When Los Angeles four-piece Dawes released North Hills, the band’s 2009 debut album, its members were barely in their twenties, and at least one was still in high school. Youth didn’t seem to affect Dawes’ songwriting skills, however. The band’s home-brewed debut was a mature, meditative collection that felt like early 70’s Jackson Browne, and it became an instant hit among the indie crowd.
This year, Dawes released Nothing Is Wrong, a rockier follow-up to North Hills that sees brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith, Wylie Gelber, and Tay Strathairn bringing some of their live energy into the studio. It only makes sense, since they’ve basically been touring since the release of North Hills.
Now, in a match seemingly made in West Coast indie rock heaven, the band has announced a co-headlining tour with Portland country rock stalwarts Blitzen Trapper — and a stop at the Belly Up is planned for 10/9. In anticipation of the show, we sat down with Dawes bassist Wylie Gelber and talked about indie rock stardom, L.A., and recording.
Owl and Bear: Seems like a lot changed for Dawes between the release of North Hills and Nothing is Wrong.
Definitely. The first record was a pretty soft release; we recorded it ourselves with no label. It was made with as little money as possible, as quickly as possible. This one was a full-on record push with the label; a lot more press, a lot more time spent on every little thing.
Owl and Bear: When you first started, did you think you’d be where you are today?
No, definitely not. We all lived in this little house in the valley. I was fronting the record with money I made from totaling my car. We were making it as quickly as possible. We went on tour with Delta Spirit and were making fifty bucks a night.
Owl and Bear: And now Jackson Browne is playing on your records.
I was just in New York for the last week, just hanging out after a tour. It was really great and awesome, but one thing it didn’t have was the whole music aspect that L.A. has so well. You just start playing music and you bump into people like Jackson Browne at a show. I met our producer at a show years ago before we ever worked with him. In terms of playing music, L.A. just has it down the best. There are so many musicians and so many houses and studios around, and everyone’s playing and recording. It lends itself to a really great, relaxed state of music.
Owl and Bear: More than a few critics have noted that you recorded in Laurel Canyon, the former home of musical legends — and Dawes influences — like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. Do you guys get tired of the constant Laurel Canyon comparisons?
With the Laurel Canyon thing, we just happened to record our album in Laurel Canyon. None of us ever lived in Laurel Canyon — it’s awesome, but when we were recording, we definitely weren’t really thinking about the “Laurel Canyon sound.” We were just up with our buddy who had a sick studio that happened to be in Laurel Canyon, it was great.
It’s funny. People definitely draw more comparisons than we ever did when we were making the records. It’s a little strange, but there could definitely be worse comparisons in my mind — it’s better than Simi Valley or something.
Owl and Bear: What were you listening to when you were making the new album?
We were listening to a lot of the stuff we usually do. I’m a big soul dude, so before we’d go into the studio, I’d put on my favorite bass records of all time, and think about how they got their tone, how insanely tight it is, never dropping a beat. I’d drill myself with high-quality playing before we’d go into the studio. A lot of New Orleans stuff like The Meters, Allen Toussaint, Lee Dorsey’s always on there, and all the Stax stuff, I’m really into. Any of the stuff with the really great bass players.
Owl and Bear: What was the first thing that made you want to write and play music?
We’ve all been playing music since we were little kids. It was the only thing that really came naturally to me. I started getting deep into music probably in third grade. I picked up the bass then, and I know it’s the same with Taylor. His whole family’s been into music since day one. His dad’s a singer and piano player. He’s been playing piano since he was about five years old.
Owl and Bear: When you guys are writing, how do you approach the process?
Usually Taylor will write the song on an acoustic guitar, just alone. He’ll write the lyrics and the chords, and it’ll have no real feel. All that’s up for grabs. He’ll bring it into rehearsal and we’ll arrange it. A song that could’ve been a really mellow acoustic ballad will turn into a faster, upbeat shuffle — we just go through the songs as a band until it feels good. Sometimes, that’s the first thing we hit, and other times it takes months and months.
The song “My Way Back Home,” on the new record, is probably the ninth or tenth different arrangement that there ever was of that song. Three people would say, “I think it sounded good,” and one guy would say “I don’t know, it’s not there yet.” So we’d scratch it from new every single time, and it eventually hit. That was one of the more unusual ones; usually they find their right feeling pretty soon.
Owl and Bear: How do you look at the creation of an album?
We’re not one of those bands that goes into the studio with thirty songs and narrows it down to ten. We usually go in with about fourteen and narrow it down to ten or eleven. For the most part, whatever seems to be the least-thought about ends up being the best. Then the ones where you keep adding things and taking them away, it’s like, “Alright, let’s just keep that song as a b-side.”
Owl and Bear: So do you have a lot of alternate versions of your songs recorded?
By the time we record them, not so much. We usually don’t get down to recording a song until we have a version that we like. Sometimes we do one or two takes at first, but for North Hills, it never generally got past four takes. And even still, those takes are all the same — just subtle differences like feel and time, and tempo. So there were never too many alternate versions, besides little demos. That’s about it.
Owl and Bear: When you say “tape,” do you really mean tape?
Both records are 100% analog, no computers. It sounds really great, but it also helps the mindset of the people recording. Once you’re in the room and there’s a neon glowing ProTools screen with a bunch of dumb colors lit up on it, you tend to look at your audio. Recording to tape it forces everyone to only rely on their ears and the feel of it. When people start visualizing the audio and they say “Oh, there’s a kickdrum that’s off right there, because I can see it,” it’s like “Dude, all you need to do is have no screens and you see the tape machine’s spinning.” If you hear it, then you have an issue; if you don’t hear it, there’s no issue.
It also helps when we’re rolling tape live, because no one wants to fuck up. It’s not like on the computer, where you can say, “I missed that bass note, we’ll just grab it.” If you fuck it up, then you have to lay it down all over again. That could’ve been the one, so when the tape machine goes on, nobody wants to be the one who fucks up. If it’s the one, then you feel like shit.
Owl and Bear: Going into the studio, did you have an idea of the kind of record you wanted to write?
We didn’t really have a plan like, “Let’s make this record bigger than the last one.” Our producer happened to move into a bigger studio, and the room we recorded in was about four times as big as the room we recorded the first record in. So naturally, we could play a little louder.
On the first record, I was using a guitar amp as a bass amp, and Taylor was in the kitchen singing the lead vocals live, so we couldn’t play that loud. The vocals on North Hills — on the songs that we sang together — we couldn’t play that loud because it would just bleed into the vocal mic. On this record, we could play the drums harder. I had a bass amp in the room, and I also had a bass amp in another room that was cranked a little harder. Taylor had a room with guitar amps that he could turn up. I think it naturally brought [the sound] up. When we play live, it’s usually bigger than our records, and we got to split the difference pretty naturally in the new studio. We didn’t turn it up as loud as we do onstage, but we definitely got to turn it up more than on our first record.
Owl and Bear: Did that new environment allow you to experiment more?
For sure. We did the first record in two weeks; we had a full month for this one. On the first record, day one was day number two of ever hanging out with our producer. We were becoming friends and finding out what was comfortable with everyone. For this record, we knew what was coming, and we worked really long days. We also had a lot more buddies who came in and played on songs, like a little lap steel. We also had a lot more amps that we could all try out, and our producer was trying out a bunch of stuff sound-wise.
Owl and Bear: You’ll be co-headlining with Blitzen Trapper beginning in October. I think it’s going to be a great match.
I’m definitely looking forward to playing some long sets, and it’s a six week tour. It should be fun.
Dawes on tour
10/07 – Petaluma, CA – Mystic Theatre^
10/08 – Santa Barbara, CA – SoHo^
10/09 – Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up^
10/10 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom^
10/11 – Santa Fe, NM – Santa Fe Sol Live^
10/13 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada^
10/14 – Utopia, TX – Utopia Fest^
10/15 – Baton Rouge, LA – Manship Theatre^
10/16 – Greenville, SC – Fall for Greenville
10/18 – Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse^
10/19 – Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge^
10/20 – Louisville, KY – Headliner’s^
10/21 – Asheville, NC – Orange Peel^
10/22 – Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle^
10/23 – Charleston, WV – Mountain Stage^^
10/24 – Washington, DC – Black Cat^
10/26 – New York, NY – Webster Hall^
10/27 – Philadelphia, PA – Theatre of Living Arts^
10/28 – Boston, MA – Royale^
10/29 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live**
10/30 – Toronto, Ontario – Opera House^
11/01 – Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom^
11/02 – Grand Rapids, MI – Calvin College^
11/03 – Chicago, IL – The Metro^
11/04 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue^
11/05 – Milwaukee, WI – Turner Hall^
11/07 – Boulder, CO – Fox Theatre^
11/10 – Vancouver, British Columbia – Rickshaw Theatre^
11/11 – Seattle, WA – The Neptune^
11/12 – Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom^
11/13 – Eugene, OR – McDonald Theatre^
11/15 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore^
11/17 – Los Angeles, CA – The Music Box^
^ – co headline with Blitzen Trapper
^^ – Blitzen Trapper, Jason Isbell & 400 Unit, James McMurtry and Matthew Sweet
** – World Cafe Live 20th Anniversary Tribute concert with Feist and Robbie Roberston