The first time I caught a Dawes live set was arguably one of the most pivotal in the band’s career to date. It was last year at the Newport Folk Festival, and they were the only band who performed--and who truly earned, really--a riotous encore that had an entire crowd on their feet and belting their hearts out to songs they didn’t even know the words to. Taylor’s dad hopped onstage with him to lead the sing-along, and “When My Time Comes” and “Fire Away” were song titles scrawled on the backs of ticket stubs or texted reminders that half the fort walked away with that day. It was clear that the Los Angeles quartet with the rolled-up sleeves, scrappiest of stage presences and hit-’em-where-it hurts balladry were about to make the leap--the one that takes you from the dive bar stage to ornate amphitheaters alongside rock icons in the drop of a downbeat.
Fast forward to last Thursday, where I found myself in one of the dressing rooms in the belly of the Wang Theatre alongside Taylor Goldsmith. Taylor, Dawes’ frontman, was sitting cross-legged with a book open on the counter before him and a guitar in his lap. The guys--Taylor, his little brother and Dawes’ drummer, Griffin, Wylie, Dawes’ bass player, and Tay, Dawes’ keys--had just rolled into town with Allison Krauss, who they’re currently supporting on tour. Though their schedule was absolutely insane and involved hours upon hours of driving between Boston, upstate New York and back to New England for their set with M. Ward at Newport in the matter of three days, the men of Dawes were ready, willing and able to open for the bluegrass legend in her own right--even if their set was only six songs deep, and especially because Allison’s fans aren’t exactly the beer-swilling, epic shout-along-ers that the guys are used to. Below, you’ll find the transcript from my backstage chat with Taylor. I’d edit it and summarize it for you, but for one thing, he’s a pretty eloquent guy. And for another, he’s candid, passionate and gets right to the gut of what’s up with why he hasn’t written a song in a few months.
Photos: Jess Hodge.
Let’s catch up since the last time we talked in November. I know you’ve been playing a lot of stuff from the new record for a zillion years, but I know that you’ve also been backing a lot of very special people since then. How’s it going!?
Taylor Goldsmith: It’s been crazy! We haven’t really settled down … like, we had the month of February off, and we did a Dawes secret show in Los Angeles, and then we played a gig with our buddy Jonathon Wilson. That’s where Jackson Browne watched us and decided he wanted to take us out [on tour]. All I’m saying is that, even on our time off, we tend to fill it all up. It’s cool. It makes for a lot of wonderful experiences, but I haven’t written a song in a long time because I’ve had no time to.
We talked about this before when we were talking about Middle Brother—you mentioned that you write really slowly. I think we were talking about the differences between you and John [McCauley, of Deer Tick]. You were saying how John will write a song like that [snaps], but you need to ruminate a bit. Do you think that plays into the fact that you haven’t written anything in a long time?
TG: A little bit. I think if I were to get two weeks off, and maintain the discipline of not booking it up with “Oh sure, I’d love to play on his record,” I think I could get something out of that. And I hope to very soon. But I think that’s a big part of it—time to sit and think, and let my brain catch up.
I guess the argument could be that you’ve been so—I don’t want to say distracted, that’s got a negative connotation—but you’ve had all this other stuff going on with Middle Brother, the Robbie Robertson Letterman set and the Jackson Browne shows. It’s all really huge. It’s really unusual for a band to go through stuff like that.
TG: And we’re proud to be that band. At Newport, all of Dawes will be there, and we’re not even doing a Dawes set. [They did, in fact, come onstage at the close of the Middle Brother set and have people in pieces over “When My Time Comes,” but more on that later—Ed.] Griffin plays drums with Middle Brother for certain songs, Tay and Wylie will both be on stage, and then after Middle Brother’s done, Matt Ward is going to go on stage and we’re going to be the band for that, because we learned a lot of his songs. We love doing that. We love backing up friends and creating those kind of relationships. Johnny Corndog is going to make a record in the new year and we’re going to be the band for that. We love being that band that backs people up and is known for that. I don’t know if we are, but if people associate us with the people we have backed up, then that’s an honor. The only problem is that I’m trying to be a songwriter, too.
It’s a lot of hats to stack on at the same time, you know? What has the feedback been for backing up all of these people? What do your fans think?
TG: It’s been great. It’s funny—I feel like people read into it what they want to read into it. Thanks to things like Twitter, it’s very easy to see people talking to you, because they attach your name to it and you can read it … so some people are like, “Yeah it’s cool seeing Dawes back up Jackson Browne and Robby, but I want to see them with someone contemporary.” To me, we’re getting to play with two of our heroes. I might have said something like this to you before, but if two years ago, someone said, like, “Someday you’re going to meet Robby Robertson or Jackson Browne,” that would be enough to set me off. I’d freak out just to shake their hands. Now, here we are, having spent a week with Jackson Browne in Spain, talking about music and talking about what it means to be a songwriter. It’s been the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever gotten to do, and I feel so honored. But people still find ways to be like, “Well, that’s cool BUT …” and they disregard the fact that we back up Johnny, and we back up Matt Ward … but for us personally, we’re a band that plays music, but if we get the opportunity to play with our hero—
You’re going to fucking take it.
TG: FUCK yeah. Getting to share a song with someone and getting to connect on a personal level that you wouldn’t have otherwise—it’s like getting to share what you love to do with the people that inspired you to do it in the first place. I can’t think of a better honor.
Well it’s kind of an endorsement, too. And it also doubles your audience. Your fans are younger; I mean, not all of them, obviously, but getting that stamp of approval from Jackson Browne opens you up to all of his fans.
TG: Yeah, it’s wonderful. And he couldn’t be sweeter about it. There were certain shows where we’d be on stage, and we’d be in the middle of an encore, and we wouldn’t know what to play next, and he’d be like, “Can we play ‘Strangers Getting Stranger?’” It’s a Dawes song that’s on our, like, pre-order EP, a bonus on our iTunes release, but it’s not even on our record. He’s such a hip guy, and he’s so in tune with what’s going on around him … he was like, “That’s my favorite song of yours!”
It’s good to know that it’s not just a gimmick and that he actually listens to and appreciates your music.
TG: Yeah. He speaks Spanish really well, and there was a Spanish interview that he did, and someone was like, “Check it out, he mentions you in it.” So I was looking through it, and I noticed that he mentioned that we have really cool, ironic lyrics and he quotes a line from a song that he’s never mentioned to me, so it’s clear that he’s listening beyond being a buddy. The fact that he’s invited us is such an honor, but to go above and beyond, and really give a shit, it means the world to me. More than I’ve been able to tell him. Every time I try to tell him, I’m like, oh man, I’m fanning out. I don’t want to ruin the relationship and make him uncomfortable.
What does your dad think about all this?
TG: He’s awesome. He’s really excited about it. I feel like any parent, he’s like, “Of course! Why wouldn’t it be you guys?” kind of thing.
Is he going to come back to Newport?
TG: Not this year, unfortunately. He’s the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. We can never leave a restaurant without him saying at least 20 minutes of hellos and goodbyes.
That was so epic when he came up and did the encore with you last year. Does that happen to you guys a lot, where you play shows and you’re like, “Just get on stage with us!”
TG: Sometimes. Every time we’re in Madison [Wisconsin] our buddy Patrick Brynner plays sax with us. It’s funny, because I feel like, people in those towns probably assume that we just have a sax player in our band because they’ve never seen a show where we don’t. These shows, like … we hear you say, “I’m excited to see you guys tonight!” and I appreciate that, but it’s also, it’s a different thing, because last night we played only a half-hour set with like, six songs … and it was the only time I’ve ever had an acoustic guitar on stage. I had an electric, too … but it’s definitely, like, broken-down Dawes because the nature of [Allison Krauss’s] fan base. When they asked us, they were like, “We want you to come do the tour, but just so you know, this isn’t the kind of crowd that’s going to respond to turning the distortion up really loud and running across the stage. In fact, you’ll alienate people.”
Well, I’ve never seen you in a place where I’ve had to sit down before. It’s a completely different experience.
TG: Yeah, we’re hoping to figure out way to do a good job of putting on different hats [laughs]. This hat is, like, putting on a show that’s more of a revue, and it’s more of the experience you’d get when you go to a John Prine show. You just want to listen to some music, you don’t expect to be rocked.
And you and John Prine were on the Newport Folk bill last year, too. It seems kind of crazy that you guys are playing these shows with Allison Krauss and then you’re about to head to Newport where Elvis Costello and Emmy Lou Harris will also be there.
TG: It’s funny, because I was looking at the lineup at Newport, and where we were playing, and I feel like if you ask any member of Middle Brother about Middle Brother, they’ll just start laughing. It’s a goofy experience. We love it, we’re proud of it, it’s awesome, but it’s definitely like a, ramshackle, thrown-together thing that we try to make sense of when we can. When I looked [at the Newport Folk schedule] I saw it was Justin Townes Earle’s set and then Middle Brother, and I was like, “Oh man, we’re book-ended by these really incredible, serious acts, and then these three bozos are going to get up and do the bozo hour.” Someone sent me a picture recently—John [McCauley] was doing a show up in Montauk, and there were kids, and it was a family event, and it ended up with John in his underwear rolling around in the grass with the kids and the kids are playing along and all the families are laughing. It was so funny.
He played a Boston Harbor boat cruise about a month ago and we actually had money on John jumping overboard at some point … I mean, my favorite set at SXSW was the one that took place in that humungous tent, when you and Deer Tick played together and when John and Matt [Vasquez] stormed the stage during “When my Time Comes.”
TG: That was so fun.
Is it true that this is Middle Brother’s last show?
TG: I think that there’s a good chance that it is, actually. Deer Tick is gearing up to do their next album. And Delta Spirit is doing their thing. I think it’s just, like, we were so lucky to carve out the time that we did. Even now, it’s not easy to do these Middle Brother shows, we’re doing this one in the middle of a Dawes tour. Just trying not to kill ourselves with how busy we get, I think there is a good chance that this will be the last one. I mean, who knows?
So you mentioned that you haven’t written anything in a couple of months. What’s the plan?
TG: Well, it’s off and on until mid-September. This [tour] ends in mid August, then we drive to Texas and do a couple shows, then Santa Monica, a show in L.A. on the first [of September], then Red Rocks.
Have you played Red Rocks before?
TG: We did it as Simon Dawes a long, long time ago. So that will be a great, fun experience, and after that we do, like, five dates with M. Ward in later September.
Do you miss L.A.?
TG: I love L.A. and I love characters from L.A. Like, getting to know Jackson and all the places he’s lived. He still lives behind this little Mexican food place, he’s been there forever, he’s like a staple. L.A. will always be where I end up. I plan to live other places for good amounts of time, but I definitely miss L.A. I can write wherever. It’s not a matter of being in L.A.; it’s a matter of getting some privacy. With Middle Brother, I got a lot of songs done, really because I was inspired by a new place. I was writing so fast and so much, because it was a totally different feel, a totally different quality of life and quality of people … it was an inspiring time.
It sounded crazy. Matt talked about how the producer got you guys pizza …?
TG: Do you know Ferraby Lionheart? He makes really great records. He was leaving Nashville and we were looking around for places to stay, and he said we could sublet his house, so that’s where we lived. Matt didn’t come until two weeks into it. John and I were there for the month of January and the recording started, like, February 15th. Matt just slept on the floor, and John and I would switch off with who got the bed and who got the couch.
--Tay comes back from the tuning the piano upstairs; Griffin comes in and starts reading on the couch.--
Are we going to see any Dawes and Allison action onstage tonight?
TG: Well, last night was our first night together. You know, we don’t know each other quite yet. I don’t know, maybe by the end of the tour. Truth is, no one in Dawes can hang with those guys … they’re the best players I’ve ever seen. Every solo last night was just, like, off the charts. And then the harmonies were flawless. This whole tour will be a learning experience for the four of us.
Let’s talk about pressure. I’m sure it’s not the easiest, breeziest thing to go on tour with Robby and Jackson and Allison Krauss, and yet you seem really comfortable. Are nerves an issue for you guys?
TG: When we played our secret L.A. show with Jackson … that was the first time I’ve been nervous in a long, long time. With Robby it was really easy, because it was just one song. I just kind of sang and did a few chords, and Griffin and Wylie had their shit down, it was really simple for us. It’s not like it’s a scary thing. If we go out tonight and we’re booed, and nobody buys the record, I’m not going to [be crushed]. It’s more like, how do we play on the audience’s terms? They’re not going to make me believe that we’re a terrible band. It’s just a matter of, how do we play something that they find enjoyable? And then maybe open them up to something else we do, maybe they’ll buy a record, and come to every show from now on. When I think of the career we want, it’s more along the lines of Allison Krauss and Josh Ritter and Ryan Adams, artists that aren’t really put into categories, like, “This is the new, cutting-edge band.” Bands like Edward Sharpe and Foster the People, they’re always going to be on the forefront of that. Dawes can’t really keep up in that world.
Well, your songs are timeless.
TG: And that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s a Catch 22. On one hand, I really appreciate that, and that’s the goal, but on the other hand, there are people that are like, “Man, Dawes is so unoriginal. Such a throwback.” And it’s fine. If they’re looking to hear something they’ve never heard before, then they should go buy the Bon Iver record and not the Dawes record. Not that Dawes is something that they’ve already heard—I like to believe that we’re our own singular voice, but it is much more traditionally based, and we’re playing instruments as they’ve always been. It’s all cool, but we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re not inventing a genre like other artists do. If it makes you feel good, that’s all that matters. If it moves you, then who cares if it’s the original thing you’ve ever heard, or if it’s a Johnny Cash rip off??
Everyone talks about how important it is to reinvent yourself. Seems kind of artificial sometimes, especially when you’re “reinventing” yourself to please other people.
TG: Yeah, some people will be like, “You’ve got to listen to this band, it’s so original and so clever … I’ve never heard anything like it!” But how does it affect someone? What do people take away from it? If what you’re looking for in music is that this gets me excited and it’s new to my ears and that’s why I like it, than more power to you, but to me—the music that I like is something that doesn’t hit on an “art for art’s sake” level, but on a universal level, one that affects my perspective on the way that I look at a relationship, or myself, or my age. Something that forces me to readdress my perspective on my human experience.
What’s been the toughest song for you to write?
TG: The ones that are always the hardest to write, are the ones that are not easy to say what they’re about, necessarily. Ones that are built up with a lot of thoughts and consideration, I guess. Songs like, “Strangers getting stranger,” and “When You Call My Name” and “When My Time Comes,” those songs are the ones that take a long time because … if you were to say, “What is this song about, exactly?” it’s not easy to put into words. Songs that I do have a set goal for, those are challenging because there’s a theme or point to it that I’m very conscious of achieving. There’s a point that I’m very aware of that needs to happen, like in “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” There’s a structure that I have to stay within … in those songs, there needs to be a payoff. It needs to get to the end, and a listener needs to feel, “Oh, now I know why he started where he started.”
--Guy comes in with cooler of beer/snacks.
Are you one of those bands with a rider that’s like, 800 pages long?
TG: [Laughs] No. Our agent told us that we should add some stuff to our rider. Griffin was like, “We should get some salmon jerky!” and another one of the guys was like, “Let’s get some aged cheddar!” and I was like, “This sounds terrible. We can’t do this, this is not okay.” We keep it pretty simply just for the sake of not being those assholes.