Dawes: Little Bit of Everything

By Team JamBase Jul 19, 2011 3:45 pm PDT

By: Dennis Cook

Dawes by Kevin Hays
Music has lots of purposes but one of its key uses is providing people with an understanding of their lives, a mirror in song that helps one find their place in the hurly burly scrum and maybe even within the larger universe. Music that actively aims for more than mere distraction or entertainment is a tougher go than ever in this hard sell world, but that makes it all the more precious when we find it. Los Angeles-based Dawes ladles out quenching, deep water where the bulk of their contemporaries offer up sugary pop. In just two albums, they’ve established themselves as emotionally exposed truth-tellers in a crowd of hucksters and sensation seekers, particularly coming from “such an empty hearted town” as singer-guitarist-songwriter Taylor Goldsmith observes on the group’s fabulous sophomore effort, Nothing Is Wrong (released June 7 on ATO), an album about “placing it all together” in the grandest AND most personal terms.

Big ideas and how they operate in the lives of workaday Joes and Janes are central to Dawes, who resonates on a frequency where surface things matter less than pulling the veil away from the invisible world of truths that endure, fleeting glimpses of things beyond our daily bread and personal headaches. While this reach is apparent in Goldsmith’s lyrics it’s also in the muscles of Dawes’ music, pulsing in the bass of Wylie Gelber, the keys of Tay Strathairn and the drums of Taylor’s brother Griffin Goldsmith. Feel is a big deal with Dawes, something that speaks of sturdier intentions than fame or fortune. It’s a vibe elder craftsmen like Robbie Robertson (The Band) and Jackson Browne have picked up on, causing these veterans to tap Dawes as their backing band, an honor for any young group but really a signal to the integrity and lasting quality of what Dawes is doing more than anything else. This band makes music for life’s long run, rough boy hymns caught somewhere between plans and dreams, but unlike the characters in some of their sadder tunes, one gets the sense things will turn out alright for this quartet, who excel at creating music that get so scratched into our souls, to paraphrase kindred spirits The Hold Steady.

We snagged Taylor Goldsmith to talk about where the band finds itself today, on the rise but still figuring out their way in this wicked world. We get into God, the music press, their new album and more, but as the man himself sings, “The words I say can be silver but what’s left unsaid can be gold, so get to know me once I go away.”

Cover Photo From New Album
JamBase: The cover of the new album says a lot in a single image, the band playing to a huge, empty theatre. The feeling of being away from home and carving out one’s place in the world with their craft that comes through in this image.

Taylor Goldsmith: This is a good look into where the band is at right now. Once in a while, we might get invited to play those beautiful rooms but we don’t really have the whole town showing up just yet. That’s okay and totally fine, hence the title. I feel the only time a phrase like “nothing is wrong” comes up in any context is probably in a reassuring sense – reassuring yourself or someone you’re talking to – and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

JamBase: It’s almost a cliché at this point because it usually means something IS wrong if someone says it.

Taylor Goldsmith: I’ve started using the title as a means of discussion. I found a not-so-good review and I took it in and read it and then realized that’s what the title of the record is going to mean to me now, that for all the guys whose tastes don’t mesh with this music and they don’t like it, well, I’m going to use the title to remind myself that it’s okay and roll with it.

You need phrases like that to hang your hat on when somebody kicks at you.

Taylor & Griffin Goldsmith
by John Margaretten
It’s a new experience for us. When we put our first album, the only people that cared enough to write about it were people who liked it. You don’t get anything for bashing a band that no one knows about. Now that there’s a bit more awareness – not a lot but more – now it behooves certain people to go out of their way to let people know they don’t like it. That’s new for us, and I’m not sure we like it all that much [laughs].

It’s a stripe of modern music journalism that much of what’s written today is cruel to be clever and does more to draw attention to the reviewer than to subject at hand.

When you just say something is bad you can keep breaking down the conversation to the point where they’re just wrong. When you say something is good and show passion for it then it can’t be broken down in the same way. Sean from Daytrotter and I have had long talks about this, and he says, “It’s not for me to put out there what’s good or bad. I write about the things that I love.” I think it’s so great to have people like that in the world fighting the good fight for journalism. That’s what it should be, there to introduce you to things you might like. It’s helping cultivate an open-mind where hating things just helps people close off.

That strikes to the heart of Dawes’ appeal, where there’s a struggle for hope even if you don’t snatch it every time, a reaching out rather than the insular approach to the world that’s very common today. With Dawes I feel you’re trying to connect with people, which is rarer all the time.

Sometimes I feel, coming out of the world of indie music where things are often vague or clever, it’s weird to look someone in the face and talk about love or God. It continues to be more rewarding for me, and I’m hoping that even if people don’t totally respond to it they can appreciate the effort.

Wylie Gelber by Andrew Quist
I think all the raised hands in the air when you play “When My Time Comes” indicate a decent amount of appreciation. There’s a hunger in Dawes for something larger, whether you want to call it God or whatever, and there’s a core desire in humans for that sense of belonging, that sense of compassion in the universe, a desire to be part of something bigger and more joyful and hopeful than what’s right here.

Yeah, it’s definitely there in us. Living in Los Angeles, there is some pretty sever cynicism out there, an immediate giving up on the idea of something being potentially true and good. So, for me, I’m trying not to give into the desire to just hate things, to not instantly see things as bad or to not justify someone else’s ulterior motives. I’m just going to believe that these two people are sincerely going to love and care for each other.

But your work shows you struggle with this modern impulse towards cynicism. It shows up in lines about being “condemned to facts alone.” If we can’t see evidence in black & white it’s hard to have faith.

Yeah, that’s definitely a big part of it. It’s funny, someone people will say they’re glad to see this band that clearly has a close relationship with God is doing well, but I tell them we’re not a group of believers. In fact, we just throw the questions out there and we’re more admittedly confused than most people. We don’t have it figured out.

Letting questions dangle in the air is a valuable exercise in itself.

Tay Strathairn by Rod Snyder
“My Way Back Home” was the first song I wrote for the new record, and that song is loaded with questions and full of suggestions rather than trying to offer any answers beyond sticking with it and persevering. “Little Bit of Everything” is the last song I wrote for the album, and maybe in all my songwriting where I stepped away from the broad scope and take a stab at answering some of these questions.

There’s the feel of autobiography to many Dawes songs, but I wonder how much of that is your story and how much is being a storyteller. How much do you have to expose yourself in grappling with these big questions?

“Little Bit of Everything” expresses my outlook and perspective but none of my personal experiences. So, I was excited to write about something that wasn’t a bad or good experience of my own. I look at examples of writers that I love and have meant so much to me, and they spent their whole careers doing that. And then you look at them now and they’re lonely, old men. And you’re like, “Wait. Is it worth it?” I want to be a good artist and write a good song but I also want to be a good dad, husband, well-rounded, happy person. Maybe it’s hokey, but I want to figure out where you tow that line. There are artists who don’t have to tear themselves apart to achieve that result. I do feel personal experiences are important, and it’s easier to get into that mode if you recall some terrible heartbreak you’ve experienced, but there’s a chance you’ll sabotage yourself to recreate that same thing.

Dawes by John Margaretten
The Tortured Artist Principle at work.

It’s so transparent and so useless and dumb. Artists talk about their loneliness and solitude, which is real and I don’t want to downplay it – some great songs come of it – but we all pursue songwriting or art to figure things out. We don’t do it to put ourselves on display and ruin our lives for the sake of doing it. To me, that’s so backwards and you’re doing it for unhealthy reasons potentially.

You see this in the stories of bands who churned up drama to fuel their work and ended up miserable and hating each other. You don’t get that sense that Dawes is on that path. A lot of camaraderie comes through when you’re onstage together. Your joy in your craft is infectious.

That’s something I think about a lot. We’re so grateful. There’s so many bands who are doing better than us in terms of over-the-top success, but then I hear word that no one is happy or getting along. If Dawes never got any bigger than we are right now and we only sold a certain amount of records with each release but we got to make 10 or 15 records and tour and had cool experiences, well, I don’t care about those big stages. Sure, it’d be awesome but it’s an afterthought. It’s a goal but only under the right circumstances. It’s not a goal at the expense of us getting along. We’re very lucky that we all love and respect and admire each other, personally and musically. We just embrace each other’s identity on the instruments, and it ends up being with us feeling proud to be onstage together. I’m not going to think twice about what I’d do on one of the other guy’s instruments. We have implicit trust in each other.

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