boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Rock Notes

Dave Derby is still going strong

And, with a little help, he has a new CD

After his second solo release, the ex-Dambuilder, ex-Brillantine, ex-Negative says he'd like to start another band. After his second solo release, the ex-Dambuilder, ex-Brillantine, ex-Negative says he'd like to start another band.

Despite singer-songwriter Dave Derby's professed desire to "slip off the grid and slowly disappear," as he puts it on the opening track of his new album, "Dave Derby and the Norfolk Downs," the onetime bassist for Boston's Dambuilders isn't likely to fade away anytime soon. For one thing, he's got a CD-release party to play Wednesday at the Midway Cafe, and he's the occasionally awestruck father of a 2-year-old daughter. And, at 41, he says he's got a lot of music left to make.

"I actually do have a pretty happy life, but I guess I'm just drawn to moodiness and melancholy, and not just lyrically, but musically as well," says Derby by phone from Hawaii, where he grew up and is visiting family. "When I work on something, I step back and say, 'Wow, that's interesting, because that's not really the same person that I am in everyday conversation.' "

If you were to try to glean Derby's personality or perspective solely through his eclectic musical resume -- first as singer-bassist for '90s alt-rock hopefuls the Dambuilders, then as both frontman for orch-popsmiths Brilliantine and a member of the Negatives, not to mention his current stint as musical director and bandleader for comedian Sarah Silverman's band, the Silver Men -- you might become very confused, indeed.

Then again, anyone who remembers the musically voracious Dambuilders knows that part of that band's boisterous charm was that it didn't sit stylistically still for very long. The same can be said about Derby, although his new album (out now on the indie imprint Reveal Records) both continues and builds upon the deeply personal themes he explored on his 2003 solo debut, "Even Further Behind."

If that disc offered a candid assessment, and refutation, of Derby's die-hard rock dreams ("The Dream Is Over"), "Norfolk Downs" -- named after the location of his New York home studio -- also takes emotional inventory of the artist's past. The hymn-like piano ballad "Overnight Low" contemplates the loss of an old friend who died in a fire; "Sugar and Violets" is a bittersweet reminiscence about those heady, tumultuous Dambuilders days set to a sugary pop rush; "My Back Issues," also a wistful look back, is considerably less so.

"If there's one theme about this record, it's thinking about death -- not just my friend, but my father-in-law, who passed away," Derby says. "And for me, the really big thing was having a child. For whatever reason, it made me think about mortality. The songs 'Never Leave' and 'You Got to Go' are both about realizing that we don't have a lot of time, but in the time we have, life can be really sweet and we need to savor it while we're here. Because who knows what's going to happen?"

Despite the album's intimate tone, "Norfolk Downs" is only ostensibly a Dave Derby solo album. A slew of friends, many with Boston ties, chipped in: Come guitarist Chris Brokaw; ex-Dambuilders violinist Joan Wasser, who now fronts Joan As Police Woman; and ex-Dambuilders-turned-Guided By Voices drummer Kevin March, among them. (Although ex-Luna guitarist Sean Eden's contributions did not end up on "Norfolk Downs," Derby will be bringing Eden -- whom he calls "a phenomenal guitar player" -- to the Midway Cafe Wednesday.)

"I like to get other people to play on my stuff because otherwise it feels really lonely if it's just me," says Derby, who also almost single-handedly produced, recorded, and mixed the album -- an experiment he cheerfully says he doesn't want to repeat. In fact, he's thinking about starting a band again that doesn't just feature his name on the marquee.

"After being in the Dambuilders, I really wanted to do something that was completely my own . . . and for now, things are leading me back to making records with other people," he says. "A lot of it just has to do with playing with people who are really great." Some of those aren't even musicians but rather comedians-turned-TV stars like Silverman. Derby, who operates Derby & Kotch, a New York-based commercial music production company with ex-Eve's Plum guitarist Michael Kotch, first met Silverman through Air America Radio Network host Sam Seder.

"I did music for a bunch of his shows, and he's an old friend of Sarah's, and she was putting together an off-off-Broadway [production] of 'Jesus Is Magic,' so I put a band together for her," he says. "I think she is a genius and is such a sweetheart. She is one of the nicest people you could ever meet."

Not a bad gig for a guy who sings about slipping off the grid. Dave Derby disappear? Not a chance.

BITS & PIECES Tonight: Rustic Overtones headline the first of a two-night stand at Harpers Ferry. Girls, Guns, & Glory headline the Abbey Lounge. Kay Hanley plays an early show at the Lizard Lounge. Tomorrow: The Download Festival 2007 gets underway at the Tweeter Center with Modest Mouse, Guster, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Neko Case, Wolf Parade, Band of Horses, Bang Camaro, and Apollo Sunshine. Morning Theft headlines the Middle East Upstairs. A tribute to cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston gets underway at P.A.'s Lounge with the Specific Heats, Drug Rug, Faces on Film, Ryan Lee Crosby, and more. Fluttr Effect is at the Lizard Lounge. The Bleedin Bleedins and Campaign for Real Time top a great bill at Great Scott. The Lyres are at the Abbey Lounge. Monday: Mandolin master Jimmy Ryan at Atwood's Tavern. Tuesday: Rufus Wainwright is at Avalon. Ex-Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin is at Great Scott. Michael Tarbox is at the Plough & Stars.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES