Dessa and Lazerbeak talk about the non-music side of Doomtree
Photo by Erik Hess
The seven-headed monster known as Doomtree has a lot of feet in a lot of doors. Not only are they one of the metro's indie-rap heavyweights, they are also a record label, book publisher, and producers of various multi-media. The collective has grown from Hopkins high school alumni trading beats to an ambitious, critically lauded crew with seven distinct voices and one unifying cause. At any given moment, at least one of the crew is on the road, yet the members have found a way to make it all work by sharing duties on the business side of things. Whether they're enchanting a sold out First Avenue or sweating in an anxious Soundset crowd, it is easy to overlook the work that goes into being a collective.
While it's easy to picture Dessa as a writer and rapper, and Lazerbeak as the guitar-wielding beatmaker, but the two also spend a lot of time at the Doomtree Records office, running time cards and crunching numbers--well, maybe not to that degree, but Gimme Noise took a moment to speak with them about the balancing act between art and business. Despite the business jargon about quantities, skill sets, and action items, one point remains at the forefront of the Doomtree ethic: "Good music is good music."
Gimme Noise: The DT collective does a lot of things: music, the label, a book, and various multi-media. Is there a formal division of duties, or do people have distinct skill sets and do what they can as time allows?
Dessa: Doomtree members have adopted pretty specialized roles. I, for example, have no idea how to order t-shirts. I don't know who we use to manufacture them and I'm not sure what sort of quantities ever seem to be appropriate. But I do know how to write and send a press release.
And Lazerbeak knows how to distribute our music digitally. We don't have name cards or annual reviews, but we do have areas of expertise that we've honed in our years working together.
Lazerbeak: Yeah, over the years people have kind of fallen into specific roles as we've grown as a label. Dessa and I handle a good majority of the business side of things at this point although, at our weekly meetings, action items get dispersed to whoever has the time or is willing to help. Everyone helps out. The big decisions are always agreed upon by the whole crew, and then implemented by whoever is best suited for the task. (Shouts to our intern extraordinaire, Ander, who does a ton of web work for us, sells merch, and pretty much handles anything else we can and do throw at him.)
Are each of these activities (music, label, videos, etc.) approached as separate entities, or do you view them as a group of friends doing creative things that happen to have promotional value?
Dessa: We do what excites us, all of it under the Doomtree banner. More than anything, Doomtree as an LLC is instrument, not an end in itself. We make art and developed a business to support it--not the other way around.
Lazerbeak: Yep, what she said.
Photo by Erik Hess
Are these roles currently in flux--how do you deal with the constant rotation of members on the road?
Dessa: Doomtree's been in flux since we started. I think we'll probably stay that way until we're done. As members tour, there's definitely some scrambling to get all of our work done, but that's part of the thrill and burden of owning what you make.
Lazerbeak: Touring does present a challenge, but so far we've managed to make it work. Whoever is at home helps pitch in extra to make sure everything is still getting handled. Last November, all seven of us (plus Ander) were on tour for over five weeks, but we were able to pretty much stay on top of everything, due in large part to using club wifi in between soundcheck and performance, and making conference calls while en route to the following city.
How did you two fall into the label role?
Dessa: I like business--I like the strategy of it: the writing, the clear metrics for success. When I joined DTR, they allowed me to take on some business responsibility, a responsibility that's grown in proportion to the business.
Lazerbeak's roles and responsibilities are probably best described by him, but as his friend and colleague, it's been amazing to watch him develop into such a competent, commanding, and effective leader.
Lazerbeak: I took on handling the money early on, since at the time I was probably one of the stingiest penny pinchers around. At that point it was just a cash box and a ledger, but now it's much more of what I imagine an accountant's role to be. Our weekly meetings always interested me a great deal, and I found myself signing up to do more and more new action items as we began to grow and venture out into new things. Eventually that led to more of an Operations role as well. I really believe in us as people, as a team, and as a business, so I tend to always have an opinion and want to be involved in every little detail that has to do with us, from both an artistic and business standpoint--admittedly to a fault a lot of the time).
Can you share a learning experience from running the label? Is there something you did early on that you wouldn't repeat?
Dessa: I imported models from corporate America that I thought would set us apart as a reliable organization. I insisted that we arrive with absolute punctuality to our soundchecks--which resulted in a lot of idle cigarette-smoking while we waited for the venue techs to arrive and unlock the doors.
Lazerbeak: I used to assume that art and music could be created on a strict deadline, just like action items or tasks. "Well the album has to go to press in two weeks, so just write and track one song every 1.25 days and I'll check about getting studio time from 2:00am-7:00am every night." Turns out it doesn't quite work that way.
Photo by Erik Hess
Can you talk about the label's ambitions? Can you see yourself releasing records from artists outside of the immediate DT collective?
Dessa: My ambitions, for myself and for Doomtree, are too large to discuss without seeming certifiable.
Lazerbeak: Big dreams and big goals, that's for sure. We've discussed putting out records from artists outside of the collective, and I could see that happening at some point down the line if everything lined up right. At this point though we're just super focused on building up every member in the crew to a high level of individual success, all the while waving the Doomtree flag around everything that we do. I will say that at some point down the line, we definitely plan on opening up food court chains with each of our individual amazing restaurant ideas (huge shouts to Trill Burger, Pain Town, South Sides, and Dessa's as-of-yet untitled smoothie stand).
What's the top-selling DTR release?
Dessa: Too shy to say.
Lazerbeak: Not me. Doomtree's self-titled crew album and Dessa's A Badly Broken Code are both right up there.
Any plans to re-issue the original False Hopes?
Lazerbeak: Working on it, but no immediate plans as of right now.
On April 23, Dessa, Sims, and Lazerbeak will hit the road for the Into the Spin Tour. The entire crew will be performing at the upcoming Soundset festival in May.
Upcoming local Doomtree shows include:
- Dessa at the Southern Theater on April 14th as part of the Rites of String.
- Dessa at McNally Smith April 18th. All ages, free show with refreshments. 5:30.
- All of Doomtree at Soundset May 29th.
- Cecil Otter on July 8th at the Guthrie Theater
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