Interviewing bands is always fun, interesting and a bit nerve-wracking, especially when it’s a band that I’m a huge fan of. Dawes has consistently put out stellar albums, start to finish, and seem to get better with each album. Their most recent release All Your Favorite Bands was made my top 10 releases of 2015, and 2013’s Stories Don’t End made my top 10 that year as well.
I spoke with Taylor Goldsmith (vocals, guitar) before their Cincinnati show about their recording process, a new album, writing, storytelling, Dylan, Petty, Prine, and more.
Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Taylor Goldsmith, of Dawes:
BB: First off, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
TG: Yeah man, no problem.
BB: As a photographer and writer I’m often asked to describe a band to someone who hasn’t heard them before. And I feel like a lot of times the easy way out is “They sound like [this band]” or a “You’ll like them if you like [this band]” but I feel like a lot of times that can kind of color people’s expectation a little too much.
BB: So I’ve been trying recently to not describe bands by comparing them to other bands. So, with that being said… how would you describe your sound without comparing it to another band?
TG: Typically I try to keep it general. I mean, we’re a rock and roll band, we play guitar, the songs are very lyric driven or narrative driven and it can range between pretty quiet and slow to pretty energetic. But at the same time, like you said, it’s so hard to put it into words. Even if you weren’t talking about Dawes – if you were talking about Tom Petty and trying to explain Tom Petty’s music I would even be kinda stumped on that too. But there’s always little sign posts you can give like “Well it sounds like Tom Petty listening to Bob Dylan”, or “Tom Petty listening to the Beatles” and certain things like that but to just really nail it I don’t think would really be possible. And so, it might be frustrating to people but, when I’m sitting next to a stranger on a plane and they ask me what I do, I tell them I’m in a band and they say “what does it sound like?” I tend to keep it pretty general just because I don’t know what else to do
BB: You guys have 4 studio albums out, and I know that this most recent one All Your Favorite Bands you guys did live in the studio. So, how has your approach to writing and recording evolved since North Hills? Had you guys done live in studio before this album?
TG: Yeah, North Hills was very live in the studio as well. I had to sing it all with the band, we had time to overdub background vocals and like another guitar and that sort of thing because we just had no time. We made that in like two weeks. And then the next two were… we started incorporating the studio a little bit more. And then with All Your Favorite Bands we just felt like… (pauses) Even when we did North Hills, I didn’t really know how to play guitar very well, and we were just so new to recording and to the instruments. And even though Griffin is my brother and Wylie and I had been in a band before, we were just new to this whole thing because we were used to previous band members being around or whatever it was, and so we just felt like with North Hills it was like such a “band’s-first-record”, ya know? We always wanted to have this… and as time went on, people come to the shows and they say “Wow Griff, I didn’t know you played drums like that” or “Wow, Taylor, I didn’t know you sang or played guitar like that.” And it made us think “well if that’s what your thinking, then our records must be not doing their job to a certain extent” ya know? So we really wanted to make a record where that was put across, and so we did. I sang with the band,we played solos right there with the band, we all kind of reacted to each other, and we ended up with a record that sounds like it in our opinion. And we’re very proud of it for that reason.
BB: Yeah, I definitely think it’s the most “Dawes” sounding album. It’s very close to seeing you live, it’s a really good representation of that, so I think you guys nailed it.
TG: Oh, that’s awesome, thanks.
BB: So when you guys go in to write and record an album, do you go in with a particular goal or a particular sound in mind or does it kind of evolve through the process?
TG: It sort of evolves, and I mean we’re not a conceptual group. It’s not like every song is tied into each other. I the more kinda… I don’t know… I mean, when I listen to Dylan records or Petty records or whatever it feels more like this is the period of their life that they don’t even know what separates it from the one before, but we can still hear it as listeners, a very distinct shift. And that’s something that’s always really inspired me to really let the music and the situations themselves we find ourselves in to dictate the mood of the record. Not like “We’re going to make this one because we haven’t done this before, or no one’s done this before.” It’s really just like how do we capture our personalities and the way we interact as a band in a fresh way, compared to what we just did before that or whatever we’re comparing it to.
BB: You mentioned that you don’t go in to make a concept album or something like that, but I do feel like just listening to your albums, it’s definitely an album experience. It’s not like 3 singles and 8 songs of filler.
TG: Right, Right.
BB: When you guys put together an album, obviously I’m sure you write more than what ends up on a record; how do you go about deciding what ends up on a record, and how you sequence the songs that end up on the record?
TG: Um, I think the record always kinda tells us what goes where. I think that there are times where we go in with a favorite song and the way that we record it it’s like, “this just doesn’t belong with this group of tunes.” And then vice versa, sometimes I think “This might not really be good enough” and it ends up being the favorite. I think it has to do with the” lightning in a bottle” kind of thing of what happens when and what songs get what treatments, and what brings certain things to life and when is trying something to far. Sometimes you can really capture a song in the first 3 or 4 takes, but once you get into that zone of doing it 40 or 50 times sometimes the life is gone, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We’ve run into that problem too. To us it’s always been “What does this record tell us it’s supposed to be?” We’ve trusted that and that’s been pretty consistent. There’s typically a mood or and energy, like All Your Favorite Bands, there’s a couple that didn’t make it and the ones that didn’t just didn’t really feel like they were part of the same family. Whether they were like… instead of me playing guitar I was on a piano or second keyboard, or a song where it’s all acoustic, it just didn’t feel like it was of the same piece. When we had those nine songs next to each other it really felt like, this is what it’s supposed to be.
BB: Are there any songs that didn’t make the cut on previous albums that eventually made the cut on later albums?
TG: Yeah, that always happens. “Don’t Send Me Away” on All Your Favorite Bands was a slow 6/8 song that sounded nothing like what it does now. It was really just like an idea, a verse and a title that I took from what it was originally and put it into what it is now. But that was tried on the first and second records and it didn’t stick. And the same thing happened recently, we just finished recording another record and a couple songs from that were tried on other records… It was never a lack of faith in the song, it was always maybe we just don’t have the version of it yet – that definitive version. And that’s kind of always the way it’s been with us. We’ve never been scared of keeping a song of the record because we always know it’s going to have a life; whether it on the next record or elsewhere.
BB: So you said you just finished a 5th album, is that recorded live? Did you work with Dave Rawlings again for this one too?
TG: We worked with Blake Mills [who has worked with Sara Watkins, Sky Ferreira, Alabama Shakes, etc. and was a member if the previous incarnation of Dawes, called Simon Dawes] for this one, and we did it in LA and we wanted to do it differently. I think that for me it’s always been very important to get away from comfort zones, ya know? Like, we learned so much about recording and ourselves as a band when we made that record with Dave. But then, ya know like, people would even ask us “So is that what you’re gonna do from now on?” and I feel like, well wouldn’t that be a sad thing if the answer was yes? Like, if we just said “We liked it, so were just gonna do this now, and you can go ahead and expect all of our records to sound like this from now on.” I just feel like that would be such an unfortunate situation for a band or any kind of artist to be in. So for us that was something that we wanted to do that, frankly we felt like we needed to do because there was a side of our band that wasn’t being expressed on recordings. But then once we did that, it’s remained a part of us and I like to think it’s very much a part of this next record coming. But we also wanted to explore what Blake does, he has a huge personality as a producer in the work that he does, and didn’t want to limit that by any sort of arbitrary guidelines to begin with, like “well we have to do this this way.” So, it’s a very different record, but like all of our records, it always felt like Dawes, at least to me… I dunno maybe I’m the last guy you should ask about that, (laughs). But it still feels very much within the band is.
BB: Do you have a tentative release time or timeframe for the album?
TG: Definitely within the year, we just don’t know exactly when.
BB: The last two albums have been independently released on HUB Records. That’s your record label, isn’t it? The band’s label?
TG: Yeah, it’s like ours with our managers
BB: Has it been kind of freeing to not be with a major and all of the stuff that goes with that?
TG: Actually we’ve never been with a major, we’ve only been with ATO [Records] and we were actually very luck to be with ATO. They were an amazing record label to us and they let us make the decisions we wanted to make and they were very supportive no matter what the record was that we turned in. They came onboard with North Hills after the record was done, and then we basically put together Nothing Is Wrong together and the, again, couldn’t have been better. I mean, there is that fear of labels being those labels that have a lot of opinions that don’t with how you see yourself as an artist, but we’ve never experienced that, we’ve been very, very lucky.
BB: That’s great. So let’s pivot to lyrics, do you write the majority of the lyrics or does anyone else chip in with that?
TG: No it’s pretty much just me.
BB: Your lyrics, at least to me, are very straight forward and relatable. They are more kind of storytelling and less like poetry and metaphor. They are often nostalgic and kind of brutally honest at the same time. For example, one of my favorite songs is actually the bonus track on the Suitcase EP, is “Strangers Getting Stranger”
TG: Oh, cool!
BB: There’s a line in that song that I think most people most people have felt and never really been able to capture, and you put it into words perfectly, it’s the line “It’s not that I want back all of my innocence, just the joy of losing it again”
BB: Lines like that and songs like “All Your Favorite Bands”,” Stories Don’t End”, and “Someone Will” kind of capture an introspective look at the past that isn’t really through rose colored glasses, like most people seem to look at the past. It’s kind of got a pragmatism that people tend to lack when looking at their younger days. Where does that kind of perspective come from in your writing, that kind of brutal realism. Not necessarily self deprecating, but not painting over the hard parts or the bad parts, and still appreciating the good parts?
TG: Right, I appreciate you saying that. I think for me, when I hear certain styles of lyric writing or I see certain kinds of poetry, I just get confused. I’ve always had a hard time with that phenomenon of letting it just wash over me. I feel like I have to have some seed of relatability for me to feel like I can grab ahold of something. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, especially when he get’s way out there with records like Highway 61, and there’s something that I don’t know what it might mean as a whole, but I’m definitely inspired by certain emotions within even just a couplet. Then there’s times where I look at a poem by someone and I’ll think “Man, I don’t know what he’s talking about.” And I’m not able to… to let it just hit me, like the sounds of the words or I don’t know what people do. It just resonates with people, and it just doesn’t for me. I’ve always been more like I want to read a good story, I wanna listen to a John Prine song, you know? When I hear like, John Prine, to me that’s like so impressive. Yeah, there might not be 6 different layers to what he could be saying, but at the same time, the fact that he set out with a specific, complex idea in mind, and then is able to peel it away for you and bring you along with him, to me is the most impressive form of songwriting. At least right now – I think and I hope that I’ll change how I see things and what I respond to, and what I like, and what I do, and all that stuff. But for now, that kind of writing where I don’t necessarily need to communicate a specific meaning, but I want to communicate a certain mood, and that’s always been a thing for me.
BB: You’ve toured with some very stylistically different bands, from Conor Oberst, and Alabama Shakes, to Bob Dylan, and Alison Kraus. What is it about Dawes that makes you fit so seamlessly into so many different places?
TG: I don’t know, I mean, we’ve always kind of enjoyed that. It’s rare that a band would get to go be the back up band for Conor Oberst, and then go, like you said, open up for Bob Dylan or something. It’s definitely a run of the gamut and we feel very to be in a position that does that. I guess the school that we kind of came up in, which was for Griffin and I especially, we were going to clubs where our dad and all of his were players. It wasn’t like “let’s all sit around in a studio and you come up with some 2 note riff and it’ll be charming and we’ll put it on.” That’s all great, but growing up with a father like ours, we would be going out to nightclubs and his band would be playing and it would be the kind of thing where he and all of his musicians that he played with would go “Alright, Taylor, come play guitar on this song” and I wouldn’t really know what was going on, but it was that kind of old school way of thinking, where you read people’s hands, you’re kind of letting the verse and chorus go by before you know where you’re gonna like fit in.
BB: Awesome, thanks again for taking the time for us. We wish you guys all the best luck and will be looking forward to the show.
TG: Thanks, we’ll see ya then.