Five years have passed since Danielson’s last album Ships, and a lot has changed for the band. With the critical success of that album bringing the band into the spotlight and the departure of no less than four Danielson regulars, the band has made some considerable shifts. We recently talked with Danielson ringleader Daniel Smith on everything from his creative inspiration, forming the band’s latest incarnation to the more “traditional” sound found of the band’s new album The Best of Gloucester County.
Treble: It’s easy to get the impression that Danielson has existed so long purely because of your persistence. How much truth to that statement is there?
DS: Oh persistence, well, I have done many things and persistence wears me out (laughs). I would say I have certainly tried and pushed a lot of things through. The thing with Danielson is it keeps coming back because the songs keep coming back. New songs keep coming, and bring me back to really one of my favorite places, which is writing and singing and recording for that matter. I have songs; it’s probably one of the things that’s closest to my heart in terms of what I do. If it was just effort alone it wouldn’t keep me. So I would say it’s the songs and I never know if they’re gonna come. Every time around I hope they come and eventually they do. For example, for this batch of songs the reason it took five years is because that’s how long it needed to take for the songs to come. It’s not like I’ve been writing them for five years. There was a period of time of living life that was part of the process, you know? It turns out it was part of the process, I didn’t know it at the time. Just living life and trying to have a family and create a business and follow through with various jobs that come my way and that’s everyday life. So when I started to feel like I wanna see if I can carve out some time to write and see what happens, the songs came and it was real exciting.
At that same time I had been assembling a new band, actually, because my brothers David and friends Andrew and Chris and Ted got to a point where it was just time to really focus on their own lives and their own dreams and hopes, and rightfully so. That brought me to a place where I needed to start looking around and start asking around for some musicians that live around here and try out different people and start to build that. So there was a building of a band and then there was songwriting all kind of happening at the same time and the record came together pretty quickly once it got going.
Treble: Was it a conscious decision to go with local (Gloucester County, N.J.) musicians or did it just happen naturally?
DS: Well, it was just a practical decision. And you know, Evan Mazunik who plays piano and keyboards, he’s based out of New York City so not everybody’s completely local. Mostly everybody else lives in the area here and it’s just for practical reasons, to line up players that we can rehearse more and when it’s time to record, we can do that easily. It was a couple of years building those relationships, going out and playing shows and trying people out and get to know each other and all that. It started out as a process, but it quickly became very natural and relationships developed quickly and they’re all such great players. So when it came time to record, we didn’t have to start all over. We had gotten to know each other musically and socially and it was a lot of fun to track these songs.
Treble: When working with the new players, how did it differ from working with the Danielson mainstays that you had worked with for so long?
DS: I’m not quite sure. Everyone I play with, whether it’s my family or friends that have been playing with me for years or these new players, everybody brings their own personality and that’s what I always hope for. Play with people who have their own identity and their own personality to bring to the songs. It’s not easy to compare different personalities. Obviously playing together with my brothers and my childhood friends for years is pretty natural and eventually there was a point where not much needed to be said when it came time for arranging parts and things like that and of course this time around there was a little more direction spearing. But even within that I really try as much as I can.
I guess my approach to working with musicians and arranging things hasn’t changed very much over time. Mostly because I try to keep my hands off as much as possible, but there are certain things I’m hearing once I’m writing the song, so trying to find that balance of providing general directions without being to clear. In some cases there are very clear parts that I hear. But I think with those couple years playing, doing some short tours together and playing some random shows and doing a couple small projects here and there have really helped us as a band, so when it was time to go into the studio it wasn’t a brand new experience.
Treble: What led to the decision to add an electric guitarist?
DS: Yeah, in the past there hasn’t been too much — hardly any electric guitar, a little bit here and there. I think with Ships I really enjoyed working with John and Chris from Deerhoof and I really liked the energy that they’re playing brought to some of the songs and just got me excited about that instrument. I mean, in the past there’s been just different seasons where there’s different instruments that I’m excited about; one here and other instruments. In early Danielson recordings I didn’t like the bass guitar so we didn’t have any bass. We just had the organ play bass lines, for example. And there was a point where, I don’t know, I just got excited about the bass guitar and started adding some bass. It’s the kind of thing where different times I’m excited by different sounds and for this record I really was excited about having a very classic instrumentation. Almost classic rock in that sense where you have your drums, you have your keyboard player, you have your bass player, you have your electric guitar player and you have your rhythm acoustic player. And then well the banjo just fits in there somewhere (laughs) and then the horn arrangements and lead vocal, background vocal and then some percussion as well. I think I was inspired by ’70s rock in terms of line up and that sound and that kind of energy and what I like about that is that it designs the song, which is something that I’ve always come back to. And then so, depending on the part, depending on the song, depending on section, sometimes all the instruments are playing the same thing — which is a little more of a Phil Spector type approach — and then sometimes the instrumentation is calling and responding after each other. But there’s just sounds that I really like and feel very organic to me and sounds appeal to me, filling out all the space on the record.
Treble: So some of the new album’s highlights are songs such as “Olympic Portions” and “Denominator Bluise” which seem to go off in unexpected directions from one section to the next. Can you tell me about the process that those songs came from?
DS: Well, they all start instrumentation-wise I just write them on the acoustic guitar and approach the song structure. If the song has a different place that it goes to, you have that kind of long directional songwriting and those kinds of songs, I never know where they’re going to go. “Olympic Portions,” that’s a structure where it really is like the first whole half of it leads up to the that middle section and then after that it goes into that third part, it just repeats and continues. So it really is these two sections with a middle climax and that’s the way that one had to go. I just like the anticipation and the build and then this breaking point and then you just ride it out. That’s the way that one was written. I think a lot of these longer structures tend to be kind of visual in my mind, at least that’s kind of how they appear on paper and then if it works in the arrangement, then it survives the sessions. And “Denominator Bluise,” that’s another one that had longer sections that have a couple payoff points for me. But there’s a mood there that really carries out the whole second half of the record I see, in the record. Things kind of seep in, a little more space, yeah those are just super cuts to the record. I was excited about having a side A that has a lot of things to grab on to immediately and then it just kind of continues on into another space as the record continues.
Treble: I really enjoy that spacier side of the record. There’s always been obvious playfulness and jubilation in your work, there also seems to be this underlying sadness that’s also there. Is that fair to say?
DS: I don’t know. The joy and the sadness, none of its deliberate it kind of just happens you know. I mean it could be sadness, it could be reflection, it could be struggle, it could be challenge. I’m trying to talk about things from everyday life. I don’t think anybody can relate to just sort of bopping around, happy all the time. At the same time I have no interest in melancholy and I have no interest in moping around and complaining. So hopefully there, in the sum of it all, there’s a conversation instead of feel-good music or melancholy. I’m not interested in either one of those.
Treble: I think ultimately in your music there’s always an aspect of hope and of course you’re going to have all sides of the emotional spectrum pop up.
DS: Yeah, hope is a thing to hang on to and I think sometimes that’s misunderstood as being feel-good or certainly naïve, but I do have a hope that love will prevail.
Treble: Are you excited that this is the first Danielson release on your Sounds Familyre label?
DS: Yeah, I am excited. It’s been nothing but a good experience with Secretly Canadian. And it wasn’t anything other than just kind of feeling like it was time to put all of our chips into our vision of this label, just putting it all in and really giving it a go in terms of my own music as well. In the past I would ask friends to be on Sounds Familyre, but I wasn’t on my own label. So it’s a little strange, a little odd. And that was fine for a while but there’s a point now where it’s really important that we just focus completely on what we are trying do with Danielson and Sounds Familyre and the studio and just the community that has come together.
Treble: What musician would you say has had the greatest influence on your artistic evolution?
DS: Well, in terms of songwriting it’s a sum of some of the influences, but in terms of the most influential would have to be Bob Dylan, for sure. He’s my go to. I wouldn’t imitate him in any way or care to and don’t necessarily sound like him but in terms of the craft, the song writing, and the approach to the philosophy of always trying to grow and hoping to do new things all the time. And in terms of the gospel influence, that would be my dad for sure and the influence he’s had over the songwriting process and the creative process being a spiritual experience.