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Published: 2016/11/01
by Dean Budnick

Dawes: The Narrow and The Broad

Back when Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith was growing up in Malibu, California, he found a kindred spirit in fellow fledgling musician Blake Mills. While still in high school, the two formed a group they called Simon Dawes, drawing from Blake’s middle name (Simon) and Taylor’s middle name (Dawes). Simon Dawes toured the country (opening for such acts as Band of Horses, Wolfmother, Silversun Pickups) and also recorded a few EPs as well as the 2006 long-player Carnivore. However, within a year of Carnivore’s release, Goldsmith and Mills moved on to other projects.

Mills has since established himself as a dynamic solo artist and an in-demand producer, working with Alabama Shakes and Sara Watkins, as well as upcoming records by Jim James and John Legend. Goldsmith has gone on to record five albums with the band Dawes, which features his brother Griffin on drums along with bassist Wylie Gelber (another Simon Dawes alum) and keyboard player Lee Pardini, who joined in 2015 after the departure of Tay Strathairn.

Dawes’ new studio record We’re All Gonna Die finds longtime friends Goldsmith and Mills collaborating once more, with Mills serving as producer (and also as co-songwriter on a number of tunes). We’re All Gonna Die is something of a departure from 2015’s All Your Favorite Bands produced by David Rawlings. While the former record had more of a raw, live feel, on We’re All Gonna Die the band takes full advantage of the studio setting, layering instruments and adding textures to good effect. The album debuted at No. 18 on the Top Current Album charts and No. 1 in overall vinyl sales following its release in mid-September.

In the following conversation, Taylor Goldsmith looks back on his Simon Dawes days and explores Dawes’ current course (starting with how the band nearly named itself after an obscure fictional character from 19th century German literature). The group just appeared on the Charlie Rose show and Prairie Home Companion and is now embarking on a mini-tour of the U.K., which kicks off on Wednesday.

The first time I ever saw you perform, which was about 10 years ago, you were opening for Band of Horses in Boston with Simon Dawes. We’re All Gonna Die, finds you working with Blake Mills again, How did that come about?

It’s something that we have wanted to do for a while. Even with our third album, Stories Don’t End, we went into the studio with Blake for a handful of songs. Due to schedules and stuff like that, we didn’t end up making that record together but we got a lot of mileage out of it. Ideas came from that session that stuck to the final recordings. Then with All Your Favorite Bands, we’d been talking to Dave [Rawlings] for a while and it felt like that’s where things were leading. Similarly to We’re All Gonna Die, it felt right at that moment. Especially with this album because I think in the past, we’ve kind of let it present itself to us, instead of, “What’s the best thing for this album?” Whether that’s making the first two with Jonathan Wilson or hanging out with Dave when I was writing those songs.

With this record, the first song I wrote was “We’re All Gonna Die,” and I knew at the outset, “This is gonna be something that goes beyond what a rock and roll quartet does when they learn all the chords.” I felt like the mood or identity of the song was going to be more tied up in the recording. That’s when I thought of the work that Blake had done with his own music and the other stuff he’s produced. So we decided it just had to be done with him.

In terms of album’s aesthetic, can you talk a bit more about what you had in mind before you entered the studio? Have you approached your past albums in a similar way, going in with particular expectations about the shape of the music?

That happened mostly with All Your Favorite Bands, where we intentionally made sure the lead vocals were sung with the band, and that the guitar solos were played with the takes. We wanted to challenge ourselves in that way, to do what we did on stage and really capture that on a recording. We felt like we had never been able to do that for three records. As much as we love them, we felt like there was a gap between what we could do on stage and what we could do in the studio. We didn’t like that anymore. So we put ourselves under the same pressures in the studio as we do on stage and it ended up giving us the results we were looking for. Because we made that record in the way we did, it kind of cleared the table. For the first three records we added more flavors to each of the records we made. I felt like at that point, in terms of sonics, Stories Don’t End, was probably our richest album. So we did All Your Favorite Bands and pulled all that back and stripped it down. Then we felt, “Alright cool, we did that thing that we had wanted to do, that we felt like we couldn’t do. Now what?”

So with this album, the main thing was just making sure we were taking steps and challenging ourselves, and that we were making sure we were as excited and inspired as we were making the four records that came before it. We didn’t know what that was going to sound like, it wasn’t like we had some aesthetic of “Here are our benchmarks” or anything. I still don’t think it ended up too far from any other Dawes records, as far as what ingredients go into them. But all we knew that we wanted to take steps and make sure it was as thrilling for us as when we made our first record back when all it took was an acoustic guitar and a vocal harmony for us to be like, “Oh man, this is so exciting!”

Within the context of your live sound, what impact will this material have on your show?

It’s funny because as strange or different the sound is to some people, it’s very easy to recreate it live because we’re working with the same instrumentation. On something like “We’re All Gonna Die,” the only strange sound is that weird keyboard sound that, live, we actually play on guitar. You would think it’s always been guitar because it sounds identical. Then there’s Griffin’s tiny snare drum but other than that, it’s how we have always played. It’s not like we can’t recreate these sounds, it’s easy as anything else. In a lot of ways, it’s made us better players.

I think the most outrageous thing is that this album has more acoustic guitar than any of the others, at least since our first record. Actually, live, we play acoustic guitar on seven of the ten songs. That has forced us to be smarter about our playing and more dynamic. On certain songs like “Quitter” or “Less Than Five Miles Away” we were able to create a bed for the keyboards or lead guitar, in a way that I probably couldn’t have if we just took the All Your Favorite Bands approach to the live show, where I would pick up my Telecaster and play whatever I like and just sing all the words. With this, it’s a lot more arranged in a way that helps this material stand out against the rest of the stuff. I hope all the records do.

You had Duane Betts in your touring band for a while and now you’re out with Trevor Menear. What has been the impact of that second guitar and why did you decide to add it?

When we finished All Your Favorite Bands in the lineup we were in with me, Wylie, Griffin and Tay, the way that the band had always worked was that I would take all the solos. It wasn’t like we thought about it, that was just how it came out. Tay is an incredible keyboardist and a lot of what he did was more supportive as a player, more like a Richard Manuel kind of thing. However with that, it allowed our show to only go so far. I feel like when you have one voice, in this case it’s me on guitar, leading an audience through all these instrumental moments, it gets to a point after an hour and a half where you’re like, “Okay, I think I get it now.” As opposed to Lee [Pardini, the current keyboard player], who has soloist chops from this musical school he came from, and then playing with Trevor or Duane, there were these new voices. We could speak to each other.

It also gave more gravitas when those moments happened. When I did take a longer guitar solo, it wasn’t just me doing it for the third or fourth time, rather it was a special part of the show. By doing that, it allowed us to have these shows that still felt vibrant and alive, even though we were two plus hours into it. Whereas previously, it never felt like we could go that far because the arrangement we had could only power a show for so long.

Jumping back to We’re All Gonna Die, most of the songs are credited as co-writes, which differs from past Dawes records. Was that by design going into the sessions or was that simply the path that it all took?

On the ones that list Jason Boesel as co-writes, we’d get together and work out stuff. He’s an amazing songwriter. He made one record several years ago [ Hustler’s Son with Jonathan Wilson, our first producer, and the songs are amazing. He hasn’t really been doing that since, but he still writes great songs as evidenced by “Roll Tide.”

The co-writes with Blake, something like “One of Us,” was conventional songwriting. I had this riff and melody, and Blake suggested that we take the chord to this place, and we worked from there. For a song like “For No Good Reason,” by Taylor and Blake, it was a song that was brought in and I felt like he deserved co-writing credit because the song was different and stronger because of his contribution.

It’s just so strange because exactly what songwriting is, that’s a nebulous phenomenon. I was totally on board but I’m still learning how songwriting gets broken down in this day and age. Blake’s been operating in a world where he’s working with guys like John Legend, getting into specific percentages of songwriting. More power to him. Blake said it’s part of what he does as a producer, which I thought was great.

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