Leaning In: Restroy’s Chris Dammann mines hidden beauty for musical inspiration

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“I’m always trying to do something a little impossible,” says Chris Dammann about blending jazz, grunge, electronic, classical and mbira music into compositions for his avant-garde group, Restroy. “There’s something beautiful about impossible things.”
Photo by Amy Jackson “I’m always trying to do something a little impossible,” says Chris Dammann about blending jazz, grunge, electronic, classical and mbira music into compositions for his avant-garde group, Restroy. “There’s something beautiful about impossible things.” Photo by Amy Jackson

When Chris Dammann was a kid growing up in Charlottesville, he spent a lot of time looking at his dad’s upright bass. “I wonder what that does, to be in that corner,” Dammann recalls thinking about the instrument. He decided to find out for himself at age 14, when he took the bass out of the corner and started plucking its fat strings. He never put it back.

Dammann, now 32, has spent a lot of time with that bass. He played it all through high school, improvising and taking lessons from Charlottesville Symphony principal bassist and UVA music faculty member Pete Spaar. He played it all through music school at Northwestern University and in regular sessions at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago. He’s carted it across the region in a station wagon (it’s too big for airplanes) and played it on the road with Mexo-Americana group David Wax Museum and the jazzy 3.5.7 Ensemble.

He’s spent so much time with the instrument that it’s even affected him physically. Hunching over the bass’s belly has changed how he stands, the orientation of his hips and his posture. “There’s nothing sensible about the upright bass,” Dammann says with a laugh, “but that’s part of its charm.”

He’ll bring that bass—and some of the music he’s composed on it—to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church-Unitarian Universalist on Wednesday evening, to play with his avant-garde group Restroy, combining elements of jazz, mbira, electronic, noise, classical and grunge music into a singular, experimental sound that’ll compel you to stop what you’re doing, listen and ask, “What is that?”

Dammann composes because he needs to. Usually, his music begins with the act of listening to his record collection—Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Charles Mingus, Pauline Oliveros—to “exhaust the possibilities” of whatever he’s listening to. When he can no longer find what he’s looking for in those records in that moment, he’ll create what he needs to hear.

“Whenever I play, I imagine I’m sitting in the audience and try and play exactly what I would like to hear as a listener,” says Dammann. “I’m always looking for something physical and visceral—things that quicken the heart and make me want to dance.” As for what specific feelings he’s looking to evoke with Restroy’s music, Dammann says wryly that information is “top secret.”

SaturnReturn_RestroyDammann composes most of the music for Restroy and plays bass and electronics in the group that also features Cathy Monnes on cello, James Davis on trumpet, Kevin Davis on violin, Tobin Summerfield on guitar, Nick Anaya on saxophone, Mabel Kwan on piano and John Niekrasz on drums. Dammann likes to give Restroy musicians something challenging to play, just enough information to know what’s going on, but not so much that they can get away with not listening. “Listening is the most important part of it for me,” says Dammann. “I think of a musician as just a highly skilled, highly attuned listener.”

On tracks such as “Chris&CathyBFFS4 EvahEver,” off of Restroy’s 2016 release, Saturn Return, Dammann ponders texture to give form to music for improvisation. On another track, “Dangu Rangu,” he’s arranged a traditional mbira piece that isn’t necessarily an authentic representation of the music that originated in Zimbabwe, but rather an exploration of what he finds fascinating about it: “The long lines, the feel of pulse without meter. There is meter…but all the cross-rhythms obscure it to my ear until it just sounds like four on the floor, pulse,” he says, adding that he’s captivated by “how spontaneously musical it sounds.”

Dammann knows there’s probably not a huge audience for this highly experimental sound, and he’s okay with that. But for the audience he does have, he encourages close listening.

Music is everywhere—murmuring under the hubbub of voices in a coffee shop, blaring from the car ahead of you at a stoplight and in your earbuds as you answer emails. It’s on the stereo while you cook dinner and in the movies and TV shows you watch. We’re always listening, but we’re listening in addition to doing something else—listening is rarely an act of its own.

If you let music pour into your ears and seep into your brain, your heart, your blood, you can absorb it to the point where it becomes a part of you and you’ll feel ownership over the sound. Even if you didn’t write it, you might feel like you did—that’s how involved Dammann wants you to get with this music.

“Sometimes, when you go see music, it’s like you the listener are making it happen in some magical way, and I’m always looking for that. When you’re the performer, you can engage directly with that, and if it’s subtle enough, it brings everyone into the process. …Listening is a sacred thing.”

Restroy plays Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church-Unitarian Universalist on Wednesday, April 12 at 8pm.

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