The moment Taylor Goldsmith finished writing the song “We’re All Gonna Die,” he realized the next Dawes album would be a strange new journey for the Los Angeles folk-rock band.
The inspiration came when Dawes returned from recording its 2015 album All Your Favorite Bands (Hub Records). “I knew immediately that this was going to be a different batch of tunes, because that’s just kind of a bizarre song,” Goldsmith says. He’s perched on a stool in the Acoustic Guitar studio, wearing a floppy hippie hat and designer jacket over a collar shirt. The band has just performed stripped-down versions of three songs from the new album, We’re All Gonna Die (Hub Records), including that bizarre title track. The session consisted of Goldsmith singing and playing his Martin guitar with no other instrumentation, along with CSN-like vocal harmonies supplied by his brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith, and new keyboardist Lee Pardini. (You can watch the session at acousticguitar.com.)
Goldsmith is right. The song’s pretty weird. In it, he appeals to his fans for help in figuring out the secret to continued inspiration in a predictable existence that ultimately ends in death. Dark? Yes, but the song is not without humor. “Hey, kid at the show tonight—the face beyond the barricade,” Goldsmith sings. “How you dance and you sing to every single line like it was you up on that stage. . .” He delivers the lines in a fragile falsetto that would make Al Green weep, and in a purely acoustic setting it comes off as intimately honest. He continues singing: “I’m asking you for help. How do I fall in love with anything like you seem to do so well?”
On the album version, it’s pure soulful R&B, although the band layers the song in spare instrumentation—simple percussion, subtle swells of strings, keyboards, what sounds like a vibrato guitar but could be electronics, and what sounds like a crawling, Jack-Casady-like Jefferson Airplane bass line, but could be God only knows what. The mystery of the instrumentation gives the song an even more haunting quality, and that was part of the plan when Goldsmith and his longtime friend and producer Blake Mills got together to discuss the composition of songs and production of the album.
Remember that question Goldsmith asks the kid in the title song: How do I fall in love with anything like you seem to do so well? It’s a real question. Goldsmith longs for the simplicity of being a music fan among other music fans again—not knowing much about the men and women behind the curtain, not thinking about particular instruments or techniques—and he expresses that longing beautifully throughout the album.
“There are certain songs where you’ll hear a line and you can’t tell if it’s a guitar or a keyboard, and I really like that,” Goldsmith says. “I like having people ask me about a certain song: ‘What’s the voicing of that guitar line,’ and me saying, ‘It’s not a guitar line.’ That’s really a thrill—to create these sounds where people are just lost to what it is. Because I feel like once you do know what it is, you kind of group that in with associations you have about, say, a clavinet or a guitar. To be able to escape that, it brings us all back to that initial place where we just heard music as music.”
To Goldsmith and Mills, Malibu High School friends who formed the band as Simon Dawes in 2006, that initial place was the vintage sounds of Laurel Canyon, the mythic music haven just a few miles from where they grew up in Los Angeles. When Mills left the band to work as a studio musician and producer for artists such as the Avett Brothers and Alabama Shakes, Goldsmith and his brother continued the band, shortening the name to just Dawes (Taylor Goldsmith’s middle name), and honing its sound.
From the opening acoustic guitar of “That Western Skyline,” the first song on Dawes’ 2009 debut album North Hills (ATO/ATO Red), it was clear the listener was entering the Los Angeles of 1970. Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell lived in Laurel Canyon, in their “very, very, very nice house with two cats in the yard.” Jackson Browne was hanging out with Stephen Stills and David Crosby down at the Canyon Store. Neil Young was recording purely acoustic songs, like “Tell Me Why” and “Cripple Creek Ferry.”
Photographer Henry Diltz was somewhere taking pictures of all these back-to-nature hippies who were about to change the world of popular music with breezy acoustic guitars, poetic lyrics, and magical vocal harmonies.
Somewhere in that mix was Dawes—except, of course, they hadn’t been born yet.
‘One thing that helped me was to not be afraid of my limitations, and when I heard something in my head, to really commit to learning it.’
“For us, traditional folk, rock ’n’ roll is what we want to play,” Goldsmith told the UCLA paper Daily Bruin in 2011. “When someone says to us, ‘Oh, you should put in a drum machine or some cool, crazy synthesizers,’ I say to them, ‘Well, we didn’t grow up with that, that doesn’t resonate with us, we don’t know how to do that.’ I know how to play guitar solos and sing, so that’s what I do . . . [It’s] cool that people compare us to older bands.”
Five years later and ten years after he formed Simon Dawes, Goldsmith has changed his tune about the use of technology. From the new album’s hard-hitting opening track, “One of Us,” based squarely on a gritty, fuzzy synthesizer hook, We’re All Gonna Die introduces a more muscular and electronic Dawes. It is their version of Neil Young’s Trans. And like that underrated left-field gem, the songwriting at the core of We’re All Gonna Die is as traditional as it was when Goldsmith and Mills first formed the band. In fact, it was their return to a trusting collaboration that inspired the new sonic ideas.
“Blake produced it. He’s been my best friend since we were 11 years old and we decided together to enter into new spaces musically,” Goldsmith says. “We wanted to create sounds that we’ve never heard before, and hopefully that listeners have never heard before as well. There’s always that wonderful feeling when you listen to a recording and you have to listen really close to figure out what sound it is you’re hearing—I feel like that takes you back to a place before you knew what a guitar was or knew what a piano was—you just heard music.”
Interpretation: They wanted to shake up the formula. When Goldsmith came in with a tune called “When the Tequila Runs Out,” it was a simple Mexican-flavored acoustic folk-rock song—the version you hear on the band’s Acoustic Guitar Sessions performance. “But on the record it has a lot of different elements—there’s fuzz bass, there’s an MPC,” Goldsmith says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if someone heard hip-hop influence and all sorts of different things, even though it started from a very basic place.”
Using synthesizers and other elements of contemporary pop that Goldsmith has previously eschewed might seem counterintuitive, but Dawes’ evolution is no different from how his folk-rock heroes have operated over the decades. The Neil Young/Trans comparison may seem obvious, but Goldsmith also points to the unpredictability of later-period Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen, all of whom began with simple acoustic accompaniment.
“That’s always been a thrill of mine as a music fan—you know, hearing those later Leonard Cohen records that sound so out there when you know that he wrote them on acoustic guitar. Same with those Dylan records where the interpretations become so bizarre—or Joni. It just gives you one more element to reckon with and figure out how you feel about it. Or something that just enhances the song.”
Goldsmith consciously wrote the simplest song structures so that he, Mills, and the band could play with them in the studio. “On other records I’ve wanted to explore more with certain chordal colors and theory and kind of stretch those muscles for the band,” he says, “but for this I wanted to keep the songs stronger in a more basic way, and let the performances be what brings out the musicality rather than the composition or the chordal structures.”
Watch Dawes perform three unplugged numbers from
We’re All Gonna Die at Acoustic Guitar Sessions.
Goldsmith sees himself more as a musician who plays the guitar than he does a guitarist, but he takes his playing seriously—and he constantly stretches himself. “One thing that helped me was to not be afraid of my limitations, and when I heard something in my head, to really commit to learning it,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll be with a guitar player who’ll be doing stuff that I can’t wrap my head around. But there’ll be times when I’ll hear a riff in my head and I’ll sit down with my guitar and I can’t play it. And I feel like it would have been very easy for me to just say, ‘Well, I don’t know how to do that,’ and then maybe forget about the idea and never write that song.”
For example, “Right on Time,” from All Your Favorite Bands, is based on a riff Goldsmith couldn’t play initially. He picks up his guitar and demonstrates. “I knew it would sound cool on the guitar but I couldn’t figure out how to do it until I sat down and really kept trying.” Another song, “From a Window Seat (Rivers and Freeways),” on the band’s 2013 album Stories Don’t End (Relativity), was based on a similarly difficult riff.
“It had the bass staying on the downbeats and then the riff in between it,” he says, again demonstrating on guitar. “I couldn’t do that at first—I couldn’t disassociate the bass rhythm from the higher part. But by really trying and really practicing it every day I was able to get it down enough to where I could write a song on top of it.”
Learning, growing, and evolving were the hallmarks of the artists Goldsmith has looked to for inspiration, and Dawes has proved to be a flexible and durable band, even with several changes to its lineup over the years. Goldsmith puts down his guitar and smiles radiantly at a thought—it appears to be that inspiration he was searching for when he wrote the title tune.
“We actually brought in strings for the first time,” he enthuses. “We’ve never had strings on a record!”
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.