Down By Law
I fought with myself about whether to include this interview, simply because I interviewed DBL in STM #3. In the end, I couldn't leave it out. I caught up with Dave Smalley after the release party for "All Scratched Up" at the Troubador in Los Angeles. Suffice it to say DBL, as usual, ruled the world. As usual, Dave Smalley is one of the coolest people I have been fortunate enough to meet. As I watched him wander around the club, shaking hands and talking to the people who showed up, it hit me that he really cares about and respects the people who go to the shows, listen to the records and enjoy the music. What a refreshing change in American rock. I now own three copies of "All Scratched Up" - two on CD, one of which has not left my player at home and one which I carry with me, and a copy on vinyl. Thanks for the music Dave.
So first things first. What are your thoughts on the new album?
Dave: I'm really pretty jazzed by it. It's funny because it's our fourth record, but in some ways I look at it as our second record because that's when Sam and John joined the group, two years ago for John and three years ago now for Sam, and we've really become a team. DBL was always friends, but it was never really like a team. It was always like me and some friends, which was great at the time, but now with "Punkrockacademy" and "All Scratched Up," it's really changed in a good way. It's a lot more confident. It's just really nice now together and when those guys were in the band, I felt free or more free to write the songs that I love. "Blue" was kind of a sad record because there were a lot of personal, sad things going on in that record, and once Sam and John were in the group, it just became a band like it had not been before, which is not to put down the other guys because they're still very dear friends and great musicians and I'm still very proud of those records, but we've raised the level.
With every other album, the titles always seem to make sense. Like you said, "Blue" was kind of a down record, with the first album, self-titling it was the obvious choice, "Punkrockacademyfightsong" was totally understandable. So why "All Scratched Up" for number four? It seems almost more abstract.
D: I guess you could look at it that way. I think when we were thinking of album title ideas, there were two things that were in my mind. One is that this album has a very big emphasis on the vinyl side of things. As you know, it's a double vinyl album, four sides with many extra songs on the album that you don't get on the CD and there's a big stereo needle across the top of the album and it's an art form that I think is dying and it's a sad thing to see that die with music. I'm not saying go out and buy everything on vinyl, but once in a while, it's a rather personal form of music that I don't think you get with CDs or cassettes. As well, it becomes a work of art even physically. You're looking at something that's that much bigger and more beautiful, so we wanted something that might conjure up the idea of a record, so "All Scratched Up," that's what everybody complains about records is that they're scratched, and also just the idea of "All Scratched Up" meaning you get in a fight or whatever, but you still come out and do what you do, whatever that is, so kind of not taking things lying down.
Now it makes sense, especially with songs like "Independence Day" and "All-American." Those two are the ones that really hit me, especially "All-American" because that's what high school was like for me.
D: Yeah, I like that song.
I think anyone who has ever been a punk knows that's what high school is like - ostracized, trying not to get the hell kicked out of you by the jocks ...
D: Yup, the teachers who think you're stupid because you look different or like different things and you show them, when you feel like studying, that you're not stupid.
It seems like, again, just as has been the case in the past, that a lot of these songs are coming straight from the heart. How much of this is based on your personal experience and how much is based on stories, things you've heard, things like that?
D: When you're a songwriter, it's a little of both. There's allegory and there's truth and I start everything with the truth, but some songs are certainly more social in nature. A song like "Giving It All Away" is a song about people just joining the rat race and sort of forgetting what they started out believing and sort of caving in to that. Obviously, I haven't lived that because here I am, doing what I do, and I never did that, which I'm happy about, but I know that a lot of people do it, so is that experience? No, but it is truth. So I think when you're a songwriter, for me anyway, it all comes from the heart and some of it's more poetry and some of it's more ...
[At this point, some fans talk to Dave for a bit, which results in the next question.]
What's that? Is there a little Smalley in the house?
D: Yeah. Madeline Smalley, 10 months old now.
So there's finally little Down By L-offspring?
D: There is.
Has that changed your outlook at all, when you were recording the album and the like?
D: No. When we recorded the album, Maddy was already born. I certainly think all the cliches about parenthood are true for me, like, once you're a parent, if you're a good parent, all the other things in the world don't mean anything. If I had to choose, if God came down and said, "You have to choose between your guitar and singing and your child," I'd fucking smash that guitar and spit on it and never make another song again for the rest of my life. It would mean nothing to me because the baby means so much to me, so all the truisms, you know, you'd step in front of a truck for her, you'd do whatever, it's all true. That kind of is weird.
Punk rock has always been this sort of movement that seems really youthful and vital, and now punks are growing up, getting older and having kids. All of a sudden, they're parents now. What's going on? Is punk maturing or is just that the people who got into it when they were 18 or 20, like yourself, are getting to the point that it's just time to start doing that?
D: I think it's more that. I mean, if you're a musician, that's what you do but it doesn't mean that's all you do. You fall in love and you get married and have babies if you want. It's just something that comes and it's a beautiful, fucking great, cool experience.
Back to the album, and kind of off topic, I have two copies and I'm planning to buy the vinyl when it comes out. D: Yeah, support the vinyl for sure. Yeah. I want those extra songs.
D: Yeah, and you know what I'm really proud of also is that a lot of people thought "Oh, they put all the throwaways on there," and that's not the case. The songs on Side 4, we had some big arguments with our producers actually over what should go on it, because obviously our producers want their favorite songs to go on the CD so everyone will hear them and there's some really good ones. We did an acoustic cover of "Going Underground," which I'm really proud of and we also did another acoustic song called "Green Hills of Virginia" which I really love too.
Did you do anything else on the vinyl, like a gatefold sleeve?
D: Yeah, it's a double gatefold sleeve. We didn't do colored vinyl and we did it on purpose because that's kind of like a funny, punk rock thing to do, but the classic double albums, you know, "Frampton Comes Alive," "London Calling," whatever you want to say, they're all just black. Vinyl's black so it's black.
I really miss vinyl because I've got all my old Hüsker stuff on vinyl, I've got the original Ramones "It's Alive" on double vinyl and there's just something about it, even if it pops and hisses and sometimes it skips, there's just more character to it.
D: Yeah, and there's also a personal involvement. You can't push a remote control and hit it like you do with a CD. You can't push shuffle and have 16 songs just play in a row. You have to get up, put the arm on the thing, put the needle on the vinyl, and when it's done it lifts up and you have to go over and turn it over. It just becomes more personal. You become a little bit more involved in the experience. You really live that.
Is that something you were thinking about in terms of fans? Was this an effort to make them even more personally involved in a sense?
D: Not consciously. It wasn't one of the reasons, but now that you put it that way, that's great, but I don't think we thought of it that way. I think we just wanted to do our best to keep vinyl alive.
On one of the old albums, you sang, "Most of my words are social." Would you say this album is more social or personal?
D: I'd say it's a typical Down By Law album in that it's probably both. A lot of our social songs, I always kind of hated bands like Crass that were just so blunt in how they phrased things. I mean, there's definitely a use for it, but I always liked the wittier side of bands like D.O.A. or the Dead Kennedys who were kind of witty about it, like "Fucked Up Ronnie" by D.O.A. or "Let's Lynch the Landlords" by the Dead Kennedys. I thought those were great songs. For me, I come at it from a different perspective, probably because I'm not a native Californian, I'm from Virginia and D.C., and I kind of view social songs, I write a song that concerns me. I'm from a very political city, Washington D.C., and my father has been in politics his whole life, so I'm very interested in that. I think our world has so many great things about it and so many terrible things about it that there's a lot there to think about.
What does your dad do in D.C.?
D: Oh, he's retired now, but he was a very high-ranking official in all of the Republican administrations in Washington. He was an ambassador under Ronald Reagan.
How did he react to having his son in bands like DYS and Dag Nasty?
D: My dad is a very, very cool guy and he's very supportive. I think they were a little alarmed when they realized it was a career and not that this wasn't just me taking time off from college or something like that. This was going to continue and they realized, "Oh, he's not going to be the D.C./Virginia boy and follow in daddy's footsteps," but to their total credit, they were both really supportive and they come to the shows. I've seen my parents in the 9:30 Club with kids just fucking hurling themselves around them and there they are by the soundboard and they're just watching and staying out of trouble, but they're really proud. They go out and they buy every record even though they know I would send it to them and stuff, so they're both incredible people. I'm lucky.
So he hasn't gotten to the point where he's stage-diving?
D: No. I wouldn't let him. I wouldn't want him to get hurt.
What's up with the tattoos now? I remember reading an interview with you, I think it was in Anti-Matter, where you talked about your tattoos and how each one was very personal and meant something to you. Are you still getting tattoos?
D: Definitely. Yeah, I've got a lot. It's so funny now. Every time my mom sees me, she just says, "What's the new one?" Yeah, I've got a lot. I think my most recent one is probably right here, which is my guitar. That guitar is such a big part of my life, really, that I just wanted to get it and I didn't want to make it look cheesy and rock, so I actually had the tattooist, who's a big fan of the band in Sacramento, he either did it free or virtually for free and he spent hours and hours doing it. He set up my guitar on a stand and he drew it out and kept on modifying it. There's so much detail work in a thing like this, you've got all these little strings and stuff.
And the swirl in the pattern.
D: Yeah. His name is Nate, he's in Sacramento. He's great.
Didn't he do some of your other tattoos?
D: He didn't, no. This is the first one. Not with me, but I know Nate and he's a great guy. He's a fan of the band and a really talented tattooist. He's at Body Electric in Sacramento.
So I guess the ultimate question is ...
D: Uh-oh. The ultimate question, I'd better sit down.
D: What is the meaning of life?
Actually, if we're on the same wavelength, we already know the answer is 42. Douglas Adams.
D: Oh, okay.
Anyway, are you still straight-edge?
D: I believe in the ideals of straight-edge and I certainly support those who are straight-edge and keep their minds open, not in the sense of minds not being drunk, but their minds caring about everybody and not just people who wear a backpack or baggy pants. So I support the ideals of caring straight-edge people and that's probably how I would best answer that. According to a lot of the really hardline stuff today, I would not call myself straight-edge, but it's a great ideal and for those who choose that way, it can be really helpful, even if only for a time. There are some people who are drunks and then they go stone cold sober and become straight-edge and that later helps them to pick up one beer at a time. That's no problem. Down By Law has a song called "Punks and Drunks," and that song is about Down By Law really because there are some guys in the band who drink and there are some that don't, but we're not a straight-edge band.
It's almost disheartening, because you are one of the pioneers of the straight-edge movement, and I look at what it is now and it's so far away from what it was.
Now you hear about straight-edge kids breaking up parties because someone's having a beer or something. It's just become radicalized.
D: Yeah, it's upsetting. I think part of it is when you're 17 years old, you're the most extreme about everything usually. When I was 17, I was convinced that anarchy was the only way, that God didn't exist and that anyone who drank was a scumbag and all three of those I would not say now. There's a sort of natural tendency to be the most extreme whatever it is you jump into. That's why kids who smoke pot tend to just become stoners when they first start. They just get stoned. We lived in France when I was in 7th and 8th grade, and when we moved back to Virginia, I would have become a stoner for sure because all my best buddies from elementary school were complete potheads. They were smoking pot before class, sneaking out at lunch, getting stoned after school, before dinner. It was just crazy and I never did that because it freaked me out. To this day, I have still never smoked pot.
On sort of a final note, what does punk rock, and more generally music, mean to you at this stage in your life?
D: It definitely is my life and I'm really proud of Down By Law fans because it's a lot of their lives too. It becomes part of you and it's part of me and it's a really wonderful thing and I would fucking take one Down By Law fan over a million Offspring fans any day of the week. Not that the Offspring are bad, it's just that a lot of their fans are dumb guys who want to slam because they're popular, which isn't their fault, but I'm so glad that Down By Law, while we've gotten really popular in the last couple of years, for the most part, even tonight with all the kids slamming, I saw somebody get knocked down and somebody picked them up. It was not like a violent, aggressive group.
The cool thing is that they were dancing too.
D: Yeah. Well, there's a really funny guy who is a very well known musician in a very well known punk rock band, and I can't say who it is, but he was talking to Angry John and he was playing a bunch of the recent punk rock CDs that have come out on different labels and everything else. Some of them are on Epitaph, some of them are on Fat, some of them are on this and some of them are on that. He was listening to them and he's a pretty witty, funny guy, very sarcastic, and he's like, "Look at this! Listen to this! Shit! Listen to that! Listen to that! That's shit!" and he kept putting things on and then he put on Down By Law and he goes, "Now you hear that? That's music." I always love that. I think that's one of the things that really distinguishes us from a lot of other bands is that everyone in the band is a really good musician. We're not concerned with how fast we can go, we're concerned with the songs and what they sound like and what the music is, and as long as we keep that in focus, I think we'll continue to thrive.
Just for my own personal satisfaction, I could swear I heard some covers tonight from the old days. I could have sworn I heard a Dag Nasty song.
D: Yeah, that was the last song we played. We played "Under Your Influence." We talked a lot about it and I think that Dag Nasty and Down By Law are kind of spiritual brothers in a lot of ways. My writing is, I think, probably a bit different from what we were doing in Dag Nasty but I was the singer and it was a very special band and I think Down By Law took the torch and ran with it. We realized when we were going to Europe this last tour that those kids never got to see Dag Nasty because Dag Nasty never went to Europe, no matter what year it was, they never went, so we did two Dag Nasty songs, "Circles" and "Under Your Influence." Then we realized most of these young kids in America had not gotten to see them either. Did you ever get a chance to see Dag Nasty?
Before my time.
D: They never did a lot of tours. When I was in the band, we never even got to California. We did all East Coast and Midwest tours. So we realized that there are kids out there who love this stuff and it means a lot to them and this is the closest they're ever going to get to see Dag Nasty is me singing a Dag Nasty song because we're never going to get together to do a show because I don't want to be that guy that exploits his past. I refuse to do that, and the nice thing is that Dag Nasty and Down By Law are so spiritually connected that those who love Dag Nasty tend to love Down By Law just as much. Sometimes more. Now it's really weird because now there are kids coming up that are like, "Were you in any other bands?" It's really weird now. All around the country, all around the world it's like that because the first album they bought of us was probably "Punkrockacademy" or maybe one of the earlier ones, but early for them is something that would not be early for me.
So early for them would be, for example, the first Down By Law album or the Dag Nasty reunion record.
D: Yeah. They don't have "Suffer" by Bad Religion, they have "Against The Grain."