Easy Answers: Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes Talks Grateful Dead (INTERVIEW)

Believe it or not, the Grateful Dead had a far-reaching influence that stretched way beyond their inner circle of improvisational minded bands.  Since playing their first shows 50 years ago the Dead have earned their place in the lexicon of culture as perhaps the quintessential American band. In light of their final shows, which take place June 27 and 28 in Santa Clara, CA and 4th of July weekend in Chicago, without lead guitarist Jerry Garcia of course, and to commemorate their legacy as a whole, we’ve decided to launch a special column that focuses specifically on the impact of the Dead within many different musical communities. In each installment of Easy Answers (get the reference?) we will question a different musician or band, ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious, about the importance of Grateful Dead on their own life and musical path. We could easily keep this column within the jam band community – and we will most certainly turn our focus to some of those acts – but the goal of Easy Answers is to get insight from musicians who most wouldn’t expect to be influenced by or fans of the Dead.

To say Dawes is influenced by the Grateful Dead is a bit of a stretch. The group has made a name for themselves over the years with their charming harmonies and ability to tap into an era of rock music that was simple yet deep in the amount of thought that went into writing quality songs. On their 2009 debut North Hills and 2011 follow-up Nothing Is Wrong, the L.A. group tapped into what is often referred to as the Laurel Canyon sound of the Sixties and Seventies that put folk-rock acts like James Taylor and Jackson Browne on the map. 2013’s Stories Don’t End saw Dawes exploring influences like Steely Dan and adding new complexities to their sound. None of this is connected to the Grateful Dead per se, but, like the Dead, Dawes has always managed to keep that sunny California feeling in their music. Their songs also feel uniquely American in their commentary of this country and the characters one encounters on the road. In these ways, Dawes do have a connection with the Dead. Plus, Taylor Goldsmith is one damn fine guitar player. As Dawes prepares to release a fourth album called All Your Favorite Bands on June 2nd, it seemed only right that singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith would reflect on one of his favorite bands. 

How did you first get into the Grateful Dead?

As is the case with a lot of their fans from my generation, my gateway into the Grateful Dead was through American Beauty. Jonathan Wilson, the producer of our first two records was the guy who suggested I check them out. Until then I was only aware of the culture that surrounded them but not the music. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised and got a hold of as many of their records as I could.

Are there any personal memories of the band or a concert experience you’d like to share?

I was a little kid when Jerry Garcia died so I never actually saw them. I’ve seen Furthur a few times though and watched them play some of my favorite Bob and Phil songs. The first time was at Outside Lands three years ago. I had just seen The Strokes play, and despite it being a really great show, it was a much more regimented experience and sounded exactly like their records while with Further you could tell immediately that the music was going to direct the show and that truly anything could happen. They opened with “Cassidy” and from that moment on the night had the effect of throwing a ball in the air and watching it stay there for three hours, always anticipating it falling or losing it’s balance but that never happening.

What is your personal favorite Grateful Dead song and why?

This changes all the time. At different times it’s been “Unbroken Chain”, “Box Of Rain”, “Ship Of Fools”, “Stella Blue”, “Looks Like Rain”, “Shakedown Street”, among others…but if I were to play a first time listener one song by the Grateful Dead that best represented the best of their songwriting, the guitar playing, the harmonies and the singular way they play off of each other, in my opinion, I’d put on “Jack Straw”. So I guess that says a lot.  

(Read also: Dawes reflect on their favorite Grateful Dead albums for Aquarium Drunkard)

Do you have any particular memories around this song?

Not necessarily this one, but not too long ago at a friend’s birthday party, my brother Griffin, Blake Mills and I played “Stella Blue” together. Blake sang it and played guitar while I played bass. We had never played it but that chord progression had engraved itself into our heads enough that it started to play itself. It really gave me a sense of the power of all their songs. Something communal, viscerally responded to by whoever’s hearing it, and also perfectly constructed frameworks that make it so fun for musicians to just play music together. You could play any of those songs all night long…and that’s a pretty rare feeling I think.

What is your favorite era of the Grateful Dead and why?

I really love Reckoning. With that record it felt like I fell in love with them all over again. They were playing in such a new and interesting way and between that funny sound of Jerry’s direct input acoustic, Brent’s playing at the time, and listening to them hold back and play so much quieter than I had ever heard. I also loved knowing they released another equally incredible live electric record with Dead Set in that same year. It’s hard to say it’s my “favorite”, but it has definitely left its stamp with me that might not be as easily distinguishable as other era’s.

Pipgen, Tom, Keith, Brent, Bruce or Vince on keys and why?

I’ve never not liked a keyboardist with the Dead. That band has always had some of the best keyboard playing I’ve ever heard. But, as obvious of an answer this is, there is a romance to Pigpen being their first guy that could never be recreated, even if he wasn’t nearly as good as some of the later players. And even setting all of the context aside, his organ playing on “Candyman” would be enough for me to still say Pigpen.

What do you feel is the greatest misconception a lot of people outside the Dead’s circle have of the band?

Two things: that it was ever about anything other than the music for those guys and that the culture that surrounded them was a product of the band. All of the extraneous elements of their public conception were just a product of their deeply devoted fans. I think those aspects have been a blessing and a curse. A lot of people misjudge the band before ever hearing the music, but at the same time, they have arguably the most committed and unique fans a band could ever ask for.

Do you remember where you were when you heard of Jerry’s passing?

I don’t. I was still years away from discovering the band.

What are your favorite Robert Hunter lyrics?

I think maybe “Ripple” or “Jack Straw”. I still am not quite sure what “Jack Straw” is about but it’s really fun to sing along to.

Name three songs you hope they play in Chicago….

“China Cat Sunflower”, “Row Jimmy” and “Ship Of Fools”. I feel like those would blow some folks away.


Dawes’ All Your Favorite Bands hits June 2nd on their own HUB Records. For tour dates and more info check out dawestheband.com.



Check out more Easy Answers:

Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth

Alex Bleeker of Real Estate

Aron Magner of the Disco Biscuits

Black Pistol Fire

Keller Williams

Matt Butler of Everyone Orchestra

Greensky Bluegrass

The Stone Foxes

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