August 15th, 2007 | by JEFF ROSENBERG Music | Posted In: Columns, News

Eight Tentacles to Hold You: Extended Q&A with Dan Jones

     
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danjones2Willamette Week and LocalCut contributor Jeff Rosenberg recently chatted with Eugene-based songwriter Dan Jones for a Q&A in this week's paper. But that tiny space just didn't do Jones' words justice. Here's the full-on Q&A:

WW: Are you more comfortable nowadays performing in the role of bandleader than singer-songwriter?
Dan Jones: I'm pretty comfortable at this point—at least, people tell me I look comfortable [laughs]. I just like change, trying new things, so I honestly try to do new material as much as I can [with the band], even if it might not be fully ready sometimes. That's the good kind of uncomfortable.

You're not just fronting a band with the same old songs; your songwriting's developed to incorporate the band.
Some of the writing process is similar, in terms of hunkered-down wordsmithing and chord-fiddling. But on this record I've done more arranging with Mike Last, my drummer. Some of the songs that have more twisty-turnies in 'em, we honed those in a little bit, trimming, arranging—some of those songs have part after part, without a whole lot of traditional repetition.

Were all those parts in the songs as they developed, or were they added on during this arranging process?
Mostly, the parts were there, but the ligaments that held them together weren't, really. As a songwriter, you can choose to be the creature that pops out these fully formed songs, and people learn 'em. That's a time-honored way of doing things, but it's great that I play with folks who are willing to hear things in a less-than-perfected state, and hammer 'em around a little. With a lot of troubadour-type record production, it's fairly obvious that they've tacked a bass and a drum part onto a pre-existing song, because the bassist and the drummer didn't want to upset the guy who wrote the song too much by being creative! Now, my band's fallen apart many times, but at this point I'd rather be creative and make things happen together.

[The continuation begins here...]

Do you see a real difference between the kind of material you wrote for your first album and the kind of stuff you write now?
I think in my mind I probably make a distinction more than I need to. In a way, it's all one piece.

What about in terms of performance, are you still interested in quieter or solo work?
It's still fun to perform without a band, they're different things and I really enjoy both. But I have to say, all in all, playing with a band feels like it's more compelling, more interesting, more fun for pretty much everyone, in a lot of ways. Sure, there might be fans of that early stuff who don't like the way I've developed things, but at the same time there's a lot more excitement and passion about having a band.

In the press bio for your new release, that first album is sort of marginalized as "his off-the-cuff story-song album." So is it a way of writing and performing that you kind of don't identify with anymore? Is the way you work now a more direct style of writing for you?
Well, to answer your question, I think the new album's kind of... raw, emotionally raw, some of it, and I think I'm more...I can't say exactly, but, a more narrative or neutral type of storytelling seems possible right now. And I think we really nailed a fairly heavy-duty, aggressive rock album. I sort of feel like I'm building up this songbook... I mean, I still play [the first song on his debut] "Charlemagne." I still play those songs, even during rock sets.

It's a good question. I feel like, when I put that first album out, I'm not comfortable with... I was kind of obsessed with that new twang of Americana music in those days. Now, when I listen to it, it seems a little like a bad Jay Farrar imitation sometimes, and God knows we've got enough of that. [WRITER'S NOTE: Perhaps in Jay Farrar's wettest dreams he can craft a song with one-tenth of the wit and charm of the tunes on Jones' For Your Radio.]

But I think it's not really fair to be too analytical about that first stuff. Mostly I guess I just hear it as pure, and unhindered by noise. But I mean, I listened to Wire all day at work today—I like that guitar noise!

Well, it does seem that fronting the band has helped the size of your following.
Yeah, at least locally, we have a pretty good following for the band, and a little bit in Portland and Salem...it's just growin' some. You know, if there is a distinction to be made between troubadour music and rock band music, I'd have to say, rock fans love my acoustic shows, and they love the rock 'n' roll shows. They seem to really appreciate that. As opposed to more of a...well...it just doesn't seem to work both ways.

I don't have any lack of gratitude for people who love that first album. It's not like I'd ever disown that or anything. I think the Acoustic Dan will rise again, or appear again. But I really like the punk tradition where you can do...pretty much whatever the fuck you want. I guess maybe the one who you could think of more than anyone would be Neil Young, who'd be able to do that kind of back and forth, to and fro [between acoustic music and heavy guitar rock]. I always really admired that and been inspired by that. Not to name-check Neil Young for myself other than as an inspiration. Aw, I'm uncomfortable now! It's a funny—hah! I feel guilty for not doing stuff like the first album anymore!

Uh oh, that might be my inner Jewish mother bringing it out of you...
No, I do guilt as naturally as I breathe. There's an MP3 vault part of my website, you could go there and hear acoustic demos right now, and who knows what they might turn into. I'd say...it's not a huge amount, not like 5,000 songs, but I have quite a stack of stuff, a lot of things don't quite get to where you want 'em to be. I like that William Stafford idea that your pile of writing is like your compost heap. Something might pop to the top, or grow out of that. I don't sweat the details on songs for hours and hours. I just enjoy doing it.

Do you write every day?
Well, I write long hand, not with a guitar. And that can be any number of things, from lyrics, to ranting, to listmaking or whatever. It's a habit from that book, The Artist's Way. I picked up that three-page-a-day habit in '96, or maybe even '94. I've been doing that forever, and it seems to keep my powder dry.

Well, one thing that might help bridge the gap to your new work for fans of your earlier stuff would be if you made your lyrics available, if not on your albums, then on your website, so people could see that underneath those layers of noise there's still that same verbal energy going on.
Yeah, I think that's a big project I need to undertake, putting a lyrics section on my website. I've only got about 20 percent of 'em typed up on computer. Mostly I'll just sit down, like, listening to an album in my head, and type 'em out! That old image of the lyricist or writer at an old typewriter, putting paper into it, isn't...I mean, I'll empty my pockets, and say, "Hmm, is that a lint ball, or is that a lyric?" It's mostly a non-written process until it gets to an end stage.

It's interesting that you mention the typewriter, because one of the cues that makes that first album seem such a sort of "writerly" album to me is your use of the old typewriter font on the album cover, for your name and the title, and a similar font for the song titles, etc. Another clue was the preponderance of song titles starting with the word "The." Very short-story-like.
Yeah, that [font]'s a scan of something I typed out on a piece of paper, literally, on my dad's old Royal typewriter from college, and he's like, 82 at this point, so like a 1940s, an old old typewriter. That album, more than any album since... really bears out from the songs. They really do have a lot of life as songs, because I really did hunker down and write them in a more writerly way.

Later, it became more like automatic writing, but it was a part of that song cycle about...it was a fictionalized cycle of songs about my hometown. Those moods, those post-adolescent kinda moods of nostalgia, thinking about that...kinda like that story "A&P" by John Updike, you know...on the cusp of getting the fuck out. You just process that differently, as opposed to a song like [second album One Man Submarine's] "Sweet Sophia" or [the new album's] "Little Machine." I wrote those about life as it was happening at the time, things I was feeling at the time. I became less comfortable...you know, there's a comfort to nostalgia, when you write from that point of view. But I'm dealing with, it seems, more present-tense kinda anxiety these days. Also, there's more goofy silliness, that kind of absurdity that is in the newer stuff. I mean, a line like "I wanna party like Thomas Hardy," I don't know where that fits into things.

The other thing, maybe, that makes a difference in the songs an artist writes for a first album versus the ones he writes after, is maybe this sense at first that nobody's listening, as opposed to, once you start performing, realizing that everyone's paying attention to all these things you've come up with in private.
Well, I think...a really super-honest answer is, I think there's an element of, "Wow, people are actually listening to this stuff," and that's kind of spooky, so you can kind of throw up flak on purpose...I'm not saying that's all of it. You know, you don't want the fact that something...you don't want to get attached to something to create your identity to where you're more willing to change something because people are paying attention, that's pretty crazy. My following isn't so huge that I have these issues. But...going from people not knowing I even did it, to people listening, and liking it, was pretty different.

But, you know, when you've got a hundred-thousand-dollar professional team promoting you, that's when you really get those issues with identity. And I think it's healthy to deal with them the same way, and that's, do whatever the fuck you want! [laughs]

But that track on my web page, that first song is a pretty cool acoustic song, it's a pretty good example of a demo of how I write a song to give to the band. Four tracks, me singing and playing acoustic guitar. If I did an acoustic album it would be closer to that than something more pristine or produced.

Have you considered making a push with this latest album to expand your market beyond the Northwest?
Well, I'd like to, but there's the economic reality of three or four guys with jobs, families, how much vacation time you get, all that. I think I like the method of going back to smaller towns around here, you know, get back to Salem, Corvallis, Albany, Portland, get up and down the corridor with some repetition and build a relationship, as opposed to seat-of-the-pants West Coast touring, where getting back to a town that same year is going to be dicey. Maintaining relationships with those folks is basically impossible.

I mean, it would be a blind leap to quit my job and really go for it...though, people do it...I know the deal, but I mean...I sorta see that happening as a solo. Hitting the road electric, solo, like Hitchcock or Westerberg, or, you know, Billy Bragg, play electric solo and just rock out. I just need to get a good booking agent who can get me up to, say, fifteen bucks a night! [laughs]. Now, see, that's the kind of negative humor that keeps me stuck!

It sounds like you've been reading The Secret!
Yeah, [fake-quoting] "Each cell of your body contracts every time you make a self-deprecating joke!" I actually did read The Secret, did you?

I didn't read it, but I watched the DVD, and I definitely felt like there was some wisdom to be gained in there amidst the bullshit.
That's exactly how I felt about it, like...none of it is really for sale. You don't need the book. I like books like that, but wow, wrapping your mind around the personality-play aspect of new-age entrepreneurship is a trip. They do a service in some way, but it's kind of like a difference between spirit and soul, you know? Books like that seem to be about "spirit," whereas, in the soul aspect, you know—"Arrgh! I can't believe I fuckin' broke my foot before this big show!" In the soul aspect you don't try to repress your negative thoughts, you make a fucking joke about it! If you can't make a dirty joke, or say something negative just to clear your own air, you become a nun or something.

Dan Jones and the Squids celebrate the release of Totally Human Friday, Aug. 17, with thebrotheregg and Oh! Captain at the White Eagle. 9:30 pm. $6. 21+.

Links:
SquidSpace
Dan Jones on the web
The print version of Jeff's Q&A
 
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