The Danielson X-perience Pt. 1
By Edgar White | 1 June 2006
Where: The Lakeshore Theater, Chicago, Illinois
When: May 25, 2006
I was feeling pretty sleazy, a ring-tailed phony, because if it matters, I lied. Around Christmas time, I wrote a letter to Dom about traveling through a vaginal ovoid into what I supposed was a new dimension. That never happened. I actually went up to Evanston, saw a movie, and had dinner at a nice little French bistro. It wasn’t meant to be a test of friendship, I just felt a little tired of Dom’s posturing. He’s my friend, but he’s also a “casual” alcoholic.
Anyway, here I am again, Scott asked me to go and have a talk with Danielson. The show was at the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago, right there at Belmont and Broadway, a place that championed itself apart from the Chipotle next door by means of a fat marquee and smooth, gray brick. It advertised a comedy musical about antics in the office. The threadbare lobby was empty.
I asked the ticketgirl about sales for the show. She had the kind of rosey cheeks that would have made disappointing news alright, so I was disappointed to hear that ticket sales were doing superbly. You mean I wouldn’t be serenaded by the Famile. No, not for me, not alone. I told her my name and she sent a wandering, bespectacled grunt to go find Daniel. They’d already finished soundcheck, I was informed. A tri-fold placeholding pamphlet stood on the ticket counter revealing critics’ musings on the cubicle musical. Dan emerged from where I figured the theater to really be, and pulled out a cell phone to check the time. I had a sense of unease; the cell phone was sleek, steely, fancy, and his clothes were plain, plaid, denim, tucked in and more conservative than any other outfit mewling about. I warned him, noticing his height next to my slight frame, that I had a cold. We reached out and fake shook hands, I’d come back in forty minutes or so. He was the same height as me.
After buying a record at Reckless, upping and downing the neighborhood, I sat on a bench until the bespectacled fellow stood over me, blocking the sun, encouraging me to go with him to Daniel. I followed, he sure was a friendly guy, inside, through the theater. The showroom had a crenated enamel wreathing every angle; faux, gilded mirrors balanced on top of dim lights lining the walls. It really would have housed an off-Broadway show better than a musical one, but the PA system rang clear enough in the dark. Backstage, in a yellow room greened with age, Dan sat hunkered over a container of milk and vegetables. We’re introduced, my guide left the room.
CMG: Thai food?
He nods, rummaging through the takeout bag for a napkin. I sit down. I’m laconic, I put my foot on the chair, and my knee in my face. I cup my knee cap and let my elbows sag. For a moment I wonder if I have a dandy’s air about me. I’m thinking Udon Curry Cream, maybe.
So, how you doing?
Daniel (D): Doing good. (Wipes his mouth, swallows.)
(We chat quietly about Chicago, how he was here two years ago at a place he remembers as the Intuit Art gallery, something like that. He mentions the show the night before in Louisville, how the band’s never played there before. I’m consciously keeping the questions terse, giving him room to chew.)
So what’s the make-up of the band for this tour?
D: It’s six people: my brother David on drums, and my sister Megan on marimba and glockenspiel, and singing. Then my sister Rachel on various percussion, and Megan’s husband Jed is playing bass…
Has he played with you guys before?
D: No, so this is the first time for this tour, and we have a fill-in keyboard player named Evan who’s filling in for Chris Palladino, who always plays keys for us.
What’s Chris doing?
D: His wife just had a baby, like just now, (Edgar chuckles.) so he can’t come these first couple weeks. Evan’s filling in, and yeah, it’s the six of us total.
What are the other family members doing right now?
D: Let’s see, Andrew is graduating from college next week.
Where’s he going?
D: He went to Drexel, Philadelphia, Drexel University, for computers. And I said Chris Palladino just had a baby…and my wife can’t come because our daughter’s in school…
How old is she now?
D: Well, I have two daughters, a six yr old and a three yr old…
Oh, OK, cuz I was just watching the movie…
D: Oh yeah, that was good, that was good, she was proud of that, providing some comic relief… (Pulls some paper towels down, loudly, to wipe his mouth.)
Speaking of the movie, have you seen it recently?
D: Yeah, yeah. I’m really…honored and thrilled. It’s been helpful to me because it’s kinda wrapped up this long and confusing thing we’ve been doing for ten years. It tells a story that is, ya know, really true. A story that’s about identity, artistic identity…Are we a band or are we not a band? Because everybody’s busy; like, what kind of vision did I have in the beginning, and then welcoming friends and helping them, them helping me. It’s very much about community, family and friend creative community.
And that’s what Ships is about?
D: Yeah, abso — well that’s what Danielson’s about, it’s been that way from the beginning. In the very beginning it was me by myself, putting some songs together, calling it Danielson, and then presenting it to my brothers and sisters, the ones who were around me at the time. We had this tremendous music history together and we presented some songs. Then we wrote a new record, that’s the Chopping Block record, and at that point we started playing out as a family. Ya know, it kinda became a band, I never formed a band…Danielson was just something I did, and the people around me were the people that got involved. The Famile, and that’s why the record started being called that, to honor the people who were involved.
Why’s it spelled like that?
D: Just think it looks cool…(Edgar laughs.)…ya know (Grins.)? Also I like the idea of alternate spellings to kind of reexamine a word, especially with “family” which doesn’t really mean anything anymore, such an overused word.
I only have the vinyl of Ships, so there’s just that huge page of “-ships” words, so that kinda seems like what was going on: adding “ships” to words that normally wouldn’t…be OK having “ships” added to them.
D: Right, right. Actually, that list was submitted when we had a contest about a year ago. See who could come up with the most words with the suffix -ship, and it turned into this much huge, much bigger deal than I had expected, all these entries. So I had a judge come in, a linguist come in, and pick that one. We never specified if it had to be real words or not…And I loved the list, it’s a really fun list to read, and so the winner got their list published in the liner notes.
I was wondering if maybe you could explain this whole idea of Tri-Danielson…
…from what I understand, Ships is the third part of that…or the Danielsonship…
D: Well, I wouldn’t say that clearly, but it is in a way a realization, a conclusion of all the records up until now. I mean, in the way that we were talking about with relationships. Ya know, all this stuff just comes out of my personal art-making confusion and just trying to make sense of the things that were happening at the time. It’s not so much about me just deciding this is the way it’s going to be and then sticking to it. So much of it is really organic, and therefore messy and fluid. So, like I said, I started out writing songs and then we did a show with my brothers and sisters, and I never thought that would happen again, I thought I’d go back to making music by myself and whatever. But that started to pick up. We became a band. Right, so that just happened on its own. That’s the first season, and we return to those seasons again all the time, but in terms of everybody being in grade school and high school at the time, they had nothing else to do but to play with me. As they moved on, nobody was really interested in making music apart from with me, so it’s not really anybody else’s dream to carry on a lifetime of music only. Everbody has their own things going on, so that puts me in a strange place…Well, Danielson is what I do, so now what do I do? Who’s my band? Where’s my band? These are just things in the everyday life that are happening and I need to come up with conceptual and creative solutions to these so-called logistical problems, as well as what I see as creative challenges. So, when my brothers are in college and my sister’s on the West coast, ya know, I’m still writing songs all the time, so…for me it’s not just about me writing the songs and playing all the instruments, then it’s a solo project, but Danielson’s never been a solo project, it won’t ever be. It’s very much about me alone writing the songs, that’s 50% of it, and the other half is me presenting them to friends and family, bouncing stuff off them, see what they come up with.
Even with Br. Danielson?
D: Yeah. That’s been called a solo record, I never called it that. It was an exploration lyrically, for sure, of much more intimate, personal identity issues and personal concepts, but if you look at the liner notes all kinds of people are playing as much as any Famile record, in fact the whole Famile’s playing on it. Now yes, fair enough, they’re not as prominent…but, to back up, the whole Tri-Danielson thing came out of when the family became a band, I realized this is an amazing thing, but it’s only a part of what Danielson’s about, because it’s not just brothers and sisters involved, and who were gonna be involved in the future, because I knew they’d all move on. It’s this idea of examining the three-in-one, this mystery of one thing but three sides of it. It became a study, and it was confusing and long and a challenge to make a double album of three types, three sides to a song, depending on conceptual ideas: the Famile, and then the brother, which I said is more intimate conceptually, and then the Ship, which is all inclusive. So really after Tri-Danielson, Fetch the Compass Kids was a Famile record, and then Br. Danielson came out, and then Ships is really in a way wrapping this up, and for me, too, letting me know what I do. I write songs and then whoever’s around these next six months is who I’m going to ask to work…
(Edgar plays with sound recorder and apologizes.)
…and another part of it too is this fascination with kind of “music history.” There’s a band, and they have a band for a while, and then the lead singer goes and starts a solo career, and then the drummer joins another band or goes back to 7-11, ya know. It starts out with an idealism, and when those financial realities come into play, people start families and have kids, I wanted to address that right away. I think I’m always thinking ahead a little bit…(Nervous snickers.)…for good or bad…and, uh, I want to talk about it now, what is this thing really? It’s something I do, but I’m not a solo artist, I need people.
Can you clarify what you mean by this idealism? Like, a group sticking it out through thick and thin?
D: You know, the model of a group: they all started together as a band. It works I guess. The Rolling Stones are still together. U2 is still together…(Laughs.)…you know what I mean, the classic model of a band, they start out as a four-legged table and that’s who they are. That’s never really what Danielson was, and I never wanted to pretend otherwise…Relationships are really central to what Danielson’s about, but also not pretending it’s six people ALL from the ground up, writing, sharing vocal responsibilities, it is what it is, and nobody really wants it any differently.
You were talking about the Ships record as a kind of conclusion, a wrapping up?
D: Well, it’s more of a realization, an admitting, “what is it.” Because for me, the whole thing of making music is art making. It’s a process, it’s a mysterious and exciting process that I love. Like I said, there’s relationships right in the middle of all that. Ships was basically pushing the concept of, so, OK if this really is about relationships let’s make a list of everyone I’ve worked with, and let’s make a list of everyone I want to work with, and let’s try and include them all.
So, then what now?
D: (Giddy, lifts his chin.) Well now I can do anything I want.
D: Well, yeah, this seven-inch series that started some months ago, there’s three out now, there’ll be at least four more, and I hope maybe even more ongoing. And cuz it’s right in line with this, uh, this kind of collaborative relationship idea. They’re gonna be all on different labels, so even on the business sense there’re different relationships there. It’ll be collaborations of me writing the song, writing the vocal line, and sending it out to people I trust and they can do whatever they want with it.
Can you give me an idea of the list of people you want to work with?
D: Yeah. It’s a long list.
Is this a real list or a make-believe list?
D: Well, I know, I guess I can say, the Curtains. Do you know the Curtains? It’s Chris Cohen from Deerhoof, they’re gonna do a seven-inch with me. There’re all kinds of artists, I mean I can’t really claim any until I get their approval. The ones I’m in contact with, I haven’t really thought further than, ya know, just claiming them. For me, I’m really excited about just keeping that going. So, in that sense, like we had talked about in press stuff, it’s an overflow of the record…There’s all these people, yes, but all the songs are responsible, sonically, to each other to flow together as a record. With the seven-inches, every song is on its own terms. The record, I produced it, made decisions as to what should be there, not be there. With the seven-inches, yeah, we can turn it over even moreso to the artists to just do whatever they want, they don’t have to consider a song before or a song after.
The record, even logistically, must have been such a mess to put together.
D: I was worried it was going to be a much bigger disaster. I did not want it to be…a bunch of cameos (A bitter sound’s in his voice.) here and there. I wanted it very much to have a solid sound. Yeah, there’re big names in the indie scene on the record, but there’re also a lot of unknown names of equally talented people, and I wanted it all, sound-wise, to be treated the same. Everybody’s bringing their own thing to the table. It’s an experiment that just happened to work out well, as far as I’m concerned.
I guess I’ll see this soon enough for myself, but as far as pictures go, it seems like your uniforms make you up to be a crew, like sailors or a cruise boat staff.
D: Yeah, yeah, but I mean to me it’s just a uniform. I’ve heard we look like airplane pilots and cops, but they’re all uniforms, right? For us it’s a uniform symbolizing itself, symbolizing community and service. When you wear a uniform, you’re serving. And that’s what we’re doing. We have our trademark symbols on our sleeves, our hearts on our sleeves and our names and crown, different patches, but it doesn’t symbolize anything else than what it is.
You aren’t cops?
(Knock at the door. Two people enter, slide in slowly, apologetically. Dan announces that his sister, Rachel, has arrived. Behind her is Jed. I tell them I would shake their hands but that I have a cold. Rachel pulls her hand back quickly. I feel stupid sitting there, breathing germs all over these performers, and allude to my guilt with an offhand remark. The two newcomers grab a plastic bag and shuffle out.)
What about the Great Comfort Products, will we be seeing any new items soon?
D: Great Comfort Stuff, yeah, oh that stuff’s on hold right now, I’m just not able to fill the orders. So, it’s up but not available. That’ll definitely be returning with lots of stuff when I get off tour.
And the salesman routine?
D: That’s on hold too, that’s related to the Great Comfort Stuff. It’s an idea that going to get worked out, get some more time.
…what is a pig pod?
D: A pig pod? I guess it’s some kind of pod…that pigs eat.
I thought you were saying pig parts.
And then I looked in the book…it was pod…
I wanted to ask you about the movie again. A specific part. Sufjan’s shown in this quick montage, loud music playing during his ride to fame, and then it switches to you, alone in your studio. I dunno, it almost seems sad…Do you in any way — and I know you’re probably happy for your friend — feel overshadowed by how much attention’s been given to what he’s done.
D: No, I don’t think so. I think, no. It’s fine for me. Ya know, the movie’s pretty accurate that way. He exploded. I was completely thrilled for him, number one, Sufjan’s a good friend, he deserves it, I heard his stuff a couple years earlier. We worked together, he would open up for us, play with us, but he’d been making music long before he met us. Good music.
How’d you guys meet?
D: A mutual friend of ours was putting on a festival in New York City, called Christ A-Go-Go, and it was just this all-day arts and music festival, really pretty wild. So we met there. I heard he made music, and he didn’t really talk about it too much, someone gave me a CD. I really loved it, so I asked him to play with us because we needed fill-in people for the same reasons we talked about earlier…It was a hard time, not because of Sufjan’s fame, just because it was a time where the rest of my family was living their lives, following what they would. That movie does really talk about these things we’re talking about, the struggle with identity.
That alone time is really necessary. I did say earlier that the whole family plays on the Br. record, that’s true, but it’s also true that the record wasn’t made in the same way that the Famile records were. The Famile, we usually recorded all live together. The Brother record, most of the time I was by myself. I’d have to schedule my sister to come in and do some overdubs or something. But it was an important time for me, for my writing.
Have you noticed — (Dan’s sister, Megan, comes in, we’re introduced. Reminds Daniel that his wife called, that he needs to call soon to say goodnight to his kids because they need to go to bed. It is a Thursday night, after all. She says they’re going to go down to the beach, Lake Michigan, which is around two blocks and across Lakeshore Drive away.)
Have you noticed that there’s a lot of hype surrounding the album? Hype can be a terrible word, but —
D: Yeah. There’s been a lot of nice words. I don’t know what else to say besides that. People have been really excited about it.
Did you expect…I mean, this does seem like a large record.
D: Yeah. Yeah. I know. It’s just, I guard my expectations every time. This is the seventh record. I’ve been disappointed six times already.
D: Yeah, you always hope to be able to sell some records, have people come out to your shows, make a career of it. That’s what an artist wants, right? To be able to do this for a living. It just usually doesn’t work that way.
(A sad silence hangs in the air. We both laugh nervously at once, or possibly we laugh in acknowledgement of the sadness, accept it, get nervous about the acceptance, get nervous about being nervous, and move on.)
…you don’t stop doing it, but of course it’s still hard if you drive to, whatever, Florida and then you get to the club and there’s six people there. It’s hard.
Do you still have the trailer with the big heart on it?
D: Yeah! We just didn’t bring it.
I was scouring the neighborhood trying to find it.
D: Naw. In vain.
The last thing I wanted to ask you is about Tooth & Nail. Was it sort of a mutual decision to leave that whole scene behind?
D: Well, see I never grew up on Christian Music, and was never really interested in being on a Christian label. Just, Tooth & Nail were the only label. I sent our first album to fifteen labels, my favorite pet indie labels. No one responded, only Tooth & Nail did. I was pretty skeptical, because I didn’t know anything about them, but they had Caroline Distribution, said you could get it in any market, and that’s what I wanted. In terms of the Christian side of what they did, that’s not really a world I knew much about. But at the same time, I wasn’t opposed to exposing our music to Christian kids, by any means. Now, obviously when you’re associated with a company like that, especially people in the mainstream indie scene are very skeptical. You become laughable, of course. I think we just had to keep playing and keep making records and not go away. Tooth & Nail, it was obvious that as they grew they became a very big company. I’m a big believer in indie rock, the “indie” —
D: That mentality. All the things that go along with that. I’m a very firm believer in that. So, it just became clear, at least to us, it wasn’t healthy, possibly, for us to continue. Then, Secretly Canadian approached us, and they were a very young label at the time, and we really liked them as people, and we shared the same exact indie aesthetic, and we’re still working with them.
How do you see the Christian Music scene right now? Do you still feel lumped into that at all?
D: No. The Christian industry rejected us from the first moment the record came out. That’s partly the reason the mainstream indie rock press embraced us. Because we were scorned, ya know. There’s some pretty mean press from the Christian side about our music. They just don’t understand it, I guess. CMJ, magazines like that, they’re like, We’ll take you. It’s pretty cool. Of course, there were Christian kids from that scene, the actual people, not the music business…
D: Actual listeners, who loved it and still continue. We played a show last night and people would come up, I‘ve listened to you since I was eleven. That’s crazy.
D: That’s really cool…Those were kids who were exposed to our music, and hopefully it opened their minds up to the potential of what music can do.
Well. Thanks a lot, Dan.
D: I won’t shake your hand, but I appreciate it.