(Re)Collection #47: Kevin Dunbar, RIP
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Losing friends is a fact of life. Whether it happens when you are young, middle-aged or old, the parade marches on and people die. It is with great sadness that I write to eulogize a fallen drummer. Kevin Dunbar was a friend of mine. I had not seen him for quite a few years, but that does not diminish the connection we once had.
I met Kevin for the first time when my band Tart played a show down in West Lafayette, Indiana. He was the drummer in The Velmas, my good friend John deMoulpied's band. We shared the bill at a forgettable sports bar surrounded by TV sets, brass rails, disinterested drinkers and fake ferns.
Kevin was a tall, gangly fellow who always seemed a little ill at ease. But he was friendly and we struck up a conversation about drums. He was particularly interested in my setup, which was a silver and black swirl Slingerland 4 piece from the '60s. At the time, I had a little cottage industry buying and selling oddball drums. I would find them in alleys and in thrift stores, strip off the lugs and other hardware from destroyed shells and play a little game of mix and match. Drum recycling.
He told me to keep an eye out for a set for him. We ended up staying in touch. Then I decided to sell him the set that I was playing when I first met him. I had a habit of smashing up a fair amount of gear at that point. I was a bit brutal on my drums at shows. I feared potentially wrecking that really nice, elderly Slingerland set. So I sold the set to Kevin. He played it in The Velmas every time I saw them play live as well as on recordings.
The Velmas were a guitar, violin, bass and drums pop band from West Lafayette, Indiana, that made music I loved and cherished, irrespective of knowing them. They stood shoulder to shoulder with the other great bands I liked. I did not give them a pass because they were local-ish and friends of mine. They were the real deal.
John, Jessica, Guy and Kevin made intimate, sprawling and slightly messy power pop music fusing elements of Big Star and Game Theory with a hint of the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine. Each member had an off-kilter approach that, when added to the other members' off-kilter approaches, yielded novel and signature songs.
Kevin, while a bit shy and retiring in conversation, played with a lovable zeal. His tempos were elastic, and his energy pushed the group forward, sideways and backwards. If you are a bandleader, you might not want this behavior in your drummer. But I argue that it made them an exciting band to see live. It gave them an edge. We have all seen many tight power pop bands that end up not being more than the sum of their parts. Being technically good at an instrument or as a band is a clinical accomplishment. Being right is a heartfelt one.
Kevin was the right drummer. He had a loping, Jody Stephens style (Jody was the drummer from Big Star). When given the time and space on recordings, Kevin came up with parts that had swing and an ineffable, shambling grace. His fills tumbled and his tempos swayed, and the band rolled along on that choppy wave, undeterred and unfettered. That is a hard thing to do. It is something I have tried to do on recordings and failed many more times than I ever succeeded.
I know from John that Kevin suffered from depression over the years. But when Kevin played, he converted that anxiety and tumult in his head into a raging and ragged counterpoint to John's classic pop melodicism. His personality came blaring through. I hear it clearly. That is beautiful. That is art.
Kevin was an artist. Kevin had a grace and nobility about him. John acknowledged that and referred to him as Lord Dunbar on recordings. I did not ever really get to know him over the years because, unlike his bandmates John and Jessica, he did not move up to Chicago. I wish I could have helped him out a little. I wish I could have been more of a friend to him.
Rest in Peace, Lord Dunbar.
The recording of Flashlight is taken from The Velmas' LP Landscrapes, released by Beluga Records in 1995.
Drummer: Kevin Dunbar
Guitar/Main Voice: John deMoulpied
Fiddle/Voice: Jessica Billey
Bass/Voice: Guy Crundwell