stripped off the leather and took day jobs to keep themselves and the band alive. Vocalist Noelle (think Joan Jett with a sensitive side) watered plants at office buildings. Bass player Vazquez began substitute teaching (“and if you know him,” Hengst says fondly, “he’s the last guy who should be doing that”). A new guitarist, Mike Woods, eventually entered the fold, earning his keep by selling coats at Sax 5th Avenue. And what about Hengst, a graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music? Well, he tightened up that tie, walked over to a local temp agency, and got work at an auto-club. “I was calling tow-truck companies,” he recounts, “and taking surveys all day.” 

    A quick survey of their own situation got Hengst and company writing tunes for the first time and then trying to record them—on the cheap, guerilla-style—in Noelle’s apartment. Though still technically signed to RCA, the new-look, new-sounding Damone eventually leaked the demos, and the positive reaction from fans as well as from industry reps renewed the band’s confidence. Negotiations began to free the band from their contract, and the day the cuffs came off, they were driving to New York to perform a secret showcase for Island/Def Jam. A day later, a deal was on the table. As impossible a turnaround as it seemed at the time, Hengst has an explanation: “A band like us,” he says, “We’d had a record out on another label, it didn’t do well, and they knew the songwriter wasn’t in the band anymore. We were damaged goods. It really was the strength of the new material that got us signed. It wasn’t because there was any hype or anything going on. It was because they liked the songs, and then when we showed them that we could play them, they were like, ‘Okay!’”

    Exclamation noted. The demos became Damone’s new album, Out Here All Night, twelve tracks of big pop hooks with hard rock overtones, edgy melodies, and an appealing dash of hair metal glam. Actually, though, became is not exactly the right word to describe what happened to those demoed songs: They indeed are the album. Incredibly, the band’s new label thought the songs sounded so good that none of them needed to be rerecorded, only remixed. “So we never went in with a producer, we never did anything like that,” Hengst says. “The record that exists now is the record that we made in our apartment…while we were all at work.” 

    Not a bad showing for a bunch of first-time tunesmiths, and not really at all surprising. Unlike Damone’s debut album, which was written entirely by departed guitarist Pino, Out Here’s songs benefit from a collaborative creative process, with everyone throwing ideas in, around, and out. Hengst in particular stepped up by helping with guitar parts, vocals, lyrics, and song arrangements − so much so that his internal skinsman soon started protesting. “It got to the point,” he recalls, “where my drum parts were the last thing I was thinking about. It would be like, ‘Wow, I just spent all week figuring out the structure of the song and where I want the solo to go, and I haven’t even thought about what I’m going to play.’ It was pretty crazy, but I squeezed out some drum parts I’m pretty happy with.”

    And we’re happy too. It won’t take long for the thumping toms of “What We Came Here For” or the driving double bass licks of “Get Up and Go” to make your limbs wake up and flail. Though uniquely combining solid hard-rock slamming with just a hint of old-school Berklee swing, Hengst isn’t really looking for compliments. “I’m not trying to do something that has never been done before,” he insists. “As far as just actual technical style, I enjoy playing straight-ahead rock, power-rock drumming. A lot of the stuff that I was really into at Berklee, I don’t feel like I should apply that to Damone. It’s not needed really. It’s more fun I think to have a steady rock beat with flourishes here and there. I really enjoy just playing four-on-the-floor.”

    Don’t let the guy fool you, though, because his overall playing is a little more complicated than just a kick drum pounding quarter-notes. You’re not going to hear as many whiplash licks as in a Virgil Donati solo, but Hengst’s holistic, conceptual approach to composing might hurt your head just the same, like on the title track, ‘Out Here All Night.’ “The idea was that this song is about the guitar riff,” Hengst begins. “So I’m going to really lay back during the verses and let the riff be the hook of the song. And then there are going to be times during the song when the drums should play off of it and add to the intensity of it. And that’s what happens during the end of the song, where I do the fours and twos around the kit with the double bass. It was all based around embellishing this pre-existing guitar riff. A lot of the drum patterns follow the same movement, the same rhythm, as that riff. The drum part then makes the song feel cohesive and whole.” 

    “The types of styles of drumming that I like the best, or a combination of drummers that I really look up to, like Roger Taylor or Phil Rude or Stewart Copeland or Dave Lombardo − I think what they have in common is that they are aware of what the song is doing and aware of what the song needs, and I would like to describe myself as more of a compositional drummer, as a drummer who is interested in helping the song more than anything. That’s really the reason I have a job − because of the songs.”

    Ah, yes, the songs. If you have a radio and at least one functional ear, you’ve probably heard the title track tearing up the alternative charts. Much of the buzz is based on the band’s matured, kick-ass sound, of course, but Damone now has something they’ve never had before: strong support from a record company, one that’s not afraid to tempt ears with modern-day marketing techniques. “With a label like Island,” Hengst says, “They’re really progressive and forward thinking. They asked us, ‘What do you think about putting the whole album out on iTunes before the CD is released?’ If you’re Linkin’ Park or somebody, where initial CD sales are a concern, that might be the wrong thing to do. But what it ends up being—and we know this now because fans have told us—is that it’s something really nice you can do for your fans. You let the people who come to your shows and who know about you have it now—they can just go home after a show and download it—and that gets the word out even more. It’s a very interesting approach, and it seems to be working out well.” 

    So well in fact that Damone can lay claim to being one of the few groups that have been able to reinvent themselves from “damaged goods” into DIY destiny makers. Hengst can now enjoy a new and well-earned rocket ride, and if there are any concerns about running out of gas again, take note: “It turned out being a really good turn of events that things went so wrong the first time around,” Hengst reflects, laughing a little. “So this band was meant to hang in there for a reason.” 

    A reason, we’re betting, that has nothing at all to do with ties or tow trucks.