Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards
We’ve been fans of Dan for a long time, from his time in Absentee. Following the polite demise of that band he worked on a solo album Saltwater (Memphis Industries, March 2009)) with Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurdsson (Bjork, Sigur Ros, Bonnie “Prince” Billy”), recorded in the solar powered Premises Studios in Hackney. From tours with Leisure Society, The Magic Numbers, The Broken Family Band, The Dodos and Duke Special, a proper Coastguards band eventually coalesced: Henry Spenner (drums), Laurie Earle (piano, guitar), Sanjay Mitra (bass) and Horse (pedal steel, guitar). New album Shakes is released in October 2010 on Dan’s own label Editions in special screen-printed (by Dan himself) sleeves, which are different colours depending on where you buy the record. Of the new album, Dan has said: "It's always a process of trying to externalize a load of jumbled internal noise...I just wanted to keep it simple, which turns out to be a complicated task." We spoke to him in a pub in Waterloo one evening in October 2010.
SXP: Would it be fair to say that Saltwater was DAN MICHAELSON & the Coastguards while Shakes is Dan Michaelson & the Coastguards (no emphasis)?
Dan: That’s exactly right. There’s a natural straight line from being in a band, thinking I wanted to be solo, not really actually wanting to be solo, and ending up in a band again. For Saltwater, me and Valgeir recorded all the guitar, vocal, bass and piano parts on our own and then said: let’s get this person in to do this, this person to do that. When we started touring, we’d do one gig with one person and one gig with 8 people and after 6 gigs the same people would keep turning up. We ended up with 5 people; as soon as I’d have a new song, I’d play it to them and then they’d naturally fill it out. And that’s what a band is. So I was back in the same position in a way.
SXP: How did you recruit this band?
Dan: All friends, or friends of friends. Laurie was in Absentee, Henry was in Fields, and did a couple of cover gigs for Absentee as the drummer for us, and then Fields disbanded so he became permanent. He’s been my favourite drummer around for quite a while. Sanjay was in Oli ‘n’ Clive, and he was a tour manager as well for the Rumblestrips and Metronomy, and I just knew him through other people. Horse, he’s my newest friend.
SXP: Why “Horse”?
Dan: He just is. He’d have a really good answer for you if you asked him, I’m sure. I think he makes up a different one every time. Once I called him by his real name and it sounded really weird. He was a good friend of the guy who produced the last Absentee record and said “if you ever need any pedal steel on it…”. I was like: “Absentee are probably never going to need any pedal steel but thanks”. When I started the Coastguards thing, we got him in.
SXP: Did you just decide a particular song needed pedal steel or was it a sound you wanted for your new band?
Dan: To be honest I was quite scared of the pedal steel, because if used the wrong way it immediately makes everything sound really country, so that held me back to start with. Then I realised that just because you have the pedal steel it doesn’t mean you have to play it the whole time. And luckily for me, [Horse] is egoless; he doesn’t have to be going berserk on the pedal steel the whole time. He’s an amazing guitar player as well. So we were quite reductive and just use it when we think it works.
SXP: We’ve seen you described as "Americana". Do you see that scene as something you aspire to or what to stay clear of?
Dan: I’m from Northampton so being labelled Americana is kind of abstract. As a genre of music, I find the intentions behind it a lot more agreeable than most music; you tend to find they’re “muso” type of bands, they’re not pop, they have reasonably intelligent lyrics, and those things I aspire to. I find that in stuff by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and that kind of thing. I could never be in a country band but there are bits we’ve taken from it, a certain kind of honesty and a strange kind of three-minute storytelling. The “Americana” thing comes from that I guess.
SXP: In the same way as Edwyn Collins was influenced by Al Green, I hear “soul” in Shakes: romantic songs, presented in a soulful way.
Dan: The music that means most to me is Etta James, Carla Thomas: mid-to-late 50s proper damaged soul. It’s stuff like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons , which is not cool at all and it’s massively pop. It’s amazing - the guitar sounds are really horrible. They’re not smooth and sessiony, they’re distorted and really wiry. This is the first album I’ve produced; a lot of what I took [was from] listening to those kind of records. With the vocal as well it’s the same kind of thing. It’s just quite bare in front of you. It seems to occupy its own kind of space.
SXP: Valgeir Sigurdsson produced the first album and you produced Shakes. What did you learn from that process? And as a comment: the production is very spare and minimalist. You’re not overloading things, all the instruments have their own space.
Dan: It’s quite a natural sounding record hopefully. One of the first people I played it to said “that’s really nice because I feel like I’m in the room”. You can imagine one space. The actual space that we recorded it in isn’t anywhere near as romantic as that. Valgeir has that ‘sparse’ thing but he has a different version of it. If I had a piano riff I was playing he’d say: that’s really nice but you’re playing it four times in four bars - why don’t you play it once in four bars? You don’t need to overegg it. That really worked for me. I wanted to apply that to the production of the music rather than the actual notes. I hate instrumental music, to be honest, but having parts of songs where you enjoy hearing a melody on a guitar or whatever, I really enjoy that aspect of it.
When I listen to [Shakes] now, I hear the things I would have liked to have another crack at or felt I did slightly wrong. But luckily not having very much money means you can’t be over-indulgent. I’m sure I could have spent a year and millions of pounds doing it but you have to have a cut-off point. Anyway, when you’re truly happy you retire, right?
SXP: You’ve also put it out yourself. Were you forced to do it yourself or was it a choice?
Dan: Forced into it in a way because to do it the way I wanted is kind of impossible with a label. I’ve quite liked the idea for a long time but it wasn’t quite right with the last Absentee album and it was a bit too early with my first album Saltwater. But with this one I felt the means to do it are so much more available and so much easier, like the Bandcamp stuff. I just got to a point where I felt confident enough to do it. There are 7 different colours of vinyl, and I want Rough Trade to have this one, and I want this shop to have this colour, and I want to make sure the editions that are just 15 are available to people who come and seek them out so it’s more of an intimate kind of exchange. If you say to any proper label, who deal with thousands of records, “the blue ones, of which there are only 20, are going to Rough Trade”, they’ll just go: “fuck off! I can’t be arsed with that”. It’s just impossible to do it that way. For me to sit and print 15 records and then sell them for a little bit more to make up for the loss of doing a 7 inch, I can do that. [Alternatively] I’d have to double that figure so the label and the distributors got their money, and you’re talking about charging £20 for a 7 inch single, so it really was the only way to do it. I’ve never made a penny out of music! But the important thing is that this is my fifth proper record, or my sixth: there was one, me and Melinda, which was Hawaiian Disco.
SXP: How did that sound compared with what you’re doing now? It wasn’t “Hawaiian disco” was it?
Dan: No! I think that was one of the settings on the keyboard that we used for the drums. It was a style that became slightly popular in New York for about one week later on. It was just 4 or 8 tracks, Casio drumbeats, 2 vocals and a bit of guitar. And it was very very lo-fi, probably lower than I’ll ever go back to, hopefully, though it has its own charm.
SXP: But the voice was the same though?
Dan: A bit higher, because it has been in a worrying descent for quite a long time.
SXP: It’s probably the alcohol and Woodbines isn’t it?
Dan: Might be, yeah! If you’re a professional, the idea that you have to keep on smoking to carry on singing is a bit of a worry. It’s not a good equation but we’ll see what works out.
SXP: Did you choose to record in a solar-powered studio?
Dan: This one is completely carbon neutral in that it was recorded in this studio and the people I got to produce all the stuff are a carbon neutral company so everything’s offset and they’ve won loads of green awards. I don’t think I’d go that far out of my way when I’m paying that much to [record] it but it was just as easy doing it this way as any other way, so there was no reason not to. It’s like seeing a recycling bin and a normal bin and plumping for the normal one. That’s just stubborn and stupid!
SXP: I wanted to talk about the other former members of Absentee. Laurie’s playing with you, Melinda’s playing with Singing Adams. Are the Bronsteins still going?
Dan: I think, as long as she’s breathing, it will always be there somewhere. I hope she finds time to focus on it more because I really like it. I’ve got a CD of about 30 demos which are really amazing. Her and Laurie are still doing Wet Paint and they’ve got another album coming out. Babak has just released a graphic novel. I’m sure there’s an element of fiction that keeps it jogging along nicely but essentially it’s his life. It’s quite bleak but it’s also lovely - you want to give him a big hug. There’s a lovely entry where he’s trying to figure out why the Kooks are more popular than his own band! Of course it’s unavoidable that you’re looking for yourself but luckily I didn’t find a character that I related to. It’s just a very nice read – and quick too ‘cos it’s a graphic novel!
SXP: If someone was to release a covers compilation, what would you do? Because I think you’d do a fantastic version of ‘I Was Born Under A Wandering Star’ by Lee Marvin.
Dan: I was actually asked to do a version of that for an advert. And I didn’t get the part! I think it was because it was too close to the original, and they obviously wanted something different. We do quite a lot of covers in our sets. We do them all quite faithfully, although they sound slightly different apart from the Velvet Underground one, which we did faithfully. I really want to do a Lee Hazlewood song at some point.
SXP: When we last saw you you did Wings’ ‘Let Em In’.
Dan: That’s one of my guilty pleasures, although I never realised it was a guilty pleasure. I thought it was perfectly normal to love Wings. Doesn’t everybody love Wings? I have a deep attachment to Wings ‘cos it’s something my parents would always play when we were kids. It’s always a weird thing to do covers but it’s quite satisfying. You can see why covers bands become such egomaniacs because in that time you’re playing it you can almost convince yourself that you’ve written it! It’s a really weird dynamic.
(interview by Ged M and Paul M)