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Interview Wed Jul 01 2015

Dastardly Emerges With a New Sound on "The Hollow"

Eclectic Chicago group Dastardly have drawn us in over the years with their signature Americana sound, laden with plenty of surprises. After a three-year hiatus to refocus and experiment with different genres, Dastardly has released their next full-length album today, The Hollow. Full of cinematic ballads bursting with lyrical expression and lush backdrops, the new material allows Dastardly to assert a new identity, brimming with innovation and an unshakeable confidence. I spoke with the group's frontman, Gabe Liebowitz, regarding their creative process, influences, and their next Chicago appearance.

It's been a while since your last release, so three years. What has been the process in moving forward from your last record to now?

Well, basically what happened was we kind of found ourselves in a rut, we were playing so much and we were touring so much that we didn't have the time to really put effort into evolving our sound and figuring out what we wanted our new album to sound like and also be able to do shows. So there was a point in the summer of 2012 where we decided that we weren't going to tour anymore, I wasn't going to book any more shows, and it was just going to be an open ended writing period. And at that point, we were living together in a coach house in Wicker Park, so what happened was there were three parts of the process.

The first part of the process was that we actually demo'd most of these songs in Garage Band, and we would give the songs arrangements in our living room, essentially, and we would record it and we would demo some production ideas and different arrangement ideas just through Garage Band sort of sharing files, and then after that our bass player, August, moved away, which is why we were in a hurry to get the principle songs recorded. So we recorded the bass and drums over at Chrome Attic Studio in Crystal Lake, we were working with this guy Jon Alivn, who is a really great engineer, and at that process I ended up learning how to be an engineer as well from Jon. He kind of showed me the ropes and I ended up over the course of the year taking some of the ideas that we had made together in the Garage Band sessions and we would just slowly start recording everything that was on the album.

Then there was a third part of the process, once all of the parts were recorded, I spent about 14 or 15 days in the studio with Jon where we basically just worked on production stuff so all of the big sounds that you hear, all of the dreamy soundscapes and everything, we were experimenting with techniques where we were taking audio that we had made of one of our ex-bandmates Joe [Rauen] playing a clarinet and holding a note and we would take that and put it into Abelton and arrange basically keyboard parts from samples of live acoustic instruments like the clarinets and accordions and all of that stuff. So we spent a lot of time finding an acoustic method of creating these more electronic sounds that you hear in records like Beach House, or Kanye's records, or Jamie xx's and things like that. So it was just a very slow process and we spent a lot of time fleshing the songs out and it was certainly lovingly crafted. That ended up taking about two years longer than we expected it would take and we're pretty happy with how it turned out.

I really love it, it's a big departure from your earlier work which mainly had that Americana feel, but everything now, it takes more risks, which I really like. Every song is cinematic in feel, and there are so many different genres that you experiment with too, was that your intention or did it just sort of happen that way during production?

It's interesting, the more you listen to the album, the more a lot of themes, lyrically and also musically, are going to start unpacking. There are a couple of themes that we wanted to spread out through the record, contrast with dark and light and all of this imagery and sounds of traditional American songs like "Nature Boy" and "St. James Infirmary" and having this more dreamy world slowly evolve into a very dark and kind of spooky one. So I for instance, as a songwriter, really love the music of Roy Orbison which I feel is very cinematic and operatic in the sense that he really ramps up his songs from the beginning. He'll be at the lowest range of his voice and in the course of three minutes it will just build and build and grow, so by the end he's just wailing and there's big strings and it's just this totally invigorating feeling.

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For me, I've always been drawn to music like David Bowie and Roxy Music that is a bit more on the theatrical side, and as a writer, I like the idea of being emotionally raw and having those emotional high points where I can kind of build and play with characters. We were definitely all about building moods, whether it was in the arrangement process, or in the process of creating the sounds that were going on the album.

I also wanted to talk about the music video for "The Hollow." For those who haven't seen it yet, it's pretty avant-garde and features dancers in a fantasty world. What was the contept behind this, and was it an assertion of the group's new identity?

I think so. Logan Hall, the director of this video and a lot of our past videos, did a really fantastic job of putting a lot of visuals to what I was hoping people would take from the music itself. So a couple things visually there, my idea was essentially that I'm in this dream world in this forest, and I'm just singing the song into the camera. While that's going on, there are all of these different mood shifts for each section of the song with dancers.

So he took the concept, and also as you said he took an Expressionistic, not really much of a set narrative, and had this phenomenal cast of women and a lot of inspiration from German Expressionism, short films, like Metropolis, so I think for sure, as far as the darkness and also feelings of longing, there are a lot of themes on the record that take place in forests, whether it's a warm, muggy place where nymphs are about and then it can morph into that spooky forest in fairytales where you're not supposed to go after dark and bad shit goes down. So in that sense, too, I think the lighting, there's a David Lynchy sort of feel, that takes different tropes and cliches you might be used to and it's just a bit of a darker, more surreal edge to it. I think visually it does get across a lot of what we are looking for with this new material.

On this album, I love that you included "St. James Infirmary." For people who haven't been to many of your shows, I have heard it several times live so it's cool to see this song on this new album. How do you determine what cover ballads you are going to play and put your unique spin on, and what covers are you looking to add to your repertoire?

Certainly we always like to choose a song that I feel as a singer that I can really connect to, and that also we feel we can do our own spin and arrangement of. So for "St. James Infirmary," specifically, I had heard this version on a Louis Armstrong record that I remember listening to in the car with Sarah [Morgan] and Joe, and we just tried it, and it felt pretty magical, and then it just started fitting into the themes of the back half of our record, so we threw it in there, but we definitely found, and I found as a writer myself, that learning other people's songs and finding your own personal connection and learning how they're crafted is a really great way to learn the songwriting craft and the performing craft in our own sense, so we definitely try to bring those to the table as well.

With this new sound and the emergence of new material and genres, where do you hope Dastardly will take their sound after this record is released?

Well, that's one thing that's really important, when you are releasing your record or your piece of work, it's always best to start working on the next thing, so that you're not hung up on whether you did it right or if people are going to like it, you just gotta kind of keep going. I think that for us moving forward, I'm very interested in continuing with that production style, being very careful and ornate. I'm interested in exploring more of a pop style, so that's my next thing. Ideally for me, it would be exploring that production mentality but with a bit more of a poppy interior, I would say.

Your next Chicago show is July 10, and whenever you put on a show, there are always all of these surprises in store for us. What kind of things will be in store for us this time?

First of all, we're excited, our founding bass player, August Sheehy, who currently lives in New York, is going to be in town for this, so he's going to be playing the show with us. He's been in town for the past 10 days, so we've been doing a lot of rehearsals to get ready. We do have a couple surprises, we have a couple covers that we're excited about that aren't on the record that we've tried out working on this set leading up to the performance. We're going to be playing every single song off the record. We're also planning to have a little cameo from one of our past members, Joe Rauen, who played the banjo and the clarinet on the record, so for some old fans, there are definitely going to be some familiar faces joining us for the new material.

~*~

Dastardly will play Lincoln Hall on Friday, July 10. Tickets for this 21+ show are $10, available in advance or at the door. The show begins at 9pm, and Dastardly is supported by Gold Web and Osha. Lincoln Hall is located at 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., (773) 525-2501.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

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Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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