Here's photo of me playing the guitar:
Saturday, December 20, 2014
Here's photo of me playing the guitar:
Monday, August 6, 2012
My new record, Desolation, will be released tomorrow and I figure I should tell you a few things about it:
After producing Happiness myself with a cohort of good friends, I was eager to dive into another album and put everything that I’d just learned to use. The batch of songs I had ready were all a little darker, a little more strange than usual and I felt like it would be a satisfying challenge to attempt the project by myself, to play all the instruments, record it, mix it, lock myself away with it, and see what would happen.
This approach worked really well for me. Because my skills at certain things (mixing, for instance) are brand new, it’s definitely quite imperfect. There are times when it feels really raw, distorted or unbalanced. This was a major battle between my authentic self and the perfectionist in me (that I’ve been slowly trying to kill), and I think that the imperfection of these tracks totally serves the spirit of the songs, probably my most vulnerable batch yet. They gasp. They wriggle and moan. They explode.
I wanted it to be accurate to the shape and structure of certain feelings that have been mentioned in my lyrics that I’m not sure I’ve been able to touch with the production of my last two records. I especially wanted to do my best to paint the sensations of anxiety/panic, grief, anger, worthlessness, nostalgia, regret (and hint at a little hope and peace as well). I think I did pretty well with that. I mean, I feel like this album really is terrified of itself, really hates itself, feels sorry for itself, longs with its whole being for something it doesn’t understand...
- - -
So, why so much focus on these places inside of me that seethe and swarm?
Because, though my music and art has allowed me to inch closer and closer in the last decade, I’ve still spent my whole life running away from them. And every time I flee, they tighten their grip and gain more power. By honoring their existence, by meeting them face to face and allowing them to be seen, heard, and understood, I find that they do eventually stop screaming and lay down to rest for a while. The process of making this album has helped me to ease in beside them (with a little affection even), to fall asleep with these heaps of fangs and claws slumbering at the foot of my bed.
I recorded it throughout winter and spring of 2012 in my bedroom on the east side of LA. I also spent a couple rainy weeks with it in Oakland, in the house I grew up in, just myself and a german shepherd. I allowed these hard sensations to rise as recording sessions spilled from day into night and back into day. I felt the solitude, the regret, the injustice and shame and I let it all stay. I let it pull me down over the canyon rim, down into the darkness, down into cold river that carved everything out in the first place. And because I played every instrument on the album, the whole thing had to flow through me, through these difficult emotions, through my fingers and vocal chords, onto the guitar strings and piano keys, into the microphones...
- - -
The abstract painting I’ve been doing these days influenced the production as well. My process with abstract pieces is usually just an in-the-moment negotiation, a series of changes, then reactions to those changes, and so on... I rarely plan anything out. I instead feel my way though the piece, allowing it to evolve without any pressure, and when I get a sense that it is finally “working,” I put down the brush. I followed this approach as I layered instruments and vocal parts onto these tracks. It was liberating, and a much more enjoyable process than sketching everything out and forcing it into shape.
Finally, it’s been resonating with me recently how our emotions are, in certain ways, much more real than our thoughts. Though our plans, strategies, daydreams, worries, etc, are fundamentally necessary and allow us to survive and evolve, to navigate our lives, to write books, build cities and feed billions, they still are only fantasies, ethereal mists filling the dark space of our unknown futures until the moment of truth crashes in with structure and closure. So often we follow our thoughts as if they are real experiences, so often I’m confused and stressed to exhaustion as I chase these illusions. We carry the burden of our thoughts as a deer carries his antlers - a weight on our heads, a strain on our necks. The flow of our feelings, though, is no fantasy, no projection to another world and time. Our feelings are there, real and tangible in each moment, constantly informing us, advising us, rising and passing through our here and now. They are the mouthpiece of the unconscious. They are the voice of nature herself.
In this way, I think that my focus on feel has made this one of the more genuine pieces of art that I’ve produced. During those long days of recording, I imagined you listening to it alone as well. I pictured you on a dark highway late at night with the windows down to a vast warm plain, or with flakes of snow closing in on you forever and ever.
I do hope you find a good piece of solitude to hear it in. And I hope, of course, that you find it to be of some good use.
All my love,
Friday, April 27, 2012
I’ve told this story before.
It was Summer 2004. I was nineteen and traveling as a roadie, changing guitar strings for The Matches on Warped Tour and picking up slots on little side stages when bands wouldn’t show. We’d driven all night, like most nights, to an amphitheater outside of Chicago. I got my prep work done early that day because I knew that one of my heroes would be joining the tour - Lars Frederiksen from Rancid.
He was there with The Bastards and I watched them alone from the side of the stage, a sea of people stretching out beyond and a massive pit whirlpooling in front of him. They hit ten enormous chords to end the set and as he stormed by me down the ramp, I asked if I could talk to him.
“Give me 5 minutes, man!” he said. But I was already late for work. “I have to go,” I said, “but I just wanted to say, thanks.”
I started to leave, and he called out behind me, “Wait!”
I turned around and he motioned for me to come into the side-stage trailer. I walked to where he was standing and he put his hands on my shoulders, stuck his sweaty tattooed face right down in front of mine and said, “You got something to say to me?”
Tremblingly I went off, spilling about how in the years prior, when happiness had felt like an impossibility, his music helped me through. I stood there with this guy, on the verge of breakdown, and when I stopped talking he was just silent for a long time, eyes blaring into mine beneath this huge mess of spiked hair, until finally, with those heavy hands pressing down into my shoulders, he asked my name...
“Dave,” he said, “You saying that... That saves me... That saves me...”
As much as that meant to hear, part of me thought he was sort of bullshitting me at the time, that it was just some old fashion punk rock solidarity. I mean, it was almost too intense, and he was the guy that wrote the songs that pulled me through... What could I do for him? Though I couldn’t imagine it then, looking back today I know for a fact that he was sincere. I know this because when I hear from someone that the things I’ve created have resonated, that something I’ve shared has been there with them on a dark path, it does save me. It saves me every single time.
Somehow it always happens at just the right moment too. Just when I need it most, there’s a courageous message in my inbox or someone magically recognizes me somewhere. And there’s one consistent piece of feedback that comes with almost every interaction:
And I promise that I won’t. I won’t stop writing songs. And I’m so grateful that I have you to share them with. Making music gives me the faith in myself to push through each hard time, and if life has taught me anything, it’s that a lot of us are facing hard times a lot of the time. I have this Holden Caulfield-esque tendency to want to protect everyone from that cliff’s edge. And I’ve only been realizing recently though, that racing along that precipice, that stumbling and taking the plunge now and then, is fundamental to the anatomy of everyone’s life. Protecting someone from that pain is like chopping a limb from their body, like depriving them of one of their senses. No, we can’t fully protect one another and I’m not sure that we should. But we can be there to help each other along, to dress mutual wounds on the valley floor, to lead one another back up that cliff’s face once again. My battles are your battles, are everyone’s battles. It’s strange, but I’m kind of grateful for the suffering that life slaps us with. I’m grateful because far too often, suffering is the place where we connect.
The past year has been an unintended time of reflection for me. I’ve spent a lot of it alone, working on music and art, wandering through Los Angeles, hiking in the mountains, thinking, reading, working odd jobs... Extroversion has been sort of a challenge and only has come easily in intense bursts. Performing hasn’t made sense in this time and hustling to agents and trying to fill rooms with people, driving all night and constantly having to prove myself to someone new, has especially not fit with the way I’ve been feeling. I find that the deeper I get into my own creative pursuits, the less interested I am in the entertainment business, in this world behind what we used to sort of depend on as musicians, this labyrinth that I spent the first half of my twenties inexorably tangled in. I have just been able to climb free... And I find that the more I come to understand myself, the more comfortable I am with who I really am, the less interested I am in proving anything to the world. The the more risks I’m taking with my art, the less I seem to care about taking risks to capitalize on it.
This is at odds with continuing to make a living with my music and I’m still unsure with what to do about this. Far from any spotlight, I’ve been able to be prolific and inspired, to break boundaries again and again in my own artistic process - here in my little work-space - but getting paid enough to survive as an artist these days still usually hinges on being marketed and being well-known and all of that. I’m not certain where I’m headed now, though for the most part, I’m okay with the mystery. I’m curious to see what happens.
I try to look at life as a story that’s being told to me from moment to moment. The more self aware I become, the more often I can step back and just witness myself, just experience how I act and what I feel in each new situation. I pay attention to how I respond, how I function, how I treat myself, how I treat others. The less judgmental I am towards myself, towards my actions and inactions, my conscious and unconscious choices, the more I can just watch this drama/comedy/tragedy/horror/feel-good-flick unfold before my eyes. I can even sort of enjoy it when it’s painful. I get myself into messes, I make mistakes, there’s conflict, there’s beauty, there’s love, longing, joy, tension, sorrow, anger, adventure, heartbreak, death... Shit, every now and then I even get the girl! It’s a fucking fantastic story, the fundamental human story that we all get to live.
Making music has always helped me to cultivate this observational awareness, to allow me to make sense of my world by turning the abstract within into something concrete that lives in the external world. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have this tool and it’s cool to watch it evolve over time, to pick it apart.
For instance, I was on a walk today and I was thinking about what exactly it is that I do. I decided that there are three main things that I’m interested in. First, I like to construct things via the connections of ideas, sensations, stories, concepts, language, color, texture, music etc... Secondly, I’m interested in telling my story, in being heard and understood. And finally, I’m interested in truth, which to me is this fascinating lens that gives you a different perspective depending on the angle in which you’re looking through it. The sensation of something “feeling” true is exhilarating to me. Sincerity - that simple, subjective, intuitive, human truth - that’s the secret ingredient to any great piece of art.
Within that, emotional accuracy is my current obsession. I’ve pretty much ditched any concept of how I should be feeling for a general fascination with what I’m actually feeling and an examination of it. The album I am currently recording is all about this, product of some anxiety-fueled and heartbroken periods that occurred in patches over the last few years. I mean, my life isn’t all debilitating panic attacks and crushing sorrow, there’s a been a ton of joy and love and happiness (duh) that I’m grateful to have experienced within these times, but I had an albums worth of songs in this realm completed and this has been the appropriate time to collect them together. It’ll be called Desolation, a word that’s always struck me with a beautiful austerity. I’ve been recording it all on my own in my bedroom, so it should be pretty raw, kind of low-fi, kinda clunky, pretty different than anything I’ve done before. I’m excited with how it’s been turning out though and I’m wondering how you all will interact with it. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Friday, March 30, 2012
It doesn’t hit me that It’s an odd place to cry until the barista is gives me a second side-glance. Maybe I’ve been choosing the wrong topics to read about in public - dying, addiction, poverty. I used to feel like I was on the sidelines wherever I’d go, but on nights like tonight I’m not even in the stadium.
Change is slow. The flower unfolding, closing shut. You don’t perceive it until that single instant when the bloom fills your gaze - but there’s a crescendoing process that leads you there, an unconscious ocean weathering the rocks into these monuments of our lives. Acceptance isn’t a celebration, it’s a weary release. I spent the last few years swimming against the current, until one day my legs refused to kick. It took forever to burn out, one thing at a time, but eventually I found myself living in a ruin, in a life without walls, and these chains began to spill off of me. These chains I had never felt or seen until they were clinking down into piles at my feet. I thought I would just fight forever, but something had been shifting below...
I leave the cafe and walk slow, staring into the closing stores and restaurants, chairs on tables, focused servers counting out tips, winged folds of perfect napkins rising from tea cups, dormant til the morning. The little glints of light on everything glass, ceramic, on glossed lips, the flashing strap of a spiked heel, in the eyes of lonely magazine browsers, on shimmering faces folded over sweaty hands.
The thing is, our great men and women aren’t the ones battling for that publicity. The great ones are walking among us, are spending their resources, their energy, to provide their families, their communities, and their own bodies and minds and souls with what is actually needed for human lives to thrive. For the most part, they aren’t dancing through the thoughts of people they don’t know. Yet we raise our admiration to he who tries to fill his insatiable void in the most stylish way, she who suppresses her truest feelings with the freshest attitude, to whoever does the sexiest backflip off the canyon rim. There’s this pain beneath the big personalities. Look at the edges, the white around the iris. There’s this desperation. It is as if you have to earn your acceptance, your worthiness of love, in some elaborate display. Why must we work so hard? How would the world be if these things were thrown free into the bundle with each human life? Could our lives be propelled by genuine purpose? Or allowed to roam free without one?
Passing the long sidewalk window of another cafe, there’s a couple who had been sitting by me while I was reading. Faces break into silent laughter across the pane as they catch me noticing them on another station of a obvious first or second date, the positive surge from their mutual risk of heart is practically burning the place down.
Great love doesn’t need to throw a six figure wedding, doesn’t lean on the weeping violins of a Hollywood score. Great love has dirty hands, is callused from the garden, is all courage and hard work and integrity and a whole lot of reward. These big performances aren’t required. What’s good inside is apparent in your actions and in the peaceful rests between notes. Why the grand display? And that hipster irony of the past decade, the great scoff at sincerity that foams from the mouth of post-modernism - these are acts of violence. It’s the hyping and promoting and selling of an empty space where compassion should dwell, it is a torch to the ingredients of love.
I cross the street too slow and the light changes on me. I jog out of the headlights. A lone car revs past me and the street is quiet again.
I’ll probably always have to live with a little voice telling me I need more, telling me I’ve failed, telling me to go back, to buy into it all again... But a long time ago I started feeling gross selling my music, selling myself, in any way that felt disingenuous. I stopped being able to fully participate in a machine that I no longer believed in, that had left me in harms way again and again until finally I couldn’t get back up and do it again. What do you do as a musician who refuses to go as a musician is supposed to go? I think your actions either innovate and shift the culture, or they cause you to slip through the cracks. I’m doing the latter, but it’s worth it to do what seems right, to brave the path I believe in, even if I keep finding myself further from the crowd, further into the dark and unknown.
A woman speeds up as she walks by me, holding her gaze on the sidewalk. An alley opens to a courtyard of vacant tables and chairs, to a lone waitress sweeping up. She gives me a glance that holds on too long, makes me wonder it's something interesting, or something aversive...
Really, I just want to tell you about how I feel and share some of my stories and convictions. When I do it in the form of a song, it has this extra power to resonate. I’m not going to stop doing that, maybe ever, but I’m going to have to start sending up my flares from a different island. I’ve had my adventures and now I need to figure out how to take care of my life in a way that I deserve, so I can be there emotionally and physically for those I love - including myself. A lot of the dissatisfaction I’ve felt in this line of work has come from my own bullets ricocheting back at me. And I understand why my brothers and sisters die at this age. I’m so tired, but I’m climbing out from beneath the pressure, beneath this boulder field, and it’s hard to imagine someone doing so with the added chains of fame and hardcore addiction slinking around their neck. We live in a society that doesn’t accept that emotional trauma is just as damaging as physical pain, a society that claims insult a separate act to injury. We raise up our tortured youth to watch them writhe on the pedestal. We nurture a mainstream culture that circles around and around the suffering until death arrives, then swoops down to monetize the sorrow.
A pen falls from my pocket as I get my keys out. Its click against the sidewalk offers a salute to the silence, to the rhythm of streetlights looping red and green forever into a lonesome vanishing point. I’ve probably wandered closing-time streets more than anyone I know. It’s hard to twist words around what calls me to these nights, what pulls me through sidewalk crowds or snowy darkness, drives me up the winding mansion-lined lanes or down to the rags of skid row. I can tell you that its shape is in exact opposition to a massive crater I see blasted across the heart of humanity. I can tell you that it reels me in from the realm of the unconditional, from somewhere so safe and accepting, so encouraging of trust, so overflowing with honesty and compassion and vulnerability that it couldn’t possibly exist in this world - in this era. I keep searching though. I keep searching because some part of me demands that it be unearthed, because something tells me it’s the only answer, the only way out.
Friday, December 30, 2011
To pull a weed, you have to know which ones are weeds. When clearing away the decaying piles, you have to know what to keep, what rusted engine part might come in handy one day. You don’t know all of these things perfectly. You do know them better with experience, with study.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
I’ve made a digital booklet of art to go along with the album, check it out here: http://www.davesmallen.com/happiness.html
It is available for pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp: http://davesmallen.bandcamp.com/album/happiness
Or download on iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/happiness/id480259479
Thanks so much to everyone who helped with this project along the way, who inspired it, performed on it, financed it, recorded it, sent words of encouragement, or was simply patient over the years. This record is for you.
All my love,
Monday, October 3, 2011
I leave dinner in Hollywood and start to drive home. I don’t want to be home though. I’m restless and I’m listening to mixes for the new record. I get off at my exit, but keep driving past my house, up and over the hill, right back onto the freeway...
Monday, September 12, 2011
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
There are black widows in the courtyard. There is one in particular, that in the darkest part of dusk crawls through the woven mouth of the drainpipe and hangs in threads spun from leg to leg of a dusty plastic patio chair.
I have a certain appreciation for the thing as I watch her from my room right now, suspended there, a black dot, blacker than the shadows behind, rounded and angled in that perfect stylized black widow way. Certain.
Any day I can climb into a combustible metal shell and allow myself to be projected across some distracted Los Angeles freeway, with all the other cars speeding alongside me, and I won’t think to be afraid. Yesterday though, I got close enough to photograph her, and with a sudden lurch of just an inch in my direction, she had me retreating back against the wall. I couldn’t spend ten minutes consciously sitting within inches of a spider like that, the way I can sit comfortably for a day with 35,000 feet between myself and the earth. It makes me wonder if the fears that should arise from technology aren’t yet woven into us through natural selection, and therefore we’re granted this unnatural tolerance...
I’ve been within mauling distance of a grizzly bear, have stood on a rocking canoe within a few feet of an anaconda, and spiders are always there. I feel like these creatures, however aloof, deliver a hush of awe and fear hatched deeper in the blood, cast back into millennia beyond the curtain of humanity, in something more primal, deeper down in the pit of evolution. They command the respect of their lethal potentialities and the uncertainty of their intentions. I mean, who wants to fuck with a woman that once devoured her mate?
In the immunity of daylight I could destroy her little silk cathedral, but somehow I like watching this thing hang in all her arachnid glory as I write, as the opposing window fills with a final hot orange glow. She tells me to stop and breathe, to come back to my actual life, to all that time that’s slowly being used up, diminishing to an uncertain end. She makes me revel in the sunset that comes with each vanishing day. She reminds me that there’s a black widow suspended beside us wherever we go, however we go, and we must honor it.
* * *
Mixing a song is like walking through this courtyard of black widows. The anxieties awoken in the process of setting the malleable into stone are rooted somewhere in survival. I know what it feels like to be eaten by a metaphoric pack of wolves - the spiteful fingers of harsh critics tapping on keyboards. You can’t please everyone, and some will punish you for it - directly, or worse, by neglect. With each shift in the mix, that second guess flutters through the window. Will this kill me? In preparing the track to be submitted to the mixer, I began to hear things that weren’t there, those phantom spider legs marching up between my jeans and my skin. No longer could I tell if the instruments were even playing in time, in the same key. I had to surrender. I had to trust myself that I had recorded what I intended, had kept the takes that I connected to, that what I was turning in was somehow ready enough to be immortalized.
The mix came back and I’m really happy with it. The anxiety is no longer that something is somehow wrong and will lead to my destruction, but that I have to figure out how to do it again with all I’ve just learned. I’m proud, and I’m lining up someone to master it - then I’ll put it on the internet so you can hear it and have it. No publicity push. I don’t want to enter back into that dynamic now. Why beg a hostile wolf pack for their scraps? I loved making this song - some of you are going to find it useful. It will be ours to share.
I’ll be mixing the rest of the album in a few weeks. I’ll keep you posted.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Everything from that time feels distant, distorted, as if I read it all in a book, or saw it flash by in a movie.
I would sit in the garage of that house my sophomore year, everyone else gone to bed, there on the dusty concrete, singing soft with my guitar, writing my songs, in catharsis, beating those melodies out of the angst of the day. Then after laying awake for hours, trying to crack the codes of lyrics, of the indomitable musical hierarchy, to my roommate’s incessant breathing, I’d finally get back up, mind rushing, and walk out onto the deck to look up into the gaps between the clouds, into the stars, bare feet on splintery wood. Lonesome.
I hadn’t wanted to go to college. I hadn’t put in much effort. All my effort went to making music and going to shows and playing shows and handing out fliers outside of shows at Slims or The Fillmore or at The Oakland Arena. I went to school where my brother went, where it was convenient, and because I felt like it was the right thing to do. I never figured out a major. I mostly took classes that seemed like they could help my music career in one way or another. I wanted that time to disappear into something more meaningful. I hardly allowed it to exist.
On weekends I would drive back to Oakland, the cold little Toyata Tercel that my cousin sold me rattling over the twisting mountain pass. I would go to shows and play shows, and hang out with my friends in bands who understood.
My friend talks about the difference between schooling and education. We both quit but continued to try to be educated in any way we could, to find the lesson in an experience, to be open to being taken to new territories of knowledge and perspective by others. Each of us had trouble being schooled though, being molded by an institutional hand.
The personal statement in my college application had begun, “Music saved my life...” - That was true, but I didn’t know that music was eventually going to try to take my life as well. I’m glad I dropped out and found my own way. But in a sense I want to curse the world for telling us to follow our dreams without giving us a disclaimer: If you’re a troubled person, you’ll still be troubled when you’re holding your wildest dreams.
For a while all of those things I’d hoped for began to light up on cue. On paper, we seemed to be executing what we believed we wanted. Attention, travel, status, excitement, sex, drugs, the high of performance, the all night drives, the label and managers and handlers with all their pressures, the bewilderment of getting paid just to play music. I’ll tell all of those stories eventually.
But I was also there beside the backstage door in Philadelphia, holding a trembling fist of snow to the hives on my face. There, pacing around an abandoned lot in Salt Lake City, stressing on the phone with my lawyer over the details of the contracts that replaced my relationships with old friends. There, my hand clenched by a screaming woman, little more than a stranger, in a Chicago emergency room. There, slamming my fists against a hotel wall, against the steering wheel on the highway, against the side of the van, into my own chest and stomach, terrorizing my bandmates. And I was there, listening to my manager’s answering machine again and again as I paced around that empty Brooklyn apartment, ice caked on the windows, angry and afraid and exhausted and alone for a thousand miles. That’s the spot where I couldn’t resuscitate my dreams, where protecting my own self finally took precedent, where I would have been fully shattered if I hadn’t. That’s when I climbed back down and slowly began to dig through the rubble, to understand where those dreams flared up from in the first place. I haven’t really been able to want it bad enough since then. I haven’t quite been able to re-convince myself that anything beyond the song is that important.
All of those things were bound to happen - if not in that context, then in some other. All of that came from within. Your wishes are the ones that should be careful, before you stagger in with all your baggage and track mud across their clean carpets. My early twenties were spent in this frenzy. I think my late twenties are about recovering and making sense of it all so I can be a real person for the rest of my life.
Some mornings I wake up as the sky is beginning to brighten. I might scrawl something in my notebook if the moon is bright enough to write to, then open my door to the yard and make my way down the concrete path, between the side of the house and the retaining wall. Beyond the darkened blooms of the neighbor’s bougainvillea I’ll see those stars fading over silhouettes of hills and the skyscrapers downtown. I guess I’m young still, but so much has happened since I careened frantically through the hopes of a lonely kid in the middle of a Santa Cruz night. A lifetime has passed, and now everything kind of feels like a dream.