The Little Death is one of those bands that’s tough to pin down.
In any given song they can come at you with any mixture of delta blues, punk rock, 30s jazz, 60s soul or classic hard rock.
As for their style, lead singer Laura Dawn says, “We kind of like to imagine ourselves as some sort of Clyde Barrow gang, on the lam, wearing extremely dapper outfits, with great Lana Turner hair and red lipstick.”
Mix in the raw sexual energy they bring to their live shows and a drunken swagger that could make a 12-stepper’s hand start shaking, the only thing you can safely say about the New York City-based band that gets tagged as ‘one of Moby’s side-projects’ is that they shouldn’t be tagged as one of Moby’s side-projects.
“I don’t think anyone who has ever actually seen the band live would ever refer to it as anyone’s side project. I’m not really even sure what that means,” says Dawn.
The band was born from the basic idea of four musicians with great chemistry – which means they really enjoyed drinking together – hooking up to make music they wanted to make, with no far-reaching ambitions or real game plan.
They’ve been playing shows in and around NYC for a few years now but just recently released their debut album.
The self-titled album does a good job getting across the raw emotion that defines their live shows, and that’s largely thanks to how it was recorded.
“Everything was recorded in analog and straight to tape, with most performances captured in 1-2 takes with very minimal overdubbing and miccing,” explains drummer Aaron Brooks. “In the purist sense, we wanted to evoke the stark warmth, vitality, space and lush sonic beauty of records from the 30s through the 60s.”
But as good as the album is, The Little Death is just one of those bands that’s better live.
With The Death Threats (Jamie Rae and Cherie Martorana) backing her up, Dawn leads a tight three-part harmony through songs that range from the soulful to the sinful, and the gents match the ladies’ intensity.
It’s also pretty clear that each of them really enjoys being on stage.
For Brooks, performing live is “pure, unadulterated, sublime and powerful orgasmic bliss … metaphorically, I guess I could equate it to being a benevolent Roman Emperor at a Dionysian orgy in a raging electrical storm.”
Daron Murphy, who plays guitar, bass and harmonica, further illuminates a typical night with the band: “There’s usually a point in any Little Death show where a certain kind of controlled chaos takes over.” That seems almost an understatement given the tell-tale story Murphy shares about a gig at the Guggenheim Museum. “While playing a guitar solo, I closed my eyes and tripped over a monitor onstage and totally fell over,” begins Murphy. “As I fell, I knocked one of The Death Threats’ microphones into someone’s face, accidentally. And at the same time, one of the PA speakers caught on fire and sent a plume of smoke up into the Guggenheim’s circular staircase. But we never stopped playing the song! Even though we had literally set the Guggenheim Museum on fire.”
Wild flames call to mind Dawn; Dawn and her straight-talkin’ whiskey blues. Dawn belting out a song about pain and ecstasy, of love and loss. Dawn onstage roaring about how she loves to argue, fuck and fight.
“She adds subtle variations in her vocal lines at every show. Sometimes, when Laura’s particularly inspired, she’ll let loose with something that simply blows my mind. At one of our recent shows I was convinced she was the living female reincarnation of Sam Cooke,” says Dawn’s husband, Murphy.
Her voice has been compared to Dusty Springfield’s, or a young Tina Turner (from the Ike and Tina Turner Revue days), who was a definite influence on the singer. “Her voice was so raw then, so full of sex and pain and power. I find her infinitely inspiring.”
There’s plenty of sex, pain and power in Dawn’s voice, but there’s something else.
“I remember that the Patsy Cline album liner notes had a quote from her. She said, ‘Oh lord, I just sing like I hurt inside,’ and I remember thinking that I knew what she meant, and that some day I, too, was going to sing like I hurt inside,” reminisces Dawn.
And she does, more often than not singing of a pain or love pulled straight from her own life.
“I borrow from others when it suits the song. ‘Gather Round’ isn’t my story, but I understand the emotions that run it very, very well. And it’s a true story of a murder-suicide that actually happened.”
The band’s been able to hold on to the raw emotional energy of the group that started out rehearsing in what guitarist Daron Murphy says was a “claustrophobic and dank basement underneath a health food store/café” that was eventually shut down by the fire department.
“Initially, we just wanted to create music for ourselves and pay homage to our musical heroes for shits and giggles,” says Brooks. “It had the allure and excitement of being a teenager and getting together with my mates in mum’s basement to play the music we loved for the first time.”
But for a group that loves to play live, they don’t do it very often.
“We actually just had a band meeting trying to figure out how to get more time together. But I like that our shows are rare. You’re always going to get a show that we’re eager and excited about performing,” says Dawn.
Dawn adds they’ll be heading out on “a couple of mini tours” throughout America and will be working on material for a new album, getting back to doing what they’ve always done.
“They get drunk, I stay sober, and we all play music together. It’s pretty simple. In the old days we’d all get drunk and play music together. Now, out of self-preservation, I hold down the sober fort,” says Moby, who plays guitar and bass.
But with all that’s going on in their personal and professional lives away from the band, a major tour might not happen for some time.
By day, Dawn’s the Creative/Cultural Director for the non-profit political advocacy group MoveOn; Murphy is a writer, composer, and sound engineer; Brooks is a full-time professional “primal beast of a drummer” (jests Dawn); while Moby, who has any number of balls in the air at once, has as little time for rest as inclination for downtime. “I do everything in my power to avoid having a private life. If I stay busy enough I don’t have to actually deal with any of my underlying and unresolved emotional issues.”
A cheeky Dawn interjects: “Moby has probably nothing to do. He’s such a layabout. Honestly, he should get a job, that guy.”
Moving forward, Dawn will keep up her ‘political activist by day, siren by night’ lifestyle, writing lyrics wrought with religious sentiment and heartache, and doing the vocal arrangements with The Death Threats. Brooks will continue to be a primal beast of a drummer, Murphy will remain “extremely psychedelic and out there,” at times needing to be “caught and tamed,” as Dawn puts it, and Moby will be the craftsman.
You hear them play and you get the feeling that they’re still the four musicians Dawn describes as “high strung and opinionated and fairly problematic” who got together in a basement practice space in New York to see what would happen.
The Little Death aren’t pushing any musical boundaries — being conscientious of things like parameters isn’t their style — but their collective talent is undeniable and their decision to make the music they want to make, without caring whether it’s commercially viable, is admirable.
“The demise of the record business is actually great for creativity, as there’s no longer any incentive to sell out, as no one buys music anymore,” adds Moby. “All I want to do now is to make music that I love, and hopefully somehow end up with music that a few other people might love, too.”