Interview with frontman Dave Smalley | By Joshua Maranhas | Photos by Alan Snodgrass
The latest Down By Law record, All In—released Aug. 3 via Kung Fu Records and Cleopatra Records—is another reach forward into the musical universe for vocalist and guitarist Dave Smalley. Smalley stands taller than his catalog of work. He’s greater than the sum of DYS, Dag Nasty, ALL, Down By Law, The Sharpshooters, and Don’t Sleep. That last one, Don’t Sleep, must be representative of how he gets everything done.
To many, he’s a hero, but he wants to be seen as a component of punk rather than a leader of the scene. Smalley’s musical career spans from 1983 to All In, and he’s got no plans of slowing down. “For me, there’s an inner fire that’s always lit, pushing me to constantly excel, challenge myself, and try new things,” he explains. “I would say that answer every year. If you ask what the difference is between the past and today, I would say I’m always trying to do different and better, explore, and try new things.”
Three chords played poorly and loudly: is that all our favorite music was meant to be? It’s arguable that punk rock in 2018 means growing up, excelling, accepting the change we have made and trying to do more. What punk rock was meant to be in the ’80s when Down By Law formed, what it became during the band’s peak in the ’90s, and what it is today are the same and different. “What has changed, if anything, from [1996’s] All Scratched Up to today is I like to think that I’m a better musician,” Smalley says. “I think musicians should try to be always improving [by] challenging themselves. I think my lyrics on this album are some of my favorites that I’ve ever written. Some of the ideas expressed and vocal approaches are a little bit different here and there. You have to challenge yourself.”
Expanding on the band’s other members—guitarist and vocalist Sam Williams, bassist Kevin Coss, and drummer Jack Criswell—he adds, “The musicians who make up Down By Law do what I think is probably some of the best songwriting—on Sam William’s part, [the best] that he’s ever done.”
Something that hasn’t changed since the early days: All In’s songs hover around three minutes in length. The record moves fast, it’s tight, and it explores fresh ideas. In the opening track, “Aperture,” Smalley encourages listeners to “come along on a memory,” but he is really bringing them in to his present. “My aperture is open wide,” he sings. Like a camera lens, his life is taking in as much light as possible. “Boredom” references “staring at my phone.” Chances are Smalley wasn’t staring at a phone in ’83—it’d be odd to stand in a phonebooth just gazing at a handset. These first two tunes clock in at 2 minutes, 30 second each and set the pace, set the tone, and relate the latest chapter in the story of Down By Law and Smalley’s life. All In is 12 songs in about 40 minutes, and the words are personal.
The third track is the first single, “Rebrand It.” Are Down By Law trying to change their past? Smalley says, “‘Rebrand It’ is a personification of not losing track of who you are but also trying to grow. It would be really easy for anyone to keep redoing what they did. Sometimes, that works, and sometimes, that’s OK. I think that’s sometimes what some fans would like. For instance, the Ramones way back in the day—when the Ramones made the  album End of the Century and Phil Spector produced it. [Or] when The Clash made London Calling [in 1979]. These were big breaks musically from what they had done before, because everyone would be happy with The Clash if they just kept making the first Clash record. Everyone would probably be happy with me if I kept rethinking All Scratched Up, [1994’s] Punkrockacademyfightsong, or [1986 Dag Nasty album], Can I Say. Those are all great albums, and I love them to death. I will always proudly play those songs. They’re part of who I am and part of who the audience is. It’s one thing that binds us all together. It’s a beautiful thing, but—and that’s a question, ‘Are you content to do that?’ And if people are content to do that—then, that’s totally cool right?”
“Getting back to ‘Rebrand It,’” he redirects, “it’s great and important, and it’s vital that we never forget who we are and where we come from, but I’m not content to stay there, like the song says. I want to explore. If somebody sends me up to Mars, I’d be happy there, and then, I’m going to try to get to Neptune or whatever. That’s part of who I am: just wanting to keep on burning a new trail.”
The final quarter of All In—“Ride,” “Mannequin,” and “Dear Fate”—have a very different Down By Law sound. They are, quite possibly, Down By Law’s End of the Century or London Calling. Elaborating on his approach to music, Smalley shares, “For me, what hasn’t changed is the belief that music is a catalyst for people in life—a good catalyst, a positive thing that captures who we are as individuals. It’s friends, it’s a scene, [it] helps shape our lives, so music is integral to life. That’s a big-picture way to put it. What hasn’t changed is my belief that music is a powerful liberating force in life. [It] gets you through hard times, makes you feel even happier when you’re happy, helps you feel a little better when you’re feeling down. It gives you courage, sometimes, to get through a tough time; everybody has those. [That’s] my belief, ultimately, about music in my life, applied through the rifle barrel of punk rock and hardcore. Hardcore has always been this thing that I believe in as a form of creation and expression, encouragement, all kinds of good things.”
All in all, All In is a fast-beat, hard-hitting album that goes like a shuttle into outer space. “This album will really capture the emotions and feelings […] of people who came up in the ’80s,” Smalley says. “We’re all growing. Yeah, you’ll always want to put on the first Dag Nasty record or the first Minor Threat record, and that’s great. You always should. You also want stuff that captures who you are at 40 or 45 or 50. I think Down By Law has been a group that people can grow with.”
“I’m just super stoked about this album,” he continues. “I would put it in my own personal top five. That’s not a bad thing to say—when you’re in your 50s, and you can look back and say, ‘Hey, I just made one of my favorite records.’”
Looking back to his earliest days, Smalley says he is proud of all his records, his music, and himself. “It’s OK to be 13 inside now. That being said,” he warns, “we can’t always act like we’re 13, but we should never lose that spark and joy and remembrance of when we’re 13. I think that 13-year-old me would look at me and say, ‘Hey, good job. You’re taking care of your world and your family. You still love the good stuff, and you’re creating and having fun, trying to make a positive impact on people’s lives.’ I hope that’s what my 13-year-old self would say. I would look back on him [and say], ‘You crazy, scruffy-haired, wild kid, good job. Way to go.’ I hope that we would both like each other.”