Dawes: Not Changing What Ain't Broke

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“Oh no! I left it up there.”

Backstage at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse, Dawes has just wrapped up their set—their seventh in three days—when frontman Taylor Goldsmith, pulling up a chair to join his bandmates, stops in his tracks.

“I’m just gonna forget, that’s all. Man!” he says, eyeing the stairs that lead back to the stage before turning to me and explaining, “I bought a movie, but I might never see it again.”

Which flick?

“I bought Topsy-Turvy.”

Even on title alone, the Gilbert and Sullivan biopic is a wonderfully apropos selection for a group that’s touring in support of its sophomore album Nothing Is Wrong for seven months straight. After leaving Atlanta, they’ll head to Birmingham, Ala., to play a 2 p.m. set tomorrow before hitting the stage in Nashville at 8 p.m. the same evening. Topsy-turvy indeed, and, according to Goldsmith, necessary for any band looking to hit it big.

“Every band that makes it to a certain level, you always hear like, ‘Oh yeah, that beginning period where we were really able to take another step and reach the next level, the next tier, it consisted of touring for years,’” he says. “And I’m not saying that’s where this’ll end up, but we definitely won’t end up on the next tier if we don’t do that. So when we hear we have more touring ahead of us, it’s just more exciting.”

The Los Angeles quartet—consisting of Goldsmith, his brother Griffin, Wylie Gelber and Tay Straithairn—has had plenty to be excited about this year: They’re opening for Alison Krauss, their song “When My Time Comes” has been featured in a Chevy commercial and they were hand-picked to back up Robbie Robertson for a string of TV appearances when the primary songwriter for The Band put out his first solo album in over a decade.

It makes sense that Robertson would be drawn to Dawes. Despite the fact that none of its members were alive when The Band took its final bow in 1976, the group consistently produces sweeping narratives that would fit in quite nicely on The Last Waltz. But perhaps what sold Robertson is the fact that, above all, Dawes is a band.

“It was especially cool because of the fact that he chose all of us, rather than like, ‘Oh, I just want your bass player and drummer’ or something like that,” Goldsmith says. “He chose all four of us, and it just shows that he to a certain extent still maintains that same principle of ‘This is a band. I’m interested because they know how to play together.’ Because he could easily pick four session players—like he could find a guitar player that can play much better than I can—but he’s not going to find four people that have an understanding and know how to read each other like we do, just playing and following each other’s dynamics.”

The new record is a musical homecoming of sorts for Goldsmith after he spent time away from the group recording with Deer Tick’s John McCauley and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez on their Middle Brother album. Goldsmith says he was happy to get back into the studio with his band after working on the side project.

“Oh, it was exciting,” he laughs. “I love Matt and John, but it’s just, we all come from such different worlds…It was exciting to get back to Dawes. It’s the same thing for all those guys. They all said the same thing at different points. You know, Deer Tick is something that John’s spent six years on, and same with Matt and same with me, so if Middle Brother ever got to a point where it was distracting that, then that’d be a real shame. But the way it existed was just kind of this month-long, fun little thing, and now it’s done. Maybe in the future we can play some songs together again, but we’re all so busy that it seems unrealistic.”

Getting back to his regular band for the new record may have been refreshing, but Nothing Is Wrong wasn’t just a return to old colleagues for Goldsmith. He beams when I mention Jackson Browne’s guest vocals.

“He’s like the coolest guy,” he insists. “He never stopped being a 24-year-old songwriter. He still has the same ears and approach…It’s just so crazy for a hero that’s been our hero
for years to come up and be like, ‘Taylor, that line on “My Way Back Home” when you say this thing, that’s a real hit, man it’s really cool.’ Like the fact that you listened closely enough to quote it back to me, that’s not something that you see guys his age doing. His antenna is still as good as it can get.”

“At first there was just a little harmony thing we were gonna have him do, and he was like, ‘Can I do a little tag on the end of that?’ and did this real Jackson Browne moment, and we were all grinning from ear to ear like, ‘This is insane!’” he adds, grinning from ear to ear all over again at the thought of it.

Associations with the likes of Browne, Robertson and Krauss have helped the group to expose its material to a wider audience, a move that Goldsmith hopes will distance the band from an independent scene he doesn’t feel a part of.

“We’re not asking for worldwide fame or anything like that, but one thing it has done, I think, is hopefully taken us out of the indie race a bit,” he says. “I love Edward Sharpe and Local Natives and Grizzly Bear and bands like that, bands that are really now and really cutting edge, but we can’t compete with that.”

“There are a lot of great artists like Josh Ritter and Ryan Adams that aren’t necessarily doing anything new but are still making great music,” he continues. “I mean, did Ryan Adams change music? No. He moved a lot of people though. And I think we’re kind of the same way—we’re not doing anything that’s particularly groundbreaking, but we’re able to connect with people. We’re not going to fulfill your modern artist needs, though. If that’s what you’re looking for in your music, something that’s just purely cutting edge, Dawes will always fall short in that aspect.”

Where Dawes doesn’t fall short—and in fact, shines—is in working as a unit to craft songs that grab you. Each tune on Nothing Is Wrong tells a different story, but the themes that reverberate throughout the record make it feel at times like a concept album, its title serving as both a response to questions regarding one’s well-being and a declaration of an overarching philosophy.

“There’s an uncomfortable quality to it—there’s definitely denial, but it’s that same insistence on moving forward and trying as hard as you can to maintain some sort of a clarity or innocence and not get too screwed up by the things that might be going awry,” Goldsmith explains. “But it’s also depending on how you look at certain shitty experiences and situations and when you look at them objectively, and you look at them in the history of humanity and you really open it up, it’s like, ‘Everything’s fine.’ Even someone getting their face kicked in or something, there’s a hard perspective to maintain where none of this is a tragedy.”

That insistence on moving forward is precisely why I’m not surprised when, on the phone the following week en route to Chattanooga, Goldsmith tells me he’s got no plans to slow down. “I never want to take a break from that pattern of touring then recording, touring then recording,” he says. “I’d really love to build a catalog…If we can just continue to work to put out music for years to come, I’ll be happy.”

There’s a scene near the end of Topsy-Turvy (which Goldsmith did remember to go back and pick up) where W.S. Gilbert turns to his wife in bed after The Mikado has opened to rave reviews and says, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”

It’s unlikely that Goldsmith would agree with the librettist that eminence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (“We’ve been begging to be on tour since we were little kids, and now we’re getting to do it, so we’re not gonna start complaining,” he says), but one thing’s certain: He and the rest of Dawes are poised to find out.

Bonnie Stiernberg is Paste’s assistant editor.

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