An interview with Dan Smith of Listener after his show in Chuck’s Basement in St. Louis. Filmed and edited by Emily Kathryn Curry. (Contains clips from live performances of “Building Bridges,” “Wooden Heart,” and “I Don’t Want To Live Forever,” and “You Have Never Lived Because You Have Never Died”)
JOSH: I’m here with Dan Smith from Listener. Thanks for taking some time today, Dan.
DAN: You bet.
JOSH: Let’s start with The Chariot video, that’s where I kinda first learned who you were. So they asked you to do the song with them. Did you write the part yourself, did they ask you to write a specific thing, how did that turn out?
DAN: Yeah I met those guys, I met the lot of them, at Cornerstone Festival 2010, and talked to Josh. He mentioned doing a song with them, and I said, yeah, just let me know, I’d love to do it. We were out on the road from Cornerstone on through September and he emailed me and said, hey, you still wanna do it, and I was like, yeah, we’re in South Dakota, and he just told me to write about Staying the Path, and we were at a festival and I had no time, so I wrote it on the airplane, flying to Atlanta to record. So he just told me what to write about, and he sent me a demo of the song and said it needs to be about this long, and about this, if you could, and go for it.
JOSH: Have you gotten a lot of feedback from that? Have other people found you through that?
DAN: I think so. Yeah, thankfully, it’s been real nice. There’s been a lot of people that have listened to that album, The Chariot album, and thankfully it was a good album. Yeah, it’s an amazing album, so it’s a real blessing to a be a part of that project, and it’s a great album. And we made a video on top of that, which is always nice. It’s available 24 hours a day on the Internet.
JOSH: And you’re playing accordion in that too.
DAN: Yeah, Matt Goldman actually played the accordion. He’s one of the producers and runs the studio we recorded at. He actually played the accordion on the album version and that day somebody asked me, maybe Matt asked me if I wanted to play the accordion and he showed me what buttons to hit, so I did that and walked down the hallway.
JOSH: Now you’ve actually been doing this for awhile. How did you get started writing these poems and recording them, or saying or singing or however you call it?
DAN: I got started just writing a lot of rap music. I was really into writing rap music and rap songs and raps. In junior high and high school I thought that genre was really interesting to me, so I made it a lot, and was in several groups and put out a lot of albums, and did that a lot. And then out of college I was in a project called Deepspace 5. Tooth & Nail put an album out that we made and that led to some touring and we did that, and after awhile I just really got unimpressed by that genre and I just wanted to do something else, and there’s a lot of musics that are more interesting to me to make that express the feelings that I want to make and feel and give out and feel and make, so over the course of several years just sort of moved into a different direction.
JOSH: Last year you put out the Wooden Heart album.
DAN: Yeah, in July.
JOSH: What are some of the songs that mean the most to you?
DAN: Well there’s a song called “Wooden Heart” on the album that we named Wooden Heart that I like. I had a realization at a music festival about some things that I want to write a song about, the idea that we’re all trying to grow towards something. We all are unfinished people trying to grow towards something and trying to grow towards hopefully better lives, and we’re not better. Whatever it is I don’t think there’s anyone that thinks they’re done in life. Everyone’s trying to do better or make something better or put a fence in their backyard, or make a birthday cake for someone’s birthday, or try to do something to better someone else’s life. We’re all unfinished, and we all have pieces missing, and the idea is that hopefully, if we come together with all our broken pieces we’ll be able to make up a whole in some way, so I wanted to write a song about that with “Wooden Heart,” and so that’s one that I like to play. And “I Don’t Want to Live Forever,” I like that song for various reasons. I say things about raccoons and gardening and stuff like that in that one.
JOSH: Is it hard to remember all those words?
DAN: There are a lot of words. I try and remember the words not in the front of my mind but in the back of my mind where I kinda feel they’re in there and I can access them, and feel them come out of my mouth, but I don’t really think about the words that I say. I just have them memorized and try not to think about them because if I start thinking about them, I’ll start messing up. So I can just feel everything out.
EMILY: How do you conjure up the emotion and energy that you have on stage? Does that come natural for you or is it kind of a character that you play? How do you maintain that performance after performance?
DAN: Part of it is playing a lot of shows. When I first started playing shows I was really terrified of playing shows. I was really nervous. And after I while I’ve grown to enjoy playing shows and I like doing it. Part of it was taking off my shoes and I’m really comfortable then. I just want to say the words with all my heart and be as honest as I can. I just try to get out of the way and don’t think about myself and how I look or whatever and just go and do it and give as much of myself as I can.
EMILY: How long does it take you to write a song? Does it all just flow freely, or is it lots of hard thinking, or is it just subconscious like how you memorize in the back of your mind? Are they written that way also in the back of your mind or do you really have to think about it?
DAN: It’s a process. I like to try and be faithful to life as it happens, the process of writing down my life as it happens, and not even specifically my life, but the life that happens around me, or the lines that come to me, or the truths or the lessons that are learned, or the lessons that I see my friends learning, or things that people tell me, or the way things make me feel, certain words, certain lines. I just try and be really faithful to those thoughts that I have and write it down or type it out or put it on my phone or whatever. I used to beat myself up about writing songs and not having a whole bunch of stuffy ready for new albums after we put out an album. I’ve written a lot for our next album, I don’t have finished songs, but I have a lot of starts and lines and things ready to go for that. But I try not to beat myself up about finished products and just let the songs come as they will, cuz I can sit down and write a song and I think it’d be pretty honest, but I just try and collect thoughts and lessons and things and collect a whole bunch of them, and whenever it’s time to sit down and write a song I’ll just do that, because that process is more just editing and putting things together, making complete thoughts and finishing out those thoughts in the way they make me feel, how I remember that time. I’ve done it before where I just try to sit down and write this song about this topic or something that I thought about a month ago or something and it comes out forced and not honest. And the memorization’s another thing, usually at shows if I have a new song I’m trying to work in, I’ll write it out and just kinda read it and get to where I don’t need to do that anymore after a few shows.
JOSH: Anything else you want to leave us with?
DAN: Well, we have a 24 hour Internet website, that is open 24 hours, and the band that I’m the primary lead vocalist for is called Listener, and it’s talk music, and I live in Atlanta, Georgia, now, so that’s about it.
JOSH: And what’s the website address?
DAN: Yeah, it’s 24 hours, iamlistener.com, and that’s dot C-O-M, not dot C-A-L-M, some people go there and that’s not a website.
JOSH: And my last question, how long have you been working on that mustache?
DAN: Well I’ve had this mustache for a year or so now. I had a beard like you have a beard. I had a beard bigger than that (but that’s a great beard). I decided to grow a beard for about a year is what I’m trying to say to you, and I got tired of that or I just didn’t want a beard so I cut it off, and made a music video for the song “Train Song,” and during that song my beard gets smaller. I recorded part and then I cut a bit off, but I kept the mustache and have had that for about a year. The last few months I’ve decided to see how long it’ll grow.