Danielson: New Jersey’s Indie Locavores
DANIELSON’S DANIEL SMITH
Long before locavorism was the gastronomic fashion, there was a clan in south Jersey that dedicated itself to a home-grown, homespun approach to its inspired music and visual art. Danielson, the indie rock/folk/gospel troupe led by Daniel Smith (aka Brother Danielson), maintained that identity by keeping it all, or largely, in the family. For seven albums and one quirky and unforgettable documentary (2006’s Danielson: A Family Movie), the group was made up entirely of brothers, sisters and close family friends. But times change, and so do lineups. This year’s release, Best of Gloucester County, marked the departure from the Danielson fold of brothers Andrew and David and pals Chris and Ted. In came some new players, including bassist Joshua Stamper and drummer Patrick Berkery, as well as an appearance by kindred spirit Sufjan Stevens.
Change hasn’t dampened the rousing, communal spirit that has always been central to the band, which owes as much to outsider art and school plays (charming lo-fi videos, set pieces, nurse- and cop-styled uniforms, and Smith’s much beloved tree costume) as to its Christian underpinnings that have long gotten so much attention. There’s plenty of ebullience to be found on Gloucester County, as there was on the recently-concluded “People’s Springtime County Partay” tour of North America (the name is a play on “People’s Partay,” a track from the new album). We spoke to Daniel Smith several weeks back, when the tour landed at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge.
JOHN NORRIS: Talk to me a little about that new album title, The Best of Gloucester County. You guys have long been based there, but is there anything more “local” in nature about this album that would have prompted that title?
DANIEL SMITH: Not in terms of any theme with the songs directly. But as I was writing the songs—which is always pretty much the same process, me alone, waiting for the stuff to come, you know, and to just connect everyday life with that process. And we have our own label called Sounds Familyre, and this is the first Danielson release on the label. And we’ve been totally happy in the past with Secretly Canadian, but we just felt like it was a time. You know the music business, it’s a tough thing to pull off, and so we just thought it was a good time to pull all of our resources, on many levels, into the vision of the label, which is family and friends and creativity. But I think part of it was also coming back home in the past couple of years, buying a home, working out in the yard, and doing that thing, you know.
NORRIS: A lot has been made in the press since the record came out about this being five years since the last album, Ships. And while that’s true, in the interim you also had the compilation album Trying Hartz, and toured with that.
SMITH: Yeah, one tour.
NORRIS: But it’s hardly like you’ve been idle for five years.
SMITH: No, I’ve been producing records for other artists on our label, built a studio, bought a house, had a baby. Just, real life. So for me, I haven’t been waiting for the songs. These songs, they just weren’t ready. They couldn’t have happened any earlier. For me, that’s the process. They come when they come. Although I was getting worried. [laughs] I was getting impatient for sure. And I think that’s what some of the lyrics, it’s worked into the songs, the feeling of me mowing my lawn and thinking, “What am I doing? I should be out there rocking, or something.” So that works itself into a song, and there you go.
NORRIS: Did you know any of the new guys before? Josh Stamper?
SMITH: Yeah, Josh helps with the label. So I knew him, the drummer Pat was recommended by some local producers that I’ve been working with, and we just all hit it off right away, Evan (Mazunik) on keyboards and Andy (Wilson) on guitar. Everybody came recommended, and we just all hit it off.
NORRIS: And you’re longtime friends with Sufjan Stevens, he’s on the record.
SMITH: Yeah, he plays banjo on pretty much all the tracks. He had some time at home and we said, “Why don’t you come on down,” and he was like, “Sure.”
NORRIS: Jens Lekman is on a track.
SMITH: He is, he sang on the song “Lil Norge,” which was awesome. Because my wife Elin, she’s from Norway, and we’ve had this idea for years of like having a friendly argument for years between the Norwegian girl and Swedish boy, and Jens is perfect for it, and he agreed. We’d talked about it for a couple years and we were able to finally make it happen.
NORRIS: And in the course of the song, the Norwegian girl moves to America.
SMITH: Yeah, and that’s where I come in. For us, it was kind of a fun way to address some of the things that we have each had to figure out about each other’s cultures, poking fun at each other. And of course with a “We Are the World” theme, can’t-we-all-be-friends theme. Just a fun toe-tapper.
NORRIS: People still talk or write about this band and use the word “cult”—either in terms of having a cult following, or in terms of the live performance, the production, they say it has a “cult” feel. Does that sort of thing bother you? Or does it roll right off?
SMITH: Yeah, whatever, I take it as a compliment. And also apparently I still “yelp.” I can’t get away from the yelping.
NORRIS: And you don’t always sing falsetto!
SMITH: Thank you. Exactly. And we’re not a “Christian band.”
NORRIS: There is that, too. Vocally, you do change this up more these days.
SMITH: I guess so. I have definitely been interested in using a much wider range because I have a wider range than I did five years ago. And then also including Elin and Megan and Rachel, we’ve been working a lot more on harmony vocals and focusing on vocal arrangements.
NORRIS: “Grow Up” is a pretty rocking track, and the video is quite entertaining. What can you say about that? It was done down near your home turf?
SMITH: Yeah, down Route 77, which we won’t get into whether it’s actually in Gloucester County or not, but I’ll say it is. It was done by my friend Ben Stamper, from Ben and Vesper, who is a great filmmaker; he came down and we shot it in a day. Yeah, we’re out in the woods, kind of lurking behind cedar trees and down Route 77 and among these big sprinklers that kind of inspired the album cover.
NORRIS: And there are also these flags with what appear to be eyes on them on the cover and in the video, and one sort of transforms into this flying creature, almost like a butterfly.
SMITH: Well, the flags were inspired by these amazing balloons that serve as scarecrows, you know, out in the fields. They’re these big balloons with eyes on them. And I always loved them, so I was starting with that image, of these eyes in the fields. And then I’ve had this recurring image of a Renaissance-style flag that I’ve used off and on. And then uh, incorporated ’em with the sprinklers to make it more majestic, have some more authority.
NORRIS: And you said before that there are probably more videos on the way?
SMITH: Yeah we had a contest for the song “People’s Partay,” and asked people to send images of themselves partying to us.
NORRIS: And the ones with clothes, I assume, you will use?
SMITH: Yeah, we had some rules. They needed to be rated G. You had to be a little creative, and not go for the obvious partying that we could include. So we’ll make a video out of that and some other imagery that I’ll put together.
NORRIS: I know you in the past have worked with another favorite band of mine, WHY?, and similar to you, Yoni Wolf writes lyrically very packed, dense songs. Could you, on a dime, do a song from ’97 that you had not played in years and remember it all?
SMITH: Oh, no. That’s why every time we play, we have a cheat sheet up there. I’ll admit that. No shame. We have a book with lyrics, chords. I can’t remember all that stuff. At the risk of looking unprofessional, I don’t care. It’s better that I deliver!
NORRIS: Do they still have lyric prompters? Axl Rose used to use one, I think.
SMITH: Yeah, Sinatra. The Sinatra prompters. They’re not in the budget.
NORRIS: I can only imagine, if the sky was the limit for a Danielson show, what you guys would or could do.
SMITH: Yeah, well. Somebody should put us to that test!
BEST OF GLOUCESTER COUNTY IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON DANIELSON, CLICK HERE.