A theory of evolution

By James Reed
Globe Staff / September 8, 2009

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It’s difficult to fathom this kind of chutzpah now, but Damon Krukowski still remembers what he and his wife, Naomi Yang, told Sub Pop Records when the influential label was interested in signing the duo back in the early 1990s.

“The first thing we said to them was, ‘Well, you know we’re never going to perform live,’ ’’ says Krukowski, who was part of the seminal slowcore band Galaxie 500 with Yang and Dean Wareham in the late ’80s. “And they were just like, ‘That’s OK.’ What we learned later was that they told the staff, ‘We’re not going to promote these records because they’re never going to go on tour.’ There’s only so much you can do for a band that doesn’t go on tour, which is true.’’

But, performing as Damon & Naomi, they eventually did go on the road, and between 1995 and 2002 they recorded four prototypical albums of austere and intoxicating indie folk. Today, on their own label (20/20/20), they’re releasing a compilation of those recordings, “The Sub Pop Years,’’ which documents the pair’s rise from uneasy to established performers. (They play at the Cambridge YMCA on Sept. 18.)

Over tea and pastries in Damon & Naomi’s Cambridge apartment, we recently chatted with Krukowski about those early - and decidedly uncertain - days.

Q. What, in particular, defined you guys as a band during those Sub Pop years?

A. Those are years when we were coming to terms with being performers. We don’t consider ourselves entertainers, so we never came to terms with that aspect of performance, as anyone who comes to see us live quickly realizes. But we did come to terms with the idea of being onstage. When we first started, we didn’t want to be onstage.

Q. And have those Sub Pop records aged well for you?

A. Well, it’s funny, we don’t listen to our old records. But these songs are still very much a part of our current vocabulary, even though the recordings are not. We had to go back and reacquaint ourselves with some of the original versions. Sometimes it was really almost a shock - to hear the production, to hear choices we made for arranging. Sometimes it was a question of what were we thinking.

Q. From that first Sub Pop album [“The Wondrous World of Damon & Naomi’’] to the last one [“Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian’’], do you now hear your evolution?

A. Oh, it’s an enormous difference. What we hear for ourselves is learning to sing, because we were singers by default when we started performing. We had always written songs, but we were the rhythm section of Galaxie 500.

Q. And yet you’ve very much established your own identity as Damon & Naomi.

A. If we went back and tried to write a song like we wrote for Galaxie 500, it becomes an exercise in some kind of nostalgia or reanimation of naivete that we don’t have anymore. Back then we had it honestly, but you have to keep changing. Now all the songs come out of very different ideas and references for ourselves.

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