Hooks ‘N’ You: Dave Dill, “Follow the Summer”

Written by Hooks 'N' You, Music

Dave Dill

Pity the publicist who offers up an exaggerated sense of their artist’s sound.

I’ve been offering up some semblance of music criticism since I was a senior in high school (Great Bridge HS, class of ’87, thank you very much), and believe me when I tell you that there’s nothing worse than getting a press release which trumpets an artist as sounding like one thing, only to find upon listening to said artist that, although you can kinda-sorta hear the comparisons that’ve been cited, you’re feeling like a grade-A sucker for falling for a bunch of hype.

Dave Dill‘s publicist, however, wisely let other people do the heavy lifting for her, sending out an E-mail which consisted predominantly of a review of Dave’s latest album, Follow the Summer, by Jack Rabid, the man behind The Big Takeover…and what a review it was:

Dave Dill

I seem to be getting a lot of solo guys recording alone this issue, but fortunately there’s talent involved. This is Cranston, RI native Dill’s fifth such LP, and a writer at Absolute Powerpop compared Dill to Brian Wilson, his backing Wondermints, and Jon Brion—three L.A. luminaries that popped into my head (maybe a little Emitt Rhodes post Merry-Go-Round, too). But there’s also tincey bits of the four horsemen, Beatles, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren, and Big Star—if they’d been recording cheery, feel-good, mellow soft-psych pop with Wilson circa 20/20, instead. There’s also three songs, interestingly enough, co-written with Derek Holt of ’70s Brits Climax Blues Band. Dill’s voice, though, reminds of Gerry Rafferty of Steelers’ Wheel and solo, only more harmonies-driven. Very pleasant little disc!

Wow.

I’ve read a lot of reviews in my time, but there have been precious few which have captured my curiosity quite as much as this one. Granted, Jack’s been known to exercise hyperbole on occasion, but he’s also just as capable of dismissing a record with a few withering words. Reading this, therefore, was enough to inspire me to request a copy of the disc, and, man, am I glad that I did. As soon as I slipped Follow the Summer into the CD player, I was smitten…so much so that I proceeded to go buy his preceding two albums immediately thereafter.

I admit, though, that I came into Follow the Summer with a certain amount of skepticism, and it’s likely the same feeling you yourself are feeling at the moment. When you see that someone’s been compared to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Badfinger, and Big Star, that smells like power pop, and it immediately brings on the fear that this is going to be a highly derivative affair. At the same time, however, I’m sure you’ve also got that little voice in the back of your mind that’s saying, “Yeah, but if it’s derivative of something I already like, then doesn’t that mean there’s a pretty good chance that I’m going to like it?”

Don’t be a cynical bastard. That little voice is absolutely right.

Listening to Dill’s album is very much like listening to Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk…not that it necessarily sounds like the work of Manning, Sturmer, Falkner, and the gang (although there are certainly occasional moments where it does), but because it’s an album where you can listen to it and know with a certain amount of confidence what albums are in the band’s collection. There are Wilson-esque arrangements, McCartney-esque vocals, at least one Queen-inspired guitar solo, and a veritable plethora of hooks, but even with those recognizable touchstones, there’s something about the feel of the record that convinces you that Dill’s trying to build something of his own by emulating those who have inspired him…and you can’t always say that for a lot of folks who’ve taken their cues from Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney.

There’s almost nothing on Follow the Summer that couldn’t have risen to significant chart placings during the ’70s…and I mean that as a compliment. The ability to write soft, smooth, harmony-laden pop music is one that I never fail to appreciate, and Dill’s clearly got that knack. I think the biggest surprise for me is that a guy as talented as Dill and with several albums to his credit has totally escaped my radar up until this point.

You can check out a few of Mr. Dill’s songs on his MySpace page, and he also does a nice podcast where you can hear a few more tunes. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this interview he and I did, which provides a bit more insight into his music and his sound.

The inevitable first question: how did you first get into music? Were you raised in a musical environment all along, or was there a sudden epiphany when you realized that you wanted to be a musician?

I was raised on rock music from the womb. My mom always had great music blasting through the house and in the car. When I was in 1st grade, a woman named Mrs. Curren came to my school with a violin, and I went home and convinced my parents that I wanted one. I remember enjoying the Bach minuets but really didn’t have the patience for the rest of it because it wasn’t the music I enjoyed. Instead of practicing what I was supposed to, I’d always pick tunes like “Star Wars” by ear instead. After a couple of years of this, my ears really got in shape. However, I still couldn’t stand the music I was forced to practice, and after smashing my violin bow in protest, my violin career was abruptly ended.

The summer of 6th grade, I discovered my Mom’s Beatles records. Up to that point, even though I was surrounded by music, I really didn’t know I had any real love for it. Sitting by the record player and listening to Abbey Road changed all of that in a hurry. When I got to side two, with McCartney singing, “One sweet dream…pick up the bags…get in the limousine,” I got this great feeling I never had before and knew I wanted to make music. From then on, it became an obsession for me bordering on the ritualistic. The first thing I’d do after a crappy day at school was listen to an album, and it had to be nonstop from beginning to end every time.

Rather than go down the route most traveled by asking the straightforward “who are your influences” question, let me ask you this: whose music has influenced you the most that the average listener will hear the least in your sound?

That’s a tricky question, because most of what I’m influenced by makes its way in there at some point whether I want it to or not. To this point, I’d have to say Pete Townshend. No one’s really going to listen to my stuff and say, “Wow! You can really tell this guy spent a lot of time listening to The Who.” But I did! (and still do…) Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Who’s Next were huge for me. Besides teaching me a great deal about guitar playing, Pete really taught me a lot about putting a great album together. And who knows? Maybe someday I’ll release something kind of Who-like, as I’m always evolving and looking for new directions. Stevie Wonder is another guy who’s like that for me. The first song on the latest album, “Today,” is very inspired by Stevie Wonder, and I’d be really surprised if anyone else heard it that way.

And speaking of your sound, yours is certainly reminiscent of other artists, but there’s an earnestness to it which gives it warmth. Is it a struggle to find that point where you can pay obvious tribute to your inspirations without fear of being called derivative? Or do you indeed have that fear…?

I have no problem with the dreaded “derivative” label. All of the great artists are extremely derivative. If you listen to the Beach Boys and The Four Freshmen, the similarity is astounding. Or when you listen to McCartney, it’s really obvious at times that he’s just doing Elvis Presley, who in turn is just imitating Bing Crosby and so on, etcetera, probably as far back as the first guy who crawled out of his cave and sang about fire. Great music is built on the foundations of the great music that precedes it.

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The dangerous thing is when musicians set out from the start to sound like someone else. When they do that, the imitation turns into more of a caricature of the original than something really worthwhile that stands on its own. For me, songs enter my head when I’m feeling something deeply, whether it be sorrow or joy. When I arrange that song and record it, I let the song be the guide as to how it will turn out in the end. If that song asks to sound sort of Badfinger-ish or Queen-like, I’ll let it to some degree. Now for the record, my latest album, Follow the Summer, is an actual conceptual tribute to my musical heroes, so this time I really didn’t draw any lines as to how far I let the song steer towards my influences. But, the “earnestness” that you talk about comes from the fact that all of the songs are still REAL and not contrived to be any certain way. One thing that’s always fun is how often people tell me I sound like bands I’ve never listened to or heard of. Happens a lot and gives me more music to investigate just when I think I’m running out.

Do you have a particular method by which you achieve your semi-retro sound in the studio? And how well does it transfer to a live setting?

I love music that sounds real. Played by real musicians on real instruments. I avoid samples and loops as much as possible and 99% of what you hear from me is the actual instrument being played rather than a sampled version played on a keyboard. I always consider that other 1% as cheating, but sometimes a song calls for a touch of French horn when you just don’t have access to the real thing. And…using the Fender Rhodes as much as I did on this album really brings back to the way things used to sound. And vocal harmonies, lots of vocal harmonies!

More importantly though, I view myself as having more of a “retro” ideal about my music in general. I really believe that back in the 60’s and 70’s, before we became a completely “disposable” society, people were a lot craftier about their music and definitely put more “heart” in their art than they do now. That’s why their music is still great today and will probably still be considered so as long as human beings have ears to listen to it. Every time I write and record something, I try my best to live up to that ideal.

When it comes to playing live, the songs really blow up big. I’ve been fortunate to have some great bands too where we do all of the harmonies from the CD live which is very difficult, but really important to me. Lots of energy and a lot more guitar playing than I do on the CD just because it’s really fun to solo with all of that live energy and band interplay.

On a related note, do you tend to road-test songs before recording them, or are you a guy who often finds himself composing on the fly in the studio?

Songs are popping into my head just about all day long. When they’re attached to something I feel strongly about, they’re usually good ones. At that point, I’ll usually grab my pocket recorder and a guitar to try and preserve the moment for future reference. If I still like the song after a couple of weeks have gone by, I’ll take it to the next level and record it for real with other instruments, harmonies etc.

Sometimes, I get really strong ideas that I can’t bring fully out of the “songwriting ether” when they come to me. “Follow the Summer” was like that. I carried that song around in my head every day for a full year before picking up an instrument or recorder. I knew it was one of the most special things I’d ever come up with and I just had to let it brew in my subconscious until I felt I could give it the treatment it deserved.

Are there any songs on the record where, when you listen to them now, you think, “I can’t believe how far that track came from when I first wrote it”?

“Never So Beautiful.” That song started as a lyrical concept and simple melody that popped into my head while driving through the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my girlfriend sleeping in the passenger seat beside me. When I got around to recording it, more and more things began to suggest themselves to me and it just blossomed. I mean…there is soooooo much music going on in that song. Very proud of it!

Are there any particular anecdotes from the recording sessions for Follow the Summer that stand out in your mind?

Ok, I have a story that I guarantee your readers won’t see in any other interviews; though it’s not for the squeamish. I was in the middle of recording the album and my head was buzzing constantly with new ideas which were coming to me at the strangest times. One day, I awoke at around 5:00 am from a dream about some chords for “Never So Beautiful.” I ran immediately downstairs to my basement studio to keep the inspiration flowing and Teddy, my curious cat (who’s naturally a morning person anyway) decided to follow. Sitting at my Fender Rhodes piano, ideas were flying to me and through me in a frenzy that I had rarely experienced as a songwriter. At the climax of my creative miracle, I swore I could hear the pitter patter of a sweet rain pouring forth; as if a sign of delight and content from the rock gods themselves in approval of my latest and greatest artistic achievement. But the reality of the situation was that off to my left, there was a big black and white cat with his rear end raised and tail fully extended spraying my amplifier with all of his stickiest and most pungent cat stuff. Exhilarating and horrifying, it was not quite the sign I was looking for, but I guess you have to say that the gods of rock sometimes work in mysterious ways that aren’t always pretty.

Since you’re an underground pop artist, are there any other current artists with similar sounds that you love but that not enough other people do…? Because “Hooks ‘N’ You” is all about promoting unheralded pop, you know…

I have to admit, that as a songwriter, I find myself constantly digging backwards for the “source” rather than searching in the present or ahead. I often feel I should search more in the now and God bless the people like yourself who take the time and effort to do it.

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What are your thoughts on the music industry today? Are you an “indie all the way” kind of guy, or do you secretly long to be a cog in the major-label machine…?

I could probably write a book on this topic…a very disgruntled and negative one, but I’ll try not to. For starters, I don’t refer to myself as “indie” in the cute marketing sense that’s thrown around these days so loosely. I don’t even view it as a “genre” of music. I’m indie in the literal sense of the word “independent.” That is, I write, perform and record any kind of music I want, when I want and……I pay the bills for it. As for major labels, I’m not interested in making the kind of music they want to make and I’m pretty sure they aren’t interested in making the kind of music I want to make. If they are, I haven’t heard it.

I could go along with the notion that “big business” works against making great art, but the truth is, the major labels as they were in the past helped produce most of the great albums I still listen to. The Beatles practically lived in the studio for 5 months straight to create Sgt. Pepper. That was a lot of studio time, engineer time etc. and the monetary cost must have been through the roof, even for those days. So, EMI really came through there. I think the problem these days is that the major labels are more about the “quantity” rather than the “quality.” Rap cds for the most part are a lot cheaper to make and when you just churn them out the immediate profit margin has to be a lot bigger than it was in the past. Rapping over a drum loop and a couple of looped synth lines just doesn’t take up the time and money that getting a great sound from miking real drums and a full band does. I mean, who’s creating the next Dark Side of the Moon these days? I’m sure Pink Floyd had their battles with the label to get that one recorded, but the point is, albums like that were possible back then. With their “fast-food” mentality of putting out homogenized product and lack of commitment to artist development, I don’t think the major labels are capable of or even want to put out quality albums anymore. Very often, quality takes time and time costs money.

So, would I like access to the resources that the major labels have the potential to supply? Hell yeah! Do I think they’re willing to supply those resources to an artist like me who is more interested in the art and craft of making a great album than an up-skirt shot on TMZ? NO.

And, lastly, is there one particular moment in your career that you can cite which made you go, “Now THIS is why I became a musician”?

Every time I write and record a song that I’m pleased with I get that feeling so there is no “one moment”. But, on this album, I had the opportunity to write songs with one of my heroes, Derek Holt. He wrote and sang one of my favorite songs of all time called “I Love You,” with The Climax Blues Band. That song was a huge influence on me and was even the reason I bought my Fender Rhodes in the first place. During that time I was able to catch a glimpse into his artistic mind that I wouldn’t have seen just from studying his music on my own. That experience was priceless to me and one I will always cherish.