We Are Not a Christian Band
An interview with the Danielson Famile's Daniel Smith
By Jillian Steinberger

The Danielson Famile began as Daniel Smith’s senior thesis at Rutgers University. With all his siblings chiming in, Smith received an "A" and promptly turned the top grade into the Danielson Famile’s 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 bandmates—siblings 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 "I’m afraid of sex/I’m not afraid to die," or "The devil sucker-punched you man/The devil kicked you when you were already down."

But Smith’s 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, 2001’s 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 Dan’s 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 Tomorrow’s 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] He’s extremely creative and easy to work with. All the things I’ve read—although I didn't read too much; I chose to get to know him instead—but, I’ve heard people say, "Well, you know, he’s 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 of humor?

Oh yeah, oh yeah, he was a blast. He’s very clear and very honest, and it was refreshing that he wasn’t 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 don’t agree with him. He was just clear with his ideas, but that’s 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 I’ve worked with Kramer, and I really like a lot of things he’s 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. That’s why for Choppin’ Block [the Danielson Famile’s 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 out feel.

Before you 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 Francis—you know, he had that scream.

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say. For me, it becomes a little over-simplified, you know—playing an acoustic guitar and singing high doesn’t 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 don’t know. I used to listen to them a lot.

Did you ever see Nirvana?

I saw Nirvana right before Nevermind came out, in a club in Trenton. I wasn’t 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 incredible.

It's interesting that you like all of these bands and yet you are also Christian.

What do you mean?

You’re a fan of music, but you’ve 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 weren’t raised to "fear the world," if you know what I mean. We weren’t raised in fear. At five years old, I was listening to my parents' Beatles records. I didn’t have to sneak anything in.

It’s not like you’re some simplistic religious person or naïf. You’ve got a lot of theory behind you, you’ve been to school for music theory…

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, in 1995].

I’m finishing up the reissue of the first record—that’s taking up my time right now. I’m not quite sure when that’ll be out, hopefully in late spring [it was recently re-released by Secretly Canadian Records]. And I’m redoing the artwork. Basically, I’m 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 wasn’t 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 me—just in terms of the concept. But now I’m presenting it as that time period, and it’s 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, I’m really excited about that video; it’s incredible. And it will come with the music video of "Headz in the Cloudz."

Also, we’re 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 it’s hysterical, watching this home video stuff. So, I’m putting it all together, and that’ll come along with the reissue. By the 17th hour people are starting to lose it, and that will certainly be the footage that we’ll be pushing.

Technically, you’re supposed to just make sure you’re 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.

That’s pretty wild.

Yeah, so I’m excited about this reissue. I haven’t listened to this album in a long time. It came out in ’95, and we listened to it today and it was really fun. I’m also writing for another record, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen.

Who do you think will produce your next album?

Right now, I’m 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 it’s nice to have outside opinions when I'm also writing the music. Plus you have to lay down the ego. That’s 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 can’t possibly always see the best solution.

You obviously know how to get some good acoustics going. Compass Kids, which was a real critic’s 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 you’ll 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 we’ll just see what happens. Like I said, I’m 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 I’m always fascinated with.

Is that something you studied in school?

No! [laughs] For me it’s a very visual aspect of a song, the structure. EspeciallyI don’t know if this has anything to do with itbut I grew up doing carpentry work with my dad and I’ve 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?

Oh, it’s tough to say. Usually I have two or three projects in mind, and they’re 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 I’m going to want to record in our living room, to really bring some of that flavor into it, which I’m really excited about. Not lo-fi as much as just the feeling of physically being in our living room.

Who lives in your home?

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 I’m thinking now, but those things tend to change.

Did [your wife] Elin come from a spiritual background, too?

Yeah, definitely 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. She’s been musical her whole life, too. She’s 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 weren’t raised with what would seem more like typical protection.

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 don’t necessarily agree with by any means, but there are musical ideas that are brilliant. So, for me I’ve had to grow up because I’ve always known the Lord and I’ve 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 don’t 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 art?

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 music—that 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 can’t 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, I’m always doing my best to check for a small still voice in me. And it’s not even that I have to check in so much as God showing me, "This is great," or "You’ve heard this before," or, "Look, these lyrics, they’re just trying to promote themselves," and that kind of stuff speaks for itself. And in terms of ideas, I’m just trying to check in to that internal voice, and also it goes back to the work put in. I’ve always been very interested in finding combinations of things that create a new thing and also resisting combinations that remind me of other things. That’s one thing that I’ve 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. I’m certainly no genius that could do that, but it’s just something that I’ve always been interested in.

Growing up, did you have a "going astray" time?

Of course, I had my rebellion, and that’s all part of the faith as far as I’m concerned. It was never, "I’m deciding there is no God now." It was never that. It was always, "What can I get away with and why can’t I do these things? What is so wrong with this and this and this?" No matter how wasted I was, it was always—and this was almost the scary part—this very clear whisper of the Lord saying, "I’m still with you." And that was a little scary, to be honest, confirming that I’ll 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 that—I’m just talking about what the heart turns into—I became extremely selfish. And there was a moment where I looked at myself and was extremely embarrassed and didn’t 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 I’m 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 that?

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 I’m honored to have people pay attention to what I do.

What bands was your dad into?

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 Dylan’s 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 priest?

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.

Really? Your mom was a nun?

Yeah, she was a nun and then she left the convent. My parents didn’t 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 it’s all over the world. It’s been called the Pope’s favorite contemporary song, so he’s 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. He’s 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 don’t know. To be honest, I can’t insist enough that we are not a Christian band, and every critic insists that we are.

So, do you think I’ve got you wrong, too?

Well, you haven’t called us a Christian band. It’s the term that I’m against. Spiritually, everything else, everything we’ve talked about is exactly where I stand, but the term "Christian band" is one that I don’t agree with. "Christian music" doesn’t mean anything. As far as I’m concerned, everybody sings what they live for, themselves or a girl or a guy or something. We’re singing what we live for, and it happens to not be very popular, but I maintain that shouldn’t put us into a horrible category. The reason I’m against that category is because I think it implies an exclusivity, and I don’t subscribe to that. Our music is for everyone. First of all, [the term] doesn’t 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, I’m kind of torn. Because certain critics, I think, with certain reviews… I try not to read them but I can’t help it. It’s rare that I’ll read one and say, "Ah-hah, yeah, what a reliefthat came across." I think it’s more common that it’ll 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. I’ve been playing more as Brother Danielson in this tree I made. So I’m playing more, but acoustic-based songs. So we will see. I have some friends in this band Soul Junk in San Diego, and I’d like to do some recording with them out there on the West Coast, so I’m 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. It’s a symbol of the nine fruits of the spirit. I’m bearing the good fruit. Just like all the costumes that we wear, it’s a visual reminder of what we feel is going on in the supernatural world while we are performing. So it doesn’t run any deeper than a visual prop.

Where do you like to play the most? Where have you found the crowds to be the most understanding?

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 haven’t 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… I don’t know… it’s 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.

By support, 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 we’ll do a tour and play shows and it’ll be great and it’ll be fun. And we’ll get to either of those cities and people will be screaming and going crazy, and we’re like, "What? I forgot about this!" People really like it. It is amazing. Yeah, they’re always laughing and smiling.

It seems like your fans are audiophile-type people.

You definitely have certain hardcore music people, but it is also, like, moms, parents. And they’ll bring their little kids. It’ll be, like, people in their 30s and 40s, and they’ll 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 that’s success, when you can draw all kinds of people. It’s hard to know who all the people are, but I do know that everybody seems to be smiling when they talk to us.