Back in the late ’90s, a trio of San Jose indie rockers released two full-length records and a handful of EPs, to little attention. Duster played dingy basement shows and never drove their tour van beyond the West Coast. Instead of recruiting a bass player, they dragged an old organ to shows with multi-instrumentalist Clay Parton tapping the pedals for some low end.
Their songs rarely had proper beginnings or endings. They were structureless, fuzzed-out, bare ensembles of spacey noise—slow, dynamic and supremely lo-fi. If a song featured singing, the vocals were treated as another instrument, not the primary focal point. There was a beauty to the delicate chemistry and bubbling emotionality in Duster’s tunes, whether anyone knew about them or not.
The band faded away, and in 2000 their label, Up Records, went defunct. Then something magical happened. The existing copies of their albums—dubbed to tapes and shared on peer-to-peer networks—made the rounds with a new generation of indie kids. Duster’s take on ’90s slowcore was looser and more experimental than that of their peers and inspired several now-successful bands, such as Girlpool, (Sandy) Alex G and Hovvdy.
“We were working in pretty simple modes,” Parton says, recalling the early days. “How simple can this be but still be devastating? Part of our charm is sounding a little fucked-up. We don’t really write songs and then record them; we use recording as part of the writing process.”
The cult of Duster was built without the help of streaming-music platforms. They grew their fanbase through old-fashioned word of mouth and chat threads on obscure music forums. Last March, indie label Numero Group issued a proper re-release of the Duster catalog. Demand was high. Their limited pressing of 500 three-LP colored-vinyl box sets sold out within a day.
And they began gigging together again—a difficult task given that Parton lives in Santa Cruz and the other two members (Jason Albertini and Canaan Dove Amber) live in Portland. They played their first show in December 2018 in Brooklyn to an exuberant crowd of mostly 20-somethings, opening for Duster-superfan (Sandy) Alex G.
In Dec 2019, Duster released a record of brand-new material, which they recorded on and off for a year and a half at Parton’s house mostly, on a four-track tape recorder, just like they did with their previous records.
“[Back then] all we had was a cassette four-track machine, and super shitty drums and super shitty everything,” Parton recalls. “We didn’t mind the immediate, disheveled sound of the four-track. When we recorded on 8-track or even the first 16-track machine we got, it was the same approach. Smudged is our thing.”
While their homespun aesthetic helped them build underground clout, the band discovered early on after re-forming that they wouldn’t be able to simply rely on their status as reclusive indie legends. It was a homecoming show—one of the worst shows they’ve ever played, at The Ritz in early 2019—that really pushed Duster to take their reunion more seriously.
“We played like shit,” Partons says. “There were weird vibes, something wasn’t right. And not that many people were there. Maybe San Jose crowds still don’t want to pay for shows. Maybe some things never change. It was like a true ’90s Duster experience, because we played some rough shows back then too.”
It was a turning point. In the wake of the Jan. 25, 2019 performance, Duster started working with a booking agent and sought professional help with the business end of the band.
Now when they tour, they can relax and focus on tending to their fans. They’re meeting a lot of kids that were toddlers—or simply glints in their mothers’ eyes—when they released their first album. It’s energizing, Parton says.
“Meeting people at shows is rewarding,” he says. “Sometimes, a crowd of people drawn together are all bonded by that common thread of feeling not-right, or isolated, alone, some variation on that theme—it’s almost like we are all taking care of each other, at least for a moment.”
Feb. 28, 9pm, $20+
The Catalyst, Santa Cruz