Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes Talks Playing Jazz Fest & Keeping Rhythms for Jackson Browne (INTERVIEW)

It appears that right now is a pretty good time to be a band called Dawes. With the release of their 2016 album, We’re All Gonna Die, solidifying their presence on the music scene as a band on the cusp of Americana superstardom, Dawes has kept their touring boots on and will continue to do so throughout 2017. “I think how we got here is our ambition level and discipline to be honest,” singer/main songwriter Taylor Goldsmith explained upon their latest record’s release.

That quest began in the summer of 2009 when the Los Angeles based band released their Dawes debut album, North Hills, following the departure of Blake Mills and a name change from Simon Dawes, under which they had an EP and CD. Featuring all original tracks, North Hills got the folk/Americana fans’ ears perked right up and by their sophomore release, 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong, that fanbase included Jackson Browne and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, both appearing on the record.

But for Dawes, hanging a genre label on them was not something they really wanted to see happen. They wanted their individual touches to stand out as simply Dawes music. “What I’ve always liked about some of my favorite bands is that you can hear any recording of them, even if you’ve never heard the song before, and immediately know who it is,” drummer Griffin Goldsmith, Taylor’s younger brother and bandmate, told me during our interview last week. “From the first song I wrote, ‘We’re All Gonna Die,’ it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a folkie record at all,” Taylor explained. “This was an opportunity for us to be a new band. Not just a rock band, not just an alternative band, but a new band. One that maintains all the weird personality traits that our other records might have had, but that also brings them out even more.”

With their first ever performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival coming up on Sunday [4:15 on the Fais-Do-Do Stage], Glide had a quick chat with Griffin about touring, songwriting and drumming in the heat while they were on a tour stop in North Carolina.

So what do you do on your day off?

Normally I would just read, take it easy, maybe exercise, walk around. But I was actually under the weather yesterday so I spent most of the day recovering. But I’m good to go now.

You will be playing at Jazz Fest on Sunday. Are you going to get to see anybody before your set?

I’m sure I’ll have a chance to see somebody at some point. I think our day will probably be pretty busy but yeah, I want to make time to see somebody for sure. Stanton Moore [Galactic] is amazing but I’m so excited cause we’ve never played Jazz Fest. We’ve played New Orleans but never the festival.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m really looking forward to playing and then also we’re doing a thing that night with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. We’ll go and play a couple of songs with them at the Hall, which I am really excited about. I love their music. But I’m looking forward to all of it.

How much do you alter your setlist from a normal venue show to one of these big outdoor festivals?

Well, I would imagine we’ll be playing for like an hour so I would think it’s probably less than half of the songs that we normally play. We’ve been playing two hour sets. It’s harder to cut it down to nine or ten songs but usually we just try to represent every record and play at least one song from every record, like the single if you will. But certain live arrangements translate better than other songs so we try to include the ones that are a little more fun live.

You’ve played festivals before so as a drummer does the heat bother you?

It has. I’ve definitely had experiences where it’s been so hot that I’m reminding myself to breathe. It’s always doable but when we played Bonnaroo a couple of years ago it was over a hundred degrees and that’s something you feel as a drummer. It’s like doing aerobic exercises in the blazing sun.

It looks like you guys are going to be on tour for a good while this year. How does that affect songwriting and recording?

Well, my brother writes all the songs and he generally writes when he’s home. So when we have some time off, two weeks or a month, he can get a lot of work done. But we tend to like arrange and mix more ideas on tour so I think work is getting done with an eye towards recording on and off tour.

You’ve played with some pretty big names over the years. Who gave you the best advice on how to survive touring life?

That’s a good question. I think the best advice has come from people like Benmont Tench or Jackson Browne, being able to like look at them and see that they’ve been devoted for that long and love it and still been creative. It’s never been a struggle for us. We all really enjoy it and this year especially our schedule is really great. It’s like three weeks on and a month off, month on then three weeks off type of thing so I feel like I can speak for all of us when I say that by the end of three weeks we’re all ready to get back on tour. It’s just a matter of trying to stay healthy and stuff once you start touring a lot.

I understand that you started off playing piano. How and when did the drums come along?

I started playing drums when I was probably about thirteen and they were kind of filling a void cause my brother and Blake Mills, who is actually our producer on our last record and also our oldest childhood friend, they were in a band with Wylie Gelber, our bass player, and they had kind of left to go on tour during like summer break. I was still in high school, I was fifteen, fourteen, and their first drummer, this guy Stuart Johnson, he was kind of like my mentor and teacher. He didn’t want to be touring this hard for this long and whatnot so it was always in the periphery that maybe I would end up playing drums. It was something I took much more easily to.

When you first started playing drums, what was the hardest thing to get the hang of?

I think what develops most slowly, in my case, is like the attention to sonics, you know. I think a lot of people learn like the technique before anything else, and it was never taught really to me like, oh, this is what sounds good, this is how you get it to sound good, or here’s what’s appropriate in this situation when you’re recording a song or whatever; to be able to vary the sonics. I think that was something that I’m still trying to get a hold of (laughs).

When Taylor started writing songs did he always try to involve you?

Yeah, our first record was kind of more organic and at that point we didn’t know how to play our instruments nearly as well as we do now so it was like more simplistic. As we developed as individuals and as a band, I think we all played more of a role in the feedback process. He sends me songs, finished or not or close to finished, and we’re constantly bouncing ideas off of one another. So it’s definitely something that was happening then and is happening more now because in the last eight years I’ve become much more familiar with songwriting and what makes a good song, despite the fact that I’m not a songwriter. So I’m able to contribute more on that level than I was when we were making North Hills.

On the latest record, which song has your biggest imprint on it?

I’d say maybe “Roll Tide” because I sing it and I think hearing a different voice, obviously, can be jarring for somebody or out of the ordinary but if suddenly you hear someone singing other than the lead singer, I think that makes it stick out. But I think my vocal, singing lead vocal on that song, gave that song something unique.

You brought Blake back into the fold to be the producer on We’re All Gonna Die.

Yeah, Taylor and Blake and I grew up together and we kind of come from a similar background musically so it was easy to communicate with him. He’s an incredibly talented producer and honestly, I felt like the songs that Taylor was writing before we had decided to work with Blake kind of dictated which direction we needed to go in production-wise. Plus he’s remained one of our best friends and we’ve all done a lot of work with him and played with him a bunch and I’ve played on records with him and stuff like that, so we had a really strong relationship and I think in our heads for those songs on this record, I think we all kind of unanimously agreed this was the best decision, that nobody could offer as much as he could.

Are you seeing a new record take form?

Yeah, we have some tunes but we still have a lot to figure out. Those conversations are happening slowly but we’re touring till like December so we’re hoping early next year. But that’s still totally in the air. Nothing is concrete but it’s the same process – make a record, go on tour. So I’m sure at some point very soon.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

I think my dad probably (laughs) [Lenny Goldsmith sang with Tower Of Power]. I never viewed him like that but in retrospect he was that guy and always has been. I think the first one I met that like blew my mind was Jackson Browne. We met him a long time ago and he sang on our second record and we went and toured with him. So he was the first one I got to spend a lot of time with. He’s a world-renowned rock star and always has been. He was the first one who really opened my eyes to know what it means to do that and be that successful for that long.

What was your first big I can’t believe I’m here moment?

That had to be with Jackson as well. I remember, and every time we’ve played with him was incredible, but I remember being on the beach in San Sebastian and playing a festival with him and we were playing “Take It Easy” and he was looking back at me and smiling and I remember thinking, this is amazing, too good to be true.

What was the first song you totally obsessed over as a kid?

I can’t pin it to one song but the Steely Dan records were blowing my mind as a kid. I think getting into Jeff Porcaro’s drumming was really what got me, and he played on the Steely Dan record, I think that’s kind of what got me to play, got me inspired to play and practice as much as I could as a kid.

What is the craziest thing you have seen happen to any of the guys onstage during a show?

I don’t think anything that crazy has happened but you know what, I saw Wylie puke once. Well, he didn’t puke, he was on the verge of it and then he passed out with his bass in his hand. We were playing a song and he was kind of like conscious maybe but he was playing these wrong notes and clearly like blacked out or something cause he was really sick. Then he came to and started playing the song again right after the bridge. I thought that was pretty strange (laughs).

Dawes has been labeled so many different things but to you, what is rock & roll?

I think it’s a mentality. I think it’s like a feeling you get when you see a rock & roll show. There is nothing else like it. There’s something rambunctious about it. I think that each band has probably a different definition of what rock & roll is but in our case Taylor is the main songwriter and he’s somebody that we believe is writing some of the best songs around. And there’s also the vibe between the band. What I’ve always liked about some of my favorite bands is that you can hear any recording of them, even if you’ve never heard the song before, and immediately know who it is.


Live photograph by Amy Harris; portrait by Matt Jacoby

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