Features, Print January 12, 2021

Dead Amps: Where We Are Now / Harnessing the Chaos

by Dan England

Erin O’Toole isn’t Dr. Phil, but she does have a little marital advice: “If you can record an album together and remain happy,” O’Toole says, “you can survive anything.”

O’Toole would know, given that she’s made music with her husband, Jonathan Payne as the band Dead Amps since 2005, a year after they met. She says when they both find something they like, it can be magical, but it’s usually more arduous than that. Just like a marriage with moments that inspire rom-coms and adult contemporary hits, there’s a whole lot of hard work behind the magic.

Erin O’Toole and Jonathan Payne are Northern Colorado’s Dead Amps. All photos by Matt Calkins

“We don’t always agree musically on things,” O’Toole said, relating the band to relationship navigation, “but that’s fine. We work on how to move the song forward.”

They may not always agree on music, other than the need to have their own home studio, and therefore their music has been described as a blend of space rock, electronic indie-pop, dream-pop and post-punk, with an overarching art rock feel.

That’s a lot of ingredients, but that’s just because the two are, well, different. O’Toole is a rocker (her first concert was Iron Maiden) and Payne admires hip-hop. This is a vast overgeneralization, of course, given the complexities of their music and the fact that they both like The Cure, but O’Toole will understand that’s what journalists do sometimes to prove a point. She is a public radio reporter and host for KUNC (91.5 FM in Greeley) and Payne works as both a media specialist at an elementary school and a part-time recording engineer.

Dead Amps – photo by Matt Calkins

They began playing together after Payne’s old bassist quit. O’Toole played bass in bands of her own, but Payne was afraid to ask her to join him. She was the morning host at the local NPR affiliate, after all – an early bird job that didn’t exactly mesh with the nightlife of a band. But as it turns out, O’Toole surprised Payne by informing him that she was joining the band. She didn’t give him much choice.

And so, O’Toole spent nights playing until 1 a.m. at tiny clubs, sleeping for an hour in the back of a van before heading out to work at 5 a.m., but she never did miss a shift, and the two got married a couple years later. 

So it worked. Both appreciate the fact that their music doesn’t really sound like anyone else’s, although sometimes they admit to wishing things didn’t have to be SO complex. 

“It would be so much easier if we could nail down one thing,” O’Toole says, “but that depends on the song.”

Marriages are also rarely simple, so they get a lot of practice. They find agreements in certain places and accept the fact that there’s no blueprint, Payne says. 

“We put things away and bring them back out,” Payne says, “and the moment we say let’s do it this way, it inevitably doesn’t work out that way.”

As further proof of that, the two began recording their latest album, DA4, just a few months before COVID-19 hit. They had planned to record at Chimaera Sound Studios in Loveland, where Payne was freelancing, but the pandemic underscored the advantage of having their own basement studio. Named “Leisure Hive” after a Doctor Who episode, they’d already used their basement for years to record ideas on their own, with the occasional Friday night noodling with sounds and a couple cocktails.

December, 2020’s release DA4 contains tracks which both began years ago, and were forged in the so-called covid quarantine. Photo by Matt Calkins.

Some of DA4’s tracks have been alive since they met, using synth riffs or beats from years ago. They keep files with mysterious names on computers at Leisure Hive, stuffed with random riffs and goofy titles. They also keep scrap papers in Payne’s big, ugly binder with scribbled lines of lyrics.

“We would be a nightmare for someone who is methodical,” Payne said. 

But somehow, it all works, and the two mesh their crazy methods into songs. Some take 20 years to finish, as did a few on DA4, but there are a few they hammered out in the basement – after the pandemic, as O’Toole puts it, “allowed us to experiment with new ways to build songs.” The lead track, “the great insane,” is one of those. 

Another new approach came when they invited guest artists to play on the album. Payne says members of Black Mesa, solo cellist Kira Lynn Sands and drummer Kyle Jones were basically told to “have at it” without much direction. “We trusted them,” O’Toole said. “They really helped shape the songs. That made it exciting.” 

The successful blend has them eager to play live again, something they haven’t done since moving out to Colorado in 2009.

“We’ve been slowly trying to find people we trust and vibe with musically,” O’Toole said. “We would love to do it. We played a lot in Southern California, and we do miss it. Maybe when the pandemic is over, that’s something we could focus on.”

Balancing adult life and rock n roll, Dead Amps self-record and self-release, though DIY tours may be a thing of the past. Photo by Matt Calkins.

The band is more serious than a hobby, and they’ve had some success, especially in the U.K., where they recorded under the Pink Dolphin Music label since 2017. But it’s also not their entire lives. They have other priorities, they have jobs, and put plainly, Erin is 52 and Jonathan is 48.

They have declined offers, although they both said if they were offered a chance to go on a world tour, and the money made sense, they would probably do it. But time changes everything, including relationships, bands, music and just how much they incorporate all three into their lives together.

‘‘If we were in our 20s, we’d throw everything at it,” O’Toole said. “We aren’t going to jump in a van and go. We did that once, and that was fun. But that’s not where we are now.”

Dead Amps released their latest album, DA4, on December 11. Directly support them by heading to deadamps.com for more.