Wednesday, September 28, 2022

‘Cut loose’: Dawes frontman talks improvisation, Zappa and ‘Misadventures of Doomscroller’

Dawes will perform at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater with Bahamas on Sept. 11. (Photo by Ward & Kweskin)

Want to know how the new Dawes album, “Misadventures of Doomscroller,” is different from the band’s previous seven albums? Think about comparing Frank Zappa to the Rolling Stones or R.E.M.

“With our kind of music, our scene, there’s all this talk of restraint,” Dawes singer-songwriter and guitarist and Taylor Goldsmith observed during a mid-July phone interview. “Sometimes you’ll hear these records by monster guitar players or musician and there’s no evidence of that. I really applaud when a song calls for [restraint] because I think that’s the height of taste, but I also think when you can, cut loose.”

Dawes doesn’t sound like the Rolling Stones. And no one has ever sounded quite like Zappa. At most, the L.A.-based band — consisting of Taylor and his brother, Griffin Goldsmith (drums), Wylie Gelber (bass) and Lee Pardini (keyboards) — may share some of the melodic alt-rock feel of R.E.M. Goldsmith considers the Athens, Georgia, band a major influence.

Yet, Dawes’ Americana folk rock is more straight-forward and weaves in graceful pop melodies. In a recording studio, the quartet keeps songs concise, while live they lean more into solos and improvisation.

But when the pandemic hit, Goldsmith and his bandmates decided to throw out their rule book and take musical liberties they had always eschewed on earlier albums. Unclear on when touring would start again, Goldsmith said they decided to make music on their own terms for “Misadventures of Doomscroller.”

“I’ve always told the guys how exciting it is to hear these jazz records that are only five or six songs … no limitations,” Goldsmith said. “There are no parameters on what people are or are not allowed to do, and wouldn’t that be fun with a bunch of Dawes songs? So that’s what we did and we really didn’t hold back.”

Then there was also the Zappa factor. Goldsmith said the discovery of the avant-garde rocker — known for free-form improvisation, crossing all genres and not bending to rules — left an imprint.

“I think [he] was a big catalyst for making this possible in my own brain,” Goldsmith said. “I felt like I was given permission, not that I’m a flashy guitarist … in listening to Zappa. [It’s like,] ‘Oh, he’s doing everything he wants and everything he can and he’s really exploring the instrument and experimenting himself and it’s so fun. He’s taking excellence to the extent that he’s capable.'”

The seven songs on “Misadventures of Doomscroller” feature adventurous arrangements that don’t lose the musical plot along the way.

The album opens emphatically with the near 10-minute opus, “Someone Else’s Café/Doomscroller Tries To Relax.” Greeting the listener with a snazzy chiming guitar hook, the song settles into its appealing central vocal part, only to take a sharp turn into an instrumental segment that moves from jazz-tinged edginess into a fluid guitar solo that introduces the downright pretty second half of the track. Far from feeling jammy, every note is intentional and integral to a song that earns every second of its generous length.

The same can be said of other lengthy tracks: “Everything Is Permanent” (which features an airy and elegant Pink Floyd-esque guitar solo); “Ghost in the Machine” (where the tumbling beats played by Griffin Goldsmith and producer Jonathan Wilson give this track a rocking tension that’s a new stylistic wrinkle for Dawes); and “The Sound That No One Made/Doomscroller Sunrise” (with guitar leads and solos that elevate the track). 

Because the pandemic had prevented the four musicians from rehearsing the material beforehand, it wasn’t a shoe-in the songs would work. Goldsmith said he was sending elaborate demos to the bandmates before arriving at the studio in November 2020.

“The demos were horrible. They’d be a guitar or bass just sort of clunking my way through it and kind of talking over it, like ‘Oh, try to imagine this instead of what you’re hearing,'” he recalled. “They took to it immediately — and, yeah, we weren’t able to get together so I didn’t really know if it was going to work or if it was going to sound good.”

Day one proved they were on the right track, he said.

Dawes certainly built up enough experience playing together during its 15-year span and exploring various musical directions to make good on the ambitious plans for “Misadventures of Doomscroller.”

The group grew out of the post-punk-leaning band Simon Dawes after the 2007 departure of Goldsmith’s songwriting partner Blake Mills. As Dawes, the group pivoted to their familiar Americana rock sound with their 2009 debut album “North Hills.”

The band continued to develop its sound over the next three albums, before taking an adventurous sonic turn on 2016’s “We’re All Gonna Die.” With Mills joining in as producer, the band incorporated a variety of synthesizers and other synthetic elements, bringing more edgy pop-rock to their signature indie sound. 2018’s “Passwords” continued in a similar vein before the band returned to a more organic sound on the 2020 album “Good Luck With Whatever.” 

Dawes aren’t holding back with their live shows this summer, either. They’ll be playing a good chunk of material from “Misadventures of Doomscroller.” The band will stop at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater to perform with Bahamas on Sept. 11.

The show will feature two sets with Dawes backing Bahamas — consisting of Canadian musician Afie Jurvanen. Then Jurvanen will join Dawes’ set.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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