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: I also wanted to ask you a little bit about the visual aesthetic for your live shows. Was the first visual motif the nurse outfits?
DS: Hmm. Let’s see. No. The original outfits were these t-shirts with hearts on our sleeves and names on our chest, and we had these feelers on our heads, like antennae. That was the very first thing, but they didn’t last that long. Then we came up with the doctors and nurses uniforms.
BH: And those lasted until the Compass Kids period?
DS: Yeah, we wore them all the way through Compass Kids. Well… that’s not entirely true. During Tri-Danielson!!!, we tried Danielsonship uniforms, which were these purple robes, which my family hated. We were all wearing dresses, basically, and they were really silly. I think I got them at a Renaissance festival or something, and they were these purple robes with faux chain mail armor sleeves, and I thought they were psychedelic [laughing].
BH: I think you wore those at Cornerstone in 2002.
DS: That could be, and I think it was there that I was bending down to work on my guitar pedal, and I realized that everyone could see up my dress. So, yeah, they didn’t last very long.
BH: What was the symbolic significance of them?
DS: I don’t really know. I guess it was just the monk aesthetic combined with purple loyalty and rock and roll battle. They had these shields with the Ships logo on the chests and the names on them. The Danielson uniforms that we use now are blue, and I think they are a service uniform. It’s like a club. You gain patches for the more time you put in. They don’t really represent anything. It’s just a uniform that connects you to your other players, and the imagery is actually on the patches that go on the uniform.
BH: And we skipped over the Nine Fruits Tree.
DS: Oh yeah. [Laughs.] For Brother is to Son, I had done this drawing with me playing guitar in the tree. And it was a drawing that I loved and wondered how I could turn it into an actual costume to wear. So there were three variations of it. The first one was 18 feet wide, and the second one was 12 feet wide and could only fit in certain clubs. I had to have my booking agent check with clubs to make sure the door was big enough to get the tree through. Then I did the fabric tree, which was the best, because it would fold down into a bag that I could check on an airplane. We did quite a few tours with that in Europe and throughout the country. But the tree is now retired. It’s actually so destroyed that we’d have to build a new one to use it again.
BH: At this point, you’re running a label and you’re busy making albums and working on others. Is it difficult to not have your ego involved?
DS: Well, the ego is always trying to say something for itself. I don’t really think about it, and I think that’s an important thing. God does a great job of keeping me humble, as does my family. I’m certainly proud of what God has done. That’s just the truth. I’m proud of what my family and friends have done. I’m proud to be a part of a community with all these great people and artists in the community and beyond. But humility is part of the spiritual life, and any time our egos get inflated, I feel like circumstances take care of that and put us in our place. It’s all kind of built in to our lifestyle. When you start praying, humility sets on you immediately. We realize that we desperately need our Maker, our Father, our Creator. That’s a great place to be. That’s when I feel like we can do something — that we have something to say or do. Once we’re in that place of boasting in our weaknesses and boasting in God’s greatness, then we can be used and have authority to speak. Same goes for songwriting and music-making. The first thing for me always is trying to get my mind out of the way and get any ego trips crushed through prayer and meditation and all those things. I don’t pretend to know anything. I’m not going to presume anything right now. I’m just going to sit and wait and listen.
BH: Do you think there are things that you have discovered about your faith that you wouldn’t have if you weren’t an artist?
DS: I don’t know. To me, being an artist is my job. Whatever you’re called to do and whatever your job or purpose is, that’s connected to your spiritual life. For me, it’s art, but I don’t believe it’s any different for anybody else who is doing what they’re made to do. Personally, I do know that art-making and community and relationships — all these ideas — become real once there’s a spiritual connection. Once there’s a spiritual foundation behind community and behind relationships and art-making, then it has real purpose. It’s really not trying to convince people of anything. It’s not propaganda, and that’s why sometimes there’s a misunderstanding. That’s why I insist that we don’t make Christian music and that I’m not a Christian artist, because that implies that there’s something that I’m trying to sell. My spiritual life is my well. It’s where we go to seek ideas and truth, and that’s going to work itself into the music and the art. To me, that’s a very serious difference between packaging something together to sound a certain way so that it appeals to the most amount of people. That’s one approach. Or, it’s where you go when you’re looking for security or support or inspiration. Whatever will come out of that will be what it is. It doesn’t have to be a song that says “God” in it. Most of the time, Danielson songs don’t say “God” in them. But it hopefully has a certain power and inspiration that comes out of that quiet place.
BH: Looking back at your records, does it seem like each of them is a snapshot of where you were at that time?
DS: Absolutely. No question about it. That’s why I was interested in doing this retrospective, and to still like those songs proves to me that if they don’t come from God, they certainly come out of that place with God. They have my dirty fingerprints all over them, but the fact that I still like them means something. The reason I would never get a tattoo is that I can’t imagine anything that I’d want to have that I’d still like in two years, so these songs really said something to me, that there’s something going on here way beyond me. I always hope that and want to confirm that. There were mistakes made and none of these recordings are perfect in any way, but there are qualities about them, that I can enjoy singing them just as much as before. We just did this tour where I sang all material that was written between ’94 and 2004, and I enjoyed them all very much.
BH: Overall, where would you like to go in the future? If you looked over the next couple years, where would you like to be?
DS: I’d really like to just keep doing what we’re doing. I’d like to be in a position where I can release more records on Sounds Familyre. I’d like to be a little more active with our release schedule. We have a great backlog of material that I can’t wait for people to hear. At the same time, I’d like to be able to divide my time up a little better so that I’m able to be writing and recording more often, because I’m doing all the recording and producing for the label, as well. That’s part of the relationship with working with these artists, and it’s not that I have to be involved with every record, but I love it, and I love hanging out with every artist. I just want to continue doing it.
BH: So I heard that you’re in the studio now?
DS: Well, I am. I’m trying to finish up some albums that we started last year. One is the new Soul Junk record; that’s the one that I’m trying to finish right now. There are a couple other records. All stuff for Sounds Familyre.
BH: How is the Soul Junk record coming along?
DS: Awesome! It’s a monster of a record. Glen [Galaxy, vocalist] brought Brian Cantrell, who drums on a lot of early Soul Junk records, so we recorded everything in my studio live to the tape machine. It was a fun thing to go back to the way that he used to do things and record it in my space. And then we brought in a cello player, and it’s a monster record. It has 22 songs and I think it’s his White Album.
BH: Is it going to be a double album?
DS: Well, it will fit on one CD, and we’ll see if we want to break it up. It’s pretty thick.
BH: How about the next Danielson record?
DS: I’m thinking about it. That should be starting soon. I really wanted to finish these records up, that have been ongoing for the past year and a little more in some cases. We finished the Dan Zimmerman record and that’s coming out in April. That has been six years in the making, and it’s such a gorgeous record. That was something that just kept going on. There was even a point where we stopped and started all over again because I could see we needed to take a new approach. Then there’s this group Ortolan, which is three sisters and a sister-in-law, and they are incredible. The main singer is 16, and she has an amazing voice. I recorded them last year, and I think they’re going to be a smash. They’re really amazing. We had them play with us at the first two Danielson shows for the three-week tour we did to support Trying Hartz. And my dad’s record that we started last year, trying to finish that up; and the new Leopulde record. Just trying to finish that stuff up, and then up I can feel like I can focus a lot of time on the new Ben + Vesper record. But I’m very excited about the new Danielson record. I have a band together that I was touring with on this last tour, and they’re really great musicians, and it makes it really easier for me to have band practice and be able to play locally. I think that will translate in the record, too.
BH: Will this be the busiest year yet for Sounds Familyre?
DS: Probably, though as the pacing of releases go, you need four months of lead time. We’ll see. The year — when it comes to that stuff — goes by so quickly. We’ll see what we manage to sneak into 2009. That’s the goal anyway. We’re just trying to put these releases out that are finished and be able to look forward to what’s next.
BH: At this point, would you say the Sounds Familyre label has become what was your original vision for it?
DS: Well… it’s not quite there yet. We’re still sort of in survival mood. My friend Josh, who manages it day in and day out, works really hard at it, and there’s always more work to be done. In concept and in community, it’s amazing. The whole idea was to extend the opportunities that I’ve gotten through Danielson to my friends and a circle of musicians that we work with here, from my dad all the way to Ted in Leopulde and to new folks that I meet as the community is expanding. That has always been the vision for it, and that has certainly been happening. The release schedule and the business side of things moves slower than I’d like it to, but that’s the way it always is with us. Even with Danielson, things move slower than I’d like it to. Maybe that’s ok. Honestly, the Ships record was really the first one to connect with a wide group of people, and that took 12 years to connect with an increasing amount of people. In my younger days, I would have said that I don’t want people to like my music, but that was coming from that early indie rock thing. But I can only do what I do, so the approach of making music doesn’t really change, but I want people to like it. And I’m not afraid to say it anymore [laughing].