Damon & Naomi, high school sweethearts turned alt-rock duo, hit the road again

Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski. — courtesy of the artists

Damon & Naomi’s career arc has all the makings of an indie rock jukebox musical. Think Jersey Boys meets Samuel Beckett, starring bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowski as post-punk New Yorkers who fall in love and become the rhythm section of a beloved band.

Success for these children of immigrants turns bittersweet after corporate record companies intervene, friendships crumble and the band’s frontman quits on the eve of a big Japanese tour. Blindsided and wounded, the young couple drops out of the music biz until a sympathetic record producer urges them to give it another go — the start of a second act that blossoms into a lifetime of making music and art together.

“My father survived the Holocaust — not in the camps, but on the run,” said Krukowski, explaining how his paternal family made it from Poland to New York during World War II, penniless. “My mother is a jazz singer,” he continued. “She is a native New Yorker, and I grew up surrounded by her music and her musician friends.”

Krukowski is mostly self-taught, though as a kid he had a few guitar and drum lessons that, he said, never took, along with piano lessons taught by Mirjana Lewis — a concert pianist who was married to John Lewis, the founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Krukowski first met Yang at the progressive Montessori-inspired Dalton School, which they attended throughout the 1970s.

“We are high school sweethearts,” Yang said, “which is a scary amount of years if you do the math!”

Her father was John Yang, a photographer and architect whose prints are in the permanent collections of the Met, MoMA and other museums. Born in China, he became a naturalized American citizen after his family moved to New York in 1939.

Yang always knew she wanted to create visual art, and had no aspirations to play music. So when Krukowski formed a band with their high school friend Dean Wareham (they all ended up attending Harvard University in the early 1980s), Yang created flyers and other visuals for Speedy and the Castanets.

“Every self-respecting post-punk band needed a logo,” she said, “so I designed one and a backdrop for when they played.”

Krukowski didn’t have a drum set in the very beginning, so he borrowed one from another Harvard freshman named Conan O’Brien, the future talk show host. A little later, another high school friend named Marc Glimcher — the heir to the Pace Gallery — announced that he wanted to play bass and offered to pay for their instruments.

“That was that,” Krukowski said. “We just started playing Clash and Sex Pistols songs. We were terrible, though.”

After graduation, Wareham returned to New York while the other two remained in Cambridge to attend graduate school at Harvard, but they stayed in touch.

“When Damon and Dean were looking for a bass player and to start a new band, I suddenly decided I wanted to try it,” Yang said. “It didn’t seem high-risk, as we didn’t have any grand career plans. It just seemed like it would be fun.”

Yang played a little piano and flute as a kid, which she gave up pretty quickly, but she always liked to sing and had an excellent memory for melody.

“I just kind of applied that to playing bass, which makes for a rather unorthodox bass style. Our Japanese friends call it ‘singing bass.’ I usually do play in my singing range — I rarely use the lowest strings.”

As an artistically inclined, miserable grad student, Yang naturally listened to a lot of Joy Division and New Order; she was obsessed with Peter Hook’s basslines and also loved Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith’s playing.

Galaxie 500 was inspired by everything they were listening to, Krukowski said, “the Velvets, the Modern Lovers, the 13th Floor Elevators, Big Star — the usual suspects for an American indie band of our generation.”

Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski. — courtesy of the artists

They bought used records at In Your Ear from the influential Forced Exposure writer Byron Coley, who schooled them in the history of rock, as did other slightly older fanzine writers of the day. And yet Galaxie 500 avoided merely echoing their influences, or sounding like anyone else.

Coley, who regularly attended their shows, recalled, “The chemistry they had and the low bore flash of their sound was very out-of-alignment with what was going on in Boston right then.”

When preparing to record the first Galaxie 500 single, “Tugboat,” they poured through the credits of records they loved, which is how they found their longtime producer, Kramer. The owner and operator of Noise New York recording studios played an integral role in the band’s development, a sort of fourth member who helped shape their sound.

“It turned into an apprenticeship for us, really,” Krukowski said. “We sat with him in the booth the whole time he was mixing those albums.”

Galaxie 500’s debut album, Today, is the recorded document of a fully formed band. On “Flowers,” the opening track, psychedelic guitar tones hover over skittering drum patterns that orbit around the bassline — one that simultaneously anchors the rhythm and spins countermelodies that weave through the guitar and vocal lines. Yang’s playing absolutely levitates songs like “When Will You Come Home,” from the group’s second album, On Fire.

“She always sounded great, and the blend with Damon was seamless,” Coley recalled. “Their bottom was firm, as a coach might say.”

Galaxie 500’s ascent continued after signing with Rough Trade, an influential indie label, but soon after the release of This Is Our Music, the band dissolved. Following a successful American tour opening for the Cocteau Twins in 1991, Wareham abruptly quit on the eve of a Japanese tour — then went on to form Luna, which had some alt-rock success in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the rhythm section essentially quit music.

“We didn’t do much playing at first,” Yang said. “We were too much in shock and too angry about it all. But then we just couldn’t help it — it was something that we enjoyed.”

Krukowski added, “Then Kramer convinced us to record again, which we did for his label Shimmy Disc.”

The result was More Sad Hits, released in 1992 under the moniker Damon & Naomi. It was the first of several albums by the duo that have explored a wide range of sonic palettes, from haunting folk to lush psychedelia.

This spring, they released In the 21st Century, a compilation of tracks from four albums that Damon & Naomi issued between 2005 and 2015 on their label 20-20-20. In 1989, the two also founded the small press Exact Change, which reprints books of experimental literature with an emphasis on Surrealism, Dada and other avant-garde movements. They are busy bohemian bees.

“We always have a lot of other jobs, too,” Yang said. “I do freelance graphic design work, in recent years I have been directing music videos and Damon does his freelance music writing and has also taught over the years.”

In 2017, the New Press published Krukowski’s acclaimed book The New Analog, about his experiences recording and listening to music as the technology shifted from analog to digital. This led to a podcast, Ways of Hearing, which evolved into Krukowski’s companion book of the same title, published by MIT Press in April.

“I have been enjoying wherever this leads,” Krukowski said, “which is not so different from my approach to playing music, actually.”

Yang designed The New Analog’s book cover in much the same way she developed Galaxie 500’s graphic identity. “From the earliest days,” she said, “I was always interested in all the associated visual art opportunities that come with being in a band: show flyers, tickets, posters, T-shirts, album covers, promo photos, video.”

Coley has been excited to hear where they’re headed next, musically. As Damon & Naomi continue to perform around the world, he views them as ambassadors for “the post-Puritan New England scene.” While talking to folk musician Kan Mikami at an English music festival, for instance, the Japanese artist asked Coley where he was from.

“Massachusetts,” he said.

“Ah,” Makami replied. “Damon & Naomi.”

Kembrew McLeod can’t stop, won’t stop. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 264.

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