Status update: Dawes scrolls past the SoCal sound on new album Passwords

Dawes expanded its sound for the new album Passwords, but remains true to its musical
roots. “We never really sat down and said, ‘Let’s make a record that sounds like The Band,’
but whatever you listen to as a kid is just kind of knocking around your head and forms your intuitions as a musician and a songwriter,” says bassist Wylie Gelber (second from right).
Magdalena Wosinska Dawes expanded its sound for the new album Passwords, but remains true to its musical roots. “We never really sat down and said, ‘Let’s make a record that sounds like The Band,’ but whatever you listen to as a kid is just kind of knocking around your head and forms your intuitions as a musician and a songwriter,” says bassist Wylie Gelber (second from right). Magdalena Wosinska

The age of social media is rife with oversharing; dominated by a virtual playground where foodstagrams and political Facebook fights abound—and any semblance of privacy is tenuously maintained by CAPTCHAs and digital passwords.

Los Angeles band Dawes explores this concept on its latest album, Passwords, by examining how the sociopolitical climate and our personal relationships are filtered through social media. “It’s the battle of the passwords, it’s the trumpets on the hill, it’s that constant paranoia, it’s the final fire drill / And if you won’t sing the anthem, they’ll go find someone else who will,” lead singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith delivers in the opening track, “Living In The Future.” “Telescope” details the perspective of a politically disenfranchised trailer park resident through an empathetic lens, and “Feed the Fire” laments the duplicity of a public life when coping with fame.

Bassist Wylie Gelber met Goldsmith in high school when he auditioned for, and ultimately joined, Goldmith’s band, Simon Dawes. After that group disbanded, Gelber and Goldsmith moved forward with a new iteration—Dawes—and recruited Goldsmith’s younger brother, Griffin, to play the drums. Keyboardist Lee Pardini rounds out the band’s current lineup. Upon the release of its 2009 debut, North Hills, Dawes became synonymous with the sound revival of laid-back California rock, yielding comparisons to their self-proclaimed heroes Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

“We obviously all grew up with music that we love and some of that was like, The Band, or Jackson Browne, and all that stuff that we often get compared to, but we also grew up listening to Motown and James Brown and Steely Dan and other stuff that isn’t necessarily California-sounding,” Gelber says. “We were all raised on that kind of music, so it informed the type of musicians that we became.”

While Dawes may not have been able to escape the SoCal label in its early days, the latter half of the group’s output finds them waving goodbye to Laurel Canyon in the rearview. That’s not to say Dawes has lost its essence. Passwords may brim with electronic touches and saxophone runs, but it still places Goldsmith’s signature heart-on-your-sleeve lyricism front and center. “Crack the Case” is a piano-driven meditation on miscommunication: “I wanna call off the calvary, declare no winners or losers and forgive our shared mistakes / You can pick the time and place, maybe that will crack the case.”

Goldsmith writes all of the band’s lyrics, but once the other band members get ahold of the acoustic version and lyrics, they work together to flesh out each piece.

“There’s no sense of what the tempo or what the feel of the song is going to be when he writes it, necessarily, and then when he brings it to us, we all write our own parts for it, which then, in turn, shapes what the song will become,” says Gelber.

As a songwriter, Goldsmith has been know to draw on individual experiences—from heartbreak to professional aspirations—but on Passwords, he inhabits characters and tackles political divides.

“Our [philosophy] has always been that we just have to have trust. …So, for Griffin, you’ve got to trust that he’s gonna know what the good drum part’s gonna be and similarly for Taylor, if that’s the song he wrote, we’ll do our best to make that sentiment known in the song and be okay with it,” says Gelber. “We’ve never really had any songs that he’s brought to us where we’re like, ‘Whoa, man, I don’t think we can relate to that.’ We’re all on the same page. If that’s the song Taylor has in mind, we’re down to go there.”

When recording Passwords, Dawes reunited with musician/producer Jonathan Wilson, who produced the band’s first two albums. During those earlier sessions, Gelber bonded with Wilson over another shared interest: instrument building. Gelber grew up tinkering with tools and building furniture with his dad, and he started building his own bass around the time he met Wilson.

“Any time you see me playing with Dawes, I’ll be playing a bass that I built, for sure, and then a lot of the guitars that Taylor plays are ones I made as well,” says Gelber. “I try to build as much gear for everyone in the band as I can. Everything on stage is generally built by me or modified out; I endlessly tweak everyone’s stuff and try to build things specific to us.”

By teaming up with Wilson for its sixth album, Dawes has come full circle. But that doesn’t mean the guys will stop branching out any time soon.

“The more records we do, we just go in and we’re not afraid to get weirder or stray from the things that people would think that we would do on a record,” Gelber muses. “If we don’t change our own aesthetic, then it’ll get stale for us, and in turn get stale for everyone else. We always try to look at it as the life-long catalog, and if every record sounded like North Hills, I don’t think anyone would listen past record number three.”


Dawes plays The Jefferson Theater Friday, February 8.