The State of the Danielson
Daniel Smith on his numerous musical projects, former bandmate Sufjan Stevens and being a Christian artist who doesn’t connect with Christian culture
BH: When you were growing up, did you want to be a musician and make your living that way?
DS: I don’t know. I remember a point in high school, for sure. I always loved making art and always loved music and having bands all through high school. I think I took guitar lessons in sixth grade or something for a year, and I decided to quit because I didn’t want to learn too much and be tainted. Even then I had this idealistic idea that you don’t want to get too influenced or something. But I loved music as a child, for sure and was always around it. But at the same time I had an identity from being in art classes and having private art lessons with the neighborhood art teacher. I think art and music has been in our family. My mom would make our clothes as kids, and it was a very creative household. That was always encouraged and, for me, always connected to spiritual life, because I believe we’re all created beings and we’re all searching for the One that created us. Whether we know it or not, we’re all searching for our Maker. The creative process is just part of that journey. It’s all connected.
BH: So when you first started writing songs, would you share them with your dad?
DS: I remember there was a song where I had found a scripture in the Bible that I felt my dad needed to write a song [to accompany] the words. It’s an amazing memory, because I was probably in 4 th or 5 th grade and was already fascinated with his songwriting, and I found some text and I went, “Hey dad, this would make a great song.” And I woke up the next morning, and he had written music to it. It was amazing. I think that was the first time. I’ll have to find out what song that was! After that, I wrote terrible, terrible Joy Division wannabe songs in garage bands. But stylistically, I haven’t necessarily been interested in making stuff that sounded like where my dad came from. My dad came from his own memories of high school dances from the 50s and early rock and roll and folk music and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. That’s where his music is coming from. While this was happening, I was discovering the local Drexel University radio station that was playing really strange music, and it was pretty much all punk and post-punk music that was coming out in the 80s, whether it was Nick Cave or Husker Du or The Minutemen. And, also, I was a skateboarder, so I was hearing punk rock on the Thrasher Magazine tape compilations that I would get. So we were all trying to figure out music, and it was exciting to figure out new stuff, especially stuff that sounded really strange and weird. That was our favorite.
BH: So by the time you did A Prayer for Every Hour, you had been writing songs for quite a while.
DS: Yeah, that was ’94, and I had been writing for years. My band from late high school through college was a collaboration between my friend Jason Fontz and I, and those years of writing with him, we were both fascinated with the weirder the better. In late high school, we were an art rock band with a drum machine, and I played bass and he played guitar. And we had tape loops and experimented with a lot of noise-centered ideas and a mix of songwriting. So, for those years, I spent hours and hours of four-tracking and trying out things. That was really the core of discovering a lot of that songwriting, and he’s an amazing thinker and artist. He was so inspiring to me, and he had a great work ethic. He was constantly working on stuff, and when I wasn’t working, I felt guilty about not keeping up. So throughout those years in late high school and all through college, we’d play a lot in New Brunswick and Rutgers, and while that would happen, I started working on my own material that would become the senior thesis performance with my brothers and sisters. That band was ending, and this came out of that thing.
BH: Did you have many expectations for how A Prayer for Every Hour would be received?
DS: As you know, it has always been strange for me, because I have one foot in the Christian scene, yet don’t connect with Christian culture. But I connect with indie rock culture and the sensibilities that I was introduced to and the ideas of doing it yourself — the DIY sensibility. And everybody should be able to make what they want, and not have to answer to a committee or a board or something. I really related to that, so when it came to sending this album out to labels, they were all my favorites. It was Homestead, Drag City, Shrimper, and also this new label Tooth & Nail, which was apparently a Christian label, which I was nervous about. I had heard a couple records that they had released, Starflyer 59 and Havalina, and I was impressed, because it was music that held its own as far as I was concerned. And Tooth & Nail was the only one that responded to our demo, so I went with it. And, also, I insisted that the record stay as is, as a four-track album and not be re-recorded in a studio. That was important to me, and they went for it. I was very curious how it would connect. Also, they had gotten some independent distribution, so they’d end up in the some of the stores that I liked. The fact that it would end up in some Christian books stores, I wasn’t happy about, but that’s the way it was going to be. But I was curious what the response would be. When I was young, I was introduced to Christian music a little bit, but never really connected with it. This was many years later, so I was curious as to how it would go. There was a lot of mean things said in Christian press about Danielson [laughing] and at the same time there was a lot of nice things said in certain indie rock magazines. There wasn’t so much press for A Prayer for Every Hour, but when [Tell Another Joke at the Ol'] Choppin’ Block came out, there was a really nice response from CMJand Alternative Press and they were magazines that were important at the time.
BH: Considering the negative press that you received from the Christian side, do you think you represented something threatening to them?
DS: I guess so. It was just comments about the music not being real music, and, of course, I don’t know what that means. But I guess there was a certain understanding of what music should sound like. There could never be a lyrical point to dismiss Danielson, which was important to me. It was fascinating to me that the controversy was the actual sound and the actual notes and chords and my beautiful voice. [Laughs.] All those things were upsetting to folks. But a lot of kids really connected with it. Especially, we played that Christian festival, Cornerstone Festival, for a couple years in a row, and I think that was really important for connecting with a lot of kids, because once they saw it live, they got it right away. There was a certain crowd of kids that were really supportive and really into it. It wasn’t all shocking. But there was a healthy amount of negative press along the lines of “Why doesn’t Tooth & Nail just sign anybody now?”
BH: Did you receive negative feedback from the indie rock side, as well?
DS: There was negativity, I guess. Even if you go back and find early Pitchfork reviews, it’s amazing how really brutal they were. It was clear that they were written by someone that had personal prejudices, and probably bad experiences, that they were putting on me. [Laughs.] I remember playing a show down in D.C. at the Black Cat, and we opened up for the Make-Up and Question Mark and the Mysterians, and after the show this really excited guy came up and said, “You guys don’t belong here!” It was really odd. It was almost like racism or something, and he kept saying over and over, “You don’t belong in this place!” It was really strange, like, “What are you talking about? We’re just playing music.” So I think we’ve always been in this strange place where I’ve just wanted to play music that was on its own terms. But at the same time, it certainly didn’t help coming out on Tooth & Nail, in terms of being taken as making music and not Christian propaganda. I’ve always said that we’re not even a Christian band; we’re just a band making music, and I sing about what drives me, just like any responsible artist.
So, we had a foot in Christian culture in some sense, but it never really worked. That was never my intention anyway. Christian culture is something I don’t relate to, but Christian kids I do. The actual people listening to music, I do want to connect to. I was raised in the church, and I understand the frustration of having a very limited amount of music dealt to you. I appreciated being distributed and exposed to those folks, but at the same time, there’s a lot of religious and conservative attitudes that I can’t relate to at all, this clear separation between what’s sacred and what’s not. I always felt comfortable making music and having it dealt with on its own terms. Bring on the reviews and bring on the criticism, but it should be about the music. It shouldn’t just paint us into some kind of propaganda machine, which we aren’t. It has been said many times that we’re too weird for the church and too churchy for the weirdoes. But there’s a great group of people who are fans that don’t fit into any of those categories who are really supportive, and that’s more exciting than anything. At our shows, we have youth group kids and indie rockers and parents with their children. It’s pretty amazing.
BH: Was there any other artist that you could look to that existed in both those worlds successfully?
DS: Well… I’m a fan of the original, Larry Norman. He came out of being on some major labels, and he was the first one to be making “Jesus Rock.” He was most successful in the church world, but he was always a radical and too dangerous for the conservative church culture. Just as a kid, during the period of time that I was checking out Christian concerts, when he came to town and we went and saw him, there was something completely different about him. It just felt dangerous, and I loved it. He’s certainly an inspiration in that respect. Or early U2, where they had a faith but they weren’t interested in being church puppets — they resisted that — as a kid, that was inspirational. But the people that inspired me weren’t really operating in a couple different cultures like we’re talking about, and maybe that’s why I’m now so passionate about supporting artists on Sounds Familyre, and people in our community, because I feel like these are people who have a spiritual life and are on a spiritual journey and are making great music that should be heard and enjoyed by everyone. That’s part of the vision of our label, to try to help our friends out, basically.