Dan Smolla
by Johanna J. Bodde

Interview DAN SMOLLA
April 2004 (by E-mail)   www.dansmolla.com

Dan Smolla, singer-songwriter from Bloomingdale near Chicago, entered my musical life by sending the wittiest promo-kit of all times. The white CD-carton was lettered by himself, complete with friendly Smiley, the disc came already with a marker-penned autograph and Dan explained with much humor why this was the "limited edition" of his second album "Swimming In Wind", it even contained two bonus-tracks. The roughly computer-printed picture next to the song titles was funny too; it needed to be turned around before I understood that Dan was standing up to his knees in a muddy river. And yes, the music appeared to be just as inventive, it didn't take me long to realize we had discovered a new hero! He played ALL instruments himself, giving every song another feeling while drawing from various roots-influences, last but not least he wrote some wonderful poetic lyrics too. It was time to make contact with Dan, by E-mail planning an interview and later also by phone. While talking, I noticed immediately how totally smart he was, not only knowing everything about new and old music, but also being passionate about politics and literature. The late-night phone call was often so interesting that Dan asked curiously: "Is it already getting light there?" He sent me a demo-CD with nineteen great new songs, maybe that's roughly what we can expect from the next album, and maybe it turns out to be quite different. Anyway, I'm looking forward to "Under The Rainbow" and rock on, Dan!

Johanna: Dan, we first heard from you when you sent us copies of yourself-released album "Swimming in Wind". Literally "self-released" indeed, as you had almost no outside help at all, very impressive. Please, tell us something about your way of working, the various steps you take in recording the CD?

Dan: I use a little multi track digital recorder with 16 tracks. I have two basic ways of working, one method for the acoustic based songs and another for the electric guitar songs. For the acoustic songs, I sit in front of my little recorder with a mic on the acoustic and a mic for my singing, start the recorder, and play and sing the song from start to finish. With brand new songs I’ll have the lyrics taped on the mic stand or on the edge of a desk my studio in the cramped corner of my little bedroom. I am a firm believer in the positive nature of creative accidents so contrary to the technical magazines, I don’t plan out how I am going to mic the guitar or anything based on the song. The relationship between the mic and the guitar is more or less based on how well my pants fit me that day, that is, how I happen to be slouching as I sit on my chair and play. After I get a version I like, I add parts. On good days I have a trance sensation and just grab a certain instrument almost blindly, play the part, then grab another one, and everything falls together real fast and before I know it the song is finished. On bad days I labor over everything and think too much and make the song worse with each new part I try to add. So it goes…. The electric method is the same except I usually start by recording a drum pattern on one track with a drum machine. Then I play off that with a guitar. I often do not have lyrics in mind as I write the song and add the different instrument parts. Finally I might isolate a little section maybe a 10 second section or a 55 second section—whatever. And I’ll work on that section for a while, adding horn parts or background vocal parts. Then I mix everything down, go back and maybe change a part and/or make sound level adjustments, mix down again, etc. The last step is mixing it down to a CD and having it mastered.

J: You play all the instruments on the CD yourself. How many instruments can you play in total and how did you learn all of that? I mean, a saxophone for instance, isn't such an easy instrument.

D: Saxophone I started when I was nine years old. I took lessons at school until I was thirteen. The other instruments I taught myself: guitar, harmonica, keyboards, bass, mandolin, and drums.

J: The lyrics of your songs are mostly very poetic. Where do you usually get your inspiration from? I think that the introduction you sent with the CD and also the story on your website, show a great sense of humor. Are you also working on other writings?

D: When the songs do end up poetic my guess is that the content probably had a deep significance for me. I mean, I always try to write good lyrics but those that work are coming from something I feel deeply about. (Not that I can’t write bad lyrics about something that I feel strongly about. ) I wrote two novels a while back which I have shelved indefinitely. I fool around with lyrics all the time, with free writing, all kinds of writing. I love to read and I love to read poetry as well as music lyrics.

J: You have dedicated the album to your father. Do you like to tell us something about him? Did he encourage and inspire you?

D: My Dad inspired me a lot in his way. It took me a while to understand the nature of his strength and his sacrifice for his family. As I matured and realized all he had done despite the fact that we never talked much I felt this very real and detailed understanding of him. He was sick when I was working on this CD and died a little while after I finished it but he saw the dedication and appreciated it. In his last few years, likewise, he had a deep and detailed understanding of me, not through long conversation, but through something like a mystical connection. Also, as I was making "Swimming in Wind", I became firmly committed to speak out against injustice in whatever small ways I was able. My dad served in two wars and worked two jobs his whole life to support his family. I never once heard him mention the sacrifices he made. He simply did it. Meanwhile he never lost this deep, modest but powerful and intense sense of compassion. He always sided with those who were struggling, always seemed to be able to relate to minorities in the U. S. for example, and perhaps because he himself grew up in a large dirt poor family during the Depression and he’d lost his father as a little boy. Whatever the reason, after working virtually every minute of his life, toward the end, the last couple years, he had made enough money to be comfortable, and he still would speak up when watching the TV news, cursing the rich con men and praising outspoken minority politicians. This despite the fact that we lived in what was essentially, an all white, fairly affluent and extremely conservative town. So ironically, as these things were becoming forefront in my own consciousness, these feelings of a connection with these basic ideas which he showed quietly but consistently, I also had begun reading history more in detail, and fiction with a social and compassionate flavor, and reading serious journalism on the not for profit journalism internet sites which seemed so strangely different from the network news both because they covered stories that the network news neglected and because statements were always supported by credible sources. So the title song "Swimming in Wind" is a reference to the fact that we are all sort of swimming up current in this mystery and our actions and observations themselves help to define who we are. My Dad showed me that way, poetically, metaphorically through the example of his life. It’s a lot easier for me to write a song that tries to show compassion than it was for him to risk and sacrifice his life for his country on a year by year, day by day basis, but I understand that simply as the different ways my dad and I express the similar instincts of our souls.

J: I noticed that every track on "Swimming in Wind" has another feeling and makes the listener think of different musical influences. Does that happen naturally or are you working towards a certain sound with a particular song?

D: Well, I love American Music, roots music, Alternative country and music with real feeling and soul--whatever you want to call it, more than anything in the world. Nothing else can give me chills and even send me into trance-like states and penetrate me completely like this music can. So as a little kid, when I was listening to both blues greats as well as what is now called classic rock, these people who could make this transcendent sound and then couple it with words and images that touched me just as deeply, these musicians were, in some sense, intimates of mine at the soul level: I felt absolute connection with their expression. And I liked a large variety of roots type music. So I suppose there are a lot of influences in me, sunk in deep, which come out as they see fit! I don’t try consciously to sound like someone, but at the same time I admit that these influences run deep for me. I DO sometimes consciously put a certain riff in a song or a phrase in a lyric which is a conscious attempt to make an allusion to another song a classic artist or style, a sort of tongue in cheek celebration.

J: Your music radiates this energy and enthusiasm, just like the Paisley Underground-scene had. Did you ever start out in the garage with punk or rock? You stopped playing for a number of years, any particular reason? And what made you pick up the music again, even going on to release CD's?

D: I stopped playing for 10-12 years. I sort of gave up music, or maybe it would be more accurate to say music gave up on me. It’s a cliché now with all the popular psychology books of the last twenty years, but I couldn’t express what was inside me simply because I didn’t know what was inside me. So I spent about10 years learning how to be human, which to me means learning how to be vulnerable. After a long period of this, suddenly, almost over night, songs started pouring out of me all kinds of writing did. Now I much prefer writing songs instead of just writing prose or poetry because song writing is so physical, it necessarily involves the body. Yes I played in countless garage bands as a teenager. I had been really into sports but when I got the bug for rock and roll at about 15 and taught myself guitar, sports were out the window. Playing rock and roll in someone’s garage was the only thing that mattered to me it was sheer ecstasy, sheer joy.

J: On the CD there's one other name, Star Foos co-wrote "Maiden of the Moon" and sang on "Popul Vuh". Who is Star Foos? In one of our E-mails leading up to the interview, you mentioned the name of Jim Roll. We know him here, is he a friend of yours?

D: Jim Roll is a childhood friend of mine and some years back we played in a bar band together. We have talked about recording in the future. Star Foos is my e-girlfriend. She’s a very gifted, natural poet, and I’ve turned a few of her poems into songs.


J: I always like to ask about a couple of my favourite songs on an album. Could you please tell a little more about the backgrounds of "Fields of Hope" and "Shining"?

D: “Fields of Hope” was a song in which I woke up one morning, got a pot of coffee, and decided I was gonna make a rock and roll song. The music part I did very quickly, with no plan, just one instrument after another. And then I didn’t listen to the song for 2-3 months. Then, after watching the movie “A Dry White Season” about apartheid in South Africa in the 70’s, I got the feeling stirred up in me for “Fields of Hope” I was sort of semi-consciously keeping the song in the back of my mind waiting for the right time to use it: I improvised most of the lyrics, kind of just shouting them as loud as I could. The last repeating chorus, “Till al men are free” is a key line/moment from the movie. I think the reason the movie had touched me so deeply is I noticed the exact same sorts of injustices were happening now in different dress. I wrote "Shining" very quickly as well and also as a result of another piece of art. Star showed me the poem “Lady of Shallot” I think I read the Tennyson version and I had never read it before though I knew of the myth. The poem blew me away and I wrote "Shining" the next day or a couple days later.

J: The creative process goes on and on, usually an artist considers his latest work his best, but you also released "Hearts in Traffic", your first album. Is that still available? Much different from "Swimming in Wind"?

D: “Hearts in Traffic” is going to be available again soon, I will have information on my website about it. It is much more stark musically then "Swimming in Wind". Much more of an acoustic album, with a more melancholy feel.

J: At the moment you're working hard on your new album. Could you please tell us something about it already, so we know what we can look forward to?

D: It’s hard to describe something while you are working on it of course. In short, I think “Under the Rainbow” is simultaneously more roots oriented even than “Swimming in Wind” was, and also more experimental.

J: You're living in Bloomingdale, Illinois. Is that a suburb of Chicago? I passed through Chicago a few times by Greyhound bus and I remember driving for at least an hour on big crowded freeways before actually getting into the city, there was a subway line alongside that freeway and we saw a couple of not so great neighbourhoods situated around the bus terminal, which was not so safe either. Now you can tell me about the nice things in the Chicago-area, Dan! Is there an interesting music-scene in Chicago & suburbs?

D: Chicago has a great, diverse music scene. I spent a year in Seattle and so I will make this probably way too simple observation. The original rock music in Chicago tends much more towards clean and even slightly Rootsy and melodic guitar, where as in Seattle I saw a lot of bands playing every heavy distorted(though brilliant too) guitar saw and heard a lot of grunge mixed with progressive rock and jazz. There's quite a few bands from the Chicago area Midwest in general which I kind of grew up with who, though they never had any big record deals, are still musical heroes of mine. (As are many of the brilliant Chicago blues players). Also Chicago, in addition to the music, has a great culture. It is world famous for it's architecture. This is a subject I know nothing about, technically, but I can say this: in twenty years of driving into the city, driving by some of the great old historic buildings and seeing the skyline and driving on Lake Shore Drive where you see giant the endless expanse Lake Michigan on one side and this rich diverse assortment of tall towers and unique shapes on the other is stunning. I'm a person who tends to love natural wonders a bit more than man made ones but I do get a "wow" feeling driving to and through Chicago even after all these years. This probably goes without saying but you also have in Chicago every type of restaurant under the sun, two great major league baseball stadiums (including the very old and beautiful Wrigley Field), all sorts of small eclectic drama and movie theatres, and a huge assortment of museums, bookstores, neighbourhood bars, etc. I live in a suburb, Bloomingdale, not far say 20 miles from Chicago. As is true with a lot of people who live around here, I am always scolding myself for not going to Chicago more often. Bloomingdale itself, in contrast to Chicago, is very quiet. Granted, there is not the world class arrangement of culture here, but there is a fairly small amount of traffic and hustle and bustle. Usually one mentions these things when in the context of "a lack of" so it's worth noting too that Bloomingdale is a safe, clean, quiet neighbourhood with great public libraries in the area.

J: You're obviously interested in politics, as your website has a link to "Dennis Kucinich for President Campaign 2004". It looks like there's going to be another Democratic candidate though. We didn't hear often about Dennis Kucinich, what do you like so much in him, what ideas does he have?

D: I liked Kucinich because he has fought, quite sincerely and seriously and often in extremely unpopular situations for labour rights, for the environment, for civil rights, and for peace his whole career. He has tried to develop a big committee in Congress to study ways in which we could promote peace world wide and of course he is consistently laughed out of the sacred chambers. Kerry is being called by the most sober and serious (and maybe most cynical) journalists (who I read on the internet)--people like Chomsky and writers syndicated by Z net and Throughout etc. Kerry is being called “Bush-lite. ”Meaning he still has plenty of corporate ties and, in the hyper-militaristic atmosphere prevalent in our country at present wouldn’t dare pull a Kucinich and talk openly about peace for the sake of peace. But his is still an important alternative to the Bush administration. The Bush presidency has worked to undo the guts of the protections provided by our Constitution and by the hard work of civil rights leaders and workers as well as union workers for the past seventy plus years. This in addition to the reckless foreign policy of invading Iraq which is now becoming so apparent was not related to fighting terror but was a personal obsession for Bush and his cronies…. And this has done nothing but create worldwide negative energy toward the Untied Sates and this has hardly worked toward making our country safer--which is what the war on terror is supposed to be about. It bothers me to think what further damage will be done to civil rights, labour rights, the environment, and the possibility of other future Iraq type wars if Bush is re-elected. Plus the unemployment rate here whatever spin the Bush administration through the corporate controlled media might try to put on it, is itself something of a natural disaster here. Kerry is smart, creative, willing to talk about complex issues complexly, and appears genuinely interested in helping those in need, and feels the United Nations should be treated with tact, respect, and appropriate humility, honesty, and diplomacy. So, I’d like very much to see Kerry win I think a lot of people could be helped by him winning.

J: The best invention ever is the Internet, I think. Anything that makes contact between people easier is wonderful and then all these possibilities for music. You're also making full use of the Internet for your music, right?

D: The Internet has meant a lot to me from an In die Music perspective. As much as I love live music, I love just as much recorded music. With certain kinds of music, in fact, when it hits me really intensely, I like to just be alone and listen to it on headphones - listen to it over and over in solitude. Much the same way I would enjoy a book that really, really reaches me. The new digital technology explosion allowed for average Joe's like me to build little toy studios very inexpensively. The sound quality will never match a pro set up with an expert engineer. But, the equipment is good enough to allow you a chance to make a recording that will let others listen to it without being distracted by audio problems. I have had a couple critics say for example; this is not absolute pristine pro quality. But lets talk about the music. Most critics just talk about the music. And, many of the smaller radio Stations College and alternative country stations for example, were nice enough to add a song or two to their play lists. (Granted I do send the CD out to be mastered after I mix it and this helps a bunch) The Internet is part of the same democratization process that the affordability of digital home recording is. A person with a computer could conceivably access my music from anywhere in the world. And especially important, since Alternative Country may be more fashionable in Europe right now than in the United States, I can communicate with and exchange with people with like musical interests people who I would likely never have crossed paths with without the Internet. Also, in recent years we have the wonderful phenomenon of the Music Webzine which opens up huge possibilities for discovery and exchange. The many music webzines which focus on Alternative Country, for example, almost by definition have people who are passionate about a certain style and approach to music. So it means a lot to me to know that there is a considerably large relative to what a person in my position would have had access to ten years ago group of passionate, knowledgeable listeners/critics out there who I can be in touch with and who I know for sure will hear my music when it is finished. It does not mean I necessarily sell a lot of CD’s, and it does not guarantee that the people who share my love for roots music will necessarily like what I have done. But it does guarantee a conversation. This did not exist in the past. There is the current style of music being played on the big radio stations and there were the major music magazines that most likely would not even look in the direction of someone not on a major label (doing the latest major label style). So for someone like me, who approaches making the music just because I love to do it, there is suddenly this funhouse of open doors everywhere as a result of the Music Webzines and the online access to College Stations, Alt Country Stations, and other stations that have roots programs. All of this is very much akin to literary writers at the turn of the last century who wanted to write experimentally and saw that the explosion of literary journals - though small in circulation - would allow him or her to be heard by sympathetic minds. It is also akin, I think, to the great creative explosion in theatre from the 30s to the 60s in which so many playwrights felt they couldn't express their stories, instincts, and images completely in Hollywood or Broadway, so, in America we first had off Broadway and then off Broadway: tiny theatres were formed where every type of acting and writing were passionately explored. The multitude of very small record labels couple with the Internet Music push reminds me of the inevitable process that change and art have a way of manifesting regardless.

Interview by Johanna J. Bodde, previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands