In addition to playing guitar and singing for Down By Law, and being the proud father of two daughters, Dave Smalley has also played in DYS, Dag Nasty and ALL, obtained a Master's Degree in Political Science and taught a class at Cal State L.A. At the time of this interview in 1996, Caroline Smalley was pregnant with their second child. Photo courtesy of Epitaph Records.
How have you seen punk rock change since you became involved with it?
Dave: I guess the obvious one that everyone can see, well, I guess people who have been around for a little while, is it's so much bigger now than it was then. You can really say it's grown exponentially almost. In the early days, you'd play a show in front of 50 of your friends in a terrible, dark, crumbly place that you probably were playing illegally or you paid somebody off and it was a whole different way of life. It really was a way of life then. Now, you've got bands, besides the obvious ones like Green Day or Offspring, you've got a lot of bands who are living as musicians, Down By Law included, having enough success throughout the world, making good records hopefully, where it's actually a life and a form of art conveyed to far more people than ever was thought of in the early days. So I suppose size is the biggest difference I've seen. Epitaph is a mirror of that as well. Epitaph started with Brett and a loan from his dad and then Jay, the bass player, joined and they were packing boxes together. Now it's this phenomenally successful, still independent but really successful, label and that's a mirror example or a microcosm of punk rock in general.
Is it better now or worse than when you got involved?
Dave: I think it's better. I mean, I loved those early days and I will always remember them with great fondness and when I write my memoirs, which will happen someday, I will definitely spend many pages describing those days so people can know what they were like because people need to know what they were like. It really was a special, special time, but it's better now because bands like us can make really good records the way we want to make them and our fans can get them and we can have a real communication with them that was never possible before. It was far more local before. If you got out of Virginia, like for Dag Nasty, it was a big deal to go on a tour then. Now, we can go on a tour whenever we want really, or not, as we choose. We have far more options and choice and obviously a fan base that is very loyal to us and that we believe in too. I think it's better. I don't actually know if better or worse is the term, but it's certainly a lot nicer for a lot of things about the whole process of getting your music out there as a musician. It's easier now.
Do you think there's anything wrong with punk?
Dave: Yeah, kids who don't know Minor Threat or Dag Nasty are what's wrong with punk, kids who have no roots. Kids who don't know who Lou Reed is. That's really wrong with punk. People who have no history, people who pick up a Green Day record, which is fine, everybody has to start somewhere, there's no problem with that, but if kids listen to Green Day and Bad Religion, who I love, and they don't realize where those influences come from for those bands and they don't realize there's this whole glorious history of rock 'n' roll and yes, it's called punk rock, don't forget. It's not called hardcore, it's called punk rock. The element there is rock and it does go back all the way to Chuck Berry saying "Fuck you whitey, I'm going to play what I want to play." And Elvis really, too, Elvis saying, "Well, I don't care, I'm going to swivel my hips." That's all really part of rock 'n' roll history and rock 'n' roll in and of itself has an element of punkness through it, right from the beginning. So I have a problem with kids who don't know their history and don't care enough about it to find out because then they're going to be the first ones to be playing their Journey records or whatever the equivalent of Journey is when they turn 40. They're going to be the ones buying Phil Collins records and saying, "Oh yeah, well that was punk and that was then and now I'm old and stupid." I do have a problem with that, I think that's wrong with punk is how many kids view it as a fashion or are into it for the sake of slam dancing and getting out some aggression without realizing what a cool thing they're part of.
What's good about punk?
Dave: I think what's good about punk, continuing from the last one, is its history through until today. If you asked me in general what's good about punk, I'd say the Clash and Bad Religion and Down By Law and all of our fans and friends. Those are all good about punk. If you ask me specifically today what is good about it, I'd say there's a lot of areas we can explore as musicians now that we didn't have before which is really cool and refreshing. Even the nihilism, if there's true nihilism, in punk, that can be really good too, depending on how it's done. I think there's a lot more good about punk than there is bad. Of course I would have to think that considering I'm still writing songs and singing for people, so I really have to believe that or I wouldn't keep doing it.
How have you seen the crowds and people at shows change?
Dave: It goes back to that history question. There are a lot of kids now. When we talk about punk, a lot of kids now don't really fit the description of punk. They listen to punk music but they don't have a punk attitude necessarily. When you talk about multi-national corporations, there are many kids who just don't even conceive of that as being connected with what punk rock is, which of course it is. There are many kids out there who go to shows, just like when I was in 9th grade, I went to see America in concert, the group. They were like a folk group or whatever. I went to see them and it was just a concert and I liked it and then I left and went home and went to sleep and got up and did whatever the next day, went to school. I think there are kids who are like that now and that wasn't the case in the audiences of yesteryear. When you went to a Dag Nasty show, everybody there was passionate and knew they were part of this special musical movement that really stood for great things. I'm not saying that that's changed for most kids, but there are now some who are there because they heard us on the radio or whatever and don't realize what a special thing punk rock is and what it's trying to say and do. I think while the audience has grown, it has taken on a few weekend warriors. Maybe they'll find out about it through becoming weekend warriors. Maybe they'll pick up on what this whole thing is and grow with it.
Do you see any problems with the way people act at shows?
Dave: Usually at Down By Law shows, no. Down By Law fans tend to be really smart and very cool. Yes, they definitely slam and go crazy and there are kids who leave with broken limbs, but it's done in a different spirit. Caroline just said they're more thoughtful and I would say that's true. If somebody gets knocked down at a Down By Law concert, you see people helping them up. If somebody gets knocked down at an Offspring show, they're more likely to get stepped on. To me, things are good for us and our fans at our shows. I have a lot of respect for them and I think they have a lot of respect for us too.
What can we do to make the scene better?
Dave: That is a good question. Well, one thing we can all do is not forget what we're doing and continue to do the good things that we do. For instance, keep on making Sick To Move. I know it can be a pain sometimes and it can be aggravating and frustrating, but it's also a labor of love, like I said earlier, which reflects itself in the writing and who you interview and how you interview them and that's all good. I think one thing that's important is not to lose your focus and I think the flame is still burning inside of me as it always has been. I'm so glad about that. I've never lost track of what I stand for and what I believe in. I'm proud of that. So I think one thing we can do to make it better is not to make it worse. I suppose another thing is support, really support, bands you like. It's really easy not to go to shows. It's really easy not to buy a record or to tape it off a friend or something like that but if you like, for instance, Wayne Kramer, I'm picking a name out of a hat of somebody who I like a lot, Wayne Kramer is playing tomorrow night and I'm going to do my best, even with my wife and child here, hopefully I'm going to wait until they go to sleep and then I'm going to go see Wayne Kramer. I really love Wayne Kramer and I think he's great. You can support the people who deserve support. Support them with your record buying, support them with your show attendance, buy a T-shirt and also go up and say, "Hey, how's it going? Great show," or "That record you did really means a lot," or whatever. Talk to them and let them know that what they're doing is valued. I think that's another thing that could be good and helpful.