The Popdose Interview: Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos
Being I was all of seven or eight years old when the Del Fuegos were in their prime, I didn’t fully grasp their music at the time. I only had vague memories of my sister listening to Boston, Mass on vinyl and me really, really liking it. Fast forward to me being a parent 25 years later and imagine my excitement when discovering Del Fuegos frontman Dan Zanes was making music for kids.
Dan was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to talk about the reunion tour, making new music, the music industry, endorsing Miller High Life and why they connected to the Midwest so much.
Why do a reunion tour now?
The really easy answer is because we can. We did two reunion shows in June for the Right Turn organization that was formed by Woody, expecting that would be the end of it. We had such a good time, I had the most fun I have ever had with these guys, and the promoter said, “Why don’t you do some more?” It was easy for us. It was really good to reconnect with our fans. It was really surprising. That was the reason we started the band, to have fun. It’s kind of fun to be an “oldies act” — it’s kind of a rock ‘n’ roll tradition. However, we did just record an EP of new songs.
Speaking of the new EP, how was the transition from writing kids’ music to writing with the old bandmates?
It was really easy, because it all got hardwired in our system back in the ’80s when we doing it for the first time. It was back to four white guys making music. The family music has been pretty diverse and interesting, so it was nice to get back to basics. Making the kids’ music always felt like an extension of the Del Fuegos. We were always felt we were a ’50s rock and roll band. It always felt to us that the gig never happened if people didn’t dance. It was a very social thing and that’s the spirit of the family music I make. It’s a lot more similar than it is different.
Is old soul and R&B music still a major influence on the new EP?
It is. When we were younger we thought about it all the time. Now, our influences are so ingrained we didn’t really think about it all. We just wanted to write the best songs we could. We did it all in a week; recorded, mixed, mastered it and made the artwork. It was very similar to how we made our first 45. We did everything ourselves. We did it fast and didn’t try to overthink it. We used Rob Friedman, who has produced my kids’ records.
The EP is eight tracks long. Was there any thought of making it a full blown record?
There wasn’t until a couple days ago. The thought now, maybe after this tour is finished, is of giving it a full and proper full-length release. The plan was to go in and write three songs, then that turned into eight songs. That’s the way it always happens — we start small and things sort of get carried away.
You weren’t a huge band. You had more of a cult-like following, yet 20+ years later you’re going to be playing some sold out shows on this tour. How has the Del Fuegos’ music survived all these years?
It’s a mysterious thing. I think the myth about the band was bigger than the reality ever was. I don’t know. We booked the tour without knowing if people would care or not. We’re really doing it to have a vacation together. We spent our 20s touring the US and Europe. It’s like college roommates getting back together and heading to Vegas.
You handpicked the cities this tour, and they’re mostly in the Midwest. Why not play larger markets?
We picked the cities where we had the most fun. It wasn’t always the biggest crowds, but it was more based on an experience we couldn’t forget. The first time we came through the Midwest we played Cleveland, Chicago and Minneapolis, and that was pretty much it. It really blew our minds. Coming from New Hampshire, for me, it felt like we found an extension of what we were familiar with. It was like an exotic extension of New Hampshire but with better food, friendlier people and prettier women. It was something we could understand. It wasn’t pretentious. It felt like the real American experience. That was always the most comfortable. It’s very stressful being on the East Coast; we always felt like we had to prove ourselves. In the Midwest we always found fans who were ready to go at it with us.
Was Milwaukee picked because of your infamous endorsement deal with Miller High Life?
[Laughs] Good question. It probably didn’t hurt. Again, with the TV commercial, a lot of the rock critics on the east and west coasts looked down upon it. But when we got to the midwest, people saw it for what it was. On one level it was a beer commercial, but we always thought of it as an advertisement for the band. Our commercial debuted during Live Aid. So the record industry was all going in one direction and we were out there trying to sell beer. In hindsight, the ups and downs from it make perfect sense in a sort of cosmic matter. It was probably best that we didn’t find more success than we did. Because at a certain point, we just got way too caught up in the rock and roll lifestyle, and it may have killed us.
In your wildest dreams would you ever imagined two of your bandmates would have Ph. Ds and you’d have a Grammy for making a family album?
No way. I couldn’t have predicted our post-Del Fuegos success. Not a single thing. I couldn’t have imagined Woody starting the Right Turn organization. I couldn’t have imagined Tom and Warren’s Ph.Ds. When we were touring with Tom Petty, the last thing I would have predicted is that Warren would be writing the authorized biography of Tom Petty 25 years later. Certainly the kids music wasn’t on my radar. I thought I would be making pop music for the rest of my life. I didn’t know there was something better out there. But I found it — and that’s what makes it so easy to get back together. We all have such incredible day jobs that we want and love, that we feel no pressure to turn this in to something that will continue on. It’s an experience we wanted to have together.
Does this feel like the start of the band back in the early ’80s?
Absolutely. The not knowing what’s going on, the making a recording where we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re just winging it all over again, not overthinking it. Doing everything we can to reach out to fans, digging up fans everywhere we can. All that stuff feels like the early days of the band. Those were the fun days. It was the most fun when we hadn’t figured any of it out.
The music industry can be brutal on bands, but now is a shell of what it once was. With band websites, social media, it almost seems easier for bands to have their music heard.
I don’t know, I’m so far removed from the music industry that I didn’t even know the music industry even still existed. That said, the music industry was very good to us. We signed a pretty bad deal with Slash Records, but we knew we signed a bad deal with Slash. We just wanted to be on Slash. The reasons that things didn’t work longer than they did had more do with us as a band then it did with the music business. I know I wouldn’t want to be a band coming up today. On the other hand, there are tools available to get your name out easier. It just seems like there are millions and millions of bands and trying to cut through that noise is something I wouldn’t want to be doing.
Any odd requests that you’ve added to your tour rider?
[Laughs] You mean besides the lobsters? We need deep fried lobsters on our rider. Have you heard of Snoots? I think that might be available only in St. Louis. It’s deep fried pig snouts. It was one of the most memorable meals when we were on our first tour.
The Winter 2012 Reunion Tour:
Wed., Feb. 22 BOSTON, MA The Paradise Rock Club
Thurs., Feb. 23 NEW YORK, NY Bowery Ballroom
Fri., Feb. 24 CLEVELAND, OH Beachland Ballroom
Sat., Feb. 25 CHICAGO, IL Lincoln Hall
Sun., Feb 26 EVANSTON, IL Space
Tues., Feb. 28 MINNEAPOLIS, MN Varsity Club
Wed., Feb. 29 MILWAUKEE, WI Turner Hall
Thurs., March 1 ST. LOUIS, MO The Old Rock House
Fri., March 2 KENT, OH The Kent Stage
Sat., March 3 BROOKLYN, NY The Bell House
Sun., March 4 CONCORD, NH The Capital Center