Must Give Us Dawes

Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith talks about the band's new album and the songwriting process

By all accounts, Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith is an unwavering realist -- maybe even an optimist. "Things Happen," one of the band's biggest hits, takes aim squarely at all things negative and simply shrugs 'em off as just part of life: "Things happen," he sings over the tune's indie-rock bounce, "that's all they ever do."

However, one look at the title of Dawes' latest studio album, "We're All Gonna Die," and you might think the singer/guitarist has ditched realism for fatalism. Rest assured, he hasn't. Over a recent phone call, Goldsmith explained how he views the human condition.

"I think a lot of us try to get to a place, and I'm a victim of this as much as anyone else, where we get to a place in our lives where we don't have to suffer -- that we can build something around us where we're never lonely and we're never depressed, and the reality is, that's not gonna happen. And the only way to deprive that fear of its power is by embracing it and knowing that it's going to come in strides. And you're going to have to sit with it and deal with it sometimes, but other times, you are going to feel like everything is OK."

With a rare talent for penning hopeful songs without being overly preachy or saccharine, Goldsmith said that he's grown to embrace the idea of writing around the occasional similar theme.

"I was talking to my buddy about it and I was like, 'You know, sometimes it feels like each song I write, the scope gets narrower and narrower as to what I can write about' ... And then he was like, 'Dude, that is total bulls---.' [laughs] If you listen to Dylan or Willie Nelson or Hank Williams especially, Hank Williams has three songs you know? He finds ways of taking you back into those moods and into those emotions in new or different ways, but at the same time, he has no problem talking about how his heart's broken for the 40th time. We, as listeners, not only don't mind, but we love it. Like, Bruce Springsteen wrote about picking up a girl on a motorcycle and taking her somewhere better, but he never says where it is, like, 50 times! [laughs] And you love it every time. Those first few records are almost, conceptually, the same song. And it's not a bad thing! It's an incredible thing. So I had to learn that even if it might have been a road that I've gone down before, I should embrace it, and I should find a new tilt on it but by no means shy away from it."

On "We're All Gonna Die," Goldsmith and his Dawes bandmates (which include bassist Wylie Gelber, drummer Griffin Goldsmith and keyboardist Lee Pardini) continue doing what they do best: Playing whatever they damn well feel like. That may be an oversimplification, but it's true. For fans of the group since their 2009 "North Hills" debut and all its Laurel Canyon-esque folk-rock splendor, Dawes are still the same band you've come to know and love. But they continue to tinker with rock/pop song structures, finding new and interesting ways to branch out from what they've done in the past while retaining the, as Rolling Stone once put it, "authentically vintage" vibe that they started off with. And why wouldn't they? After all, Goldsmith said, they still love their early work.

"Some bands want to stick super close to what they are because that's what's expected of them. But other bands hate who they are so they kind of abandon it, and then you go to shows and they won't even play stuff from their first record or whatever. We're really proud of all the records we've made so we like dipping back into them in each show, but at the same time, when we make a new record, I feel like we sort of expect the same thing that's gonna make the fifth or sixth one work is the same thing that made the first one work -- which was sort of the spirit of invention and the spirit of inspiration."

While they're always experimenting in the studio, the band doesn't try to be weird just for the sake of being weird. Last year, NPR's Jason Heller wrote that they've "crafted their most ambitious record to date" with "We're All Gonna Die," and while that may be true, it's also par for the Dawes course in a way. They've always looked for different ways to approach their songs, but it was just easier to do in the beginning because everything was so new. Now, that thrill of discovery is, of course, a little harder to come by, but it still happens.

"When you're making your first record, that [feeling of excitement] doesn't take much, you know?" Goldsmith explained. "Just an acoustic guitar, a harmony and a drum kit behind your song is enough for you to kind of be flipped out. But as time goes on, you want that high back and you continue to add to the vocabulary of what you do as a group. And that doesn't necessarily mean that every record is going to get progessively weirder, or richer, or whatever term you wanna use ... It's just a matter of what feels like the most inspiring next step. But it's definitely not, 'Let's be different.' To us, we've always done this ... I like that each record has a personality, but I don't think any of our records has strayed too far from what we've always done."

Which is why when Dawes come to the Belly Up for their Jan. 10 sold-out show (billed as "An Evening With"), their two set lists -- which Goldsmith said will span all of the band's five studio albums -- will effortlessly flow together. Consider it a testament to the band's enduring dedication to their craft: No matter where they choose to go, they're unmistakably Dawes.

Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow, plays in Diamond Lakes, and runs the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.

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