The Madison band plays a rare show on November 18 at the Crystal Corner Bar.
For a stretch between 2011 and 2013, one of the best Madison bands to see live was Dharma Dogs, the trio of guitarist/vocalist Chris Joutras, drummer/vocalist Nate Karls, and bassist Adam John. Joutras and Karls both wrote scrappy punk songs, sometimes in collaboration and sometimes branching off in their own distinctive songwriting voices. A strain of vulnerability ran through all the band's music, making the fury of their songs and live performances feel genuine and cathartic, not simply aggressive.
The live shows were also the best way to take in the contrasting personalities at work in the band. Joutras' hoarse, howling vocals and noise-smeared guitar playing pushed things in a grunge-y direction, while Karls' drumming and screamed vocals pulled Dharma Dogs toward the barren rage of early-'80s hardcore. John's bass playing gave it all a heavy underpinning but also helped to tie together the band's variety of volatile impulses.
The band has played only a handful of times in the past three years—Joutras and Karls have been working on other musical projects, and John was completing a PhD—and never put out a full-length album during its more active period. Dharma Dogs actually recorded 10 songs for a planned album in 2011 with Bobby Hussy of The Hussy engineering. "We really wanted it to be an album but we couldn't finance it or get anyone to help out with a release," Joutras says. Instead, some of those tracks came out in fits and starts, spread across splits and EPs. For one tour in 2012, the band didn't have any proper releases to sell, and dubbed about 80 cassettes on the road with a battery-powered boombox that John says "died a noble death shortly after." Some of the completed songs didn't even get mastered until a couple of years ago.
An actual Dharma Dogs album finally arrived earlier in September when a small British label called Muzai released Music For The Terminally Besotted, which the band will celebrate with a now-rare live set on November 18 at the Crystal Corner Bar. The show will also mark the release of fellow Madison band Fire Heads' new self-titled album.
Music For The Terminally Besotted more or less reflects a long-delayed vision. "There was always kind of a general running order in our heads, and that got reflected in our setlist a lot—we opened with 'Laxadaisy' quite a bit...the bookends especially were pretty definite," Karls says. "We knew that 'Laxadaisy' should open it and 'Longshot' should close it."
Some decisions were more recent, like a few of the finer points in the tracklisting, and the album's title. The phrase "terminally besotted" comes from a critical panning of the band's 2012 7-inch, Drown. None of the band members seem to be actually bitter about the review, but couldn't agree on how much they really wanted to talk about it in a recent interview, despite naming an album after it. "We got our first real scathing review," Karls says. "This guy really ripped us apart and we read it kind of laughing... he basically said that we completely lowered the bar on pretty much everything musically."
The band only began practicing together again recently, in preparation for the upcoming show, but feel they've fallen back into playing together pretty naturally. "The first time, you scrape the rust, and every time after that it becomes more usable," Karls says. In fact, some of their favorite memories of playing together happened in the practice space.
"When we used to practice, we would practice just like it was a show—full volume, full antics, full beer, and I'd be jumping off amps and stuff in practice, breaking strings. I don't know why," Joutras says. "It probably would have been a lot cheaper to not have to buy strings after every practice." Karls adds: "Some of the best shows we ever played, no one was there," which makes his bandmates laugh.
That approach to band practice might seem excessive, but all that time spent jamming and getting a little crazy offstage definitely helped Dharma Dogs refine the controlled chaos of their live shows. Songs in the live setting would often veer off into bursts of sludge and dissonance (the recorded version of "Longshot" actually captures this pretty well), but it never felt pointless or drained off the momentum of a given song.
Dharma Dogs was the first band where either Karls or Joutras did much songwriting, and it's given them some perspective that carries over into their current projects. "I think I've learned more about self-editing," Joutras says. Karls has put out a few solo releases and Joutras still plays in a bunch of bands around town, including Dumb Vision, The Momotaros, Coordinated Suicides, and Cool Building. (Full disclosure: Another Coordinated Suicides member, Mike Noto, is a Tone Madison contributor.) John hasn't been very active in music the past few years, but does have some sort of solo experimental project that he's rather tight-lipped about right now.
The unhinged energy of Dharma Dogs has matured and mostly been refocused into other efforts, and no one in the band seems particularly sentimental about the past. They don't have any additional shows or recordings planned for the future, but they deserve to feel proud of their earnest, blasted-out songs and powerful live sets. Even with Music For The Terminally Besotted finished and released, the band is sitting on another album's worth of recordings, and some songs from that batch will probably make it into the band's set list at the Crystal. "There's a good solid chance they might never be released," Karls says, sounding resigned.