Dustin Douglas exudes classic rock ‘n’ roll cool. It’s in his denim jacket, black leather boots, low-hanging necklaces, slick hair, 5 o’clock shadow, and devil-may-care swagger as he strolls in and sits back for an interview. The explanation is simple.
“When my mom was pregnant with me, my dad would hold up headphones to her stomach,” he began, picking up a guitar around the age of 8.
“It just grabbed me. It was starting to hurt my fingers and itch, and my mom totally threw some voodoo at me. She was like, ‘Fine, well then don’t do it.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to do this and I’m going to do it better than anybody!’ I haven’t put it down since, man.”
He still remembers the songs he wrote as a kid in his grandmother’s house, his parents surrounding him with the sounds of Led Zeppelin and the videos of Aerosmith. Joe Perry was the epitome of cool to him.
“I was like, ‘Man, I want to be this dude – leather pants and Les Pauls,” he said in awe.
“When I started taking lessons and Jimi Hendrix started coming into my life, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ But now as I get older, it’s more of the songwriting. I don’t dislike guitar players, but I just pay attention to a lot of songwriting. I think I’m in a period where I just want to write a good song. I guess that’s maturity. I guess I’m growing up.”
Douglas laughed as he said this, possibly because he knows he’s still chasing a child’s fantasy. It’s not as unlikely as it seems these days, however, with years of professional experience under his belt and his best album to date just a week and a half from release.
He’s a whole new man now, in fact, right down to his last name, which he professionally changed from Drevitch to Douglas, his middle name, for three very important reasons.
“It’s not a Prince thing at all,” he clarified.
“It was my uncle’s first name. My uncle passed away before I was born, but he was a huge music cat. And I was tired of people fucking up Drevitch. Ironically, I have seen Douglas fucked up like two or three times so far, so that’s the universe saying that someone is going to fuck it up regardless,” he continued, throwing up his hands.
“In a way, it’s kind of like a fresh start, too. Fuck it. New name, new band, new tunes. Let’s just start from the beginning.”
Old bands and new opportunities
From the start, Douglas was ripping guitars and stages by 12. Before he was 18, he was recording his first EP with his first band, Lemongelli, who released three albums and opened for Eddie Money, Def Leppard, Nickelback, and Heart, among others. Then “life started to happen,” so as the band members moved onto having kids or other projects, Douglas joined The Badlees as a guitar player and things started moving upwards again.
“In my time with The Badlees, I was like,’ All right, I’m going to write some songs now.’ I learned how to write some tunes.”
He learned a lot about the business, too, particularly from singer/guitarist/producer Bret Alexander.
“Bret is a great songwriter. I think everybody knows that; it’s not a secret. It was great. We played many, many, many great shows. I would be leaving, driving home thinking, ‘Wow, man, that was fucking awesome. That did what it needed to do for my soul,’” Douglas recalled, sharing stages with the likes of Bob Seger, The Clarks, Willie Nile, and Edwin McCain.
“Those shows in huge arenas? Of course that’s what you want. It’s weird. You dream about all this stuff as a kid and then life just happens and when it does happen, you don’t look at it from the outside in because you’re in it. If you do step out for a second, you’re like, ‘Holy shit!’ If you would’ve told 13-year-old me that I’m about to hit the Bryce Jordan Center stage right now…
“It’s weird. Life is strange.”
Strange, yes, but ripe with experiences that would culminate in a project that would allow him to step to the front again, particularly after The Badlees announced their breakup earlier this year.
“That’s what this new record is – it’s a culmination of all that stuff to where I am now. There’s still some cool-ass riffs and rock guitars. At the end of the day, I love rock music and I will always play rock music; this stuff just has a little more melody, bigger choruses. It’s a little different, but it’s not that different. And that’s what I wanted it to be.”
One-way ticket out
Douglas never knows exactly when inspiration will strike or from where, so that may be why it took about two years of recording on and off at Saturation Acres with Alexander to complete the album, but this slow and steady pace was exactly what this collection of eight songs needed, allowing him plenty of time to tweak and perfect his solo debut.
“If I have to be somewhere at 6 o’clock and at 5:30 something happens, it’s like, ‘Guys, I’m going to be late.’ That’s when (inspiration) happens. I’m also inspired by what’s on the radio. It’s on the radio for a reason, so you take little elements from everything. I’m influenced by what people like. I listen to everything,” he said, naming mainstream acts like Jack White and Foo Fighters along with obscure musicians like the Tune-Yards.
“You don’t have to conform to the constraints of radio songs or whatever. I think that’s what the future holds. I think for me, I’m going to let the chains off a little bit more. The next record I think will be probably be a little bit more heavy. Just take chances,” he emphasized, already looking ahead.
“I’ve still got some chances under my belt, so that’s cool. That’s exciting – something to look forward to.”
It’s no wonder he’s so eager to think about the next step from here. “Black Skies and Starlight,” as the record came to be named, is largely about leaving his hometown of Wilkes-Barre and opening up a new chapter in his life.
“I’m at a point in my life where I think I want a change. I want to get out. There’s a lot of stuff about leaving on the record; I think it’s kind of foreshadowing. I tend to write a lot of foreshadowing. Not on purpose; it’s just how it happens,” he explained, noting the dramatic changes the city has seen in the last few years.
“A lot of times with my last bands I didn’t dive too much into the biographical world. This time I did because I’m like, ‘My God, there’s just so much going on, I have to.
“It’s hard not to comment, and it’s kind of a positive thing that I get to. I can do it abstract enough that people don’t even know it. They’re like, ‘Oh, that song’s about me.’ ‘Sure, man.’ It’s awesome. That’s what’s cool about it. There’s a lot of stuff about the hometown on this record coming up, good or bad.”
He hasn’t stopped listening to the record himself, and it dawns on him just then that even if he could, he wouldn’t change a thing about it now.
“I wrote a record that I really love listening to, which I think is the ultimate goal. I think if you don’t want to listen to your record, how are supposed to want other people to listen to it, if you don’t believe in it? I love everything I ever made in the past, every song, everything, but there’s something special about this one.”
“It feels good to be back. I feel naked. I feel very naked putting a record out,” he shared.
“Even with Lemongelli, I could hide behind the name.”
Now he performs under the moniker Dustin Douglas and the Electric Gentlemen. His friends Tommy Smallcomb and Paul Young play on the album, but the live Gentlemen consist of drummer Josh Karis, guitarist Justin Mazer, and bassist The Dane (Matt Gabriel), a “killer live band” that he hopes to turn into a rotating family of players, though they’re not just fill-ins.
“Those guys are there because I want them to be. We’re having fun. We’re just excited to see where it goes – excited to see what the future holds.”
The immediate future holds a CD release show at the River Street Jazz Cafe (667 N. River St., Plains) on Saturday, Oct. 4, which he promises will be full of surprises and special guests.
“I just want to make it a night about music again. I just want people to come out and have a great time and want to listen to music. One of the main reasons I got into this is because, still to this day, I love concerts. As a kid, I loved pulling up to the venue seeing the buses lined up, the lights go out, wondering what song they’re going to open with. That’s still fun as fuck to me. I still love that. I just want people to feel that same way about my show, too,” he enthused.
“I want to make the Jazz feel like it’s a bigger room. It’ll be a fun show. It’ll be an event.
“The fact that (the album is) coming out – I still don’t believe it. There’s still so much work to be done; it’s crazy doing it independently by yourself, but it’ll just make the next one easier to put out. I’m ready for it. I write constantly.”
But why bother? “Rock is finally dead,” Gene Simmons of KISS recently declared in an interview with Esquire.
“Who’s Gene Simmons to say?” Douglas questioned.
“I don’t think it ever left. I think it’s always under the radar, and I think it always will be. I think some of the best bands are not being played on the radio. I want to be in the My Morning Jacket, Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, Black Keys crew. … That, for me, is rock ‘n’ roll. Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam – there’s still bands, and there’s still upcoming bands that are freakin’ awesome. I just think the labeling thing has gotten out of control. I mean, if Pink Floyd came out today, what label would they be under?
“Rock used to be so much broader. I’m over the label stuff. You’ve gotta pick your label when you put your music on iTunes of what you are; you can’t choose two, God forbid, or a few things. But that’s OK – you just roll with it.”
At 28, Douglas is obviously more hopeful than 65-year-old Simmons about the state of rock as he readies the release of “Black Skies and Starlight,” an album that would restore faith in practically any cynic with its badass guitars and attitude.
“If you were to say rock is dead, I think music might be dead. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing it. What else are we going to do? What are you going to listen to? What are people going to live their lives by? What are they going to dance to at their wedding? It’ll all come around. It always does, man.”
He pauses, then surprisingly wishes rock dead.
“Because then somebody’s gotta bring it back,” he added assuringly.
“I’ll do that. I’ll wave that flag.”
Nothing would please him more. In the end, the assertive rock frontman persona melts away when he reveals just how much is at stake.
“What better job is there to just play your tunes, to play your diary and travel and see the world? I just want to play music. That’s all I really know. I’ve put all my eggs in this basket,” he acknowledged.
“I just want it to be my ticket out, to take my music to other places and other markets. If this is not the record, then I want it to be the first step. I just think this is the beginning of something special.
“I’m going to do it, one way or another. Until I can’t anymore. Until the old hands give up on me. So hopefully that’ll be a while.”
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, practicing poet, adequate photographer, and podcast co-host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.