THE BEGINNING OF THE ‘END’: Dawes prepares to unveil some ‘Stories’ for Rhythm N’ Blooms crowd
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
On a spring night that’s predicted to be balmy, Taylor Goldsmith and his bandmates in Dawes want to tell you a few “Stories.”
The Southern California-based band headlines this weekend’s Rhythm N’ Blooms Fest on Sunday at the Knoxville Botanical Garden, two days before the group’s new album, “Stories Don’t End,” is released. The record has already received a four-star review from Rolling Stone, the same publication that reported during the album’s creation that the band intended to move away from the breezy Laurel Canyon-style folk rock that defined the two previous Dawes releases, 2009’s “North Hills” and 2011’s “Nothing Is Wrong.”
“I think with the Rolling Stone thing, I feel like the message ended up wrong,” Goldsmith told The Daily Times during a recent interview. “We’re not trying to shape anybody’s impression of the band other than the music is nothing that’s premeditated or contrived. Whatever happens naturally, happens organically. Take a song like ‘From a Window Seat’ (on the new album): People feel like they hear pieces of Steely Dan or Little Feat, and we’re totally cool with that.
“Yet again, those are other examples of ’70s rock ‘n’ roll bands, and we’re not bummed out by those comparisons at all. To say, ‘Dawes sounds like Jackson Browne’ is totally an honor, and it’s absolutely right. But do we want to sound like a ’70s band and not like a modern band? We just want to sound like Dawes. We want people to hear a Dawes song and recognize it as such.”
With “Stories Don’t End,” the group further cements its position as a truly great American rock ‘n’ roll band along the lines of Wilco: Mainstream enough to appeal to the masses, off-the-radar enough to warrant credibility with hipsters and indie kids who avoid anything that receives pop radio airplay like the plague. You won’t hear Dawes on a station like WIVK-FM or Star 102.1, but the brilliance of Goldsmith and his bandmates is that they would be right at home on either.
“We’re very much a rock ‘n’ roll band in all its traditional senses,” Goldsmith said. “We’re a four-piece band, and we want to sound like it rather than play along to a bunch of tracks or a bunch of people in back of the stage trying to make it sound bigger. We want people to say, ‘Wow, they’re doing that with four instruments?’
“And we have a very traditional and direct approach to songwriting. We want to write the kind of songs that when people get together on a weekend and they’re passing a guitar around and playing cover songs and singing along, we want to write the kind of songs that fit in that environment. There are so many great bands from any period whose songs lend themselves to that situation, and those have always been the kinds of songs we enjoy.”
Dawes evolved out of a high school project Goldsmith started with fellow songwriter Blake Mills. Originally called Simon Dawes, the group released one full-length in 2006 and toured with acts like Band of Horses, Maroon 5 and The Walkmen before Mills left the band. Goldsmith kept part of the name, and the new group released “North Hills” in 2009.
An exhaustive tour schedule led to the songs on “Nothing Is Wrong” being written in stops and starts, with the band taking advantage of its raised profile to do things like back up The Band alumnus Robbie Robertson on national television for his 2011 release “How to Become Clairvoyant.” When the songs were finished and it came time to commit them to tape, Dawes was joined in the studio for guest appearances by Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Laurel Canyon vet Browne.
“Stories Don’t End” was recorded in five weeks last September in Asheville, N.C., with producer Jacquire King, who’s worked with Tom Waits and Norah Jones. The production is clean, crisp and even, with Goldsmith’s mellow vocals and the band’s resounding harmonies rising over the crescendo of guitars and keyboards like spray from Pacific waves crashing against the craggy rocks below the Pacific Coast Highway. From the opening lines of the album, Goldsmith ruminates on what makes us all tick as people and does so with an eye for life’s minutiae that borders on the brilliant: Whether a girl is hanging on to the part of herself that went to the mall for a Glamour Shot when she was a child, the elderly man asking a visitor if his granddaughter still works at the movie theater and lets her boyfriends in for free.
“I would think about these images for a while, not knowing if I was going to put them in a song,” Goldsmith said. “For ‘Just Beneath the Surface,’ I saw this hilarious Glamour Shot a friend of mine had done when she was 14. It’s a very striking, beautiful picture with this funny pink background, and her hair was done all silly. It’s crazy, and I started thinking what something like that does to a person?
“How does the world say that something like this is an appropriate way to shape a human being? I had no intention of putting it in a song, but I’d been thinking about it enough to put it on paper. That’s the same way with the flight attendant (in “From a Window Seat”) and the girl at the movies in ‘Bear Witness.’ For that one, I was going to a movie in the middle of the day, and there was this young girl selling tickets. It was a really nice day, and she couldn’t have looked more miserable that she was having to sell tickets. It went beyond just someone who didn’t like their job, and that stuck with me and ended up in a song.”
When it came time to putting the lyrics to music during the “Stories” sessions, according to Goldsmith, the evolution of Dawes rose to the surface. Mellotron, chordal progressions, melodic guitar intros — the band members widened their vocabulary for “Stories Don’t End,” he said, in a way that’s a clear musical evolution from “North Hills.” And now that it’s time to put the songs out there for public consumption, he looks forward to the next step: Hearing from fans what the songs mean to them.
He knows what they mean to him; after all, he wrote them. But he’s also fascinated — and humbled — by how fans interprets them, how they wallow in the simple beauty of his aching, hopeful voice and ride the roller-coaster melodies that soar into shining clouds and plunge into dark waters, always coming to the surface for a breath of clean air and a look at possible salvation just over the horizon.
“That’s what I look for, what I need to hear in a way,” he said. “It’s easy to be a musician and get down on yourself and say, ‘I’m just a musician. I’m just doing it for myself,’ especially when you see people doing such noble, meaningful things with their lives. It’s easy to beat yourself up.
“But this is a way to give back. To make someone feel something, it’s important to me, and it’s really wonderful for me to hear the things people have to say about our music. It’s a real joy for me to hear what these songs mean to people.”