Dawes’ American Classic

Sam Jones

Taylor Goldsmith of the L.A. band Dawes is only 26, but he feels as if he’s from a bygone era. “When I hear stuff on the radio,” he says, checking in from a tour stop in Amarillo, “I turn into a grandfather. Why is every song urging 15-year-olds to go to the club and get drunk?” he asks. “Then Kanye will give an interview about how he doesn’t read books. Dude, that’s dangerous! It freaks me out!” He stops himself. “Shit, here I go sounding like an old man again.”

Sounding like a hippie grandfather is a key part of Dawes’s appeal. Over a few short years, Taylor and the band have built an intense, growing fan base precisely because of their dedication to a dated aesthetic: no-frills craftsmanship, big-lunged choruses, and songs about guys with big hearts and bummed-out thoughts. “You might not guess it, but I’m a pretty happy guy,” he says. “Songwriting is a purification process. I put my sadness in the song and send it on its way.” Over two albums, 2009’s North Hills and 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong, the quartet have turned out songs that are built on classic rock. The harmonies are big and plush, the organs hum and wheeze, the guitars swing from pastoral twang to Crazy Horse.

It’s so convincingly classic that a couple of actual rock legends have given Dawes a nod: The Band’s Robbie Robertson invited Taylor to sing on his recent record, How to Become Clairvoyant. And Dawes has a close relationship with Jackson Browne, who sings on the bittersweet, airy rocker “Fire Away.” “I first heard their album on a long car ride, and I said, ‘Oh, shit, this is the shit!’?” Browne remembers. “They’ve listened to everything by folks like Warren Zevon and The Band, but they’ve fashioned their own identity. It feels current and authentic, yet steeped in tradition.”

That vintage sound has found purchase lately with contemporary young bands – the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, Blitzen Trapper – but there’s something different about Dawes’s brand of ’70s rock. It feels natural, unforced, fresh. That’s partly because roots rock is actually kind of new to Taylor, who didn’t pay attention to Bob Dylan or Neil Young until his 20s.

Growing up in Malibu, Taylor and his younger brother Griffin, Dawes’s drummer, were pushed to study music built on knotty, hard-won chops – Steely Dan, Memphis soul, jazz – by their dad, who toured as a singer with Tower of Power. “That ineffable spirit of rock ‘n’ roll just didn’t resonate with him,” says Taylor. But he credits the music of Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and others for pulling him out of a funk after his first band tanked. “That music shaped me,” he says. “I learned perspective, patience, how to become a better person.”

Though the guys are still young – Griffin is 21; bassist Wylie Gelber is 23; pianist Tay Strathairn is 31 – intense touring has turned them into a solid live unit. “It’s kind of like early Bruce Springsteen,” says Browne, who once used Dawes as his backing band, “where that live show is powerful and moving in a way that outpaces the records.”

The Goldsmith brothers are five years apart, and different in temperament (Taylor is pensive, anxious; Griffin is practical, less burdened). But they share a devotion to their craft. Their girlfriends stay in California, so the brothers can focus while touring; neither are big partyers – there’s too much to do. “Sometimes we’ll start feeling pretty good about ourselves, and then we wake up. We’re a blip on the radar compared to guys who have dedicated 40, 50 years to music,” says Taylor. “It’s a constant reminder that I have a lot of work ahead of me – a lot of shit to do – before I can feel like I’ve achieved anything.”

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