Dan Michaelson of Absentee
I’m here at Birmingham’s Glee Club with Dan Michaelson who’s here with his new band The Coastguards as they prepare for their support slot with Belfast’s Duke Special.
SoundsXP: Is it correct to call The Coastguards your ‘new’ group?
Dan: Yes, that’s fine.
SoundsXP: Can we agree that this interview will not involve the mention of Pavement or your voice?
Dan: (laughs) both of those would be fine and good
SoundsXP: Can we call Dan Michaelson and The Coastguards a modern day Travelling Wilburys supergroup?
Dan: I’d be very pleased if that was the way it was seen, yeah. They are made up of Laurie Earle, who you know from Absentee and now Wet Paint. Henry (Spenner), the drummer is from a band called Fields, a psychedelic country band. Romeo (Stodart) Magic Numbers, Steven Adams from the Broken Family Band, Tom (Gobutt) and Henry (Clark) from The Rumblestrips who do brass sometimes… er… Arnulf (Lindner) who plays for Ed Harcourt… a guy called Greg, who’s the cellist who plays with loads of different people, a guy called Horse who plays the peddle steel. The record was a great opportunity to get loads and loads of people together… for a band that would be impossible to tour. On this tour will have had 3 or 4 different line ups by the end of it, so generally like every different gig we’ve done has been with a different band.
SoundsXP: Is that an easy thing to make work?
Dan: Surprisingly yes, it is… as long as you go into it thinking you’re not going to rehearse, and that it’s not going to sound like the record, then it becomes really interesting.
SoundsXP: You say that ‘they say’ that Coastguard music is ‘not very Absentee’
Dan: Er yeah, I kind of almost misquoted myself on that one, do you want me to explain?
SoundsXP: Yeah, please
Dan: They’re not very what Absentee now means to me, is more accurate… I think
SoundsXP: When you’re writing songs, do you instinctively know which ones are Absentee, and which ones are Coastguards?
Dan: Yeah, it is strangely really obvious. In a really vain way one of the first questions I asked myself was like ‘why?’ why bother to take any songs anywhere else? And then, as soon as I started there were lots of songs I wasn’t doing and I don’t even remember how to play them any more... and I think like ‘I like it, but what am I going to do with it’ and so, whereas before those songs would just be forgotten about, if now I write a song what would’ve before disappeared, I can give it to the Coastguards. Now I stop to think about it, there are songs I can play on my own, and songs I need Babak, Melinda, Laurie and Shay to make work and to improve it into something I’m happy with. With the different line ups of the Coastguards, because it’s like a work of fiction… we’re basically like a group of people who’ve never really met each other (laughs).
SoundsXP: So, what if this takes off, you’re getting some good exposure on this tour, the albums out shortly, does it have to become entity then, or not?
Dan: Yeah, it's out March 9th… the terms would mean we would probably have to do a whole tour with the same band, because it’s just logistically impossible to ferry everyone back and forth all the time… I mean we can do it at the moment as we’re going home after all of these shows by train… and it's like ‘Well, who wants to play today?’
SoundsXP: So we’ve just mentioned the album… do you want to run us through it?
Dan: Label is the same as Absentee... Memphis Industries, pretty much all the same people that work on Absentee records. It’s released March 9th; I’ve decided not to do any singles or anything like that because I didn’t really see the point. With Absentee I got increasingly bored of that treadmill of that side of it, I never really thought it did us any good. It’s nice to hear your songs on the radio… it’s quite gratifying, but you can still send songs to the radio.
SoundsXP: I remember, around the release of Schmotime you had a couple of high profile bits of publicity… I remember John Sims naming you as his favourite current band... Does he ever show at gigs?
Dan: No, sadly, I don’t know him (laughs)
SoundsXP: And you always were one of the NME’s favourite bands?
Dan: Yeah, that’s good but you put out a record and you hope that people like it. This new record isn’t even like it’s got a single on it. There’s one song we’ll put out for radio and give away for free and we hope that people will go ‘I quite like this’ and then look us up and buy the album.
SoundsXP: You’ve always struck me as someone who writes for Dan Michaelson first, which doesn’t necessarily result in thousands of record sales, is that fair comment?
Dan: Yeah, it’s selfish isn’t it? (laughs). But I’d be lying if I said I’d never attempted to write something that’s not for me, but to be honest I’ve always found the results a bit embarrassing. They’ve never got further than the demo stage
SoundsXP: Are you a tough self critic then?
Dan: I don’t think I’m tough, no; I’ve just got standards that everyone should be aiming for.
SoundsXP: As an aside then, good Christmas? good presents?
Dan: Very good, yeah, got some great presents. My bike got nicked, so I had to get a new bike! I joined a screen printing club, so I can make all my own posters and tee shirts which is good and something I always enjoyed when I was at University, so it’ll be nice to do that again. My girlfriend always does really well, and my parents usually ask me what I want, and I give them a list of books
SoundsXP: Ah good, I was going to ask about reading…I’m between books, so any recommendations?
Dan: Have you read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides? Incredibly good book. I’m reading two books right now, The Economist Book of Obituaries just because its 2 pages about every person you’ve never heard of that have had incredible lives and Paris Review, are you familiar with that?, it’s like the Eighties taped interviews with people like Truman Capote. They were like incredibly in depth and understandable, which is what I like because I’m not intellectual in any way, if I read something and I don’t understand it then my eyes just glaze over, I’m quite a lazy reader in a lot of ways. So I like things that are intelligent but don’t try to prove that they’re more intelligent than the reader.
SoundsXP: Any tips to beat the credit crunch?
Dan: Yeah, chain your bike up (laughs) and cook stews… I cook a lot of stews and they can last you or 3 or days.
SoundsXP: Back to the guys from Absentee in Wet Paint, they’re about to set off on a very important tour for them, almost (if not) all of Absentee are currently, excuse the pun, absent on side projects. What are they up to, and is there any risk to the future of Absentee?
Dan: Yeah, Wet Paints’ tour starts on 27th Jan, with Bloc Party. The risk factor? Well you can’t really view it as a risk can you? With creative people you need to understand that they will do what they need to do. We all want to make another 5 albums together, and there’s a billion ideas flying about. You’re always floored by really boring things like finance. I made 2 records last year that cost me quite a bit of money, so making another one isn’t as simple as having the songs and so everyone in the band has got an awful lot to give, with a lot of ambition between the 5 of us. To have all of that bouncing round in one band, when you can only logistically make one album every couple of years or whatever, who knows? And also you can never plan for it, in that if something works, it works you know? That’s brilliant if it happens to anyone I know, than that’s fantastic.
SoundsXP: Can I put an early marker down for a kind of Absentee centred festival/day perhaps next summer given that all of the bands will be busy this year?
Dan: Yeah, that would be good – I think this year we could do that. I imagine everyone would think ‘Hmmm…that would be fun wouldn’t it?’ We could get all the albums out, and then maybe even do a little roadshow tour?
SoundsXP: I’ll let you go soon, because I know you’re a busy man – you’re on tour with Duke Special, how do you think you’ve been going down?
Dan: Surprisingly well, I was quite surprised because no-one has ever heard of Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards. I know when I go to see a new band who I’ve never heard of; when they are really good, it’s still hard to concentrate on them…you always need a little bit of context. But it has been great, a lot better than I expected it to be, and I’m really happy about that. We’ve been playing to about 200 people every night because Duke’s audiences have been very respectful and it’s been really good.
SoundsXP: And have you already started planning a spin off project with Duke Special’s Pete Wilson?
Dan: (laughs)…it’s on the cards (laughs again). We are doing song together tonight for the first time...
SoundsXP: Well Dan, thank you so much for your time, good luck with the album, and good luck with tonight’s show, I’m really looking forward to it
Dan: Thank you for your time.
Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards debut album ‘Saltwater’ is out March 9th on Memphis Industries.