interview: Daniel Smith
Mstation investigates Praise Music in the shape of Daniel Smith.
Nicholas Erber writes ...
Daniel Smith is an odd and interesting songwriter. Since 1995,
he's been writing strange and spiritual songs about everything from
rubberneckers to the ABC's. His most recent album, Ships, focuses on
creative community and includes collaboration with some of the biggest
names in indie-rock (members of Serena-Maneesh, Deerhoof, and
songwriter Sufjan Stevens are among those in the liner notes) Recently
Mstation was able to speak with the songwriter, who had just gotten
Nick: How did the idea of Tri-Danielson come about? Was it originally conceived as a triple album project or did you extend it after Tri-Danielson Alpha and Omega?
Smith: Danielson started out in 1995 as a way to talk about the songs that I write. My family was involved with the songs on the first album and other friends were too and a lot of it was just four-tracking. After that album came out my family got a lot more involved with the live show and recorded the second album and I started calling the band the Danielson Famile. Moving into Tri-Danielson Alpha and Omega, the name of that returned back to Danielson again the idea being to illustrate the three sides of Danielson based on relationships: the Famile, being brothers and sisters, Brother Danielson, being more of an personal, internal relationship, and Daniel Sonship, being about creative community. And so, Alpha and Omega came out of that idea and the following three records, a Famile record called "Fetch the Compass, Kids" a Br. Danielson record, and the latest record, Ships all came out of that as well. So, in a way three full-lengths came out of the Tri-Danielson idea fully illustrating Tri-Danielson.
Nick: So when you came up with that idea of Tri-Danielson did you think ahead and say to yourself, 'I'm going to make three albums for each of these parts' Or did it just work out?
Smith: I didn't know what was going to happen. It was August of '97 and I was writing Tri-Danielson Alpha and Omega and coming up with the ideas and drawings for each concept. And again, they were just illustrations to talk about the three tied in one being. Just a way to talk about my, and Danielson's art making process. Like I would work with my brothers or sisters, or my friends or whoever was around. Kind of just talking about what was happening, trying to make sense of what was happening in my everyday experience of writing songs.
Nick: What bands or songwriters were you influenced by before and when you started making music?
Smith: Oh, I was listening to the Beatles when I was four or five years old and I listened to Bob Dylan's early records. I listened to my dad"s old gospel songs, and moving into my teenage years I got much more excited about a bunch of punk and new wave stuff that was going on. I listened to all kinds of stuff. I got into the Minutemen and the Pixies, Sonic Youth. For me, I've always wanted to hear more and more and more. When something works or connects with your ear its hard to say why.
Nick: Have you had any classical training, or did you just pick up guitar?
Smith: I had one year of guitar lessons and I quit. I had this theory that didn't really want to learn too much... I'm not sure if I still agree with that (Laughs) But yeah, that's all I had. I played trumpet in grade school.
Nick: So what you do is mainly from instinct?
Smith: Like I said, I don't have any training so for me its just what works for me, what sounds good to me. There's really nothing set in stone for my approach to writing either. You know, sometimes I"ll have little practices that I'll try to undo later.
Nick: There"s a lot of what I see as symbolism in your work. Are there any writers that have influenced you?
Smith: I would say more visual art. You know, drawings, concepts and.. Yeah I don't know. It's hard to talk about that. Anything you read, anything you ingest it's going to have some effect on you. I guess I don't dwell on influences that much. I don't really think about them. There are points where I write little words down or draw little drawings about a moment that shows me something. But for me, I just want to kind of do it. There are all kinds of influences just in life. A walk in the woods is something that"s going to bring much more interesting things.
Nick: I know that this is a huge question, but what is your intent behind making music?
Smith: Yeah. It's what I do. Some people are here to build houses, some people are here to run for politics, some are here to do visual arts... You know, it's what I do. To me its just another job. People have their dreams and they go for it and try to do it. It's the same here: I'm just trying to go for my dream.
Nick: Do you have another job? I remember you saying something at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College about being a carpenter.
Smith: Yeah. For years. About two years ago I was able to stop doing that just because I got so busy working with my record label and playing music.
Nick: What kind of artists do you have on your label? How would you describe them?
Smith: You know, they're friends of mine. They're different artists who are kind of in our creative community. I never wanted a record label, I never wanted a business, but it seemed like a really practical way to help everybody put their music out. There are all kinds of differents sounds, all kinds of different approaches to music, but we're all friends, and that"s kind of the common thread.
Nick: What do you find so profound about the medium of music as opposed to the visiual arts that you were trained for in art school?
Smith: Yeah I still work on the visual arts, but music seems to connect with pop culture in a way that visual art doesn"t. Music is very powerful. You can take it with you, you can listen to it pretty much anywhere. Yeah, but to me it's half of what I do. Right now it seems like over this century it seems like its a medium that connects. With visual art, I've always been really frusturated with that because you know you have to set up galleries and I don't really agree with all that but I've always tried to make handmade things that are available to anybody and break out of that sterile enviroment the way that music's broken out of that sterile enviroment. I think that's an ongoing struggle for me with visual art.
Nick: As you produced Ships you collaborated with many of your friends in the music community. How did working with all of these different people effect the sound of your music?
Smith: Well everybody brings their ideas and their touch and that was the whole concept, just taking this work ethic that I was talking about writing songs with whoever was around at the time and making a deliberate decision to include everybody and then some this time around. So we sort of tried to have this big party. We just had so many people involved and some fancy arrangements. Everybody just brings their touch. I didn't write out the credits in terms of who played on what song because I didn't want that to be the focus. I wanted you to have to listen for stuff. I wanted to make it much more about the hearing than about knowing.
Nick: In terms of process, did you write out the parts and have your collaborators play them or did you just give them the chords and let them go?
Smith: It depends. On the basic tracks that Deerhoof played on I wrote out the structures of the songs and chords and different ideas and then they followed loose directions still within the structures of the songs. Then we recorded those songs and it just sort of fell together. And then there were a bunch of arrangements for this ten piece orchestra that we put together that my friend Ted and I arranged and orchestrated wrote out sheet music for and brought sheet music to different places and people played their parts. There was a balence of people trying to follow what we put down, but also it was open to improvisation at times.
Nick: In terms of location did you record all over the country?
Smith: Yeah it was all over the country. We did the basic tracks with Deerhoof in California and we did basic tracks in New Jersey and then we did overdubs in New York City and we had people do overdubs in their houses across the country and had them upload it onto the Internet. It was a massive, massive project.
Nick: It's obvious that your faith is a giant part of your music. What kind of a religious background do you have and what part does the supernatural play in the creation of your music?
Smith: I grew up in a Christian, but more than a Christian household a spiritual household where prayer and personal spiritual life was more of a focus, not religion. It wasn't about a bunch of rules you know, it was about real spiritual life, real talking to God and hearing from God. I remember being really young and talking to God and knowing he's real. I, of course, like any spoiled teenager you know, you want to move on and do your own thing, and you want to make sure that it isn't just your parents belief system and blah, blah blah. You try to grow up, I went through that, exploring different ideas and in late college God just kept bugging me and he just kept just hounding me and kept telling me "Don't forget who I've made you to be." And I am a child of God, and that's who we're all made to be, that's who we are and so I got tired of fighting and doing my own thing and being miserable and lonely and selfish and I gave up my own plans and told God I'd do whatever he wants. So that was my return to my spiritual quest, you know, my lifelong quest of doing less of what I want to do and more of what God wants me to do. As for the supernatural, I think the supernatural is part of the creation of anything. God is the creator of all things, and the enemy is a theif and a liar. So, theologically I can"t see how evil can create anything I only believe that the Creator can create things. And so, to me, if we're looking to make things and talk about new ideas to make something out of nothing, I think that's something only God can do. For me, I don't see it as trying to jam spiritual ideas into art making. I see it as you can"t make art without God. Clearly, many don't believe that, and many artist and people who create things don"t give God credit, but that doesn't mean that God isn't doing it. So for me, the more that I can turn myself over to God, hopefully that'll take in his good ideas instead of my pretend ideas. And so I'm not trying to jam any agenda or any kind of propaganda into what I make, but it's just going to come out. When I'm trying to make something joyous, we're going to talk about joy because that"s what"s there, that's who God is. We"re going to talk about love, we're going to talk about peace, and also we're going to talk about struggle, talk about frustration, I mean these are all things that life is made of.
Nick: In regards to the live show and performing with your family: What kind of a dynamic does traveling, playing, eating and just being together with the same people every day create?
Smith: Touring life is extremely difficult. It's not healthy life. Especially this tour. We were out from May to August. It's just a lot of time. It makes for a tight live show. We don't tour a lot so I just try to get a month of tour and then try to get back to making records.
Nick: How do you think the family aspect sets you apart from other bands?
Smith: Well different parts of the tour there were kind of fluid lineups. My brother Dave was on drums the whole time. My other brother, Andrew, played percussion on some of the tour. Megan is my sister, she's on marimba, and Jed is the bass player and my friend Chris was on keyboard and we go back to kindergarten. I have a sister, Rachel, who was on part of the tour as well. Different people come and go and sometimes it's different fill-ins, friends, and thats where Danielson is now. I've decided to keep the name Danielson, and whoever's available is going to be there. It's too hard to wait for the whole band, and now there are so many friends involved, too. It's great. Different lineup, same songs, and I'll be there singing and playing and hopefully it'll get some people out there to enjoy it.
Nick: Now that you have all three parts of Tri-Danielson at least chipped into, what do you think you"ll be doing next?
Smith: Well I have a ongoing 7-inch series that kind of came out of Ships. A lot of people who were on the list of people who I wanted to be involved in Ships didn't make it on the record because the record just got too full. So I have a 7-inch series collaborating with those different folks. I have three out now, probably four or five to go, maybe more. So that's what I'll be doing over the next year, just continuing this idea of collaborating with friends and artists and engineers.
Nick: Alright, thanks for talking today.
Smith: No problem, my pleasure.
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