CL Interview: Dignan, a hot new (unsigned) Texas act plays Crowbar next Friday (video)

The indie quintet began nurturing a following in and around Texas, recorded and released their first EP, The Guest, in 2007 on indie label Bearded Beauty, and dove headfirst into touring on a national level. By the time 2009 rolled around, Dignan had criss-crossed the country several times, sold out the initial pressing of their EP (1,000 discs to be sure, but still impressive), digitally distributed a few thousand of their second EP, Tangled Woods Sessions, opened for the Plain White T’s, Ra Ra Riot and Color Revolt, among others, and accepted an invitation to perform at Paste Magazine’s Official 2009 SXSW Music Festival showcase. Invites from Cornerstone Festival and Pachanga Latin Music Festival followed.

But after so much touring, Dignan’s musicians needed some down time to expel all the ideas that had percolated on the road, and put to paper “different emotions we’ve felt along the way.”

So they returned to Texas, holed up for 10 days with no outside interruptions, and crafted the first six tracks of their debut LP, Cheaters & Thieves. “When we wrote these songs, we decided we needed to leave our comfort zone, not to have any restrictions,” Garcia explains. “We just took our time, locked ourselves up in a room and these are what came out.”

There was never any question of whether or not to produce it professionally — the money just wasn’t there and Pena was well-versed enough in DIY recording techniques and technology that he was able to work out what the band needed to get the job done. At some point, they tossed around the idea of bringing in a small-time producer to help push them in the right direction. But it just didn’t work out. “We decided we could do it by ourselves and that we didn’t need anyone to give us any pointers or feedback,” says Garcia. “The quality of the songs, the artistic direction, the lyrical content — we’re all very proud of the project and that we did it on our own.”

Captivating and haunting, Cheaters & Thieves touches upon love and loss, religion (“You’ll find me running / running from the Devil / but running from God / I’m running from God … And I find myself again”), the struggle between right and wrong, the search for life’s answers, the passage of time and other profound subjects. The album’s single, “Two Steps,” ponders imminent death with aching loveliness and earned enough popular votes to get onto a Paste Magazine/Heineken CD Sampler this past June.

The band recorded the album in their practice space — a garage converted into a informal sound studio — in bits and pieces and mixed it at Premium Recordings in Austin. “We’re really happy about how the recordings came out,” Garcia tells me.

Cheaters & Thieves turned out to be an almost entirely indie effort and Garcia says that Dignan is enjoying being unencumbered. “Bands think, ‘If only we could get signed by a label and get that backing and support.’ But that support doesn’t necessarily mean anything nowadays. If you go out and work for it, it will work out for you.”

So far he and his bandmates have benefited from the results of their DIY methods. “We can record ourselves and make it sound good, so why not continue to do it that way?”

Yeah, why not? The album sounds as lush and as full as it would if it were recorded in a “real” sound studio — and it cost them a grand total of $600. “We’re proud to say the record has only been out for 10 days and we’re already out of debt.”

Garcia insists that although Dignan is pleased about their rising success, the goal is not necessarily to sell their music but to spread it around and enjoy the experience. “We want to meet people, share meals with new friends, share our music. It’s a blast to travel the country with your best friends and do it for free. We just want to play music and we’re very fortunate and blessed that we’re able to do it.”

Dignan/Look Mexico/XOXO/Alexander and the Grapes, Fri., July 17, 9 p.m., Crowbar, Ybor City, $6 in advance/$8 dos (ages 18 and up).

You’d imagine Dignan’s music is conceived somewhere cold and snowy grey and stunning in its starkness, a place for thinking meaningful thoughts and contemplating life’s everlasting mysteries.

Not a Texas town located a mere five miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border and boasting a significant Hispanic community. (Dignan photo by Taylor Pool)

“There’s not much of that in the music,” bassist and Dignan co-founder Devin Garcia tells me via phone a few weeks ago while the band was enjoying some down time in Cincinnati before a show later that night. “A lot of times, people are almost surprised about that.”

The atmospheric chamber pop has a distinctive psyche-folk feel in the same vein as Grizzly Bear. The multi-layered vocals are delivered in gentle and mellifluous intones or passionate cries, and are backed by wordless chorales and tasteful washes of sound with small textural details added for affect — glock chimes, guitar reverb, tambourine jingles, hand-claps, accordion notes, whistling.

Dignan is named after the charming ne’er-do-well in Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, and had its start when high school-aged Andy Pena met Garcia in church and became fast friends while tooling around in the church’s music room, where they spent many a late night experimenting with various instruments and taking full advantage of the empty performance space. Soon enough, Pena was playing guitar, Garcia electric bass and the duo were recruiting other young musicians to join them. Eventually, they settled into the current lineup with keyboardist and harmonizing vocalist Heidi Plueger, drummer Trey Perez, and David Palomo, who sings and plays accordion, glock and keys.

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