Dawes uncovers the password to indie folk-rock greatness

Photo by Magdalena Wosinska

Fresh off the release of their sixth album, Dawes performed Sept. 28 in Reno.
Photo by Magdalena Wosinska

“We kind of rushed into recording this record,” says Dawes bassist Wylie Gelber of their latest LP, “Passwords.”

Back in the spring, band members thought they would have at least a couple months to write and prepare for the recording sessions. When a last-minute spot opened up at their longtime collaborator Jonathan Wilson’s Fivestar Studios, they decided to figure out the details in the studio.

Fortunately, they’ve never been the type of band to overthink the process. After all, this is their sixth album studio album in nine years.

“We’ve always been on the side of it where, in the long run, we’d rather have recorded 30 records of varying quality than just a few so-called perfect ones,” Gelber says. “Sometimes it’s cool to go back and listen to the more obscure records of artists you love, even if they seem weird in comparison.”

The Los Angeles-based quartet worked with Wilson on their first two albums, “North Hills” and “Nothing is Wrong,” at his old home studio in Southern California’s Laurel Canyon.

I think we always have a million insane titles we are trying to choose from. This one is more lyrically related. There are hidden messages and meanings in all the songs.”

“It was in this cool, little house up 100 flagstone steps,” Gelber says. “The console was in the room we were all in. Everyone was 10 feet away from each other so you could only play just so loud. We did it all on tape in this tiny room.”

Wilson is known for revitalizing the Laurel Canyon music scene, originally famous for hosting acts such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Eagles and Joni Mitchell during their ’70s heyday. With the help of Chris Robinson (formerly of The Black Crowes), he began hosting exclusive jam sessions with folk rock’s hottest musicians from bands such as Wilco, The Jayhawks and Pearl Jam in his canyon studio.

Since garnering professional and critical acclaim producing work for indie folk royalty such as Conor Oberst, Father John Misty and Bonnie Prince Billy, Wilson has upgraded his digs, and Fivestar Studios, to Echo Park.

“I think every time you do a record with a new producer it’s a little bit of a gamble,” Gelber says. “You can meet with a producer for a day, but when you get in the studio you have no idea how that process is actually going to go. It can get to butting heads really fast if you realize you have different tastes. With Jonathan, we already knew that part of it. So we decided to go back to our old producer and blend that original part of it with everything we’ve all learned since then.”

Despite going back to their roots, “Passwords,” released on June 22, 2018, picks up where Dawes’ last two albums left off, demonstrating a slightly harder edge and bigger production than the sparse, folky albums they did with Wilson in the past.

Dawes gathers in the tour bus after the Lake Tahoe show.
Dawes Facebook page

“I think we always have a million insane titles we are trying to choose from,” Gelber says. “This one is more lyrically related. There are hidden messages and meanings in all the songs.”

As usual, all the songs on the album were written by lead vocalist Taylor Goldsmith before being crafted by the band in the studio.

“We get them with very basic acoustic guitar and vocals,” Gelber says. “It’s neither a ballad or rock song. If we get something too pre-arranged and lay it down, it might not sound right, but you end being tied to it. When we go in with zero expectations, we can be upbeat or slower and no one cares.

Many times it’s common that the first recording on the first day is awesome. But sometimes later in the process you go back and listen to that first one and you realize that things have changed as you’ve worked through the album and there is a way to somehow make it better.”

Over the years, Dawes has continued to establish themselves as a steady voice in indie folk-rock scene with Goldsmith’s stellar writing and the band’s increasingly seamless arrangements setting the bar for others to follow.

“I think it’s always been most important for us to be friends who are enjoying playing music with each other,” Gelber says.  “And honestly, that goes a long way. When you have this trust in every other member of the band, you end up with a project that is more original than simply hearing the lead singer’s vision through the bodies of the band.

“We allow everyone to do their thing. There are always parts on every  Dawes record that individuals members don’t agree with. But we figure if that’s the part that you love, then I’ll trust that it’s cool.”

 — Sean McAlindin

Concert review: A special performance in the Biggest Little City.

About Sean McAlindin

Sean McAlindin is a writer, musician and educator based in Truckee. When he's not drafting new story ideas, he can be found jamming with his Celtic bluegrass band, Lost Whiskey Engine, hiking for a local backcountry powder stash or hanging out with his daughter, Penelope.

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