In the late '80s and early '90s, Galaxie 500, a three-piece band started by Harvard students, was something of an indie rock darling. Its music was dreamy, intimate and laced with sweet, hypnotic bass lines. But, after making three celebrated albums (that still top many critics' “best of” lists) Galaxie 500 broke up.
Part of the trio morphed into a duo known as Damon & Naomi. They’re married, still live in Cambridge and are releasing a new album Tuesday, called “False Beats and True Hearts.”
I had the chance to visit drummer Damon Krukowski's and bassist Naomi Yang’s home to speak to them about their evolution over the past 25 years.
Listening back — which I actually do quite often — it’s hard not to be seduced by Galaxie 500's music and Yang’s wave-like bass playing. It’s delicate, somewhat demure. But it still powers a very identifiable aesthetic. So, I asked to see her bass in the couple’s light-filled living room, which doubles as their recording studio.
Krukowski went back farther than '88 to tell how the band’s seeds were sown a few years earlier, when he was a student at Harvard with his high school friend Dean Wareham. Krukowski played the drums (famously on a kit lent to him by classmate Conan O’Brien) and Wareham played the electric guitar.
"Dean and I had bands that everybody hated,” Krukowski recalled. “We came in last in the Battle of the Bands in every category, including looks.”
Naomi, Damon's high school sweetheart, also went to Harvard where she studied design. After the drummer and guitarist lost their punk rock bass player, that loss turned into a major gain.
"'You know what? I’ll do it,'" Yang said she told her friends. "And I had no experience. I didn’t have a bass, I had no idea how to play bass whatsoever.”
And out of those ashes, a band formed.
“We went to Cambridge Music Center, which used to be in Porter Square, and Naomi picked out the bass that she was drawn to, which was a beautiful Gibson EB2 that nobody wanted," Krukowski said. "It was very cheap because these basses are very famous for just not sounding very rock and roll.”
“It was sort of the last thing someone in a punk rock band would really want, but it appealed to me,” Yang said.
“And she still plays the same bass,” Krukowski said with a warm smile.
After experimenting with chords and melodies in their rehearsal space, the band eventually began shaping much of it’s sound around Yang’s bass playing, Krukowski said. She played high on the neck, which was unusual.
“Like lines you would sing,” Yang added. The band's textured songs were arranged around those lines.
Eventually, college radio stations started paying attention to Galaxie 500, but they were never popular in Boston, according to Krukowski.
“We never sold a club out on a weekend night, we never had a big fan base in town,” Krukowski said. “But we had a sound that was different and that allowed us to take it out of town very easily.”
New York embraced that sound. London too, where Galaxie 500 eventually landed a deal with the record label Rough Trade. Other bands — including Sonic Youth — became fans, too. And other bass players, like Chris Colbourne of the Boston rock band Buffalo Tom.
His group also formed in the '80s, and Colbourne said Galaxie immediately struck him as smart, arty, emotional — and very different than the faster, louder rock bands in Boston at the time. For him, Galaxie evoked the Velvet Underground with it’s drumming, guitars and contrasts.
“You know, kind of angular and sharp and distorted — with this beautiful, fluid, warm, fat bass line," Colburne said. "And that’s a beautiful soup.”
A beautiful, if imperfect soup, he added — especially in Yang’s playing.
“I often think of it as an amateur kind of thing, in a really true, great sense of the word," Colburne said. "Where it’s like the wrong note every once in a while is so right.”
The Break Up
Colburne followed Galaxie's rise with the release of "On Fire" and "This Is Our Music."
"The Galaxie records had become kind of famous, you know, and they very abruptly broke up,” he recalled. “That was heavy. And a surprise.”
The band dissolved, for good, in 1991.
“Damon and I were very disillusioned by it all,” Yang said. “Very typical rock and roll story,” Krukowski added.
When singer/guitarist Dean Wareham left the band to go solo, Krukowski and Yang resolved to stop making music. It was too devasting to continue, they said.
After licking their wounds for a while, though, the couple decided to record one last album. They called it “More Sad Hits.” And their experience in the studio surprised them. It made Krukowski and Yang realize how much they actually loved being musicians. So they kept recording. Their new release, “False Beats and True Hearts,” is their eighth since becoming a duo.
But the transition hasn’t been easy for the drummer and the bass player, especially when it comes to performing live. They never saw themselves as front people. Sure, Yang sang with Galaxie sometimes, but she admits it’s been a long, slow crawl from the back of the stage to the spotlight.
“Playing the bass, there was this sort of safety in it,” Yang explained. “The bass was some sort of protection, and I always could think if I played a wrong note on the bass 'no one is listening to the bass anyway, it’s ok.'”
Now they're quite comfortable with touring. They often collaborate with other musicians. And recently, Naomi got an upright piano.
"It's not dissimilar to my weird bass guitar which has this weird sustain,” she said as she played what are known as "false beats" on her newly acquired instrument. “To me it just sounds beautiful."
You can hear that piano throughout Damon and Naomi’s new release. They say they’ve matured a great deal — as people and musicians — since the Galaxie 500 days.
The lovely couple have their own record label, a publishing imprint and a loyal audience. They both write and sing. And yes, Naomi continues to plays her bass.
Damon & Naomi’s new recording is called, "False Beats and True Hearts." The duo performs live on Monday, May 23, at Great Scott in Allston.
This program aired on May 17, 2011.