Roundtable: The Music of Dawes (ft. Rob McLaren)

by Nicholas Tristan, Features Editor

To discuss to impact and evolution of the band Dawes, I sat down with talented multi-instrumentalist Rob McLaren. Perhaps best known as the guitarist and fiddler for Union Duke, Rob also plays banjo for Toronto bluegrass band The Barrel Boys. He is currently finishing work on his second solo album. He was also my college roommate, and a close friend to this day.


Part One: Intros and Evolution


N: Alright! So we’re talking about Dawes.


R: Talkin’ ‘bout Dawes!


N: So, to start, why don’t you talk a bit about your background with the band? I think we have a pretty similar background.


R: I forget how I first heard a song of theirs -- maybe on the radio, or something like that. This would have been like 2012, 2013. I was checking out different music every month, and I heard one of their songs, “If I Wanted Someone”. I then downloaded the whole album (Nothing is Wrong), and listened to it once or twice, and then forgot about it for a while. When I did rediscover it, it hit me at the right time, and I got really into it over the course of one listen. Songs like “A Little Bit of Everything”, I really listened to the lyrics for the first time, and that hooked me. Then you and I were both listening to Nothing is Wrong, and then their new album came out.


N: Yeah, that’s about it for me too. When Stories Don’t End, their new album, came out in 2013 I was instantly hooked. I remember you, me, and our friend Dan Rougeau just endlessly listening to it that summer. I had an hour-long commute at the time, going from Etobicoke to downtown Toronto, and I would listen to Stories Don’t End on repeat. And I’ve just been following them ever since!


R: Seen them through their trials and tribulations, their ups and downs.


N: Mostly just ups.


R: (laughs) Yeah.


N: So, that’s a good segue, what do you think about their general evolution from their first album North Hills to their most recent release We’re All Gonna Die? Because I think there is a definite evolution.


R: Oh, for sure. I think after Nothing is Wrong, they started making a concerted effort to make each album a bit of a statement and to choose a direction, especially in their choice of a producer --


N: A little more constructed.


R: Yeah, yeah. So, Stories Don’t End, when that one came out it seemed like a lot tighter than previous records. And a little less soft-rock/folksy, and they went back into Tin Pan Alley style songwriting: a little jazzier, a little moodier. Which was kinda neat! It was very precisely put together, which is something I like about them. They’re very economical -- every line of music and every line of lyrics had a particular place.


N: Totally!


R: And then on their next album, All Your Favorite Bands, they did something really different. And this was after they’d done The New Basement Tapes with Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello.


N: Yeah, All Your Favorite Bands, it’s a little...jammier.


R: Part of their motivation for that was working on The New Basement Tapes and everything was off the cuff -- “Taylor! Take a solo here!” And he did. And he ended up liking his instrumental solos more than the more constructed guitar lines from earlier. As a guitar player, that was something I’d always felt about his guitar playing; it was very good, but he was thinking about the guitar more from the perspective of a songwriter or a piano player. His guitar lines were very tight and fit the song, but they were more constructed. As a guitar player, I like using the licks you have to build something new.


N: Using that vocabulary.


R: Right. So they got David Rollins to produce this album,


N: Yeah!


R: Which was great! But it was...maybe a bit too much.


N: That’s the thing. I think it’s a good concept, and the album has some good songs on it, and on some of these songs the extended solos work really well. I’d point to “I Can’t Think About It Now”, where the song is built around this arrangement - a slow build through verses, adding instruments and having the lyrics build in intensity. And then it drops off totally for the solo section and builds back up again through the long extended solo.


R: Yeah, that works great on that and a couple other songs, but that just seemed to be a structure on a lot of the songs --


N: That didn’t work as well.


R: It didn’t always seem necessary. Sometimes you could cut out the solo and the song would still work. There are definitely great moments on that album, though.


N: Totally.


R: I’d have to go back and listen to it. I think I like the album as a whole more than any individual songs.


N: So, from here they moved onto their most recent record, We’re All Gonna Die, probably their most polarizing record. You like it, right?


R: Oh yeah, I like it.


N: I love it. I think it might be their strongest record. And I think that has a lot to do with picking Blake Mills to produce it, because he’s a mad genius.


R: He sure is!


N: It was a good call to get Blake, because they could have gotten into a funk if they kept doing the same thing over and over again.


R: Yeah, I don’t know. I think it was a good choice, but there are people I know who don’t like it as much as their earlier stuff because it’s too “Blake Mills-y”. It sounds too much like the producer. You know when a well-known producer puts their stamp on something, and it just sounds like them?


N: Uh huh. Mark Ronson or a Danger Mouse.


R: Or, like, in my world: when Old Man Luedecke did a record produced by Joel Plaskett, it just sounded like a Joel Plaskett record with Old Man Luedecke singing. There’s definitely a balance, because that’s why you work with producers in the first place, to get their input and their sound.


N: It’s still unmistakably Dawes. I think they’re just playing with it sonically in the same way they’ve played with form and songwriting on earlier records. For example, there are a lot of distorted vocals on this record. It’s definitely an interesting record. There are some killer tracks on there -- the title track is gorgeous, and “Quitter” is just awesome.


R: Those are probably my two favorite tracks too.


N: And the album closer with the mariachi band. It works really well!


R: I’m one of those hipsters who’s super into it when Griffin sings, so I love the Griffin songs. “Roll Tide” can be one of my favorites.


N: “Roll Tide” is beautiful.


Nicholas Tristan is a Toronto-based writer, producer, composer, and podcaster. He is the Board Chair for Over Easy Airwaves, a digital broadcasting networking specializing in the weird and the wacky.