Exclusive: The Existential Blues of D.D Dumbo
Meeting D.D Dumbo in person was something of a shock. Listening to any number of his songs, one is immediately struck by the singular, raw energy of his vocal performance, an energy that both carries his poetic lyricism and forms the textural fabric of his carefully calculated looping that serves as the backbone of each song. So upon meeting I was a little stunned to find him humbly soft-spoken, the complete opposite of the bravura vocal hurricane I had grown to love in his recordings.
Named after a cute, deep sea, jellyfish-like creature that resembles the eponymous elephant (a “possibly regrettable” decision he admits, “one more suited to a rapper”), Australian native D.D Dumbo, alias Oliver Hugh Perry, is quite simply a musical anomaly. He was one of the most buzzed about acts at this year’s SXSW Festival and has quickly built himself an American audience all before the release of a debut album, entirely due to the stark uniqueness of his sound. Combining elements of folk, blues, and psychedelia with African polyrhythms and a loose, improvisational style, Dumbo does not so much straddle genres as melt them all down and re-forge them into something inherently his own.
Yet despite the multitude of sounds that rear their head in any given moment of his music, Perry is for the most part self-taught. “I did a couple voice things when I was 16, nothing much” he told me as he picked at a plate of Thai food. “My only real training was a couple guitar and drum lessons in school. I started out playing bongos, then clarinet sort of, then guitar. I can’t even read music.”
But the key to unlocking Perry’s sound is of course his set of looping pedals. Watching his live performance in Brooklyn earlier this month (his first ever in NYC) was an awe-inspiring glimpse of pure creation; Perry moves back and forth between instruments, layering each level of music gradually until we’re left with a wall of sound, one that we witnessed him build step by step. But contrary to what his mastery of the device would suggest, it’s a feature Perry undertook “out of necessity. I was playing in a band and a couple guys went traveling and I couldn’t play with them anymore. So I started just noodling around with the looper, trying to get a band feeling while just playing by myself.” That said, looping pedals provide what Perry called a ‘risky’ dynamic to his live performances. “There’s a lot of guess work, and you can accidentally knock one button or loop too early and the whole thing is out of whack.”
Building a song entirely from scratch for every performance (and even in the studio) lends the sense of improvisation and an organic nature into every one of his songs, recorded or otherwise. Perry himself describes his music as far “more expressive than arranged, it’s more intuitive than known.” This textural style of thinking was inspired from one of the least likely sources imaginable—the feelings evoked by good old pop music. “It doesn’t happen as much nowadays; when someone writes a good pop song and they’re actually good. Songs aren’t as universal as they once were, back then there was more actual substance and yet it was still so accessible. And I slowly realized I do like that kind of stuff, and it probably influenced me subconsciously.” It inevitably is a medium that meshes with the Dumbo sound seamlessly, evidenced in his haunting cover of the Roy Orbison staple ‘Crying.’
Unlike some of his pop music influences, the lyrics of Dumbo’s music are rich with complexity and enigma. The title single from his EP, Tropical Oceans, is a profound piece of poetry that deals with opening skulls and the perpetual motions of magical oceans. But even the lyrics are subject to the constant shifting and changing that is embedded with his music. “I don’t think too much about it honestly” he admits, “and each song might change while I’m singing the lyrics, it’s not that specific. It’s a story in my mind that doesn’t make much sense but I just get it out.” It’s a story that is clearly emblazoned on his face while performing; his motions on stage become highly affected and controlled, contorting his face as a physical manifestation of the overwhelming emotions and feelings he evokes within his deeply woven sonic landscapes.
So where does this leave the state of his songs if they’re constantly evolving? “I don’t think I’ve ever really completed a song,” he tells me, “I’m not sure that even exists in any way. I suppose I don’t know, but I want to know.” Perry may never find an end to his quest for meaning in his musical spirituality, but given the glaring vacancy in contemporary music for existential blues/alternative dance rock/folk power pop, I feel confident that he will quickly have many that are willing to help him find out.
D.D Dumbo’s ‘Tropical Oceans EP’ is out now, his first album is currently in the works slated for release in Spring 2015