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Swearing at Motorists: Living Life One B-Movie at a Time

 
by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: July 11, 2001

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dave Doughman, the singer/songwriter half of the duo that calls itself Swearing at Motorists, is running scared. In fact, this Friday's show at Omaha's Sokol Underground with The Faint and Putracine -- the 92nd of this tour -- will be the last.

It wasn't planned that way.

The weirdness began early evening last Friday -- our agreed-upon phone interview time. Doughman, speaking from a cell phone in Philadelphia, was in no condition to talk.

"I just witnessed something I wish I wouldn't have witnessed," he said, his voice tight and serious, just the opposite of the party-guy rockstar tone from the day before. "We're running behind now, can I call you in a couple hours?"

I begged off to Saturday, and he agreed. Could he talk about whatever had happened that had rattled him so much? "As much as the police will let me," he said. "My life is in danger."

 

 

 

Saturday noon. A more relaxed, jovial Doughman was now on the phone. "It's a beautiful day in Pittsburgh and I've had a lot of sleep."

So what exactly had happened the day before? "The reason the Omaha show will be the last is because I am required to be in Philadelphia July 16 in relation to a federal racketeering case. I happened to see something I really shouldn't have. Unfortunately, we hang out in some places where thugs also hang out."

Doughman said he couldnít talk about the details, and I was beginning to suspect that maybe the whole story was just some fabricated Sopranos scripting. Except that nothing Doughman said indicated this was a sham. Mob stuff is nothing new in Philly, where even now the real-life Sopranos story of the trial of Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino is wrapping up. The Philadelphia Daily News even has a regular running feature called "Mob on Trial," that includes stories with headlines like "Witness Denies Mafia Ties," "Joey's Alibi Trimmed," and "Poor as a Mouse, But Never a Rat." Doughman said his quandary had nothing to the Merlino trial.

"I have to appear in court as a witness," he continued to explain. "I'm pretty pissed off about it. We were going to finish up the year on Aug. 4, a full moon in Morgantown, West Virginia, show No. 105 for the year. We also had four days of recording scheduled in Olympia, Wash. But I've been subpoenaed. I have no choice. There was this incident. They have everyone fingered for being in this place at the same time. The story is ridiculous. I am fearing for my life. These people are fucked up and what I saw is fucked up."

Doughman wouldn't say what he saw -- he said he couldn't -- but he implied that it involved violence. "I don't want to get whacked," he said. "There are things that happen in life that pop up and you can't control that can hurt you. You choose to be at a certain establishment at a certain time. I don't know why people do what they do in a crowded restaurant bar. I don't know if they think people can't see them or if they don't care. It's surreal. It freaks me out."

 


"I don't want to get whacked. There are things that happen in life that pop up and you can't control that can hurt you."


 


"Don was one of my best pals. He's a guy I talked to on the phone four times a day for five years, and then suddenly he blazes after playing a month in Europe and the states."


 

 

Pretty dark stuff from a guy who makes a living performing music that accurately captures the mundaneness of everyday life and makes it rock. Along with drummer Don Thrasher, formerly of Guided by Voices, Doughman has quietly taken the indie world by storm performing as Swearing at Motorists since self-releasing his first cassette in 1995. Six years and nine recordings later -- the last two CDs released on Secretly Canadian Records -- and Swearing has become something of an indie legend, touring non-stop and winning fans with a high-energy show that makes the most of a simple two-piece operation.

His music is honest, simple, stripped down. When it rocks, it has a Crazy Horse sheen to it, but most of the time the three elements -- Doughman's voice, guitar and Thrasher's deft drumming -- sum up a slightly southern sounding laundromat hymnal, like early Silos meets Bob Pollard. On his latest, Number Seven Uptown, the music is dry and sardonic, slurred and blurred but always lyrically clear-headed. Doughman adds elegance to everyday events, whether it be choosing which movie to see after smoking a joint in a parking lot (You hate Robin Williams / As much as I love Robin Williams / So how about Gene Hackman in that latest action film / Or maybe Zorro) or bluntly running into an old flame and stumbling through an awkward conversation (How's your mom / And are you working the same place / Your hair got long / and on and on).

Doughman is this millennium's everyman poet philosopher, with a joint in one hand and a guitar in the other. Now if he could only get the feds and the Mafia off his back. His recent run-in isn't the first trial he's overcome on a tour that began late last year, fueled by strong college radio airplay and even stronger word of mouth. Perhaps a bigger blow was losing his longtime collaborator, Don Thrasher, in an unexpected twist.

Last December Doughman said he came back to his hotel room in Washington, D.C., where the band had played and saw the message light flashing on his phone. "Don left me a message and said he rented a car and was on his way back to Dayton and good luck in Philadelphia (the next stop on the tour). He had to go home to be with his wife and kids. He had a family situation."

Doughman, was shocked. It was Thrasher who had been with him since the very beginning, when, at age 24, he decided to give up his day job and become a rock star.

"I freaked out and drove in a daze down to Philadelphia," Doughman said. "Don was one of my best pals. He's a guy I talked to on the phone four times a day for five years, and then suddenly he blazes after playing a month in Europe and the states."

Doughman played the show solo that night to an understanding, appreciative crowd. Among those in attendance was former Daytonian Joseph Siwinski.

"He offered me a place to stay that night," Doughman said. "First thing I noticed was all these guitars lying around his home. We stayed up and drank and smoked, and the next day at breakfast I said 'Do you play rhythm guitar?' and he said 'I'm a drummer.'"

 

Doughman found his fill-in drummer. Swearing's next show was slated for Toronto. "I asked him if he'd play if I bought him a plane ticket back from Canada. In 30 minutes I taught him five songs, got online and bought him a plane ticket. We rehearsed a few hours, went out to the bar, got drunk and saw some bands, then drove to Toronto, got the van stuck in the ditch, had customs search my van, they didn't find my pot, and 158 Canadian dollars later I got my van back, made it to the venue and played for 250 people. It was Joseph's first show and it was amazing."

After the next gig, Siwinski became a full-time member, keeping Doughman's tour alive. "I've been on the road since September with no more than 16 days off at a time," Doughman said.

And what about Thrasher? "Don and I are still friends," Doughman said. "I don't talk to him that much at all. I'm uncomfortable when I see him. I feel weird talking about what I'm doing. He gave it up to be with his family, and my whole life revolves around this band."

Doughman said Swearing fans will notice a distinctive difference between the two drummers. But maybe the biggest difference is their vice of choice.

"Don smokes weed and Joseph doesn't," Doughman said. "There were some places that Don and I would get locked into that were weird and couldnít be reproduced on stage. Everything (Joseph and I) work out is easy to reproduce. The guy is a subtle clock; he keeps perfect time. He stepped immediately in and it was like we had played together forever. We improvise on songs every night. A lot of times I can't get Joseph's attention on stage. He'll have his head down, eyes closed and will be looking to the left, just smiling. I'll see him like that and I'll throw a change-up in there and he never misses it. I don't know if he has the sixth sense or what."

Doughman says with Siwinski, he feel's guilty about his pre-show indulgences. "I get pretty freaky and manic on stage and I really enjoy smoking before I play," he said. "I feel that if I didn't, I would be way more manic. Someone said in Philadelphia that they donít make enough weed to calm me down. We'll be running late and getting ready to play and I'll be rolling another joint. I just put guilt on myself. It usually means that I end up with more drinking endurance. I smoke a pound before we play and may have two or three drinks before the set, so at the end of the night when everyone is ready to go home and go to bed I still want to party. Joseph will party until we can't move."

Whether itís the party lifestyle or the dope references in his songs, Doughman's laid-back music has been pegged by some critics as the ultimate stoner's background music. "You can say a song is about this or that; there's times you don't even know what a song's about," he said. "All my records are sound tracks to the B-movie that I'm living."

Sometimes that movie includes a few gangster scenes. "It's a comedy of errors, all these little things. But that's what life is."

Check out Swearing at Motorists' latest bioepic this Friday, July 13, at Sokol Underground with The Faint and Putracine. Tickets are $6 at the door, but because of the quick sell-out at The Faint's show earlier this year, Saddle Creek Records is offering $6.50 advanced tickets (price includes a handling charge) at their online store at www.saddle-creek.com/Store.


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Published in the Omaha Weekly July 11, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

 


"Someone said in Philadelphia that they donít make enough weed to calm me down. We'll be running late and getting ready to play and I'll be rolling another joint. I just put guilt on myself."