Originally published in The Irish Times, November 5th 2010
NO OFFENCE to any natives out there, but as British cities go, Norwich is about as bog-standard as they come. So when a person like Darwin Smith trundles into a cafe at the bus station on a rainy Monday morning – a tall, gangly, geeky-looking sort of chap, with a hipster moustache, lank curls restrained by a thin headband and NHS specs that would turn Morrissey green with envy – and plonks himself down with a large sandwich and a smoothie, you can’t help but notice him.
Smith, you see, is a man who likes to be noticed. If you’ve heard his band Darwin Deez’s eponymous album – a concoction of the most addictive, upbeat, charming bedroom pop imaginable – you’ll already be aware of this. Heck, even before he quit his job as a waiter in a New York vegan restaurant, the “North Carolinian Napoleon Dynamite ” liked to be different.
“I’m just trying to stand out,” he says as he munches and slurps. “It’s an easier way to stick in peoples’ minds when you’re a new band that no one’s ever heard of. But lately I’ve become less and less interesting in styling myself. The hairstyle thing I’ve had for a few years now, so I just keep it because it’s easier. I think it flatters my face, actually, because I’m very tall, and I ought to have a bigger head – so it works, in a way.
“It was the same when I was a waiter at the restaurant. I desperately needed people to know on some level that ‘Hey! I’m not just a waiter at this restaurant! I’m actually a really special guy!” But styling yourself in adventurous ways leads to rude comments from strangers. And I’m a sensitive guy. Oh yeah, I would definitely get that sort of stuff, especially in New York. But I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he chuckles. “I think I’m home free, as far as looking weird goes. Next album, I’ll look ‘normal’.”
You’d be concerned by Smith’s preoccupation with image and visuals – part of his thoroughly enjoyable live show also entails carefully choreographed dance moves involving his entire band – if the music wasn’t so damned catchy. The three singles from the album, Radar Detector, Constellations and Up in the Clouds , have already boosted their profile thanks to their infectious, simplistic choruses and endearingly kitsch videos. But whatever you do, don’t write Darwin Deez off as amateur.
The twentysomething began playing guitar at the age of 11, bought his first drum machine at 13, and followed it with a “very sophisticated” sampler at 16. Early influences included The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Green Day, he explains, until he started attending Wesleyan University – the alma mater of bands such as MGMT – and stopped making music for a year.
“My first year at college was pretty much the worst year of my life,” he sighs. “I hadn’t met any people that I felt were kindred spirits at that place, and it was my first year away from home, and . . . I think mainly because I wasn’t making music, and really delving deep into the existential and potentially nihilistic work of Friedrich Nietzsche.
“After that, I got into Animal Collective and indie rock. The first Animal Collective album really inspired me to make my own music and record it, and eventually I stopped being just a bedroom thing and I started striking out into open mics. And then I discovered, after 15 years of making and loving music, this thing called lyrics. So my music started taking a different direction.”
After plying his wares on the New York open-mic scene, Smith hooked up with his friend Andrew Hoepfner’s indie-rock band Creaky Boards (the band that accused Coldplay of plagiarising one of their songs in 2008), toured with them as a guitarist for two years, and undertook what he describes as an “internship”, learning the basic skills of booking tours, managing musicians and surviving on the road. An album of solo material was also recorded during that time, but never released.
“I kind of regret [not releasing it] now, in a way, because it really reminds me of the Wavves stuff – it’s pretty lo-fi sounding, and there’s lots of distortion and abrasive noise in it. I just thought it would be too difficult to market, and take me too long to convince people that I was a cool person whose music was interesting.” He laughs. “And by the time I thought all that through, I figured the lo-fi pop thing would be out of vogue – which apparently it’s not.”
Yet even though Darwin Deez’s success has been a gradual climb – his CD-R demo eventually found its way to UK label Lucky Number, who eventually put the album out earlier this year – there’s no denying that the majority who hear the songs are instantly captivated.
“I just think it’s the right music for this market here,” he says. “In a way, to my ears, it’s similar to The Script. It’s just emotional, simple music. So I’m very pleased with the reaction. When I was writing the album, I definitely felt that it had something, some kind of potential.
“Gigging is hard, and being in a band takes a lot of energy. But I want to succeed at it, and I wanted to stack things in my favour as much as possible before I put my nose to the grindstone. So I think the best ways of doing that are (a) starting out with a set of songs that are irresistible, which is why I started out with this album, instead of pushing the more adventurous, weird, dissonant one, and (b) making a live show that people have never seen before, that they have to talk about, that they have to respond to on some level. Those things just make the whole job of becoming an interesting band, a band that people are aware of, so much easier. And I’m lazy when it comes to things like that,” he laughs, as he leaves the cafe and boards a bus to his next destination: glamorous Watford. “I really just want to succeed, y’know?”