A couple of hours south of New York City, beyond the cornfields, cows and wildflowers of Eastern Pennsylvania, lies downtown Doylestown, Pa.
Here, there’s a hilly main drag lined with quaint shops, the library and local pubs all within walking distance. And here, Damien DeRose—who writes and performs as Peasant—takes me to the Classic Cigar Parlor, lodged a tiny 18th century townhouse filled with pipes and loose tobacco.
With a nod from the woman behind the counter, DeRose leads me up a dark staircase to an attic space lit only by a hint of sun peeking through the small windows. We sit in velvet chairs beneath an open-beamed ceiling as he describes his early days as a musician, which took place in this very attic, once a hub of Bucks County’s music scene. With two spare, acoustic-twinged records behind him and a third, Shady Retreat
, on the way in 2010, DeRose talks about the pros and cons making music in a small town, the origin of his name and why he prefers to go it alone.
Damien DeRose: So this is the spot. We would move all of the chairs back and play here and people would sit or stand. We’d have a fire going. It was awesome. This town was an amazing place. Just imagine this room with just low lighting and Illinois playing—the whole room would shake with people dancing. When I was playing here I was not a polished performer by any means, but it still worked. I would bring an electric guitar along and just play a set with the electric guitar that night. People were so open to it. That’s how I got my start. People loved it. There were kids who just had great appreciation for music on a national scale. Siren is a phenomenal record store, so kids go in there after school and get really good music, and we provided a local outlet of actual music happening.
Paste: So when did it get shut down?
DeRose: Like a year ago. And then we started at other places and other people started booking them and at every turn something would get shut down. As far as I know now, a lot of the bands don’t play around here anymore—like, Illinois has gone off. The first show I ever played with them was here.
Paste: How many people would you pack into this place?
DeRose: It would be packed with people. That’s why they shut it down. There were supposed to be 30 people here, and on a crazy night there would be like 90 people, just hanging from the rafters watching the show. Downstairs, that’s JT. She owns this place. She would let us do it for a really reasonable fee for a show. She loves the music. She’s kind of part of the older crowd here, like a couple of the shop owners who aren’t giving in to the changes that are happening in the town so much and really like it. It feels kind of like a graveyard in here. It’s sad because it’s never going to happen again. What we were doing ended after this place got shut down. There’s always been a hardcore scene in Doylestown, and those kids just kind of took back over. And their shows were definitely rowdy, and people were doing stupid things, and those shows were what parents saw as a problem. And they lumped it all together. It’s ironic, because at 2 AM when the bars let out, it’s not the kids that are breaking bottles and peeing on the sidewalk, but you don’t hear anything about that in the newspaper because the liquor licenses are what make the town money.
Paste: How old were you when you had your first show here?
DeRose: I think I was 18. Seventeen or 18.
Paste: How did that come about?
DeRose: OK, this is a good story. [A band called] Aderbat had been playing shows all through high school and I heard about them and I went to a show and thought, “Man, these guys are fucking awesome.” And they were playing in this room and I thought, “Wow, I gotta go do this too.” Since then they’ve all moved. Everyone moved to Brooklyn or Philadelphia, but there was a time when they were living in town. People would say, “What are they doing here?” but it made sense. They really had a niche here. And they could go play Philly and New York, too. It’s a good place to have a home base, here. So Aderbat’s bassist was sitting out on the steps, and I was just walking around playing my guitar because I used to busk, and I was like, “Hey, can I open for you guys the next time you play the Cigar Parlor?” And he was like, “Well, play me a song.” I played this song that was so old and I never play it anymore—it’s so embarrassing—but I played it, and he said, “Yeah, sure, you can open for us.” And that was it. Since then I’ve just become great friends with those guys and did all the shows here and got welcomed in by them.
Paste: When in 2010 will your latest, Shady Retreat, come out?
DeRose: Very early. Right now there’s a single out, and that’s two songs from the next record, and than the whole thing’s going to be released in January or February.
Paste: In terms of content, what does this record document? What season of your life?
DeRose: That’s a really interesting question because it’s really different from a lot of the past stuff I did which was very confessional and just letting emotional things out. And that’s always going to be a part of my music. But I was trying to describe it to my friend actually right before I met you, and I found myself having trouble doing it. It’s a little bit more thoughtful and the songs aren’t all about relationships. In fact, very few of them are. Maybe they are in a subtle way, but it’s really about how those relationships or other things tie into general philosophy about how people treat each other. It’s more about the greater picture instead of just me. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but you can’t force it. I used to try to write a song about what I thought of the way things were and it just wouldn’t come out very naturally. But this record has that on it, and a broader scale of topics.
Paste: What happened prior to or during the time that you were writing the songs that set you up to finally be able to pull that off? Was it distance from a relationship?
DeRose: Definitely. With [2009's] On The Ground, almost every song was about the same person. It was not a particularly healthy time for me. I think I’m finally at peace with a lot of those themes and have gotten that out of my life. I’m obviously not a model citizen or anything, you know, but I feel happier. I’m not overwhelmed by emotions so much and I am feeling comfortable. I’m getting older and I’m feeling more firm in my beliefs. I’ve changed a lot of my way of looking at things. I’m not so much a bleeding-heart-idealist. I still have ideals, but I don’t feel like crushed or suffocated by them anymore. I feel more at peace with having ideals and having strong feelings but not necessarily looking around at the world and being like, “Nobody gets it.” I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s ok to have your own ideals and be at odds with the way things are and tongue-and-cheek point it out. And if people want to listen and get it and like it, that’s good and I think that people will. But at the same time I’m not upset about it anymore.
Paste: I think that comes with growing up.
DeRose: Yeah, yeah. I don’t want to say, “Well, when you’re young you have a heart and when you’re old you have a brain!” I’m not there. I don’t want to be there. I definitely feel strongly about the ridiculousness of the way things are right now. It still upsets me, the way the world is. But I’d rather put things out there that might contribute to changing it instead of just complaining about it.
Paste: Do you want to talk a little about the process of recording Shady Retreat? Where did you record it?
DeRose: I wanted to show it to you, but it’s out of town and I don’t know how much time you have. I moved recently, so half of the record I recorded in a house a little outside of town where I have the upstairs as my living area, the attic essentially, and that was on Shady Retreat Road. That’s where I got the name. That’s when I started not going into town any more. I used to be in town a lot and really a part of this place, and I feel a little more alienated from it now. I recorded up there in the attic. I have pretty decent digital recording stuff and analog amps. It was a very simple recording process. I don’t use a lot of full drum sets. If I do record drums I’ll just set a couple of mics up. It’s a little lo-fi but at the same time it’s not like, “Oh my God, did this guy even think about how it sounds?”...
[I] spent hours up there with my roommates downstairs being like, “What are you doing up there?” and I’d be like, “Just making a song! It’s taking me a long time!” and then I moved with my girlfriend into this little cottage with a spring-house. It’s actually very similar to this, with open beams and stuff. The view is just woods and fields outside. It really cleared my mind and I just started recording the next part of the record there. It’s a really nice room. It has a good sound. I have a decent mic and just went to town mixing it and trying to make it sound professional. The reason I wanted to do it on my own is that I don’t like the time constraints. I like to wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and just work on a song. That’s the worst part about going into the studio—by the fifth day you’re like, “I really don’t feel like doing this right now. Now I’m going to lay down a track for my album that has to be the finished product whether I like it or not.” Which is why with some of the songs we did for On The Ground I was just like, “No, it sounds like shit—I’m not putting that out.” I like doing my own recording. The mixing and the production is just as interesting to me and just as much a part of writing for me as sitting and writing a song. I end up writing the song while I record it. I’ll just experiment with different things and that’s how a lot of the record is. I just tried things. So that’s the recording process.
Paste: Were you able to do the songwriting and recording of Shady Retreat full time? Or were you doing other things for work also?
DeRose: Luckily On The Ground was reasonably successful, so I got to quit working a day job. So I ended up just having a lot of free time, and wasting time, but that’s what I needed—to be able to have a lot of time to waste in order to then get down to it. I’ve been really lucky to be able to that.
Paste: What was your line of work before you were able to quit your day job?
DeRose: Many, many different shitty side jobs: working at a pizza place, doing the door at a local club, a couple of different production companies, that sort of thing. I never really could hold it down. The name Peasant that I go by is sort of bitter about the fact that we have to work for seven dollars an hour and get treated like crap half of the time. I want to do what I want to do. I want to do music. I know it’s what I’m going to do, and if I end up not doing it, I have no idea what I’m going to do. It’s not going to be easy for me to do anything else. It never has. I really am happy with this. I have always dreamed of doing this, but even when you have a dream like that, you know that it’s not an easy thing to do. Just the fact that it’s going so well right now it’s just like, wow. I didn’t expect it. I’m not exactly a completely glass-half-full kind of person and I never, ever would have thought that it was going to be easy. I didn’t think I’d be paying my bills with music. This is crazy. But at the same time I believed that I could and kept doing it and trying and did everything I possibly could, and it’s working.
Paste: When did you start going by the name Peasant?
DeRose: I used to just get up on stage and just say, “I’m Damien DeRose, these are my songs.” In high school was when I first performed my own songs at school stuff. The George School would have open mics and I did a lot of them and I wanted to put a little theory behind where I was going with the music, and I thought, “No one has ever named himself Peasant, and you can’t really forget that name.” I don’t really like super-clever overdone band names. I just wanted it to be something simple. I really liked John Lennon and the things he was singing about. He has one line, “We’re all fucking peasants as far as I can see.” I do have some social themes in the music about our world and particularly the United States and the way we live and I think there’s something to be said for the inequality that exists here. I don’t want to be a political artist. That’s not a goal of mine. But Peasant satisfies that need of mine to make a little bit of a statement. And I like simplicity and an acoustic guitar. I like performing alone. I like relating to people in a friendly, open way, and that’s a simple peasant thing to do. I get that question all the time. I don’t have the perfect answer for it. it just made sense. One thing I didn’t want to do was just go out there and be a singer-songwriter that was just Damien DeRose. I don’t really want to be thought of as a singer-songwriter. It’s more of an artistic project than it is just me and my problems and trying to let everybody know what’s going on in my life.
Paste: Do you think you’ll ever leave Doylestown?
DeRose: I hope so. I’ve wanted to many a time.
Paste: Have you been here your whole life?
DeRose: I lived outside of town and through most of high school I wasn’t here [downtown]. I never even came into town. I was always going to boarding school so I didn’t really come here until I was like 16, 17, 18. That’s why I liked it so much—because it was new to me when it was old to a lot of people. There was always a group of people here that felt the same way about it: “Everybody hates this town, but I kind of like it.” But I think after the closing of the venues and stuff there’s nothing really left here. I’ve thought about moving to Berlin because it’s such an affordable and cool and fantastic city, but I have to convince the girlfriend to move abroad with me and that’s not an easy thing to do. There’s talk of Philadelphia but, not to knock on Philadelphia, it just doesn’t do it for me. And New York is a little bit too much. Right now, the only reason I’m here is because I can’t decide where I’m going to go. And I have a really nice set-up right now. It’s very affordable. A lot of people my age live in a city, and I live in a country cottage, and it kind of works. It’s been very inspirational.
Listen to "The End" from Peasant's Shady Retreat (now available as a digital download and 7" single):