Young rock groups die hard. Such a long and rich history precedes them that it can easily feel like they are standing in someone else’s shadow. It doesn’t help that hip-hop and avant-pop overwhelm both the charts and the conversation, making a lot of guitar-based music sound like an echo from the past.
The young American rock band known as Dawes decided to do something about all of this on their new album, We will all die. Previously, the critically respected quartet followed a clearly marked “folk-rock” route, following style signposts such as Jackson Browne, CSN and The Byrds. In the process, they became mainstays of the so-called neo-Laurel Canyon sound, with artists including Jonathan Wilson, Jenny Lewis and Rilo Kiley. This route not only served their muse, it made Dawes a safe choice for fans looking for a smart new group working in a familiar vernacular.
On their new album, however, Dawes took a sharp turn without signaling. They traded sounding guitars for swampy keyboards and ditched traditional folk-rock for timeless pop-soul, all with ravishing results. “We needed a new vocabulary,” says group leader Taylor Goldsmith. “If we kept making the same record, people would end up saying, ‘Yeah, this band does that and I’ve heard them do that before. So I am no longer interested. ”
The group’s evolution mirrors the arc of two other contemporary rock groups: Wilco and My Morning Jacket. The two started out using key elements of folk and country rock, as well as psychedelia. Later, they abstracted these genres with sounds and moods that borrow from the avant-garde.
“At first they were more comfortable celebrating what it means to be a folk rock band without challenging themselves or their listeners,” says Goldsmith. “But, over time, that challenge has become essential for them to be ready to remain a group. This is very much the case with us. We’re four young guys singing rock’n roll songs with guitars at a time when Daft Punk and Kanye West also existed. We need to reflect that.
At the same time, Dawes’ previous albums have proven they can live up to the folk-rock legacy in a more secure and creative way than most others on the stage today. They started perfecting their approach a decade ago. Goldsmith started out in a band named Simon Dawes with his friend Blake Mills while they were still in high school in Malibu, California. The quartet took its name from the middle name of Goldsmith (Dawes) and the birth name of Mills (Simon). “We were anguished 16-year-olds who wanted to be understood – and we chose a name that no one understood,” Goldsmith said.
Their beginnings, carnivorous, was released in 2006 and gained attention. But Mills was not interested in touring, preferring to pursue a career as a session guitarist and producer. After his departure, Goldsmith led a new group, renamed under the old name. He brought his brother Griffin into the fold and they released Northern Hills, their debut as Dawes in the summer of 2009. Goldsmith’s elaborate verses, flowing melodies and dismal timbre immediately stood out. Vocally, he has some of the cadence of Jackson Browne. He also shares this star’s penchant for philosophical lyrics. “His music came to me at a time when I was really impressionable,” says Goldsmith. “I found out that guys like Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Bob Dylan go so far and deep, and yet still have songs that are three and a half minutes long.”
In 2001, Goldsmith mimicked the Crosby, Stills and Nash approach a bit by forming the brief folk-rock “super-group” called Middle Brother along with other neo-folk rockers John J. McCauley from Deer tick and Matt Vasquez from Delta Spirit. The three weren’t exactly superstar quality, but their album helped draw more attention to Dawes while still providing a befitting reflection of the classic Laurel Canyon sound. The same year, Dawes returns with Nothing is bad, followed by The stories don’t stop, in 2013 and All your favorite bands two years later. All of these outings showcased Goldsmith’s literary skills as well as his flair for flowing melodies.
Ironically, Dawes’ debut album to break away from the sound of Laurel Canyon was their first LA recording in years. (Most recently, they had worked in Nashville and Asheville). For this project, they hired an old friend Mills as a producer. Over the past few years he has fulfilled his dream of becoming both a much-requested studio guitarist (for everyone from The Dixie Chicks to Norah Jones) and a successful producer (for Conor Oberst, Alabama Shakes and more. ). Last year Mills won a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year for his work with The Shakes.
Mills encouraged more experimentation in the studio and more manipulation of sound. For the first time, guitars and drums took precedence over bass and keyboards, aided by the work of new member Lee Pardini on these latter instruments. The new songs are also inspired by a different genre: the warm 70s pop-soul of Michael McDonald (in his time with the Doobie Brothers) and Steely Dan (on their early R&B-tipped songs).
One element that connects the work of the group concerns the lyrics. The titles of the last three albums find Goldsmith writing about the mythology of groups, whether from the perspective of the musician or the listener. In the new “We’re All Gonna Die”, he expresses his jealousy towards a fan he spies on during one of the group’s concerts and who brings more passion to the songs than he can at the time. .
“There have been parts where I’m on stage and I’m not in the song,” Goldsmith says. ” I’m away. Then I would see someone in the audience and I could see that the song meant more to them than I could access – and I wrote it! It sucks, but I can’t imagine that an artist doesn’t feel that way sometimes. ”
Goldsmith said he felt embarrassed to write songs about being in a band, although artists as important as Pete Townshend and Ian Hunter made careers of it. “Sometimes I feel like I’m making movies out of movies,” Goldsmith said. “But if that’s my goal, my way of talking about the human experience, then I’m okay with that.”
“Being a writer is weird,” he adds. “You’re supposed to be some kind of expert on what this thing called life is, the nature of our relationships and the secrets of our experiences. But the reality is, you spend a lot more time behind a guitar or in front of a computer than a normal person actually engaging in whatever human experiences you write about.
It’s a classic dilemma, just as upsetting as trying to give a young rock band a contemporary sound. At least for now, however, Dawes appears to be on the right side of the fight. “Over time our approach has been less about ‘what would a rock band do in this situation’ than asking ‘what wouldn’t a rock band do?’ Let’s do this instead. ”