Interview with vocalist/guitarist Dave Smalley
After the release of Down By Law’s first live studio recording, Quick Hits: Live in Studio (Cleopatra), we spoke with Dave Smalley about all facets of the impressive album. He also got into his own busy schedule juggling Down By Law (who’ve been around now for 30 years!) and his two other current bands Dave Smalley & the Bandoleros and Don’t Sleep.
Just about how the whole concept of the record came about… It must’ve been hard selecting songs since you have so much material to choose from.
It was interesting because it was pretty pain-free. I just talked to Sam [Williams, guitarist/songwriter] and said, “Pick whatever you want, but I would like to do a couple of old ones or ones that are hard to get or ones that we love that we never got to do live.” So we did “Johnny Law” is a great song, which we never did live I don’t think ever. And we did “D.C. Guns” which was a single back in the Stone Age of DBL in the early-’90s. So we did stuff we’d never gotten to do live or not doing very much because we wanted to make it a little different. You have to do some songs, like “Gruesome Gary” or you’ll be killed by an angry mob, you know. You have to do – I don’t know what else, but…
Oh, “Punk Won!” That’s one we stopped playing – we recorded that for Punkrockacademyfightsong then we played it pretty hardcore for the first year or two. Then because it’s a real voice shredder, it’s hard to do every night on tour so if you’re out on tour for six weeks or something it’s a pretty hard one to do. So just for ease of vocal stress we knocked it off the set for a long, long, long time, decades. Then recently – we don’t really do full tours anymore like we used to do so now it’s back in the setlist. It’s OK to do two or three nights in a row. But it’s great to do it again.
You mentioned “D.C. Guns.” That’s such a great one, like you said, more obscure…
It’s on a single. I forget what label it’s on, a little independent label we did with a friend of mine producing, and Chris Shary did the artwork. A 7” vinyl single, and on one side, if I’m remembering this all right is “D.C. Guns” and the other side we did a cover of “Get Up, Stand Up,” by Bob Marley with Pete Stahl from Scream doing guest vocals. So that was super, super cool, that whole experience. That was one of my favorite songs; I really loved the words there and the vocal melody of that one. It feels great to have recorded it again and a lot more people now can hear it.
And it’s cool you start [the record] with that one. It might have people go, “Oh, I didn’t know that one,” and it’s so good. [Laughs]
Thanks! I’m so glad you like it. It’s one of my favorites too. It has that really nice feeling of doing something you love and not being able to do it for a long time. It’s got a nice vibe to it, a joy to it, I think.
Yeah. Another one people might not know is “Late Bloomer.”
That one was actually written for this album, so that’s a brand-new song. It’s kind of for anyone who finds love later in life and it has a line about, “It’s better to have an end with you than nothing at all.” I think it’s just a reflection of growing older and realizing life doesn’t stop when you’re 25 or whatever. Plenty of older people are absolutely in love as when they’re 19. That’s the kind of song I wouldn’t have written when I was 29 but now I feel very comfortable reflecting on who I am and where I am. I know a lot of our fans aren’t 19 anymore either, so I think that kind of song resonates as well.
That’s what I was going to say, like overall I love the feel and the message, it’s relatable.
Thanks. And I think the trick of anything in life whether you’re an accountant or secretary or businessman or whatever it is, whatever you do, do it with joy and belief and conviction and passion. Realize that every day is special in some way. It’s not always cream and sugar or whatever expression, it can be hard but overall life can be great if you let it be.
You mentioned the word joy and I had to look back at the interview we did seven years ago, and you mentioned that a lot of what you do, music-wise and writing, you want to bring joy to other people. That’s so nice. [Laughs]
I think that everybody who’s a musician or whatever has sort of their thing that they represent to a lot of people. Some guys, like one of my favorites is Lemmy, and Lemmy’s a fucking badass. I love Lemmy probably more than most people, but I’m me. And in the end, I don’t wanna try and be Lemmy. I don’t wanna try and be really depressing like somebody like Nick Cave or something. I love those guys, but I’m me. Part of what I believe is if I can be inspiring to people, I’m gonna be inspiring to people. It’s kind of a responsibility. I don’t think you can do it falsely, but if you feel it, why not be uplifting and remind people to go out there and enjoy the simple pleasures of life like watching a great movie on the couch or whatever. There’s so many reasons to be down in life, and they’re all valid. We all feel down if we break up with someone, or lose a loved one or a pet or financial hardship. Those are all real things, but in the end, there are so many more joys than there are sorrows, and you just gotta enjoy and really cherish them. So, my role or part of my role in music is, yeah, I love to rock out. I want people to rock too, I don’t just want people to be an angel or a preacher, I’m a hardcore rock ‘n’ roll guy, that’s the other half.
Just about this [record], it just has a good feel all around, the songs you chose. Was it hard to do the sequencing?
No. Sam, who is my longtime best friend and musical partner, he did all the parts. I didn’t have anything to do with that. I’m not sure what his thought process was, but he’s really good with stuff like that. One of the successes of life, people who are successful I think have a very important rule that I will reveal to you here, and that is surround yourself in life with really good, talented people and let them do what they do. Don’t try to micro-manage them, don’t try to be great at every single thing you do. Be great at what you love but respect that there are others who are awesome and surround yourself with awesomeness and let the awesomeness of others bloom. So that’s my view about Sam. He’s one of the most talented musicians and funny individuals I’ve ever met in my life. So, I just kind of say, “Can you sequence this, brother?” “Yeah man, cool dude.” “Thanks.” It’s very simple, and he just knocks it out of the park. So that’s my rule in life: Surround yourself with good people and let them be great.
One other thing was you got a couple Dag Nasty songs in there that fit perfectly. Was that Sam’s idea too?
Yeah, but you know, it’s funny, there’s different versions of Dag Nasty right now. They have their demo singer now as their main singer and then there’s Field Day doing stuff with Peter Cortner-era, and then you got me who sang on the most number of albums that I’ll do occasional Dag Nasty songs because I love it still. People have told me in many, many, many conversations and letters and emails and Facebook posts that they love to hear me sing the Dag Nasty songs that they grew up with. So for that, I’m just like, yeah man, I’m gonna keep doing it. I put my heart and soul into all those albums. There’s blood, sweat, and tears in every song, so I’m gonna keep doing them occasionally and just pick a few I love and do them here and there as covers. And Sam is so great because it’s really hard – you better have a great guitarist if you’re gonna do Dag Nasty songs because Brian [Baker] is a great guitarist, and Sam is equally great as a guitarist, which is so cool. So, I’m really a lucky guy because I’ve played with Sam Williams and Brian Baker in my life and Pablo Magallanes from the Bandoleros is amazing and insanely great. I really encourage everybody to go find the Dave Smalley & the Bandoleros album, it’s called Join the Outsiders, and talk about joy. That’s the most joyful record I think I’ve ever recorded. It’s super-cool and Bill Stevenson who’s my friend from ALL and Descendents and Black Flag and blah, blah, blah, he produced the new EP that’s coming up from the Bandoleros. So I’m really excited to have that come out and people have a chance to hear it. Then I was just talking with Marcelo [Pesoa], who’s one of our guitar players, and he’s also great, he told me we’ve been getting offers to tour next year, which is exciting. So, we’ll see what happens with that.
When do you think the record might come out?
I think it’s coming out in February, and the other thing that’s coming out that I’m super-excited about and another great guitar player – as you can see I’m going with that theory I told you about earlier, find great people and let them do their stuff, the Don’t Sleep album is still being finalized and mixed and sequenced. Again, I’ll probably just trust wiser people than me to do that. I’ll sing and hopefully try to be the best singer I can be, but then I’m not the world’s greatest person about sequencing or artwork or any of that stuff. So, I’ll let the people who are great at that stuff do that stuff. But anyway, so the Don’t Sleep album is coming out, I don’t know when, but probably early-ish next year. So far, it’s really freaking good, it’s a melodic hardcore record and it’s fun to be doing that type of music again, but there’s a lot of diversity to it as well, a lot of musical diversity. I won’t spoil the surprise right now, but a lot of people will be surprised. So, I’m trying to burn the candle as bright as I can for as long as I can.
So, kind of busy. [Laughter]
Super-freaking busy. Time is my most short commodity.
I’m just gonna go back to a theme of “Late Bloomer,” doing things while you can…
Yeah, life doesn’t stop at a certain age. For me in my young 50s, I feel like I’m burning brighter than I ever have. But I see people at the grocery store who are 70s or whatever at a restaurant and see an older couple and so clearly comfortable and happy with each other and in love and I’m like that’s so great. And then you’ll see a couple that’s 25 and barely talking to each other and both staring at their phones. It’s like, oh man. So, I think we should really freaking go for it. As I’ve been known to say, “Go for All.” And it’s a cliché to say every day is a gift, but it really is because we don’t know what’s going to happen. And now I’ve started to see friends of mine, like [Government Issue vocalist] John Stabb and Dave Franklin from Vision and people I’ve known and loved have started to go and that’s a terrible thing. But it’s also a reminder that appreciate what you got, because you just don’t know. Hopefully we’ll all live until we’re 90 and have no problems and be perfectly healthy and have no financial worries and perfect love relationships. Hopefully that’ll all happen. But you never know.
But even when you sing, “Boredom, boredom” [on the song “Boredom,” a take off of the Buzzcocks], like Pete Shelley [Buzzcocks frontman]. When he died…
Oh, I’m so glad you picked up on that. That’s where that came from. That was shocking and horrible. I wrote my little tribute to him on my page and a lot of people liked that. I did get to tour with them for one tour so we got to hang out with him and he was a super cool, super witty guy, obviously one of the great musical talents that there was in our genre.
They were probably a big influence on you…
Yeah, all that stuff from the early phase of punk – the Clash, the Jam, and the Buzzcocks, and even the Pistols from the more rock side, the Specials, English Beat first album. There’s such a strong sense of melody and songwriting that is kind of in my DNA to hopefully be a good songwriter. I’m definitely standing on the shoulders of giants so then hopefully someone’ll be listening to Dag Nasty or ALL or Down By Law and they’ll be like, yeah, Smalley was my big influence. If that’s the case down the line, that’d be cool. That’s what you do: you build, you try to make the world a little better and then you check out and give the baton to somebody else.
Also that you’ve done so much with different bands and different sounds,
Yeah, and the thing I love about the bands I’m doing right now, the Bandoleros is slightly on the more rock-ish/punk side and that’s just like a rock kind of thing – definitely still punk, don’t get me wrong, but a little more on the rock side. And Don’t Sleep is definitely more hardcore – melodic hardcore, though, like a Dag Nasty-ish era thing. The new album, I’m so excited by some of the songs. And then the Down By Law stuff is my most heart and soul of who I am after all the layers of the onion are peeled away. So I get to do different stuff and express different sides of myself. Down By Law is the most limitless musically. We’ll do anything. If I wanna put a kazoo on a song, we won’t even think twice about it or whatever. It’s just great. And Sam is such an amazing talent and songwriter. Again, that’s another thing. I know I’m harping on a theme here, but Sam, I get these songs from him. In fact, I have an email from him with four songs he’s written for the next album, and I haven’t even listened to the songs because I know when I do I’m gonna be listening to those songs for three hours straight, starting thinking about vocal melodies, starting with lyrics, because it always, always, always just triggers my best that I have in me. It’s like Christmas for me every time I get a new song from Sam.
One thing I was gonna say was from that interview seven years ago, one of the things you mentioned about the favorite songs you write are when he sends you an idea musically and you write the vocal melody and it just works.
Yeah. That’s pretty much it. For our last album, [All In], Sam wrote I think three-fourths of them exactly that way. He wrote the song and the structure and the guitar parts and then sent them to me. I wrote the vocal melodies, and it’s so great because we have such a great chemistry. It’s really one of the great, I think, partnerships of the punk rock era. Sam and me just have this sort of cool collaboration. You don’t wanna Say Lennon and McCartney because I can’t think of anything else now so I say Lennon-McCartney. It’s just a great thing. And then I wrote a few songs all the way through on that album, but most of them were just Sam working his magic and it’s really cool to have that and to be able to just see that flower and pour a little water over it and watch it bloom.
Like you said, there’s stuff in the works so we can look forward to that.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’ll be Bandoleros, Don’t Sleep, and then Down By Law will probably be out in the late-spring or something like that. And then after that I have to try and actually breathe and then figure out how to tour and support three different bands. I think I can do that, because the difference between now and 1993, Down By Law is not full-time. It’s not all we do in life. Everybody has families and lives and jobs or dogs or whatever it is, you know, you got stuff, so it’s pretty cool we just do a week here or a week there. One weekend, a full week, and another weekend then we’re done. So, you don’t ever get burnt out on it, you’re still having fun. And when it’s time to go home you’re like, “Oh man, I’m still having fun. I don’t wanna go home.” Whereas doing it for six weeks, by the fourth or fifth week you’re exhausted. You wanna get home. But doing it for shorter runs is a good thing.
And you’re established, you can do what you wanna do. [Laughs]
Yeah, pretty much that’s one of the nice things about doing this for a little while. I am excited, I’m doing a solo show in Denver after I do the ALL reunion show in a couple weeks [in November]. So that ALL reunion show is gonna be great, I’m really excited about it, and then I’m doing a solo show in Denver. For the first time doing solo shows I’m gonna have a backdrop and cool lighting and it’s gonna be kind of a thing, so we’ll see if it ends up being as cool as I hope it will be. It involves skulls and skeletons so that’s my teaser. That’s my advertisement for it. So, it should be great.