Is Dawes America’s greatest rock and roll band… at least in the under-40 division? There’s a case to be made for it, especially if you’re a fan of the genre’s more classic virtues — with Taylor Goldsmith coming into his own not just as a singer/songwriter in the Dylan/Costello tradition of craft and precision, but as the leader of a crackerjack band whose passionate interplay would galvanize audiences, even if his voice died.
Speaking of death, We’re All Gonna Die — Dawes’ fifth album, released back in September — is landing plaudits, and providing the springboard for a 50-city 2017 U.S. tour that’s being announced today (with more to follow). You can scroll down to find those dates, after our conversation with Goldsmith about the band’s actual love of living on the road, the effects of recent personnel changes, and just how much time he’ll be spending watching This Is Us on the bus on tour.
Some of your fans will be checking out the tour itinerary [below] carefully, looking to see if there are still any club gigs left that you’re doing, hoping for another chance at a more intimate encounter with the band.
They should follow us out to Europe. We play to empty clubs there all the time!
This time around, you’re playing some large theaters you have before — like L.A.’s Theatre at Ace Hotel and the Ryman — and some you haven’t, like New York’s Beacon. Do the shows feel much the same no matter the size of the room?
Well, the venue dictates the show, I feel, because it tells the audience how to act, and then therefore tells the band how to act. It’s such a big deal if there are seats or no seats. That will completely change how I approach writing a set. When we were a club band playing around L.A., we didn’t mean to, but we inevitably played like a bar band. We played really hard, and if we did play any of the ballads, we played them way too fast. And now playing in a theater, we get to play certain songs that we never would have played in a club. Or playing at a festival, you keep the energy at a certain level.
Even just the other day, my brother [drummer Griffin Goldsmith] and I were talking about certain drummers and certain kind of live energies, and talking about guys like Max Weinberg from the E Street Band or Chad Smith from the Chili Peppers, who are famous for playing hard and rocking out. And that night we were playing in Scotland to 350 people, and Griffin said, “That would make sense if we were playing to 10,000 people in an arena, but when we’re playing in a room like this, it doesn’t.” So that’s a fascinating part of it—how the space tells you how and what to play.
Any place on this tour that stands out as a favorite place to go back to or look ahead to?
Rock and roll audiences definitely have different personalities, and cities. That’s a weird phenomenon in and of itself. There’s something about a Minneapolis crowd and something about a Chicago crowd that’s pretty consistent every time we go through.
For us, a big part of what’s so exciting about this next run is the legendary rooms we get to go in. We’ve never headlined the Beacon; that’s always been something that seemed always beyond our reach and not something that would be afforded to us. The first time we played First Ave in Minneapolis was a big night for us; this time we play the State Theatre, and that’ll be equally as big a deal for us. And the Riv in Chicago [date not yet announced].
As a young band you create these goal posts that materialize as venues. When we first started, we were opening for bands at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. I remember the first time we headlined there and sold it out, that just felt like U2 or something — like, how is this possible?
You’ve been as incremental in your growth as anybody, with no one huge radio-based leap.
Which is cool. Having hits is cool, too, so it’s not like we would have ever turned up our nose at that. But we don’t know how to do that. So instead it’s always been our ground game to keep pounding the pavement and keep showing up. There was a time in our band career — I think Nothing is Wrong was out — where it wasn’t odd for us to show up in a place like Dallas four times in one year. We would get home and find another band to open for, then get home and find another band to open for, and then trying to do little headline tours in the midst of it all — really living on the road full-time.
We’re lucky that we really love being on tour. I know a lot of bands that are incredible that don’t have that, that want to be home more often and in the studio or with their families — all very understandable reasons. But for us, we’ve always been addicted to it. Right now how far off this tour is today is truly unfortunate. We’re already itching for it. And I think that’s helped us develop fans on a more fan-by-fan basis rather than a hit single explosion.
You’ve had personnel changes or additions the last couple of years. On the last tour, you added an auxiliary touring guitar player in Duane Betts [a role now filled by Trevor Menear]. Then you switched keyboard players on the spur of the moment toward the end of that tour. I remember thinking that since you added a guitarist, there would be a lot more guitar heroics on the next record, and since you had a new keyboard player, that it would probably take a while for him to settle in and you wouldn’t have so much of that on the album. I sure called that wrong, because with We’re All Gonna Die, you basically went and made a keyboard and bass album.
[Laughs.] Which is cool, that that comes across. That was definitely a big deal for us. When we met Lee [Pardini], we’ve never been around a musician like him. He’s such an accomplished keyboardist, where we could really do this dance between guitars and keyboards, not only in the show but on the record as well. And I think with the four records that we’d already made, in a way, it was like, well, he has ground to make up, so let’s really give a hefty serving of his personality so that people can feel it. On songs like “Roll with the Punches” or “As if By Design,” it was fun to get out of Lee’s way, and let him really give the new album its identity and be the ingredient that separated it from what came before.
A lot of my favorite music is like that. One of my favorite bands of all time is the Attractions, and one thing that I love about it is how you can’t always hear the guitar—you don’t know if Elvis [Costello] is even playing on some of those songs. So it was fun after being this kind of jammy guitar band, especially with [previous album] All Your Favorite Bands, to recognize that that statement has been made, and now it was time to add another color to the whole equation.
On certain songs the bass and the organ are being played in an almost guitar-like way, which makes it feel as heavy as a guitar song — like with the distorted lead organ on “Roll With the Punches.”
Absolutely. A lot of people have asked me, “How did you get that guitar tone?” It’s the keyboard. It’s been super-cool to just kind of showcase everyone in the band. All Your Favorite Bands was such a guitar album and such a drums album. And obviously we still want to put that across, because that’s a part of who we are — but with this record, to really take the opportunity to show some love to the other guys, too. Live, we definitely open it up more with guitars.
You’re such a celebrated lead guitar player. Is there a reason you decided you wanted to share the lead guitar love, live?
I love playing guitar. Some nights where my voice is kind of weird, or something else is on my mind so it’s hard to tell these stories, playing a bunch of guitar is something I can always be sure I’m going to have a lot of fun doing every night. But I felt like [we need to change it up] for the nature of the live show we want to put on, now that it’s getting to that point where we are playing two or two-and-a-half hours. Especially with this upcoming tour, considering that all these shows are “evenings with” [sans opening acts], I felt there needed to be different instrumental voices that carry it.
Before Lee, and before Duane or Trevor, it was a show that I played pretty much every solo for. It’s not that I wanted to play less, but more that I think it makes everybody better when we can play off each other and have these relationships on stage through our instruments in that way. When you think of those bands like Wilco or My Morning Jacket, or even the Dead or Dire Straits, yeah, there’s Jerry [Garcia] or there’s Mark Knopfler, but there are also these incredible keyboardists or other members that have something to say on their respective instruments as well. And if those weren’t there, could you really handle a four-hour Grateful Dead show? I don’t really know.
You worked with Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, John Legend) on this album, not just as your producer but a co-writer on most of the tracks. He was in your first band, Simon Dawes, before you guys split. Some of us automatically assume that if band members went separate ways, there’s some sort of eternal acrimony there, because that’s the way rock and roll usually works.
People assume the same thing about being in a band with your brother: “It must be impossible!” Unfortunately for the drama of it all, we actually get along great. I know that’s boring. And it’s actually like that with Blake. We were kids when that band broke up, and we were both heartbroken — not with each other, because looking back, that’s what had to happen, and it made perfect sense that we both needed to do what we needed to do. But we never didn’t love each other. Then as time went on and we started hanging out a lot again, it felt better than ever. And then now we have the added advantage of being in our 30s and able to communicate a little bit better than when we were 19. So it went great.
The most exciting thing about it is that when you know that someone shares the same musical DNA as you. He and I were on the phone today; he’s working in the studio up from the road from where I am, said, “Yeah, they recorded a lot of Gaucho and Aja in this studio,” and I was like, “Oh my God….” I wouldn’t expect other friends of mine to connect over those Steely Dan records. So I could trust him in a way that is hard to do with a producer sometimes, because you don’t know what their tastes and history are, or what their definition of a song is. And Blake is good at looking at something and saying, “How do we make sure that we all walk away from this track saying ‘I’ve never heard something like this before?’”
Are you increasingly conscious of avoiding a signature sound, as you get into your fifth album and beyond? You guys had the “Laurel Canyon” albatross around your neck, rightly or wrongly at the time.
Yeah. I feel like if I didn’t know Dawes — and I’m the least objective person, so maybe this is wrong — and if you were to sit me down and play me “When My Time Comes,” “Most People,” “From a Window Seat,” “Things Happen,” “Don’t Send Me Away,” I wouldn’t think of any of those songs, “Oh, this is a ‘70s Laurel Canyon-y band sound.” They came more from listening to newer rock and roll bands that I really like — and trying to rip them off. I think the same goes for this new record, which is as inspired by Joni Mitchell as much as by certain hip-hop records and the way they get grooves to sound a certain way.
I feel like being summed up in a certain way was something that was convenient, and I didn’t resent it, because the fact was that people wanted to be talking about us, so if they needed to put it into a certain phrase that didn’t necessarily sum it all up, that’s fine with me. But I think our quest is do something that doesn’t sound like anything else… at least in terms of the conversation about “Does this band sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash”?
You and [girlfriend] Mandy Moore recently crossed into each other’s worlds a little bit, with the band appearing on This is Us, and her singing a background part on one song on the new album [“Picture of a Man”] and appearing in the video for another [”When the Tequila Runs Out”]. Granting that she might be a little busy with other things right now, are you going to push her back into music?
Yeah, she’s very busy, but we actually wrote a tune together and are hoping to do more. She definitely wants to get back into music, and we all want her to.
How was it doing the cameo on This is Us? And, vested interests aside, are you a regular viewer of that show?
Oh, I’m a sucker for it. It was cool being on there. You can’t see me — I was the keyboardist in that scene, and it’s not like I had any lines. You see our guitar player Trevor and Wylie, and I think if you were able to pause it and look really closely, you could see Griffin’s hair, but otherwise that’s it.
But I do love that show. I’ve talked with Mandy about it a lot. I feel like for so long, and now more than ever, we’ve been fed these characters where they’re 80 to 90 percent shitty but 10 percent redeemable, and you’re rooting for that part of them. Whereas with this show, it’s just decent human beings, dealing with these human issues that aren’t always really explored on TV, whether that’s obesity or being black in America or being adopted and having siblings that weren’t adopted. These are very simple scenarios that we’re all very familiar with, or only a few steps removed from, but it’s just so cool and so funny that it hasn’t happened already, that these are being put into a show.
And they ride the line of that sentimentality that is so hard to do, in any kind of work, whether it’s music or movies or television or books, where they go for those moments where people are telling each other that they love each other. It can be pretty cringe-worthy if you don’t do it right, and that show really rides that line in such a graceful way.
It could be said that Dawes does that. Your lyric style is akin to Costello’s in that you balance the fully emotional with the fully cerebral, and you have the ability to be poetic but also extremely literal and even conversational at the same time. Artful and accessible isn’t always the easiest combination.
I think with the way that I write, it comes from really a lack of understanding of so many styles of writing. My brother was recommending a Camus book of philosophy recently, and I read it, and I think I gleaned a little bit from it, but to me, I was like, “Man, I’m so not smart enough for this shit.” With a lot of poetry, I feel the same way, where I just feel like I need to go to college to know what they’re talking about. I’ve always drifted toward novels and songwriters that I felt were really insistent upon communicating their intended emotion rather than one where it was some sort of impressionistic thing left up to your own interpretation.
Guys like John Prine or Warren Zevon blew my mind because it was so heavy and so deep and so smart, and yet so clear. That’s always been how I wanted to tell stories or sing songs, just because not only did I not feel like I had the depth of perception for the real kind of mind-bender songs or books or poems, but also just because it felt most challenging. To be able to ride that line and write one of those great Costello songs or Zevon songs to me was always the crowning achievement.
I always remember how our mentor Tony Berg, who produced our Simon Dawes record, said, “It’s an achievement to be commercial, and it’s an achievement to be truly artistic, but to be able to combine the two is true genius.” He was talking about the Beatles or the Stones, and obviously that’s not us, but we also want to be able to tackle both worlds at the same time in terms of songwriting.
“An Evening With Dawes” tour dates:
January 10— San Diego, CA— Belly Up
January 11— Phoenix, AZ— Crescent Ballroom
January 13— San Luis Obispo, CA— Fremont Theater
January 14— Santa Barbara, CA— Lobero
January 20— Lake Tahoe, NV— Montbleu Resort
January 26— Dallas, TX— Bomb Factory
January 28— Austin, TX— Stubbs
January 29— Oklahoma City, OK— ACM @ UCO
January 31— Little Rock, AR— Rev Room
February 1— St. Louis , MO— The Pagaent
February 3— Minneapolis, MN—State Theatre
February 4— Iowa City, IA—Englert Theatre
February 6— Madison, WI— Barrymore Theatre
February 7— Omaha, NE— The Waiting Room
February 8— Sioux Falls, SD— The Orpheum
February 10— Boulder, CO— Fox Theatre
February 11— Aspen, CO— Belly Up
February 12— Salt Lake City, UT— The Depot
February 21— San Francisco, CA— Fillmore
February 22— Portland, OR— Wonder Ballroom
February 24— Seattle, WA— Showbox
February 25— Missoula, MT— Wilma Theatre
February 26— Billings, MT— Pub Station Ballroom
February 28— Des Moines, IA— Wooly’s
March 3— Birmingham, AL— Iron City
March 4— Atlanta, GA— Variety Playhouse
March 5— Durham, NC— DPAC
March 7— Wilmington, DE— The Grand Opera House
March 8— Washington, DC— Lincoln Theatre
March 10— New York, NY— Beacon Theatre
March 11— Boston, MA— Orpheum
March 12— Hartford, CT— Infinity Hall
March 14— Northampton, MA— Academy of Music Theatre
March 15— Ithaca, NY— State Theater
March 17— Toronto, ON— The Opera House
March 18— Kalamazoo, MI— State Theatre
March 19— Indianapolis, IN— The Vogue
March 21— Tulsa, OK— Cain’s Ballroom
March 22— Santa Fe, NM— Lensic Performing Arts Center
March 23— Flagstaff, AZ— Orpheum Theater
April 1— Los Angeles, CA— The Theatre at Ace Hotel
April 21— Louisville, KY— The Brown Theatre
April 23— Charleston, SC— High Water Festival (festival date)
April 25— Asheville, NC— Orange Peel
April 26— Knoxville, TN— Bijou Theatre
April 28—Nashville, TN— Ryman Auditorium
April 29— Nashville, TN— Ryman Auditorium
April 30— Chattanooga, TN— Revelry Room
May 2— Wilmington, NC— Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre
May 3— Charlotte, NC— Fillmore?
(more to be announced)