Getting to know Dawes at Lollapalooza

Tom Pilcher

On the muggy Sunday afternoon of Lollapalooza, I sat down with guitar player and signer Taylor Goldsmith, drummer Griffin Goldsmith, bassist Wylie Gelber and keyboard player Alex Casnoff of the Los Angelesª-based rock band Dawes. The band played a stellar mid-afternoon set the day before, imbuing soulful, Americana-tinged songs with life and vitality before the large crowd at the Sony Bloggie stage.
As the band’s friends in Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Deer Tick watched, the quartet brought the traditional, deep pocket grooves that anchor its tunes to a whole new batch of listeners. The next day, I talked to the band members about their musical background, jazz and their debut album, 2009’s “North Hills.”

Tom Pilcher: So did you guys get to catch any bands while you’re here?
Griffin Goldsmith: Yesterday we caught Deer Tick and Edward Sharp, and some of Phoenix. And Grizzly Bear too.
TP: Since we only have a little bit of time, I’m just going to jump right in. What’s your musical background like, individually and as a band?
Taylor Goldsmith: We were in Simon Dawes before this, but we were really fortunate because of Los Angeles and also because people in our families played music. We entered into this world really quick where there was a lot of jamming. “Jamming” is a strange word, but there was just a lot of playing. It wasn’t “go rehearse by yourself, write songs and then play them with a band,” it was more like learning other people’s material, other people’s approaches, just constantly being immersed in the way other people are doing it. So it was learning to play a certain way, maybe even a more “traditional” way in terms of rock and roll. That was the world we came from, which we’re really grateful for. A lot of live music and a lot of thinking on your feet.
TP: That’s almost a jazz idea, what you said about “thinking on your feet.” Do you guys have any jazz background at all?
GG: Not really – I mean we listen to jazz and that sort of thing. I had a weekly gig in high school with a couple buddies, but not really anything serious.
TG: I mean some of that stuff, it’s so incredible but at the same time so hard to wrap my head around. Like all the modal and theory stuff that those guys are capable of tapping into. It’s enough for me to learn how to make my way around in rock and roll.
GG: As a player there are a lot of concepts that I take from jazz players for sure. It’s all somewhat similar.
TG: But the way jazz guys understand music is a way different than how rock and roll players understand music. One of our other piano players was a jazz guy who played all the time, so if you put a sheet of music in front of him or told him the key it was in, he would just be able to fly. But when it came to playing rock and roll, he was totally lost. He had no idea how to exist in both styles of music. To play rock and roll is a thing in itself, but yeah I feel like rock and jazz are two completely different worlds.
TP: I wanted to ask about your songwriting process as a band. How does it work for you?
TG: I write the songs by myself, and then we come together and arrange it together.
TP: When you recorded “North Hills,” how did you do it? It has a really live feeling to it.
TG: Yeah, we did record it live. We would play three or four times – or maybe even less – and then figure out the best take. And it was cool, too, because the vocals, guitar, piano, bass and drums were all part of that live take. We would just overdub background vocals, lead guitar licks and organ, and sometimes tambourine. That’s pretty much it, though.
Wylie Gelber: Yeah, it was cool, we were all cramped in one little room, no headphones or anything – it was great.
TP: That “live” sound is really rare in music, especially today, so it’s nice to hear it.
TG: Thanks, yeah. I mean, all of our favorite records are ones where it sounds like the people are playing in the same room together. It’s like what we grew up with, where you would hear really accomplished guys be able to play material that they aren’t that familiar with and jump in and contribute to the experience. They wouldn’t make it sound belabored, which I love. I mean, I’m a huge Beatles fan, a huge Radiohead fan, and you can hear a lot of arrangement going on with that stuff, and I think that’s beautiful. But in terms of a player, I feel a totally different sensation when I hear a guy just flowing with it rather than just playing specific parts every time when a certain part of the song comes along.
TP: I wanted to ask you about “That Western Skyline,” the first song on “North Hills.” What made you guys choose that one to start off the record? It struck me as a slightly non-traditional choice because it’s slower and more melancholy than some of the other tracks.
GG: It kind of gives the vibe of what the entire record’s like, you know?
TG: Yeah, that record isn’t like a “rock and roll” record, so we felt like that song was the best example of the range of the album – both how mellow it gets and how big it gets. And also, the cool thing about that song is the first day we went in to record we were like, “Let’s do Western Skyline first.” We recorded that one, and it was the first take of the tune that we ended up choosing for the record.
TP: That’s excellent.
TG: So yeah, first day, first take, and first song on the record, too.
TP: A lot of people talk about the Laurel Canyon influences in your sound, but I’m sure there are some other influences on your sound as a band too.
TG: Oh totally, it changes on a day-to-day basis. I mean, I feel like what the guys were doing on Stax and Volt and Motown Records has a lot to do with the way the groove is going to be set, or how we arrive at the feel for a song. I also love songwriters that weren’t coming from California, like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty – a lot of guys that weren’t the Laurel Canyon thing, even New Orleans. There are a lot of areas and musicians that we look to musically, not just Laurel Canyon.
TP: How has ATO Records worked out for you guys so far? I didn’t know that it was such a diverse label until I researched it.
TG: We’re really happy there. When we heard they had My Morning Jacket, we thought, “Yeah, that’s pretty cool.” On one hand it was cool to be on the same label as such an incredible band, but on the other, we also thought, “Are they going to have time for Dawes if they have bands like that?” But then, we were talking to them, and they made it very clear to us that they don’t look at Dawes as a band that’s going to blow up when the first record gets released. They look at Dawes as a career band, a lot like My Morning Jacket, where if there is going to be a time where things really blow up, then it would be after there’s a catalog of material and we’ve been touring for several years. This way, we develop that slow, more dedicated fan base. Sometimes – but not always – I feel like the fans that come overnight are the ones that are willing to leave overnight. And with Dawes, there have been a lot of people who consider whether or not they really like it before really considering themselves a fan.
TP: That makes a lot of sense. Do you have any plans for a new record? You played quite a few new ones yesterday.
TG: Yeah, it probably won’t come out until 2011, but we’re starting to work on it.
TP: Griffin, are you going to sing lead on more tunes like you did yesterday on “How Far We’ve Come”?
GG: I mean, I don’t really write lyrics, so we’ll see.
TP: I also wanted to ask you guys about the Goldsmith guitar strap.
[John McCauley, lead singer of Deer Tick, walks up]
TG: Actually, this is John McCauley, and I met Jonny Corndawg through him, and Jonny made the strap f
or us.
John McCauley: Can I make a statement regarding the band Dawes? [members of Dawes laugh]
TP: Please do!
JM: They suck! Their album is awful! Don’t buy it, it’s crap!
TP: I’ll make sure my readers know that.
JM: All right, I’m going to take that last statement back. And say this: Just sample it on iTunes and see if you like it first.
TP: And then download it illegally, right?
JM: Yeah of course, pirate it.
TP: What are you doing now?
JM: I’m gonna go waste some people’s time. [McCauley leaves]
TG: That guy is the best.