Rhyme? and Reason?
Nashville’s De Novo Dahl explores wonder, social commentary
by Kevin Crowe
"The Nashville music scene over the last couple of years has been great,” says guitarist/vocalist Joel J. Dahl. “It used to be kind of pretentious and cold. We weren’t comfortable with it when we first started doing it.
“We said, ‘Let’s just be as silly as we can, and put it all out there and be vulnerable,’” he goes on. “It seems as though a lot has changed.”
Since they started five years ago, De Novo Dahl have found a place on Nashville’s musical landscape, in spite of the egomania and cold pretensions that often run rampant in Music City. They’ve come into their own, all while growing into something that has become so much bigger than they had ever imagined. Their new CD, a double album dubbed Cats and Kittens, was hailed by critics as an ambitious project. Both CDs have 16 songs, the same 16 songs in fact, but the remastered, rearranged and rebuilt songs on the companion CD—called Kittens —are so vastly reshaped that they’ve become peculiar entities unto themselves. But what holds the two CDs together is a common thread of musical merrymaking, sounds that seem as austere as Tolstoy and, concurrently, as absurd as Beckett.
“People would say, ‘Isn’t that a little ambitious?’” Joel recollects. “And we were like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s why we’re doing it.’”
The sound is like a carnival, always carrying jubilant overtones but, at the same time, always capable of delving into serious subject matter. The song “All Over Town” tells us that, “I know how you feel/you feel like all the other/people in this town/it’s so hard to swallow.” We’re introduced to a daydreamy world, wrapped in a thick layer of social isolation and everyday humanity, both churchy and anarchist, explaining nothing by hitting on just about everything. This is a band that never avoids possibility. “I think the main message is the music,” Joel says. “We try to have a lot of energy, and we love what we do. We’re fighting against caring if people think it’s stupid. Some of the ideas we have, there’s a lot of cleanup work with it, kinda like TP-ing someone’s house.”
Enter the world of Roald Dahl, the band’s namesake and author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , Matilda and James and the Giant Peach . But as much as Dahl is famous for his children’s literature, he is also well known for his macabre short stories.
“Dahl started off writing literature, what I think are some of the best short stories ever,” Joel says. “A lot of his stories are kind of fables. Fables and parables, life wrapped up in a neat package. Talk about whatever you want to talk about, twist it and make it crazy.”
M. M. Bakhtin, an early Russian formalist, coined the term carnivalesque, where a multiplicity of voices are layered, enmeshed as miasmic, indecipherable confab, like a strange black mass of voices, where anything is possible, where social rules are broken through performance.
“Now we all can see/you’re in desperate need/to find all the glory,” they sing. “We know what you want/you want to be the king/of everyone else/you’re such a tyrant.“
“Once you create the music,” Joel says, quite matter-of-factly, “you can have as much fun as you want when you’re doing it.” In many ways, when De Novo Dahl is onstage, what you see may be more performance art than concert. This is territory that the Butthole Surfers explored in the ’80s. But Joel and his crew have made it their own, made it a little more idiosyncratic as they perform their collage of sound—and the oft-crazy performances are an extension of what the sound wants to do. Sometimes they’ll perform in costume. Then, whenever the mood strikes, they’ll perform in street clothes. Sometimes a rock show is just a rock show. Sometimes it’s fantasy. But it’s always a journey.
“You’ll do anything to be the boss,” the song goes on, “at any cost.”
Even the band’s sound is never a constant. In 2003, three of De Novo Dahl’s founding members left to pursue other interests. Keyboardist Arlo Hall and bassist Keith Lowen came on board, still backed by Serai Zaffiro’s omnichord and Mixta Huxtable’s drums. “I think that the sound has changed, but not entirely,” Joel explains. “The new stuff sounds a little more exciting, a little more raw. I think we’re having more fun…. Sometimes I get perplexed at practice, because we seem to sound even bigger. Things aren’t quite as busy. It’s more powerful, maybe a little less quirky.
“Anybody who was a fan of us before will like [the new De Novo Dahl sound] just as much or better,” he continues. “We haven’t missed a beat.”
Who: De Novo Dahl and Jetpack UK