Photo by Michele V.
The Dagons’ Karie Jacobson and Drew Kowalski — an Atwater guitar-drums duo who are also a couple — admit that they do some of their best work together in bed. “I get a lot of my songs from dreams, like ‘Changeling,’” Jacobson says about the eerie invocation that opens the band’s 1999 debut, The Other Ending. But it was only recently that their dream-time collaborations became obsessive.
“I was dreaming the lyric ‘He went into space,’ and then I woke up; Drew was sitting on the floor playing guitar, and I started singing along to it,” she recalls. That bleary-eyed jangle ended up on their blue-mood second album, Make Us Old. “I found out that when Robert Louis Stevenson was writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he went to sleep every night thinking, ‘I want a story about man’s dual nature,’ and then he dreamed the whole story. So I started trying that on our new album, Teeth for Pearls. For the title song, I went to sleep thinking, ‘I really need a guitar part for the chorus.’ The idea came as a nightmare about this claustrophobic candy house. You’re trapped, but it’s also kinda nice. There was this loud, awful pounding on the house: ‘BAM! BAM! [pause] BAM! BAM!’ Then I woke up and realized that was the rhythm I needed. It had to be a nightmare so I wouldn’t forget.”
Even the prettiest roses on Teeth for Pearls possess a similarly thorny twist. “Oh my spider bite/small and red and precious,” Jacobson coos on the airy love song “On This Bed Forever,” another ode to sleep and longing (“Our music is all about escapism,” she says). While her strumming blends countryish punk and gothic shivers on faster tunes like “Heaven Wasn’t in the Sky” and the madcap Griffith Park idyll “Dell of Ferns,” it’s Kowalski’s decidedly non-traditional drumming that gives everything a foreboding, mystical power. “He uses the low drums — a lot of toms and bass stuff,” says Jacobson. “The simplicity factor — not doing fancy rolls everywhere — comes from Gypsy music, which sounds like a wild, drunken roller coaster,” says Kowalski, whose parents were Hungarian immigrants. “Every piece of the drum set doesn’t have to be used on every song.”
Kowalski recorded and mixed the last two Dagons albums at home, dubbed “Del Shannon Memorial Soundstation” after the way “Runaway” was produced, with all the levels in the red. Kowalski’s influence is pervasive on “Ürdögüzes,” the most overtly psychedelic Dagons recording to date, with Jacobson’s warped backward-vocal keening against an ominous, omnipresent hum. “‘Ürdögüzes!’ is what a parent shouts when giving a kid a whipping,” he explains. “It means ‘I’m beating the devil out of you!’ — a very Salem, old-times type of sentiment.”
Neither Jacobson nor Kowalski had been in a band before they met and began jamming in the Bay Area in the late ’90s, falling in love a year later. Says Kowalski, “We built up a way of communicating to each other by . . .” “. . . learning our instruments together,” Jacobson finishes for him. They share a morbid fascination for the ocean, reflected in the word Dagons (based on the Philistines’ half-man, half-fish god), and in the name of their label: “Dead Sea Captain is from the image in books and movies where the ship is going down but the devoted captain’s trying to save it,” she says. “They find him later, and he’s a skeleton lashed to the helm.” Kowalski unrolls his shirtsleeve, baring just such a fearsome tattoo along his left forearm.
For all their seasick wanderlust and spectral chain-rattling, the pair acknowledge a down-home side on Teeth’s last track, “I Don’t Want To Play in Your Yard,” a tape Jacobson found of her late guitarist father, Boyd, accompanying her accordion-toting great-aunt Karnie on an old standard. Karnie taught them a wealth of Victorian parlor ballads, Appalachian folk songs, polkas and Danish waltzes, and the Dagons backed her for a spell as Karnie’s Band while living in San Francisco.
“We performed for her women’s club, and the old ladies really got into it,” Jacobson says. “This one woman shouted, ‘Play “When the Saints Go Marching In” and we’ll all march!’ We played it, and they got up and used their spoons for batons. It was a great show.”
The Dagons perform at Spaceland on Thursday, August 21.