HE’S THE MAGIC MAN
By Julia R. DeStefano
“I love people. That’s the kind of business I’m in.” ~William “Des” Desmond
Noise: In the beginning, what led you to pursue music? Was there a catalyst because I know you were involved with the Bentmen, and that you play the hammer dulcimer…
Des: Yes, I play the hammer dulcimer and psaltery. They’re basically the great ancestors of the piano and harp. I don’t play them traditionally, but they have a very baroque sound to them. I play them as textural instruments, creating washes of sound. I have my own project, Orphans of the Storm. We have nearly three albums done, but we haven’t had the time to release anything. You can hear probably forty minutes of the music online. It’s really good stuff to catch a buzz to or have a glass of wine with and listen to late at night. It’s music that we’re putting together for film. We have some killer guests on it. In fact, I might even have David Hull play on a song or two once we get him into the studio to hear it. Who’s on it?… Will Ackerman, a very famous guitarist; Gary Lucas, who played with Captain Beefheart; Jon Butcher; my own daughter, Casey Desmond, does vocal textures; Taylor Barefoot, who I co-composed all the songs with. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I decided to do this more ambient music, which is what I started with in the beginning—tape looping, the hammer dulcimer, the psaltery, and the Persian santur—and then I got into the heavier stuff, the Bentmen.
Noise: Tell me about the formation of the Bentmen. Is it something that you are still involved with?
Des: Let me tell you what happened. We played for years, one or two shows a year, and before we knew it, twenty-three years had passed. Shortly after our 23rd anniversary show in 2006, I had a cerebral aneurism. I had to have the front of my head removed, my skull, so they could get in there and cut it out—full blown brain surgery. When that happened, the recklessness and craziness of running around, wrestling with people—which is part of a Bentmen show—I mean, we did everything from dragging them to the stage, duct-taping the audience to chairs, and shaving heads. It was a very interactive and physical show. Basically, I didn’t need to be banging my head around after having had surgery. I just used it as a catalyst to tell the guys in the band that it was indefinitely on hold. If you want to continue and get another lead singer, go ahead. But nobody wanted to do it without me, so it hasn’t happened. The bottom line is that everybody keeps bugging me to do it and it’s been about three years now. I’m starting to feel better. It isn’t out of the question. It’s an open book still. We’ve had some very famous people in and out of the Bentmen over the years. A lot of people, fantastic local musicians, played in the band. It’s a hard thing not to do because I really enjoyed it. As of right now, we have written a musical play, Ulcer Gulch, and we’ve got people interested in it. We did sort of a cheese-ball version onstage at the Institute of Contemporary Art, but there are forces that are interested and have recently done exploratory things to see the feasibility of making it into a very expensive play. That’s on the table, but I won’t be heading it off. One of the band mates from New York is, and he strongly believes in it. He’s been shopping it to people, big money people. I thought nothing would ever happen, but that might not be the case. The play has already been written and everything, so to say it’s over isn’t really accurate. It’ll be a while before I play out again in the band. Every once in a while, I feel like that guy who’s at a football or hockey game sitting on the sidelines that wants to go back in and play. It’s horrible. Doing a show like a Bentmen show, especially if it goes over well, is an addictive thing because you get up there and let everything hang out. Go for it, the madness of it. It’s an intense show if done right!
Noise: Steven Tyler once said, “Even I wouldn’t want to wear what those f***ers were wearing!” and Warm Vinyl stated: “Every strange, sick, perverted, maniacal thought you have ever had about Bentmen is absolutely true… Bentmen explore the subconsciously evil, mentally ill side of doom rock. What kind of weirdoes are these people?”
Des: We’ve also been called the Blue Man Group on a couple hits of acid. We’ve been playing around as long as them. The Bentmen is floating around and it seems like since we’ve stopped playing, more people are interested. I don’t get that! It’s kind of like how when you’re dead, they like you more!
Noise: Then there’s your involvement with the Magic Room, which has been in operation for two years…
Des: The room used to be a video production space in the Sound Museum, but when the video company broke off and shut down, the space came open. I decided to make a soundstage and huge practice space for people who needed to rehearse special shows, plays, or what have you. The first show to ever happen in the Magic Room was a private showing. Fifty people got to watch B.B. King while he rehearsed to play the Bank of America Pavilion. He came into town to do a big show and he had a pick-up band. We had to listen to the songs two or three times, but the fifty of us got to sit there, hang out with B.B. King, and watch him in action while he taught the musicians some of the songs he was performing. That was a treat to say the least. After that, I figured it would be a really great space for the Sound Museum people to show off their music to corporate for CD listening and CD releases. Live recording is another idea that we have for it, which we’re still working on. I said: “You know what? This would be nice to make into a big living room.” Our capacity is only one hundred people and the stage will hold eight or nine people comfortably. There’s a small lounge out in front in the lobby and a living room to the side of the main living room, so people can sit down and talk. The mission of the Magic Room is to create a listening room, a showcase place. We don’t pretend to be a bar. We get beer and wine licenses per show, if needed. We’re not about the bar thing. We’re about the music. We mix music and art showings. A lot of local artists have come and I’m working on getting international ones in. We have a thirty foot wide, twenty-five foot high screen, and we show independent films at many of the shows. We only do forty shows a year and that’s enough for me, anyway. We’re not pretending to be a club, although we have a huge club sound. We are a listening room for showcasing film and artwork. That’s what we’re about.
Noise: I agree. The club scene, per se, with the bars and alcohol revenue results in the music becoming the backdrop, as opposed to the main focus. It becomes more of a social event than anything else.
Des: Right now, there are clubs opening up and that’s really good because I own a rehearsal facility. So many clubs have closed. The bands were rehearsing with no place to play, so it becomes like… what’s the point? With the new places opening around town, there’s resurgence and I’m hoping that more people open venues so that music can be seen in every different location because there’s a lot of talent in Boston. The purpose of the Magic Room is to keep it small, but not tiny. The other interesting thing is that I bought part of the sound system from the Axis that was on Landsdowne Street. We bought some really nice equipment speakers and repaired everything. Some local guys who work on studio and sound put it together for me—John Overstreet (Middle East Downstairs) and Bob Logan built the sound bafflers. We spent a lot of time working on it. We have one of the best sounding rooms in the city. Everybody’s raving about the sound. Barry Hite is my sound guy and he is one of the best around. We don’t do shows unless we have the best sound people behind the board because we want people to leave saying, “that sounded great!” We have a sound system that you can feel in your chest without it hurting your ears. As this thing started to snowball and it gained more and more interest, my wife, Katherine, jumped in and she’s helping me manage the place. My daughter, Casey, helps too. My son, Bill, and daughter, Mary, also help with the management and in keeping the place clean, doing photography and video shoots, or running the beer, wine, and food snacks—complimentary things that we put out for people. The whole family pitches in and works the place, a family affair. Everyone who’s played there doesn’t just like it, they love it. I’ve been going around—I happen to be a bit of a picker because I love antiques—from New Hampshire, to Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts, buying old portraits and photographs of families from the late 1800s and early 1900s, plus a few that we found within our own family. There are a hundred of them on the walls, to say the least. The place is decorated with all this weird stuff—weird, old clowns that we got from amusement parks and that we found in people’s collections. We took all the lights and trick lighting from the Bentmen days, which amounts to about $15,000 worth of lighting in a room that holds only one hundred people. It’s like the Fourth of July when it lights up in there! The other thing, too, is that we have two really nice overhead projectors that run our films and also run films onstage, which acts as a lightshow unto itself. We’re noticing that everybody is starting to do that again, not that it’s a new idea, but I think the word is out that it’s a really cool thing. People are starting to do it at other clubs. I’m seeing it everywhere, but not quite the way we do it because when these projectors blast onto the band, it’s like living color. It’s amazing! When you see it, you’re going to go, “wow!” We’ve got more lasers per square inch than the Planetarium and it’s all sound activated, so you just turn it on when the band wants it. Not everyone does, but there are a lot of things to choose from. Bands are just starting to use the space for video shoots. You don’t have to do anything but get up there and let us blast away. The other thing, too, is that there’s a rental price on this. Most of the clubs in town charge, anyway. Some places are $600 for a weekend, up to $2000. For bands, one way or the other, they’re doing a show on a weekend and paying a fortune. We have a very small amount, $350, and they can bring in the bands they want. We include a sound guy in that and sometimes we do benefits as well, which doesn’t cost anything. We put up the money ourselves. Some people just have parties and others show their stuff off. They’ll dictate their own price. It’s not about making a lot of money because we just have this one flat fee and whether it’s this band or that band, I don’t make any more money. At the end of the night, we split it with our sound guy. We just cover our basic operating expenses and that’s it. We don’t take any percentage of the merchandise the bands sell or anything. It all goes straight to them.
Noise: Who has played there?
Des: We’ve had some very famous people. We’ve featured progressive rock bands out of Europe, Greg Hawkes (the Cars), Gary Lucas (guitarist for Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley), Agents of Mercy, Karma Mechanic (whose drummer is from Tears for Fears), and the Mothers of Invention. Boston is starting to come back as a music scene. Our other mission is to keep the cost down so people can rent the space. We want it affordable so people can showcase their stuff and bring in corporate people; bring in record label people to see them perform on a stage that’s really nice. It’s more like coming into a house than it is coming in a club. We want to be more underground. The more, the merrier. I’d like to see more of these types of things pop up across the country, and they are. We have two series, the Art/Rock Series—which features progressive rock bands that you don’t normally see and some of the locals that do progressive music—the Singer/Songwriter Series, and the Living Room Series.
Noise: The concept reminds me a little bit of Hi-N-Dry, which recently moved into the Somerville Armory.
Des: They might have a similar mission, but when you see the atmosphere of the Magic Room, you’ll think differently. When you walk in, you’re not going to believe it. That’s what people say if you like weird, old antiques and a lightshow that’s just mind blowing. It’s unexpected. People don’t expect to walk into this living room and have the lights turned on, watching a show, and hearing the sound. People just keep complimenting us on it. Over the years, I’ve played in a couple different bands. When owning a rehearsal complex, you hear endless stories of sound guys and door people treating the musicians like shit, like: “Hurry up and get out there! Get your sound done and then get down!” just really treating them like slaves or something. Those bars, clubs, the movie people… nobody can make money without the musicians and yet, the musicians are the ones that get treated like shit! What’s up with that? You can’t have television, movies, opera, symphony, and rock clubs without the musicians! And the musicians are begging to play. They pay to play! From being on both sides of this now, I see that there are expenses to be covered. Otherwise, somebody’s opening a venue and paying for the insurance, heat, and liability just so people can come in and perform there. You have to look at both sides. It’s gotten outrageous. I remember back in the day when we started the Bentmen. Monday and Tuesday were “New Band Nights” where they didn’t expect to get paid, like at the Rathskellar, and before you knew it, it was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and on! Bands are now paying to play in their venues! My sound people and staff, whether they’re volunteering their time or if it’s my family, everybody treats people with respect. There isn’t a sound guy that’s going to snap, ever. I want people to have plenty of time to set up, to get their sound sounding good. I want them to feel comfortable and like they’re cared for. We’re getting a good response and garnering a lot of respect. People really say they enjoy being there. That’s important.
Noise: I gather it is a social event more than anything.
Des: All around Vermont, Maine, and these other places, you will find that people set up stuff in barns, churches, and places of that nature. They have all kinds of diverse music. A lot of times, they just fizzle out because they don’t have the alcohol revenues to keep them going. We need more places for people to play. Owning a rehearsal facility, nobody knows that more than me. If the places to play dry up; then so does my business.
Noise: So, what’s next?
Des: Well, I’m having fun with it. Every band that’s played there has been great. I love to bring in oddball bands that you don’t normally see. To watch them play for you in a living room is a treat. A lot of the Sound Museum musicians are so excited that they can see this right down the hallway from their rooms. We’ve got choral music coming, some gospel, and it’s funny because they’re already sold out! I would like to have more celebrities play, like Joey Molland from Badfinger and Mark Farners from Grand Funk Railroad. I’m also working on getting the rock band, Hawkwind, to come over from England. That’s one of my dreams, psychedelic music because we have all the lamps and stuff in there. It’s perfect for that. Just perfect. I love experimental music. We want to be purveyors of progressive, experimental music, film, and really work up the art stuff. I want more art stuff. My own daughter, Mary, has shown her photography and currently, we have Alvan Long. He does great work and presently has some hanging up in there. We’ll do it as long as people are interested, and then we’ll move onto something else. We want to try to have a little alternative place for people to have a big club sound in a living room.