Damon Allen's been around. He started out back in the late '80s as the singer for influential Houston straightedge band Refuse To Fall, whose members went on to form a half-dozen similarly influential bands, in turn, hardcore and otherwise: guitarist Arnett went on to I End Result; bassist Danny formed Scarred For Life (now known as Will to Live); Bill, the drummer, ended up in Austin, playing with ska guys The Bowler Boys; and Damon himself joined with guitarist Gilbert to start Blueprint, and later moved on to Celindine and then to his most recent band, That Gospel Sound.
Despite the years, though, Damon's probably best known for his Refuse To Fall days ("When [That Gospel Sound] go[es] on tour, I'm gonna put 'ex-Refuse To Fall' on all the flyers, so people'll come to the shows," he says, with a smile).
In the years since Refuse To Fall started, Damon's had a lot of growing up to do. Now he's got a full-time job, a wife, and a much more complex musical project to spend his time on, and he's learned the hard way that you can't keep doing things the way you did as a kid. Don't take that to mean, though, that Damon's stuck on memories of his former band -- he's the last person to want to keep that particular ghost alive. Instead he's moved on, keeping his eyes open all the while, and watching Houston's music scene change and grow.
So, it's not too surprising that when we get together at Mientje's to talk, it's the state of the scene as a whole that comes up first. Damon starts out talking about a recent article in The Houston Press, where Gram and Killian of local favorites The Drapes talked about not needing to support everybody.
"I just wish they'd be a little bit more considerate of other people," he says, "and not be so self-centered all the time. You can't just expect to have this grip on the whole scene and analyze everything and put everybody else down." He shakes his head.
"I've been through that whole not really wanting other bands to play, or wanting other bands to get ahead of where we are, y'know, if I didn't think they were good, with the whole straightedge thing. That was all about 'we're this, and they're that.' And you can't do that; it'll never work out."
We talk about how important it is for Houston musicians to stick together, the non-fanbase in this town being what it is. He points to ZZ Top, King's X, and Helstar(?!) as the only bands from Houston who've ever made it big in the music world at large, and wonders if Houston's scene will ever "explode" nationally, or if that time's already passed us by.
"I feel like, when I was in Refuse To Fall, starting over again, I feel like it's that era but ten years later, because it's so hard for me to get shows now, 'cause I don't know anybody anymore, and 'cause I don't have friends that play in a lot of bands that I used to get shows with. I feel like it's the same thing. People would ask us for shows, 'cause we had our pick, of like the Axiom or wherever we'd play," he remembers.
Damon Allen -- http://www.theadjusters.com/
Refuse To Fall -- http://www.moonska.com/
Will to Live -- http://www.dsausa.org/
Abridged Records -- http://www.dsausa.org/
76.2% Records -- http://www.dsausa.org/
Photos #1-3 by Jeremy Hart.
I tell him that somebody else I'd talked to referred to him as "the Ray Cappo of the west of the Mississippi," to which he just laughs. "No, I know Ray, and I'm nothing like Ray," he answers. When I press for details on Refuse To Fall, he recounts a bit of the band's history, from his joining the band at 16 after seeing Youth Of Today at the Axiom. He's not straightedge these days, but doesn't regret adopting the philosophy in his youth at all.
"I'm glad I was at that time," he says, "because I think that's the time where if you don't have...some people just need a little more to keep them on the right path, or whatever, and not fuck up real bad. 'Cause a lot of people in their teens are looking for themselves, trying to find certain things -- they go through a lot of crap, and a lot of hard times." I put forward the idea that you need some kind of group to support you, something to belong to, and he nods in agreement.
"Big time. Maybe it was like a...not a 'club,' or whatever you want to call it -- I don't know what you'd want to call it, but it's like, it helped, and it was supporting, and just having that was fun, more than anything. We had so much fun. We didn't have the problems that most bands had during that time, with people being into drugs, or people being into whatever, breaking up. That's why we stuck together so long.
"We didn't do anything, we didn't have any activities besides the band. We didn't go party -- y'know, when you're a teenager, that's a big thing, to party and drink, because 'we're not supposed to do that, but we want to do that,' y'know? We didn't want to do that, so we had all this extra time...why not play music, y'know? It made it so easy. And we were just like, 'this is fun; it's what we like to do.' And we were just true with ourselves. That's the basic thing -- I think that's why it went somewhere. It wasn't the fact that we knew anybody, because we didn't know anybody!" As the rain starts to come down harder, we pause for a moment to move our chairs under cover.
"We were really into it, with all of our hearts. And that's what I try to do that with every band I have."
Rain starts leaking on us through the overhanging tarp, so we adjourn inside Mientje's and resume our conversation in whispers. About Refuse To Fall and the straightedge scene, Damon says, "it taught me a lot about music. 'Cause we played in New Jersey; it was the biggest crowd we'd ever played to, huge. It was the Gardens...? A big huge place. Like the Unicorn [a now-defunct Houston club that was basically a hollowed-out supermarket], but totally packed. And we had this video, and it was just like...playing places like that, y'know, if you want to be around those people that're pretty popular, it teaches you a lot.
"You wish you could experience that with every band you play in, y'know. But it definitely taught me that you just have to be patient with things, and if you're really into it with all your heart, you can make things happen."
He talks about how much easier it was to tour back then, working at Kroger and quitting every time they wanted to hit the road, and says that that made the success of Refuse To Fall possible; with the responsibilities that come up later, you can't necessarily tour like that, and that lessens your chances. "If they want to make it so big, they're gonna have to do the same thing," he says, referring back to The Drapes article for a moment. "The label reps aren't going to come to you -- you're going to have to go to them, and play there, and that's what we did."
We get sidetracked talking about the Refuse To Fall CD that local labels Abridged and 76.2% put out last year. The album, simply entitled Refuse To Fall, was a "reunion" of sorts for the band; they got back together and finally re-recorded old songs that they'd played back in their heyday (however, the album also features a live track, "Pleasure," from an old show at local club the Vatican).
Refuse To Fall were together for six years, a surprisingly long time for a Houston band. In the end, the reason they called it quits had a lot to do with disillusionment with what they saw going on around them in the scene.
"I think it all kind of fell apart when it was just like Equal Vision [Records], with the whole Krishna thing, because we got to know those guys so much better, and just found out that it wasn't what it was all cracked up to be." He says he still likes a lot of the Krishna philosophy, and thinks that it has a lot to offer, but that it didn't help the band, especially once the backlash against "Krishnacore" started within the straightedge scene. For himself, he says that "it was a lot more than just being in a band and trying to be a 'Krishna band' and playing. I was looking for something religious, y'know, and I didn't really get into Christianity, so that had something to offer.
"It's just like anything -- I mean, I wasn't born knowing about Christianity; it's been taught to me. It's the same thing with Krishna, where people think 'they're being brainwashed!', or it's just because Ray Cappo...yeah, it could be, but no," he demurs, and points out that the majority of people who are into it aren't musicians at all, but are instead doctors or lawyers, so-called "respectable" people.
When I ask about his view of the current straightedge scene, Damon admits ignorance of a lot of what's out there, but says that he's skeptical. "It's just like before," he says, "I mean, there were people who were into it for the image, and there were people who were really into it. And just by sitting down and talking for like thirty minutes, you can figure out who's really into it and who's not."
He also says he doesn't like a lot of the more "metal" straightedge that's out now, and that Refuse To Fall never really fell into the same category as a lot of the ultra-heavy New York/New Jersey straightedge bands, but took a more melodic route.
"That's the thing that I think appealed to a lot of people. You'd be surprised how people on the East Coast when we toured out there liked it because it wasn't the 'heavy thing.' And it wasn't the 'mellow thing,' too -- it wasn't like we were doing any 'thing'; we were just kind of ourselves, doing our own thing. And it appealed to a lot of people, 'cause we weren't your typical straightedge band. A lot of people didn't even think we were straightedge -- we'd play and they were like 'what kind of stuff are you guys?'"
I mention that I'd heard a while back about a Refuse To Fall reunion, and Damon chuckles and shakes his head. "It's just...it's over. And people want to keep bringing it back because it was the popular thing, and people want to relive the glory days. It won't happen, because for one thing, everybody's not into it; it was so much of an emotional outlet, and you can't recreate that, y'know. We played with Shelter when they came through a few years back, and that was kind of a 'let's just do it' kind of thing, but we were into it -- we were just kind of like 'yeah, this's cool.' It was alright, but it wasn't like the old days, y'know. If it has no value for you, how can you expect to output that? It's real visible, especially to people who've seen you before. So I started thinking, 'y'know, this is just a facade; it's a total'...I don't know. It just didn't seem to work well."
After Refuse To Fall's breakup, everybody went their separate ways. Damon picked up a guitar for the first time, and he and ex-RTF guitarist Gilbert joined together to form Blueprint, partly out of a newfound love for a lot of different, non-straightedge music that he'd never been exposed to previously.
"I could kick myself for not going to shows that I heard about a long time ago, just because it wasn't the thing that I was into, y'know? Now, I look back and think of all the bands and things I could've seen, and things I could've heard so long ago, that've influenced me now... I missed out on a lot, but y'know, now that I've realized it, the generation after me missed out on all the stuff we did, too, that I had a chance to see."
He goes on to talk about the ways in which different styles of music evolve, and how it's pretty much impossible to not be influenced by something -- even The Beatles ripped off Chuck Berry, he points out.
"A lot of people go 'I don't like them because they're not completely original.' Okay, well, you don't need to go to shows if you want originality. Originality would be actually not listening to music -- that'd be pretty original..."
That Gospel Sound, in contrast with Refuse To Fall's mass acceptance in the straightedge scene at the time, has been an uphill battle for Damon and his bandmates. In the short time they've been together (just over a year, which is a lifetime for Houston bands), they've gone through a total of five bassists (the most recent, Dyn@mutt alum Chad Shaw, quit to play with The Cinders), their practice space was burglarized a few months back, and both Damon and guitarist Zeke (who quit the band not long after) have gotten married, which obviously makes things a bit more complicated for the band as a whole. All the while, their odd style of indie-rock, quiet, instrumental soundscapes (a far cry from RTF's melodic quasi-hardcore), has received only grudging recognition in Houston.
"A lot of people don't understand, 'cause a lot of what we're doing is slower, like 'sad' type of music, quiet and other things," Damon says, his voice barely audible over the coffee machine down the hall. "People don't want to go out and be sad -- they wanna go out and be happy. People don't understand that our music is happy, but in a different way, y'know? They just take it for face value, and we won't probably ever get ever as many people as Refuse To Fall did, 'cause there's not that adrenaline going."
I point out that it probably has to do with categorization problems -- straightedge is an easy reference point; if you're into it and somebody says "hey, let's go to a straightedge show," chances are that if you can, you will. That Gospel Sound, though, aren't that easy to classify; they're kind of rock-ish, but more "spaghetti Western"-ish, almost.
"Yeah, we were kind of trying to go for that sort of thing. It's funny...my perfect thing wouldn't be this alternative band that gets played on the Buzz or anything. What I really want to do is make music for movies -- just like soundtrack stuff as the background, something so different, so instrumental.
"What I focused on with Refuse To Fall and all other bands..." he continues, "I've been singing for so long, and I want to get more into the music. And I know that I'm not like this great guitar player; I can't play that type of music and have enough ideas to where I can just put it into things, and I want to start doing other things, just having other avenues to go down, beyond just playing clubs and playing shows and stuff like that. I wouldn't mind doing that."
When I suggest that maybe that's a better route than the traditional "play-shows-sell-tapes-and-tour" method, he tells me that he'd like to do that, as well, but with no illusions about their chances. "It's just, y'know, I'm not gonna try with all my heart to get picked up by a label, because I know that it just might not happen.
"It's like, I've been disillusioned, just being here so long. I've tried so many different things; maybe they weren't...maybe they just didn't have what it took to get picked up. That could be the ultimate reality, and I'm not saying they were great bands; it's just, y'know, if there's a way to make things work out to where I can play music and get paid for it, that would be better. That would be a good thing."
Following along those lines, I ask if That Gospel Sound has any plans to put anything out. "If we can ever get a lineup together and actually stay together for a while!" Damon says, laughing. END