Arts Café, London, Sat 7th December 2002
OK, first things first, we’re not talking about the Danielson Famile, that’s Daniel Smith and his whole extended family dressed up in hospital uniforms. We’re not even talking about the Good Ship Danielson, that’s Daniel, all his family and friends dressed up in a multitude of naval costumes… on a ship. We’re talking about Brother Danielson, that’s just Daniel … just Daniel Smith? There’s a catch right? Well kind of. Tonight, Daniel is performing the Nine Fruit Tree, and so throughout the performance he resides deep within the trunk of a vast fabric tree adorned with familiar and not so familiar fruits. Head and arms emerge from knotholes to sing and play guitar, whilst one foot is rooted for balance the other slams an ingenious stomp box to catch the beat. Alright then, its atypical music performed in a more than unconventional manner, and yet when meeting Daniel in the person he doesn’t let you forget for a second that he is a genuine and normal person. He doesn’t find the time to talk to us; he makes time to talk to us, convincing me once and for all that outsider music doesn’t exist. Go.
Chris Tipton: The first thing I wanted to ask you about was All Tomorrow’s Parties, with Shellac. You brought the whole family over to play. What did you make of that? Did you enjoy coming over?
Daniel Smith: Oh yeah, what a great way to be introduced into the UK and Europe also.
C: Did you go on to tour afterwards?
D: We did a week tour in between the two dates; we played Paris and a couple of shows in Germany and Amsterdam. It was really great! It’s extremely rare that the family can afford to get together and do that sort of thing, so it was extra special. And to be around all those great bands!
C: How did you feel to be asked by Shellac?
D: Oh, it was an honour, yeah!
C: Have you always been close to Shellac?
D: No, just these past couple of years, since we’ve met Steve and he’s come out to some shows in Chicago and then we’ve been wanting to record with him and we did that last record, so it came out of that good relationship.
Luke Nava: Was that a mutual thing? Did he want to work with you and you with him?
D: I guess, I don’t know. He introduced himself to us after a show and said he really enjoyed the show and gave me his phone number, so I was flattered and excited and he turned out to be an amazing person. Since then, Shellac just did a tour on the east coast of all these kind of grassroots places…
L: I thought you played an Irish pub?
D: Yeah, I set up this really small show in an Irish pub and they actually came to a couple of towns over, a pretty small town and it was so surreal and wonderful! It was awesome; Shellac on the third floor of this Irish pub. It was great!
L: Yeah, that’s pretty cool!
C: Is it true or has it become some kind of legendary myth that Albini slept on your floor to record?
D: Yeah, he did, in the living room. He’s an incredibly humble man.
C: That’s amazing!
L: Wow! Now, you’ve been invited to play ATP next year, haven’t you?
D: That’s right, in LA, by Matt Groening.
L: What do you think of his work
D: The Simpsons? Oh, we love The Simpsons, they’re extremely important American television.
L: And is it going to be the whole family playing that?
D: Yeah, the whole family.
L: That’s something that I wanted to ask you about. You’re father’s a songwriter?
D: Yeah, a folk/ gospel songwriter.
L: So have you and your family always played together from a young age?
D: More just in the living room, playing instruments and singing along with his songs. I’ve always been fascinated with the song-writing process, just really interested in constructing a song and approaching that.
L: When you write, do you just do stuff by yourself and then go and play it with everyone else?
D: Much of the time more recently, Chris (Palladino), our keyboard player, has been collaborating with the song writing and that’s been really fun and exciting. But for at least the first four albums, I pretty much always wrote everything on the acoustic guitar first and then p resented it to my family. Or some tracks just remain kind of acoustic tracks, so there’s a fair representation of bare, acoustic songs on all the albums and those are the songs that I play when I’m in the tree; those kind of songs that I actually prefer to be more open air. And vice-versa, when it’s the family. When it’s me and the tree, I don’t play certain songs, which I think are stronger with all the instruments. So it’s been an exciting time, to develop those two live shows. In the states, we’ve done much more touring as the family and here it seems like it’s fairly new, it’s much more rare. We’ve had very few appearances over here with the family, but hopefully if the records do well enough, then we can afford to bring everyone over. But I’ve decided to just keep going and this tour with me and the tree has really been fantastic for showing the other side of what we do. It’s been great this whole tour; almost every night people have come and said that they saw us at All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s pretty amazing.
L: Yeah, everyone I spoke to at the Union Chapel said that.
C: It was a kind of historical event.
L: Yeah, because I went to ATP thinking of just seeing some arrhythmic heavy guitar bands, but when I saw you and your family, it was quite shocking and surprising, but also completely amazing; kind of out of place, but also one of my strongest memories of the whole weekend.
C: It almost took on this strange resonant harmony in the festival, just from being so different. It was a kind of haven from the relentless J-J-Jang-J-Jang (sings Oxes-style riff). When you play altogether, do you actually practice at all?
D: Some, yeah. We practice a little bit before recordings and before a tour. We all get together and try to get a couple of days of practice in, but it actually comes quite naturally to be honest. Nobody’s been in any other bands; they’ve all just been in this group.
C: So they can all read each other quite well?
D: Yeah, I think so.
L: Do you still practice in the New Jerusalem Recreation Room? Is that in your parents’ house?
D: Yeah, that’s our studio. It’s in my parents’ basement. In fact, they just gave us the whole basement, so I just built an actual real studio down there, so it’s quite exciting, it’s now sound-proofed down there and has a sound booth and all.
C: I was going to ask you about A Prayer for Every Hour. You proposed that as your thesis, didn’t you?
D: That’s kind of not really it. It was more of the thesis art opening. I had this group of sculptures and things like that and at the opening I performed these songs, probably about eight songs or so. That was when I first brought my family in and had them back me up on these songs that I’d been writing. And the songs were in direct relation to these sculptures and they were all talking about the same things and I wanted to work music into that because it’s pretty frowned upon. It’s seen as low art and I really despise that mentality; I thought Warhol already took care of that. So I thought I’d disguise it as performance art and I’d get away with it. So we played these songs and it was just supposed to be for that one time, but it was so much fun and had such a great response, that I took those recordings and kind of built the album out of that time period, trying to capture all that and that was the first album.
C: So when did you decide that you were going to take this idea and actually make it a full-fledged career?
D: When I put that album together. For me, I’d always wanted to do music full-time. The rest of my family have their own hopes and dreams as well.
C: So it was actually when you put all the songs together on the album?
D: Yeah, so then I wanted to seek out somebody who’d be interested in releasing this thing. There was this label in Seattle, who put that out and the next three, and then Secretly Canadian came along and reissued them all and presented them more to an audience, who I think would be interested in the music- that’s a fair way to say it.
L: Surrounding the music you put out, there seems to be a kind of homemade ethic behind everything; you do all the artwork and the merchandise and you run Sounds Familyre. I also read somewhere that you were a carpenter?
D: Yeah, I still am.
L: Is that how you make your living?
D: Yeah, certainly not from the music!
L: Is it something that’s important to you, to make the whole product?
D: I think so. I like the process from the beginning to the end. I’d like to put my hammer down and I’d love not to have to do carpentry anymore, mostly because it takes up so much time, but in terms of releases and things like that, I love the whole process of recording; the writing, the recording and the artwork and that whole presentation.
L: Are you planning to do more production stuff, because you’ve done the new Half-Handed Cloud album?
D: Yeah, the new June Panic, we’re going to do that this year in the new studio, so I’m excited about that. And then we’re going to do two new Danielson records and I think there’s some other stuff that’s going to happen too, so I think it’s going to be an exciting year.
L: I want to ask you about the whole concept of Danielson and also on Tri-Danielson, how there’s the three different elements; Brother, Famile and -Ship. What are the differences between them? Are there differences?
D: Yeah, they’re more line-up differences, the people involved. The songs are coming out of the same place, but the distinction is whom the performers are.
L: So at the moment you’re Brother?
D: Yeah, this is Brother Danielson. In fact, there’s going to be an official album of Brother Danielson this year, so that will kind of make it a little clearer too.
L: When’s that coming out?
D: I don’t know, it’ll be on Secretly Canadian and then there’ll a Danielson Famile record to follow it up shortly after. So it’ll be nice and pretty wide, because there’s an incredible amount of freedom with all of that and that’s what I’m excited about.
L: Have you recorded any of it already?
D: No, I’m writing it now.
C: So following on from the imagery of Tri-Danielson, I was wondering about the repeated images in your songs and how you present your output and your band. For instance, where did the idea of playing in the tree come from? It’s something that’s been an idea of yours for a while, hasn’t it?
D: Oh yeah, it’s been around for a long time. It’s this Nine Fruits Tree and it’s bearing the good fruits. The symbols of when we play live, whether it’s the doctors and nurses uniforms or me in the tree or the outfits we wear as the Danielsonship, they are very one dimensional in terms of ‘they are what you see’. It was important to me that they be this stark image, which stays as a constant, whilst the music is dancing around this thing that won’t go away. I’m not really interested in changing the live imagery so much, I’m quite happy with the three and keeping it that way. The music will be the thing to keep changing as it dances around these images.
C: We were wondering when we were looking at your tree before and when you were setting it up and at the Union Chapel, we thought it looked quite new and professionally made? Have you gone through many trees?
D: Thank you! This is the third tree; the first one was 18 feet wide and 12 feet high, the next one was 10 feet high and about 12 feet wide and this one’s 9 feet high and whatever wide.
C: So is this the travel tree?
D: This is THE tree now. I don’t use the others anymore; I have such a great relationship with this tree. It dances with me and it moves with me, but the others were quite stiff, and this one folds down into a bag and I love it! It’s the tree, for sure.
C: There were some other instances of imagery in some of the products that you sell, that we wanted to ask about.
L: I’m quite intrigued by the concept of the Great Comfort Stuff. Where does that come from?
D: The Great Comfort. It’s the Great Comforter, it’s the Holy Spirit, it’s the one, it’s the identity. So the idea is that these products are playing with the whole product idea, a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek idea. I’m very interested in the hand-made process and really pushing that. It’s more pricey, but that’s the way it is! A hand-made object compared to a machine-made object is a very different thing. I have plans to explore that whole store of hand-made things and to bring that much further. The Great Comfort Stuff is this idea of things that are pointing to the one that made them.
C: Am I right in thinking that there’s a kind of wilderness myth in some of your work? There’s many references to hunting the Hart and going solo and the canoe imagery and breaking off on your own with your compass. Is that all about just trying to find your way in the world?
D: Yeah, I think so; it’s the journey we’re all on. I like the wilderness connection; I think I’ll steal that from you!
C: We were also intrigued by the Eye Blinders, when did you come up with those?
D: It’s the same idea of looking forward and not looking to the left or right, just pressing on towards the goal, and the things that are actually keeping the eyes forward are these giant hearts that are directing you. It’s always symbolic objects that make up the Great Comfort Stuff.
C: Is that important when you play live as well? Is it something, with your tree, that helps you to perform? Does it give you more resonance with your audience and who you’re trying to affect?
D: For me, it’s the input through the eyes and the input through the ears and it’s doubling what your rece iving. The visual aspect has just been important to me; I haven’t really been very interested in just the kind of rock’n'roll stage presence, so from that point I started making experiments to see what worked and what didn’t work.
C: What didn’t work?
D: Just changing costumes and things like that, I think it gets too much. I really like the idea of sticking with the thing. Of course, there’s other alter egos that I’m working on, but I’m really happy just for now.
L: Are the alter egos going to be different musically?
D: Oh, I don’t know.
L: Because I read somewhere, that you had this idea before of making electronic noise records?
D: Well, that was in high school and college. But not really electronic, just more like Big Black-type stuff, like two vocalists doing yelling then melodic stuff. But really basic song writing, just really examining the song-writing structure was our main fascination. So for me, there wasn’t much difference between writing a song with noise on top of it and then stripping all of that away and then just using the acoustic guitar, to have a clear vision of the song, the bare bones of the song.
L: I was reading an interview and it said that the new album’s going to have a ‘living room’ sound?
D: Yeah, that was one of the rumours!
L: What does that mean? Is it true?
D: I don’t know, we’ll see. We’re recording in my parents’ house, so there’s going to be some of that for sure.
L: Was it just a desire to make things sound more natural or spontaneous?
D: I think they’ll be tracks recorded in our living room, so I guess we’ll see what it sounds like.
C: Finally, you’re going on tour through Europe now, so are you looking forward to that and what are you doing for Christmas?
D: We’re going up to Norway actually. My wife is Norwegian and she’s there with my little girl, hanging out with her parents, so I’m looking forward to having a great Norwegian Christmas.
L: Is there anything particularly special about a Norwegian Christmas?
D: Oh yeah, sure, you get to pull the Christmas tree in to the middle of the room and then you dance around it and sing songs, it’s really great!
C: You might be able to work that into a live performance!
D: It would be nice, wouldn’t it?