Three years ago Doug Dulgarian found DIY music. Two years ago he started his first band, Jouska. Now, the 26-year-old has three albums under his belt between Jouska and his solo project, they are gutting a body of water; he’s touring constantly, and when he’s not touring he’s booking shows in Albany–so many that he’s lost count; and a couple weeks back he put out a compilation with contributions from 40 different artists in order to raise money for the ACLU. Oh, and he’s labelmates with The Hotelier now too.
Dulgarian is truly an embodiment of the DIY lifestyle; from his daily attire (black skinny jeans, earthtone shirts and outer layers, and a pair of Doc Marten’s that he “lives in”) to his easygoing yet determined demeanor that makes him a perfect fit for spearheading something that’s as hectic as it is liberating–a punk scene. He’s attained a “leadership position” in Albany’s now-bustling underground indie/punk community of bands and fans by way of laboriously booking shows for both his own projects and his friend’s, and his creative musical talents secured Jouska a deal with one of the hottest up-and-coming independent labels (Tiny Engines Records) last fall. In an age where the traditional music industry has almost completely faded into irrelevancy, Dulgarian is one of many torchbearers for a new generation of musicians who are devoted solely to the music, the message, and fostering an all-inclusive community void of bigotry and the soulless nature of the music machine.
“The reason I stuck around and continue to do it is the reason I came here in the first place, and that’s the fact that your friends are your heroes,” Dulgarian recently said during an interview prior to Jouska’s current month-long tour. “I’ll listen to my friends in my car and it makes me feel that much closer. It’s cool that you can be close with somebody that can affect you that way musically.”
There’s an inherent intimacy to music that’s created and then performed in bedrooms and basements. Enjoying that type of music requires a certain level of self-awareness, a groundedness in reality that Dulgarian wholly encompasses.
“When you’re not attempting strictly to sell records or fill some specific role, I think you’re able to be more honest,” he said. “No one out here’s making fucking money. So it really does come from the heart. It’s a very important thing to a lot of people and it makes it more important to everybody else.”
Dulgarian moved from his hometown of Middletown to Albany six years ago after getting himself into some legal trouble and being mandated to attend rehab. He struggled with addiction for some time but has now been sober for three years. Although that timeline coincides with his discovery of Albany’s DIY scene, he stressed that in no way did DIY “save my life.”
“I don’t think anything saves people. I think it’s corny to think that music’s gonna save your life . . . I don’t think there’s a cure-all for everything. I think everything takes serious consideration,” he said, emphasizing that his friends’ support and his desire to change were ultimately responsible for him overcoming that period in his life. “I think it’s important to note that everybody goes through very, very tough times. People deal with it differently.”
The honest and raw character of most DIY music is echoed in the earnest community surrounding the music, which provides a safe, comfortable platform for artists to express themselves in ways that are historically taboo for other genres. However, compared to a musician like Cameron Boucher of popular indie-punk band Sorority Noise–a notoriously vocal advocate for creating dialogues about mental health, as well an explicitly personal songwriter in regards to his own struggles with mental illness–Dulgarian isn’t comfortable assuming the “poster boy” position for overcoming addiction. Unlike other artists who start writing songs in order to work through difficult times, Dulgarian’s songwriting didn’t have therapeutic origins.
“I started writing music to be a part of something outside of myself, to make something worthwhile and throw it in amongst all my friends who were doing the same. And also to look cool,” he said with a straight face, likening it to when someone picks up smoking cigarettes. “Over time it became this coping mechanism. It was a way to say how I really feel about things that are hard to talk about. Sometimes toward other people. It was a way to tell you to go fuck yourself without directly telling you to go fuck yourself. And then when you have a bunch of kids pile into a basement to listen to you, you have this new format. And then it just [became] a way of chronicling my life and dealing with my life,” he said, choosing his words carefully.
Dulgarian said that most of his writing “just kind of happens” and that his songs are usually based around an experience he wants to reflect upon, rather than specifically narrating his past demons.
“You discuss your life experiences with people all the time and eventually they’ll say something back to you, or you’ll think of something that directly relates to what’s going on in your life, and I’ll often write it down,” he said. “A lot of the time that’s the kind of stuff that makes it to a song.”
Throughout the interview he frequently mentioned how he latches onto music that provides potent feeling (he named Teen Suicide’s unashamedly gritty dc snuff film / waste yrself as a heavy influence, commenting that “the way it’s recorded, the way they achieve that sound is like super, super important to the overall feel it gives you.”) and that he strives to translate those sorts of sensations into his own music. He said that although the context of writing songs is essentially the same for both Jouska and they are gutting a body of water, the way he goes about recording and presenting the material is what distinguishes the two and evokes different arrays of feelings.
“They are gutting is me at a tape machine and a bunch of little sound clips from videos on my phone, which lends itself to being crappier in quality and texture,” he said. “Each album I kind of want to make a little movie. I want them to sound like film scores.”
Dulgarian described how “Jouska is definitely a rock band”–given the three other skilled members, a contract with a label, and a consistent tour schedule–whereas they are gutting is moreso an outlet to be experimental, personal, and completely unhinged from modern conventions (“I don’t even think I’d make a they are gutting Facebook page.”). He excitedly reminisced about leaving they are gutting tapes at various record stores while on tour and simply wishing for people to come across them and extract some sort meaning from them. Amazingly, he began receiving messages via Bandcamp from individuals who had done just that.
“That’s the kind of shit I love about they are gutting. I don’t want it to be this big, blown-out rockstar kind of thing. I want some kid to find it and be like, ‘this is grimy and I love it. I feel like this.’”
Although Jouska’s material also exhibits a lo-fi quality, there’s a level of complexity and grandeur on their 2016 full-length debut Topiary that they are gutting purposefully never amounts to. Although Dulgarian is the primary songwriter, he’s quick to mention that Jouska’s output is a collaborative effort between he his bandmates that he couldn’t possibly achieve on his own.
“I’m not really an amazing guitarist by an stretch of the imagination. So I bring these things to them and they’re like, ‘well, maybe this part shouldn’t go right into this part like that. Maybe we should let it breathe for a second,’” he said. “It’s cool to bring a feeling to some people who understand who you are as a person and are then able to make it better and like expound upon that feeling. That’s fucking cool.”
On Topiary, the band melded expansive, post-rock song structures and a dreamy delivery with the characteristically heart-on-sleeve lyricism of emo to create a record that’s as far-reaching instrumentally as it is viscerally emotional. Although the band performs that album’s material immaculately live, the record has an innate made-ness to it; it sounds like it was carefully pieced together. However, Dulgarian said that Jouska’s upcoming EP will be “a fucking rock record,” meaning more accessible, straightforward, and similar to his current influences (Pile, Who Loves You, Bilge Rat).
“There’s something I appreciate about a record that almost sounds live. It’s almost as if you’re seeing it as a set. Sometimes it needs to be kind of cut and dry and in your face,” he said.
It’s not surprising that he’d want to put out a project in that vein. Dulgarian’s attraction to the live show was a major catalyst for bringing him into the DIY world, and a major component for keeping him there.
“It’s cool to be eye-level in some dingy basement with like a fucking loud band. I don’t think anything feels like that,” he said. “I think that’s what drew me to it. Like going to the Treehouse and watching it happen.”
The Treehouse is a former DIY house in downtown Albany that consistently put on shows for a few years up until last May when the tenants unfortunately disbanded. The “unofficial” venue is a core tenet of DIY music and the survival of a scene like Albany’s rests upon the willingness of people to transform their basements, attics, and/or living rooms into makeshift stages to provide platforms for local and touring bands. Shortly after he began attending shows, Dulgarian recognized this importance and began booking gigs of his own.
“Let’s be clear on this, booking is not fun,” he said with a laugh. “Booking is a nightmare, but the shows make it all worth it.”
Up until recently he was living at a spot in downtown Albany called The Relief Theatre where Hand Habits, Bilge Rat, and gobs of other local and regional artists have played. He said that each show he’s organized is special, but that the most memorable one happened to fall on the day after the election last November.
“That was really important to me because of the political climate and because people still showed up,” he said. “Everyone was gloomy but it felt good to be gloomy in the presence of other people. That was so important to be able to spend time with like ten friends late into the night and be able to discuss, ‘what can we do?’”
Ever since the election, the country’s collective DIY community–which is almost exclusively socially progressive–has risen up to take a stand against nearly all of the rhetoric and policy the Trump administration has put forth. Some of the scene’s most notable labels (Topshelf Records, Run For Cover Records, and Jouska’s own Tiny Engines Records) carved out large periods of time in which all of their Bandcamp profits were donated to various organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. In fact, the Bandcamp website, which is where nearly every DIY band uploads their music, dedicated an entire day in early February when all of the site’s profits went directly to the ACLU.
Dulgarian takes his dedication to social justice issues–or what he simply refers to as “common sense” and “common decency”–very seriously, and was inspired by those around him to set up a charity of his own. On Valentine’s Day he put out a compilation aptly titled Sweet Talk: an ACLU benefit compilation that contained songs from 40 different artists who also felt strongly about the cause. Dulgarian spoke about the process as if it was his duty to spread awareness, raise some money, and showcase his friends’ music. He doesn’t view himself as some sort of saint or pretend to be someone who’s working tirelessly to make change. He’s very tuned into checking his privilege (“That’s what all white dudes should be doing,” he said.) and simply wants to do what he can while recognizing that there’s still so much work to be done.
“There are people out there doing big things. I’m not one of them,” he said. “But I plan on showing up and doing what small amount I can and calling people on their bullshit…I don’t think of myself as a social justice warrior for any particular thing. I just want to be a good person… I want to be an ally.”
Although Dulgarian thinks “it’s corny to talk about ‘the scene,’” he’s undeniably played an enormous role in Albany’s DIY rebirth within the past year. Jouska are on track to outgrow the Albany basements they continue to perform in at least once a month, but their presence continues to bring out more fans each time and expose new people to the scene. Just two weeks back, Dulgarian booked the famed Hand Habits alongside his friends in Another Michael (a group he referred to as “his favorite Albany band, even more so than my own.”) and drew 80-something attendees. Last Fall he co-booked the Topiary release show alongside their Albany siblings Prince Daddy & the Hyena, easily drawing 100 kids who were salivating to see those two together.
Despite the pretentious, “too cool” aura that often consumes inherently underground, “hipster” music, Dulgarian is living, breathing proof that such an attitude is unnecessary. He’s down to earth, he’s admirably willing to stick his neck out and do favors for his friends’ music, and he cares about the integrity of the culture, which is all you can ask for from someone in a niche community such as this that requires maintenance by good-natured people like him. However, he wouldn’t say those things about himself. He’d rather save his breath for talking up a friend and encouraging other people to start bands, book shows, and spread the word.
“Talk about your friend’s band as if it’s up there with everybody else. I think that shit is important. Let your friend’s music become a part of your life,” he said.
Jouska and Prince Daddy & the Hyena are currently touring the country together, which includes a stop at the infamous SXSW in mid-March. Their new EP will be out “sometime soon” via Tiny Engines.