One of the members of hip hop supergroup Deepspace 5, Dan Smith - aka Listener - has a band of his own as a side project, which recently released an album called Wooden Heart. Smith recently talked to JFH's Scott Fryberger about the new album, as well as a little about his music and poetry, touring, and getting groceries with his mom...
This interview took place in October, 2010.
Jesus freak Hideout (Scott Fryberger): Does your stage name have any special significance?
Whenever I started using the name Listener for the things that I do, at the time I was making hip hop music, I was younger and in high school and stuff, and everyone had to have a rap name of course. I wanted something that was kinda humble, 'cause there's a lot of rap names that are not, and I've always kinda been the anti-everything almost. So, I picked that one, and so for a few years there I used Listener as just the name for myself, but for the past five years now I haven't used it as just myself, I've just used that as a band name. I mean, I'm a part of Deepspace 5 and there I am known as Listener, but it's been kinda silly to give myself a band's name. So I haven't really used that as a stage name for about five years now. What I've done as a band we've just been calling Listener, and I've got different friends come along on different tours and we've recorded together; different drummers and guitar players, and we've just been the band Listener out on tour and on record. That's kind of a long answer, I guess.
JFH (Scott): Who are some of your influences?
Dan: There's a lot of bands that I like and am probably influenced by. I actually like all kinds of different bands and music. As far as the things that influence me band-wise at least, I really like a band called As Cities Burn, a band called Why?... There's a lot of great songwriters. I like a lot of folk music. Since I'm a words guy, I like really good songwriting. I like the band Brand New, AA Bondy. There are so many that have really come and gone. I really like Arcade Fire, they just put out a new record. There are some bands that come and go, and some that just pop into my radar and they're interesting for a while and then kinda go. But I really like instrumental music like Explosions in the Sky and Sigur Ros, they're really interesting to me. I always bought their records when they came out. I don't know, I like watching good movies and building furniture and designing things and touring. My life's lapsed a few years, there's been so much touring, and that's really affected the way I write and the things that I write about, since I'm with people constantly, and it has been that way.
JFH (Scott): So lots of things influence your writing.
Dan: Yeah, I mean, I've never really been the type that's only influenced by music. I mean, early on when I first started making music, my thing was rap. Like in junior high and high school, I just loved it, but I kinda fell out of interest with that a while ago. (Dan's mom: We're gonna look for the no-name brand.) Okay, no-name brand. Right now we're looking for no-name brand pumpkin pie. Just thought I'd let you know.
JFH (Scott): Oh thank you! I feel like I'm on the adventure with you now.
Dan: Well we're shopping. We got cat food, we got an air filter and dog treats. And now we're looking for baking supplies.
JFH (Scott): That's awesome haha. Now, I wanna talk about your latest album, Wooden Heart. I love it. I love that album so much.
Dan: Thanks Scott!
JFH (Scott): Yeah, it's so good. Do you have any favorite tracks from that album?
Dan: Yeah, there are several from that album that I really love performing. For instance... oh sorry, we're getting some coconut extract here. Anyways, "Wooden Heart" has kinda turned out to be my favorite song to perform, and we've had a really good reception to that song specifically. It's been great playing that song and putting it out there. "You Were A House On Fire" has been a really fun song to play. When I say "fun," I guess I mean it's really meaningful. It's been touching both performing it and kinda feeling it out. And maybe "Falling In Love With Glaciers" has been really awesome to play. I don't know, I like the whole record. And literally about two weeks ago, we just got off tour. We were on tour for six months playing those songs. So it's all still really fresh on my mind.
JFH (Scott): I'm glad you mentioned the song "Wooden Heart," 'cause that's my favorite song from that album. It speaks a lot.
Dan: Thanks man. Yeah it's been really touching. There's a song that I recorded maybe about seven or eight years ago called "Train Song," it's on Whispermoon, my first solo album. And that song specifically really changed my mind about what I wanted to write about, who I wanted to write for, and stylistically, and just really my whole outlook on life and music. And I just kinda wanted to do away with genre specifications and just write from my heart for people. And ["Wooden Heart"] is specifically from that, and really all the songs on the record are. But yeah "Wooden Heart" is one of my favorites as well.
JFH (Scott): "Train Song" was like the first song of yours that I really jammed to. It's good.
Dan: Thanks man.
JFH (Scott): You mentioned you were just on tour. Do you have any other tours coming up?
Dan: Yeah, we leave for tour again pretty soon, a tour of the west coast. We did six months everywhere pretty much east of the Rockies, like twice. We did some of southern Ontario twice, and all of the United States for the most part except for like a column of western states. And so we're leaving on November 10 again for about a month and a half for another tour of just the western states. That's when we'll leave next, and then I don't really have next year planned out too much, but we're starting to kinda plan out for that. We might tour with this band called The Chariot. I mean, who knows if we'll actually do that? But we've talked about that a little bit, so there's a vague possibility that we might do that. Have you ever heard of that band before?
JFH (Scott): The Chariot? Yes I have.
Dan: I recorded a song with them for their new record [Long Live] a few weeks ago before they left for their tour that they're on right now. So we talked a little bit about possibly touring together, maybe in the spring.
JFH (Scott): That would be a sweet tour.
Dan: Yeah man.
JFH (Scott): Now, some of the songs from Wooden Heart are from an earlier record of yours called Not Waving, Drowning. What made you want to revisit those poems and give them a new and fresh sound?
Dan: Yeah, Not Waving, Drowning was... well, we only made 500 copies of that poetry book. And it was just kinda like a preview. We essentially just made it for Cornerstone. For Cornerstone and for the tour we did that summer. So it was just a preview, like these are some poems, these are some of the things I'm writing, but not necessarily finished songs in any way. But just to put something together like that, 'cause a lot of people were asking me about it, like "What are you writing? We'd love to just read your poems and hear them recorded." So it wasn't really intended to be like an album album, it was just intended be like kind of a view into what was going on. Just a poetry record. And so a lot of the songs that I was working on for Wooden Heart were kinda in that process. Some of them are re-written a little bit, and I wrote more songs to add to it. But that was kinda the view, that we'd make some of those poems from Not Waving, Drowning into actual songs.
JFH (Scott): Do you prefer doing poetry or your newer style?
Dan: I prefer doing both. It's one of those things where... I kinda don't really know how to sing and play guitar. I mean, I guess I could do both of those things a little bit, but I'm terrible at them. So whenever I'm writing or trying out a new song, the only option or the only way I really know how is to memorize and say it as a poem. And so that's kinda how all Listener songs really start out. In between some songs at shows, I might just say a new song or two during a set. I just memorize it and try to figure it out. I don't know, I like them both. I would rather go on tour and play our songs as songs, and actually write full songs with full movements, 'cause I like going to concerts that are moving and musical and lyrical and just kind of a full experience. So, I like making albums as full pieces with drums and guitars and production and bass and even added production like washing machines and whatever else we dream up, and just put in the poems that I write wherever that fits in those movements. I mentioned earlier that I really like instrumental music. I like it for its builds, and you can really feel the emotion of what they're writing even without any words. So it's just making good music and having good lyrics and just smashing them together. Not in the avant garde way, but in a way that makes sense. That's kinda the goal a little bit. So I can definitely just say all our songs just as poems if I just go on a solo tour. But on this last tour, I have an electric bass, and Chris [Nelson] plays a couple different guitars, acoustic and electric, and we got the washing machine and horns. There's just two of us that tour right now. It seems like a long answer, but songs always start out as poems, but I don't know, if someone said "Well do you wanna make a poetry album, or a regular Listener album?" I would probably say that I'd work really hard and make a regular Listener album. But also, with Wooden Heart, we took all the songs and I just said them as poems as well, just because I like poems. So we just gave that option, 'cause a lot of people have definitely gravitated toward the poems as well. So we just kinda gave both of those options.
JFH (Scott): Did you always record two different versions of your songs, or is that a new thing for you?
Dan: That's kinda just started recently, out of wanting to memorize the words as much as possible, even to the point where I don't really have to think about the words, I just kinda field them out 'cause they're in my brain. So I just say them a lot. I just started wanting to do both, so yeah, it's a newer thing. The past couple years maybe.
JFH (Scott): Aside from the Listener band and Deepspace 5, are there any other groups that you've worked with?
Dan: I mentioned the whole The Chariot thing, recording on their new record. iAnd we also made a musc video for that album, but I'm not a part of that band by any stretch. But those are the only things that I've been working with. But there's a couple other projects I've been talking about working with, but most of what we've been focusing our efforts on are just being on tour and putting out Wooden Heart lately. We have about three music videos we're gonna be recording in the coming months for Wooden Heart. We have one that should be released any day now, very soon, for "Falling In Love With Glaciers." We shot that one in Gary, Indiana. But that's kinda the only thing aside from touring. Touring and making music videos I think is what we have next.
JFH (Scott): How long did it take you to work on Wooden Heart?
Dan: The writing of the words has been from words I've written over the past two or three years. The music is almost the same. Some of the songs we wrote kinda in post-production. But once we started to record the album, we spent two weeks in Huntington Beach, California, doing the first bit of recording. And then we spent two weeks in Las Vegas, Nevada, recording. So the pre-production in total was about a month of writing and recording the music parts and the drum parts. Chris makes all the music and stuff for Listener for the most part. Maybe about 95% of it... 98% of it maybe haha. Sometimes I'll do some music stuff, if it's in my skill set anyways. So yeah, maybe a month figuring some stuff out, and then we play a lot of songs live for a couple months, and then go back through. Actually, on the beginning of this tour, about the first two months, we did all the final recording and all the final vocals and stuff. I don't know, I mean it took a while. It was just kinda on and off. We definitely spent one month in a studio recording it, and then we actually took recording equipment with us on tour, and then we just set up in a basement or wherever we're staying that night after playing a show. We recorded vocals for three days in a big photography studio in Cincinnati. Just different random places we'd record. Then we mixed it on tour, sent it in and had it for Cornerstone [Festival]. (Scott: Lots of prep work.) Yeah. Well, we wanted it to be something we're proud of. Return To Struggleville was the album that was out before this, and we kinda did it twice. It was a lot of remixes of Ozark Empire songs, and we put out that album in 2005 and almost immediately started touring with friends and started touring Listener as a band. And so since we were already playing those songs, we wanted to embody what we were doing. So we really quickly recorded the songs we were playing and it just wasn't very good quality - the packaging and everything. We just wanted to put it out quickly, and for a while we just kept selling out of them. So we finally decided to quit pressing that album, and go in and re-record anything we're not happy with, I redid all the vocals for that album. We redid all the artwork, packaging, and everything else and made it an actual, proper release. We teamed up with this record label out of South Carolina called Homemade Genius and put that record out. So from the memory of that project, we thought "Well, let's never do that again" as far as putting out something that we're not completely happy with.
JFH (Scott): Alright man, that's all I've got. Would you like to add anything else?
Dan: Uh...what do you do for a living?
JFH (Scott): I'm a supervisor at Toys R Us.
Dan: Okay, that sounds pretty good. I remember going to Toys R Us when I was younger, not very many times, though. I think my parents would kinda bring me there and just show me some toys, but I never really got any haha. But I remember it being a fun experience, like "Yes! Toys R Us! Awesome!" But I never really got to buy anything from there. But yeah, that was something I wanted to ask you for a while, but we kept shopping at Wal-Mart here. But as far as the interview goes and saying one last thing, I don't know. I don't really have anything extra to say. It was a really good interview, and you asked really nice questions. But, I don't know, I really like making music and putting it all together and touring and stuff. It's been a blast, and a real blessing to be able to tour and do it for a living and be on the road and make music and to have a vision for it above and beyond the things I had visions for when I was younger. And it's been an interesting process to go from being in front of kind of a close-minded genre experience, but still keeping kind of a poetry background with my vocals. But also, you know, a lot of fans have come along for this new experience on these last couple records. And out of necessity, our goal was to not have anything to do with rap music or hip hop or any other branding or anything. So we came up with a new name, and we're just trying to call it "talk music" and people have kinda latched on to that. But yeah, our goals have been to just make music kinda for everybody, and words that would kinda move, not really the masses by any means, but just something anti-any specific genre. A lot of guys are in genres, and I've seen it all across the board, and sometimes it can be devoid of heart. It'll be interesting, like "Oh yeah, that's the latest and greatest thing in that genre, it sounds really like that genre," but it's not really that visionary or moving sometimes. Anyway, those are my two cents.
Listener's new EP, Wooden Heart is available now at Listener.Bandcamp.com.