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The Deserters’ highly individualistic musicians harmonize well
By By Thomas Crone • Photo by Thomas Crone
Posted On: 01/31/2007   


When you see other musicians gravitating toward a band, there’s usually a good reason for it. Oh, sure, it could mean that someone in the group has superior technical skill. Or that the members just network like crazy. But it’s more likely that the act in question has that intangible, that feel, that indefinable star quality.

When you talk to musicians who gravitate toward a band and they start heaping on the superlatives, you know that you’re on the right track. It’s seems that The Deserters may have that reputation as, at this moment, a band that musicians very much dig.

These Deserters are an amalgamation of multiple bygone acts, a group patched together into a remarkable whole from six very different parts. By name and instrument, The Deserters is comprised of: Ethan Shavers, lead vocals; Paul Staples, bass and vocals; Adam Hesed, Farfisa organ; Mark Stephens, guitar and vocals; Dan Byrne, drums; and Jonathan Beck, guitar.

By way of sound, The Deserters is as eclectic as they come, knitting together a rock sound that’s got influences as diverse as the six players. Assume, of course, a rock base, but beyond that the members are coming from years of playing everything from classical to punk, both together and apart. While its core played in varying states as Gasoline Alley, the Carousel Cowboys, the Hellfire Club and The Commons, the group was fully stocked in the spring of 2006, with gigs coming a few months later.

As each member began to put his stamp on the band – this is an act, after all, with three vocalists and five songwriters – the sound shaped and shifted. Some groups can play an entire night without changing their basic tone; not so with The Deserters. If you don’t like a particular cut, just wait a minute, because the song itself is likely to undergo a dramatic twist before ending.

“We have songs that sound different from one [gig] to the next,” said Staples. “We mix it up a lot. It’s something that a lot of bands don’t have. And we always get all kinds of crazy comparisons.”

Watching one of the band’s rehearsals, you can sense the creative tensions that lead to such diversified material. Tracks are slowed down, then sped up, whether by design or chance. Next, a debate breaks out over the speed. Surrounded by the detritus of Beck’s basement, the band members hash it out quietly but with opinion. Eventually, they begin another song, accidentally crashing into one another or into the never-ending supply of empty beer bottles and cans. The process is a fascinating study not only of how songs can be put through such a six-headed processor, but also how a coherent group can be formed from six colorful, passionate players.
“The hardest thing to find in this band is … consensus,” Hesed joked. “On anything. There are some very strong personalities here.”

That comes across. The band members can find ways to needle each other with regularity, busting on each other like cousins at the summer family reunion. The material for their needling can be just about anything: the amount of times to play a month, the start time of band practice, the end time of band practice, when they formed, how often to play out, the proper time to record (which they’re – thankfully –
beginning to do now).

Illustrative of this is the concept of MySpace.com. There’s a page bookmarked for them, but until very recently it had no content. Some of the band members wanted the page fleshed out; others were less than thrilled, preferring to go directly to the people with a split release on vinyl. And you get the sense, when these conversations are overheard, that it’s not a personal thing, but a conversation that’s laced with real politics, with the notion of how rock ’n’ roll should be released and presented in a digital age. The delivery system of the band’s music matters, and here, too, these Deserters dig in and enjoyably grapple in the process.

To date, though, the group’s sole delivery system has been the live gig. And here’s where the bizarre and beautiful thing that is The Deserters should be fully appreciated.

No band in town resembles this one; collectively, all six members weigh about 800 pounds. Their individual styles are just that; each one stepped off the time machine during a different five-year block.

Even when readying to play, they do so differently than most, setting up at odd angles. Shavers can be in the center of the scrum, swaying, lost in the moment; Staples and Byrne, counterintuitively, never appear to make eye contact, facing opposite directions but still playing off one another. Meanwhile, Beck crouches low, near the drums, bent at the waist and coiled as if ready to spring onto the ceiling; Hesed’s head bobs, his right leg flying out, jarred by the beat; Stephens, a vet of so many rock shows, looks alternately bemused, then intense, dabbing cigarette after cigarette into his guitar’s headstock.

They’re a crazy, creative, combustible mix, these Deserters … and you can’t take your eyes off them. When plugged in, they simply demand your attention.

And you don’t have to be another musician to share in the idea that this band matters. Nah, it’s obvious. It has “it.” Talent. An idiosyncratic look. And a glorious sound that’s its alone.

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