Danielson has been a busy band this year. Their most recent album, Ships, is considered by many to be their best to date and, now between North American and European tours, they just finished shooting their first video for the Ships titled, “Did I Step On Your Trumpet?” The critical acclaim Ships has received is particularly notable against the backdrop of positive press the band has earned over the last ten years of recording and touring.
I interviewed Daniel Smith and Chris Palladino in Ocean City, NJ a week after they finished shooting “Did I Step On Your Trumpet?” It was a privilege to experience the video shoot–even getting the chance to dance in it–near their home in southern Jersey. Much like their live shows, shooting the video had a unique sense of community, faith, and innovation. If you haven’t seen them live, I hope you will someday have the opportunity to listen to, and even dance with, such a familial band.
Josh: You’ve had different incarnations of the band and the band name, though I would say the best-known name is Danielson Famile. It seems that name held important implications in that you have had a lot of family involved in the band. Family has been a significant theme in the songs as well. Could you maybe talk about why that is, and why it’s now Danielson versus Danielson Famile?
Daniel: It started out as Danielson. And then family members and Chris joined and we started out playing live and prepared the second album, Tell Another Joke at the Ol’ Choppin’ Block, and it was a group effort. We kind of became a band, and that’s why I added the name to kind of honor that line up. As the years went by, sometimes that specific lineup was available and more often than not, it’s not been available and so we’re just going to try to keep making music and still honor the people who are around. We kept changing the name according to the lineup in a lot of ways and on the new album, the lineup is longer than ever, with the family on it as well as all kinds of other friends and the whole concept is celebrating community and art making together. So in a lot of ways, I felt like just going back to Danielson because it’s the common denominator because it’s the music I write and make and whoever’s around makes it even better.
Josh: More recently you put out a Brother Danielson record. I noticed that the flyers for your most recent Seattle show were billed as Brother Danielson. Have you found this to be confusing to your fans trying to make it to your shows?
Daniel: Oh yeah, it’s definitely a problem. It’s not ideal for record sales either. It’s confusing to people and it can seem presumptuous and egotistical maybe. I had to wrestle that and stick to the idea of the moniker changing with the concept. The Brother Danielson concept was about personal identity, to change it back to introduce Brother Danielson just had a more singular identity to me, this kind of person. That album comes from that place and the concept of that record. We’re all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. For the name of the artist, to have that in the title of the name as well as the album made sense. It’s kind of that balance between—well, probably if I had a manager and a label who was set on selling records, they would refuse to let me do that, which might have been wise in some sense. I feel like I just have to stick with the concept and deal with the consequences in a lot of ways.
Josh: What’s the current concept behind Danielson now? Is it pretty open-ended? Will you be inviting all sorts of collaborators?
Daniel: I think so, yeah. That’s what I love to do. For me it’s a resolve in a lot of ways over the past ten years. I’ve gone on this journey changing names and the names being in line with the concept of the records, and now return back to the way it started, whoever is around is involved and it’ll probably just stay Danielson.
Josh: How does [your band] relate to fellowship? Is your band fellowship to you, or is it your faith community in a sense? Is your musical collaboration related to your faith and a form of fellowship?
Daniel: Yeah. I think it all comes from the belief that we’re all children of God and the people in our lives are the people that God places there, whether it’s longtime friends, siblings or new friends or strangers, and I didn’t really plan it out that way but I think that’s been the vision that’s been given to me. I think everyone involved really can see that there’s people coming and going. I mean, like five or six years ago there was this strange guy Sufjan who was hanging around, and [we were thinking to ourselves] “who’s this guy? What’s he doing around here?” He’s just somebody who became a new friend and for that matter, whatever it was…and growing up, there were quite a few years, Chris and I didn’t really even see each other…our relationship has grown out of, for sure, the past 10 years of us living near each other, and hashing out ideas, and dealing with the practical as well as the creative. And it’s true with my relationship with my parents and siblings and sometimes it seems like…well I’m getting off track here but just thinking about relationship and creative community, and faith, and work. There’s a lot of work involved. I know there’ve been points with Chris and I where we’re like, “let’s just hang out without having to do work.” There are periods of that and it’s really important, too, and at the same time there’s this thing that just keeps us together, and it’s something we love. We love making things…
Chris: Right, it’s not just work. It’s fun to talk about and think about, and it’s both the art making and faith that we share—a love and interest for it, and it’s definitely the bond or the glue.
Daniel: I think after this many years of doing it, we all feel pretty secure that we’ll be doing this a long time. However it plays itself out, not necessarily getting together as a band and touring for the next 20 years, but at least making things together, and being together, and enjoying each other’s company. We’ve been really fortunate. So many incredible opportunities have come our way, and continue to. Just encouraging enough to never let us think about stopping. For me, that’s been God’s way of trudging along, more often than not, the commercial results aren’t what you hoped they would be. It wasn’t the big break you hoped it would be after 2 years of pouring everything into it, but then there’ll be something else that comes along, [and we are] like, “ok, alright. We’ll keep doing this.”
Josh: Chris, do you feel that God has pursued you specifically through your involvement in Danielson? In other words, [through Danielson] has God revealed Himself to you and pursued you toward relationship with Him?
Chris: Well, yeah, I think in the sense that the band had a certain level of commitment that was good for me, I think, to commit to a relationship. Especially since I felt from the beginning that it was something more than just you know “I’m gonna be in a band, that’s neat.” I felt more that there was a different purpose. This is something God was saying, you know, “I want you to be a part of it.” So having that with it made me really take the relationship seriously, no matter what. I think that’s been really healthy. In a way, I don’t have the bond that the rest do, I’m not blood and family. To stay in the band when maybe it wasn’t so easy or fun had a lot if not all to do with it being deeper than playing music with someone else’s relatives. I think by keeping that commitment, God has pursued me and made me better for it. It’s been great. I do certainly feel like a blood brother to everyone in the family, and I think they feel the same way.
Daniel: Yeah, definitely.
Josh to Chris: You started to learn to play your instrument for the band. Music was new for you more or less.
Josh: So you have definitely grown as a musician or grown into a musician just to play for this band. It sounds like you are aware of the parallels between growth in your craft, growth in your faith, and growth relationally.
Chris: Well, I think the band sort of was the area to test out the things I felt God was showing me or teaching me about relationships. I think first off, with my relationship with my wife Melissa, which was an eye opener in terms of really being forced to confront yourself and who you are as a person and how you treat others. It’s kind of felt like you have so much theory, or so many ideas about what’s right and who you are that when you’re involved in a relationship and committed to a relationship, those things have to actually work, they can’t just be ideas. And I think as I’ve gone along, being committed to a band has forced me to confront myself. It’s just the dynamic of relating to people. You can walk away, but it’s not the right thing. I don’t know if I’m making a whole lot of sense here but I think by staying committed to the band it’s forced me to practice some of the things God showed me.
Josh: Dan, do you think your faith has changed much in the process of forming this band? Do you think it has anything to do with the community aspect of the band?
Daniel: Yeah, but I think it’s just maybe what Chris is saying. I agree with what Chris was saying. It’s just been life. It’s just like marriage. The first thing that crossed my mind was marriage and kids. They have challenged me most and stretched me for good. I think, in my mind I don’t tend to separate any of that stuff. These are all just things that God is using in my life to stretch me. To take me somewhere I certainly haven’t been before. There’s no question for instance, for my marriage to work, my wife Elin also needed to have the vision for Danielson. If she didn’t have the vision for it, it wouldn’t have worked. These are all ingredients that had to come together. For me, that’s part of the miracle of my marriage. God gave Elin this crazy vision, too…to be a rock and a support and be by my side through that, because that’s what’s required, and it’s true of any calling. There’s not really much money being made. That’s always an issue. So that’s one area where constantly our faith is being stretched beyond where we want to go. Always. And so that relates to the band. It could be something else. It could be some other calling. If I was called to be an electrician, it would probably be the same thing. To me it’s just another job. This is what we’re called to do, and this is what we do, and God’s going to use those things to stretch us and to make us rely less on ourselves and more on Him. In this case it happens to be music and art. To me, it’s just life, and that goes on until we die, and maybe we, hopefully, we’ve become more dependent on God than we were when we were younger, and more obedient.
Josh: Do you feel that, when you were doing Brother Danielson was the original idea to just go on and do it solo, or to still involve other musicians as well?
Daniel: That’s the confusing part. It never was to go off and be solo. It was more of a conceptual thing. And then so I wrote these songs about…lyrically, maybe coming from a more personal place, more head on a way, more direct I should say. I always want everybody involved. So it’s not a solo record. Everybody in the family and then some play on that record, too.
Josh: Why is it that you want everybody involved?
Daniel: Because it becomes something so much bigger than when it’s just me by myself. And to me, that’s what it’s all about. To me Danielson is this 2 part process. More often than not, it’s me alone writing these songs with the Lord. It’s a very intimate place. Every once in a song will be recorded or performed live in that bare way, but mostly I feel like the songs could be so much better and more interesting, both recorded and live if they’re then presented to friends and family and see what they bring to the table. So to me it’s this 2 part process that makes up the process and makes up the result.
Josh: Do you feel like that causes some kind of tension with you as the primary songwriter, and I’m assuming you are who writes all the lyrics? Ultimately?
Daniel: Pretty much.
Josh: Does that end up being a control issue with you? Where you’re involving so many people, do you find yourself struggling with that where it becomes a stressor?
Daniel: It’s certainly risen up in the past. I’m very comfortable with this process now because it’s been confirmed over and over again that this is the way it is. And there are exceptions to it of course. On ‘Fetch the Compass Kids’ Chris and I co-wrote quite a bit of it together and that was great, and I hope we can do that again. But in terms of just like the consistent process of—to me this is my everyday life I’m writing. There’s always this balance between practical things and the ideal. Then I think more and more, too, I’m just trusting that God uses the practical to guide us… even the music video this past weekend. There were all these things that just seemed contrary to what was best for the video. We were like, “Why is this practical thing in the way?” And it, looking back, we didn’t have any idea of what we were talking about. All those obstacles were a way to steer things back into the way that it was supposed to be. And I think more and more now, I’m just trying to do the task at hand. I guess it goes back to doing what I can instead of forcing things through. In the past I’ve just pushed, pushed, pushed, and I’m pushing against God’s will. And it doesn’t work. But it seems so right or wrong at the time. I’m so convinced that the best way to do it is this way. The ideal solution would be if we could all meet in the studio 2 or 3 times a week and write together and just jam for hours and record it all. Wouldn’t that be great? That’s the ideal. It’s just not the reality. Number one because no one wants to do that. That’s not what it is. There are certain bands where that’s what they do. They meet 5 times a week and they just jam and write and everybody brings their things to the table, and it’s a four-legged table. It’s ideal and beautiful and that’s fine, but if we were to pretend to do that, we would never make records, number one. It would be once every ten years maybe. And so there’s a point where it’s like I’ve got all these songs, I’m going to do it. And that’s the embracing what’s in front of me. You can just sit around and hope for the right things to line up or just do what’s in front of you and pray that God will bless it if it’s His will. It’s not an excuse to hurt people’s feelings, that needs to be worked out, too, but I think after 10 years, there have been a lot of conversations I’ve had with everybody—what do you really want to do, you know?—“do you want music? Is that your dream?” “Do you want to do it part time?” Yes. I’ve had these conversations with everybody. And it’s especially hard when things are exciting. Opening up for some big band, playing at some big festival, and my little brother Andrew can’t make it and then that’s hard for him, but he’s in college because he’s pursuing what he really wants to do. And I can’t apologize for other people’s dreams and decisions.
Chris: I do think, in our relationships with each other, I feel like we all have grown. The primary bond is even greater than the family thing. It is our faith first, and it seems like we’ve reached a level where that’s really why we’re in it. We believe that there’s something important about the spiritual—God ordained or whatever you want to say about it. I think that has given us more freedom to trust the person in charge like you (speaking to Daniel), if you have this vision that’s clear to you in some sense but like we’re saying with the video, there are certain things you just go for, and then it seems like it gets steered in another direction. If you have the faith to follow that, and we’re all in it because we’ve bonded as a community through that faith first, that God is in control of this or orchestrating something, then it’s very easy for all of us to follow it, too. It would be really detrimental if anyone sort of questioned that, anywhere along that process when things don’t go as expected. It just would fall apart. I think it was like that with the video, too. It could have been extremely tense over those 2 days because there were moments of complete confusion. And everyone seemed to have enough faith in God and in each other in some way that it worked.
Daniel: …and in you. We were talking about that earlier. I don’t think any of my brothers and sisters think “oh, we’re blood you’re not.” It’s not even about that. It’s about how we trust each other. In the case of the video you were in charge of that. We all, I had to trust you. And everybody had to trust you. And like you’re saying, God put you in that position so it was easier for all of us. We trust you. It’s a respect thing. We’re thrilled, honored to be a part of it. And patience was required. (Laughs.)
Chris: But I think that trust isn’t just about I know what I’m doing. I think that primarily the trust is still God-based. We love each other, and we’ve got each other’s best interest in mind. We’re not going to subject everyone to anything that’s harmful.
Daniel: And I think that’s why it was a struggle for everybody to trust Sonny (speaking about JL Aronson, the filmmaker who made the documentary Danielson: A Family Movie) because nobody knew him or his intentions. I felt like I did but that was only just me. So that took a lot longer. But not just with Sonny, but other people who have played with Danielson in the past, Ted or other people, too. We know him but there’s that point where…I think that’s where God has used this band, none of this has been planned by any means. It has stretched all of us to let our guard down sometimes and welcome strangers. That’s scary and hard. Especially if it’s something we’re all protective of and love dearly and love our community, and then there’s this stranger coming in, seemingly out of practical needs just like we were talking about earlier. I think God uses the practical all the time but it seems like we think it’s all just bunch of hassles. You know?
Chris: Our community is nice and comfortable.
Daniel: And then an outsider comes in. That’s a good example of just life. Forget the band, that’s just the way the community block is. “Who is this new family that just moved into this house over here?” or “Who’s this new boyfriend that’s coming around?”
Chris: We think the worst.
Daniel: In the band situation, it’s been a practical need, we need this instrument played so we can perform this show, and then there’s this new person in the mix. I think God loves that stretch, that challenge, and then we’re all changed for the better for that. Whether we’re required to be patient in a way we don’t want to be or whatever it is. The list goes on and on, it taps into all our insecurities. God loves that.
Josh: So you’re talking about a video, and a film. Talk about that for a while. What were some of the practical challenges you came up upon this weekend?
Chris: We filmed the video for one of the songs off Ships. It was pretty elaborate. It was choreographed for lots of moving props and things like that, and the original location was at the beach here, when everyone got here it was just awful. Nothing was working, and we were scrambling because we had Rachel home for the weekend. It was the only weekend we could get everyone home together. We were running out of time trying to find a new location and things with that miraculously fell into place. There were a lot of things that I didn’t foresee, problems that I didn’t foresee that were resolved as soon as they came up. There always seemed to be someone there right before we needed them. Or some element to help the thing just work, and at the end of the weekend it was done. It happened and I couldn’t have planned a better…
Daniel: …even down to my brother David who wasn’t able to be there for the Saturday shoot but was for the Sunday shoot.
Josh: So you have a video that’s coming out. Do you know what’s going on with the video yet? You [also] have a DVD coming out?
Daniel: Hopefully MTV and VH1, all over the internet.
Chris: There’s talk of pushing it.
Daniel: Websites, blogs, chat rooms, email.
Josh: Times Square, will it be on that big screen?
Daniel: Yeah. Times Square, its big debut.
Josh: Why don’t you explain Sonny and the film a little bit.
Daniel: Sonny, aka JL Aronson, is the director of a documentary that’s been done called Danielson: A Family Movie, and it’s been showing around various film festivals the past 8 months or so, and just got a DVD deal and a theatrical release. I’m sure it’ll be a very limited theatrical release, but it will probably play art houses, and I think that will be in the next couple months, and the DVD will be sometime after the new year. It’s a documentary on everything we’re talking about here really, and I think it did a great job of capturing, staying pretty true to the history of what we’ve been doing and the dynamics of trying to carry a vision with family and friends and plow through the practical things that get in the way and new people coming, I mean all these things we’ve been talking about today.
Josh: I was able to watch it last night for the first time. I enjoyed it, and there’s plenty of great old footage, and it was nice that you were able to work that in there. It sounds like you feel it represents the evolution of the band over the years. Was there any portion of it that made you feel uncomfortable as you were watching it, where you didn’t really know what to think about it?
Daniel: Well, the first thing I have to say is that I think the movie did a better job of talking about and presenting Danielson over the years, then I have ever done. It did a great job of running a red thread through things, where I have always been trying to cut that red thread. I always want to have a new presentation, a new thing.
Josh: What is the new thing that Danielson will be doing?
Daniel: I will be continuing the collaboration 7″ series that started when Ships producing came out. The next one will be The Curtains Danielson for two songs. I’m hoping for at least seven 7″s total in this series, although there may be more, we’ll see. Chris, any more music videos in the works?
Chris: I plan on going into the recording studio over the next year to write and record something of my own. I’ll also be busy reviewing and accepting applications for my online gift-giving series of paintings entitled “The Memory Blocks.”