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“It’s all about how you do it”: Los Angeles-based Dawes embraces Laurel Canyon sensibilities and vintage organs, but new album Stories Don’t End is more forward-thinking than retro-sounding. Photo by Noah Abrams
“It’s all about how you do it”: Los Angeles-based Dawes embraces Laurel Canyon sensibilities and vintage organs, but new album Stories Don’t End is more forward-thinking than retro-sounding. Photo by Noah Abrams

“I don’t think this is our breakout record,” says Tay Strathairn, keyboardist for Americana/rock band Dawes. He’s talking about the group’s recent release, Stories Don’t End. The record is Dawes’ third, but it was their last album, Nothing Is Wrong, that pushed the band into the national spotlight with critical acclaim, exhaustive touring, radio play and TV appearances.

“The weight that’s put on your second or third record, people say, will determine your career. We don’t really feel like that,” says Strathairn. “For us it’s like, we’re going to do this one, and we’re going to tour it, and we’re going to go back and do another one.”

Stories was recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Recording Studio; Strathairn says he gets the rumors about the band moving to WNC, but that it’s not going to happen: “It’s a safe assumption. I don’t know if we could do it for the full year, but it’s a nice place to go to.” And in a bold maneuver, the album had an independent release.

Well, independent-ish. The keys player points out that the band’s management, QPrime, is home to big-name acts like Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Josh Groban, providing the backing and resources, including a huge radio team, to get Dawes’ songs out to the public. And it’s working: Stories tracks like “Just My Luck,” “Most People” and “Hey Lover” are already recognizable.

The choice to go independent was not about creative differences with a label, but “the decision to see if we could do this ourselves,” says Strathairn. “Normally a band our size wouldn’t be able to spend that kind of money for a record. We figured, we’re in a really fortunate spot, so we decided to take a risk.”

But Dawes has more than QPrime’s muscle on its side. The band has songwriter Taylor Goldsmith who crafts lyrics with emotional depth and, simultaneously, pop sensibility beyond his years. “I want to make out all the signs I’ve been ignoring / How the trees reach for the sky or in the length of someone’s hair / Cause when you don’t know where you are going / Any road will take you there,” he sings in “From A Window Seat.” That song premiered at RollingStone.com in advance of the album release. Goldsmith told the publication that, “We just wanted to make sure people saw us as a modern band.”

The term “throwback” gets tossed around a lot, says Strathairn, “so people can pigeon hole the band, so it’s easier to explain what we sound like.” But, “we don’t aim to be throwback-sounding. It’s just rock ‘n’ roll music.” As for frequent comparisons to Jackson Browne, Strathairn suspects that has more to do with Dawes’ performing with Browne than fashioning themselves after him.

As the keyboard player, Strathairn can affect the throwback vs. modern aesthetic depending on what tones he chooses. The Hammond, which makes frequent appearances on Dawes’ songs, has a distinctly ‘70s air. Strathairn bristles a bit at the suggestion that the organ is retro: The electric guitar is never dismissed in that way, he points out. “The Hammond sounds like the Hammond and the piano sounds like the piano: That’s the way it should sound,” says the musician. He chose his instrument based on what best fit the song: “On this last record, we put a lot of effects on the Hammond. Most of the keyboards are Hammond organs,” he says. Most listeners think they’re hearing synthesizers, thus the modernizing of Dawes.

“Sure, the Hammond was used 50-60 years ago, but it’s just as relevant today,” says Strathairn. “It’s all about how you do it.” The musician comes to the band through acting (his father is an actor and, as a kid, he had a role in Eight Men Out — that experience may have proved beneficial last year when Dawes made a cameo on the TV show “Parenthood”) and then jazz. He’s committed to rock, now. Enough so to lug an organ around on tour.

That same sense of commitment can be felt on Stories, even if it isn’t a breakout. From the galloping intro of album opener, “Just Beneath the Surface,” a song that expands into cinematic amplitude and condenses into poignant acumen: “A feather than finds its invisible path as it falls,” to the camp fire warmth and sentimentality of “Someone Will,” with its insight and infectious hook. It’s fully-realized and mature. It’s also wholly Dawes.

“You hear so many bands changing their sound because somebody said they had to, and then they lose themselves,” says Strathairn. “We’re in it for the long haul, not to get that radio hit. That would be awesome, but that’s not our aim.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Dawes with Shovels & Rope
where: The Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, June 11 (9 p.m., $18 advance/$20 day of show. http://theorangepeel.net)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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