For a band that’s only been around for about three years, Dawes have accomplished a lot—and if you don’t believe this, ask the Band’s Robbie Robertson, who hand-picked the Los Angeles foursome to be his live backing band on tour. The legendary musician fell for Dawes’s soulful, folk-inspired sound made famous on their debut, North Hills. The release of last summer’s Nothing Is Wrong means Dawes now have two albums strapped firmly under their country-rock belts, each tinged with their vintage sensibilities. Thoughtful lyrical content penned by vocalist Taylor Goldsmith adds a delicate touch: He expresses each word with a mix of smooth, soaring vocals and rock-and-roll gruffness.
Keeping the rhythm on each song is 21-year-old drummer Griffin Goldsmith, the younger brother of frontman Taylor. As a teenager, he joined the band in a somewhat haphazard move that today has taken him everywhere from Occupy Wall Street rallies to the small screen. We chatted with him as he prepared for the band’s second tour this year, which will include a pit stop in DC at the 9:30 Club this Friday.
You’re currently touring for your second album, Nothing Is Wrong. Can you tell us about how you chose the name of the record?
We’ve been touring the album for almost a year now, and it’s named after a lyric in the song “So Well.” We thought it summed up the overall sentiment of the record, and I think it really speaks for itself if you listen to that song.
What was the writing and recording process like?
My brother writes all the songs and usually brings them to us as folk songs on an acoustic guitar, or sometimes he writes them on piano, and then we arrange them as a band. Our recording went really quickly; we got it done in a month.
You guys have gotten a lot of praise for your lyrics. Does all of that come from Taylor?
All of it comes from him. He’ll bounce ideas off of us and we tell him what think, but he does all the lyrics.
Was there anything he wrote on this record that you were particularly blown away by?
The last song we recorded, “A Little Bit of Everything.” He hadn’t finished it, and we were uncertain whether or not we would record it. But as soon as he played it, we all really wanted him to finish it because we thought it was such a great addition to record. It’s one of my favorite songs he’s ever written.
What’s it like being in a band with your brother?
We have very similar tastes and ideas. Having grown up together, we’ve been performing together forever. We get along really well, contrary to what I guess happens in other bands historically.
Did you ever think you’d end up in a band with him? How did it all happen?
You know, he was in a band before I even graduated high school, and they were touring. I was playing drums, and the drummer for his band was considerably older—he was my drum teacher—and he made it clear he didn’t want to tour for that long. I don’t think there was ever a conversation about it; no one came up and decided explicitly that I was going to be the drummer. But it happened naturally after I graduated, and then that band kind of dissipated. Then Taylor had a group of songs he was working on, and I moved out to the Valley where they were living and we started to arrange them [as Dawes] and started playing shows around town. It all happened quite naturally.
How old were you?
I was 17. I’m 21 now.
What kinds of things would you and your brother listen to growing up?
Lots of R&B, lots of Stax/Volt—my dad is a big fan. Lots of soul singers. Just anything to give us a sense of what great songwriting is. As a drummer, I was growing up listening to a lot of stuff I was trying to emulate at a young age.
What’s the drum arrangement you liked best on the album?
I like all of the performances on “So Well.” I thought that was a good take, and there’s nuance in that take that makes it, to me, sound like something classic—something I’m proud of. If you listen to that song, each player has a unique voice and unique style that really comes through well.
You guys are compared to a lot of vintage bands and old-school rock. Is that something you tried to move away from or embrace on this record?
We don’t really consciously try to move away from that vintage sound, or vice versa. We just kind of do what we do. It’s impossible not to take something from these people you admire and listen to, who inspire you. I think that connotation comes from the fact that we listen to music that’s primarily older stuff. We listen to new music, too, but it’s primarily what people would call vintage. And that just makes its way into the way we play and write. But I feel like once you’re doing something with anything in mind other than what sounds good and works best among whatever group of musicians you’re working with, it’s getting away from the point.
Jackson Browne sings background vocals on the song “Fire Away.” How did that collaboration go down?
We met him through our producer; we were working on mixing some stuff and he had some equipment we needed. He was there a lot and was really digging what we were doing—and he’d listened to the first record. Then we hit this part we thought would sound cool from him, and we asked him if he’d do it.
You guys also played with Browne at an Occupy Wall Street rally in Liberty Park. Can you tell us about the decision behind doing that? What was the experience like?
We were flying out there to play some shows of our own and also a benefit show with him. It was his idea—I actually wasn’t really informed as to what that movement was until he decided we were gonna play it together. And I’m glad he did, because we really did our reading, got caught up, got involved, and became a part of this thing we’re really proud of.
Were you a fan of Robbie Robertson before being picked to be part of his live band?
Yeah, I was a huge fan. [The Band] were like my favorite band ever. It was incredible. It’s hard to believe that it ever even happened. I mean, The Last Waltz . . . I used to watch it everyday as a kid.
What were some highlights from playing with him?
There was one night—we went to England with him for a show, and afterward we all hung out, just to have some drinks and food—and it was really cool actually getting to hang out with him and talk about our experiences and how much his music has influenced us over the years. He’s obviously lived an epic life.
What was he like?
Really, really nice, and just like you’d hope he is. He’s cool—you can tell he’s been doing what he loves forever. He couldn’t be cooler.
Your career’s also taken you to TV—recently, on an episode of Parenthood. What did you have to do?
The premise was that the two main characters on the show opened a studio and they needed a band to record there, and in the show they heard Dawes were coming to town. So, they came up with a scheme to bump into us and persuade us to come to the studio. They set it up as though they were accidentally bumping into us at a hotel, so it was pretty funny. We were acting as ourselves, so it was cool. It’s really awesome that they’re musically involved and have real bands, you know?
Your tour is taking you to DC and eventually to Bonnaroo. How are you feeling about it?
Yeah, we did [Bonnaroo] two years ago, and it’s by far the craziest festival I’ve ever been to. I got to see Stevie Wonder, which was awesome. And it was one of the first times I got to see bands play in front of these crowds that are, like, 50,000 people.
Can you talk a little bit about your upcoming tour? It starts today. Are you a band that loves being on the road, or are you more invested in the recording process?
Well, this last year has kind of been a balance. Before that, we were on the road all the time—about nine months a year, probably. And we’re still on the road the majority of the year. But we need to have time at home to write and arrange—at least for this record it’s been like that. Taylor needs time at home by himself to get into a headspace so he can write. And we take whatever time we can to arrange, and we’re excited to get another record done, but it’s the same cycle. If you’re not recording, then you’re touring; if you’re not touring, then ideally you’re recording or getting ready to record.
What side of it do you like better?
It’s hard to say because I’ve spent a hundred times more time on the road than I have in the studio. But any time I have spent in a studio I’ve loved—either with Dawes or someone else. It’s an entirely different thing we’re really unfamiliar with, so I’m excited to get more involved with that side of our careers.
Growing up, did you think you’d be playing drums for a living?
Around the time I was 12 years old, I was really into baseball and music. I played piano first. And I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player. So I decided to quit and started playing drums full time. It’s definitely a hard dream, but there’s nothing else I feel adequate at doing other than playing.
Do you think you would have wound up with the same career if your brother had done something other than music?
Definitely not. The majority of our success comes from the fact that he’s writing such great songs. It’s been a slow process. It’s not like we had a hit song and suddenly were playing in all these places. It’s taken a lot of time and it’s taken a lot of awareness and trying to get the music to reach as many people as possible. It takes a certain kind of listener that’s willing to put in the time to like our music, but like I said, we definitely wouldn’t be where we are if Taylor wasn’t writing the songs he’s writing.
Dawes plays the 9:30 Club this Friday, June 1. Tickets ($25) are available through the 9:30 Club’s website.