There's a fine line between old-fashioned and out of touch, and it's a line that the members of California quartet Dawes are sick of walking. When critics got ahold of the band's debut album, 2009's North Hills, they saddled the band with the retro tag, parsing out the mile-wide harmonies of CSNY, the sun-bleached open-road churn of Jackson Browne, the deep-pocket instrumental prowess of the Band. And they weren't wrong; North Hills and 2011's Nothing Is Wrong sound like all those bands simultaneously, playing like pristine FM transmissions from the age of analog and vinyl. But with their third album, the vibrant Stories Don't End, Dawes—singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, keyboard player Tay Strathairn, bassist Wylie Gelber, and drummer Griffin Goldsmith—have taken a bold leap into the 21st century.
"The last two records we did with [songwriter/producer] Jonathan Wilson," Gelber says. "We did them in L.A. with our good friends, and it was just a very comfortable situation. We knew exactly what we were getting into and exactly the sound we were going for. Jonathan's sound—those were the tones that everyone would recognize as, man, you guys sound straight out of the '70s. And that's cool—that's our favorite music ever. But for this one, we just wanted to push ourselves out of our comfort zone a little bit, working with a new producer and trying to get new sounds."
Part of redefining their band identity meant altering their geography. Following a suggestion by new producer Jacquire King, the band migrated to Asheville, N.C., setting up shop in Echo Mountain Studios, a spot favored by previous clients like the Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, and T. Bone Burnett. There, removed from their friends and typical Los Angeles hang-out spots, Dawes were inspired by Asheville's low-key charm.
"We really loved Asheville," Gelber says. "We'd never done one outside of L.A., and we wanted to do it somewhere else. And we didn't want to do it in Nashville for the same reasons we didn't want to do it in L.A.—we know so many people there. And with Nashville, the whole town is just a music-recording scene in itself. Asheville is just a quiet little mountain town."
Collaborating with King was a bold move on its own. Over the past decade, he's developed into one of the most sought-after producers in music, boasting perhaps the most eclectic production resume in the industry (Norah Jones, Tom Waits, the Punch Brothers, and Kings of Leon, among many others). But for a band like Dawes—one that projects such a clearly defined musical vibe—it made sense to relinquish some control to an outsider.
"What we liked is that he doesn't have a sound he makes sure to recreate on every record," Gelber says. "He's done so many great, different-sounding records, so he was pretty much perfect."
More than the band's first two albums, Stories Don't End functions as a studio document. It's messier, looser, filled with colorful musical detours and intricate production flourishes. The band members haven't lost grip of their signature style; the songs still revolve around the layered harmonies of the Goldsmith brothers, rich character observations, and sing-along wisdom. But they have expanded their horizons, from the punchy, bluesy grooves of "From a Window Seat" and the breezy, low-key folk of "Someone Will" to the spacey guitar harmonics on the surging roots-rock of "Most People."
King's intuition was a huge influence. As a veteran studio engineer and producer, he helped the band achieve sonic textures—but as a non-musician, he also helped break down the songs from a fan's perspective.
"With this record, we definitely wanted to stretch out musically a little more than we had on the others," Gelber says. "Our first records, sparseness and simplicity was the concept we were going for—which is great, and that's a concept we like to apply to everything we do. But it's cool, with certain sections of songs, to stretch out chordally and open it up musically for us as players, and as a unit allow space to go for it a little extra.
"We just wanted to get into in a new studio with a new producer, new batch of songs, new environment, and just trying to make a record that sounds like us and nothing else."