The Danielson Famile
began as Daniel Smiths senior thesis at Rutgers
University. With all his siblings chiming in, Smith received
an "A" and promptly turned the top grade into the Danielson
Familes first album, A Prayer for Every Hour.
A handful of albums later, they are a cult phenomenon
and a growing force in the independent music world, receiving
critical praise from numerous music authorities including
Spin and the Village Voice.
At first impression, Daniel
Smith and his bandmatessiblings Andrew, David, Megan,
and Rachel, wife Elin, and friends Chris and Melissa Palladinoæ
might seem an odd choice for cognoscenti recognition.
With deep Christian roots, Daniel Smith frequently peppers
his lyrics with lines that come straight from a tent-revival
meeting. "I love my Lord, I love my Lord, I love my Lord,"
Smith sings on "A No-No" from Tell Another Joke at
the Ol Choppin Block. At other times,
the songs take on a strange air. In a high-pitched voice,
Smith utters such lines as "Im afraid of sex/Im
not afraid to die," or "The devil sucker-punched you man/The
devil kicked you when you were already down."
But Smiths production
and songwriting save these songs from being mere religious
curiosity. An uncanny bazaar of indie-guitar gospel, multitracked
folk, scary lullabies, and twisted psalms, the songs are
self-contained sonic worlds built around highly structured
lyrics and a tight delivery. On their most recent album,
2001s Fetch the Compass Kids (produced by
Steve Albini), skewed, atypical melodies are crammed into
"sing-songy" marching tunes with complex and constantly
changing syncopation, dramatic stop-start rhythms, unexpected
lulls and shifts in tempo, dramatic tone changes, and
startling vocal harmonies. They draw upon toy pianos,
xylophones, bells, handclaps, whistles, flutes, and organ
snaps as well as the more traditional guitar, banjo, violin,
organ, piano, and various drums and percussion. The chorus
of sisters and young wives sings sweetly innocent harmonies
to Brother Dans manic falsetto, which sounds something
like the Pixies Black Francis circa Surfer Rosa,
but a few octaves higher.
Live, the Danielson Famile
are just as distinctive. With the clan clad in white medical
uniforms featuring a blood red heart (a visual reminder
to the audience of the "medicine" they "administer"),
their shows are memorable, unorthodox events, also known
as "healings," featuring Megan and Rachel performing homemade,
synchronized choreography. During solo performances, Daniel
sings from a handcrafted tree.
Gadfly spoke with Daniel
Smith shortly before the reissue of A Prayer for Every
Hour (Secretly Canadian Records) and a performance
at the English music festival All Tomorrows Parties.
Gadfly: Tell me about
working with Steve Albini. They say that he brings
out the best in artists. Do you agree?
Smith: We trusted
him. It was unbelievable. The funniest thing to me is
how people presume he is such a jerk and all this nonsense.
He is one of the nicest guys and so supportive; he is
actually a very gentle man. [laughs] Hes
extremely creative and easy to work with. All the things
Ive readalthough I didn't read too much; I
chose to get to know him insteadbut, Ive heard
people say, "Well, you know, hes supposed to be
the biggest jerk in music." I just think he has a great
sense of humor and likes to challenge certain people who
think they know everything.
He has a great sense
Oh yeah, oh
yeah, he was a blast. Hes very clear and very honest,
and it was refreshing that he wasnt trying to please
anyone. But at the same time I didn't get the impression
that he certainly is going to dislike someone because
they dont agree with him. He was just clear with
his ideas, but thats more on a social level. When
we worked together, he wanted to know what we wanted and
he supported that.
So he listened
to what you wanted to achieve while recording with him,
rather than telling you, "This is what I see."
Oh yeah, he never said,
"This is what I see." He said his job was to put it on
tape and make it sound good. And that is what he did.
He made it sound amazing. He captured exactly what went
on, and for [Fetch the Compass Kids], that is what
I wanted. In the past Ive worked with Kramer, and
I really like a lot of things hes done in the past.
Back in the day, some of his production ideas were very
influential. Just one of his bands, Bongwater, and B.A.L.L.a
lot of bands on Shimmy Disc were very influential to me.
So, you listened
to Bongwater? That surprises me.
Oh yeah, I was
a huge Shimmy Disc fan. Thats why for Choppin
Block [the Danielson Familes 1997 album] I wanted
Kramer to produce, because for that album I had in mind
a "recorded in heaven feel," a very ethereal and spaced
recorded your own music, were you a Steve Albini fan?
Oh yeah, I was
into Big Black and Rapeman and all that stuff.
You get compared to
the Pixies a lot, one of the more famous bands Albini
has produced. Do you agree with the comparisons?
Well, the Pixies
influenced me in terms of songwriting ideas, and then
I always loved the Fat Man screaming [laughs].
I always loved Black Francisyou know, he had that
I dont know. Its
hard for me to say. For me, it becomes a little over-simplified,
you knowplaying an acoustic guitar and singing high
doesnt necessarily mean that. But I guess, it probably
is more than that because we do have a lot of stop-starts,
which I think had some influence with those guys and you
kind of get that dynamic changing of parts. But I dont
know. I used to listen to them a lot.
Did you ever see
I saw Nirvana
right before Nevermind came out, in a club in Trenton.
I wasnt really so into them when I saw that show,
and it was just incredible. It was just the three of them.
I think right before that it was all five of them. I was
disappointed when only three guys came out, but it was
that you like all of these bands and yet you are also
What do you mean?
Youre a fan of
music, but youve got this spiritual or religious
basis in your own music.
To answer that
question, that comment, I think what comes to mind is
that number one, we werent raised to "fear the world,"
if you know what I mean. We werent raised in fear.
At five years old, I was listening to my parents' Beatles
records. I didnt have to sneak anything in.
like youre some simplistic religious person or naïf.
Youve got a lot of
theory behind you, youve been to school for music
Well, not for music. I
went to school for visual arts, but I snuck the music
in under the guise of performance art. It was my senior
thesis, the opening show, the end of my fourth year [which
became the first album, A Prayer for Every Hour,
Im finishing up the
reissue of the first recordthats taking up
my time right now. Im not quite sure when thatll
be out, hopefully in late spring [it was recently re-released
by Secretly Canadian Records]. And Im redoing
the artwork. Basically, Im completing the artwork
so that it presents the original idea, which is more in
line with the original thesis show.
Is Secretly Canadian
giving you more support to do that than your former label
[Tooth & Nail] did?
Well, it wasnt
the label as much as it was our first record, and at the
time it was a little hard to see when I was in the middle
of things what was going on around mejust in terms
of the concept. But now Im presenting it as that
time period, and its also going to come with a CD-ROM
or a DVD of some footage of that original thesis performance,
when we all played at my senior thesis. So, Im really
excited about that video; its incredible. And it
will come with the music video of "Headz in the Cloudz."
Also, were hoping
to include an instructional videokind
of a mock instructional videoof
how to listen to A Prayer for Every Hour, which
is to listen to each track at the beginning of each hour
for 24 hours straight as a therapy session. I have footage
of some college kids who have done that over the years,
and its hysterical, watching this home video stuff.
So, Im putting it all together, and thatll
come along with the reissue. By the 17th hour people are
starting to lose it, and that will certainly be the footage
that well be pushing.
supposed to just make sure youre awake at the beginning
of each hour to listen to the next track. The rest of
that hour you can do what you want. But these people chose
to confine themselves to a room with a video camera and
play instruments and stuff.
Did you know
them or did they do it and then let you know?
No, they just
did it and sent it to me.
Yeah, so Im
excited about this reissue. I havent listened to
this album in a long time. It came out in 95, and
we listened to it today and it was really fun. Im
also writing for another record, but I dont know
when thats going to happen.
Who do you
think will produce your next album?
Right now, Im
thinking myself, especially if we are recording at home.
I really like having Chris [Palladino, keyboardist for
the Danielson Famile] involved in the production because
its nice to have outside opinions when I'm also
writing the music. Plus you have to lay down the ego.
Thats always a very difficult and wonderful process
to set that aside as much as possible. You have a sense
of being protective over these ideas that come out. Yet
at the same time we cant possibly always see the
You obviously know how
to get some good acoustics going. Compass Kids,
which was a real critics darling, had a lot going
on in it. You used a huge variety of instruments. Songs
were multipart, with different types of syncopation and
tempos. Do you think youll be going for that again?
Probably. It just seems
to work itself in. I tend to get bored easily, and it
creeps its way in. Every time I set out to do a very simple
album it never ends up that way. So I have no idea.
I write the songs just
on acoustic guitar. On Compass Kids I was real
excited that Chris, our keyboard player, collaborated
with me on some of the songwriting, and it really brought
a lot of wonderful melody and another perspective in.
And so well just see what happens. Like I said,
Im always writing on my acoustic guitar, and that
tends to carry a lot of other instrumentation in my mind.
Especially percussion and song structure is something
Im always fascinated with.
Is that something
you studied in school?
For me its a very visual aspect of a song, the structure.
dont know if this has anything to do with itbut
I grew up doing carpentry work with my dad and Ive
been building houses with him all through grade school
and high school and summertime and now that is what I
do to make money.
How do you
think your next album will sound different compared to
Compass Kids or your earlier work?
tough to say. Usually I have two or three projects in
mind, and theyre usually in direct reaction to each
other. I group songs and conceptsnot
necessarily conceptual things, but just feels or approaches.
And I feel like this next record Im going to want
to record in our living room, to really bring some of
that flavor into it, which Im really excited about.
Not lo-fi as much as just the feeling of physically being
in our living room.
Who lives in your
Well, my wife and child,
but down the street is my parents house where we
record and practice. We recorded A Prayer for Every
Hour there. So it will be a combination of the basement
over there and the living room there and the living room
and breezeway here. That is what Im thinking now,
but those things tend to change.
Did [your wife]
Elin come from a spiritual background, too?
from a spiritual background and from a Christ-centered
background. I think her parents kind of went through a
similar thing in Norway. The Jesus thing was going through
Europe as well.
We met in Chicago at
Jesus People USA, a commune, after I graduated from college.
I went out there to get away and feed homeless people
and do something good. That was right after I had finished
the first record and was holding on to the cassette tape.
So it was during the early days. Shes been musical
her whole life, too. Shes a great singer and she
fit right in. It was amazing.
So your folks
are into music? Your dad is a musician, right?
Oh yeah, my dad
is a folk gospel songwriter, and he has written 170 folk
gospel songs. And, yes, they are spiritually-based. But
at the same time he was one of the first people to be
bringing his guitar into Catholic masses and playing and
really trying to turn that upside down. He was studying
to be a priest but he left the Catholic Church. The point
is, we werent raised with what would seem more like
Even though your
upbringing was religious, your parents encouraged you
and your siblings to
We were encouraged
well, more than that. We were taught that creativity is
from God, not from the devil, which is unfortunately a
very radical notion in certain circles. We are just not
convinced. In my mind Satan has never invented anything;
he only twists and turns for his selfish purposes.
And yeah, God is the Creator
and that really throws a monkey wrench into a lot of protectionist
thinking and so, therefore, it could be argued and is
absolutely fact (as far as I am concerned) that God made
the Beatles great. Why? Because creativity comes from
the Creator and nothing short of that. So what that means
is, when I listen to Big Black or I listen to Rapeman,
which is a great example of lyrics that I dont necessarily
agree with by any means, but there are musical ideas that
are brilliant. So, for me Ive had to grow up because
Ive always known the Lord and Ive always spoken
with Him, as far back as I can remember. When I listen
to music I have to do some sorting out and take things
that I.... But I think everybody does it, I think everybody
takes things that they like and throws away things they
dont like. So, for me, I just choose to do the work,
and it takes work to sort it out. But at the same time
there are so many goodies out there.
In terms of
In terms of ideas,
in terms of approaches. Bongwater taught me a lot about
music, even though that band was taking a lot of ideas
from previous musicthat was a place where I could
leap to and jump from
from there into the Incredible
String Band or something. But I have to do the work and
I cant be afraid. There is nothing to be afraid
of. I think fear is what it all comes down to. Are we
taught to fear, or are we taught to explore with confidence?
I know for me,
Im always doing my best to check for a small still
voice in me. And its not even that I have to check
in so much as God showing me, "This is great," or "Youve
heard this before," or, "Look, these lyrics, theyre
just trying to promote themselves," and that kind of stuff
speaks for itself. And in terms of ideas, Im just
trying to check in to that internal voice, and also it
goes back to the work put in. Ive always been very
interested in finding combinations of things that create
a new thing and also resisting combinations that remind
me of other things. Thats one thing that Ive
tried to develop a sensitivity towards, recognizing certain
chords put together that remind me of a song and then
resisting that and using that resistance as a tool to
find a song that really is completely fresh.
Or maybe I want
to reference something, but the point is to try to develop
that sensitivity, to try to listen to as much music as
possible and build that library up. Im certainly
no genius that could do that, but its just something
that Ive always been interested in.
Growing up, did you
have a "going astray" time?
Of course, I
had my rebellion, and thats all part of the faith
as far as Im concerned. It was never, "Im
deciding there is no God now." It was never that. It was
always, "What can I get away with and why cant I
do these things? What is so wrong with this and this and
this?" No matter how wasted I was, it was alwaysand
this was almost the scary partthis very clear whisper
of the Lord saying, "Im still with you." And that
was a little scary, to be honest, confirming that Ill
never be alone, no matter what I do.
So in the midst of that,
once I realized that
. Actually, what for me was
a great realization that kind of shook me up was that
through various, uh, just kind of partying and things
like thatIm just talking about what the heart
turns intoI became extremely selfish. And there
was a moment where I looked at myself and was extremely
embarrassed and didnt even know who I was anymore
because I had become so self-absorbed and really a self-worshiper,
and that is the opposite of what Im called to be.
We are all called to be here for each other, for others,
and to give instead of to constantly be looking at what
everyone should be doing for us. And that was the great
awakening, and that was really like the beginning of that
last year in college, and that is where all the artwork
kind of came from, and all the songs
Was that the
purpose of your final thesis project, to work through
Yeah, it all
just exploded from that moment, and that was the beginning
of that year.
So getting involved
in the creative process transformed your lifestyle?
Well, yeah. I
found what I was here for, and boy, was that satisfying.
At least it was satisfying for a moment, until I realized
that I still had to work a day job. [laughs] No,
it has actually been incredible, and Im honored
to have people pay attention to what I do.
What bands was your
He was part of
the folk movement so I think he was even more into, well,
Bob Dylan, of course. I think everybody was into Bob Dylan.
I grew up on Bob Dylans gospel albums, Slow Train
Coming, Saved, and A Shot of Love, in
the late seventies when Dylan went through that Jesus
thing. I grew up in the middle of what was called the
Jesus movement. You had this certain crowd of hippies
that decided to stop doing drugs and get into Jesus.
That is what
your dad and mom were like?
Well, they were
a little bit older than that crowd. My dad was in the
priesthood for seven years, studying philosophy and theology,
and then he left the priesthood.
Was your dad an ordained
No. He never
became a priest. He left and started teaching high school
and kept getting fired for teaching Jesus in Catholic
schools, which is funny, and then my mom was a nun.
mom was a nun?
Yeah, she was
a nun and then she left the convent. My parents didnt
know each other at the time. So we come from a very amazing
background [of freethinking Christians]. She left the
convent and became a schoolteacher as well, and then they
met taking evening classes in college.
In the priesthood, my dad
learned how to play the guitar because he said it was
so lonely there, and so he played guitar and started writing
songs. Apparently they were supposed to be in bed early,
so he would write songs in the closet, and he has been
writing songs ever since. He wrote a song, "Our God Reigns,"
and its all over the world. Its been called
the Popes favorite contemporary song, so hes
had his share of success in his own right. But the main
point is that he has never been absorbed by the Christian
music scene. Hes been rejected because he is just
so radical in his theology and his thinking. He has always
been in the underground, which is good.
Do you think the
critics are doing a good job of understanding where you
guys are coming from and understanding your music?
I dont know. To be
honest, I cant insist enough that we are not a Christian
band, and every critic insists that we are.
So, do you
think Ive got you wrong, too?
Well, you havent
called us a Christian band. Its the term that Im
against. Spiritually, everything else, everything weve
talked about is exactly where I stand, but the term "Christian
band" is one that I dont agree with. "Christian
music" doesnt mean anything. As far as Im
concerned, everybody sings what they live for, themselves
or a girl or a guy or something. Were singing what
we live for, and it happens to not be very popular, but
I maintain that shouldnt put us into a horrible
category. The reason Im against that category is
because I think it implies an exclusivity, and I dont
subscribe to that. Our music is for everyone. First of
all, [the term] doesnt describe anything about the
music, and number two, I think it implies something that
is not true about my intention. My intention is that we
make music for people, but in terms of the press, Im
kind of torn. Because certain critics, I think, with certain
I try not to read them but I cant
help it. Its rare that Ill read one and say,
"Ah-hah, yeah, what a reliefthat
came across." I think its more common that itll
be like, "What? Why did they get hung up on that?"
How did you like playing
for the band Low?
We loved it,
we loved it. We had a great time. I really want to tour
again, but it is just really hard to get the whole family
out. Ive been playing more as Brother Danielson
in this tree I made. So Im playing more, but acoustic-based
songs. So we will see. I have some friends in this band
Soul Junk in San Diego, and Id like to do some recording
with them out there on the West Coast, so Im thinking
of setting up a little tour with that.
Can you tell me
anything about the tree? How did it come about and what
does it mean? You sing in it, right?
Yeah, I sing
inside the trunk. My body is inside the trunk of the tree,
and it is a nine-foot, nine-fruit tree. Its a symbol
of the nine fruits of the spirit. Im bearing the
good fruit. Just like all the costumes that we wear, its
a visual reminder of what we feel is going on in the supernatural
world while we are performing. So it doesnt run
any deeper than a visual prop.
Where do you like to
play the most? Where have you found the crowds to be the
New York and San Francisco.
Yeah. New York and San Francisco are probably the biggest
supporters of our music. Chicago is really good to us.
Athens, Georgia, is really good to us. We havent
been out touring so many times, but those are the cities
that have been most consistent. Boston, for instance,
is supportive, but it is still kind of
its just, in certain cities you never
know who is going to come out, I guess. It just
seems like "music towns" seem to embrace us more. I guess
because there is a wider range of musical tastes there.
do you mean that more people come to the shows?
Go to shows
and actually know the songs, and just be into it. Like
I said, New York and San Francisco, because well
do a tour and play shows and itll be great and itll
be fun. And well get to either of those cities and
people will be screaming and going crazy, and were
like, "What? I forgot about this!" People really like
it. It is amazing. Yeah, theyre always laughing
It seems like
your fans are audiophile-type people.
You definitely have certain
hardcore music people, but it is also, like, moms, parents.
And theyll bring their little kids. Itll be,
like, people in their 30s and 40s, and theyll bring
their kids who are 5 to 12 and the kids know all the songs.
It is a really wonderful collection of people, and I think
to me thats success, when you can draw all kinds
of people. Its hard to know who all the people are,
but I do know that everybody seems to be smiling when
they talk to us.