Dayton "Tambourine Jesus" Stone lost his job at Microsoft a few years back, after the company discovered that he had flubbed his résumé a bit.
The frontman of Dayton Stone and the Undertones explains that he and a group of friends enrolled in online college courses, one each, and then took one another’s tests. It’s an innovative, round robin way to cheat, but the technology company was none too pleased about the treachery. For the record, he’s still not sure if he recommends this tactic for those considering matriculating to a higher learning institute.
He made enough money at his ill-gotten tech gig to record half of an album before he was canned. The native of Washington state decided to pack up and head to Denver for a fresh start.
“My sister was down here, and she was like, ‘Oh, come on down,’” Stone recalls. “I figured I’d start trying to make enough money to finish the record down here. Once I got here, I just started a new group and working on songs.”
He says the lyrics on the band’s upcoming release, The Fear EP, are based on his personal experiences, but others are more topical and address the current state of the world. For example, the moody title track speaks to the anxiety gripping many citizens of the country right now.
“It speaks a lot to this kind of nervousness that everyone feels, like we are on the brink of something pretty bad happening in our country,” he says. “There is this desire to be prepared for it, and that preparedness is inevitably bringing out violence. Everyone is expecting the next guy to stab him in the back.”
For Stone, the song has an Arcade Fire kind of vibe because that band is often topical in its lyrics.
“They comment on society and kind of the zeitgeist bullshit,” he says, drawing “bullshit” out into a four-syllable word.
The Undertones’ upcoming EP marks a stylistic departure from its 2018 self-titled debut album, Drive and Drive. The opening track on the self-titled release, for example, really wouldn’t seem out of place in a sex scene in a Lethal Weapon movie, and the third track, “Preacher,” seems primed for use in a Robert Rodriguez film to track the calm just before a shootout erupts. (The song is actually about Stone's relationship with his deeply religious parents.) Stone credits the band’s guitarists, Nick and Tony Milano, with teasing out the more menacing, sinister vibe that lurks just beneath the surface in the new music.
The average person might shy away from telling a story about lying on a résumé and academic dishonesty, but Stone has had anything but an average upbringing. During a thirty-minute phone interview, the Microsoft saga barely made third place in terms of odd backstory. Stone grew up in a devoutly religious household, his father a music pastor and worship leader at a non-denominational Christian church with a “definite Pentecostal vibe” — people speaking in tongues, etc.
He says he’s been exorcised twice, once in California and again at the tail end of a nine-month stay at a religious commune at the long-shuttered Heritage USA. It was a Christian-themed amusement park in South Carolina founded by televangelist Jim Bakker in the 1980s. The site boasts an unfinished skyscraper — a forty-story skeleton of a building, as Stone remembers it. The place felt like a ghost town and emitted eerie vibes.
During his last night at the commune, he says, he was exorcised against his will. A pair of “demon hunters” asked to perform the ceremony, but because he’d already been through the process once, he politely declined. The demon hunters, however, were undeterred and, under the pretense of a group photo, rather publicly attempted to rid Stone of demons.
“She goes, ‘You come forward’ and goes through the whole, you know, ‘Get out of that boy. Go back to hell. You don’t belong here,’” he says.
Although Stone describes the experience as awkward, he considered his overall stay pleasant, and says it helped him develop his own sense of spirituality not so connected to Christian dogma. He likens his relationship with religion to a fan of the fictional science-fiction show in the movie Galaxy Quest, a parody of Star Trek and its obsessive fans. He can know all the specs and details without believing the show is real. The same goes for the teachings of Jesus.
“It was a very trippy part of my life,” he says of his stay at the commune. “It opened my eyes to fringe religion and crazy faith. That helped a lot with opening my mind, jumping to being open to spirituality and stuff like that without claiming something so hard-core.”
Stone adds that he willingly participated in his first exorcism, because he thought it would help his parents with their own troubles at the time. Oddly enough, the exorcists told his parents that their son had hundreds of demons inside his body, but they were unable to expel them because one demon was filibustering the process.
“It ended on that note, which is why I was uncomfortable getting exorcised again at the commune,” he says. “It’s very unsettling as, like, a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s like a mega demon that’s keeping hundreds of other demons inside. We can’t get them out.’”
And, yes, these experiences and his upbringing have had a strong influence on Stone’s songwriting.
“I think there is veiled religion in a lot of my songs,” he says. “But it’s not something I’m trying to promote. It’s just something that’s part of my identity that just seeps through into my songwriting.”
Check out Dayton Stone and the Undertones on Bandcamp. The Fear EP dropped on April 10.
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