Duster Returns to Orbit after 18-Year Hiatus

A minimalist reimagining of Duster. Illustration by Ben Weinstein.

IN THE MIDDLE of indie rock band Duster’s sold-out show at Mississippi Studios last January, founding member Clay Parton asked the audience whether they ever feel a little off. Someone shouted back an assurance that the band certainly sounded “on” — which was undeniably true, as well as slightly paradoxical. This is because Duster’s “on” is inherently a little off, and that tension lies at the core of the group’s magic.

To be clear, Duster is not trying to sound on, insofar as on can be taken to mean polished, self-certain or sanguine. As Parton’s question hints at, the band knows that feeling off is not just common, but human. Their music reflects the acceptance of that fact.

The Mississippi Studios performance was something of a hometown debut (“I live in Santa Cruz, California, everyone else lives in Portland,” Parton said via email), their first proper Portland show following a nearly two-decade hiatus.

Duster is frequently situated somewhere in the sphere of slowcore, a strain of rock music saturated with isolation and sadness. Instrumentally, these motifs tend to be manifested through (as the name suggests) unhurried tempos and sparse guitar work. As for the lyrics, slowcore exemplars Codeine deliver a moping manifesto of sorts in their song “Gravel Bed”: “Jon thinks I’ve been sad enough / But I just can’t agree.” While aspects of Duster’s sound resonate within that realm, the group’s music captures similarly weighty emotion in a warmer and less dramatic way. The band veers closer to the beautifully layered and buzzingly lo-fi, a sonic shoulder to lean on that says, if not, “Everything is okay,” then at least, “I’m here and I feel it too.”

That singular expression of off-ness is one reason why the band boasts such devoted fans, many of whom occupied Mississippi Studios for their January show. One year prior to that night, however, even the most optimistic disciple of Duster would scarcely have foreseen the band playing a show at all.

Formed in San Jose, California in the mid-’90s by Parton and Dove Amber, the group gradually expanded to include fellow multi-instrumentalist Jason Albertini. Between 1996 and 2000 they released two albums, an EP, some seven-inches and cassettes — and even then, as Parton explained, Duster concerts were a rarity.

“We spent most of our time recording — either on our own or paired up — and we hardly ever played any shows,” he said. “We would just be pushing songs forward, recording at home, experimenting with the very basic tools we had available.”

What made a performance seem even more unlikely was the band’s dissolution in 2000. Albertini went on to form the now Portland-based Helvetia (to which Amber contributed) and join Idahoan rock band Built to Spill, while Parton began recording as Eiafuawn (Everything Is All F—ed Up And What Not). Though the three remained close — emotionally, if not geographically — a Duster reunion never materialized during the 18 years that followed.

“For years we’d talk about maybe doing stuff together again, but it just never worked out,” Parton said. “None of us are very goal-oriented or driven toward success or whatever. So a lot of times, things simply just don’t happen to us and we move on.”

In 2018, however, things did — namely Albertini and drummer Steve Gere being cut from Built to Spill. The pair had been consistently occupied touring alongside the band’s core member Doug Martsch, and when they were let go from that project, “the time was right,” according to Parton. Gere now drums for Duster.

The time was right not only for Duster to begin playing shows, but also for the re-releasing of the band’s music. Archival record label Numero Group is reissuing the majority of the group’s recorded material (including some unreleased cuts) in a box-set called “Capsule Losing Contact,” and the endeavor is much-needed: vinyl pressings of Duster albums go for hundreds of dollars online. It is New York-based label Muddguts, however, that will be releasing the band’s new material.

“We had already started collecting some rough ideas for new songs by the time we started working with Numero, but we didn’t start recording anything new until Dove (Amber) came to stay at my house for a while,” Parton said.

Duster has already begun playing new material live, and Parton divulged that the band’s new album will be out this year.

“It’s a little weird making a new record after so many years, and we are very aware that a lot of people that only like “Stratosphere” (their debut LP) are not interested in what we have to offer now,” he said. “Those people should check back in another couple decades, maybe they’ll be ready for the 2019 stuff in 2040 when we’re all dead.”

Parton’s light-hearted attitude reflects Duster’s modus operandi in regards to the new material, as well as the group’s reformation more broadly. As Parton put it plainly, “We aren’t trying to worry about what people are looking for. We’re just doing what we do.”

That being said, it is hard to ignore the impact the band’s music has had on listeners — many of whom were not yet born when “Stratosphere” was first released. Regarding the importance of making music as Duster again, Parton acknowledged his awareness of their influence.

 “There are real things happening that make our existence seem pretty f—ing irrelevant,” he said. “But then recently we played some shows and would have people telling us how much we had an impact on their lives, or how we were a special thing during a f—ed up period they went through, and that can affect you.”

The enthusiastic reception to Duster’s return has made evident the intense bonds that generations of listeners have formed with the group’s music. As Parton explains, however, it is the bonds between the band members themselves that motivated the return in the first place.  

“On a personal scale, and maybe sort of selfishly, it feels super important to us to be able to spend more time together, because we care about each other and the connection we have with each other seems rare and like something we never want to fade away.”

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