“Not in a dark way, but I always kind of thought about it as lights off, just a one-time gig. So I got no real plans for afterwards, just have a good time while I am here,” is how Dawes bassist Wylie Gelber described his thoughts on death. A sentiment that is cool and calm with a small ray of laissez-faire sunniness to it. Fitting for a guy whose band named its most carefree album to date, “We’re All Going To Die.”
The Los Angeles outfit, playing MontBleu this Friday, Jan. 20, released its fifth album in September, marking a noticeable shift in its outlook and sonic range. Ever since the band’s 2009 debut “North Hills,” Gelber, guitarist and singer Taylor Goldsmith, drummer Griffin Goldsmith and a cast of keyboardists, most recently Lee Pardini, have produced an amped-up, singer-songwriter style of rich, California rock and roll. Think the band from Neil Young’s “Harvest” as fronted by Jackson Browne. But after four albums of a similar sound and coming-of-age sentimentality, the band wanted to make a conscious shift in the ways it approached “We’re All Gonna Die.”
“Everyone let loose a little bit. It’s our fifth record, so by this point we’ve done (pause). We always try and make steps forward with every record and whether or not they are as large a step as we think they’re going to be, we were trying to make an extra special effort at this point to be like, if you like that one thing we have four records that sound pretty similar in that same kind of world. To us, it doesn’t sound not like us, it’s Taylor singing, it’s me playing, so to us it’s us. It wasn’t as wild a departure for us as it seems, but we were definitely open to it,” Gelber said.
As the bassist described it, the sessions for “We’re All Gonna Die” rolled out in a similar manner to the previous albums. Taylor wrote some songs on guitar and piano, the gang got together to knock out the arrangements, they hit record, then bing-bang-boom, you got a new Dawes record. But Gelber said Taylor brought some different kinds of songs to the table on this release and the new album definitely has more lighthearted moments and a sense of enjoyment of the world rather than howling at all of its inconsistencies and fallacies as on preceding efforts.
“When The Tequila Runs Out” details a house party in full effect with no sign of stopping, noted in interviews as being inspired by a similar night where Taylor partied deep into the night, apparently a once-in-a-blue-moon type event. The closing “As If By Design” captures the bliss one can experience when paying attention to the small details in life. Lee Pardini’s piano twinkles like stars on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the addition of soothing mariachi horns to the breezy rhythm gives the whole song a romantic aura.
Sonic touches like this are all throughout the album. From mariachi horns to electronic drumkits to fuzzed bass lines, the musicians were not afraid to push themselves to reach for the “little less obvious influence.” The extra color in the arrangements gives “We’re All Gonna Die” a fuller sound that lends itself to blasting it on the stereo and appreciating all the different textures, which was kind of the the point for Dawes. “Normally, in the past, we believed we could play the exact record with the four of us on stage at anytime. With this record, we took a more “Dark Side Of The Moon” approach, which is, ‘fuck attempting to get this live, let’s worry about that when we get on tour, we’ll figure it out then.’ But not be afraid to stack 10 guitar parts or whatever, or a drum part that would be impossible to play with one drummer, but doing it in pieces. Fun studio stuff,” Gelber said.
That studio-as-an-instrument approach is the effect of having wunderkind musician and producer Blake Mills at the helm. Mills has garnered a lot of recent critical praise and attention for his production credits on albums for Alabama Shakes, Jim James and John Legend among others (He was nominated for Producer of the Year for Alabama Shakes’ “Sound & Color”). Dawes probably couldn’t have called on anyone more familiar with its sound than Mills. He was the guitarist in Gelber and the Goldsmith brothers’ first band, Simon Dawes, the musical ashes from which Dawes arose. His close friendship with the group meant there was already an established level of comfort in his vision and expertise.
“We kind of trust his ideas. He’s a guy that kind of likes to push you in weird directions that seem uncomfortable at the time but make for really new outcomes. So doing the same thing we always do, but just kind of allowing him into that inner circle a little bit more because we trust him so much as an old friend. Like, ‘What do you think?’ and then he’d say, ‘Try arranging or giving it a feel like this,’ in a way that we’d never thought about. Blake is such an amazing musician that he’s able to open your own mind up to new things that you can play that you weren’t sure you very into,” Gelber said.
Dawes’ willingness to keep things fresh and interesting has translated to taking a different approach to touring, as well. Instead of just coming out and touring right behind the release of “We’re All Gonna Die,” the band sat on it for a couple months as band members did their own things and let the album’s warm reception build to a burning cry for more. Now the band is in the midst of the biggest tour of its career, playing almost 50 shows through the spring, and will grace the stages of some the most notable venues in the country such as The Beacon Theater, The Ryman Auditorium and The Fillmore. The group also is dubbing its concerts “An Evening With Dawes” and will play two sets of music, something it has never done before.
With “We’re All Gonna Die” taking Dawes to another level both musically and commercially, it seems Gelber and company took this latest leap by following the worn adage that you only live once. If your life will eventually turn to nothing in a blink of an eye, why would you want to make another album of the same types of songs? If the monotony death is inevitable, why wouldn’t you want to do new things that give you life? Dawes is walking on air right now, light from dropping the existential burden of worrying about what’s on the other side of eternity. All that matters is the life that is before you and what you do with it. The fact that we’re all gonna die isn’t a death sentence, it’s an emancipation that frees you to answer to nothing but your own dreams and desires.