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Hometown Pride

Apr 15, 2011 Danielson Bookmark and Share

As much as documentary filmmaker JL Aronson’s Danielson: A Famile Movie (Or, Make a Joyful Noise HERE) portrayed Danielson’s Daniel Smith as a tirelessly idiosyncratic artist who fearlessly lives and dies by his often inscrutable creative ideals, it ends on a bit of a down note. As someone who had always placed community at the center of his creative process, first playing music with his brothers and sisters in The Danielson Famile, then mixing in other friends and likeminded artists as Danielson, just how would Smith continue his constant conceptual reinventions when everyone around him kept moving on? Now, five years and one best-of compilation [2008’s Trying Heartz] since the release of Danielson’s critically-lauded Ships, Smith presents The Best of Gloucester County as his answer.

Matt Fink: So had you been writing the songs for this record over the entire time since the last one?

No, no. I’m always collecting bits and pieces and that kind of thing, but in terms of sitting down and writing, it just didn’t start until about a year and a half ago. It just wasn’t time. I wasn’t feeling like I was ready to write, and things were just too chaotic. So I guess it was last November or October [that] it felt like it was time to put some things together. There had been some recent tunes that were knocking around in my head, the opening track and the first couple tracks, so those came together. But I think I pretty much wrote the album in the order of the sequence that it arrived at.

Daniel Smith: Is that your usual process to have the songs emerge chronologically like that?

No, not at all. But this time it was a process, even down to the opening line, that pathetic image of me sitting around reading my own [press] clippings and trying to figure out what to do (laughs). From that opening line, all the way through, the way the album progresses and moves from Side A to Side B into a different sonic and mental space. It was all written that way.

So from the time since the last album to the time that you started writing for this one, was it a frustrating period because songs didn’t seem to be coming?

No. I was so busy with everyday life and trying to run a business with the label and the studio and production work and all that. I think for the first couple years, I really needed some time away from Danielson and touring. Also, because at the end of the Ships touring, which lasted a couple years on and off, there was the shift in personnel where my brothers said, “I can’t keep doing this. I’ve got my day job. I’ve got things to do.” And my friends Chris [Palladino] and Ted [Velykis] also came to a place where they realized that life is short and they need to follow their own dreams, so there was a kind of a …not a falling apart, but an end of a season feel. So I needed to regroup and try to pay bills. So there were quite a few years of being happy to do other things and trying to focus on business and family. But, then, there was certainly a point where we’d get some show inquiries and I didn’t have a band anymore, so that got me asking around and trying to put together a band. So there was a year and a half of finding local musicians and asking around and meeting people and rehearsing and then going out and playing shows, random shows in L.A. or Barcelona or wherever. And through that little bit of touring with the Trying Heartz album came a new band, with Pat [Berkery] on drums and Josh [Stamper] on bass and Evan [Mazunik] on keys and Andy [Wilson] on electric guitar. So it was just really getting to know each other by playing live and rehearsing together and trying things out, being stuck in vehicles and airplanes together and getting to know each other socially as well as musically. When it came time to get into the studio, we tracked together and did another session a month later, and it just came together in the way that it always had when I would play with my family, because we really did have a fair amount of time getting to know each other socially and musically. That’s really important to me, because I really do like the process of knowing each other beyond just talking about things. There are some songs where there is more specific guidance, but I was trying as much as possible to allow the musicians to bring their personalities and reactions to the recordings.

During the recording process, did you have a pretty clear idea of how you wanted the album to sound or did that start to take shape during recording?

I think I had an idea of the sound, and it changes season to season, but right now I’ve been really excited by the classic rock instrumentation. Not even class rock as a category, but a classic approach to a live show where you have your drummer, your percussionist, your bass, your electric guitar, your acoustic guitar, your organ and piano, your lead vocal and backup vocal – and I really like that palette because it’s designed to serve a song and fill out sonic space. So that’s the instrumentation that was the core group, and then we also brought in a horn section, which is also a classic rock approach. Right now, I’m really just enjoying production from the 70s. Without thinking about it much more than that, those are what ended up showing up on the record.

Was it generally easy to get everyone on the same page creatively?

Yeah, it was. It terms of tracking, it was quite a few steps. There was a lot of unknown territory, which I like when we’re tracking and writing. I think the thing that kept it feeling natural and on the edge and a little scary was the time restraints, because every step of the way there was only one or two days to track the basic tracks. More and more, I’m embracing that as a creative decision, because it doesn’t give me time to overthink things or question things. More and more, I feel like trusting my gut is the default.

Is that something that doesn’t come naturally? Do you tend to second guess yourself?

Well, if I have time. With my experience with working with a lot of artists in the studio, that’s the case, and even when I was in high school and four-tracking with my friends in the basement, if there’s too much time available, those insecurities creep up and you can start to self-destruct. More and more, I’m convinced that keeping things as immediate as possible doesn’t allow your brain to start overthinking things, because the perspective at the time is almost impossible. I’m always collecting ideas, but I’ll just record them and then I won’t listen to them again for a long time to allow myself a fresh perspective on them. If I come back to it, and it still sticks, I’ll take it serious. That carries through the whole process now.

I remember talking to Sufjan before and him saying that it’s a very innate relationship you have with your family and that you speak the same musical language and interact with them in an instinctual way. Is that difficult to recreate with another backing band?

Well, you can’t try to recreate anything, and I would say that this question came to the forefront for me especially when I was working with Deerhoof for half of Ships. I didn’t know them very well at all, so it was a total experiment to go to a little cabin and show them the songs and track them right away. I knew that I liked them as people, though I didn’t know them very well. I certainly knew their music quite well at that point, and there were things that I was hoping that they’d bring to those particular songs, so that was a big experiment. Once that worked so well, I realized that there was something beyond the family relationship that has always been so natural and easy in terms of putting together parts and writing. It’s ok to have new relationships, too. It’s ok to try that out, because it really does come down to the songs and the particular musician’s interpretation of the songs. So, that was something that was a breakthrough for me, like, “Ok, this can work.” When it came down to playing with these musicians that I’m playing with now, it’s much more like previous sessions with my family since we did have some background time and behind the scenes time playing together leading up to the sessions. It probably would have been a more stressful process if we hadn’t had some time together before heading into the studio.

You mentioned how the album shifts from Side A to Side B. Is that something that you conceived from the start or did that shift naturally take place?

Like I said earlier, most of the first side was written in that order. “Olympic Portions,” which, to me, is the shift in the record, was written around the same time as that, but I knew that it was a different kind of song than what I had been writing up until then. I wasn’t so aware of that [shift], but I knew when that song was coming about that it would be the middle of the record, the beginning of a shift of direction or feeling. I always liked those kinds of records that, as it continues, it’s a whole process – a beginning, a middle, and an end. This goes with a live show, too. I like being brought somewhere else that I wasn’t before I put the record on. So, in a way, it’s like a short story. I don’t know how much of that I was thinking through, but I think with every record I’m trying to think of the ups and downs and left and right turns. I do enjoy the idea of the single song, but that’s not really the way I listen to music. I’m definitely an album person. That’s the way I think about putting music together.

It seems that there is a real sense of space on this record. Where previous Danielson records had a sense of being overflowing with every possible idea, this record seems to be a little more open in that way.

Yeah, I appreciate that. I definitely had no interest in making another Ships for that very reason. I just wasn’t feeling the spastic quality of most of the lyrics, the constant bombardment of words, though there are exceptions on this album that have that. But I wanted to let things breathe more. It’s a different feeling that I was looking for.

Well, it seems like this has a different mood than any previous Danielson album. Perhaps a little more mature and a little less playful.

That’s hard for me to know. I knew what I didn’t want to do, and I was excited about exploring some more open space, especially with phrasing, so that required less lyrics. But then that puts more pressure on each word to carry more and to do more. But so much of this just comes, and you’re feeling it and not feeling it. Every record, I never want to do what I did the previous record, but at the same time, I don’t want a new foundation. I want to make some music that feels exciting.

Well, I think maturity is a dangerous thing for an artist, and when I say this record is mature, I’m not implying that it’s lacking the childlike spirit of the previous albums. But it does have a different spirit.

Well, you’re just in different places. Maybe I don’t have the energy that I used to have, and that’s probably a good thing (laughs).

I was wondering about the song “Lil’ Norge,” because Jens Lekman was telling me that he thinks you chose him to sing on that song because it’s about your wife.

Yeah. My wife, Elin, and I had been talking about this idea of a song, as a symbol of bigger conversations about the way Norway and Sweden relate to each other and how it’s probably not that different between the U.S. and Canada. When you’re neighbors, you mock them mercilessly. But when you’re in a faraway land and you meet a Canadian, you’re like, “Hey, brother!” And with Elin being Norwegian and living in America, when you’re in Norway, you hear the same exact jokes about Swedes that the Swedes have about Norwegians. So we were thinking about how funny it is that Norway has now discovered oil, and they had been under Sweden and Denmark for hundreds of years, and they’ve discovered oil on their side of the border, and now Swedes are going to work in Norway. And I mentioned it to Jens that it would be fun to do a duet, which became whatever it is when three singers sing. A tri-et? And I love Jens and his sense of humor, and his music is so cool, and he was a trooper and sang these silly lyrics. I thought he did a great job with his delivery. It’s about a Norwegian girl and a Swedish boy who used to be friends, and now the Swedish boy, who never gave her any respect, comes back around now that he wants to borrow some of her oil money. So it’s having fun with that and talking about making amends with your neighbor. And then it’s about her moving to America and criticizing me and my country. It became a little bit of a marriage therapy session, and it works into our international relationship that we have and noticing things about each other’s culture that we’d never think about otherwise. The song ended up being our “We Are the World”-type song.

Yeah, I didn’t realize it, but Jens said that he opened for Danielson for his first American show.

Well, no. It was in Sweden.

Oh, wow. His first show ever?

Yeah, I guess so. I thought he was joking when he told me that later. I remember we were on tour, and we had played a show in Sweden, and some of the folks at Secretly Canadian had said, “Oh, this guy, Jens Lekman is going to be opening up for you. See what you think.” And he played all by himself with a mini-disc player with his arrangements underneath, and it was amazing. So we met back then, and then I met him again at the Pitchfork Festival in 2006 when he was there with his band, and we got to reconnect.

I was also wondering about working with Sufjan on this record. I imagine that he doesn’t always have a lot of time, so it was quite a luxury to be able to work him in.

Oh, of course. The way it worked out was that I just mentioned to him that I was looking to have some banjo on the record if he wanted to dust off the old banjo. And he’s our buddy, so he was like, “Yeah, let’s make it happen.” And he came in and knocked it out, and he wanted to do some background vocals, so it was great. It was as natural as anything else. I never want him to feel like I’m an opportunist or anything like that, but we’re old buddies, and it was awesome.

Is he going to be able to play some shows with you guys?

I doubt it (laughs). It’s up to him, but he’s a busy man.

Is there going to be a new visual motif with this record?

Well, I’m excited about making some backdrops for the stage that connect with the image of the flag with the eye that appears in the video and the album art. And our uniforms are the same. They’re the blue Danielson uniforms with the [Fluevog] shoes, but what I like about them is that they’re going to be an ever-growing mutation as we add imagery and patches to it. I like the functional quality of the service uniform, because that’s what it is – providing a service. I like how it fits in the live show visually. It’s not a costume; it’s a uniform.

Is it a corollary to a Boy Scout uniform with merit badges and things like that?

Well, it probably hints at that, but it’s not that literal. It’s not any more Boy Scout or police officer or airline steward or anything. At the end of the day, they’re all uniforms that are designed to bring unity and clarity of vision, and that’s why I chose that standard to bring connection within a group of people, a visual connection that, with an ever-growing collection of patches, that will make veteran status available (laughs).

It must be different than playing in the tree.

Well, there’s a similar quality in that I’m not up there in my jeans and flannel, which I feel less comfortable in. To me, it’s very similar to going to Christmas dinner in your nice clothes. You just feel different. It’s like your Sunday best. There’s something nice about changing out of the mundane and putting on something special, and that’s why I was always attracted to this ideas of a uniform or costume. It started out with the doctors and nurse uniforms because I had a concept of healing and medicine that I wanted to associate with the music. And then the tree costume, that was a very literal nine fruit tree that I was inside of, so I’ve always enjoyed the visual aspect. And that was a reaction to growing up going to see 90s indie rock and thinking it was so boring to see people in construction clothes, especially because I was doing construction. I understand that that was a reaction against the glam costumes, but I wanted to re-examine that. I would see footage of Motown or early rock and roll, where everyone would have their nice outfit for the stage, or Lawrence Welk where people were dressed nice for the stage and put on a show. I always thought that was fun to play around with.

It’s interesting to look at the evolution of indie rock. I don’t know if Danielson was the first indie band to introduce costumes and whatnot, but it was after Danielson that that sort of thing entered that indie rock arena, whether with of Montreal or The Decemberists and so on. It almost seems like it can be traced back to Danielson.

I don’t know about that (laughs). But I know we got a lot of flak for it. When you sum up Danielson in those days, there were many things against us. Wearing costumes and singing about God and singing in falsetto – it didn’t really add up. But, thankfully, there were enough people that enjoyed what we were doing and continue to.

Do you think that now that some of the attention has moved to the sidelines, does that change the way you perceive your music and how it’s going to be received now that you know that first thing people say isn’t going to be “Oh, this guy sings in a falsetto.”

Yeah, I’m so happy that I don’t have to have that conversation anymore. This time around, I haven’t had to say, “No, we’re not a Christian band.” “Why do I sing in falsetto?” “Why do we use glockenspiel and banjo in our music?” All that stuff is so boring to talk about. Not that I’m surprised, because we were asking for it, of course. But at the same time, I never wanted to have those conversations, because it’s a distraction, and I want to talk about music and if it’s working for people. I wanted to talk about it as music. Again, I’m not so naïve to not know when you’re introducing visuals on stage and having spiritual conversations in songs that you’re asking for trouble. I’m just glad that you’re not asking for trouble now as much as we were in 1997.

Well, it seems as if the stuff that you guys did back then made a lot of the stuff that’s going on now not quite so weird. It was a like a splash of cold water that made people realize that indie rock could be all those things, too.

Well, that’s putting me in a position where I don’t feel comfortable (laughs). We’re not looking to change the world, but I’ve always been influenced by and have the most respect for people who are just staying true to their vision, and that’s what I want to do. Certainly, my aesthetic has been equally influenced by visual art as it has by music culture, so maybe things that we’re doing The Velvet Underground already dealt with. But at the same time, that’s the stuff that I love. I love mixing concepts and visuals and music without it being theatrical. There can be a delicate line there.

So what kind of stuff is going on with the label right now?

Well, it’s a pretty amazing time right now. We just released a new I Was a King record, a Norwegian band. And we released a new Ben + Vesper record called Honors. And, of course, this Danielson record is the first time ever on Sounds Familyre. To release three records in one season is so far beyond anything that we’ve ever gone for before, and it’s scary and exciting. And releasing Danielson on Sounds Familyre, it was time to put all our chips into this vision for the label, including my own music. It was always strange in the past that I would ask people to be on our label, but I wouldn’t be on it.

At this point, would you say that the label has become what you hoped it would be when you started it?

No…it’s so far away from that. The label part of it is the hard part. The time in the studio and working together—the community—that’s the part that’s amazing. Trying to sell records is a whole other conversation. The business side is the struggle. That’s the reality check. Talking about music is hard enough. Trying to sell it is harder.

I imagine so. Especially since the whole model of buying and selling has shifted over the past ten years, too.

Oh, yeah, and in a really crazy way. You just have to trust the music and keep costs down and try to honor the artists as much as possible. But you have to try to at least break even.

Well, everyone that I’ve ever talked to who has worked with Sounds Familyre, it sounds like everyone is having a good time and doesn’t have a bad word to say.

Well, that’s good to hear.

It seems like everyone is getting what they want out of that relationship. If that’s success, I’m not sure there’s a higher standard.

Well…yeah. Thanks for the reminder (laughs). It’s true, though. It’s easy to get hung up on what’s not happening. It’s good to be reminded that the art-making part of it has to remain the focus. You have to make sure you can pay your bills, of course, but it’s important to keep it all in check.

So, overall, what would you like your listener to take from this record?

DS: Well, the reason I called it Best of Gloucester County was for a couple reasons. Once we decided to release the record ourselves, it got me thinking about the area I grew up in and being frustrated with how boring it was and how I couldn’t wait to get out and live in a place where there’s great music all the time and a community and like-minded folks. And then you go and experience all that and find yourself back in that place with a completely different eyesight and viewpoint. Thinking about that and deciding not only to embrace it but be proud of it, [the record] is talking about the place where one comes from and seeing it with a different eyesight as time goes on. And, also, it’s good to be frustrated. It’s good to want more. I think the best thing to do about it is to actively change things. If that means you’re just changing your own world in order to satisfy those frustrations, that’s the correct response. So, for example, that frustration of the cultural vacuum that I grew up in, living in New York would have satisfied that, but it also would have created so much distraction that I probably wouldn’t have made anything. Now, I’m in a place where we’ve created our own world. Hopefully, it can inspire and bring some change to the environment around, but I think, first and foremost, you need to change your eyesight.

I guess all of that is what was coming up when I was getting excited about releasing it ourselves and celebrating the area, which is kind of silly because no one around here has a clue who Danielson is. For example “Best of Gloucester County” is a local award around here that different restaurants get around here, and I’m sure different communities have that. It’s like this year’s “Best of Gloucester County Chinese restaurant,” and they’ll have a banner out front. So I thought it would be fun to award myself that, and it was a starting point for that kind of thinking, and a lot of the imagery and the lyrics come out of everyday life and where you’re at. My hope is that people can get a local feeling that they can apply to their own situation. Instead of looking elsewhere – the “grass is greener” perspective – embrace your roots with a fresh perspective. I remember after moving away and going to college at Rutgers and coming back on the weekends noticing how green everything was and how open and beautiful things are. But I didn’t notice it until I was away.



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