For the inaugural post of this new blog, I wanted to share an interview I had with Ferndale-based musician Daniel Johnson, known simply as Daniel on his records, on the event of his new album, Extracolor, released in January 2012.
I interviewed Daniel in February at the Yessian Music studio where he works as a composer. Based on this interview, I wrote a piece about him and the making of the album which, unfortunately, never found the right publisher. But the interview–and the long view on life and art that Daniel shared with me that day–have stayed with me as I’ve worked my own way through the traffic of everyday life. As a result of this interview, I started to listen to music I had never listened to before. I started to give things a chance that once I was stodgily opposed to. The one-and-a-half hours I spent with Daniel on a crisp winter’s day in February kind of changed how I think about things. And this is why I wanted to publish our conversation to share with others. I hope that you readers may take something positive away from it too.
This is a very long post. It’s surprising to discover that, during 90 minutes of conversation, over 8,000 words or more can be spoken. To help those of you who may just want to browse around, I wrote headings for each section–some that clearly denote what we’re talking about, some that are vague but meant to pique your interests. You can skip around if you’d like, using the Table of Contents below, or just read right through. Either way, I hope you enjoy, and I hope you buy Daniel’s excellent album from iTunes or Bandcamp or from his website.
- Let’s Begin with the New Album
- Two Things this Record is Really About
- An Education. Part 1: The Ministers’ Son
- An Education. Part 2: Noisy Acres, or, Not “Saved” by the Bell
- An Education. Part 3: The Judah Johnson Years
- Extracolor, One More Time
- You Should Sing That Way All the Time
- The Visuals, and the Instagraming of Modern Music
- Lana Del Rey, and Why It Would Be Better for Haters if they didn’t Hate
- In Conclusion: Music, the Meaning of Life, and the Whatever
Let’s Begin with the New Album
SCOTT: So, I thought we could start by talking about the album itself. When did you start writing these songs?
DANIEL: 2008…2009. We were living in this house in Royal Oak
S: Were these songs clumped together with the songs from your previous album, Lazrus, or part of a different project.
D: No, it was a different project. To me, this album is the album I tried to make with Lazrus, and thought I was making when I was doing Lazrus, which was a pop album with short songs, very accessible, with more synthesizers than usual. I was going to use more drum machines. When I listened to Lazrus, when it was all done, I thought, “I’m happy with it, but it’s not a pop album.” The track lengths are somewhat long. I ended up using real drums on it. It just wasn’t what I was trying to do. So Extracolor was following up on what I intended to do with Lazrus.
SCOTT: In your post announcing the album’s release, you write that it took a lot longer than expected to release the album because self-releasing an album is a lot of work. I was kind of under the impression that self-releasing an album is really easy these days. What don’t I know about this stuff?
DANIEL: Every step of the way, I had to do it. You’re calling in favors, or you’re getting people to do stuff at a cheaper rate because they’re doing it at night after their day job. So from mixing it, to getting it mastered, to getting the artwork done, to setting up the distribution channels, to soliciting press–all of that I had to do, and I had to knock one thing out before doing another. Normally you have a team of people who can either delegate that work or you already have those channels greased or already know how to do it. I mean, I had figure it out, I had to read up on it, and learn how to do it. Just mixing and mastering it alone took so long. I didn’t even get that done until the end of the summer. Once that’s done I was like “Oh! Now I have to come up with artwork for this,” and start talking to people and getting people interested.
S: Why did you name the album Extracolor?
D: Yeah, um…[pauses, then chuckles] Um. do you know what Salvia is? Salvia divinorum?
D: It’s like this sage that people take. It’s like a hallucinogenic drug, but it’s a clean drug–it doesn’t trigger your serotonin or anything. I did Salvia years and years ago. It’s an awesome drug, but it’s pretty intense. And the day after I did it, I had this poem pop into my head fully formed. And it’s the only poem I think I’ve ever written. And I use the word “extracolor” in there, and it stuck with me–this word. And when you try to name a record label or a band or an album, everything is taken. People have used every combination of words you can ever think of, but no one has used extracolor for anything. So I was surprised at that , but more to the point, there are two things this record is really about.
Two Things This Record is Really About
One is belief. I’m writing about belief almost through this whole record. I was raised in this family and this culture that takes belief too far. Everyone’s so hyped up on their opinions that they’re not getting along. It’s gotten involved in my relationship with my family. I mean, that belief can get between a father and his son, that’s ridiculous to me. So getting to a place beyond that is important. I hate the cliche of getting into the grey area, you know, don’t say things are black and white. Because grey just sounds boring. Grey’s just dull, right? But it’s really a place of more color than no color. So when you get past black and white it’s not about a dull grey zone. It’s about a really interesting, colorful zone. So it works in that respect.
And then, this is his is my black music record. This is me getting out all the black music I’ve been listening to since I was a kid, having Motown in my psyche and progressive hip-hop and R&B. I always thought I was capable of doing an R&B record and, now, I don’t think I can, but I think this is as close as I can possibly get. So it’s just about that. You know, the music I like is generally white people really influenced by black people, or black people really influenced by white people. It’s about getting to that exotic place. If Indie Rockers just subsist on a diet of Indie Rock, it begins to get this incestuous, inbred, death sound, but you don’t get that when you think about The Stones or The Beatles, who are white guys really influenced by black music. Or you think of The Roots, or Dilla, who used a Harmonia sample, or Prince, or Miles Davis, who was listening to Ravel. You can’t just have a diet of your own thing. You have to get outside of yourself. Which gets into the belief thing too–it’s about getting out of your comfort zone. So, I just think that all the best music and all the best ideas are about people trying to get outside of their comfort zone, and go to that other place. And that’s what Extracolor is all about.
An Education. Part 1: The Ministers’ Son
S: Let’s talk a little about your background. Where were you born?
D: I was born in Illinois. My parents were traveling ministers in what’s called the Evangelistic field. They would go from church to church and speak and take up an offering and that’s how we’d live. We had a trailer home for awhile, and then finally started to settle down looking for churches to pass through, and my dad took over this church in Detroit when I was 4. I don’t know what the neighborhood is called. We lived near Outer Drive on a street called Chatsworth.
S: So you were living in Detroit in the 1980s. What was your childhood like?
D: It was pretty cool. I mean, when you’re young, you don’t think that it’s weird that people have bars on their windows. You’re just like, yeah, that’s what people do. And honestly, we never really experienced anything violent or anything like that. We had stuff stolen, but I just felt this charmed existence.
S: When did you start encountering music?
D: All my family is musical. My dad wrote songs and played guitar and was kind of a hippie. I have this memory of us being on the road in this van and of him driving with his knees and playing acoustic guitar–just a big bearded hippie. So that was normal to me, in the same way that it’s normal to Claire [Daniel's daughter] to see me make music, so she just picks it up: “Oh, people make music. You know, people sing through the day.” My mother plays piano. My grandmother plays a bunch of instruments, writes songs. My uncle is a great songwriter. So, I can’t tell you when. It was just, kind of, in the air.
S: What kinds of songs were they? Mostly spiritual?
D: Yeah, mostly spiritual stuff. Especially my dad was very serious about it. The whole secular/religious thing was a big deal. I remember getting shit for listening to Mozart. I’d be listening to Mozart and my dad would come in the room and be like “Why can’t you listen to more praise worship music!” or something like that, you know. He took it as a form of rebellion that I wouldn’t listen to Christian music–that I would just find classical music instead. Which is what happened. It was so strict that all I could listen to was all this classical music. I didn’t get into rock until I was about to finish high school. So up till then I was just this classical nerd, you know. I knew all the stats. All the composers and stuff.
I remember in the early 80s the whole Michael Jackson phase started going on. That was a peripheral event for me, you know. That was something that was happening over there, but I wasn’t part of it. I mean, people in third-world countries knew all about Michael Jackson, but that’s how successful my dad was at isolating us from the mainstream culture. So, by the time I got to high school, your parents have less control over what you’re listening to. I remember I really got into George Michael‘s album “Faith,” and I got caught with it, and it was a big deal, you know, like, it was contraband. But I loved it; it was this forbidden pleasure. So when I was in high school the weird juxtaposition was that I was into classical and everyone else was listening to pop music. I can remember trying to convince my friends, “check out this ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ you know, I think it’s pretty cool–you’ll like it!” I was just kind of a geek that way.
S: You told me earlier you were playing the violin in school?
D: Yeah, but when we had performances, I’d turn my bow upside down so that you couldn’t hear me play. I had a good enough ear to know what all the parts were–I just didn’t have the technique. So I barely knew how to play.
S: So your entrance into pop music was the guitar?
D: No, actually I really got into the piano, and finally my mom was like, well, you can have lessons if you want them, and that’s when I started to take composition classes, when I was about 12, and I started instantly to write songs–usually about girls I liked. It was all piano. And then when grunge came, wow, grunge was unstoppable. I heard this stuff on the radio and was like, “I have to do this.” And I started learning guitar. But most guys start their first band as freshmen in high school, but i was a late bloomer in rock. But it was all guitar from there out. And I also started to play a little drums in high school.
An Education. Part 2: Noisy Acres, or, Not “Saved” by the Bell
S: So, where did you go to college and what did you study?
D: More religion stuff. I had a scholarship to U-M for 3 years if I did this ROTC thing, but my parents convinced me to go to this Bible College in Missouri called CBC. They had met at this college and they just convinced me to go there for one year to test it out, and I did that because I was so unsure of myself and, you know, scared, I guess, so I went along with it for one year. But that’s a serious school where they train ministers. They have a dress code. You have a curfew. It’s not like a normal college. I mean, you couldn’t even have pockets outside of your pants–that’s how strict the dress code was. But I survived a year of that and ended up meeting guys who lived outside of town to start a band with. I was so obsessed with being in a band–that was the only thing I cared about. I actually went back to Missouri just to keep this band going. I found another liberal arts Christian college called Evangel in Springfield, MO, and finished out there. But I barely even paid attention to school. I was only focused on writing songs and playing shows. Which is ridiculous because I have so much student debt from doing it.
S: Was it just that one band you were in for four years?
D: No, there were a few. I played drums in this punk band called Noisy Acres. And I started this band called And Protest
S: Wait, what was it called?
D: AND Protest. And the school found out that we started playing bars, so the school really started to clamp down, and we had to change our name. We changed it to Gorgeous.
S: So you left Missouri after you finished school?
D: Yep, I went to San Diego for a little bit. Tried to start a band there. Not really much came of it.
S: Wait, how the hell did you end up in San Diego?
D: It was as simple as me and some musician friends of mine being like, “Hey, we’re sick of the winters. In San Diego it’s 65 all year.” That’s how impulsive it was. We weren’t even on the internet! We didn’t research anything! I had just heard that, and came up with plan to go there. You know, once the idea was out, nobody could stop it. And we just threw all our shit in a truck and just moved there. Which was crazy, because at that time the town was really set up to resist migration. They know that everybody has that California dream, so the system is built to keep you out: You can’t get an address without a local checking account, but you can’t get a checking account without an address. There’s all these catch 22s. It’s funny.
S: When you were in that freshman year, was there any thought in your mind that you might be a minister?
D: I wouldn’t say that I ever thought of being a minister, but I did have a go at trying to be a Christian. I really did. But I don’t think that at any point would I ever be a minister. I thought maybe I’d be a Christian rocker or something like that, but never a preacher. My little brother does that–he’s a preacher now.
S: So, San Diego didn’t work out.
D: No, but it was a good experience. It was like trying to put a plant in the soil and it just didn’t take. I just ended up leaving. After that I came home to Detroit and then really started trying to make bands and started Judah Johnson soon after, and that was my band up until 2006.
An Education. Part 3: The Judah Johnson Years
S: You had a lot of experiences with that band. You had a lot of success; you went on some tours; got some good album reviews.
D: Yeah, I mean, that’s how I taught myself how to make records. I learned how to use computers. I was one of those guys who were prehistoric about computers. Everybody else knew how to do it. I didn’t. So I had to change my brain. I got over my fear of computers to learn how to record because that’s how much I wanted to do it. Everything I know I pretty much learned in that band. And beyond music too. The guys I was with in that band changed my life. They taught me how to start thinking for myself, especially Charlie Koltak and Nate Cavalieri–they literally changed my life.
S: What do you mean by “started to think for myself?”
D: Just getting beyond belief systems. That was the big story of my life up till that point–I had no idea how crazy I was, you know, with belief. And I think most people don’t. I was brainwashed into thinking that integrity is staying true to an existing belief system, like it’s a thing of honor. You’re raised to stay the course, but now, I think the opposite is true, you know, change is all there is, which is a quote that I love, and I value change above all, you know, I think your beliefs should constantly be changing. So Charlie was scary to me because he didn’t place that much stock in “morals.” He wasn’t an immoral person, but he was trying to get beyond what we’ve been taught. He was trying to undo the brainwashing. So meeting him was scary, but at the same time I was totally intrigued and I was eventually able to take that thread and run with it myself. I mean, it’s hard to put into words quickly, but it was like a stance, an emotional stance about questioning everything, you know, the stuff you’re supposed to learn in college. But I was a late bloomer–I’ve always been–and I didn’t start learning that stuff until my 20s, after college.
S: You say you had this obsession with music. So when you were in Judah Johnson, and you guys started to tour, was that in line with what you always wanted? Did that change things for you at all?
D: I’ve never had a plan–never been a planner. So I never visualized what I wanted with music, and I kind of still don’t. I really just wanted to make the music we were listening to, something that would make us happy to hear if somebody else had made it…to a fault. There was never any consideration to anything else but making ourselves happy–a very selfish way to make music. I think as a result it never really did catch on. We had some tours, and some good reviews, and I think we made good music. I don’t know. When you ask if it changed anything, what do you mean?
S: I mean your relationship to music. What it did for you?
D: I guess, yeah, it helped me to connect with people. Imagine you’re one way–you’re totally insular–you just want to make myself happy. You’re listening to really abstract, long track lengths and I don’t have my audience in mind ever. And I’m not trying to communicate with another person. I’m not trying to have a conversation. So [at the time] I’m, like, a music recluse. I’m only talking to myself. And then, over years, you start to just get sick of that and really just want to get out of the house and meet other people, and I think the music I make now is always made with another person in mind. Not in the sense that I’m trying to catch on or make a hit but I really am just trying to talk to somebody. I think it’s a completely different perspective. But Judah Johnson was the process of my trying to move from one perspective to another.
S: Let’s move back to Extracolor for bit. When I read some of the materials on the press kit, you talk about how the album is about one theme, and that’s healing the mind. Was Lazrus about that too, or was it just a passage you had to get through?
D: I guess the most recent big event was I read a book–I won’t say what it is–but I thought, wow, I can take this and run with it. Before then, everything was just a fad. I would read someone’s point of view and I would love it for a year or 6 months or two years, but eventually I always outgrew it. But there was this one book, and people are always saying that the Bible is the living word, but this book has been alive because I’ve been practicing it ever since, and I realized how messed up I was and started to “heal my mind,” and that was all coinciding with meeting Kirsten [his fiancée] and having a reason to do it. It’s either, fix yourself, or lose this beautiful person. So, a lot of the themes on the record are about committing, because it was all tied up together.
So the last track on Lazrus is this track called “Gold Version,” and that was a vision of what it would be like if I did heal my mind. So it was the last thing written on that record, and that was me being really sick and trying to picture this luminous version of myself that’s gold–the gold version of myself. And then, after slowly practicing this stuff, lo and behold, you start to heal. It’s totally possible, and then, all the songs written after that was while this was going on. You know, you start to pull on this ball of yarn and start unraveling it. So Lazrus is all pre-this, but about to start a new version of my life [he laughs, slightly embarrassed].
S: Don’t worry, this is good. It doesn’t sound the way it probably sounds in your head right now. But, I guess what I’m trying to ask is whether, metaphorically, Lazrus is rising from the dead at the beginning of the album, or the end of the album, or some other place in the album, right?
D: Yeah, at the end of the album, definitely. You know, a lot of the songs were written around this time, but I think I was being premature, I think I didn’t really start to come back then, it was more realizing I had to, more like wishful thinking.
Extracolor, One More Time
S: Let’s talk more about Extracolor. The ordering of the tracklist. Is there a narrative?
D: No. When I’m picking a track list, I’m thinking beats per minute and keys and stuff like that.
S: Really? Because when I listen to “One More Time” I think of it as prologue, and when I hear “Commitment” I really think of it as coda. And the rest of the album seems like the narrative.
D: Well, you know, I guess that’s right. When I wrote “One More Time” I knew it was going to be the first song on the album–that was the only thing I cared about. So it is prologue. Because it’s a statement of intent. There’s no reason for me to making a record in this point of my life. I have no audience. No fan base. But I’m doing it anyway. I’m coming back one more time. I hope you like it. And “Commitment” definitely had to be the last song. But the rest of it though, there’s no order beyond that. But I knew those two songs had to be the front and the end.
S: I’d like to ask about how the album opens. It opens with this odd kind of singing part by Gregory Clark, who sings on a few tracks on the album. I was wondering, why start the album like that? [Editor's Note: Sadly, Gregory Clark passed away in early March, after this interview was conducted.]
D: That’s funny. I was trying to do these featurette, making-of-the-album-type videos because, you know, people like to see things. So I’m taking all this footage while I’m making this stuff, but once again, it’s me having to do everything and wear all the hats, so I was literally tracking and holding the camera. If you watch the video, the camera’s sideways, because I’m tracking and making decisions and trying to be musical. But that was him warming up. So the hook goes [singing] “Neeeverrr giving up my dreams for you” and he just goes “Ahhhh I neverrrr…” and I was thinking, that’s awesome. There’s something in his voice–this howl. And I just recorded the sound of the video and it became a sample and comes back later in the song later, but really I just wanted to get people’s attention.
S: Yeah, I think it dramatically alters how the album begins. If it was just those arpeggiated opening notes, it was have a very different feel.
D: Yeah, it would almost be like Animal Collective otherwise.
S: Tell me a little about Gregory Clark.
D: He’s just killing it, man. He’s a session vocalist in New York that Yessian uses because he’s totally nailing that Cee Lo thing. They bring him in when they need something super soulful. So when I would do certain projects I would say we gotta get Gregory Clark to sing on it, so my stuff would get sent off to New York and come back with these great vocals on it, and I thought, man I gotta use that guy. So I started talking to him and he’s just a really nice guy. He’s really involved with that show “Smash” right now, but if you look at his bio online you’ll see he’s worked with Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, everybody, performing live or in the studio, in movies, I mean, you couldn’t have a better career than him. So we got together just for this one night, to work on my record.
S: You know, my favorite thing about that video is the part where you’re walking up the street and he points up and says “look at that!” and you’re like “what?” and he said “that!” and you kind of captured on camera that thing he was pointing at, on the horizon.
D: Yeah! It was like Ghostbusters. I had a better shot of that that I took with my camera and you could totally see it, cause it was a little out of focus in the video but it was strange–just a really weird looking sky.
S: That was really cool.
S: You begin that video with him talking about how cinematic the songs are…
D: Oh, asking me about licensing and stuff?
D: I hope it comes across in that video: the reason I put that scene in there is just to show how little game I have, because he’s doing that thing where people talk industry talk and I’m just kind of like mumbling, “eh eh eh…I don’t know.” And I was watching later and I thinking “No wonder I’m not successful. I can’t even schmooze.” So that’s why I put that in there.
S: Tell me more about Melanie Rutherford. And pretend I didn’t read the article you wrote about her.
D: Yeah, that was a similar thing, where I heard her on Black Milk‘s album, Tronic, and I was just obsessed with this song she was on. And I thought, “who the hell is this girl?!” So I looked her up and found out she was from Detroit. So I called her with the idea of doing some tracks together–this is in about 2008–and then in the process of talking to her I thought she was so interesting. I had started to write for the Metro Times and I needed ideas and the first thing that came to mind was that I should do this feature on Melanie. But I think that that actually changed our relationship because she started seeing me as a writer, whereas I just really wanted to work with her musically. So years later I started to do this record and it was my dream to get her on the album. So I was really nervous and I didn’t think it was going to happen, but she came in here and just wailed for a few hours. But I think she only ended up on one track though.
S: That’s a really interesting track on the album, “I Believe.”
D: Yeah, it’s a little bit of an odd duck.
S: I think the heavy guitars kind of match the heavy words, like it’s almost preparation for them. Was that a cathartic song?
D: Umm, yeah! It was. That was the most literal approach to what I was trying to say with the record. That was the most plain-spoken version of it–and maybe “Powerlines” was the same way, just coming out and saying “I have a problem with the way that we relate to our opinions and beliefs and doctrines and stuff.” But it was interesting because you never know where people are going to be, so asking those singers to sing those lines was difficult.
You Should Sing That Way All the Time
S: Let me ask you this. So, in your album notes, you write that this album is about singing the way your really want to sing. How does that mesh with having all of these other singers and voices singing along with you on the album?
D: The singing the way I want to sing thing is totally true. You know that song “Tip of the Tongue”? It’s kind of buried in the back of the album. That was the beginning of a lot of stuff. I had done that as a demo while in Judah, so that’s the one song that predates the others. I was doing it in this faux soul thing…I don’t know what it is. It’s the voice that I always wanted to do but always just felt like it was silly and ridiculous and I could really never do that. And I felt a little shame about it. And I did this demo and just tracked it like that and it was one of those things where I was so insecure that I was really sweating doing it, and I didn’t know how to give it to people. And when I gave to the Judah people, everybody was just loving this song. Charlie Koltech, who drums on the record a little bit, he was like, “You should sing that way all the time.” It was a validation, you know, I didn’t feel so conspicuous and shameful about it.
And then I did “All the Way” while singing that way on the demo and I gradually convinced myself that I could do this. So I don’t think I’ve ever sung the way I sang on this album. Before I was kind of starting to get there with Lazrus, but if you go back and listen to Judah stuff, it’s not the same thing. And that’s pretty much the way I’ve always wanted to sing. You know, I’m not sure if it’s a George Michael influence, or Bono…I don’t know. That’s just that’s the way I feel like myself, but somehow I convinced myself it was stupid and I shouldn’t do it. So that’s the end of the road–I don’t want to change anymore as a singer. That’s myself. That’s the way I sound in my head.
And as far as working with other singers? I guess I’m using some soulful singers. John Zakoor, who also sang on the album, is a soulful singer. And Gregory and Melanie…I like soul singing–D’Angelo, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding–that to me is good singing.
The Visuals, and the Instagraming of Modern Music
S: Let’s talk about the cover a bit. You’re sitting outside a broken down car in the middle of nowhere. That’s the cover.
D: Yeah, I don’t know why that felt right. We did this initial photo shoot that my friends produced. I think they saw me as being into hip hop more than I really am, and we did this photo shoot as this baller thing, you know? I had this sweet watch on and a shirt and tie and sunglasses and we’re driving around in this BMW. And I looked at this stuff and thought “this was not the record. I’m not hip hop.” But there were certain things about it I really liked. I liked the BMW because it was an old, not hot car–like, it was hot once, and is no longer hot, but it’s still kind of hot. So I liked the idea of not having the coolest, hottest car, but having this car that’s stood the test of time and still looks good.
S: Yeah, it’s got a car with a hood that opens from the front out.
D: Yeah. So I thought, why don’t we get me in this car but being broke down on the side of the road? And that act of being broken down on the side of the road feels intrinsically like the story of my life. I’ve been poor almost my whole life, and I just feel like that’s where I’ve always been in regard to everything. But I love it, you know, that’s where I love to be. It just felt right. And maybe that’s too deep to figure out subconsciously why but I saw that image before we even shot it. I knew, I want that. And we made it happen.
S: Let’s talk about the second image. I see it as really ambiguous. Why did you choose that one? [The image shows Daniel with eyes closed and hands joined together as if in prayer. You can see it as the banner on Daniel's website].
D: I like it because it’s ambiguous, because it’s not really prayer, but it could be. It’s thoughtful. I don’t know. It just seemed to make sense. I was initially a little hesitant about it because it felt like it was almost trying to be sacrilegious and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. In the context of the music it would be sacrilegious.
It’s also a listening shot. I always liked the cover of Jeff Buckley‘s Grace. That picture was taken when they were playing back mixes of his album that he had not heard yet. So he was really, really listening, because when you listen to mixes you’re so sensitive to everything–you’re listening to every little detail. Eventually you get past that but you can tell that he’s like that. So to me, that was a listening photograph.
I’ll tell you one thing we shot for–I don’t know if we achieved it–was that we tried to be the un-Instagram. I feel like right now music is in an Instagram phase. Everybody’s slapping filters on stuff. Instagram is an instant vibe. You throw this filter on something you just took–you just pointed and shot. You don’t even have to be a good photographer, you just need to have something that has a little bit of style, and a lot of music is like that right now. It’s just really gauzy and lo-fi with lots of filters. But my record’s not like that. You can hear everything. The mix is pretty clean compared to other stuff and it’s very transparent. It’s very naked to me, in the sense that everything is there, in your face, it’s not filtered and blown out and submerged in reverb. And I wanted the photographs to be like that too. The head shot is so clear. You can see moles on my face. The artist did throw some paint on it, adding some extra color, literally, but other than that, it’s very clear.
S: The last thing I wanted to ask is, well, having read your blog and your own insights about the album, and reading some of your own writing–and knowing you’re a writer too–I gotta say it’s going to be difficult to write this piece because it might be better if you just wrote it yourself.
D: [laughs a little bit]
S: Yeah, there’s a lot to this, you know? Part of me feels like I wish I could just coordinate with a magazine a story where you talk about your work, and I can get credit as a project manager or something.
D: [laughs a bit more] Don’t worry about it, man, you’ll do fine. Write what you want to say. I mean, if anything, one of the things I’m still not happy about myself is that part of your mind that analyzes things and forces you into thinking about yourself in the third person. That’s something I’m trying to shut off; I’m still trying to starve that out. I had to write the bio for this stuff and I had a revulsion to it, having to write about yourself in the third person. I wish I could not do that, but, anyway.
Lana Del Rey, and Why It Would Be Better for Haters if they didn’t Hate
S: That comes through in your defense of Lana Del Ray that you wrote on your blog a little while ago.
D: Yeah, but I write that stuff, and I feel guilty. I felt really guilty about writing that because it’s argumentative and it’s something I’m trying to get past, in myself, because I was raised so argumentatively. But I really strove to keep that thing positive.
S: Well, I think you did, and frankly, I wouldn’t have expected your viewpoint from someone who wasn’t a songwriter. Especially if I think of myself in relation to you. I’m a guy who plays guitar sometimes, but you’re a musician. I think the people who often find indie music and its categories extremely important are the people who play the guitar sometimes and think of themselves as musicians.
D: I think I know what you mean. It’s that critical…um…it’s almost like a parasite that we all have–this inner voice that’s analyzing everything. And a lot of time that whole indie culture is full people for whom that voice has taken over, like a tyrant in their minds. So it’s excessive analysis of everything, and that’s why they’re judging everything–it’s because they’re scared of being judged. It’s this really weird snake-eating-the-tail type environment.
Like, the Lana Del Rey thing is almost not about her. I’ve thought about it so much that every one of my friends thinks I’m obsessed with Lana Del Rey, and I do love her songs, but it’s beside the point, because it’s really just about the way…I don’t know…I saw her on Letterman [a performance that aired soon after the largely derided SNL performance] and she was great. And when Bon Iver was on Saturday Night Live, and I was loving what I saw–whether you like it or not, I loved it–and it inspired me, and as I was having that feeling, literally as I was having that feeling, I glanced at my Twitter feed, and saw people rip on the performance. It was at that point that I thought the internet is just totally toxic.
S: It is, and it’s funny, because I was probably one of those people, and to be honest, I’ve never gotten into Bon Iver, and it’s not because I don’t like his music–I missed the boat. And I feel like, having listened to his new stuff, I just don’t know where he’s going, having not known from where he’s been. I never actually listened to Emma all the way through. I don’t know why. I was listening to something else I guess. But as I was listened to the SNL performance, I did go to social media and wrote “Bon Iver on SNL sounds like Bruce Hornsby and the Range with Autotune.”
D: Oh, haha, there’s definitely a Hornsby thing there, I guess.
S: Yeah, and I didn’t mean it as a put down, but I’m sure to a lot of people it sounded that way, and so when I read your post on Lana, I was hoping that I wasn’t those people.
D: Hmm. I don’t know if it was you or not. In fact, I think it was actually Gregory Clark, in NY, saying “what is this shit on SNL!” or something, but I mean, I’m trying to get past that point of view, but I’m also not trying to judge everybody because I’m into this really weird trip right now where I see praise of things as this form of criticism. Like, saying something is good is almost a way of saying other things are bad. It’s this need to quantify everything, you know what I mean? Things don’t need to be analyzed as much as we do . So I’m even starting to see there’s a form of excess in saying that I like things. Why do I even need to say that? It might sound crazy, but that’s where I’m at right now. I feel like it’s a critical faculty of my mind to praise things. Because when you say something is good, you almost have to say that some things are bad.
In Conclusion: Music, the Meaning of Life, and the Whatever
S: So, I guess that last thing is the recap question: Is there anything you want people who listen to your album to know about? You said earlier that you’re really trying to have a conversation with your listeners on this album.
D: Yeah, you know, I think a lot of musicians struggle with it. Like, P.J. Harvey has said publicly “Why am I doing this? Is there any value to music?” You know what I mean? It can be really selfish. What is this career that I have? Or, what is this hobby that I have? Why am I doing this? And I’ve kind of resolved that for awhile because I feel like what a good artist does or what a good musician does is they take you to a place that’s beyond language. That’s what music does. We have our left and right minds and the right side of our brains is the part that imposes structure–words, language, spatial relationships–and then the left side of our brain is the place of ecstasy and acceptance–it’s not having to say this is good or bad. And it’s almost like there’s this ferry between these two sides of our mind and the artist is that mythical ferryman who’s helping people get across. If you can just point that way! And this is why people respond to others who are really spontaneous, because that’s a person who’s going to help me ferry my way across, even if it’s something I have to do every day–I have to get to that place. In that sense I do think music is useful. I’ve made music and I think people should hear it but it’s also a music that’s about that journey of healing your mind, but with all that, whatever, hopefully you can respond to this record because the tunes get in your head and because you like the beats. That’s what I really wanted to do. I didn’t even set out for the record to be about anything. I really just wanted to make a carnal, beautiful, soulful, sexy record, and I feel weird talking about it, but that’s for you to write.