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Against the Grain 

Map of Wyoming's Dale Duncan learned everything he needed to know about music in the woodshop

Wednesday, Oct 25 2000
It's an Indian summer afternoon in Bayview. The roofers gathered in the parking lot of the former Downtown Rehearsal building watch us suspiciously as we drive by. "We were up there," says Dale Duncan, pointing to the tall windows on the second floor. Duncan, who looks like a sturdier Kevin Spacey, is wearing a floppy railroad engineer's cap and doesn't seem sad about being evicted from his practice space this month. In fact, he seems kind of happy. "Nothing's permanent," he says, laughing.

We drive four blocks farther, and Duncan slides open the door to a long tin shed. It smells of wood stain and is filled with saws and clamps and huge vacuums that eat sawdust at unimaginable rates. Light sifts down from two propped-open skylights. This shed is Dale Duncan's business -- he's spent the last nine years here building a reputation as a skilled furniture-maker. It's a place of history for Duncan, a place of restoration. Inside, he's the owner and sole employee of Duncan Woodworks. Outside, he's singer/songwriter and commander in chief of San Francisco's Map of Wyoming.

Those two separate worlds are about to come very close together.

The first three-quarters of Duncan's musical life reads like a Horatio Alger story for aspiring college-rockers. As a part of the '80s jangle-pop band Flying Color, Duncan went from being an unknown S.F. State student to a local hero in short order, packing the Mabuhay Gardens and playing the Fillmore with the Replacements. Back in the days when R.E.M. was still the next Byrds, Flying Color amassed enough positive press and screaming fans to believe that it was on the verge of something very, very big.

After putting out a record on Frontier, making a video, touring the country, and flirting with RCA and Columbia, personal problems brought Duncan and the band crashing back down to earth. The group broke up in 1990.

For Duncan, the brush with fame did some strange things to his head. "I was kind of out in the wind, just being this public person," he says. "I was doing it for some other reason. There was a lot of insecurity: needing the attention, needing someone to tell you you're OK. I looked at it and thought, "That's so weak of me to want that.'"

Soon after the band broke up, Duncan fell in love. And then broke his neck. What started out as a brief hiatus from music ended up lasting seven years. Duncan stopped playing altogether, intent instead on making furniture in his Bayview studio. The business was an easy 10-minute drive from his Mission District apartment, and served as a therapeutic respite for someone coming down off the soul-testing rush of near-fame.

As he spent more time building things in the studio, however, familiar dilemmas began popping up. As in the major label scramble, the surest way to make money was to design something with mass appeal, then spend all your energy making knockoffs of your own creations.

"I remember eight years ago making the decision about what to do with my woodworking business. The way you would expand is that you'd design a chair or something and then you'd try to sell that design. I realized if you did that, then the creative time gets really short and you spend the rest of your time trying to get rid of these damn chairs that you designed."

Instead, Duncan decided to go the arts and crafts route, custom building each piece according to the needs of the client. "I'm never going to get rich by selling a million [different] chairs," says Duncan. "But I'm going to have a nice life. It's about process."

By the mid-'90s, things were going well for Duncan Woodworks; unfortunately, the relationship that had originally drawn him away from music was unraveling. After a soul-searching trip to Mexico, he picked up a guitar and found he had something to sing about. Soon after, he got word that the Spanish label Munster was rereleasing the Flying Color record. Inspired by the international interest in his back catalog, Duncan started writing more songs, and Map of Wyoming was born.

Yet the Dale Duncan who formed Map of Wyoming was a different man from the one who had walked away from music seven years earlier.

"Coming back to it, I realized I could do it exactly as I wanted to do it," Duncan says. "I didn't have to play by a particular set of rules. I could just do it purely for me."

Though Duncan may have been working according to his own plan, he realized he needed help transferring the countryish sounds coming out of his acoustic guitar onto tape. For the first Map of Wyoming album, Round Trip, Duncan rounded up a host of San Francisco talent, including Flying Color alums Chris von Sneidern and John Stuart, as well as Chuck Prophet, Carrie Bradley (Breeders, 100 Watt Smile), and Tom Mallon (who had recorded American Music Club along with a slew of other San Francisco bands).

While Round Trip pushed Duncan back into the world of music, his new record, Trouble Is, makes his return official. Round Trip sometimes staggered under the weight of overcrafted songs; Trouble Is has the tender, buoyant energy of a homecoming party.

For Trouble Is, the Map of Wyoming lineup again included von Sneidern and Stuart, as well as electric/pedal steel guitarist Tom Heyman and bassist Larry Decker. Duncan and company scheduled the album's many recording sessions around the full moon ("My mom's really into astrology," Duncan confides), getting about six songs down on tape each time. Duncan would then cruise the streets of the Mission, listening to the work on his car stereo.

"I'd put a tape in the car and I'd just drive around the block three times and listen to it over and over again. And when I'd get to the point where I'd go, "Wow! That was fucking good!' then that was it. That one's on the record."

Nearly 14 months in the making, the new album was heavily shaped by Duncan's I'll-get-there-when-I-get-there attitude.

"People get so anxious. They feel like they're missing the boat. "We've got to get it out there.' Just relax! Wait till the record's done. Wait till it sounds good. Why bother if you're not trying to make something great? You don't go to the Olympics to go for the bronze."

The new record is filled with golden moments, whether it's Ralph Carney's perfectly retro flute work on "To the Sun" or the heavenly harmonies on "Ships." Songs like "For All I Can See" and "Hilltop" highlight Duncan's strange, inviting vocal style -- a rich timbre that seems to carry the harmony part to an implied melody. ("People have said I sing seconds and sixths," he says, neither of us entirely sure what that means.)

Like Carney, Tom Heyman shows himself to be an invaluable addition to the Map of Wyoming mix, adding heart-melting pedal steel to Duncan's open sentiments. Like Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, the album is the kind that rewards close listening, something that appeals immensely to the craftsman in Duncan.

"I just like trying to grab at the big stuff, but in the most economical way. Trying to have layers of meaning. I'm not a good narrative writer. It's all small. My favorite songs are the ones you listen to for years and then all of a sudden you say, "Oh! That could mean that.'"

Despite Duncan's excitement about Trouble Is, questions about promoting it provoke a grimace. Speaking like someone trying to squelch an attraction to a best-forgotten ex-girlfriend, Duncan is wary about extending himself too much.

"I like it when the phone rings," he says. "I don't like dialing -- that's where I'm at now. I know [the new record] is a good thing; I'm not going to be banging on doors. Just get it out there, and I'll respond to what happens. But it's not like a big campaign. I'm not out there to slay the dragon or anything. To me, it's done."

However done he claims his work for this record may be (and in talking to him, it's clear to me that the record's reception means far more to him then he lets on), there's always the next one to work toward. Part of that commitment to his re-emerging musical self means giving up some of his woodworking space so that Map of Wyoming can have a place to practice.

The marriage of band and band saw, coinciding with the release of Trouble Is, comes at an auspicious time. Could the amps in the shed be a sign that the reluctant troubadour is breaking away from the work that sustained him for the past eight years?

The man of layered meanings is sanguine. "It's an interesting time to be alive," says Duncan with a grin. "Life is going to change."

About The Author

Chris Baty


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