Taylor Goldsmith Talks Reimagining Dawes on Misadventures of Doomscroller

Every musician, if they’re in the business long enough, will pass those creative milestones when they take an unexpected aesthetic detour, maybe even a total sonic U-turn, and release new material that in no way resembles what they did before. Trailblazers like Ry Cooder, in fact, became renowned for changing sounds from album to inventive album. In Dawes bandleader Taylor Goldsmith’s carefully considered opinion, those are the pivotal moments that can wind up defining said performer, and he welcomes them. “I’ve had that thing with artists over the years, where I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just not in the same phase that they’re in,’ but I could tell that they were doing it for the right reasons, and I could never argue with that,” says the 36-year-old, emphatically. And he’s stressing the premise for good reason—it was the tenet that guided the singer-guitarist and his longtime bandmates (bassist Wylie Gelber, keyboardist Lee Pardini, and his brother Griffin Goldsmith on drums) through their jazzy, experimental new eighth album, Misadventures of Doomscroller, which opens on a nearly 10-minute, drum-solo-separated suite dubbed “Someone Else’s Cafe/Doomscroller Tries to Relax” and just gets—like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole—curiouser and curiouser.

“I’m sure there are gonna be some Dawes fans that hear this and say, ‘Take me back to 2015’ or whatever, and that’s welcome,” Goldsmith explains of the seven-track collection, which also boasts the six-minute, machine-gun rhythm “Ghost in the Machine,” a cascading five-minute melody aptly titled “Comes in Waves,” the terse but telling Covid rumination “Joke in There Somewhere” (only 1:38) and an ominous nine-minute coda called “Sound That No One Made/Doomscroller Sunrise,” which nicely ties up the concept record’s subtle pandemic theme. The tunes are delivered in such a casual, almost improvisational style, you almost feel like you’ve stumbled into some basement-club jam session. It’s a whole new Dawes—listeners had better brace for impact.

Veering so far off folk-rocking course might have had something to do with In Real Life, the sharp-hooked seventh solo album from Goldsmith’s wife, singer/songwriter/actress Mandy Moore, which the couple penned together during lockdown (in between filming for her hit TV series, This Is Us; Moore, pregnant with their second, recently canceled the album’s summer support tour over understandable health concerns). But true Dawes fans will probably delight in the change in trajectory, Goldsmith firmly believes. Because as a composer, he’s learned this lesson before, he says, but the pandemic really hammered it home: “The more I’m honest with myself about whatever I want as a creative person—and when I’m making no concessions to what I think someone’s going to want, or what a label might say, or a manager, or a friend—I’m rewarded for it, every single time.” When it comes to potential Dawes numbers, he elaborates, “When I stop thinking, ‘What about the chorus? What about the tempo? What about making sure that it’s only three minutes?’ That stuff’s all fine, and sometimes that feels very true to me, too. When I stopped thinking in this purely ambitious way, then all of a sudden people were applauding it.”

Especially the group’s appreciative imprint, Rounder Records. “When I told them, ‘This is my idea, this is what I want to do,’ I was clenching my teeth,” Goldsmith says with a droll chuckle. “I really didn’t know what they were gonna say. But when they came back and said, ‘We’re onboard! We want to be your home for this!?’ Man, that meant the world to us!” Goldsmith checked in with Paste before heading back out on a co-headlining tour with The Head and the Heart.

Paste: How did this album originate? Listening to it, it feels like you’ve walked in on a loose, limber Ramada Inn band on Singles Night. Uh, in a good way!

Taylor Goldsmith: Ha! Thank you very much, I think! And definitely, a big part of it was born out of me falling in love with jazz, kind of for the first time. I felt like I was pretty late to that party. But our drummer—my brother Griffin—and our piano player, Lee, they’re really accomplished jazz musicians and jazz fans. And Trevor’s the same way, too, our other guitar player—he’s not on this album, but I’m around him all the time, and he’s really informed with jazz stuff. And when we were making Passwords, two Dawes albums ago, for some reason I just got stuck on Speak No Evil, by Wayne Shorter, and I just couldn’t stop listening to it, every day, on the way to the studio. And I would get to the studio and I would ask questions to the guys, like, “How do they think about this?” And “How do they compose chords like this?” And “What does this mean?” So that was the beginning of my education. And then, I was particularly falling in love with this concept with a lot of those jazz records, where there’s just only five songs, sometimes four songs, sometimes six or seven. And I think there’s this expectation—at least in contemporary rock, not really the case in the days of Pink Floyd and Dire Straits—that now, if you have 10 to 12 songs, you have an album. It doesn’t matter if that 10 to 12 is 40 minutes, 50 minutes, or an hour and a half. And I don’t know why that is, and it’s not a rule, but it just felt like one in my brain.

So then I was falling in love with this jazz stuff, and then that was turning into different things. And then coincidentally, we started playing with Phil [Lesh] a lot, and I started understanding a little more how that band would put songs together, and then I started listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock and Frank Zappa. It was all kind of coinciding, it was all happening at the same time. So this relationship I’ve had with the four-and-a-half-minute folkie song with the best lyrics I can write? It’s all still there, but I felt like I wanted to invert it in some way, I wanted it to feel as exciting to me as it did when I was singing those songs on our first album, where it felt like a brand-new thing. Like, back then, I felt like, “I don’t know if I’m capable of executing what I’m setting out to do.” And after awhile—like everybody who’s done something long enough—you feel like, “I can do what I’m supposed to do.” So I think I was falling in love with all of this music because I was like, “I don’t know how to do that. And now I want to try.” So when we went into the studio with this album, there was this feeling of, “I don’t know if I have what it takes to do this. But it’s gonna be a blast.” And it definitely was, and we found our version of, like, rather than economize—which I feel like is such a big part of songwriting and being in a rock and roll band, as in how do you shave off, shave off, and shave off? This was more like, “How much can it handle?” Instead of the fewest ingredients, let’s put the most in, and make sure it still tastes good.

Paste: Given that ingredient metaphor, and the fact that most of the classic jazz albums you were discovering were largely instrumental, how did you divest yourself of, or rethink, one of Dawes’ most signature ingredients—your vocals?

Goldsmith: Well, I felt like, in a way, I don’t want to lose what Dawes is, and I still probably get the most joy from, and I feel the most expressed by, lyric writing, so I didn’t want to lose any of that. I still wanted to write the songs to the best of my ability, and have that still be the gold standard. And then once that song existed, then to start spicing it up. Like, a song like “Everything is Permanent”? That was just a regular old Taylor, four-and-a-half-minute, me-and-my-acoustic-guitar song. And then I thought, “What are ways that we can have the music and the words talk to each other a little more? And what can the lyric handle?” And I think that’s a big part of it—I think you listen to a lot of these certain love songs by anybody, and it would be weird if these love songs just diverted into outer space. And then you listen to the kinds of songs that do divert into outer space, those kinds of lyrics, and it is a particular kind of lyric that can handle that kind of move. It can’t just be a tender love song, it can’t just be a very straight up and down kind of lyric. But that was a big part of it, too, like, “Do I have the kind of words that can handle this?” But anyway in answer to your question, the prioritization of lyric writing never wavered. And I’m always eating the microphone onstage and screaming my head off to cut above our loud-ass band, but on the records, I can be a little bit more dynamic. And with a song like “Someone Else’s Cafe,” the melody is really low, and it can be quieter, and I want to explore that stuff when it feels appropriate. And in the last half of “Someone Else’s Cafe,” when it gets higher and louder, I want to take it there.

Paste: Lyrically, though, you mention being a “product of my time zone … mix CDs and dial tones” and the fact that you “can see the last frontier.” Go on …

Goldsmith: That song, “Everything is Permanent,” was about fascination with this connectivity and our social media. And it started because I was talking to a friend of mine about some crass jokes that old late-night comedians would tell, and back then, there was really no accountability, because whatever the joke was, it would be over the next day. If you saw it, you saw it, and if you didn’t, it was gone. And eventually that leaves the cultural conversation. Like, if Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in 1994, it would still be outrageous. But it would be a lot different, the way it was consumed. There would be nothing viral, and no replaying something five million times, and forcing someone to answer on behalf of it. And there are ways that this phenomenon informs our behavior—what we’ll say in a room with a camera or what we won’t. It’s deeply fascinating to me, that at this moment, where everything feels more transient, where an album-release cycle feels fucking three hours long, if that, while we’re living in this moment of hyper-transience, we’re also living in this moment where everything is permanent. And whatever gets said or done, or captured or recorded? You should just assume it’s never going anywhere. And I think any of us have qualities that we wish weren’t a part of who we were a long time ago. But I feel like now, you aren’t even entitled to that—now it’s like we will answer for who we’ve been since Day One. And in some ways, there’s some real justice to that. But in other ways, it’s terrifying. Not for me, personally, but for us as a culture.

Paste: How did the freedom of your new jazz concept affect your brother? “Ghost in the Machine” is this rat-a-tat R&B rocker, and there’s an onslaught of percussion in “Cafe,” plus an actual drum solo.

Goldsmith: In a way, I felt like, with Griffin and Lee being the jazzers, they were so economical, and so reverent to the song. They always have been. If a song calls for them to do absolutely nothing or just play a few chords here and there, then that’s what they do. You listen to the way Lee plays on something like “St. Augustine at Night,” and it’s very, very little—he’s not always setting out to figure out a moment to blow your mind. And Griffin has that quality, too, and that kind of restraint, and that kind of taste, is rare. And with this music, it was like, “How do we showcase that? How do we let you guys off the leash and let you take it as far as you can, and push it as hard as you can?” So I feel like, in some ways, every single song demands those guys to hit their ceiling. And the same for me as a guitar player and the same for Wylie as a bassist. So of course, there’s a drum solo on the first track, and on “Everything is Permanent,” when it turns into that freaky major/minor thing, Griffin is playing full jazz and wrapping around it in an odd way. I think we have this fire power that many bands don’t have, with what Lee’s capable of, and what Griffin’s capable of, and to some degree what I’m capable of as a guitarist. And Wylie’s a monster bass player, but part of being a monster bass player is knowing how to hold back. I mean, if you put on some of our older records, and you wouldn’t necessarily know that Griffin is capable of what this album shows. And I think that goes for all of us—we were all capable of a lot more.

Paste: Obviously, there’s a narrative you’re following on Doomscroller, and it feels like a concept album. Who is the Doomscroller? You?

Goldsmith: Yeah. The Doomscroller is me, the Doomscroller is all of us, especially at that moment. We recorded it the day after the [2020] elections, it was still pre-vaccine, it was still peak Covid, we were testing before we would go into the studio every two or three days, and we weren’t doing anything outside of recording. We were really trying to keep it locked down, just because no one knew anything back then. Back then, it was like, “Is touring even going to come back? Let’s do whatever we want on our own terms, because we don’t know what the future of our career is.” And then on top of that, everyone is taking any free moment to look at graphs and look at charts, and websites about election predictions—all these things that were out of our control. We were all obsessed with things that we had no agency over, or whatever agency we did have over them, we were already exercising, and there was nothing else we could do. And yet we were addicted to this huge wave of terrifying news, all the time. So a lot of these songs deal with thought that would come up from that kind of behavior, that kind of lifestyle. I mean, I didn’t want to write straight-up Covid songs, because no one wants to think about it or hear about it, at least right now. Maybe in five years, a Covid song may be great and really fascinating. Me, I want to turn to music to hear a fresh thought, or hear something that I’m not experiencing on a daily basis.

Paste: The song “Joke in There Somewhere” even mentions Christmas decorations.

Goldsmith: Yeah. But that song is about Covid, funnily enough. It seems like I’m being a little bit hypocritical, but I wanted to write a song about the feeling of the moment, but I didn’t want to mention it, you know? So the song is more about how fragile our social fabric is, and how when you just gently push up against it, everyone suddenly buys up all the toilet paper, and everyone raids the grocery store. And then guns start selling like crazy. I just feel like there’s a lot about how we all get through the day in this civilized culture that we take for granted. And while Covid was earth-shaking, I think it was also relatively gentle. So that song is about going through your day, and these mundane observations. Because just beneath all that is this poorly held-together house of cards that could come tumbling down at any minute.

Paste: But you’ve been making some pretty sound family decisions. Like your wife, Mandy Moore, just canceling her summer tour in view of her pregnancy. Not an easy choice, but a smart one.

Goldsmith: Yeah. We didn’t want to, but at the same time, it was getting into this territory where we were starting to question if this was the best thing for the unborn baby. And when that becomes the question, it’s like, “You know what? Nothing should come before that, so we should just pause this.” And her fan base was so incredibly understanding—everyone was so supportive. But yeah, you’re in a bus, you’re not sleeping, you’re being shaken by the New Jersey Turnpike or whatever highway you’re on at night. So you’re sleeping very little, and then you wake up to take care of our one-and-a-half-year-old son, who was on the tour with us. And so she was just burning it at five ends at once, and it was like, “If we’re gonna go out again, this could be bad.” And we were having fun onstage, the shows were so much fun. But I’ve never seen her so tired and so overworked. And a tour doesn’t have to be that way, but when you have a kid out there, when you’re not sleeping because of the bus and pregnancy combined? It’s easy for it to not really be tenable.

Paste: Last time we spoke, early during the pandemic, you had happily fallen into the role of stay-at-home dad, while Mandy went into work every day, filming the final season of This Is Us. How did you schedule your composing around that?

Goldsmith: Touring has taught me how to be really good at figuring out how to spend my time. There’s always a book or a movie or a song I can dig into. And then once Gus was born, and she was back at work, with him being around, I didn’t have time for anything else except taking care of the little man. Which is the greatest joy. But I haven’t watched a movie in six months. I’ve watched a little bit here and there, but I have to watch a movie over the course of a few nights. This sounds goofy, but by the time he goes to bed, I’ve tried to prioritize reading—I never want to not be reading a book. And right now I’ve been reading a lot of old stuff, whether I see it referenced in speeches or books or just conversation, whether it’s The Art of War or Confucius, and now I’m reading The Iliad, which is just like a war movie, and I finished The Life of Samuel Johnson, which was cool in that it’s like the birth of the modern biography, in a way. But it’s not stuff that I normally read. I normally read things looking for lines, looking for songs, looking for words, and these books don’t do that. But for some reason, I’m enjoying it. So I guess I’m getting older …

Paste: Reasons to be cheerful these days? In October, Cormac McCarthy is putting out not one, but two new books.

Goldsmith: I heard! I heard! I am very excited about that. And I can’t believe that—I thought he was done. Isn’t he like 86 or something? [Ed.: He just turned 89!] But his Blood Meridian is just one of the greatest books. That’s a top-shelfer, for sure.

Misadventures of Doomscroller
is out now on Rounder Records.

Revisit a 2013 Dawes performance from the Paste archives below.