Onstage, Dave Decker loses the eyeglasses he wears to help focus the world around him. The 46-year-old songwriter and Tampa punk-scene totem can see the shapes of people who make up the crowds, but Decker pretty much blacks out once he’s behind the mic. That state of being is part of why he’s never considered himself an entertainer; he can’t actually connect to audiences because, for the most part, he’s trying to solder himself to the tune coming off of his fingertips.
“A song isn’t complete until I can play it blind,” he told CL. “Singing has to be connected to the notes on the guitar. If I’m staring at the neck of my guitar then I’m not really feeling that message I’m trying to deliver.”
For the better part of 30 years, Decker — whose grew up in Tampa skating the curbs outside Ybor City’s La Tropicana while Nirvana played Masquerade, or sneaking into the Volley Club to see Jawbreaker — has played a part in delivering messages as a member of bands like Clairmel, Too Many Daves, Vaginasore Jr. and Sandspur City. Albums he’s credited on have been released by revered punk imprint No Idea and Tampa’s own A.D.D. Records. A new project, however, finds Decker getting more help than ever.
“Big Sad is like four equal parts,” Decker said of the outfit he’s formed with longtime collaborator Richie Lawler and Tim Version drummer Shawn Watkins. Frank Calcaterra, who recorded and engineered Big Sad songs at Tampa’s Atomic Audio, added synth to three songs on a still-unnamed six-song EP and will join the lineup in time for the effort’s release this fall. Decker’s own daughter drew up Big Sad’s logo; Lawler’s kid came up with the band name after discussing the death of the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley with her dad.
“The singer died yesterday at 63,” Lawler wrote in a text to his daughter. Her response was, “Big sad.”
And the help kept coming. Many of the songs on the EP sound much different from demos Decker recorded because Watkins — a classically trained vibraphone player — and Lawler were vocal in writing sessions.
“I’d be singing and Shawn would go, ‘Hey, can you pull the fifth of that?’ I never heard the drummer fucking tell me to pull the interval of a major scale and sing it,” Decker explained. “I have a chord progression, sometimes Rich will say, ‘No, I don’t want to play it like that. I’m going to do this.’ He’ll play some counter-rhythm melody to it. It’s cool. If you leave it to me, I’ll write some one-dimensional song.”
The results are anthemic tunes (“Hazard”), empathetic ones (“Hazard Falls,” which is about homelessness) and at least one (“Sworn To Protect”) that’s outspoken in the most direct way possible.
“That was Richie,” Decker said of the three-minute EP highlight. “The message there is that these cops gotta lay off people, man. Quit beating people up, quit killing people because they’re black.”
It’s an interesting sentiment when considering the fact that running from U.S. Marshals might’ve inadvertently played a part in saving Decker’s own life.
“My game plan was rob the bank, run out of fucking money and then kill myself,” Decker said when referencing a low point he hit just before being arrested for robbing an Orlando bank in early 2014. “I had a little .380 sitting there; I’m looking at it like, ‘Fuck, man. I don’t really want to kill myself, but now I’m probably going prison for 10 years.’ I was like, ‘Shit. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to pull that trigger.’”
At the time of the robbery, Decker — who described his former self as a functioning drunk who was abusing alcohol and other things to both numb himself and find energy — had grown tired of trying to find the silver bullet to getting sober. Turns out that being behind bars and partaking in a rigid Department of Corrections-regulated therapeutic community — along with postcards of support from music-scene friends like songwriter Jeff Brawer — was part of the solution.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I don’t give a fuck. I’m alive right now, and I don’t know why,’” Decker, who eventually served 13 months because he had no prior felonies, said. “I told myself, ‘I’m gonna own up to everything I fucked up.’ I never touched a drink or anything since.”
A lot the motivation for that change goes to a waffle-face-girl character that Decker illustrated on the back of a prison sick call request form along with the lyrics to a Sandspur City song, “Dehydrated Tears Are the Tentacles of the Amputated Heart.” Decker said that a vision of that girl came to him every night while he was in prison.
“She’s 12 years old now. She’s everything to me,” he said of the girl, his daughter. She helped Decker put another character, his alter ego Evil Eye, on a shelf. “Knowing she was out there comforted me.”
Decker said he doesn’t mind sharing his story because he wants anyone struggling or on the street to know that they can turn things around.
“I don’t believe in predestiny. I don’t believe in God and all that shit, but I just think shit happened,” Decker said of the turn of events that eventually led him to Big Sad and to his new life. “You just have to want it more than you want the air in your lungs. You have to hang on to hope and put some work in.”
Not being numb to the world isn’t difficult for Decker anymore, either.
“I used to resent not being able to have a drink, but now I know that beer is going to kill me; it’s like drinking a glass of gasoline,” he explained. “It never gets hard because my best day drunk was never as good as my worst day sober.”
What’s great is that Decker now has Big Sad songs and bandmates to help him bring the good days into focus, too.
Read a full Q&A with Decker.
Debt Neglector w/DieAlps!/Critical Hits/Big Sad. Sat., Aug. 10, 9 p.m. $6. VFW Post 39, 2599 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. INFO.