Down By Law
I listened to Down By Law while stapling the first issue. I listened to Down By Law while putting the second issue to bed. A friend of mine and I went to see Down By Law and blushed more than we should have for reasons having little to do with the band. For this issue, I interviewed Dave Smalley. We talked twice, once on Sunday morning and then continued it late Monday night.
I understand the Rolling Stones are pretty big fans of yours now.
Dave: Oh, they're our number one fans actually. We recorded across from them at A & M Studios. The only reason we were there is we got lucky and had an opportunity to record there and our producer worked there and chose to put us there rather than in another studio.
Like Westbeach or someplace?
Dave: Or someplace like that. It ended up being a great thing and we had a really incredible experience. A & M Studios is really the nicest studio in the world that I've heard of or seen. It's absolutely wonderful and the people there are great. But in any case, we were really out of our league. You know, we're these four little punk guys and we're in this big beautiful studio with fruit baskets and runners so that if it's four in the morning, you just push a button to ring the front desk and they send a runner to get whatever you want. You have to pay for it, but they'll go get it for you. That's where you expect the Rolling Stones to record. So we were there on our first night and we were a little bit intimidated because we were across the hall from the Rolling Stones, but in a way we were really excited because we wanted to meet them and thought it'd be really hilarious because it would be like the New Guard meeting the Old Guard of music or whatever and we wondered what the hell they would think of us if they saw us. We were recording and we couldn't get a sound that I liked for one of the songs, I believe it was "Punk as Fuck." Finally our producer said through the control room, "All right, just turn every knob on your amp up to 10," and I said "Really?" and he said, "Yeah, turn every knob all the way up." So I did - gain, bass, treble, mids, everything - and it did sound pretty darn good. It was really cool, it gave a distorted sound to the guitar that I liked for that song and we were just going for it and it was really good. We were cooking and then all of a sudden the phone rings in the control room and it's the Rolling Stones and they said "Turn that shit off! We can't hear ourselves fucking think!" My amp was facing out into the hallway which then faced into their studio and so the very first night we were there, we pissed off the biggest rock 'n' roll band in the world and we were really psyched because that was about the most we could ask for. Being a punk rocker and pissing off the Rolling Stones is like the best thing ever. The end of the story is we ended up meeting Keith Richards a bunch of times, and he ended up being a really cool guy. He was just so amused by us, he never heard our music or anything, but we'd see him in the hallway. At one point we snuck into their studio which was like a palace, they just had everything flown in, pool tables, all this stuff, it was just incredible. But it had a happy ending. We bummed out the band of rock 'n' roll which made us really psyched and all the A & M people thought it was absolutely hilarious. They all liked us a lot because they're used to big rock star types and we were just really friendly with everybody and got along so it was really nice.
So did Keith play guitar on a song?
Dave: No. We thought about that though. We thanked Keith Richards on the thanks list, and Alex Reed, our co-producer, said we should put "And thanks to Keith Richards for that tasty slide." You know, use the most generic rock term you could come up with, like tasty slide for slide guitar lead, and then picture thousands of kids all over the world listening to all the songs, trying to figure out which one he did, but we decided against it.
I can't believe the irony of the Rolling Stones calling to tell you to turn it down when playing "Punk as Fuck."
Dave: Yeah, it was. It was also ironic because they were the ones who were like us in their time. They were the guys who did that kind of stuff at one point and now they're like the old men calling us up and telling us to shut up. The cool part about it was that we met Keith and he was really cool and that made us really happy. Of all the guys we wanted to meet in the band, Keith was the man. He's just so jaded. He's done everything a rock 'n' roll star should do in his life.
So how did "Positive" with Jeff Dahl come about?
Dave: That was great. I've known Jeff for a long time through Dave Naz because Dave plays drums on a lot of his studio stuff. Jeff just called me up and asked me if I would sing backup and I said "Sure, that'd be great." He played me a couple of songs and I did it on "Positive" because that was the one I liked the best. I didn't have any preconceived idea of what I was going to sing before I went in and he just sort of started recording and told me to sing and so I did. It was done in 20 minutes. He's a great guy and people who like rock 'n' roll style punk rock really like him because of Iggy and stuff like that.
That Stooges cover was awesome.
Dave: Oh yeah. Well, he's a Stooges fanatic. I mean, I'm a huge fan of the Stooges but he puts me to shame. He knows everything there is to know about that band.
You're a fan of the Stooges?
Dave: Oh yeah. I respect all the groups that came in the early waves and did things. I call them punk rockers of an earlier age. I think Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were very much of a punk rock band because they were doing things no one had done before and their music, not even their words which were already great but their music alone, was basically giving the musical world a middle finger. They were doing stuff so bizarre with Nico's singing and that odd sad tone they had. They were a rock 'n' roll band, but they had a lot of attitude. They weren't just singing about meeting a girl on a Friday night and stuff like that.
They were singing about putting a spike in your vein.
Dave: Yeah, exactly. Who else would have a 15 minute version of "Heroin" besides those guys?
Or release a song like "Sister Ray."
Dave: Yeah, which is great though. That's some of my favorite stuff by them. Or "Satellite of Love." I guess more than half of "Transformer" is about being homosexual. You just didn't do that then. And Lou Reed did. I respect early David Bowie a lot, the Stooges and Lou Reed. It's all stuff that came before our time but I still love it when I hear it.
Do you think it comes through in your music?
Dave: No. Well, I don't know. I don't really think about what comes out of me. Maybe it does in the spirit, but musically I'd say I'm much more directly influenced by the early wave of American punk and American hardcore. That's what I do so that's always been my main area. I think if there's any influences showing through that's probably what it is.
So how much thought do you give to what you do as a whole - the lyrics, the music, everything like that combined?
Dave: I give a lot of thought to that. That's my life. Lyrics can consume me for months until I get it just how I want it, or sometimes they just flow right out of me. We have a song on the new album called "Haircut," and I wrote that because Angry John and I are in a side band called 33 Revolution which is just a total pop band. We play once in a while, practice very rarely and have fun and the drummer from Mary's Danish plays drums. Anyway, we played a show at the Whisky and there were about four or five bands that opened up the show and every single one of them was Pearl Jam and every single one of them wanted to be Pearl Jam. For some reason, I guess because I'm in Down By Law, they put us as headliners at the Whisky so we had to sit through all these bands and I'd meet the guys backstage and then I'd say, "Hey, what do you guys sound like?" and they all said, "Oh, we're going for a Pearl Jam kind of thing." I just couldn't believe that they could be so open about wanting to rip a band off and wanting the cash. It's just really the antithesis of everything I stand for as a musician and by the time we got onstage, I was furious and we came out and we just blew through a set and the people who had been really into these slow, grungy bands were just standing there with their mouths hanging open in shock. I was just really furious and at the end I think I said something like, "Hey, we're Pearl Jam, thanks a lot, good night!" I went home that night and I went into the mini-studio I've got set up here in our house and I wrote and recorded that song in an hour. It just poured out of me. But I mean, I think a lot about lyrics and music because they're a part of me. If a song doesn't move me, then it's not going to move anyone else. Luckily, I've never put out a song that I'm ashamed of. There's always something in a song I've written that I really find fits what I wanted it to do. It hits the emotional chord I felt was right. So I think a lot about what I do and places we play and things that don't really directly relate to the music. For instance, is the club all ages? Is the club too small for all the kids who want to see us? Are the ticket prices too high? There's a lot of stuff that goes with being a punk rock musician, or at least I think there should be, that a lot of kids might not think about and that I think is important.
It sounds like you're really ethical about what you do and how you do it.
Dave: Well, I try to be. I feel that I should be and that more people should be also. I don't want punk rock or independent music to be just another form of rock 'n' roll. What we started in 1981 was something so unique that we've got this whole subculture now. None of the stuff really existed before then. I mean, it did, but not on the scale that it does today. That's all stuff that punk rock has done. All by ourselves, we've built up this whole universe of clubs and kids, and kids' lives are being affected by music in ways that it never was before and I think that's really important, but it's also a responsibility for the people who are doing it. So for me, I take it pretty seriously. I'm not like an undertaker at a morgue or something, I have fun too, but I feel like I'm not here to be a rock 'n' roll star, I'm here to promote an alternative viewpoint of the world and maybe offer some hope for kids who might not have any.
That was something I had always noticed about your music. It didn't matter which of your bands I was listening to, there's always a sense of optimism but it also seems to be a means of transcendence, of breaking away from the everyday world and moving on to something better.
Dave: Yeah, that's probably a good way to put it actually, because the everyday world can be pretty brutal and even if it's not that brutal it can be kind of a grind. That term, "the grind," is really true, life can really grind on you. You have a job, responsibilities, especially once you get out of college or high school and you start to work. Whenever it is that somebody starts to work, it can really be a painful thing, especially if you don't like your job much but know you have to go because you have to earn money to live. So yeah, a lot of my songs or maybe the spirit of what I do encourages people not to worry because there's something bigger out there. There's music and spirituality and keeping your own head where you want it to be. That's easier said than done, believe me. In this world, it's much easier to say "Live your own life and be your own person" than it actually is to do it.
There were a few places on the new album where I noticed sentiments like that, especially in "Sympathy for the World." There's also a line in "1944" about the Berkeley in crowd and how that band isn't going to get anywhere.
Dave: Well, "Sympathy for the World" was written by Hunter, our drummer, and I think it's probably his best song on the record. I really love it. He did a lot of good stuff on the album.
Yeah, "Drummin' Dave, Hunter Up" is really cool.
Dave: All right! Well, when you see us, we usually do that live.
Yeah, I caught the show at the Palladium.
Dave: Oh my God, yeah. So you saw it. That was the ultimate thing we could do, is do the worst song in the world first at the Palladium for 4,000 people.
Actually, everyone around me loved it.
Dave: Oh no, everybody loves it and that's the funny thing about it and that's why our audience is so great. They really get into it and the words are hilarious. When we recorded it, we had all the A & M engineers and runners in there and we were all screaming "ooh ooh" for the disco part and stuff like that. It was just hilarious. But for "1944," that's basically a song about Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, which is a fanzine that started out to be such a great thing in the early days of American punk music and then they just sort of disintegrated. Mat Gleason, who is a genius and the closest thing I know on Earth to a living deity in my opinion, said "There's fascists on the left and there's fascists on the right." I really agree with that. You can be intolerant and bigoted on whatever side of the fence you're on and I really think Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, which started out as such a positive, uniting factor for the whole world of independent music has really just disintegrated into this sort of fascistic, "Well we won't review your record if we don't think you're punk enough." They constantly put down straight edge bands, they put down most of the music that I enjoy, like ALL and Bad Religion and whoever else you happen to think of. They constantly give bad reviews to it. I would say if there were an overthrow of the government tomorrow, people like that would be the next ones to try and pick up the mantle of power and dictate how to be. And when you're a dictator, it's a bad thing whether you're a dictator on the far left or on the far right and dictators are evil because they don't encourage people to be themselves. That song has gotten a really positive reaction from a lot of people because I guess a lot of people are really fed up with what Maximum Rock 'N' Roll has become.
In a way it's kind of funny though, because it shows exactly how ridiculous some of these things about independent music can get.
Dave: Yeah, yeah. I agree.
I love independent music, I can't even count how many times it's been uplifting or made me happy when I was sad or something.
Dave: Yeah, it's part of your soul.
Exactly. It's a way of life and it's extended into other parts of my life, so now I try to support independent businesses, period.
Dave: Me too. Caroline and I do that too, all the time. We go to smaller stores if we can instead of the grocery chain and things like that.
There are things in it that get carried way too far though.
Dave: Yup. You can carry any good idea too far. Straight edge is a good example. I am, of course, a fan of straight edge and helped establish it in the United States, I believe in it. I really think straight edge is a great ideal, but the whole thing is that it should be there for those who want it. If someone wants to have a beer or smoke a cigarette or have a joint, as long as they're not hurting themselves or hurting other people, who cares? I've been around some really wonderful people who drink beer and does it affect my relationship with them? Not in the slightest. They're just doing their thing. But there are some kids who take the ideal of straight edge and carry it to this fanatical extreme and that's intolerant and fanaticism and that's where the ethics of punk rock really have to come in. The whole idea was to live and let live. If someone wanted to bleach their hair green, they could and if someone wanted to play their music as fast as they possibly could, then they could. The ideals are great, but you can carry them too far.
Are you still straight edge?
Dave: Yeah I am. I don't know if I would be straight edge by some straight edge kid's definition, you know what I mean?
Yeah, because now straight edge is supposed to include not smoking, not drinking, being a complete vegan, not having sex, not even engaging in any sort of sexual activity. I think the way some people put it now is abstaining from everything that is possibly addictive.
Dave: Well, by that definition I wouldn't be, but to me the definition was keeping your head clear at all times so you could produce more with your life and whatever you did. For some people, like Jimi Hendrix, I can't see Jimi Hendrix having been the great, powerful musical force that he was without having taken drugs. Or Darby Crash. He wouldn't have been him without being so crazily fucked up. Not that I'm advocating that, I'm just saying for some people it works. My theory of straight edge is keeping your head clear to produce things and not getting fucked up. But whether or not someone had a beer, like let's say someone is straight edge but they have a beer and then go on to do whatever they do, does that mean they aren't straight edge anymore? I don't know. It's a pretty tough question. But anyway, I am not into those extreme definitions of what straight edge is at all, but I support the ideals of positive straight edge as much as possible.
Getting back to the music, it seems like there's a social and personal aesthetic at work. It's like that line in "Goodnight Song" where you said "I know most of my words are social," where you have these really personal songs on the album and then there's more socially oriented songs.
Dave: Yeah, that's true. Actually, that's probably the best way of looking at it. I mean, the two mix a lot, you know? Even when I was in ALL which has a lot of love songs I was injecting a little bit more social commentary in my lyrics than they had before, than the Descendents and stuff. I feel there's a lot of things in the world that affect me and that I feel things about and that I feel like probably other kids can really relate to also and so I write about them. So a song like "1944" or a song like "Haircut," those are both really social songs but they're also really highly personal songs and I think that's why a lot of my songs strike a chord with kids, because there's stuff they can relate to and also a bigger and broader picture of the world.
That's a good way to put it. For my tastes, I like stuff like "Flower Tattoo." It's kind of quirky, kind of poppy. I dig "Heroes and Hooligans." Actually, was that influenced by the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" at all?
Dave: Oh, I'm a huge Beach Boys fan, but the title didn't come from there. We were having a lot of discussions about what the album title should be and that was a title that I thought would be great because a band like us, to many people we're heroes and to many people we're hooligans. To older people who are more established, punk rock is hooliganism and evil. To kids who are just starting out and getting up there, they see a band that they love and they know they can do it too. It's like, "Wow, we can believe in these guys and they're encouraging us to do our own thing. That's cool!" I just thought it was kind of neat to put that dichotomy on there together. But we ended up not using that. We ended up using the title we used which I'm really happy with.
Note: Dave had to get ready for a show, so we broke off the interview here and continued it a day later. I had just gotten off work.
Dave: How are you doing?
Can't complain. I worked a lot today, but I was on the clock.
Dave: That's good. The more work, the more pay.
Exactly. The more you work, the more money you make and the less you have to worry.
Dave: Yep, but then again, the longer hours mean you have less time to do the stuff you really want to do. You get more money but you don't have as much time to do stuff that you want to do.
Yeah, but that means you don't have much time to spend the money you just made.
Dave: That's true and I remember whenever I've had a job I always spent it so fast after I made it. I worked at Newbury Comics in Boston, which sells records and comic books. I was in charge of the comic book section, that was what I did there, and I was the only one who really knew a lot about punk rock, so I made sure we got everything in. This is back in the early '80s and that's when every band was putting out singles right, left and center. I would literally spend my whole paycheck, even at a 50% discount, for albums and comic books. It was sad.
So you read comic books?
Dave: Oh yeah. As part of my job I had to keep up with all the major ones, like most of the DCs and the Marvels, but I read all the First comics, like Nexus, Badger and I read the Epic ones like Dreadstar.
Dreadstar was awesome.
Dave: Yeah, Dreadstar was really cool. I really like Dreadstar. Yeah, what was that character's name, Syzygy?
Dave: Yeah! Very cool, he was awesome.
There was that one issue where Dreadstar and Syzygy were in the 7th or 8th levels of the sewers and he cast a ball of protection around them to protect them from a nuclear blast and then when they went back up, everything had just been annihilated.
Dave: Yeah, I remember that one. That was totally brutal. That's when comics started changing. It was in the '80s. In the late '70s and early '80s they started getting away from caped superheroes and more into brutal, really depressing but realistic plots.
It seemed like one of the turning points was the New Mutants graphic novel.
Dave: Yeah that was, because people died in that.
Then there was the Mutant War thing and the Sentinels in the X-Men.
Dave: Yeah. Comics have come a long way and even people like my parents who grew up when comic books were really just total fantasy stuff, even they respect comics now. It's like a real art.
You look at something like Art Spiegelman did with "Maus," and that's not a comic book really.
Dave: I never read "Maus." I've always wanted to, but I never did read that. I know what it's about, but I never read it.
There's a whole bunch like it though, like James O'Barr's "The Crow."
Dave: Yeah, the movie was great.
The comic was even better.
Dave: Oh, I'm sure it was. That doesn't surprise me.
There was a critic out here who just ripped it to shreds and said it lacked style and it was a hodge-podged mishmash of violence without a plot.
Dave: I didn't really think that was true. I thought that the sets were great and I thought that the whole idea of vengeance against someone who killed someone you love was really cool.
I just thought it was a great love story.
Dave: Yeah, me too. I mean, I went and saw it with my wife and we were both really sad but happy at the end, happy that it had come to a successful conclusion. It affected us a little bit, which was cool.
So does the album title have any connection to Mission of Burma? I know you covered "That's When I Reach For My Revolver," and then titled the album "Punkrockacademyfightsong."
Dave: It does in a way, but it was only a secondary thought after I had written the album title. We had all come up with some ideas for album titles and there wasn't one that everyone clicked on that we felt captured the spirit of the record. So our producer put up two lists. He put up one list on the wall where we had to put our name for the album on the wall and we each had to come up with two or three, including the producer and co-producer, and that was the "No Joke Titles" list. On the second one it said "Joke Titles," because you know somebody's going to write "Fuck Off Part 12" or "We Suck" and all the stupid titles. So we had these two lists and we couldn't come up with one and everyone had written down names. I wrote down, I don't know, it just flashed into my head, "Punkrockacademyfightsong." It was like a vision from God, which I was happy to have. It hit me and I wrote it down. I almost wrote it on the "Joke Title" list, but I didn't. I put it on the other one and about half an hour later Hunter wandered by the studio and he came out into the hallway where we hanging out and said "Hey, who named the album?" And we all looked at him and said "What?" And he said, "'Punkrockacademyfightsong,' that's it. Who did that?" And I said, "I did, but I was kind of half joking." And he said "No way, that's great." Everyone else said, "Yeah, that's fucking awesome!" So we did it and then, I actually thought of it right around then, I realized how cool it was because it had "Academy Fight Song" in it. That's sort of my little tribute to Mission of Burma who were a really special band.
Then there's the resonances that carry through, because Roger Miller sang "I'm not judging you/ I'm judging me" in that song, and it seems like a lot of Down By Law's music is more introspective and about changing yourself to change the world instead of trying to change the world around you without changing yourself first.
Dave: Yeah, that's exactly it. That's exactly it. I really feel that very strongly. I would love to think the youth of the world are going to unite and overthrow the older, corporate, conservative structures ruling our known universe but I don't really think that's going to happen. However, we can change ourselves and affect each other and that's something no one can take away unless kids stop listening to music. But as long as music is out there and kids have access to it, there's always going to be a chance to grow and become involved in that music and it really can affect things. It doesn't mean necessarily that if you like a certain band that you have to go out and change the world, but it means maybe you'll think a little bit deeper about stuff and realize and how everything relates to everything else. If you can affect just a little thing, then it's a start. It's an optimistic message, yet at the same time I guess it's a little pessimistic because it's kind of like that Bad Religion song, "I Want To Conquer The World." A lot of kids don't realize that song is very tongue in cheek. What Brett and Greg are saying in that song is no one can conquer the world and you can't do all the things they're talking about. It's sort of a depressing song in a way. Brett, for one, doesn't want to conquer anyone. He wants to do the best he can and make himself the best that he can be, but he doesn't want to be this conqueror. I know that song is somewhat tongue in cheek, and that's how I feel about music. I don't think it's going to overthrow the army and go and take down the nuclear weapons. It's not going to happen. But we can realize through different forms of music and communication how special we all are and how we don't have to view things the same way. That can make a really big change.
That actually reminds me of "Remains To Be Seen" by Fuel. There's a great line in it - "Because of maybe/ I've got a chance" and then the rest of the song is about refusing to stop trying to help people.
Dave: That's sort of like, when we were talking about drugs. I'm not a preacher, but if I see a friend hurting himself or herself, I will try and say "I think you're hurting yourself," but I'm still going to try. That's why a song like "Down The Drain" on the first record is a really bitter moment for me because I had a friend who was an alcoholic. I really tried my hardest, from subtlety to blunt honesty, to get him to stop drinking so much and he didn't. That's when I wrote that song which has the chorus "If you ask me/ I'll be there for you/ But it's up to you from here." That was the most I could do.
Sooner or later, people hit bottom and realize they need to change.
Dave: Yeah, yeah. Hopefully most people won't get to that point. Hopefully they'll come through on their own, but there are some people who don't want to be helped or can't be and after a point you have to let them do it on their own. But the happy side to the "Down the Drain" story is that a kid came up to me in New Jersey last year and we talked for a minute and he said "The reason I wanted to meet you is not just because I listen to your music, but my father is an alcoholic and I gave him 'Down By Law' and said 'Listen to this song because this is how I feel about you dad.'" And he said his dad had started going to A.A. since he heard that song. It made me feel really special and really happy and I gave him a big hug and I'll always remember that. It was a very intense moment.
I know your music has a very deep and personal effect on a lot of people. I've actually met people and one of the reasons we started talking was because they were wearing a Dag Nasty shirt and we'd start talking about your music and it was obvious that your music affected them on a deep level.
Dave: Well that's good, that's what I aim for. I think the fans of Down By Law are very affected by the music. We're like a family and I view them as my family. Andy and Brett from Epitaph have both said that Down By Law fans are the most hardcore fans of almost any Epitaph band. They're just so devoted to the music which is great. For me, I'd much rather have fans that love the music and really feel it than sell a million records like the Offspring. I mean, that's great and I'm really happy for them and I want them to sell a million more and I'm glad that a punk rock band is doing that and I'm really encouraged, but nonetheless, if you gave me an option to trade Down By Law fans for the record sales of the Offspring, in a heartbeat I'd take the Down By Law fans, no questions asked. I think even if Down By Law sold a million records, I don't think there's going to be a million people that really live and breathe the music and are so cool and so part of it. I can go to a Bad Religion show and see the ones who are just there to slam because they think the name Bad Religion is cool or whatever, and I can see the kids who know every word and are really into it and really understand the band.
What about Down By Law's romantic side? The band isn't just social, there's "Goodnight Song," the Outlets' "Best Friend," "Our Own Way." There also seems to be a lot about relationships in your music.
Dave: Well, for me that's really inspired by my wife, my other half, the other half of me, and I'm just completely, fully in love with her and have been from the second I met her. We met and it was a really magical, special thing. It's so nice to have a relationship where you can love someone and feel really strongly about them and never stop. When I wrote "Goodnight Song," I don't know if we were in rehearsals yet for the album or not, but it was pretty close. That was the last song to be written for the album and I came home one night from practice and she was asleep. I saw her and she was just the picture of perfection for me and I sensed this beauty and I was almost moved to tears because I was so happy. I just went in to the studio and recorded it that night. I think the nice thing about it is there's a story there. To me, the best Down By Law stories are the ones about our fans, and a fan came up to me in Holland on this last tour and said "Yup, my girlfriend and I, the first time we ever made love was to 'Best Friends.'" And I said "That's great," and I was really happy for him. And he said "Whenever I listen to that I feel so much happiness because of that," and I said "That's really great." And then he said "Now she's coming home from vacation and I am waiting to play her the 'Goodnight Song.'" It was great. He had this whole plan.
Yeah, I remember the band playing "Best Friends" at the Palladium show when I was there with a friend of mine from Texas and we just stood there hugging and grinning at each other.
Dave: Yeah, it's a happy song.
It basically described everything about it. I'd call Texas, literally just to hear her voice. I'd get up at 6 a.m. and it didn't bother me.
Dave: Yup. It's funny how relationships or even friendships can do that. It doesn't even have to be a physical thing, it can just be a platonic thing. If some of my best friends called me from the East Coast, I would have no problem, even if they called me at four in the morning, I'd laugh and talk to them.
It seems like a lot of times, people focus more on the social messages or joke songs like "Brief Tommy."
Dave: Hey, "Brief Tommy" is the most serious song on the album. Don't make fun of it.
So about your cover of "500 Miles," what exactly does "haver" mean?
Dave: Well I found this out, appropriately enough, when we played in Glasgow, Scotland. Havering is essentially when you're talking nonsense or talking crap. The reason it comes after the line "If I get drunk, blah blah blah, and if I haver I'll do it next to you," is because usually you haver when you're drunk. You talk like an idiot and say stupid things. I had thought it meant to vomit but I had no idea and I was getting really frustrated because I like to really feel what I'm singing and so I sang that when we did the take of the song and everyone was just dying. I saw it through the glass and said, "Well, we'd better do that again" and they said "No way, that's staying."
Well, when you screamed "Whatever the fuck that means," that's one of the classic moments of the album.
Dave: It was genuine too. It wasn't planned. I was just frustrated because I was singing a word I didn't know.
I really like what you did with the song because it doesn't really sound like the original, which was a great song, and it's so speedy and so quick.
Dave: It is, it's a great song and we made it our own and that's they key to making a good cover is to make it your own. When we were rehearsing it was so fun. It was one of those fun songs to rehearse and we just had a blast every time we did it. We experimented with speeding it up in a lot of different parts and the album version is the one that felt the most natural. We'd all just look at each other and jump at the same time in the rehearsal studio and go 90 miles an hour.
To look at all three albums together, it seems like there's a definite progression into "Last Brigade" from "Too Much Grey" and from "Dead End" into "Punk Won" that sort of links the three albums together. It's almost like you can hear the continuation of the preceding album in the first song and hear how it evolves.
Dave: Well you know, that's really interesting and I've never thought about that, but I think you're right and I'll tell you why, because Down By Law has really evolved as a band. It started out as just a project band of me and some friends and we made the first record. By the second record it had grown a little bit more cohesive but was still sort of a project band but it was becoming more serious and that's why "Blue" is really more serious. Plus, I was going through a lot of personal things when I was writing "Blue," so it's more of an introspective album. The last song was really powerful. I wrote that song that day and taught it to Chris in the studio that night and we recorded it at 2 in the morning in one take. We just went in and did it, he and I and the engineer. Now we've become like a real band in terms of our membership and it's really evolved from that. And "Dead End" leaves off on somewhat of a happy note, but also somewhat of a sad note, and the answer is "Punk Won." Of any questions remaining, the answer and victor is punk. That's really interesting. I never thought of that.
Compared to the other songs on "Blue," "Dead End" seems almost anti-climactic. Everything else has electric guitars and drums and then there's this acoustic song and the end of the album.
Dave: Yeah, it is in a way, but it's actually more like "Goodnight Song" in a way because it leaves on more of a quiet note and leaves you with more of a peaceful feeling although the words to "Dead End" are a lot more bitter than the words to "Goodnight Song." It's very happy and "Dead End" is quietly angry at people who give up on their ideals and trying to make the world a little bit better.
So what do you do when you're not playing music? I know you said you hang around the apartment building and you have your own studio, but what else do you do?
Dave: You mean when I'm not on the road, or when I'm not even playing?
When you aren't even playing.
Dave: When I'm not writing music?
When you aren't writing music, when you don't have a guitar in hand, when you aren't going from one gig to another.
Dave: Well, Caroline and I do almost everything together when I'm here. We actually go to museums. She's a fine artist and a graphic designer and she's incredibly knowledgeable about art and I've learned a lot about different modern American artists from her, like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and even the more pop stuff like Andy Warhol. I've learned a lot through her. Sometimes we go to museums, we both love to go to the movies so I see a lot of movies and it's nice because when I'm not on tour I can go see the matinee of the movies and because I want to see the good movies with Caroline, I'll see a lot of really bad movies by myself or with a friend during the day so I see almost every move that's out. I expect my next matinee will probably be something like "You're In The Army Now" with Pauly Shore. I don't know if I'll go that low, I usually don't. I went and saw "True Lies" and I'm glad I made that a matinee. I'm glad I spent $4 instead of $7.50.
That movie had some really depressing attitudes in it.
Dave: Did you see it?
Dave: What did you think?
I thought it was a cartoon. I liked the special effects, but I thought the attitudes were just repulsive.
Dave: Yeah, all the deception between the husband and wife.
And the one scene in the interrogation room.
And Tom Arnold's character. That was enough right there.
Dave: You didn't like the character.
I didn't like the character, I didn't like the attitudes and I especially didn't like the line about "Ditch the bitch."
Dave: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. Well I try not to get mad at stuff like that in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie because I just know that's going to be there before I go in. There's going to be a degree of that, no matter what. But I can definitely understand getting offended by it. I like Arnold's movies actually. They're fun.
What did you think of "The Last Action Hero"?
Dave: You know what? I liked "The Last Action Hero." I think I'm the only person who did.
Dave: You liked it too?
I was analyzing it because there were all these different layers. It's a film within a film within a film.
Dave: Yeah, which I thought was great. I loved the whole concept of it.
And there were all the references to "Roger Rabbit," "Basic Instinct" and tons of other films.
Dave: Yeah, I agree with you. It just got so panned in the press, and I went and saw it and I thought it was really good. I can't say it's my favorite movie of all time, but it was quite interesting and I liked it a lot.
And it was very intelligent.
Dave: Yeah, it was. Let me tell you, that guy is smart. He's a multi-millionaire and he's one of the leading figures in Republican political circles even though he's not a politician. I don't think he's a dumb guy at all. I think he knows exactly what he's doing. He's got that accent and he's a huge muscled guy so everyone thinks he's dumb, but I bet he's really smart. So anyway, those are the answers, we go to movies. Most of the time I'm writing. My first love is my wife, but right behind her is my guitar so I'm either with her or my music and that's pretty much it. I go out to lunch with a lot of friends and stuff like that, go to Epitaph and say hi.
I take it Caroline's fairly into what you do.
Dave: Oh yeah. We refer to her as the fifth member of the band actually because she does all our artwork and she's really talented. When we're on tour she keeps track of things so when I call home, she can tell me that Brett needs me to call him and that there are interviews scheduled. She helps a lot. When we played that show in Huntington Beach at the surf competition, she sold the shirts for us and we had a great time. We drove down together, separately from the band, and had a really fun drive.
I know you mentioned earlier that Down By Law functions more as a band now, because before it was almost like having guest musicians.
Dave: The idea wasn't like that then. Chris Bagarozzi, Dave and Ed from the Chemical People, all the former members of Down By Law with the exception of one are all still my dear friends and I love them a lot. It was just never able to be a full time band because everyone else was in another band or I wasn't at the point where I wanted to make it a full time thing, and so one way or another, we were never full time. I didn't want it to seem like they were guests filling in.
It seems like that's the perception some people have gotten from the first two albums, that it was Dave Smalley and company instead of Down By Law.
Dave: I don't think that's true. I think in a way the music was that for sure because I wrote much more of the music than anybody else. Juliana Hatfield actually had the perfect answer for this. After she changed members at one point, someone asked her "Is this going to be the permanent lineup?" and she said "Everything in life is a phase. This is a new phase for the Juliana Hatfield Three and it might be the last phase or it might be just one phase of many. I don't know. Everything in life is a phase and things change." I thought that was great and I really understood what she was saying. I look at Down By Law as just having different phases. When the Sex Pistols had Glen Matlock, that was one phase and then they got Sid and that was certainly a different phase. It didn't really change the overall spirit of the band, but it was a different direction and a different chemistry. I think right now is going to be the first time you'll see the same lineup for two records, but they've all been great and they're all my brothers. Down By Law is like a family. All the members of Down By Law were at that Palladium show and they were all backstage and upstairs.
That show was great. I can't remember the last time I saw a musician set foot on stage wearing a tie.
Dave: Oh, thanks. I wear it sometimes. It's just kind of nice. I went to a Catholic boys school so I always wore one for four years and growing up in Washington D.C. I had to go to a lot of things with my parents where I had to wear a tie, so I've worn a tie for a long time. It's so funny to wear a tie and be in a punk rock band. It gives me an extra charge. It's like an extra middle finger. They're fun.
And you can do almost anything when you're wearing a tie, like not comb your hair for four days or something, and it's okay.
Dave: Yeah, it's true. The Jam wore ties, but they wore them almost straight, and I go for more of a punk attitude which is that the tie looks good, it's a sense of style, but it also pokes fun at people who really wear ties or who really love them, or like you said, people think wearing a tie makes everything great. You know, take a Nazi skinhead, put a tie on him and he's an okay guy. That's not right.
So what is the Dave Smalley fashion sense? If you were to publish a fashion guide, what would be included?
Dave: Ties actually would be one thing. I think a good tie, slightly askew, put over a shirt that maybe has some writing on it or certainly one that's not tucked in. I also wear Vans sneakers and shorts. One tip is always wear the shirts of a band you like. You never know when someone from that band, say it's a local band, will be driving around and see someone wearing their shirt. If it's some kid who doesn't think anyone else in the world knows their music and sees someone wearing a shirt of a band they like, they can go talk to them and maybe form a friendship. I know a lot of Down By Law fans have met by wearing the shirts, which is really neat. If it's really hot, I wear the normal Southern California punk boy from D.C. clothes, and if it's okay weather, I try to dress sharp, yet askew. I'm a big fan of the mod movement so I guess that's pretty heavily influenced me.
So are there any plans to put out another Dag Nasty album?
Dave: It's pretty much like we said in the album. It was done on the spur of the moment and if it happens again, that'll be great. If it doesn't, that's okay. I think the good thing is if we never do another Dag Nasty record, Dag Nasty went out on a good note instead of on "Field Day." It just wasn't a real Dag Nasty record, it didn't have the same spirit. The first two records were great and then "Field Day" didn't seem like the same band.
On a final note, from everything we've been talking about, it sounds like you have some very distinct principles you live by. What are those?
Dave: Well, I don't know if I've ever sat down and put them into actual words, but I guess believe in yourself and one of the most important things I would encourage is doing what you want to do in life and that's hard to do because mostly what people want to do doesn't pay the rent and doesn't pay for food. But if you can possibly do it, or even if you can't make it your life, don't stop doing what you love. If you're a painter, you might not be able to make a living at it, but don't stop painting. Don't get too caught up in the 9 to 5 routine, coming home and being tired and turning on the TV. I've done that and I know how easy it is. It's really hard to stay focused on what you love, but that's one thing. Try and live your life as honestly as you can. I guess another one is take care of each other because there aren't a lot of people who take the time to smile and talk to people who they don't know or give a helping hand to others. That almost sounds like Christian dogma, but it really is true. Help your neighbor because it makes you feel good for one thing, and it'll make him or her feel good for another and it's just the right thing to do. I think if kids were raised more with that sense of what's right and wrong it might make the world a little bit better. Just stay true to your ideals. That's the trick, to find a set of ideals that get you through and make you motivated to live your life. "Looking For Something" is kind of about that. What is it that makes you get out of bed in the morning and do your thing and want to live? Everybody has something or should try and find something, because it's not enough in life to get by. I don't mean financially, I mean overall. It's not enough to stay put and get by and have fun and then go to bed. If you don't contribute, or if you don't change yourself and grow, then you're just using oxygen and you're not doing anybody any good, least of all yourself.
You're just surviving, you aren't thriving.
Dave: Yeah, you're just like a cow in a field, but the cool thing about being a human being is you can do whatever you want. You have a brain that says "Hey, I want to go do X today," but you also have a heart and you can love your fellow human beings and that's what makes us special on planet Earth. So find something you can believe in and do it, or at least support it. Not everyone can be a musician, but support the bands that you love. It's all one big circle and we're all in it together. One last thing and it's something I always like to say, I just wanted to say thanks to the kids who have supported Down By Law and they are the best. I just wanted to say thank you from us and that we believe in you guys as much as you believe in us and hopefully we'll never let you down. I just wanted to let them know that we love them, not to get too emotional about it, but I just thought it was important to say that.