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

"Ships" era Danielson
"Ships" era Danielson

BH: By the time you released Choppin’ Block, did you have different expectations, seeing that the band was then known on some level?

DS: Expectations are hard to talk about. I know that at that point we went up to North Jersey and recorded with a producer, Kramer, who was a longtime hero of mine. The fact that we did that, and it sounded the way it sounded, was a dream come true. That’s everything I could have wanted. I remember talking to him when the record was done, and we were really excited, and he said, “Well, if you sell a thousand copies, consider that an indie hit.” That put some reality into the market, and he was telling me about all these Shimmy Disc releases — Shimmy Disc is his label — that I love, and I always thought these people were rock stars. King Missile and Dog Bowl and Daniel Johnston — these were my heroes. And he says, “Oh yeah, those records sold 600 copies.” So I got based in the reality of the way it goes. In terms of expectations, I guess I didn’t have much beyond that. We started playing in New York at Brownies and the Knitting Factory and places like that, and Other Music was really supportive. Those were all dreams for me, because I’d seen so many shows at those places and had shopped at Other Music, so just being accepted and kind of supported in those arenas, I had kind of reached my goal. Those people thought I was cool [laughing]. But that was still a time where if too many people like what you do, you should be suspicious of it. If too many of your friends like what you like, it’s not cool anymore [laughing]. If too many people like Nirvana, it’s not cool anymore.

But then we worked on Tri-Danielson!!! and did the double album, and those were pretty intense recording sessions and a pretty big concept to be messing around with. That all came out of the realization that my family members, even in ’97-’98, had their own lives and were going to college and that we weren’t going to be a family band as an official lineup for very long. So that’s when I started messing with the idea of Brother Danielson and Danielsonship and community and family and all these concepts and identities. That’s when we wrote and released Tri-Danielson!!!. Alpha came out one year, and Rolling Stone even reviewed it and bashed it [laughs], and it was coming off the hype of Choppin’ Block, and there was a lot of disappointment that it wasn’t another Choppin’ Block, that it wasn’t a little more streamlined, which would have been the smart thing to do commercially. But I think everything in me wanted to do something different. But the second part of the album, Omega, didn’t come out for another year, and that was the end of working with Tooth & Nail, and that record was released with no promotion at all. I don’t think people even knew it came out for a long time.

So, then, we were in-between labels, and that’s when we started talking to the Secretly Canadian guys, who were then working out of their house. They were really great guys and we liked what they said, and they worked on the whole reissue campaign. In the mean time, I had met Steve Albini and started working on writing and recording [ Fetch the] Compass Kids. Actually, Steve Albini came out here to New Jersey and stayed with us, and we worked in a studio out in Pennsylvania. That was a great experience working with him, because Kramer and Steve Albini were my two big heroes.

BH: Did you reach out to him to ask him to produce?

DS: No, he came out to a show in Chicago one time, and we met him, and he said that he liked the show a lot, and that was it. He didn’t offer to record us or anything. I guess I got his contact information, and when it came time to think about the record, we certainly wanted to do it with him. The studio that we worked in had a lot of problems, but he’s such an amazing engineer that he went through and checked all the gear to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. It was a nice studio space, but the gear was falling apart. But he managed to make a really great record on gear that was barely functioning. Eventually, the tape machine stopped functioning, and we went home.

BH: So then after that, JL “Sonny” Aronson approached you about doing a film. What was your initial reaction to doing the documentary?

DS: I said “Absolutely not.” But Kramer said, “You should talk to Sonny. He’s got some really good ideas about this film.” So I actually gave him a chance. But I hadn’t been interested in that kind of thing. It’s amazing. Some people like the film and some people don’t, but I’ve met so many people at shows that have been affected by it in a great way and have taken whatever inspiration and applied to their own situation. To me, that’s what it’s all about.

BH: Was there a reason that you were so hesitant to work with Sonny?

DS: Well, I didn’t know him at all, and I didn’t know what his intentions were. I am pretty private, and at the time, I felt a real need to protect my siblings, who were still quite young. It was enough that I was taking them into these scary New York clubs where people were doing cocaine on the bar. But in terms of actually bringing cameras into our homes, it seemed a little strange, and I didn’t really see the point anyway. I didn’t see it as being an interesting story. Once he started talking about just doing some filming and seeing how it goes and taking it slow, I think the rest of the family was pretty nervous about it and uncomfortable, and it probably took a full year before we warmed up to him. It was nothing personal, but he was instantly the bad guy walking around with a camera. But he’s a good friend now.

BH: Did you feel like the story was worth telling by the end?

DS: Well…there was no superstar Sufjan Stevens yet. Nobody knew that that was going to happen. Sufjan had just started playing with Danielson to fill in.   I think that All Tomorrow’s Parties tour was the first time that he had started playing with me, filling in with Andrew [Smith] on percussion. And that’s when Sonny came, and things started on their own in that way. Down the road, when Michigan and Seven Swans came out, it was an extension of Sounds Familyre and what we wanted to do with our friends to give them an opportunity to have their music heard.

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.

BH: Speaking of Sufjan, how did you originally meet him?

DS: His friend Melissa contacted me after a show, because she and a friend of hers were putting together a spiritual arts festival in New York City called Christ-a-go-go. She was talking about all kinds of wacky things that sounded really weird and exciting and cool, and they put on a Danielson concert at the festival. There were all kinds of crazy theological hand puppet stations and art exhibits and a minor prophet wax museum [laughing]. So, anyway, that was the festival that Melissa and Sufjan had put together, and during sound check, she introduced us. And she was like, “He’s a great songwriter. You wouldn’t believe how great he is.” And when I went over to talk to him, he wouldn’t talk about his music at all. He was real shy, and that was it. I don’t remember when we hung out after that, but he and I connected right away after we got to hang out. I got a copy of his CD, and I loved it, and he apparently had boxes of them under his bed, going nowhere. I don’t remember what happened after that, except next thing I know, he’s playing with Danielson on the next tour. After that, on the Brother Is to Son record, we were touring together and doing acoustic sets, and he was doing a lot of the Seven Swans songs. Michigan wasn’t out yet or recorded, and he was playing all these amazing songs, and he had no interest in recording them. So I said, “Hey, just come by my place, and we’ll record these songs. At least document them.” So we recorded all the material for Seven Swans. And I was busy making Brother to Son, and I didn’t have time to finish Seven Swans. So he got impatient and wrote and recorded and released Michigan [laughing]. It really took off for him. Then, we finished Seven Swans, and that came out shortly after.

BH: Do you think it’s difficult for musicians who aren’t part of your family to enter that family dynamic?

DS: Yeah, I think different folks that have played with us have said that it took awhile to feel comfortable. I think everyone tries to be warm, but there’s a dynamic that you have with your siblings that your guard is down. But when someone comes in, it probably goes up. You can’t be as goofy or whatever. With Sufjan or Christian Wargo [Fleet Foxes], who played with us, the music is an extension of the friendships. In some cases, we played together first and then became friends, but it’s usually vice versa. On this last tour, none of my siblings were playing with me, other than Megan playing with me at the New York and Philadelphia shows and Rachel playing at the L.A. one, and that was it. My brothers have full time jobs, so I have a band now of great musicians from the area, Ted [Velykis] and Chris [Palladino], who have always been playing with me. It just continues to go and go, and there have been so many seasons of the band, and every record and every tour has its own season. You just roll with your circumstances and the people that are around at the time.

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.

BH: Do you think, initially, the fact that you were playing with your siblings made it easier and less intimidating?

DS: Uh…I guess so. At first. When we started playing together, they were quite young, and I had a very clear idea of what I wanted in terms of the songs and what I was interested in at the time. My brothers both played drums, and they were in the marching band. Megan played the glockenspiel, because that’s what she played in the marching band, and Rachel played flutes and keyboards because that’s what she had training in. The instruments in the band were the instruments that they already played, and that’s all they could do. And it turned out to be this odd-sounding lineup, and I was thrilled about that, of course. I would introduce the songs to them, and they would just play along. There were parts that I’d want changed and all that, but being the oldest and them being young, it was exciting. It was pretty smooth. It was fun for us all to be together again, because I had been to college and had been distant for a while, and it was fun to be coming home. It was an exciting time.

BH: Given that there is often tension between siblings, it doesn’t sound like that was the case with you.

DS: No. There was a healthy amount [laughing]. It’s even trickier now, because I miss playing with my family, and I feel like I’m always trying to be sensitive to that. But at the same time, the realities of everyone’s lives are what they are. Really, it wasn’t my sisters’ or my brothers’ dreams to be full time musicians, so they’re not. It’s not what they wanted. We always enjoyed playing together, and I still miss playing with them and try to involve them as much as possible.

BH: At the point when you were making the Fetch the Compass Kids record, did you realize that was the end of the line for the family band?

DS: I had thought that for a couple of records. I thought that might be the case for Tri-Danielson!!!, and the fact that we all got together for Compass was a surprise. I think I probably suspected it. That record represents the lineup live on stage, especially because it was recorded fairly live — at least it is a good example of us live on stage in that time period. When you’re in the middle of it, you’re just enjoying it and trying not to think too much about what’s to come next, but it was certainly at that point and between Brother is to Son that was a real time of wondering what was going on. I think the movie clearly shows that, and it maybe appears a little sadder than it really was. But it was sad, like, “Ok, what do I do now?” It wasn’t a surprise.

BH: It’s appropriate that Brother is to Son turned out to be such a personal album, like the sound of an artist moving into a new phase.

DS: Yeah, I think looking back now, it’s a real segue into Ships. Truth be told, my whole family plays on Brother is to Son. Everybody plays on it in one place or another, so that line is kind of blurry. But I think in terms of identity and in terms of songwriting approach things became a little more personal. To me, all the songs are personal, but things were changing. In a good way, I think things were progressing, and I think the songwriting became, lyrically, more personal. In terms of arrangements and lineups, things became a little more fluid — the whole idea of whoever was available being on the record. Shipscelebrated that. That’s where that whole idea came from, like, “Hey, this isn’t a compromise. This is great. Anyone can join me. Whoever is around.” But that wasn’t that different from the ways we’d done things, because I’m always trying to figure out what’s going on, and the answers sometimes end up as part of the record. I think I’ll be happy to play a record that isn’t wondering about relationships [laughing]. It will always be about relationships, but I’m excited to be working on songs that aren’t wondering about those kinds of things.

I certainly don’t ever want to get too comfortable.

BH: To that extent, does it feel like you’re in a more stable place now?

DS: Well, my goal for this next record, at least in concept, is that for the first time in a long time — probably back to Choppin’ Block and Compass Kids — is to have a band where we practice before we record. I’m really excited about that, having a band and practicing and writing and recording all at the same time, instead of piecemealing it. I certainly don’t ever want to get too comfortable.