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From Beyond The Grave: A Chat With Death Vessel

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Fresh off an opening slot with Iron and Wine, Death Vessel's Joel Thibodeau gives Dusted's Ben Tausig the skinny on his band, his debut record and the Mandan Dink.

From Beyond The Grave: A Chat With Death Vessel

The band's debut, Stay Close, came on the scene just this year, on the micro-label Northeast Indie, and already they're touring with Iron and Wine. Their songs are quasi-literal and, I assume, incidentally genderbent. Meet Death Vessel, who channel the old death. Cottonmouth in the crick, pale face on the pillow, weeping wives. One day appears a grave on yon hill. It's sad but what can be done.

The bestubbled Joel Thibodeau nevertheless has a voice like a belle, imbued with disarming purity. Think Neil Young at 11? The requisite adjustment period is once or twice through, before familiarity breeds content. Remember like the first time you heard whatever baffled you at first, the Louvin Brothers or something, and then you learned to love it? Because the harmonies fall real good and then it's all over. I know what you’re thinking; but despite the archaic imagery, Antony and Devendra are apples to Thibodeau's orange. Death Vessel dabble in melodrama but lack pathos, and revelry – not reverie – is at their heart.

Thibodeau talks about this and more in a brief Dusted interview, generously granted and printed below. Look for him as he tours in the coming months, and releases a record sometime next year. His website is: www.deathvessel.com.

Dusted asked: First, tell us about the band. How long have you worked with Erik Carlson and others, and how did the Death Vessel lineup develop?

Death Vessel answered: Well...I met Erik in 1997 when I was living in Boston. I'd go see his band Purple Ivy Shadows whenever they came up from Providence. I was playing in String Builder with my brother Alec and we started sharing bills with them around New England. Alec was living in Portland, Maine, but ended up relocating to Providence by the end of the year. Soon after he was introduced to Pete Donnelly (The Figgs, Graham Parker) by a friend who suggested that we consider working with him on our upcoming recordings. After spending much of 1998 driving to Providence for rehearsals and a few recording sessions I decided to move there in the fall. Over the next several years Pete recorded the bulk of String Builder's material.

By 2002 both Purple Ivy Shadows and String Builder had become less active and Erik and I started talking about a collaboration. Pete and I had already begun working on new recordings at his studio in Pennsylvania by the time Erik and I were playing out as a duo in early 2003. We ended up forming two groups to best handle the distinct ideas we were each bringing in; Area C and Death Vessel.

Around this time I was corresponding with Micah Blue Smaldone after running into him at an Out Cold show at The Green Room in Providence. We grew up in the same town in Maine and as teenagers our bands often performed on the same bill at the community hall. After exchanging letters, music and playing together a bit I gave him a recording of (the song) "Mandan Dink" and asked if he would play guitar and sing on it for the record. I was getting the weekend rate at Enterprise and driving down to Bryn Mawr to record whenever Pete and I could align our schedules. Erik made the trip several times and Micah once. Aside from me and those guys, everyone else on Stay Close was living in or around Philadelphia. I had met Meg and Laura Baird (of Espers) when they came through Providence with their duo The Baird Sisters. Todd Barneson and Freddie Berman I met through Pete. I'd seen Daneil Mazone in S PRCSS and she'd been in Lome with friends of mine. Brendan Skwire I knew from his days in Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops.

D: Who are you touring with now?

DV: Lately, just me. Though, Alec's been playing bass here and there with either Matt McLaren (2X4, Barnacled, Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores) or Jeffrey Underhill (HoneyBunch, Velvet Crush) on drums. Initially, though, Mike Gent (The Figgs, The Gentlemen, Graham Parker) was the live drummer. Generally, the touring line-up consists of my friends who are available at the time. Last year Death Vessel was often a duo with Micah.

D: What were you listening to when you wrote and recorded Stay Close?

DV: A lot of church bells. I was living alone directly across the street from a catholic church in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence. I would sit at my window and eye weddings and funerals. I got into Ornette Coleman's Tomorrow Is The Question!. Tommy Jarrell and Buddy Thomas. I'd often put on Daniel Johnston's 1990, Bill Monroe, Townes Van Zandt, Elizabeth Cotten, Paul Westerberg's Stereo and volume 3 of The Magnetic Field's 69 Love Songs.

D: How was the band named?

DV: Like any good tattoo, it made sense at the time.

D: What is a Mandan Dink? (Subject and title of a song on Stay Close)

DV: It's more a question of "who is the Mandan Dink?" Though it's a fictional account, the characters are real. In the song my elementary school music teacher is pleading for an encounter with Dinah, a Native American girl who suffered a vengeful death in 1726, and is the subject of his original folk tune "Dinah's Rock." He's hoping for advice as his passing is imminent and near.

At the time, I was wondering about ghosts and where they are likely to appear.

D: Do you feel a kinship with in-vogue, off-kilter folk artists like Vashti Bunyan, Devendra B., Joanna Newsom?

DV: Not really. I feel a kinship with artists and musicians that I have personal relationships with . . .my coworkers, and with the person in front of me buying beets at the grocery who notices that I am too.

D: Plans for a second record?

DV: I began recording at the end of September and hope to have a record completed sometime this winter.

By Ben Tausig

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