Danielson: Interview
“I can’t stand being lumped in with a twee or outsider art aesthetic.”

It’s been five long years since Danielson released Ships (TMT Review), but songwriter Daniel Smith hasn’t been idle during the time, focusing on his label (Sounds Familyre), producing records, and reconfiguring the Danielson lineup.

Best of Gloucester County, Danielson’s new record, is an 11-song meditation on the concept of home, nature, and the Smith’s longstanding exploration of Christianity, and features Sufjan Stevens and Jens Lekman. Smith took some time out of recovering from a cold to discuss God, mowing lawns, and things that irritate him circa TMT.

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You guys are getting ready to go on tour soon, correct?

Yeah in March. Getting it together.

Are you touring with the same band you recorded the album with?

Yeah, basically. Sufjan is busy (laughs). So he won’t be able to make it. But hopefully everybody else will. The idea is that everybody who played on the record, the core lineup, will be playing with me. That’s what we’re shooting for.

I imagine Sufjan is busy with his stuff. What did you think of Age of Adz?

I loved it. It was great. I thought there was a little too much hype over the “massive” direction change. It sounds like a Sufjan Stevens record. He’s using a different palate, but the songs are as melodic as ever.

A lot of folks thought of it as a big change, but he’s done the electronic thing in the past.

Yeah, he’s a good friend, but he’s also a great artist.

So he plays on Best of Gloucester Country?

Yeah, he sang on a couple of moments, and plays banjo on the entire record.

It’s been five years since Ships. What have you been doing during that time?

[Laughs] That’s a good question. What have we been doing? Trying to build a record label, and a studio, and doing production work. For some reason, it kept me super-busy. A little bit of touring, and we put out the Trying Hartz retrospective. We just had to get some old ideas finished.

In terms of a new record, a couple years after Ships my brother and my friend Chris and Ted, they had to move on with their lives, and follow their own dreams; which is understandable, but emotional. I had to start over, and figure out who I was playing with. There was a lot of rebuilding, and the songs just weren’t coming yet. So that’s the reason for the delay. It wasn’t really a delay, but it reads like that on paper. It turned out it was right on time.

“I’m enjoying looking around and seeing beauty, and mystery. I’ve always been fascinated with the supernatural and mysterious in every day moments, but this time it’s more visually.”

About your production work, you produced the Dan Zimmerman record, and the last mewithoutYou record. What do you look for in a production job? Does that stuff just present itself to you?

Well, with Sounds Familyre, a lot of those things I’m putting out, and I end up producing them because it’s an in-house job. These are my friends, and we all work together. With mewithoutYou, they came to me, and wanted to see if I was interested in that. I was. For me it’s about the songs, that’s where it has to start. I ask for demos, just raw material, to see if I have anything to offer. I don’t presume I have anything to offer. At all. If things make sense, and I can connect with what the artist is going for, then we go for it. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense, and I’m just the wrong guy. It’s pretty casual. I’m not out looking for that work, but when it comes, and it’s natural, I love it.

The new record, it isn’t the first record you’ve released on Sound Familyre, but it is the first released under the Danielson banner. The majority of your Danielson Family output has been released by Secretly Canadian.

We released the vinyl version of Tri-Danielson in 1999, that was actually how the label started, to have a place to put out the vinyl version of that. Since then, we’ve just been putting out music by friends, and it’s just been growing. It was always a little embarrassing that I would ask my friends to be on my label, but I wasn’t. So it came to the point, I felt like it was time to put all of our energies and focus into the label, including my music.

That whole process ended up being part of the record, just the whole “bringing-it-all-back-home-vibe,” just sort of moving back to the place you grew up and swore you would never come back. In my search for high culture, which certainly wasn’t around here, I missed some wonderful things that have been here all along. Coming back here was part of the realization that if we want culture, we have to create it.

“That’s what my life is consumed by: That love will conquer hate. “

I don’t often read much into press materials, but when Rick Moody writes them, they tend to be a bit more interesting. He writes about the album as a “locally grown opus.”

It’s not a concept album in any grand sense, but that’s why I titled it that, because the environment, and recognizing that the environment influences what you are doing if you let it. So there is a lot of more natural imagery in the artwork, even though it’s a little twisted. I’m enjoying looking around and seeing beauty, and mystery. I’ve always been fascinated with the supernatural and mysterious in every day moments, but this time it’s more visually.

When you grow up, you take it for granted. If I was living in New York City, I think I would be distracted by all the great stuff happening. It would be a lot harder for me to find the urgency to make something. When I am in an environment where there’s less distraction – I mean, there’s always some distraction, like music and art, but I mean, distraction for myself, it’s easier to put it together and make something.

The video seems to reflect that, with you going out and mowing some grass. It seemed like a visual statement of you being in a more natural setting.

That whole song came out of the frustration of having to mow my lawn. I felt like, “What am I doing, wasting my time with these practical things?” when, in my mind, I should be touring or something. The real frustration there, I thought, looking back, it would be a funny image to me, and funny to play off, just that rock-star fantasy combined with, “No, actually, it’s more useful for me to just be mowing my lawn right now.”

It’s a really funny video, just the look on your face, mowing that lawn with such rock-star swagger.

[Laughs.] Thank you!

That’s something I have always enjoyed about your music. You may be singing about some high-minded ideas, but you never sacrifice a sense of humor or whimsy, sort of a sugar with the medicine kind of thing.

I appreciate that. That’s the only way I can do it, with ideas rooted in everyday life.

I feel like in lot of indie-rock or folk, there’s a twee mentality, trying to come across cutesy and awkward intentionally, but I’ve never felt that’s what you were going for, that you, even though you are funny or silly, you weren’t aiming to be quirky for quirk’s sake.

I can’t think of a better compliment. I can’t stand being lumped in with a twee or outsider art aesthetic. I am influenced by that stuff, and I guess a guy singing in falsetto in a tree costume can certainly be written off as that. I like a lot of that stuff, but I am not interested in presenting myself as an outsider artist when I am not. I like a lot of that stuff, and I am influenced by it, but [also, just as much] as Led Zeppelin. Hopefully all of those influences will wrap up into being something that isn’t so easy to write off.

“They had to move on with their lives, and follow their own dreams; which is understandable, but emotional. I had to start over, and figure out who I was playing with. “

There’s always been visceral, aggressive element too. I wouldn’t lump you in with the twee thing.

People have. It irritates me.

When you present such a singular image and sound, you end up with a lot of people’s preconceptions and labels, as people desperately try to categorize what you do.

Like “Christian band”? That’s another thing that irritates me.

Your father created music that was specifically created for incorporation into the church, that was created as sacred music.

Yeah, he made gospel music.

You also make music that isn’t strictly gospel music, but is rooted in theological concepts. Have you had to deal with secular people’s tendency to peg you as a Christian artist, and on the other hand, dealt with Christian people’s view of you as some sort of ambassador to the world at large?

I’ve been influenced so much by indie rock of the 1980s and ’90s, and that world prides itself on being open-minded, so that’s where I belong, artistically and musically. I figure, that’s where I want my music to go to be taken seriously as music. In the beginning, the late ’90s, it was very political to have a Christian involved in indie rock.

I mean, we had someone come up to us after a show at the Black Cat and say, “You don’t belong here.” That’s outrageous. That was kind of shocking, but at the same time, exciting, because I like that friction. I feel like I haven’t had to think about it as much, I feel like music clubs are the places that people go to play music and all kinds of people should be there. It’s about music. I’m not selling anything. It’s not propaganda. I’m just doing what any artist should do, which is try to be true to their being and talk about their everyday life.

Do you feel like part of that skepticism or rejection has anything to do with the way Christian artists have sequestered themselves away from that?

Absolutely. There’s no question. There was an entire decade of philosophies in certain aspects of the church, not all, where you needed to withdraw from this world the devil owns. So a lot of terrible things came from that. Now you are pulling away and creating your own society, and I’m not trying to get too judgmental here, because I don’t want to do that, but at the same time, there are things that happen when you pull away from society and say, “Society is doomed, and we’re just going to wait till the end of the world.” That was a real thought! And it may still be. I wasn’t brought up that way, thank God, and I was allowed to listen to The Beatles when I was 5-years-old. As you should.

So once you’ve heard The Beatles, you are enlightened. Your standards are pretty high. If you listen to The Beatles and Bob Dylan, you’ve got to stand up to that stuff. I don’t know where we are going with that stuff.

The whole idea of a Christian market seems strange to me, though not foreign. I grew up in church, and I remember being given Stryper’s To Hell With the Devil after buying Metallica’s Ride The Lightening.

The only music that should have its own kind of category is any kind of devotional music, which is solely to sing to God. That is a private thing, and I have no problem with that being separate, because that is not entertainment.

“Hosanna in the Forest,” the last track on the new album, sounds very devotional and private. Do you not perceive that as a worship song?

I hadn’t thought about it. I don’t know. I just liked the imagery and the place that it brought me. If people want to use it that way, it’s fine. It was written in a place of looking for peace. My intention was a desperate cry for peace in the everyday.

Putting a song that that on a record is something that creates room for a discussion, something that makes it all the more difficult to categorize something as “this is this and that is that.”

Yeah, am so naïve that I don’t even know if there is a Christian-rock world.

There used to be a lot more division.

It took a lot of time to come out of that fear-based theology. It’s based on fear. Fear and the belief that the Devil is winning. I happen to believe that the spirit of God is winning. That love will conquer over hate. That’s what my life is consumed by: That love will conquer hate.

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