Last summer Dawes debuted their fourth album, All Your Favorite Bands, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery's Masonic Lodge. Fast forward to this September and once again, the venue—with its heavy chandeliers and grandiose vaulted ceiling—serves as the location for Taylor Goldsmith and his bandmates to celebrate the release of their latest LP, We're All Gonna Die. Performing to an intimate gathering of 150 friends and family, and a few fans too of course, at one point Goldsmith's girlfriend, actress Mandy Moore, jumps up on stage to sing along to newie "Picture of a Man." While the setting may illicit a sense of déjà vu, this recently released fifth opus marks a notable sonic shift in the Malibu-raised band's output.
Emerging at the end of the last decade, Dawes have long been associated with the breezy, neo-Laurel Canyon folk rock revival, slotting in alongside artists like Jonathan Wilson, Beachwood Sparks, Jenny and Johnny, and Rilo Kiley. Inspired by the music that emanated from the rustic backdrop of the Hollywood Hills back in the early 70s, their fusion of folk rock and alt country, with elements of Americana was instantly labeled a throwback. But being lumped in with this group in the early years was no bad thing: it won Dawes opening spots for the likes of Bob Dylan, John Fogerty and Jackson Browne, not to mention serving as the house band for Glen Campbell's farewell show at the Hollywood Bowl back in 2012.
While traipsing the country plugging their previous album, Goldsmith eschewed a band's traditional write-record-tour-write-record-tour cycle, and spent his on the road downtime writing even more songs—the fruits of which make up We're All Gonna Die. Enlisting the Grammy-nominated Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple) on production duties, Dawes accompany their plush harmonies with increasingly prominent strings and vintage organ lines (dive into the 70s groove of the title track for evidence). It's an easy partnership, which makes perfect sense when you consider they grew up together in Malibu and released a record under the moniker Simon Dawes back in 2006.
Under their former collaborator's watchful eye, the sessions for We're All Gonna Die saw Dawes' retain carefully crafted melodies, while incorporating elements of 80s-infused pop, soul, fuzzy rock, and even muscular funk. It's a collection that's bolder and more modern, than anything in the band's current oeuvre. Unsurprisingly, given the morbid title, Goldsmith's lyrics are almost entirely concerned with relationships, both as they come together and fall apart ("Roll Tide," "Roll with the Punches"). Elsewhere he contemplates the world from a bird's eye view, on the existential number "Less Than Five Miles Away." But it's not all navel-gazing: "When the Tequila Runs Out" is a straight up portrait of a party set to fuzzed up bass and flanged guitar.
The decision to record in their hometown also proved critical to the record's genesis. Friends would swing by, including artists like Jim James, Brittany Howard, and Lucius whose contributions can be found here and there. "With this album, it was a matter of trying to take what we make to the next place," Goldsmith explains. "I liked how, by not being too precious, we ended up capturing certain inspired moments that weren't rehearsed and rehearsed, and rewritten and rewritten."
Ahead of Dawes' set that evening we meet the quartet—completed by Taylor's younger brother Griffin on drums, bassist Wylie Gelber, and keyboardist Lee Pardini—relaxing on the Lodge's rooftop lounge. In between jokes, wisecracks and cigarettes, the quartet reflect on We're All Gonna Die's marathon sessions and how the improvisational nature of their time in the studio allowed them to create some of their most vibrant material of their career to date.
Noisey: When did you start writing and getting this album ready?
Taylor Goldsmith: I try to start writing as soon I can. We just put out this record, and today, I was already starting to work on a new song. People hammer that thing into you where once you start hitting a stride and you're a certain age, and the shit is really flowing, you really wanna take advantage of that. Some of my favorite artists, like Tom Waits, they'll be most prolific in their later years. I just know right now, we feel happy in the road and studio, and I feel I'm able to get to the songs easier than in the past and that I imagine I will in the future.
So this is a pretty prolific songwriting period for you?
Taylor: I don't know if I'd say prolific because that has this positive connotation to it, but it's been more productive than that.
Griffin Goldsmith: Yeah, it's cool to make a record in the middle of an album cycle and do what we're doing now, which is to seamlessly transition into another record cycle.
That's not the norm these days. Bands usually wait a few years before jumping back in.
Griffin: Most bands make most of their money from touring now, so now the cycle is on average about two years.
Taylor: There was a time when people were putting out three records before they had a chance to tour. Now, you put out a record in order to tour. Records are now more advertisements for tours because, like Griff said, that's where you're gonna make your money. It wasn't really like we set a goal for ourselves or were trying to prove anything by doing this so fast. It's addictive to continuously release music and have that thrill of being in the studio. When we finished recording this album, we all were bummed and had withdrawals. It's a joy to be working that's why workaholics is a term. The more that we do it, the more we want to do it.
What was the thinking to work with your old pal Blake Mills as a producer? The album's direction is very different compared to your earlier material, so in what ways did he steer you guys there?
Taylor: I think changing things up is the only way to stay in the conversation. It's like 'I like this era of David Bowie, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan.' If these guys were to stick to people's favorite eras, then we wouldn't continue to talk about the subsequent releases of any of them. The only way to stay in the conversation is by adding more to the vocabulary of what your music is. For us, a large part was that Blake has a strong personality, and every producer does. Every producer we've worked with—to a lesser or bigger extent—shaped what the record sounded like. It was the perfect time to work with Blake. We've always wanted to.
What was it like to work with Blake in this capacity versus being in a band with him like you were in your teens?
Taylor: There's always pains in making a record and there should be. If there was none of that, you wouldn't get the best out of each other. I think with Blake it was easier now that we had these roles designated. Before when we were in a band where he was the guitar player/songwriter and I was the singer/songwriter. He has this amazing voice and wanted to sing, and I was this 18-year-old dickhead who was like 'Where's my identity and who am I?!' I wanted to be more of a guitarist and couldn't be. We were confused at that point—me more than him.
Now, with him being the producer, in that (producer's) seat where he's this objective voice that we channel and filter all of this music and information through, it was a break down (in terms of specified roles) for he and I's relationship that was healthier and stronger than it's been.
He and I have been best friends even when the band (Simon Dawes) broke up, so there's never been this tumultuous aspect of our friendship. But with him as the producer and us as the band wasn't this weird thing where he was telling us what to do. I'm perfectly willing to admit that I write plenty of bad songs, but Blake is really good at navigating those harder conversations.
Wylie Gelber: I was in that band back in the day too. It was nice to have a rapport with an old friend. It was cool to jump in and it was a very comfortable setting.
Taylor, you mentioned things were done last minute a couple of times. Did anything about making this record feel rushed at all?
Taylor: Nothing felt rushed, but there is this sense of urgency. When I think rushed, I think unfinished or crammed. Some of those lyrics were like, 'I don't know if that's working anymore, let's try this,' then [claps for emphasis], that's the final version. It wasn't rushed, but it was definitely surprising all of us with how much new music was existing every day. Whether it was a new section of the song, or new words, it was all kind of unexpected.
Was there a conscious effort to make an album that was so different than your earlier material?
Taylor: The whole record is a byproduct of not being too precious about it. In a lot of ways, it's a lot more of a meticulous and detailed oriented record than anything we've ever made.
Taylor: A snare drum on "We're All Gonna Die" or the specifics of a keyboard tone and arrangement decisions where we honed it in and paid a little bit more attention than we did. In the past, there was a power in playing it how it occurred to us. In a lot of ways, All of Your Favorite Bands was like that, which was honoring how a song came out in its original form. On this record, we got in there a little bit more. We didn't take it too seriously and what does this record say in the context to our catalog. It was like we were in the studio and recording say "One of Us" and that guitar tone sounded cool, so let's roll with it. The basic way of looking at it was to make sure that we were constantly having fun and every decision was born out of that instead of whether or not we stand behind.
Of course we stand behind it, but by us letting go of a preciousness that I felt when I was 21 when we were recording North Hills, even though it was a scrappy band's first record, I was more serious back then because I didn't know what I was doing and if this music thing was going to pan out for us. It's a big part of this new direction or whatever that we didn't really even clock as a new direction because we weren't thinking about it.
But it's still a Dawes record in every sense of sound and tenor.
Wylie: That's what we thought too. It was all new cool ideas, but when people always freak, I'm sure even anyone's craziest 80s record they made they still heard and thought it sounded like the record they were making that day.
Taylor: The sort of like ironic issue where people want to say that it doesn't sound like Dawes. Well, Dawes made it, so it does. That's the objective fact!
Was letting go of what you call "preciousness" freeing?
Taylor: It's letting all of the shit about some sort of narrative of the band's sound and story, take care of itself. Realizing that it will take care of itself, the less we pay attention to it. By us making All of Your Favorite Bands because we wanted to make a record where we were playing live and facing each other, there was no statement with that. It was more this is how we should play these songs. Now, making this, and also knowing whatever we do going forward, by simply being committed to doing what feels good and representative of how we feel, it's going to take care of itself. Maybe the next record will sound completely different from this one or not at all. I don't know! But the less we pay attention to that, the more vibrant that aspect will feel. In a lot of ways, I look at this band and I feel like we're a young band that's just getting started.
Daniel Kohn is a writer living in LA. Follow him on Twitter.