The Metal Minute Awarded 2009 Best Personal Blog By Metal Hammer Magazine

Friday, April 04, 2008

Take 5 With Dave Smalley of Down By Law/Dag Nasty/All/DYS

Dave Smalley and Sam Williams of Down By Law, photo courtesy of the band's MySpace page

A little story for you. Before there was The Metal Minute and my posts at AMP, Metal Maniacs, Hails & Horns, Caustic Truths, Pit, Loud Fast Rules, Angst, Impose and the magazines I've been affiliated with (not to mention the many webbies), I started with an underground punk, Goth and electronic magazine called Legends. So hat's off and a pint up to my old crew at Legends for giving me a start, along with all the websites thereafter who broke me in. Mad love...

I was interviewing a lot of fringe artists by email until one day my friends and I went to a little hole in the wall in Baltimore called The Sidebar. Punk legend Dave Smalley (Down By Law/Dag Nasty/All/DYS) was performing a solo gig that night and as voice to some of our favorite tunes growing up and later in the criminally overlooked Down By Law, watching Smalley do some of his well-known tunes in a one-man Billy Bragg-styled gig is one of the more memorable performances I've ever witnessed. After his set, we ended up approaching Dave and fell into a long discussion that ended up heavily-skewed towards the Civil War. It was a natural chat session between fans and musician but it surely didn't feel that way. It had less to do with music and punk rock than one would've expected, pretty refreshing when you think about it. Talking with Dave was like curbing up to someone at the bar that happened to have a brain and focus amidst the bar din to engage in some intellect.

That night it dawned on me that I'd wasted a monster opportunity to set up an actual interview with Smalley. Still then a bit trigger-shy and full of naivete, I decided--at the urging of Legends magazine--to hunt down Dave, which took some sleuthing and a few generous hands willing to point me in the right direction and eventually we connected.

Thus consider Dave Smalley my first "name" interview outside of those I'd been conversing with for my still-in-progress heavy metal book (oy), and over the years we've checked in with one another, even as Dag Nasty casually reunited and soon wrote their beautiful 2004 punk revival album Minority of One. This writer certainly hopes another one will manifest, and most especially prays there's also another Down By Law album en route.

What I love about Dave Smalley and the projects he's involved with, is the honesty he and his associates in Dag and DBL expel. Even when Dag Nasty went astray into alt rock pastures on Field Day (which I am nonetheless a silent minority fan of), the heart and soul of Dag as punk history will tell, is their time spent with Dave Smalley on Can I Say then later on with Minority of One and Four On the Floor beforehand. As for Down By Law, if there ever was a working class punk band, this is the one. Spin albums like Fly the Flag, Last of the Sharpshooters or Punkrockacademyfightsong and you'll be bouncing to street music with integrity, soul and sympathy for the common being. And try not to sing along to their signature potshot "Nothing Good On the Radio." I triple-dog dare ya...

With the fullest pleasure, The Metal Minute welcomes Dave Smalley for a catch-up session and reflections back on the old days of hardcore and straight edge. For the record, Dave's a closet headbanger, as you'll soon find out...

MM: Obviously you’ve been in bands some associate with straight edge such as Dag Nasty and All. Frequently Dag's Wig Out at Denkos gets lumped with Can I Say and Rites of Spring's album, not only as proper emo punk but also straight edge. Did you ever see it that way being in Dag Nasty the first time around, and how much of the straight edge scenes (either wave) did you witness firsthand?

DS: Wow, I think I’d need a lot of metal minutes to answer that properly. Yeah, I am proud to have been one of the leading voices supporting straight edge, first with DYS, then in Dag Nasty. I was in Virginia during the earliest days of the D.C. scene, and saw most of those great bands, like Minor Threat or Government Issue in early shows, etcetera. However, I was the outside suburban kid who really had to struggle to find rides into D.C. to those shows, let alone people that would want to go with me. In 1980, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge of, or support for, hardcore from most people – you had to sort of discover it on your own. I didn’t know most of the D.C. guys then, except for nice nods back and forth from guys in some of the bands who recognized me as a quasi-regular show-goer. Many of them, of course, I know now very well, but ironically really became friendly with most of them when I was in DYS and in Boston, when DC bands and us would play together, or the Boston Crew would be at a show. I remember Sab Grey from Iron Cross helped me loosen my dog collar at a show at the original 9:30 Club (in a different location than what exists today), and I was like “Man, that’s the dude from Iron Cross – cool!” He was a nice bloke. Great band, too. “Live for now, live for now, don’t tell me about tomorrow!”

In Boston, of course straight edge was a major part of our lives, and of the Boston Crew. It, and the music, was the glue that kept us together. We took it very seriously, because most of us had seen too many friends or family members ruined by drugs or booze. I still love straight edge because it kept me off of non-productive stuff, and able to focus clearly on being a musician and friend to my bros. Of all the stories about us in the Crew, some are true, some are not. Someday I’ll write the book.

As for emo and Dag Nasty, that term didn’t really exist back then, as far as I recall. We just did what we did – we were a melodic, emotional punk rock band that played from the heart. I am just blessed to have had three stellar musicians in the group – Brian (Baker), Roger (Marbury), and Colin (Sears) – whose music inspired me and whose friendship I still value. If that makes it emo, I’m OK with that. However, I don’t hear a lot of similarities between some of the bands known as emo toady, and DN or Rites of Spring. I think really we were all just punks who’d gotten much better at our instruments and songwriting. You know, if music isn’t emotional in some form, then it probably isn’t any good. The key is to make sure it’s legit, and from the heart. If you mix sincerity, some intelligence, anger, and good music together, odds are you’re going to have a good thing.

MM: Outstanding. We were briefly touching on the Boston scene in our correspondence about Beth Lipnicky’s book on straight edge, All Ages Show. I mostly knew about the DC scene as a teenager with the same limited means as you travel-wise, while it took awhile for the New York scene to build up later. Most of the news we got down here was about the notorious crew fights between Boston and New York, as well as the straight edgers and skins versus the trad punks. What are your memories as relates to all of this?

DS: As I said before, some of those stories are true – there were plenty of fights with New York bands, sure. It was a bunch of leather jacket-clad guys with combat boots and a severe belief in our lifestyle, coupled with aggressive music that talked about fighting for what you believe in. There's bound to be some brawls. But you know, you outgrow that stuff, or at least, you should. Today I have so many good friends from New York – seriously, I love the place. Think of the great bands from there like Cro-Mags, Reagan Youth, Agnostic Frost, SOIA, etcetera. 1982 was a long time ago. There’s a very good Web site, by Harley Flanagan, He did a nice interview with me and a number of other folks there.

As far as the traditional punks go, you’ll hear nothing bad about that from me. I love GBH, Sex Pistols, etcetera. I was into all that and I had spikes and the sort at different points in my youth. I still sport the scruffy spiked hair, though there’s less of it to spike now than in 1981! Some of my friends would make fun of some extreme punk looks, and by the time 1985 rolled around, there were definite divisions between some of the British-look punks and the Boston Crew, but deep down, there was a respect, I think. Between 1980-1984, there weren’t enough of us to do anything but support each other, you know? Different styles, but we were all in it together. We had common enemies like jocks and hostile police.

MM: You left Dag the first time to attend school in Israel, correct? It seemed like a lot of punkers from the original scene left the country to seek out a different perspective. What did you gain in Israel in your post-punk years that you still carry with you today?

DS: Well, originally I quit because I got the chance to go to NYU to grad school there on a scholarship, and I couldn’t afford to go on my own. If that happened today, we’d be like “Fine, no prob, let’s communicate by e-mail, send demos to each other online, play shows on weekends and then tour in the summer.” But we didn’t have that stuff then, and we were all hot-blooded and punk as fuck. So when I thought I was moving, I thought I had to quit, and there was some serious hurt back and forth. Then an opportunity came through to go to Israel that I had applied for long before and kind of forgotten about. So I went, and had an incredible year. I rode camels, was in my first tear gas riot (tear gas, by the way, sucks), heard the call to prayer from the mosques every afternoon, and had a great time at Hebrew University. I’m a Christian, so I’d never been exposed to much Judaism or Islamic tradition, and it really captivated me. It was like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia – I seriously loved it. Made me see things in many new ways, opened a lot of mental doors, pick your cliché. It was all really cool.

MM: That's the key, I believe, is to have the basic empathy for other walks of life; the world is yours at that point. With your work in Down By Law and your solo gigging, you’ve managed to create what I might call “pub anarchy” by positing sociological stances in a punk context. I always think of “Breakout” and its appeal to the one-time plight of the Irish. I believe I recall you saying you’ve been through Ireland a number of times? Did you get a chance to pub crawl with your tunes and if so, what are some of the reactions you get over there?

DS: Unfortunately, I’ve stopped doing the solo shows – just too swamped with family, work and bands. I hope to get back to it at some point. I’d love to go back to Ireland. I’m much more Scottish in my heritage, but there’s some Irish in my blood, and I love Ireland quite a bit – Celts stick together. “Breakout” was about seeing the state of occupation by Britain there. Ireland should be free from any and all foreign rule. I got some interesting letters from people about that song, on both sides of the issue. Down By Law is also very a very big fan of England, though – we just don’t like what the situation is in Ireland. But the all-time best show moment for me was in England when we played a huge festival on the Warped tour in England – thousands of kids singing along to “Gruesome Gary" and others; just a wonderful country and people. England swings, as Roger Miller puts it.

MM: (laughs) Still mod at its core when you break it down. Last thing, even with satellite radio today, do you still think there’s nothing good on the radio? If you ran your own station, what would constitute good radio?

DS: Yeah, for sure, with XM and Sirius, things are much better today. They both have really good punk programming. The one thing I’d like to see if I ran my own station would be a place that played hardcore, classic punk rock, ska (all waves of it) and bands like the Police or Gang of Four, stuff that didn’t fall exactly into punk categories. As far as heavy metal goes, it'd be Iron Maiden, Motorhead, AC/DC, Judas Priest, early Metallica, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet. In short, a station that played all cool music of many different genres. XM or Sirius, give me a call. I’ll host.

(c) Copyright 2008 Ray Van Horn, Jr. / The Metal Minute


bob_vinyl said...

I agree that Sirius/XM has improved the state of radio. With everything that can transmit well out into the suburbs of Baltimore being Clear Channel or the like, there really was no reason to listen to the radio. Since my wife got Sirius, I've found that I enjoy the random nature of radio again. Since she's been listening to the punk channel a lot (oddly enough as she didn't grow up on that stuff), I've been trying to get her to get a mohawk! No luck yet.

I do agree that the punk channel on Sirius is pretty good, but it doesn't dig very deep when you get back beyond the last 15 years or so and it doesn't delve into those peripheral bands. It would also be good to hear some Madness or Desmond Dekker rather than Rancid and Less Than Jake. I'm definitely with you on that one. Still, it's punk on the radio!

Regarding emo, I've long thought of Dag Nasty as being one of earliest examples of the genre. It's funny, because emo has evolved into something more about fitting a technical formula than it is about emotion, but even back in the 90s, bands like Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate may not have had the aggressive nature of DN or Rites of Spring, but they had some edge and a lot of genuine emotion. I think they derived that from what DN was doing in the 80s. You can even take it back a little further to Minor Threat's "Salad Days." At a time when hardcore had more than it's share of meatheads, there was Minor Threat singing about the real perils of growing up. It proved that you didn't need a "jock" mentality to be passionate and angry. I also think there was another fundamental difference with these bands. You can be angry because you love the world or angry because you hate it. A lot that DC stuff seems to be the former and that came out more and more as the bands got more articulate. Punks roots have some degree of nihilism and had the alternate path, the path of love, not been opened by some of these bands, I'd don't know that I have spent the last 25 years listening to this stuff.

Invisible Oranges said...

Nice one, Ray. Good to unearth some names that I really should revisit more.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

IO, thanks, Dag and DBL are especially worth your invested time

Bob, since you put more effort and thought into your comments here than your "Butchy" Whitesnake jibes, I'll give you some due...

I've visited one of those local stations (probably owned by CC) and I was depressed that the DJ's role is nothing more than to make sure the programmer's hedged and delegated list gets played in order in the queue that's put into a computer. Even the "real-time" commentary between the songs are pre-recorded. Very robotic and utterly sad. Would that we were all radio pirates, which is why I dig Pump Up the Volume so much; I'm my favorite DJ

Sirius and sattelite are godsends for this medium with Underground Garage being one of the best stations I've ever heard; you're right that the punk station is narrow and limited and I'll only listen for awhile before moving on, but it's a start in the right direction since Christian Slater was hypothetically the first known punk DJ...fictional as it was. I need to get my Sirius fixed; it's still broken, dammit

Your last batch of remarks restores my faith in you, Bob...mostly :)

bob_vinyl said...

Hey, I put plenty of thought into the Whitesnake comments!