The four members of Dawes are sitting in the vestibule of Woodland Studios, a stark black building in East Nashville across from an upscale wine store and a car customization shop known for its massive red logo complete with flaming letters. Owned by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, the place has hosted everyone from Willie Nelson to Elton John for sessions. Today is the last day of recording for Dawes. The Americana rock band recruited Rawlings to produce their still untitled fourth LP, making themselves at home in this neighborhood across the river and on a different metaphorical planet from Music Row. But now, despite all the storied country history, leader Taylor Goldsmith is referencing one controversial and notoriously loquacious rapper.
"It's the R. Kelly philosophy," he laughs to Rolling Stone Country in an exclusive chat, talking about the trap he found himself in when making their previous album, Stories Don't End. The process of recording planned guitar solos started to bum him out — usually, live, he'll just be led by spontaneous flow, but the act of adding overdubs at the end of tracking started to feel unnatural. A little too safe, maybe. "In Trapped in the Closet, there's only one video that isn't a cliffhanger, and R. Kelly says, 'This isn't a cliffhanger.' But your brain is so used to cliffhangers at that point. By creating the comfort zone, I was actually creating an uncomfortable space."
This time, though, the L.A.-based foursome just decided to let everything go — and that meant playing in the studio exactly how they do live. The record, out June 2nd on their own HUB label, will be loose and free, focused more on capturing what Dawes sounds like during a performance, not a tailored session. There's even a track that pushes nine minutes in length, and not by design — they just ended up jamming a little longer than planned.
"It's our most live sounding and most true sounding," Goldsmith says. He's seated around a table with his brother, Griffin, bassist Wylie Gelber and Tay Strathairn, keys, all defrosting from the bitter winter cold outside. It's not exactly what they're used to back home, and it's so icy that Strathairn changes out of a pair of snow boots after he arrives. Everyone, save for Goldsmith, is sporting a little extra five o'clock shadow.
"If you go to a Dawes show," he says, "what you see has always been a little bit beyond what you hear on a record. And for the first time we were like, 'This is a really great example of what we sound like on stage.'"
The band seems comfortable in Nashville. Gelber, ever-crafting (he has a workshop at home and makes his own bass guitars), has taken to a strange habit of wrapping rope around what looks like a cane ("stress relief"), and everyone settled in at a rental bungalow a few minutes away. They've been frequenting local Mexican joint Mas Tacos, eating Italian at City House and singing karaoke at beloved local dive Santa's Pub (mostly Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road").
They're no strangers to the town — they've headlined the famed Ryman Auditorium before — but this is the first time they've recorded an album here. Stories Don't End was made at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville, North Carolina, with Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse), which had them following a similar pattern: rent a house, immerse themselves in work and the local food scene, drown out distractions. But things with King, in more ways than one, were a little more rigid: Their time in Asheville was about laser-focus. Here, they seem more relaxed. They've been seeing friends like country eccentric Jonny Fritz, drinking at local bars and playing table hockey.
The band never says that they were unhappy about how things turned out with King, but they are aware that maybe the resulting album wasn't exactly what people expected of them. "It's much more restrained in a studio kind of way, for better or for worse," Goldsmith says. "I'm sure we'll look back [at Stories Don't End] and say, 'This is a really cool part of our catalogue,' but we wanted to open up with this one and I feel like the best way to do that was to hang out with someone like Dave."
The band has known Rawlings for a while — he's part of a circle of musicians that includes friends like Conor Oberst, and they've jammed onstage before. The fact that he's an artist, and a skilled player, held the heaviest weight in their selection process.
"We were talking to a lot of different producers," Goldsmith says, "and Dave's been a friend for a long time. We always knew him as this incredible musician and this guy that understood songwriting and the particulars of the music sides of things."
The overall aim was to capture a session, not a permanent interpretation of any particular song — molded after how the likes of Neil Young or Bob Dylan might record a piece one way with no real intentions of delivering it to-the-letter live. Goldsmith would sing a take, and they'd capture the whole track, including instrumentals, right then. No time to ponder solos, very little overdubs.
"There wasn't too much time to think, which benefits any musician," says Strathairn. "We had done something before where I had to go and think of a piano part, and that takes away from the spontaneity and life of something. That doesn't really work for us. We're a live band."
The thing about Dawes has always been that they're very focused on their instrumentals. They're the sort of players who practice every single day, and take side gigs, like backing Oberst on his last tour, to keep things sharp. But Stories Don't End wasn't a record that showcased that. There was a slow, bossa nova groove behind many of the tracks, but very little guitar in the forefront, and next to zero unbridled jamming. For this album, the goal was to flip that on its head.
"There was a point [in the recording process] where I thought, 'Oh man, this is a lot of guitar playing,'" Goldsmith says. "But that's a ridiculous thing to even talk about because that's when we are having our best time, just when we're playing, free." Even when it ends up over nine minutes long. Strathairn agrees: "That's why people come to see us play. To see us fucking jamming out."
In the studio, they brought in some background vocalists here and there, and a few local Nashville players — like pedal-steel king and Time Jumper Paul Franklin — but mostly kept things simple. Some new songs can be found on YouTube, from when the band played a string of intimate gigs in California to give them a test drive. There's still no confirmation on which ones will make the cut, but tracks like "Waiting for Your Call" ring more like a sonic continuation of their debut North Hills than Stories Don't End, with rich, mid-tempo beats, loose solos and gauzy harmonies. And "As If by Design" captures a Grateful Dead-style organ groove with echoes of Warren Zevon's tropicali "The Hula Hula Boys" that is easily the most freewheeling thing Dawes have written.
"I think some of the songs are catchier," Goldsmith says hesitantly.
"Catchy," adds Gelber, tying off another knot on his cane, "-esque."