by Alex S. Johnson
Punk's hellbound Young Turks combine the ferocity of Slayer with the soul of Johnny Cash.
A Damnation show means blood, and lots of it. Forget GWAR. If you're lucky, these guys will shower you in enough deep red to make Carrie's prom look like an episode of Cosby. But tonight being an All Evil Ages show, no buckets of gore emerge. However, some questionable video footage of interspecies molestation -- bunnies with dogs, and other unnatural combinations -- does play, interminably, over the stage.Nightmares and lawsuits seem inevitable: "Dad, I kept having this dream where Pluto and Bugs..." "Yes, son?" "They were doing that special thing that you said only grownups who really love each other get to do." "Son, I knew something like this would happen. Let's go talk with your mother."The lights go down, and the music goes up: Wendy Carlos' theme to The Shining, overlaid with a booming, Luciferean Tim Curry from the film Legend. Then something tall, lean and quick leaps for the mike, and it's all nonstop fury, hurtling punk rock. I quickly forget the lack of blood. (There's always GWAR).
Following the ecto-sketch trajectory of Damnation singer Shaun Kama is a lot like trying to track a lepton, the subatomic particle that passes lightspeed only to emerge again in the past. That doesn't quite make sense, but neither do Kama's stage moves -- the rock and roll equivalent of Piet Mondrian graffiti shot out of a laser cannon, all extreme right angles, impossible stretchiness and stark ribs. The orange spiky hair makes a kind of blurry comet trail as he projects himself the length of the stage.
Some X Factor drives Damnation on all cylinders, a flickering node of energy; a group brain, if you will. Al G. on cool and collected, Geezer Butler bass; Robert on lithe and zippy drums, and Tod, with the longest hair and the ablest guitar in the room, make up the rest of Damnation, maybe the tightest outfit since Motorhead.
They've got an expanding fan base too, evident when most of the press attention goes to these up-and-comers, even as The Misfits headline. The night's schedule for this day in the life of the Strip also features some kind of gothic, transvestite makeup event called Cherry Club. Back in the blue trailer behind the Key Club, conversation fueled by MGDs and ancient sacramental herb, Misfits and trannies alike fade away into the darkness. There's a lot of love in the air, mutual respect and pride which comes across in the way these guys finish each other's sentences and still horse around like kids after years of playing together.
Drawing from the harder side of myriad sources, including but not limited to Slayer, Black Sabbath, and Johnny Cash, the ensemble known as Damnation also breaks down variously into Company of Wolves and Bloodjunkies. They're all in Bloodjunkies. Only Shaun is in Company of Wolves, however. Shaun explains: "Damnation is really what we're all about, the band that by far we all put the most effort in. Bloodjunkies kind of came about because we started doing acoustic Damnation, and we had a bunch of other songs that weren't super-speedy punk. So as opposed to watching say, Slayer do an acoustic set, we just changed it, put another name."
Robert hastens to clarify, "We're still plugged in, though. It's not like Peter, Paul and Mary."
For the sake of easy labeling (something the band wishes to eventually supersede), Shaun describes Damnation's sound as "Johnny Cash meets New Model Army. That's one of the bands that superinfluenced me in the songwriting. [Shaun waxes Valley-hyperbolic when warming to a subject.] We do a couple of covers of theirs once in awhile; they're kind of like an old punk-folk band, and then we all have the same kind of influence with Johnny Cash."
It's around this point that a mysterious black metal fan arrives at the trailer. He will serve as ballast for the interviewer, since the broken-down sofa I'm sitting on works like a seesaw. At times the Black Metal Kid, who eerily resembles Stones drummer Charlie Watts disguised as a mime, forgets his place in this micro-universe; then, without warning, my head descends beneath the scarred, sudsy table that hosts many a dead soldier, in addition to my tape recorder. "Ballast!" everybody shouts at once: It's a scene straight out of Monty Python.
Which resemblance fits present company. Python's mix of silly slapstick, verbal nonsense and over-the-top gore perfectly approximates what Damnation do in the song department. Look no further than "Fuel-Injected Priest," from their current CD on R.A.F.R., The Unholy Sounds of Damnation, for the kind of dark satire that marks the band's playlist. Fortuitously, the song emerged from Kama's pen "before all this stuff kind of came out in the open."
Al, a graduate student in anthropology at Cal State Fullerton, adds this wisdom: "It was always there, for 2,000 years."
"Exactly," Shaun exults. "Al knows, totally. 2,000 years ago. The priest was kind of like seducing…" Al finishes the sentence: "He raped a Brazilian immigrant at knifepoint at the Los Angeles missionaries…the guy was like looking for help. So that's what the song's about."
"We definitely keep the comedic edge," adds Shaun, "just as much as Fear did."
Damnation emerged in toto -- minus a guitarist --from a band called The Living End. "We took the name from a homo film that came out in like the late 80s," Shaun tosses off casually, trying to rope me in. Robert continues: "We had a guy playing guitar, a friend of ours; we played for about four years, we did some recordings and we toured and we got to know one another."
Shaun describes The Living End as "a real good growing experience, for all of us; it was like our first real band where we cruised around, we actually booked stuff ourselves and went out on the road. We worked really, really hard and learned what not to do, and it actually made this band go a little bit smoother as a result of making some crucial choices."
Tod, who actually lives in Las Vegas, came into the picture after the nascent Damnation had run through two or three guitar players. Says Al, "It's really hard to find people that you can get along with. I mean, you can throw a rock and find somebody can play guitar, but it's a lot different showing up at practice twice a week and getting along fine. Being on the road, it's not a cakewalk, but it's not like a drunken fistfight either."
Shaun explains that having another venue for writing and performing has helped Damnation delimit what it's all about as a band. "The Bloodjunkies thing, it's really helped us with Damnation and vise versa. It's helped us individually in really cool ways -- for me playing guitar and singing at the same time and really focusing on like how well I sing and how well people can understand the lyrics and stuff is really cool; then the straight aggression and insanity of Damnation generally, and then there's a few Damnation songs too that are a little bit more melodic, so between all of that and breaking it down and us having to play together on so many different levels, I think that we've just become tighter, especially since we've started this little side project thing. It's helped us truly."
Damnation share a common base in artwork as well. Shaun and Robert both tattoo professionally; Al funds grad school with a silk-screening business. In addition, Shaun paints -- quite brilliantly, as a matter of fact. "It was weird the way it worked out," he says. "We all did art first as well as music. Personally I had this desire to do that, so I kind of just looked at other people's stuff. As a kid, I was around Norman Rockwell's work a lot, because my grandpa lived in Great Barrington, where they had his original museum, so I was inspired by him, truly. He and Bernie Wrightson are probably my two favorite artists. But everybody [in Damnation] has really cool ideas. Like, Rob's fully into horror and stuff."
Born in Germany, Shaun lived on the East Coast as a kid. "My mom was in 'Nam as a nurse, and then she went to school in New York, and then we moved to Orange County. I met up with Rob when I was pretty young; we've known each other for like 20 years now. I moved to LA, and I've just been doing music -- and tattooing -- since I was like 15."
"There's a lot of personally written songs," says Robert, "and then there's a lot of songs that were inspired by sh** that happened to all of us. Shaun and I were in a foods class together, and we'd do comics, like Nazi werewolves. No racial slurs meant, you understand."
There's that warm, familial vibe in the trailer again; it would be just like Woodstock, but for the Black Metal Kid and the ambient traffic noises. And maybe it's the reference to Nazi werewolves, but Robert's face starts to morph on me. He's a flexible, silvery elven sort to begin with, features flowing with recondite grins and grimaces like astral hieroglyphics. Or maybe it's the dextromethorphan, in collusion with other chemical compounds, laying siege to my frontal lobes. I choose to sit tight. "We're true old friends," Al is saying, "and as mutual friends, we were all in different bands doing our own thing. Everybody's band just seemed to break up." (Al is my anchor. I pull through).
Not one song by itself stands apart, for Shaun personally, identifying a specific trope or thematic that sums up Damnation. "Song to song is really what it's about," he says. "As strange and obscure as one song might be to the other, that's really what describes us as a band. I couldn't really say it was any one song." Indeed, the diversity of moods and cadences the band emits can be stunning -- from the manic, Dead Milkmen weirdness of "Garbage Truck" to the soulful, moving "R.I.P."
Then there's "Formaldehyde" -- based on a true story, it emerges.
"It was actually a human embryo inside this jar of formaldehyde," Shaun explains, referring to an incident from his and Robert's school daze. "You could spin it and little pieces of it would come off the ears. "It was a real trip."
"It disappeared for a few weeks," Robert adds.
"Someone stole it," Shaun continues, "and then they had a plea, like they put the alert up. We got the baby back about two weeks later, and so that kind of inspired us. As far as our songs go, some of the newer stuff that we're doing, I'm really into it; and the stuff on the new album that is just out now that Blag produced, that's the sh**, I think they're really great songs, and some of the songs that we've come up with since then are super-awesome too.
"It seems like we keep getting better and even more diverse. We always try to write one, and then we'll write the antithesis of that. It's hard a lot of times, 'cause sometimes kids just want to hear the background to a pit, kind of superfast punk all the time, but I find that our fans are really down with the diversity of it, and the changing of the themes of the songs and the tempos and all that stuff. It certainly makes it more interesting for us."
In addition to the ever-loyal Street Demons, Damnation fans whose presence ensures flyers get posted and bags of treats passed out to the folks in line, Shaun wishes to credit his wife, Carla, for keeping the band on track. "She does most of our flyers…the list is so long. Anything that takes organization and mathematics skills, which I don't have, she takes care of for the band. And then Ron Schneir -- he fully has been hooking up the artwork for years. Thank you to R.A.F.R., Big Marty and Pam for hooking it up. He's the one who's putting this album out."
Damnation can be found on the web at www.damnation66613.com. Also, please check out www.halloweentattoos.com.