Dawes: The Favorite New American Band

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Dawes is an American rock band from Los Angeles, California, composed of brothers Taylor (guitars and vocals) and Griffin Goldsmith (drums), along with Wylie Gelber (bass) and Tay Strathairn (keyboards). Dawes was formed from the band Simon Dawes after the departure of co-songwriter Blake Mills,  subsequently abandoning a post-punk sound in favor of folk rock.

American Songwriter

In the great myth of Dawes, Tay Strathairn, Wylie Gelber, Taylor Goldsmith and his younger brother Griffin were born in a golden hippie orb, high up in Laurel Canyon; the Goldsmith siblings harmonizing even whilst emerging from the womb, having already memorized the entire Crosby, Stills & Nash catalogue, hazed over in ‘70s Technicolor and smelling like patchouli. Except, like most rock and roll lore, this isn’t even remotely true. Marilyn Manson did not play Paul Pfeiffer in The Wonder Years, Paul is not dead and Ozzy Ozzborne did not eat live bats on stage, or at least intentionally. And Dawes is not a Laurel Canyon band.

Or, as Taylor says on a cool October Monday in Asheville, North Carolina over breakfast, “It borders on ridiculous. We have never lived there – I don’t think I’ve driven through, even, for years.” The band and I are gathered at a small, bustling restaurant called the Early Girl Eatery on a quaint, nearly Parisian-looking street in the mountain town, where the foursome have come to record their third record. This time of year, the leaves have all turned ludicrously gorgeous combinations of red, yellow and orange – “it’s the center of the universe here, when it comes to the season of Autumn,” is how Taylor puts it, wording things both directly and elegantly, as he is wont to do.

For whatever reason, Dawes has been associated with a certain kind of vintage sound since their inception in 2009, maybe due to their hometown (Los Angeles), musical abilities (warm solos, expert harmonies, narrative lyrics) and producer (Jonathan Wilson, who actually has lived in Laurel Canyon). It’s always been a confusing thing for the band, and you can tell it’s a touchy subject – bring up the word “vintage” and Taylor squirms a little, his features firming and ready to go on the defensive. But he has a right: listen to their first hit “When My Time Comes,” and you’ll hear a band bursting with youth and vitality, not dripping with sentimental, antiqued tones. They know people like to generalize, and they try not to take it personally – and it’s not like they designed their third album, Stories Don’t End, simply to set the record straight. Though they certainly wouldn’t mind if that was a happy side effect.

Playlist – Dawes
Published on Jan 29, 2013
Stories Don’t End Out 4.9.13 on HUB Records
Produced by Jacquire King

And sure, the boys probably didn’t intend to use nature’s most dramatic wave of the hand as a backdrop for some major shifts they’re making as a group – but then again, Dawes is never one to shy away from a metaphor. After recording their first two releases live-to-analog tape (North Hills and Nothing is Wrong) in Los Angeles with Wilson on former label ATO, they headed east, recruited a new production team (namely Jacquire King, who has worked with Kings of Leon and Tom Waits) and started up their own label, HUB Records (named after the 1930s Brooklyn “gang” of Wylie’s grandfather, Hard Up Bastards). But for the band, all of these changes aren’t really about creating something new. It’s about stripping away the dead weight of expectations and preconceptions. It’s about just being Dawes.

“We heard these stories about other artists, who, when they switch up the producer, it brings a really fresh take to things. No slight at all to the producer you worked with before, of course,” Taylor says, the band’s lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter, always careful not to mince words. “We’re so proud of the two records we have made, but we don’t want someone to say ‘you’re the band that sounds like you’re from the ‘70s anymore. We live in 2013, and we aren’t trying to create a smokescreen of some life we don’t lead.”

Tay, long and lanky with his legs twisted beneath the farmhouse table and one shoulder propped against the wall, quickly leans in. At 32, he is the oldest of the four (everyone else is in their early to mid twenties), and he carries his maturity less in a fatherly way and more matter-of-fact. “Some producers have a real stamp,” he says. “But Jacquire caters to the process.”

“And he doesn’t have his own studio,” adds Griffin, drummer and the younger of the two Goldsmith brothers (there are actually five siblings in total), in a quiet near-mumble. His eyes are red, and he looks tired – unlike Tay, who is bubbling full of energy even though he’s been up since 6 a.m. It’s 10 a.m. now, and the band arrived perfectly on time to our breakfast – early by musician standards if you ask me – and all ordered the same dish with little tweaks: the Early Girl Benny, with ham for one, biscuit for the other, side of home fries for the next. Everyone wants hot sauce. They are from Los Angeles, after all.

Ah, Los Angeles. There’s something about that place that makes it difficult for its inhabitant bands to lose that “sunny California” moniker, particularly if they draw some influence from certain bygone eras where harmonies were favored over hard riffs. So it worked out well that King didn’t have a studio, which meant that the band could record wherever they like. And wherever they liked meant anywhere but their hometown.

“The biggest thing was simply getting out of L.A.,” Taylor says, picking at his breakfast. His attire is a similar version of his stage look: tucked-in blue and gray checked shirt, a cap that sits slightly back on his head and lets some hair peak out in front, slacks. “We have a lot of love for Los Angeles and a lot of pride. But we did think it could be good for us to be somewhere where we aren’t among our friends and fellow musicians, who are on some level effecting the recording experience.”

After ruling out Nashville, Asheville seemed like a nice, unobtrusive place to settle. They’ve been working, mostly, and doing little else, save for the occasional walk by the river or jaunt to a local restaurant – most recently to foodie haven The Admiral, of which Tay waxes poetic about the sweetbreads and steak tartare (he loves to cook when he’s back home in California). It’s easy to get the impression that this is a group who sees more sunrises by virtue of getting up early than by staying up late, greeting the orange sky with a glass of juice instead of whiskey.

“We try sometimes,” says Wylie, the band’s bassist, resident luthier and craftsman. He’s quiet but smiling – never really hitting on the more argumentative points of conversation, preferring to hang back and listen. Back in Venice, where he lives, he spends a good deal of his time in his home workshop, an impeccably organized space filled with more types of screwdrivers and wire cutters than I knew existed. He just finished building his first bass, which has a rustic raw-wood looking body and a little tag that reads “Gelber Co.” on the pickguard, which he’s since played on some of the band’s dates opening for Mumford & Sons. “At the end of the day were like, ‘we should go out tonight!’ And then we just end up staying home.”

Most of this can be chalked up to the band’s tireless commitment to musicianship: it’s something they take extremely seriously, and never for granted. While not on tour, Griffin practices drums daily, often for 3 to 4 hours at a time. Taylor, even when not working on lyrics, rarely lets himself enjoy some casual time off. “If I’m not writing, the most productive thing I think I can be doing is reading or watching a movie,” he says, and spends a lot of time in his Malibu home, a small guesthouse on the property of a friend, doing just that. He’s gathered a collection of books so large that they cover every usable surface – the piano, the dresser, the kitchen table. He favors authors he grew up with, like Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joan Didion (from whose novel Democracy they found the inspiration for Stories Don’t End’s title).

“Those dudes never quit,” says Jonny Fritz, who toured with Dawes and Middle Brother while still relatively unknown. The members of the band will also be featured on his next release, Dad Country. “Griffin never stops practicing drumming. His metronome is always going and he rarely takes breaks from it. Although maddening as it is, nobody would dare ask him to shut the fuck up because when you get him on the stage (or studio) you see the payoff. That kid’s drumming is downright embarrassing sometimes. Nobody that young should be that good at something. All of them are like that and it’s inspiring as hell.”

“The fact that we get a rap for being a band that can play well is so amazing,” says Griffin. “Because the level of musicianship in general is certainly lower than what it used to be.” This commitment to craftsmanship is also part of the reason Dawes so often has that “vintage” moniker thrown at them – Taylor’s guitar solos remind people of the old days because that’s when we were just more used to seeing that style of play. And the other three enjoy session work in a way not quite embraced by music’s current younger generation. In concert is really where they shine: “we’re a live band that makes records,” Tay says.

Taylor and Griffin grew up surrounded by music – their father, Lenny Goldsmith, was in 70’s funk band Tower of Power, and he didn’t let the boys off easy when it came to their craft. “Griffin and I grew up jamming with our dad,” Taylor says. “He’d say, ‘hey, come on up here and play with us,’ and we’d have to think on our feet really fast.” It was from those days that the brothers learned the invaluable skill of being able to simply “sit down and listen for chords and play along.”

In high school, Taylor formed his first band, Simon Dawes, with Wylie, Blake Mills (now a solo artist) and drummer Stuart Johnson, who was also Griffin’s drum teacher at the time. In his forties, he was a good deal older than the rest of the guys. They saw some success, touring with The Walkmen, Incubus and Maroon 5, and grew a small fan base. But their biggest admirer? Griffin. “All I wanted to do as a teenager was play drums in Simon Dawes,” he says.

Eventually, Johnson decided he no longer wanted to tour, and Griffin got a chance to sit in on a few shows. They disbanded in 2007, but you can still find relics on the internet – namely, a WordPress blog called “Africadabra,” primarily a tour diary with things like photos of a bagel they ate in New York and an entire post dedicated to a Wal-Mart outing with some members of Incubus, where Taylor posed in some red sunglasses and tried to ride a tiny pink tricycle, and everyone else looked for the perfect “boating” hat. And though Simon Dawes didn’t stick, one thing did: the permanent combination of the brothers Goldsmith.

“When our first band broke up,” Taylor says, “that’s when it set in that I wasn’t writing anything I was particularly proud of. A good part of me was like, maybe I should just go to school, hang it up.” Instead, he started working on new songs that embraced his love for narrative song structure, and formed Dawes with Griffin, Wylie and Alex Casnoff – while Tay played with the group in its early days, a previous commitment to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros had him leave the band until 2010, when Casnoff moved on.

And the other reason that Dawes so often gets stuck with the Laurel Canyon stigma, if you will, is because of an equally mythical first performance – the foursome played at one of the infamous jams at Wilson’s house, that have drawn the likes of Chris Robinson, Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis.

“They did some songs and everyone was like, what is up with this?” says Wilson, calling from his home in Los Angeles. “I was immediately so stoked about these guys. The first thing I noticed was their dedication to the craft  – because these days I notice holes in concentration. They later came back with some demos and I was blown away.”

Wilson immediately wanted to work with the band on producing their record in his home studio, which has since moved to Echo Park. But others were jockeying for the post, too. “There had been a bit of a producer showdown,” he says, “guys that had a pedigree, but maybe they didn’t have the style the band was after at that time.”

Their first record, North Hills, came out in 2009 on ATO, and the band embarked on a tour with Delta Spirit – a trend which took them through 2011, opening for other artists like Blitzen Trapper. The payoff began to roll in: two months as VH1’s “You Ought Know” artist, festival dates and an occasional gig playing as Robbie Robertson’s live band (they were also featured on his record How To Become Clairvoyant). By the time the band released Nothing Is Wrong in 2011, they had amassed both critical praise and a storied following including John Fogerty and Jackson Browne, who tapped them for his Newport Folk Festival set the following year. But their rapid growth and plethora of new opportunities brought some detractors, too – beginning when Dawes licensed the song “When My Time Comes” to Chevy for a campaign for the Silverado, and continuing when they made a cameo on NBC’s Parenthood (for the record, they have zero plans to act, whatsoever).

“That’s when the hate started pouring in,” says Griffin. “People are so willing to write you off.

“We all live very modestly, paycheck to paycheck,” adds Taylor. “We just want this to be sustainable. And if we do a Chevy commercial, which puts us in the same category as Bob Seeger and ‘Like a Rock’ then great. I think negative criticism in general has become so extreme.”

Adds Tay, “People are like, oh wait, I’m not cool because a band I like has a song on this show…”

Then, nearly as if on cue, a young woman – early 20’s maybe, walks up to the table. She’s almost shaking.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I’m a huge fan. I just wanted to say that.”

The boys smile and thank her. Tay turns to me: “I paid her,” he says, without missing a beat.

“If we went back on tour with Dawes, we’d have to open for them,” says Deer Tick’s John McCauley on their escalating rise. “They are an extremely tight group of talented people.”

Dawes arrived to Asheville with most of the songs for Stories Don’t End fairly completed, but it wasn’t exactly an easy road. After a prolific couple of years writing songs for Dawes’ two records as well as Middle Brother, his side project with McCauley and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez, he was coming up a little dry. “Once we finished [Nothing Is Wrong] I sort of got a little comfortable, and I kept living in those songs and trying to figure out what was the best thing for them,” Taylor says. “And all of the sudden ten months has gone by and I thought, oh my god, I haven’t written a song.”

He had been living “up on a mountain in Glendale” with Griffin when he decided to move out to the Malibu guesthouse, and that’s when the songs started coming (when I suggest he names the new record The Guesthouse, he politely laughs). He noticed that each work seemed to inform the next in a way it hadn’t on previous records – but still keeping in the linear, story-based pattern he’d become known for. In many ways, he practices a long-lost form of songwriting, which has now been replaced with a modern penchant for more obscure, atmospheric lyrics. Though sometimes this approach can make people uncomfortable: take “A Little Bit of Everything” off of Nothing Is Wrong, which includes the line “so pile on those mashed potatoes/And an extra chicken wing/I’m having a little bit of everything.”

“Maybe it does get a little dramatic or go a little too far,” Taylor says. “And with the chicken wing, maybe the language does get a little bit ugly. But I’m not going to change what I do. I actually started that song thinking I wanted to rhyme ‘chicken wing’ with ‘everything.’ For that to be something that someone rejects, well, that’s what inspired me about it. Everyone gets off on what they get off on.”

We finish breakfast, and I walk over to the studio with Wylie and Tay – Taylor drove, so he and Griffin take his car. We stop briefly so Tay can duck into a head shop and buy some smokes – tobacco is the last of his addictions, after some rough bouts with drugs and alcohol in his earlier years. Now he mostly cooks at home and does yoga. “Blowing lines and drinking whisky until four a.m. is not something that is enticing to me anymore,” he says. “I’ve been sober for three years, and that has been a huge part of my life.”

I ask if they ever think about moving out of Los Angeles. “I definitely like places like this,” Wylie says, looking up towards the mountains with his hands in his pockets. “But I think I need the industrial city vibe. It would be cool to have a place in New York.”

“Yeah,” Tay says. “Being from the East Coast, I miss the seasons.” He’s the only one not born in California, and grew up mostly in upstate New York and New Jersey, studying jazz at the New School in New York City.

“And, here it ‘tis,” says Tay, motioning us into the side door of the Echo Mountain recording studio, where they have been working for the past five weeks. The place – which has played host to everyone from Smashing Pumpkins to Avett Brothers to Flogging Molly – is housed in an old church in downtown Asheville, a short walk from the Early Girl Eatery. When we get there, Taylor is standing in the small control room, a guitar strapped to body (with a custom leather strap made by Jonny Fritz), not plugged into anything in particular. Wylie walks me through the recording space, where we have to step over instruments scattered all across the cavernous room, which is somewhat dark save for the filtered light that beams in through the stained glass windows, one of which is of a giant Jesus.

“You know, just Jesus watching over us here,” Wylie jokes, showing me to a stool. Griffin offers me a cup of coffee, a polite act so disarming for a band in the midst of the recording process that I, somewhat flustered, reject, and immediately regret after I realize it’s so cold in there that the strands of my hair feel chilled to the touch.

King is sitting at the controls, quiet for a few minutes, and eventually introduces himself to me – though that’s where the conversation ends. I sit in the icy room, which is an organized mess of wires, instruments and random products: Tylenol, light bulbs, cortisone cream and aspirin are on the table, and a picture of Jimi Hendrix is tacked to the wall. A sign on a glass studio door reads “do not walk into me! I am closed.” Those over-the-counter painkillers are the only drugs in sight.

The band is working on a track called “Side Effects, which is a slower number about the demise of love. It’s mostly Taylor’s day, and he’s working on vocals and guitar, toying with a ukulele from time to time. The atmosphere in the studio is completely calm – Tay and Wylie filtering in and out, and Griffin sitting in the corner with his feet up reading a collection of essays by German philosopher Max Weber.  Every once in a while, he puts his book down and hops up with some kind of idea for the song. At one point, he leans over from his seat to tap out a drum part on the table with his left hand.

There’s a cool soulfulness to the new songs: a mellower, nuanced confidence. The first single, “From a Window Seat,” rocks with a mature groove and a syncopated vamp, and influences from bossa nova to the Beatles seep through the tracks. There’s no big sing-along like “When My Time Comes” or “How Far We’ve Come,” and fewer harmonies than past songs. “But there’s a richness,” says Tay. “A harmonic complexity. They are more esoteric.” The melodies are strong but subtle, lingering not from repetition or hand-claps but unique arrangements that aim to challenge the listener a bit – the band strove to make sure Stories Don’t End rings as a complete work with consistent character, and that each player, as an instrumentalist, really shines.

“Lyrically, it’s still as direct as it always has been,” says Taylor. “I don’t think there are many Dawes songs that people are going to listen to and be like, ‘what is that about?’”

I’m getting ready to leave, and Taylor is working on one section of “Side Effects” with the ukulele, which they haven’t quite gotten right yet – King thinks he’s playing a little too quietly, but Taylor doesn’t want to overpower the other instruments. It’s a beautiful, cascading riff, set to soft percussion. Griffin stands up and walks behind King; his head, a big pile of blonde curls, bobbling gently to the rhythm.

Behind the glass, Taylor tries a different strum, walking his fingers along the neck and singing a small part of the verse: “now there’s a loophole in my theory/that I cannot figure out…”

“Okay,” King chimes in, once he stops. “Let’s play that back.”

“What? I just recorded that?” Taylor says over the intercom, surprised.

“Yup,” Griffin responds, smirking a little. “That’s the best way to record.” Because like the trees outside the studio, even though the colors change, leaves are still leaves. And Dawes is still Dawes.

Top Albums by Dawes @  Amazon

Nothing Is Wrong Album (2011)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s