Dawes: Friends From Home
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. We get to make records like Passwords and have a career? In 2018? It’s honestly unbelievable.”
That’s Taylor Goldsmith, the singer-songwriter and guitarist for California rock band Dawes. It’s an early morning in mid-May, and Goldsmith is in New York City, a country away from the warmer coast where he was born and raised. He’s there to support his fiancée, actress and singer Mandy Moore, at work on her hit TV show, This Is Us. A common theme when talking to Goldsmith nowadays is gratefulness—for Dawes’ steady climb, for the kismet that led to their sixth album, for his band of brothers (which includes bassist Wylie Gelber, keyboardist Lee Pardini and his actual brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith) and, naturally, for his upcoming wedding.
He’s also grateful that no matter what critics think of Passwords, which was released on June 22 via their own HUB Records, Dawes has passed the brink of destruction. Their fans are also in this for the long haul.
“That’s always been our dream,” he says. “[That our fans would] subscribe to artist over album. It’s like a David Lynch movie. I don’t know what Inland Empire was about at all. And if it was the new movie by Joe Schmoe, I’d probably say, ‘OK, no thanks.’ But I’m onboard with David Lynch, so I’m going to dig in on everything and try to unearth something I love.”
Goldsmith knows that Dawes’ hearty, lyrical and nuanced rock-and-roll sound is a far cry from Lynch’s famous idiosyncrasies, but the point stands: The members of Dawes are growing and changing and they believe their fans will keep the faith. Further, Passwords is no Inland Empire. In fact, it may be the band’s most accessible, easily-devoured album ever—instantly catchy story-songs that share as much sonically with Dire Straits as Gram Parsons. It isn’t a coincidence that it was produced by Jonathan Wilson, the singer-songwriter and studio wiz who helmed Dawes’ first two albums. Passwords is a full-circle album; Dawes is coming home.
When Dawes cut their debut North Hills in 2009, they were young men updating the folksy roots-rock of their idols. The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young comparisons they received were justified. Griffin was only 17. They’d been gigging around Los Angeles when Wilson took interest and invited them to his home studio in Laurel Canyon.
“He took us under his wing and produced our first songs for nothing,” remembers Griffin from his LA home. “It changed the course of our lives. We were all figuring it out together.”
North Hills brought Dawes immediately into the new-folk movement then populated by The Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes, The Felice Brothers and Conor Oberst. They dropped 2011’s ragged, rocking Wilson- produced Nothing Is Wrong just as the guitarist released his own psychedelic desert-folk opus Gentle Spirit. Benmont Tench, Jackson Browne and others voiced their support of both acts; Robbie Robertson used Dawes as his backing band for some rare media appearances. Generational lines were fluid. But for 2013’s Stories Don’t End, Dawes turned to star rock producer Jacquire King. David Rawlings sat behind the boards for their next album, the decidedly funkier 2015 release All Your Favorite Bands, before they shuffled things again by bringing back their former Simon Dawes bandmate Blake Miles—who also worked on Stories Don’t End—to produce 2016’s eclectic, rollicking We’re All Gonna Die.
To Taylor, the shifts were imperceptible, just a band growing as musicians and as young men—even as critics and fans alike pounced on We’re All Gonna Die’s cranked-up arrangements, often crediting newly joined keyboardist Pardini.
“We’re learning how to do what we do in real-time. I’ve been learning how to play guitar right in front of everybody—I didn’t go to college to learn how to make records,” he says. “When you listen to American Beauty, you can tell Jerry is just learning how to play pedal steel. He doesn’t really know how yet and that’s beautiful. Then you hear later stuff and he’s obviously come a long way—or George Harrison on slide guitar, from his scrappy playing with The Beatles to some of the greatest slide playing ever on Brainwashed.”
Dawes spent much of last summer opening for John Mayer, then Kings of Leon—hit-making acts that also creep into the gossip pages. All the while, Taylor had been quietly crafting a batch of nearly 20 songs. They’d all sprung from one he called “Crack the Case,” inspired by an interviewer who’d put him on the spot: What did he think about President Trump? “I’m a young singer from a band in Los Angeles,” he says. “What did she think my response would be?”
“The first song is always the hardest to write,” he says. “Then everything else has that first song as a jumping off point. It gives the coming record context.”
The band had spent months playing massive, outdoor venues “45 minutes outside of major cities. We were waking up on our tour bus with nothing around,” laughs Griffin. “We were playing as well as we ever had but, being on tour, we were feeling starved for time in the studio.”
Initial band discussions mapped out winter rehearsals fading into spring studio sessions, allowing the songs to crystallize. Wilson was never far from their memory—Pardini had even clocked in time in his touring band before joining Dawes. After three records without him, “It was time to get back in touch with this dude who was so important to us when we were starting out,” says Griffin. “And now, it felt like we both had very clear ideas of what our strengths were.”
Taylor made the call from a tour stop that October.
“For all I knew, he’d say ‘I hate your band now,’” he says. “I asked if he wanted to hear the songs first. But he said there was no time.”
Wilson agreed to produce the album on one condition: He was already set to release his own album Rare Birds and was planning to spend part of 2017 and 2018 playing David Gilmour’s parts on Roger Waters’ international tour, so they had to enter the studio immediately. He had two weeks free in November, and a few days in January. Then he was a ghost.
After just a few hours running through Taylor’s acoustic songs in Wilson’s Echo Park home, it was time to gear up to record.
“It gives you pause to go in there and know you have just two weeks to make the record. If we didn’t finish, would we wait until he came back—in a year?” says Griffin. “We felt more under the gun to make something than we ever had.”
“But that made these songs feel alive,” says Taylor. “We were learning these songs as we were recording them. In the past, we might try 20 different endings for a song and pick the best one. But here, we were thinking on the fly. ‘That works—let’s move on.’”
Even with the ticking clock, both Goldsmith brothers agreed that every band member needed to feel represented in the songs.
“Dawes is not a singer- songwriter project,” says Taylor. “Some bands work that way, where someone designates who does what. I’m not qualified for that role. You really get to know Lee from how he plays piano. You get the nuances of Griffin through his drums. If I were to tell him, ‘No, it needs to be boom-snick- boom-snick,’ I’d be halting that. Maybe a hard-liner could’ve said, ‘Everyone needs to play this certain way.’ But it’d be at the expense of our band’s longevity. We want to do this for another 20 years.”
Taylor hears proof in his favorite albums.
“The brilliance of certain Dylan records is not in the arrangement of the songs, but in how he let the band dictate what the songs would sound like.”
During the recording process, he watched his songs evolve quickly, without warning. “Time Flies Either Way” entered the studio as a sparse, acoustic ballad.
“We’d been talking about [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil a lot—it was all I’d been listening to,” says Taylor. “Jonathan picked up on that. Minutes before we sat down at our instruments, he said, ‘Let’s try it as a jazz song. There was very little guitar playing; Lee just took control on piano. He played a solo live on the floor in one take. We listened back—that’s the song. We had it.”
Shorter’s collaborator Josh Johnson provided the finishing touch, a saxophone solo that twirls the song like a dancer.
If Wilson’s Gentle Spirit and Dawes’ North Hills and Nothing Is Wrong inhabited an earthy, classic-rock corner of the musical spectrum, then Rare Birds and Passwords are testaments that the artists have grown in the same direction while apart—both are filled with gorgeous, atmospheric textures, creating an aural glow that never distracts from the songs.
“He’d throw in these ingredients that would’ve never occurred to us. On ‘Feed the Fire’ he added all these arpeggio sequences. He’d hand me a sitar for an overdub,” says Taylor. “He can make a song feel rich and full when it’s just bass, drum and guitar—then the next section will have 200 tracks. He makes sounds live together so they stop being four instruments and become one cohesive song.”
The resulting LP pairs Taylor’s strongest lyrics to date with Wilson’s upgraded studio and fresh production approach. In the cosmic, rumbling, Steely Dan-esque “Telescope,” he sings of digging through the past, searching for answers and turning up with more questions: “The stronger the telescope, the more stars there are.”
Then there’s the piano ballad “Never Gonna Say Goodbye,” where Taylor admits, “I never knew how to be scared/’Til I found something I knew I couldn’t lose.”
The song was never meant for Dawes at all.
“[Mandy] was at home; I was on tour in Detroit. She reached for something in the shower and banged her head on the handle—her eyelid exploded. She called me terrified: ‘I can’t see, there’s blood all over my face.’ An ambulance was overkill, but she didn’t want to be bleeding in the back of an Uber. I was freaking out because I was so far away; I couldn’t help her,” says Taylor. “I wrote the song in the hotel room as a telegram to her; I thought it’d be just for us. She’d hear it, and that’d be the life of that song.”
Moore couldn’t keep it to herself and convinced her future husband to show his band— who, in turn, loved it as well.
“You intend a love like this to last until you die; you redefine who you are completely. I didn’t know how to be scared of anything because there was never much at stake,” says Taylor. “But at this point, I can’t see what life would look like without her. I don’t know what love means outside of how I see her.”
The couple might get married before the end of 2018; they’ll hire a DJ, not a band, though Taylor says he hopes his father will sing at some point during the night.
Dawes presents 10 songs on Passwords: one bona fide rocker riding a blazing riff, a few lush ballads on piano, a few led by guitar. All were recorded live with minimal touch-ups, and plenty of lyrics that fans will be singing back to Taylor when the band hits the road with Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra in August, then headlines their own tour through the fall. The band left a month between Passwords’ June release and their first show to give people some time to absorb the music.
“When I meet people after our shows, I’m usually thinking we’d probably be friends if we lived in the same town. That’s such a joy, such a rare privilege. Our fans are music nerds just like us,” says Taylor. “Some bands say they can only play a few songs off a new record but—knock on wood—we’ve never felt that way. It’s not lost on us how cool that is.”
This article originally appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.