Down By Law
It's time this interview sees the light of day. I interviewed Dave in July, 1997. I spent most of my time that summer riding my mountain bike and trying to put my life back together. Down By Law, more than any other band, helped me through that year. "Last of the Sharpshooters" doesn't offer any easy answers to the implied questions it poses. However, it offered me unflinching hope at a time when I had none left. I routinely try to explain what Dave Smalley's music means to me and I fail just as frequently, but I keep trying. Maybe that's the most important thing anyone can get from these songs.
I'm embarrassed to say this, but the new album sat in its envelope for about a week before I opened it. Then one night, I was really depressed and I tore open the envelope and realized what was in it.
Dave: Your lesson has been learned. Open your mail.
Yeah. I don't know if Jeff (Abarta) told you this, but I've been thinking about getting a tattoo based on "Burning Heart."
Dave: Around our song? No, uh-uh.
That song really hit home. The entire album seems like my life right now, but that song really hit just because of a lot of the things I was getting out of it - "Oh lonely boy, what you gonna do?" "I'm looking forward to not looking back."
Dave: Yeah, yeah. There's thoughts that you try and escape from that you can never escape from. So you were thinking about getting those words?
Actually, I designed one. I wanted two bands of barbed wire, then in between them, the outline of a heart with flames around it, the DBL downward arrow, and then under that, "I'm looking forward to not looking back."
Dave: Wow. That's a great tattoo. That would be really good if you can get a good designer to find the right images that you want to do it. That would be really beautiful.
I heard that song and I've been thinking about it for the best part of two months and the design hasn't changed. That indicates to me that I need to think seriously about it.
Dave: Yeah. That's what happened to me with my first tattoo. Would that be your first tattoo?
Dave: Well, my first tattoo was the fist with the X behind it. I really thought about that for a long time and I made sure that it was something that years and years later, and I'm certainly not straight-edge by the definition that I used to hold, would still mean a lot to me. It's still a beautiful tattoo that represents a time in my life that was really important. That's a really good thing. If you think about it a long time and have the image in your head a long time, that's a good indication.
Hang on a second, there's a plane flying overhead.
Dave: Yeah, I can hear it.
You remember that X song, "4th of July"?
Dave: No. To be honest, I was never much of a knowledgeable person about X. I know, it's kind of surprising to a lot of California people, but they weren't that huge on the East Coast. When they were really popular in L.A., they weren't as popular. It was more of a hardcore scene on the East Coast, bands like Minor Threat and things like that. I think the Adolescents and the Circle Jerks were always kind of bigger than X in D.C. when I was growing up.
The only reason I even mentioned that is because that song basically describes where I live - "On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone/Mexican kids off shooting fireworks below."
Dave: Oh wow.
It's cool because there's this kid named Alejandro and a friend of mine and I taught him how to spike a football and say "punk."
Dave: Oh, that's excellent.
He's off to a good start. He's five years old and he can say punk.
Dave: That's very good. Madeline, my oldest daughter, she really loves Down By Law, the Go-gos and Oasis, so I figure she's doing pretty well for being two years old.
And as Meatloaf once sang, "Two out of three ain't bad."
Dave: That's right. Who didn't you like in that trilogy?
I'm not fond of Oasis.
Dave: Most people I know whose opinions I respect don't like them, but I really like them. When I first heard them, I thought it was really catchy pop but the words don't mean anything and so for a long time, I kept saying "I really like their music and their look, but I just don't, because I'm fully into the cult of Mod, identify with their lyrics." Their lyrics, in a lot of cases, are nonsensical but as I got into them more and as I kind of listened to their lyrics more, what they do with their words, and I read an interview with Noel Gallagher in which he said "My lyrics are absolute shite," but yet he's writing these words, so what is it about it that makes him write these words? I re-read the lyrics and what they have is beautiful imagery, like "champagne supernova" which is a hit, but that image doesn't really mean anything, it's not really an allegory for anything although maybe they think it is, but it's a beautiful image. It's a beautiful use of words. They do have a lot of that in their lyrics. It's almost poetry in a non-traditional sense, like haiku or something.
And here I thought he was just talking about an acid trip.
Dave: Yeah, maybe that's what it was, but to me I didn't understand what it was about, but the more I thought about it, it almost didn't matter what it was about. It was just this image of a champagne supernova and what that instantly conjures up in your head. A lot of their songs are like that. There are a lot of things about them that have grown on me, once Madeline decided she liked them.
How's the young one doing?
Dave: The little baby? Abigail is very good. She's great actually. We just moved back to Virginia, I'm here in L.A. right now to do the video and a press day and stuff, but the babies are great. I think they've missed their friends, especially Madeline, but they're both happy. They like it there.
So what prompted the move? You've been in L.A. for almost 10 years.
Dave: It was like 8 or 9 years, yeah. Basically, when we were a young couple, I mean, we're still a young couple by comparison, but when we were a brand new young couple living in L.A. and going to shows or going to restaurants or theaters all the time, that was really great. I still love L.A. a lot, it's really my second home but it was never my first home. When people say, "Where are you from?", the first thing that comes off my tongue is Virginia. As you know, on side 4 of "All Scratched Up," I wrote a song called "Green Hills of Virginia," because I've never really lost sight of that. I'm still a fanatical Redskins fan, I still hate Marion Barry. All these thoughts about Virginia and D.C. are part of me. It's where I grew up, it's what I love, so I've always really dreamed of going back there someday and I thought it would be after I hung up my guitar and whatever, but it turns out that once we had children, it just seemed like the right thing to do. Where we live now, I look out my back porch and there's woods behind us. Where we lived in South Pasadena was great, but we looked out and saw another house. Here I look at my backyard and there's woods and that's what I grew up with. I was never a concrete and steel kind of guy. I was a suburban country boy. I was somewhat of a city boy because I was in D.C. all the time, but I really have a strong love for all things green. It was just good for the babies and good for us to do it.
Right, because the kids are young and they'll be more active if they grow up around trees where they can run around than if they grow up in L.A. where they can watch TV.
Dave: Exactly, although it's oppressively hot there, like L.A. does not get humid and it gets very, very humid here, but it really is a good place to raise children.
So how's fatherhood treating you?
Dave: Fatherhood is really a cool thing. I'm really glad that I did it while I'm young. Like I say, the fact that I'm listening to the Go-gos and Oasis and Down By Law and Madeline says "Da da, 'USA Today.' Da da, 'USA Today.'" That's one of her favorite songs on the album. The fact that she's saying that and I think that that's cool means that I'm raising her, hopefully, to have a sense of experimentation. I don't want to force her to become a punk rock listener if she doesn't want to be, but I at least want to be presenting her with all kinds of things her whole life so she grows up with a good imagination and a good sense of all things. We also play a lot of classical music around her so she'll have that background too, but it's a really fun thing. I really dig it. I recommend it highly if you want to do it.
I think I'll wait a few years for that one.
Dave: Yeah, you have to really be ready. One of the reasons that I was always very strongly pro-choice is I knew people that got pregnant and had babies when they didn't want them and they didn't have the options in life that they wanted because they had new responsibilities and the kids didn't have as good of a time as they could have. I always just said wait until you're ready. Maybe start out with a dog and see how that goes, because a dog doesn't require half or a tenth of the care as a child.
Dogs are pretty self-sufficient as long as you throw some food out.
Dave: And let them go outside. But children, especially little babies, are 24/7. It's a really fun time.
You know, that brings up a question, because as you were talking about how great it was, I was wondering what you're going to do when, at 15, Madeline wants to get a tattoo?
Dave: I'll say "We're not going to discuss it, go back to your room and finish your algebra homework." No, I don't know. Brett and I used to joke around that our kids are going to grow up and their rebellion will be to become accountants and president of the math club and stuff and they'll listen to Top 40 or something. That will be their rebellion because of their parents because their parents come from the alternative, rebellious background of rock 'n' roll, so their own rebellion will be contrary to that, and the opposite of that is to go completely normal. Somebody was telling me that Madeline's going to come home and say, "Dad, don't play any of your guitars in front of anybody, okay? Don't embarrass me." I don't know. We'll have to see.
A friend of mine and I were talking about something similar to that the other day and he said, "Why is straight edge a rebellion? You're not smoking, you're not drinking, you're not doing drugs. You're doing exactly what your parents want!"
Dave: That's true in the sense that you are doing what your parents want, but the point that it's a rebellion against is really against your immediate world and your peers. For me, when we were starting this whole thing, and we weren't aware that we were starting anything, it was this universal thing where people were coming to the realization that there was really heavy peer pressure in junior high and high school to smoke pot and drink a lot. It was messing up kids already. I came back from France for 9th grade and some of my best friends from elementary school were total stoners. I'm sure that's the way I would have gone if I hadn't had the opportunity to travel and I came back and for me, it was instant. I was like, "Ewwww!" I saw kids smoking pot before class in 9th grade, before school at like 8 in the morning, just toking up and it was something I never wanted any part of. I don't think pot is a great evil at all. I think for people who want to smoke pot, it's great, but for me, as I saw so many people who were abusing it at such an early age, it was really easy for me to say that wasn't the road I was going to take. I think it's a rebellion against your peers and your own immediate expectations from adult society. The trick about your parents and rebellion is to have your own head and your own political ideas, your own musical tastes and your own everything else. Just because one aspect of your life compares to theirs doesn't mean you can't be a rebel.
One of the things I came up with was that the rebellion wasn't so much about abstention as it was keeping your head clear in a society that wanted you to be doped up so you wouldn't see what was going on.
Dave: That is extremely perceptive. I would agree with that, and in addition, continuing on that line of thought, the idea was always to keep your head clear to accomplish something. The point of the song "Straight Edge" is "I'm a person just like you/But I've got better things to do." The point was to keep your straight edge, to keep your head clear so that you can accomplish things and that's why I kind of broke with a lot of the more militant straight edge people of the last 5 or 6 or 8 years. They are now saying, "We're straight edge." To me, it was always, "Okay, so fucking what?" That's not it. That's nothing. So you're straight edge. That doesn't mean anything. The point is to be clear-headed and achieve something and then yes, do rebel. Write a book, or read a book or whatever. Don't just say, "Okay, I'm straight edge. I'm going to wear a backpack and listen to Earth Crisis and all is well." That means absolutely nothing. I know plenty of people who drink and smoke and do every other thing and they're amazing conversationalists and funny and creative people, and I know plenty of straight edgers who are straight edge but don't accomplish anything. As with all things, you have to judge the individual by his or her own actions, but it's not enough just to be straight-edge.
It's sad in a way because I've had a lot of friends over the years who have stepped away from straight edge and when they have, they've usually gone to the opposite extreme.
Dave: That definitely does happen. I've seen it too. It happened with a lot of people. I think the reason for that is that, to use the term, they go off the edge and all of a sudden, they're like a kid in the candy store. "Oh, I kind of like beer, maybe I'll like whiskey. I kind of like whiskey, maybe I'll smoke pot."
The problem I see with straight edge is that I don't really see anyone like Ian MacKaye around anymore, I don't see people like you around anymore, the people who pioneered it and had that ideal. These days, it seems like being straight edge has more to do with how many slogans you know.
Dave: I completely agree with that and it is so sad. It was always a part of punk rock. That was the whole point of it. Straight edge and punk rock went hand in hand. You were straight edge because you were punk rock and thought differently and acted differently and did different things with your life. Now it's just do the slogans, wear the backpack, buy the right records, go home and don't do anything. Again, we're generalizing because there are plenty of straight edge people who are still smart and creative and productive and using their heads, and the ideal for straight edge has never been bad. It's just what people do with it.
I sort of had to find the edge to get back on track. For the first part of this year, I don't think there was a week that went by when I wasn't drunk at least once.
Dave: Well, people go through those phases and the trick is to be able to get off it. The trick is to be able to do that and not go over the edge, over the cliff.
I realized how much money I was spending on it and I wondered why I wasn't doing something productive, like putting out another issue of the zine.
Dave: You know, I meant to tell you, you remember the issue you did that had Pansy Division in it and had the pink cover? Caroline was reading it, it was next to the bed on her nightstand, and Madeline came in, this was when Madeline was about one and just learning to walk, she really latched on to the pink cover and that was her favorite thing. She'd go and she'd pull it and look through it and gnaw on it and every other thing, so that issue is one of the most long-lasting things in the Smalley bedroom. Not only was it read by us, it was consumed by our daughter.
That makes me so happy. That literally makes my day.
Dave: Oh, good. It was a very good thing. And the good thing is that I got to read it before it was slobbered on.
Well, I'm doing it for the kids anyway.
I wasn't specifying what age.
Dave: Exactly. That's right. You're doing it for the kids, no matter what age.
One of the things that I started wondering about as I started thinking about getting this tattoo was what tattoos you had gotten since the last time we talked. You had just gotten the one of your guitar then.
Dave: I'm trying to think if that was the last one. I forget them sometimes because they're such a part of me that I just presume they're there. Did I have the fleur de lis on my back? The big symbol of France? I have it on my back shoulder. I think that was after actually. I think that was the last one I got. I got it when I was in Montreal. I lived in France as a boy and my parents live there now and Down By Law does extremely well in Quebec and Montreal, partly because I speak French I think, and they really respect that, but I really strongly support the independence movement there and I just went up there and I decided that I wanted to get it. That was unlike the one I was talking about with you and how most of them really should be. I had been thinking about it for a little while but not for too long and I was there and the promoter there knew someone who wanted to do it and who was a great tattooist. All the things were right there and I said let's do it. I went to the promoter's house, where I was staying, and got tattooed in the kitchen.
So do you think the Quebecois are ever going to get independence?
Dave: I don't know. It's going to be hard. My theory about it is that any time that a majority of people want their independence, any time that happens, it should be done if we live in a truly free society and I hope it's also true for the South and it's not just because I'm from Virginia. I was pro-South growing up and the reason was never about slavery or anything disgusting like that, but because if you are really a free society, if you are really as free as you say you are, then let the people decide and if the majority of the people in a place decide they want to leave, they should be allowed to do that. In Quebec, they have their own language, they have their own culture, their own history and they have voted in referendums that they want to be separate. They haven't quite won yet, but if it does, they should be allowed to leave.
Now, one of the things that grabbed me about "Last of that Sharpshooters" was that it seems a little more reflective than "All Scratched Up," almost like it's more of a throwback to "Blue" in the tone, in the way the songs are structured. With the exception of songs like "No Equalizer" and "Guns of '96," it's not quite as in your face as the last two albums.
Dave: That could be right actually. I hadn't thought of that, but somebody else mentioned that they saw parallels to "Blue" and I never really did. It is still driving and I would like to think it's beautiful music, it's important, at least to me, to make my songs as beautiful as they can be, but I really believe that's an important part of our music, but at the same time, there aren't songs like "Gruesome Gary" or "Counting Crows Must Die." There's no ha ha songs. There's one hardcore song at the very end, "Self-destruction." I really, hands down, if you ask me what are my favorite songs that I've ever done, they're on this album and maybe that is because it's more introspective and a bit more thoughtful. It's certainly more political. It's definitely a more serious record.
As a quick sidenote, and I can't believe I'm going to admit this, but I love the second Counting Crows album.
Dave: Well, I never heard it. It could be great and every man is absolutely entitled to his opinion.
I figure at this point in time, you like Oasis, I can like Counting Crows.
Dave: Oh, I don't know. That's a pretty big jump, don't you think?
It just seemed like every song fit my life or something that was going on at the time.
Dave: Well, I'm reading a book about Thomas Jefferson and I just opened to a page and a quote which says, "Opinion and the just maintenance of it shall never be a crime in my view, nor bring injury on the individual." I.e., think what the fuck you want.
That's not too far from Milton's marketplace of ideas.
Dave: Yeah, yeah, "and without it, we shall cease to thrive." That's very true.
That's one of the reasons I like talking to you. You're one of the few punk musicians I can discuss Milton and Thomas Jefferson with.
Dave: Yeah, I know. You're one of the few people I do discussions with that actually can quote me right back, so it's really nice.
Yeah. Right now I'm working through Mill's "Subjection of Women."
Dave: I don't know that one.
It's basically a treatise he wrote about his ideas on feminism and women's rights.
Dave: Not exactly popular writing in his day.
Nope. He was probably right up there with Mary Wollstonecraft in terms of his popularity.
Dave: That's neat.
So getting back from the Counting Crows digression which led to Milton and Mill and Thomas Jefferson, one of the things I was getting from the album is that it's very topical. You've got "Guns of '96," "Urban Napalm," "USA Today," "Get Out," the song about Irish independence. Actually, could that song also be loosely taken as a song about Quebec independence?
Dave: I don't know if that song could, it could loosely be, I guess you could stretch the idea, but the real idea of "Get Out" is when I've been in Northern Ireland, which I have been twice with the band, it's incredible. Military occupation. It's unbelievable, to me, that this exists in a modern, Western society. You get to the border and there's huge guns pointed at your tour bus or van or whatever you're in and soldiers who are young kids and nervous and scared. They think anybody and everybody is out to get them and they, therefore, are out to be afraid and shoot anybody if it comes down to it. Really, we got the sense that if we dropped a pencil on the floor and reached down to pick it up that they would have opened fire. It was that grim. We saw patrols and looking to the roofs. To me, it's a total anachronism in 1997.
It sounds like Beirut.
Dave: It feels like Beirut and yet it's Ireland. It's nothing like anything that should be that way. So it's more directly about the feeling of the military occupation and that's really what it is. It is a military occupation.
So, back to the point, there are obviously a lot of topical songs, but it also seems like this album has a more personal tone even though, and correct me if I'm wrong, you seemed to be saying this album is more political than "All Scratched Up."
Dave: I think it is. Just the songs that you were just mentioning are all directly or indirectly political songs. "Guns of '96" is a song which has dual meanings. One is obviously the violence inherent in this society, but the other one was the election year. I was trying to indicate the "Guns of '96" pointing at each other, Dole and Clinton. The man, being President Clinton, "said boy things will change this year/Boy let me tell you crystal clear/That man lives far away from here." It's not something he has to deal with. They're all fairly political songs.
I was looking at songs like "No Equalizer," "Burning Heart," "Question Marks & Periods." It's one of the confusing things for me about your music, because I derive personal messages from the political songs, and political messages from the personal songs, and it once again hammers home the point that the personal is political and the political is intensely personal.
Dave: Oh, man. I wish that every fan could read that because that pretty much sums up how I feel, about my music anyway. I see bands like Crass, really political bands. To me, it's too easy to just be political. You have to view it and feel it and still love your country. I do love the United States. "USA Today" is a song about the violence in Los Angeles and other societies in America, but by no means do I have anything but total admiration for what we've done in this country throughout our history. I'm a total patriot. I really am. I don't say that in the skinhead sense, I say that in the sense of Jefferson or Lincoln or Kennedy. What we have done overall as a society, granted, there's a thousand terrible things, but overall, America is unmatched in the world and in the history of the world with what we have for freedoms, the economic things we have accomplished. There are a lot of negatives that go along with all of these as well, but we're slowly and incrementally even improving on those. I'm an absolute patriot, but I really do take it personally when the bank robbers wearing masks are out shooting guys on the street in Los Angeles with fully automatic rifles. That's my city and my country and they're fucking it up and that bothers me and it bothers me that society lets that happen, that we live in a society where it's possible to get fully automatic guns and shoot them at the police and use human shields and stuff. I do take it personally so there is a definite personal aspect to my political writing. I think there always will be. To me, that's what made bands like the Clash or other bands like the Jam or whoever you want to say, bands that had a bit of politics to them like the Sex Pistols. That was all viewed from their perspective - "I'm so bored with the USA." It wasn't like a direct attack on the USA, it was like "I'm so bored with it all." That's the kind of thing I try to use as my lyrical and of course personal perspectives. It's fortunate that a lot of people tend to like that stuff.
It's funny that you mention the Clash because a friend of mine was over last night and I played "Guns" for him and told him to pick out the Clash riff.
Dave: Right. That's definitely a Clash tribute, that little signature part.
My favorite Clash songs are always songs like "Lost in the Supermarket."
Dave: I love that song.
I think you and I talked about it before.
Dave: Yeah, we did.
It's just so unerringly scathing in its criticism of modern life, yet at the same time, it's almost a pop song, like "Every Breath You Take" was a pop song, except for the subtextual analysis and critique.
Dave: Yeah, and rage too.
Absolutely. "I came here for the special offer/A guaranteed personality." That's the kind of feeling I get off the personal songs you write, like the similarities in tone between "Factory Day" and "Lost in the Supermarket." "Factory Day" basically does the same thing. It tells a story about a person who gets stuck by modern life.
Dave: Yeah, but yet we don't ever think of that when we're at the 7-11 or wherever. One of the original choruses to that, I don't remember exactly what it was, but it had the words 7-11 in it. I started to write that song when I was at 7-11 and I saw how rude people were to the guy behind the counter and it made think that here was a guy who has his family, his own dreams and hopes, and maybe this is the accomplishment he always wanted or maybe this is something terrible that he never wanted, but he has his own story and it's no better or worse than mine or yours or anyone else's and yet he's just the guy behind the counter and nobody ever smiles. Like the song says, "Who's got time for courtesy?" It made me think, and I'm sure that I've been guilty of that as well at times. Since I wrote that song, I've tried to be a little more conscious of how I deal with people.
Yeah. I work at Office Depot on weekends and every weekend, someone will come in and be rude to me or yell at me because their job was screwed up or something like that, and I have to smile and be polite and make it right for them, no matter what they do.
Dave: There's that which is awful, when they're overtly rude, but then there's the indifference, like looking away as you're ringing them up, handing you the money and not even looking at you. Things like that. That, to me, is just as insulting.
You're beneath their radar.
Dave: Exactly. That's really too bad. Hopefully that song may make us all a bit more reflective.
The thing that grabbed me about it, and this has popped up a few times in your music, is that you told a story, like you did in "All American." You basically related a story about someone whose dreams weren't exactly working out, but who still had them and maybe this person would get through, maybe they wouldn't, maybe they'd get stuck there all their life. That seemed to be a pervasive tone on this album, like on "No One Gets Away," "Last Goodbye," "Concrete Times." It seems there's this downbeat tone, like getting ground down by the system, which is also something we've talked about before. It seems more prevalent on this album.
Dave: Wow. You know, when I write my autobiography, you're going to have to write the introduction or something because you have really nice insights into the songs I do, more so than almost anybody I've ever talked to, so take that as a compliment. Yeah, there is that, and I was concerned that it was too much of a downer, but it's thoughtful downerism and it's not, ultimately, defeatist downerism, I hope. I think a lot of people who are in their mid-20s or above will really identify with some of these songs. There is a sense of trying desperately to keep hold of what you believe in, even as life's realities weigh down on you. The third song on this record, "Call to Arms," I think that's my favorite song on this record and the point of that song is to have two perspectives, both of which I understand and identify with at this point in my life. The first guy is saying, "Look, you can have dreams, you can have hopes, you can have aspirations, but you also have to pay rent. You have to be smart. You can't just be this idealist. You have to accept the fact that, in order to live like a normal person in a normal society, you have to make some compromises sometimes. You can't be Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. Don't forget your past, but you have to also be real and smart." Then he says, "If you could only see things my way, then you'd know I'm right." The other side basically comes back and says, "I understand that, but I still have this fire inside me and I'm not sure quite what to do about it. Yes, I want the big TV also, but I still want to play only all-ages shows with ticket prices at six or seven dollars." He's not saying that in the song, but the idea is that the ideals are still there and trying to reconcile that with knowing that you have to save money, knowing that you have to live as nicely as you can. It is a dichotomy and it is different, and then at the end of the verse, he too says, "If you could only see things my way, then you'd know I'm right." The point of the song is that they're both right and both perspectives are valid. To me, you could say that song sums up all the ideas you were just discussing.
I think a lot of the reason why these songs hit me so hard is because of what I've been through in the last year or so. I've been exposed to everything I was afraid of. I got tossed out of my house, had to find a job, a place, etc., and take care of everything in the matter of a week. I'm working two jobs to make ends meet and I don't know if I'll ever make it back to school to be a teacher which is what I've wanted to do for years.
Dave: That's what you should do.
Right, but how can I do that and still pay rent? College adds money and takes time. It's the grind.
Dave: Go part-time, take out full-on student loans. I don't think that you, and again, this is not to put down working at Office Depot, if that's what you wanted to do, that would be great, but I do not think you should be working at Office Depot 20 years from now.
I don't want to be working there a year from now. [Addendum: I quit in September. The interview was in July. 10 months ahead of schedule.]
Dave: I worked all though college. I was lucky because I had parents who were completely supportive and paid my tuition and books and housing, but I had to work to pay for anything else. If I wanted to go to the movies or whatever, all that money I had to get for myself. I worked all through college, all through high school too. My parents definitely have that Scotch work ethic. I worked as a busboy in high school, then at Newbury Comics all through college. The first semester of college, I worked in the dishroom as a dishwasher, but the point is that I had to work and it definitely sucked and it took time away from studying and other things and fun, but I got through it. Granted, I didn't have to completely support myself, but you can do it and I know other kids who have. It's a big pain in the ass, but you might have to try and I think the longer you're away from college, the harder it's going to be to get back.
At least I graduated.
Dave: Oh, you did. Well, at least you're done with the first part. This is for your master's?
I'd be going back for my teaching credential. I actually graduated with a double major in English and American Studies.
Dave: Oh, that's great. Maybe I'm wrong, but if you have a B.A., can't you apply for jobs at private schools?
Dave: You have to have your credentials for public teaching, but I think if you have a B.A., private schools don't have to have a credential, but of course if you have it, it can open up some doors.
I had already done most of the work. All I had left was student teaching.
Dave: All the more reason. Don't stop now. Do whatever it takes, within reason. Suffer for maybe a year.
Don't go out and sell crack.
Dave: No, no, I wouldn't want you to do that.
Getting back to the music, when I first heard the title, I thought of that line in "The Wild Bunch" - "We gotta learn to think beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast." Then I started thinking about it another way, as the last of a dying breed. Which is it? Is it literally learning to think beyond guns, although I don't think it's that literal, or being one of the last holdouts of punk?
Dave: I think it's more towards the latter. Some people have been thinking that it's more the former because of the references to guns in the songs, but it wasn't meant to invoke that. It was meant to invoke the gunfight at the OK Corral or Custer's Last Stand or these kinds of things, the image of a guy fighting against all odds and probably ultimately losing. I think every person, man or woman, boy or girl, or whoever it is has that feeling sometimes, like nobody understands what your personal struggle or your belief is and you still want to fight for it, even though you might not win and feel like you're all alone sometimes and no one understands. In a musical sense, I see so many generic hardcore bands, some of which have very swift success, and I don't feel competition with them. I don't even really know most of their music. I see a loss of craftsmanship in songwriting, at least in my universe, and I see a rise of simplistic "go for the laugh" kind of songwriting. Go for the 16-year-old, or what they think the 16-year-old's rage against their parents is. Those to me are way too easy and don't involve songwriting - a bit of skill, a bit of craft. To me, you have to work hard at your skill. You have to be a good writer if you're going to be a writer. You have to work at it. It's not enough to just put out a fanzine, you have to make it a great fanzine. It's not enough to put out an album of songs. You have to be a good songwriter. Don't try to write songs if you're not going too try to do your best to make great songs. For me, I feel like Down By Law, with its emphasis on musicianship and songwriting, is kind of a dying breed. There are bands out there - Bad Religion, Pegboy, Wayne Kramer - there are definitely bands out there that are amazing, that write great songs and great lyrics that I love, but sometimes I feel there are less of us.
I'm so happy you mentioned Pegboy. I thought I was the only person who remembered them anymore.
Dave: Oh no, they're a great band. I don't even know if they still exist.
I don't know. I've got all the albums they put out though.
Dave: We played with them about two years ago in St. Louis, our only time that we ever played there. I don't know that they blew us off the stage that night, but they sure blew my mind away. They probably did blow us away because they were that good. They were so good and so special.
I miss bands like Pegboy, I miss bands like Naked Raygun. I miss bands that didn't emphasize fart jokes in songs.
Dave: Yeah, yeah. You know what it is, those bands were writing from the heart and that's really important.
Yeah, like "My Youth" by Pegboy - "Here I sit at 25/The best part of my life gone by/Wish I could go back again/Go back over and start again."
Dave: Yeah, exactly. That's a heartfelt lyric and it's thoughtful.
Now, "No Equalizer" really seems to tie into the album title because, and this is just what I was getting from it, but it almost seemed like you were arguing that you didn't want a perfect world because there would be nothing left to struggle against. There would be nothing left to define yourself against. It seemed like what you were saying is that in someone else's perfect world, the only thing left to rebel against would be their concept of a perfect world.
Dave: Yeah, I think that's about right. I don't want a perfect world because that would be a really boring place. There wouldn't be any rebellion left, there wouldn't be any challenges left, there wouldn't be any mountains to climb. There wouldn't be any thrills of success as well as the agony of defeat. It's like the last line of the song says, "It takes a bit of piss to put the spice in victory." All the struggles that you personally have been through in this last year, when things go on an upswing, which they will because they always do because life goes in cycles, that's going to make that so much nicer when things start to come together. That's sort of the idea of that song.
I know you've done a lot of struggling in your life, whether it be against the status quo or things you see as bad, and in various arenas like punk rock and politics. Do you feel like your life has been defined by opposition, like you carved out who you are based on what you're opposed to?
Dave: I suppose that's a part of it, but I've always been defining who I am by what I'm for as well. I'm not just a contrary songwriter who's pissed off about everything. There's love songs on most Down By Law records. Hopefully, at least on some level, there's a degree of optimism tempered with a degree of anger. I think it's sort of like the songwriting. It's not enough to just write a song. You have to work hard at it and do it right, but by the same token, it's not enough just to be angry. You have to have things you're supporting as well or else you might as well go start a revolution and kill everybody. You might as well go down on the street like the guys with the guns in the bank robbery and just start shooting at people. After all, if you're angry at everything, then nothing is good. It's kind of the opposite theme of "No Equalizer." "No Equalizer" is saying don't wish for everything to be lily-white, but at the same time, don't wish for everything to be jet black. Life can be good and fun and beautiful and love and laughter and all kinds of things. Life can be great.
That's one of the things I was getting off of "Burning Heart."
Dave: Well, you'll be happy to know we're doing five songs off the record live and that's going to be one of them. I didn't want to come out and just do our new songs and not play any of our old ones. I hate it when bands do that. I made a conscious decision to do five songs from this new one. We're doing fifteen songs total, but that's going to be one of the five.
Right on. I just love the couplets, like "There's romance on the streets tonight/And every lonely heart's all right." It's reassuring. When I got the album, I was riding my bike a lot and I'd go through the city and I'd see all these people, like this guy who stands on 6th Avenue wearing a CalTrans vest and I'd think about that.
Dave: It's romantic in its own way. It really is. It's beautiful in its own little way and that's okay. That guy being there is somewhat poetic, even though he probably wouldn't even know it.
That's the romance on the streets. As much as I hate to say it, it reminds me of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under The Bridge" - "The city, she loves me."
Dave: Yeah, and you know the last line is "Pouring rain all around me but I don't care." It's harder for Southern Californians to identify with that line, but many is the time that I've walked through the streets, and sometimes you run because you don't want to get wet, but sometimes I walk through the streets of Washington or another city if I'm on tour somewhere and it rains and I see everybody else running. It happened in Tokyo actually, when we were in Japan. Here I was, in Japan, and it was this incredibly cool city, Tokyo is a great city, packed with people and everybody was scurrying and running and I was just like, "This is a glorious time." I just walked through the streets and I got completely soaked, but it was this nice feeling, like here I was, and it was raining and I was one with the city. It was a really nice feeling.
I'd hesitate to call "Burning Heart" downbeat - there are a couple of lines about loneliness - it seems like it's more consoling and reassuring, that everything will be all right in the end.
Dave: That's exactly the feeling that I wanted a listener to have.
Then that leaves me with a question about the last line, "Have you got a hope for me to steal?"
Dave: Well, you know, that is sort of leaving it on a bit of a downer, but the idea is that you feel all this romance but sometimes at the end of the day, you still want something more. Let's say you're out on the streets at night by yourself and you're drinking and all this wonderful stuff, but you get back home and maybe you still do want to have someone there waiting for you or you do want to have something happen that didn't happen that night. Sometimes there is still a sense of longing, even though you have a sense of contentment as well, there's still a longing.
Now that you have a family, your band is doing well, do you still get that sense when you're walking around?
Dave: Oh yeah, I think so, just because I'm such a political creature. I will always be that knight with a lance, looking for windmills, I always will, because I see them everywhere. To me, I don't want a perfect society, like "No Equalizer" says, but that doesn't mean I won't keep striving for one. It's kind of a dichotomy I guess, but I feel like there are always going to be battles that I want to fight, that I think are important.
I mean this in the best possible way, but that is the most wonderfully self-defeating sentiment I've ever heard expressed. "I don't want a perfect world but I'm going to keep struggling for one anyway."
Dave: Yeah, I suppose it sounds a bit self-defeating but that's how I feel, I guess.
That's a wonderful way to put it though, and I feel about the same. If I didn't have anything to struggle against, I'd get bored. If I didn't have windmills to tilt at or flocks of sheep to plow into or a gang of merchants to beat up and pretend they're grave robbers, I don't know where I'd be.
Dave: Exactly right. Yeah. It's a wonderful and twisted world and the world of ideas, once you get into that realm, is very intricate and oftentimes a confusing place, but that's part of why it's great.
Have you done any more teaching?
Dave: No, I haven't. The band's doing pretty well, and in terms of the schedule, we're extremely busy, so I haven't done that. I would like to at some point, but I can't see that happening for a long time. We just signed a three-record deal with Epitaph, so it looks like we're going to be with them for a while and as long as that's going on, we'll probably be grounded for the next few years. We have a solid base of things to deal with.
Did you ever find someone to take Danny's place?
Dave: Our new drummer, of this particular five-minute period, is Milo. He's an outstanding drummer. One of the things that's funny about Down By Law is everybody always says, "You guys go through a drummer every year," and it's true. Actually, this is drummer #6 and I started the band in 1990, so this will just be about one a year. It's 6 if you include Colin because Colin only drummed for one tour, that's Colin from Dag Nasty, and that was really just to help me out, but in any case, you can count him as 6. Anyway, all of them, without exception, have been excellent drummers and it's so funny because friends of ours in other bands call up and ask if we have cast-offs from our last audition process. Not cast-offs, you know what I mean, people who didn't make it or whatever. We've just been really fortunate that we've had outstanding drummers, even if they don't last, even if they explode like Spinal Tap. I think it's also because all of us, I'll exclude myself, but everybody in the band is very good at what they do. The level of musicianship in DBL is very high. That's one of the things I'm most demanding of, I guess. Clearly when Milo auditioned, we tried out a ton of guys, he was hands-down the best guy. He's such a great drummer and I really hope he lasts. I always hope they last. It's funny, because every time they start to really become part of the band, something happens. Girlfriends or burn-out or fighting or whatever it is and they don't last. I always do hope that they last and I hope Milo lasts.
I wasn't going to say anything about Spinal Tap. I was thinking it, but I wasn't going to say it.
Dave: Oh, believe me, the only way you can deal with something like this is to laugh and make it part of the Down By Law mythology. It really is. For people who are real fans of the band, they know. They read the liner notes and they see the band on tour and they know. We can't hide it so we might as well laugh about it.
Mythology. That sounds like there's more to this story than just drummers. That's Zeus and company.
Dave: You could probably put an analogy together that would work fairly well in this case, but then I'd have to start assigning godhead to different people in the band and that would get me in trouble so I better not.
Plus, figuring out the whole thing about Leda and the swan would be a real mess.
Dave: I don't know that. What is that?
Zeus wanted to have sex with a mortal so he assumed the form of a swan.
The story progressed from there.
Dave: Oh, okay. I don't know that one.
I think it's in Edith Hamilton's "Mythology."
Dave: I love Greek myths, but I don't remember them all. I haven't brushed up on them lately.
That was always one of my favorite ones. So one of the other things I wanted to know about was "Question Marks and Periods." That's one of the most intriguing songs I've seen you write.
Dave: That's the first single actually. We're here this weekend doing a video for that one.
I was looking at it and I couldn't figure out if you had been reading up on socio-linguistics or what exactly was going on with this because I've never seen a Down By Law song like this. It's almost opaque. It's hard to read it.
Dave: Once again, you've really got your finger on the pulse of the song. It's so refreshing to talk to you about this because it's really interesting to hear such close to the mark perspectives on these songs. It's really nice. But yeah, it is opaque. It is about a very specific subject but unfortunately, I can't really get into the specifics of what the subject is, at least on the record, but what I can do is say it's a song with the idea of someone who keeps trying to give something to someone and keeps trying and working hard to do something nice and good and right, and the other party or parties are non-receptive, and it's a pat on the head and "Oh, what a nice boy," and they aren't listening, but then finally things turn around and what you were trying to give is in demand and so then they decide to take it, but that's when you say "Too late, you had your chance and blew it. I'm not going to give it to you anymore." That's the idea, trying and trying and trying and somebody finally does it when it's right for them, but not right for you anymore, then you take it back and say "Forget it," or give it to them with strings attached that weren't there before.
The way you described it could apply to so many things. I was just thinking about a relationship I was involved in and also about a lot of the business deals that I'm sure have been going on in the wake of the Offspring.
Dave: Suffice it to say you're not far off the mark in that.
Okay. The next question. I'm not criticizing you, and I want to make that clear from the outset, but I thought you said you weren't going to make another music video.
Dave: Um, if I did say that, I probably shouldn't have, or maybe I meant it at the time. I don't know I said. I don't remember what I said two minutes ago sometimes.
I thought you said it in "True Music."
Dave: People got the idea of that. The idea of "True Music" was not so much to say that it's a bad thing to make a music video. The idea of "True Music" was to say it's a bad thing to get consumed with what it all represents, in thinking that's going to make you a star and forgetting that you should be doing this for a little bit of fun and artistic satisfaction. If the other stuff happens, that's fine, but don't make that a goal. That was the idea of "True Music," and a lot of people mistook that. It was not meant to be an anti-video song. It was just meant to be anti-getting caught up with it song.
In that case, I don't need to ask the question. I knew you had made two videos before.
Dave: Did you see the one for "Radio Ragga"?
I never saw that, but I have a story for you about that song.
Dave: Let me just tell you that it's a beautiful, beautiful video, and not beautiful because we had anything to do with it but beautiful because the directors, who are also directing the next one tomorrow, are really outstanding directors. They're young guys and they're brimming with ideas and they really love the band. It is a work of art. It really is, and I'm so proud of it. Ask Jeff to send you a copy.
Well, you see, when I left my former residence ...
Dave: Ah, say no more.
Well, I made a conscious decision not to have a TV because I didn't want to come home from work, turn it on and not do anything. I wanted to come home from work, I wanted to read books and I wanted to write.
Dave: A TV will suck you right in, it really will. Last night, I came home from rehearsal, I sat down and I had every intention of reading my Jefferson book which I'm really into right now, but I turned on the TV and stayed up until 2:30, just watching nothing.
That's the reason I didn't want a TV. I don't have a VCR either which means I can't watch some of my favorite movies, but on the other hand, they're on video and sooner or later, I may decide I've had enough of life without a TV.
Dave: Well, what you can do is get TV and not have cable so your choices are instantly narrowed down to 5 or 6 stations as well as a VCR. That kind of limits your options. The thing with cable is you can flip the damn thing for an hour before you've even gotten to the end of the cycle because you spend 5 minutes on each thing, get bored and go on to the next thing. You can easily spend half an hour flipping all the way up and then start over again, because maybe there's something on now. The programs have all changed. When you don't have cable, that really stops that.
To my way of thinking, I'm basically kicking everything out of my life that I regard as a bad influence.
Dave: Well, that's good, but again, it's like we were talking about earlier in this conversation, a little bit of something, in moderation, is not always a bad thing. It doesn't mean it's a good thing, but it can be not a bad thing.
Yeah, like a glass of wine or two a night is actually good for the heart.
Dave: Exactly. The same thing goes with TV. If you sit there and become a vegetable to it, it can be really bad, but if you watch it and have fun and are still a creative person, then it can be good. I like watching A & E "Biography," I like "Seinfeld." I'm a huge "Seinfeld" fan. I think "Seinfeld" is great.
One of these days, I'm going to put together a list of things people didn't know about you and print all this stuff.
Dave: That's a pretty minor one there. "Seinfeld" gets a pretty big priority on Thursday nights in our household. It's a funny, funny show.
Going back to "Radio Ragga," back in December I went on a road trip with a friend of mine and all we had for music was this tape I had thrown together. One side was Down By Law. Anyway, my car broke down twice, he bused home on New Year's Eve, and I nursed my car back to San Diego. All I had was that tape and I was watching New Mexico sunsets for three and four hours listening to that song and it was so perfect. I was down, I was about $500 in debt and the line "The modern world just kicked our ass" was the killer for me, but it made me feel better.
Dave: That's good. That makes me very happy. That's the kind of stuff that makes me suck it in the next time we play a show and have horrible sound or a tiny audience or get discouraged or have problems with the record label or whatever, those are the kind of things I remember.
There were four more songs I wanted to talk to you about. There was "Concrete Times" which also seems to address a lot of things we've been discussing like growing up and seeing the world for what it is, losing innocence, losing faith and losing hope and just seeing this grey, bleak world around you. "The Last Goodbye" struck me as a song about losing friendships, losing relationships, things of that nature. "Self-Destruction" also seemed kind of downbeat but also seemed to wind up on a positive note and the only reason I can say that is because of the line, "Nobody makes it on their own," which, to me, indicates this collective spirit of punk which I grew up with and which I think you grew up with as well, like someone's hand picking you up in the pit.
Dave: Right. Well, that's definitely one way to view it. Again, what's beautiful about music is that it has its own meanings and it has more meanings than the writer can ever have intended to each person. Joe Strummer didn't know that some 18-year-old kid in Virginia, years after he'd written and performed the songs, was going to be listening to "Police and Thieves," or his version of it anyway, or "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" or "I'm So Bored With The USA" and having his own life changed by those songs even though they're very topical and very English and all these things. He didn't know that when he wrote it, he probably didn't have any of the images in his head that I do when I hear those songs but those are my songs. They're not just his anymore. They're mine too and that's the beautiful thing about great songs or perceptive listeners or both. When you write a song, it's everybody's song. As a consequence of that, with the new songs that we do, kids have come up to us and said, "That song really sums up how I feel about this." It's really their song then. The reason I'm going off on this digression is because that line is not what I thought of when I wrote it, but if that's what you think it is then that's what it is. It's no better or worse an interpretation. I actually read a long time ago, Kurt Cobain had said something similar to that. Whatever you think it is, it is because what I thought is one version. God knows, Nirvana lyrics are so opaque that you can really put your spin on it.
It sounds like reader response criticism, which dictates that a work's meaning is whatever the reader derives, regardless of the author's intent.
Dave: I agree with that. Some people read The Bible and are only concerned with the Old Testament. It doesn't mean that they're right to leave out the New Testament, but for some people, that is their Bible and their way. I agree with that, in general. As long as you aren't completely misinterpreting and as long as you don't take a song like "Self-Destruction" and say, "Oh yeah, that's a pro-Nazi song," or something completely off the wall that has nothing to do with the song, which is completely ludicrous, a meaning that's reasonable and makes sense from the words, I would think that's a fair interpretation.
Overall, what's your sense of this album?
Dave: I think it's hands down, my favorite Down By Law record. It's definitely my favorite songs that I've written. That doesn't mean that I don't love all of our songs that we've had over the years, but to me, this is some of my favorite work that I personally have done. Sam wrote the music for "Burning Heart" and a few others."
And "D.J.G." which is one of my favorites on the album.
Dave: Oh cool, I'll tell him that. And "Factory Day." He wrote the music for that and those two songs are some of his best songs, I think, that he's ever done. I just think that everybody kicked ass. It was all because I co-produced the album [laughs]. I'm just kidding. For some reason, things worked really well on this record and all cylinders were go, and as far as the overall mood of the album, it's a bit reflective. It's a bit political and it's definitely not a good time record. I wouldn't put it on at a frat party, but for the true music lover, a true person who really loves to get something more personal out of their music, I think it would be hard to top this record, at least with recent releases.
One of the things that I really love about talking with you is that every new album is your favorite, and that each time, you're talking about how the band has gotten better.
Dave: It's funny because the first two records were such a different time. It was a whole different lineup from me, Sam and John. I always call this Down By Law 2. You know how there's Big Audio Dynamite and Big Audio Dynamite II. Big Audio Dynamite II is, to me, the one that really writes great songs. They had "The Globe," and things like that. To me, that's when Down By Law had a new life of its own, when Sam and John and me banded together. That was really a new thing. I almost see the band in some ways as starting over again. To me, each time has gotten better. In hindsight, "Punkrockacademy" is such a strong record. In hindsight, I would probably say that I like "Punkrockacademy" now better than "All Scratched Up," but I still love "All Scratched Up." I try to always think that way, or at least I always try to challenge myself as a songwriter and as a lyricist to meet or beat what I did before because it's kind of like "No Equalizer." That's one of those things I always really loved about The Who, or the Clash or the Jam or Queen, who Sam's really into. There are a lot of bands that we all like and one of the things that's common to them is that they tried a lot of different things and had a lot of different evolutions and periods. They did have ups and downs and certainly Down By Law has ups and downs in its creativity and also its stage shows. The joke is that we're either kings or clowns. One night we'll be playing and there will be 1,000 people and they're going crazy and the next night there will be 300 and they'll be bored. I'll never forget one night when we played in Minneapolis and the show was just packed. There were about 900 people there and it was the worst show we ever had and that was a big room. We were at First Avenue, whereas we played several times at the Seventh Street Entry which is the small room right next door to it and still part of the same complex and those were always great shows. Again, that "No Equalizer" theory is good because you can't appreciate the great times if you only have great times. Of course, I'd love to have more great times than bad times, that's something to strive for, but as far as music and performances and creativity go, you have to try and beat what you're doing. You can't be content with the status quo, or at least I can't.
Well, you know what really made this album for me? Keith Richards' tasty slide.
Dave: Well, that wasn't on this one.
I just had to throw it in.
Dave: Oh, okay. Well, there's really a Keith Richards' tasty slide on every song that we've ever done. It's just mixed really low. It's subtle. It's backwards. It's a backwards slide. It says, "Go out and overthrow society and start your own government."
I can't think of a better way to end this interview than that.
Dave: Actually, I'll give you another Jefferson quote to end the interview.
Dave: He said, "I hold that a little rebellion now and again is a good thing. The tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."
Now that's rock and roll if I ever heard it.
Dave: Yeah. That's rock and roll if it was a head or a heart. I don't think I have any head left after this in-depth conversation. I'm just going to have to go out and just go speeding up and down the boulevard. I would love to see you sometime soon and as usual, excellent questions. I really appreciate the love you have for the songs because that really means a lot to me.
Like I was telling you earlier, it's funny to me because most bands, I only interview once. I've interviewed you for Down By Law 3 times, and once about punk. It's becoming almost a Down By Law fanzine.
Dave: Well, you know, I'm going to be writing, I don't want to call it an autobiography because that implies, sometimes, that you've done everything, but I'll be writing a life story up until now that will probably be centered mostly on music because I don't think people care - well, some people do, but most people don't care about the other side of my life. Everybody's always asking me about ALL and DYS and Dag Nasty and the early part of Down By Law, and so I'm going to write that at some point. When I do, I'm going to include snippets from interviews and things like that throughout. It'll be like a story, but with lyrics thrown in that are relevant to what I'm talking about or whatever, and certainly interviews we've done. I'll be contacting you at that point to reread these and see what the best parts are because some of the ones we've done have been some of the best Down By Law interviews.
I know I still have the tapes and the zines. I may not have the files though.
Dave: It would be better if you have the issues because that would be cooler to have it printed as exactly as it appears. That's kind of my image. There would be a lot of diverse fonts and formats of things in the book because it would be stuff like that, like if somebody sent in a snapshot, you put it in there exactly the same size as what it came in and things like that. A fanzine interview would be reprinted in the same font and type size that it was in. It would be more accurately reflective of the time and of the printer and publisher of the fanzine.
That reminds me, do you have a Web page up yet?
Dave: There's an unofficial Web page. You could probably contribute a lot to it. Sam knows the guy who does it. He's very knowledgeable and stuff.
I have no problems with giving people stuff as long as they don't turn around and charge for it.
Dave: Oh no, he's not like that. He's a good guy.
Yeah. I figure any Down By Law fan can't be bad.
Dave: You know, it sounds cliche, but we really do have the best ones, I swear to God. I see bands, and I'm on the Warped tour and I see our fans, and we have the same fans as a lot of other bands as well. Last time, we were on the Warped Tour in America all up and down the East Coast from Canada into Florida, but the degree of participation is just so much more personal and special that it's really nice.