Issue No 17

Down Another Rabbit Hole with Dave DeCastris

BY Jonathan Mayor

One of the nice things about writing for 1985 is that I get to sit down with people I know and admire; people I've known in some cases for many years through whatever circumstances.  Random examples of circumstances under which I came to know people I've either written about or will write about for n.e.f.: A party with head-butting and keg stands (already written about), a boutique in Chicago, Comic Con, the diviest of bars, running from the police, the internet. A lot more to look forward to, I would say!

In this case, I met the artist in subject in college some many years ago. So many in fact, that when you're our age you start putting words together like “some many years.”

One of my first memories of Dave was his giving me Jeff Buckley's Grace, a record I would come to love exquisitely and that would be a bridge to all kinds of amazing new music and creative ideas. Gems like these would come frequently from Dave and the creative searches he was digging into. Film, music, books, other artists... He was one of my most talented and creative (and creatively schooled) friends in college and has been ever since.  An extremely versatile artist, gifted at painting and drawing and sculpture (and all kinds of other disciplines), as well as with music, design, seriously dark comedy and production. He's also a musical almanac and a possessor of multiple personalities, all with their own unique talents as well (five of them even have a radio show).  Or so you'll learn.

Throughout the years I've been lucky enough to collaborate and work with Dave and a personality or two of his on a few projects, as well as continue what's always been a unique and very interesting and informative friendship. A friendship that started through a love of music and art and drinking, gambling at billiards, scribbling, swearing, and bitching about life in general, and has continued the course. Glad to report “some many years later”, that some things never change.

From ROCKFORD, IL  Just a few days ago.

Jonathan Mayor: How do you describe yourself?  What do you do and where do you do it from?

Dave DeCastris:  I create personal rabbit holes from a spontaneous perspective with little to zero filtering and value privacy more than most. Answering these questions with my birth name instead of one of my artist monikers and not turning them into a joke to protect my privacy is hard enough.  Think about it:  The 'information age' and the art of discovering more about our neighbors, friends, family, celebrities, athletes, politicians on the internet has become too easy and quite sick; an acceptable, interactive, gross method of stalking.  People seem have little respect for their own privacy anymore.  Look at these social media outlets–sorry, but I don't want to see pictures of your family and what you cooked for dinner. What happened to the idea of protecting privacy? Protect the future for Christ's sake.   Notice how everyone's an artist or a cook these days?  These are strange times, Jon… I've never fit in and never will but I love observing, absorbing it all for my work.

Some will read into that perspective as being a part of practicing a poor attitude but it's allowed me to inherit a few key social defense mechanisms that double as creative weapons I need to produce work at an incessant pace.  For example:  If it looks like I'm not into 'the party' and I have no interests with 'the people' there, it's probably because I don't want to be at 'the party' but I am (or may be) interested in whatever comes out of people's mouths–or what they're doing–that I can steal.  My surroundings, people and places, are ground zero reflections for ideas that I can't wait to get back to my studio or a notebook to flesh out, transcribe, scribble–whatever they will become. 

I guess that kinda leans into answering your second question a bit.  I do whatever the muse tells me to:  Illustrating, photography, writing, designing, composing, recording, pranks… those are the basics.  I set out in kindergarten to make records by any means necessary. Learning how to do everything I creatively could with making them–including composing, recording, etc.– has made that possible but I never settle on being satisfied with one task. Not many can say they're doing what they set out to do as a kid but I'm looking at 40 now and had I known the music industry would collapse when I was three, I might think otherwise.  I've made many personal compromises to follow the music while others buy homes, make families, and buy speed boats.  No thank you.

It can get blurry at times. Life becomes art becomes work and vice versa, repeat. I'm a rabbit's hole to many but it keeps life unconventional and protects the muse. Especially from where I create most of the time, Rockford, IL, the biggest rabbit hole I know. Every artist needs a rabbit hole, I was fortunate to be born into one and didn't have to look far for my own muse to be driven.

JM: A renaissance man in Rockford, IL? What do you love so much about Rockford?  

DD: Ouch. I bet if you asked 10 people here, at least 7-8 would guess that the renaissance is a fancy sandwich or a French dessert. You know… I think what I really I love is the fact that it's easy to create the last laugh here, repeatedly. This is an easily fooled, conservative, community because our local government and media treats us as if we're poor, unintelligent people. The community here deserves better but their own pride prevents them from wanting more out of life. Less is more here–and that can be a good thing in many circumstances–but it's not a good thing here. We're belittled to a pulp– a midwest-middle-class massacre is more like it. Though, the constant belittling of intelligence is going on everywhere, not only in Rockford. That's what I love about being here– I love having my intelligence belittled or held down on a consistent basis by many who are beyond under-qualified to run businesses, government, etc.. It drives me personally along with my work. I returned here at some point in the late '90s thinking I could make a difference but I was young and full of optimism. I never thought I'd still be here 15 years later because this is not a healthy community that respects progressive ideas or educated people. The town has regressed incredibly in the last 15 years though it's been going on for decades. That's the Rockford Renaissance– regression is the new progression around here.  It's a strange place, the community and leaders celebrate regression on a constant basis. I find it to be awfully funny at this point.

Even the arts community is estranged. The artists can't survive here unless they play by a few civic "make Rockford feel better" games.  It's pathetic. Our duties and rights as artists should to yell for the people right back at city government, the media, leaders, etc. My so-called peers don't understand that because they lack appreciation or a knowledge of their own art history themselves. This is not an art appreciation town. It's a cheap beer appreciation town.  The business of art evades my peers while the government uses it as crutch for funding–who? Not the artists, not me.  The majority of this community prefers to drink pitchers of beer and playing lotto versus putting a few pennies towards the appreciation of art, a new book, prints, cds, records, whatever.  Artists are constantly having to fight their own self-worth here because of the 'Rockford' label. Struggling is a great thing for creatives when you're young, debts pile up like it's no one's business but I'm looking at 40 and having a full tank of gas is just as important for leaving this place. The key for any of us surviving from within the county lines has been doing our work here and then reaching outside of the region for financial support, respect, more work, and opportunities to grow or eventually leave. 

It's sad because there are a few artists from here of various medias (and all with the letter "J" in their names:   Jesus Correa, Jason Vaughn, Jason Judd, Daniel James McMahon, Javier Jiminez) that I respect to the highest degree, doing work at a national level but few in the community recognize these artists as their own. 

What else do I love about Rockford you asked? The irony that permeates throughout the city and seems to evade the majority of people who have no ideas their the ones creating the cloud. I wonder if many people know they're waking up in it and can't recognize it anymore. Everyone seems to be ok with their own complacency or struggles which inspires me.  I think that's what I love the most. It's very inspiring to be here. There are so many things I love about Rockford:  Poverty and poor ethics are fashionable and always "in."  The rumor mill deserves it's own publication house as well.  This is a great town to get away with being a horrible person and getting away with it repeatedly which I allow my creative monikers to exercise with– literally, not physically. I love noticing that the neighbors are silently competing to have the nicest yard  I'm not going to let a city like Rockford take the hit on this though; we're a micro-organism of a larger cultural problem that I have been enamored with creatively for most of my life.  

There used to be a time when one could turn on the radio and hear Bob Dylan and people liked it–something with substance that they responded to–his words and intellect right there on the radio. I think of people my own age turning on a TV to watch American Idol and my brain hurts thinking that this is as good as it gets for the majority. Remember when The Monkees were considered fake? They could play their own instruments. Everything now-a-days is pre-processed and presented in a manner that is very belittling of human intelligence. Entertainment can be intelligent but the majority seems turned off and tuned into something belittling because that's all they're fed. Can you imagine turning on a radio or TV these days to have a generation evolve and change before your eyes and ears? Our brains are always capable of handling more. We have senses to use to their max, not to limit. Everyone should be ashamed of themselves for using so little of themselves. Intelligence doesn't seem to be a priority for the majority of the human race. It's sad, sure, but there's comedy in it too that I need to stay creatively driven.

JM: What (and where) did you study?  And how did you get (back) to where you are now (geographically)?

DD: I accidentally earned a fine arts scholarship to Bradley University in May of 1992. I was expecting a life in junior college and more paint store and factory working. My dad came over on the boat from Italy in the mid '60s and worked at a local manufacturing plant for 26 years while my mom was a teacher. Money wasn't something we ever talked about but I realized at some point in my teens that I should be very grateful for how hard they worked to make sure we had a shot at anything in life. 

My high school fine arts teacher took it upon her own liberty to submit slides of 4 years of my work to whoever she knew in fine arts departments across the midwest because she discovered I wasn't attempting to go to college. My overall GPA was shit and my parents struggled enough to afford sending me to a private high school for a so-called better education. College was out of the question is all I remember with a few talks about attending the local community college so I was shocked as much as my parents were when I received that letter to accept a fine arts scholarship. I got lucky, man… I still have two years of school loans to bother me. It's an infection I can't seem to get rid of that I'll probably die from.   
I ended up majoring in design and minoring in fine arts in the end. I was offered a post-grad scholarship to Notre Dame if I committed to majoring in Printmaking at Bradley at the end of my sophomore year that I occasionally regret turning down. Oscar Gillespie, incredible working artist and professor there (still!), tried to steer me but I didn't listen. After consulting with him (Oscar) and then my parents, I switched from fine arts to commercial arts and lost my fine arts scholarship.  Little would you or I know yet that a college degree means nothing in today's world. I get a kick out of politicians who tell people to go back to school, invest in themselves, but they can't explain where the jobs are at to pay the school loans back. I hate to think that education is a luxury these days but it is.

Design wasn't as technologically advanced as it is now despite being a hot career field in the mid '90s. I've never truly respected the title of designer because of my background in fine arts. It is a stigma that I've learned to let go of to survive, fail. Web design wasn't being taught yet and having 16mbs of RAM in your Apple Power PC or Quad was considered blazing fast. I fought the switch from commercial to fine arts from the get-go but I knew it gave me a shot to have a job that could help pay bills.  

During an episode of Mad Men, Don Draper's purest moment as a "Creative Director" came in this season's finale, "If I had it my way, you'd never advertise." Touché, Don.

What brought me back here? I couldn't stand tucking in my shirt working for an in-house ad team at the Ace Hardware Corporation in Oak Brook (Chicago Sluburb) and I wasn't making enough money to justify my reasons for being miserable there pretending to be someone I wasn't. I spent my time away from work in record stores and catching bands versus dating and settling down.  At some point I had no phone, wasn't eating nor could find time to, and then lost all reasons to remain miserable in someone else's mold there.

I moved back to Rockford out of financial necessity and worked for fucking ad firm scumbags in this town, musicians, other artists and businesses, pretty much everything you can think of to get by. But I kept writing, recording, illustrating, anything to put those frustrations into my work.  I realized with my last firm job in 2004 that I can't associate myself with titles or a gross industry (advertising) that is driven by greed, ineptitude, manipulation, fonts, half-baked facts, opinions, and socio-psychological marketing tricks from all sectors. I had a Creative Director there at that last firm job, same age, who didn't know that Bob Dylan sings "Like A Rolling Stone"– and that was it for me along with a few other poor, unethical things he said or did. That was the writing on the wall for working for myself.  I don't enjoy answering to or pretending to trust in morons anymore. Time is precious, if my intellect is being compromised to lower levels of survival, I gotta get out of whatever it is the first break of light I see or by forcing them to happily fire me.

JM: Tell me about Alter Ego #1 Andy Whorehall?

DD: Andy Whorehall is a creative moniker that started as a joke in 2004 while doing work for Cory Chisel & The Wandering Sons. It stuck around, was good marketing for entertainment purposes, and It started earning me more creative work than my birth name at some point. It's kept the work that I do for fellow artists separate from the work I do for companies and allows me to keep some personal distance. Since 2009, I've used it for podcasts, articles, interviews via Sock Monkey Sound (a Rockford based podcast that showed up in Paste Magazine and USA Today's top ten music podcasts in 2011 and 2012). None of us are making any money to pay our bills from it (yet, probably never) but it's a passion project that's a far better use of time than mowing the lawn. It's also allowed me to do more with music (one my huge loves), covering festivals, interviewing peers and others (Cameron McGill, Richard Edwards of Margot & The Nuclear So and So's, Sharon Van Etten, David Bazan, Matt Hopper and more), though I don't record my own music under the moniker AW.  

JM: Ah, so you record music under the name Donkey Boy USA?

DD: Actually, DBUSA is no more. In 2012 I discarded the DBUSA moniker and released everything online as Silent Kit. I started writing songs and recording them on hand-held cassette devices in my bathroom around the winter of '96. I think two or three people might actually have the demo (I hope not). My methods changed for recording songs in the last 17 years but I stick to lo-fi in general. I do want to work on something a bit more grand though still fragile and chaotic. I've been sitting on a new stash of piano based demos for the last two years that will become something else at some point.  Not now. 

I'm more concerned about the moment and the song versus perfecting a sound. Somehow I amassed over 400 songs in that amount of time along with a few studio sessions. Some I shared over the years, some I didn't. One composition in recent years, ""I.M. 'Merica", ended up being recorded by one of the midwest's longest running punk bands, The Pimps. You can stream it all for free here.

JM: Tell me about your other internet radio show, "The Andy and Reggie Show?" 

DD:  I grew up loving radio shows, sketch comedy bits and hillbilly wrestling shows, the AWA before it became the WWF–those years. The weirder the better. "The Muppets," "HeeHaw," top ten at tens on the radio, Casey Kasem, American Bandstand, Johnny Carson's Tonight Show years, Bill Cosby, Andy Kaufman, Mean Gene and so many more.  I used to call in to this station in town, WZOK, to request shitty songs in fake voices that they'd put on air.  There was a string of like 3 weeks straight that I called into ZOK to request a horrendous Glenn Medeiros song (Nothing Gonna Change My Love For You) that I wanted to scar the top ten at ten with. I used to record my own radio shows and make mixes of songs I only wanted to hear like I was the DJ choosing what you had to listen to. 

Andy and Reggie's "Songs About Stuff and Things" Podcast Show is an extension of that childhood play. Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour" was a huge influence in recent years–his narration in particular but the song choices and the education behind them Dylan gives. Technology can be a good thing for creatives, and in this case it's helped me. No one helps or finances my show partially because of the location I create it from (Rockford); I do all the scripting, research, recording, performing, editing, voices, etc., and Sock Monkey Sound helps distribute it digitally. It's a lot of work but fun. Ep. 19 just dropped with five more in production to end the whole series on a high, short note. 

 I have to be in the right frame of mind to pull off  [all the voices of] Andy, Reggie and our show's imaginary sponsor / co-host, Lord Thomas Derby. Reggie is a character I had in 1986, which I developed for my cassette mix radio shows. My fictitious Tuesday nightbowling partner who ended up in Rockford because the train he was hopping stopped in Rockford and never left again. Lord Derby I created in 2010. He's the CEO and LORD of ALL in the YOU$A™ at Derby Reynolds. A fictional ad firm out of Schaumburg, ILDerby | Reynolds - THE WAL-MART OF ADVERTISING™ is based on awful, real life situations in the ad firm industry that I've taken freedom with to turn it into something disgusting, reflective, and 100% American. Only those who have survived or experienced a small city ad firm industry with their morals and ethics intact can relate.  Another rabbit hole. We play the music we want to hear and exist in the fair, just, ethical world we want to live in on my podcast while shoveling shit right on back at the scumbags who influence a majority public to settle for less of everything at the expense of intellect. 

JM: Any other alter egos?

DD: There are three new ones besides Andy Whorehall, Reggie Railroad Reynolds, and Lord Thomas Derby that I've been enjoying pissing off people with since the fall of 2012 but I have help with those and privacy is necessary. One is a collective 'disruptive-news media' based project that I'm proud of. The truth in local news is always between the lines anywhere you live.  We break all the rules along with breaking the noose for many loco-locals. I'm the Chief and I exercise freedom of speech, but that's all I'm saying on that one. Ever met Irish Brian Kelly? He's an engineer by day and drunk poet by night from Belvidere, IL, who loves Bono, Ireland, potatoes, Guinness and horrible poetry. He's a piece of shit. Find him.  The third one is another horrible person named Terrance. He and his family are a conglomeration of many people I've observed who are "Rockford Wealthy" (rich here, poor in Chicago). He has a wife and kids, flys planes, loves Rockford and hates San Francisco, enjoys retail restaurants, church, lawn mowing, and Friday Fundays at Chile's with his hot wife, Shelly, and their kids Little Linda and Tiny Terry.  Shelly learned how to be a graphic designer when she was pregnant with her first kid like many moms do everywhere because Captain T. bought her a Macintosh to learn how to do something "fun" while they waited for their first born to arrive.  I'll stop there–they're a fun family to be.  : )

JM: What's your favorite thing to do?

DD: Listen. Laugh. Repeat. Eat.

JM: Describe what you do day to day? 

DD: Most Rockfordians love to meet to talk about work they want to do that they can't or won't pay for.  Lots of coffee will be shared. Lots of talking and lowballing. Lots  Years of it.  When they do agree to pay, it comes with hiccups, delays or not at all.  I've had my time wasted by so many people here that I can tell you I love working with people from everywhere else in the world when I can. Everything has been ethical and respectful for the most part with others needing my creative services outside of here.  (Appleton, WI being excluded.)

JM: What have been some of your favorite projects?

DD: Off the top of my head: Cameron McGill and What Army's "Warm Songs For Cold Shoulders", Trevor Menear's "Some Kind of Sunshine", more than a few records with Stu Johnson and his bands "The Pimps" and "My God The Heat" have been creatively rewarding because of the collaboration process with him; your film, "Dust Radio" is probably the one project that's been on my oven the longest (I can't imagine how long it's been on your oven–8 years?); a few records for Miles Nielsen allowed me to direct a few others artists work (Ryan Davis, Peter Mera) on artwork and photography; scribbling like a teenager for Margot and The Nuclear So and So's' "Rot Gut, Domestic" record was fun; hell, even branding Cory Chisel for a few years had some fun moments if not disastrous smoke trails. Having my dog pose for the Japanese release version of Joie De Vivre's "The North End" and all of the film photography I took for their last two vinyl releases were exercises in extreme freedom. Many of the collaborations I've had with Mossy Vaughn on pranks and music have been fuel for fire.  Some of the very first projects I started handling for bands have great memories. The Braves being one.  I recorded an awful piano part for them at some point for a song that became a whole new song because I couldn't quite find the melody in the studio.  Film photos and scribbling with Kevin Schwitters after The Braves broke up for a bit for his Table and Chairs EP was tons of fun. Writing for SockMonkeySound is always a challenge because there's no editor, which is good and bad. Interviewing David Bazan, Richard Edwards, Matt Hopper… Sharon Van Etten is one of the worst interviews I've conducted. A few recording sessions in 2007 and 2008 with a handful of my own songs I was sitting on was great release. Doing the first few episodes of Songs About Stuff And Things was liberating to say the least. Doing Lord Derby's character and establishing his fictional ad firm has been one of the more fertile rabbit holes I've stumbled into that I enjoy. Overall, anytime I can use my inks, graphites, paper and film more than my computer is a good thing. I try and make that one of the few creative limitations I abide to enjoy the process. 

JM: How has your work changed or evolved over the years?

DD: It's gotten sloppier and simpler out of necessity. I've regressed and downsized to survive but it has been intentional. As I stated earlier, my work is a reflection of my surroundings.  Due to financial constraints I've learned how to strip down to basic materials and tools I need to survive.  Simple black and white inks and graphites. Crayola markers, even.  I do whatever I can to keep wheels of ideas turning without money affecting my motivation if not the results. My work's subject matter is also simpler, less to decipher, awful truths, domestic nonsense and more spiteful than ever but it's as close as I've come to feeling like a three year old again in an adult world that I am not in tune with. I've undone everything I've learned but still return to a few styles I've inherited over the last few decades. I've been feeling like it's time to change something up again, find another thing. Maybe I'll focus on writing for awhile. I've had something brewing for awhile.

JM: What's next for any and all of your personalities? 

DD: Destroy technologies. Make a baby. Try and raise it to not be a moron with good tastes in music and books. No video games for baby. Eat more pizza before my body says no more. Listen. Laugh. Repeat. No American Idol for baby. Listen. Laugh. Repeat. And finally, die. 

JM: What do you (really) believe in? 

DD: Animals. They don't possess opinions or act unkind to take advantage of another–they do what they must out of survival without conscience, need for approval, acceptance or forgiveness. I believe babies are born as pure, good, animals but human conditioning flaws us. Animals are born pure and remain pure with their intents and actions for ultimate survival while humans become hypocrites by nature to survive in a beautiful world we have modified to our horrible liking. Obsession with material goals and possessions flaw us further. I'm a hypocrite but I often dream of being a whale–swimming with them–or a bear. Can you imagine what it must feel like to be a grizzly bear that's stumbled upon a family of five or a a group of fishing buddies who are eating and sleeping on the land that Mother Nature owns? That has to be an amazing thing for a hungry bear. I believe in the universe and karma. If one respects and loves their surroundings as they'd like to be respected and loved, all is right in the universe. If one bites the hand that feeds them, expect karma to behave as it must.   

JM: What would you tell someone starting out in a shitty (no offense meant) town in anywhere USA, trying to get a start in the arts or commercial art today?

DD: Own your voice and find new voices to create more of. Trust the voices, yell, create more, use your surroundings for inspiration, take from it what it will take from you ten times over if you let it, do stuff and things, anything, make people laugh, cringe, and never apologize for where your muse goes.  Stray from the middle ground on subject matter in your work by creating reactions both good and bad.  Never be afraid to tell someone to f%ck off if they attack a generalization in your work with personal attacks. Defend your work because it's your name, too, regardless of monikers or not.  Doubt your teachers and your leaders early on, pretend for a bit to get through before you're able to create your own rules, work hard and be good to those who are good to you, repeatedly.  Own your shit, all of it, and keep a list of names who toss shit at you for inspiration. Own it, be a hypocrite and create. The good and the bad, take chances. (I just saved someone somewhere thousands of dollars and tons of time. You're welcome, kid, wherever you are.) Now, git on out there and steal a job from someone who's earned it and then be prepared to lose it! Eat or be eaten, kids. Like I said, the universe has karma.

JM: Who are your influences?

DD: Well… here's a shotgun-blast short-list version:  Mike Royko, Ralph Ellison, Jim Dine, Andie Airfix, The Replacements, Def Leppard, Dad, Sam Cooke, Andy Kaufmann, John Cuppini, Thax Douglas, Mom, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Wayne White, Bo Jackson, Randall Mario Poffo, Fred Armisen, John Kruk, The Muppets, Storm Thorgersen, Brett and Rennie Sparks, Neil Hamburger, Mississippi John Hurt, Tommy Wisseau, Lord Thomas Derby, Robert Zimmerman, Sadie, drunk enemies and dead-end dreamers, breeders, leaders, buffoon rockers, barking dogs and buzzing fridges, crashing cymbals, pretty puppies and the entire wild kingdom–including all of the cons, peasants, minions and scumbags from Rockford, IL.  There's more, but that's a start for anyone needing inspiration.

JM: What's your view of the future?

DD: The future? The future is the last laugh.

I hope this was valuable time wasted on the internets for anyone I've upset that's stalking me.  

Welcome to the rabbit's hole, friends. Cheers, Jon.