The Wizard of Dawes: Taylor Goldsmith on making ‘We’re All Gonna Die’ and playing Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
What: An Evening with Dawes
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Saturday, Feb. 11, 9 p.m.
How much: $36/GA; $50/reserved
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
Dawes didn’t go into the studio for its new album with a mission to reinvent the band or its folk-rock sound. But nobody would blame you for thinking so.
The production on the new record, “We’re All Gonna Die,” released in September, is something of a creative swerve away from the band’s classic Americana foundation — incorporating what sound like computer-generated effects, synthesized hooks, electric and electronic sounds.
“The funny thing is that none of it is computer-generated,” frontman Taylor Goldsmith said from Los Angeles before beginning the 50-city tour that brings Dawes to Boulder today and Belly Up Aspen on Saturday. “It’s different ways of making a guitar sound cool or making a keyboard sound cool.”
For instance, the garbled and chugging riff that opens the album on “One of Us” comes from a clavinet (the swampy electronic keyboard best known for Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious”), a bass and a guitar all being plugged directly into a sound board. A similar otherworldly keyboard effect on “Roll With the Punches” comes from a pianet played through a guitar distortion pedal. The drum machine sound on the sweet R&B-inflected title track is all the handiwork of Griffin Goldsmith on a traditional drum kit.
“It’s a trip to hear people thinking it sounds like a drum machine in certain songs or it sounds like a synthesizer in certain songs, when actually it’s not,” Goldsmith said.
The sonic adventures of “We’re All Gonna Die” — recorded with Grammy-nominated producer Blake Mills in Dawes’ native Los Angeles — were a natural creative progression. The experimentation, Goldsmith said, was anything but a rejection of the band’s roots.
“With our first few records, we wanted to kind of honor the associative traditional powers of these instruments: we wanted an acoustic guitar to sound like an acoustic guitar; we wanted a B-3 to sound like a B-3,” he explained. “And it was a thrill. We’d never really made that much recorded music, so to really play and record these instruments as we grew up hearing them was enough to blow our minds. Then you do that for a while and, as time goes on, you want to start f—ing with things.”
If the band was already leaning in an experimental direction, working with Mills pushed them further without creative restraints.
“His goal — whether he would say it like this or not, I don’t know — is he’s always trying to create music that makes you feel, ‘I’ve never heard this before,’” Goldsmith said. “That made its way into our heads, as well.”
After four albums of mostly sunny Laurel Canyon-style rock, the sonic terrain of “We’re All Gonna Die” is a new landscape for the band. But it’s not the turning point it might seem to be. Goldsmith compared it to the making of 2015’s “All You Favorite Bands,” which was when the quartet figured out how to translate the freewheeling spirit and energy of their vaunted live concerts into the studio.
“A lot of people said, ‘Does this mean this is how you’re going to make your records now?’ And we said, ‘No, by no means. It’s how we made this record.’”
Goldsmith and his band, unlike a lot of rock bands — and fortunate for their longtime fans — don’t abandon the old stuff when they make new stuff. At a Dawes show, you’re as likely to hear early material from their 2009 debut “North Hills” as you are the new album they’re touring on. (And despite the distortion and effects on “We’re All Gonna Die,” Goldsmith noted, he’s playing more acoustic guitar than ever before in concert.) The Belly Up show is scheduled to include two full sets with an intermission, and material spanning the entire Dawes discography.
“You see a lot of bands and a lot of artists that sort of resent what they’ve done,” Goldsmith said. “Then you go to their show and they don’t even play any of their old songs and it kind of bums you out. For Dawes, it’s always been more of a feeling that we want to learn more and apply it to what we do next.”
The writing and recording process for the new album happened very quickly, in a burst of inspiration for Goldsmith and his band. Lyrically, the new songs tend to look at the bright side of dark times (the title track, which indeed reminds us that “we’re all gonna die,” is an assured love song). Goldsmith credits both the charmed creative process and the optimism of the album to his personal happiness, his falling in love and settling down (with the actress and pop star Mandy Moore).
“The songs did come out of a place where I was very much in love, and that’s where the inspiration came from,” he said. “It’s ironic and funny that — for any young artist and for my whole life — you feel like once you start entertaining any idea of domesticity or living in one place with one person, that you would lose the muse. For me, the opposite has been true.”
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