Since its 2009 debut album, "North Hills," the four-piece band Dawes has drawn from the music near its Los Angeles home — from Gram Parsons, early Jackson Browne, various Laurel Canyon bands — as well as the deep, earthy roots rock of The Band. But the band's acoustic instruments, unadorned production and open-hearted harmonies have been transformed on its new album, "We're All Gonna Die," into numbers with distorted vocals, electric guitars and new kinds of rhythms. This album, released on Sept. 16, was produced by former Dawes guitarist Blake Mills, and it sounds very different from what the group has done before.
Salon spoke to the band's singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith while he was in New York where the band was playing a small show. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The title song of your last record has one friend singing to another, "And may all your favorite bands stay together." But your brand-new album is called "We're All Gonna Die." Quite an abrupt shift in tone. What happened?
In a way it’s similar to “All Your Favorite Bands.” If you listen to that phrase in the context of that song, it’s not as foreboding. It’s more, “Let’s maintain perspective.” It’s easy to get carried away.
But it helps to be soberly reminded: It doesn’t matter that much. We can do our best to enjoy ourselves and be kind to others. In the meantime, to not be too surprised by the fact that this will end at some point.
Yeah, it’s not a gloomy record though some listeners have heard it as a real departure for you guys. There is less of the rustic, country-ish spirit we associate with Dawes. The opening track, “When the Tequila Runs Out,” and some of the others are quite different.
Part of it is just finding fun ways to play these songs. When I wrote “When the Tequila Runs Out” — ironically, one of the simplest songs I’ve ever written, just three chords, open G, F and C the whole time — on acoustic guitar, it sounded like an old country-rock Dawes song. But with those words, with the way I felt about it, I felt so much of what the song was about could be communicated if I did it right.
And that’s true of a lot of the other songs like “We’re All Gonna Die.” The mood is expressed through the arrangements. That’s what bands do. But we wanted to go beyond the more traditional approaches we’d taken.
If I just played “When the Tequila Runs Out” for you on acoustic guitar, it wouldn’t speak to the juxtaposition of how I feel on that song, and how I feel going to those late-night parties or what I mean when I sing, “When the tequila runs out/ we’ll be drinking champagne.” It’s not just celebratory; it’s not just debaucherous. It’s somewhere in between. And it’s not really in a major key; it’s not really in a minor key. We didn’t do a simple setup for it.
With “We’re All Gonna Die” we wanted to create this beautiful setup with strings.
The idea of seeing someone like Frank Sinatra singing those words in front of an orchestra — it creates an impression different than just the words alone.
I imagine that, as with Wilco and other bands that have complicated their sound, you’re going to hear from fans who want the “old Dawes” back, who wonder if you're ever going to write a rustic, Laurel Canyon-style song again. What do you tell them?
Those people have those records to go back to. That’s not the kind of fan I am, and I think every musician is a music fan first and foremost, and the decisions they make are guided by the kind of fan they are. And for me, when Neil Young goes from “Harvest” to “Tonight’s the Night,” or Paul Simon goes from Simon and Garfunkel to “Graceland,” or Bob Dylan makes his way from being a protest songwriter to “Blonde on Blonde” to “Empire Burlesque,” I love every step of those stories.
We’re just trying to make a record where we say, “This is as fun as it was when we made our first record.” And I love our first record. But if we said, “This is what we do. This is our quote-unquote signature sound, so let’s do it again,” you would hear the lifelessness, how the inspiration and innovation is gone.
And that goes with anybody doing anything — whether music or going through your life.
Sounds like this isn’t a one-time-only departure — that transformation is important to you and that you admire artists who have a lot of chapters.
Right. And for us it wasn’t an intentional thing. This may sound weird, but we didn’t realize it was going to [be] perceived as so different when we were making it. To me these songs are still rooted in the same place as all Dawes songs. You could make these fit on “North Hills” if you play them a certain way.
One of the problems with folk-rock is that you can point out everything in the track: “That’s the acoustic guitar, and it’s supposed to be doing that. That’s the B-3 organ and it’s supposed to be doing that."
When I hear [Dylan’s] "Highway 61 [Revisited"], I don’t know who’s doing what. It just hits you like a big ball of sound. Same with a lot of classical music. When I played back our songs here, it brought me back to my original feeling as a fan: I don’t know what it is. I just know it’s music, and I like it.
You’re clearly a real enthusiast of '60s and '70s acoustic music. Are you still listening to the old Band records, early Jackson Browne and so on? Or has your ear gone to a different place?
Not really. I love those records. If someone put ’em on, I’d start dancing in the room. But a record or a book or any piece of art is like a sponge. Some have more water than others. Some take more time to fill back up after you wring it out. But you spend a lot of time with those records, and then wring it out till it’s dry.
And you have to let it sit for a while. When I was 17, I was obsessed with David Bowie and Elvis Costello, and then I didn’t listen to them for about 10 years. And then I could revisit them again.
I imagine that’s how it is for everyone. I can’t imagine discovering “The Weight” by The Band and then really fucking digging it for every day for 10 years. I get it! I want to leave it alone for a little while.
And in that time you end up finding new stuff you fall in love with. There’s so much great music out there. Griffin [Goldsmith, the band’s drummer,] has devoured all of this world music, which is a big part of what he’s doing percussively on this new record. And I found a lot of hip-hop.
To make music in any period, whether it’s 1986 or 2016, it’s an amalgamation. The pop informs the independent music, and the independent music informs the pop.
And when you hear Frank Ocean, you can tell he’s been listening to Grizzly Bear or Tame Impala, and you can tell Tame Impala has been listening to Kanye.
It’s just the nature of avid music fans.
So where has your listening been over the last few years?
I’ve had phases, like when I first discovered the jazz era of Joni Mitchell, and couldn’t listen to anything else. If you put on something else, it wasn’t doing anything. Or when I really discovered Warren Zevon, which was a solid year, or when I was 15 and discovered Steely Dan. I haven’t had one of those moments in a while. Or when I was really into Willie Nelson when we were recording “Stories Don’t End.”
I always go back to Neil Young and Bob Dylan; their catalogs are so extensive. My girlfriend was giving me a hard time: “We keep listening to late Neil Young and late Elvis Costello. When are we going to listen to something else?”
Tell me a bit about your songwriting process.
A lot of people have this persona that’s created. But some people don’t. Some people have characters; some people show you their own life through the music. Like Paul Simon — I don’t know if he’s singing about himself. I don’t know if he has a drug problem or fights people. He just seems like a nice person.
Some songwriters like Randy Newman or Richard Thompson mostly create characters.
Will Oldham is another excellent example: He looks at it as a duty to not sing about himself, to be a writer who invites you to apply your own experiences to what he’s writing about. It’s never about him. And you still feel him, his perspective, his way of seeing the world.
That fascinates me because I look at other songwriters who seem to be the victims of their own careers: They've put themselves on the surgery table for so many years, it’s just wiped them out. It’s like they think they have to cut themselves up and put themselves on display. And I don’t want to do that.
And I look at these songwriters, like Will Oldham and Warren Zevon, who have such style, you get to know them through them telling other stories. That’s been a big deal for me. The goal of any writer is to get across your own outlook. I’ve been trying to get beyond myself.