INTERVIEW: Dave Smalley

By Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Chain Border

Dave SmalleyI recently met punk pioneer Dave Smalley at one of his solo gigs in Baltimore. Those from the old school will recognize his name associated with the likes of DYS, Dag Nasty, All and The Raspberries. Those more akin to today's revival scene will easily identify Dave as the leader of the aggressive and melodic Down by Law. Possessing a master's degree in Political Science and teeming with side activities, including Youth Editor for The Freelance Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Dave has been rather busy with a Dag Nasty reunion album, the aforementioned solo tour and a forthcoming Down By Law album. Dave, this is truly a pleasure. Thank you.

How has the solo tour been going? How is it in comparison to playing with a full band? You sound great in a Billy Bragg one-man-show format.

Cheers. The solo concerts are so different from a band show that it's good to hear positive feedback. I've done these solo shows on and off for a few years, but only recently have I dedicated enough time to it that I'm doing several shows in a row in different months.

I like doing them – they mean a lot to me as a musician. It's one man and an audience, enjoying a rapport that is very unique. I love being in a band, but there's something about the connection with the audience in a solo show that's special. Personally, I've always been a bit of a storyteller – I do it in songs, of course, but even in daily life, I'm the guy who will illustrate many points by way of a story. That probably helps explain my love of Irish music, in part – so much of it is storytelling. Doing the solo shows is really fun, to talk about how a certain song came into being, or how it meant something to someone at a certain point. The thing about all these songs is that they mean a lot to a lot of people, so it's nice to give them another dimension that would be impossible in the band context.

You gamely played a host of traditional Irish pub songs in your solo set. First, how was your recent trip to Ireland, and next, do you see integrating this Irish motif in future projects, as per say, Flogging Molly or Dropkick Murphys, or as on Breakout from Fly the Flag, or were you merely indulging yourself for fun?

Well, the Irish trip was changed to France, on the request of my daughter, whom I was taking with me. In fact, I leave in 36 hours for that trip. But, I have been to Ireland, with momentous personal emotions as the result. But my other daughter has made me promise that I'll take her to Ireland when she's old enough, so that will give me an excuse if I don't get there beforehand again with Down By Law or even Dag.

I like Irish music for a lot of reasons. First, as a musician, it's simply beautiful music and I respect it. Second, lyrically, same thing – great stories and it's universal. I don't think you have to be Irish to love Irish music – it's very human. Third, I love the tradition it represents – Irish music and history are very poignant, and the music is respectful of that past. Fourth, I deeply believe the British army should get out of northern Ireland and let the Irish live free – and some of the songs I play help remind people of the military occupation of northern Ireland. Lastly, it's challenging to a punk rock singer/songwriter to learn new songs like this. So for all these reasons, Irish music is compelling to me as a listener and musician.

I'd like to dabble a bit in the history of punk through your eyes if I may. Tell me about your evolution as Dave Smalley, leader of DYS, Dag Nasty, and All, to the Dave Smalley of today.

I started as a single cell organism swimming in the ocean of rock. I grew legs and eventually walked out onto dry land. I then discovered that I could jump and roar. There were many creatures bigger and more powerful than me, but I managed to survive and evolve...

Ha! Good metaphor!

No, I don't know. Since I was 17, people have seen/heard me go through different growing stages that many people can relate to and many of us have gone through: aggressive periods (Brotherhood, Can I Say, Punkrockacademyfightsong, All Scratched Up! and the new Down By Law, called Windward Tides and Wayward Sails), introspective stages (Blue or Fly the Flag) and plain silly stages (the second DYS album, for one). I've been very fortunate to find the right bands to support my preferred style of singing – to play in All or Dag Nasty or Down By Law is such a blessing as a singer/songwriter; those bands have such amazing musicians in them. Each of the bands has been a sort of evolution for me as a person and definitely do represent their eras fairly well. I wouldn't trade one day of any of them. They all contributed to who I am today.

It's hard to mature and still rock hard. Unfortunately, it's a difficult balance to find and I think unless you really focus, hone in on the music itself, you can't just get the balance without dedication. In the end, live with AC/DC as your role model and you'll be alright. That's been my motto, anyway. Anything with the Cockney bravado and bald-faced sexuality of Bon Scott gets my vote of approval.

I've read about your old militant "Boston Crew" days, when you were in adamant defense of the publicized "straight edge" movement. Do you still see yourself as a straight edge, and if so, to what extent?

No, I'm not straight edge anymore. I still respect it as a way of life, and will always respect what it was able to do for me in my formative years. It's a worthwhile pursuit for those who chose it, just as other ways are valid for those that chose different approaches. Drugs and alcohol have had undeniable disciples – Charles Bukowski wouldn't have been Bukowski, Keith Moon wouldn't have been Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix wouldn't have been Hendrix, etc., if they hadn't answered to the beat of their own altered-states drummer. Think of it another way: the world wouldn't have the White Album if everyone in The Beatles was straight edge – can you imagine that?

Fly the FlagSounds in tune with a conversation I had with a friend of mine. The Beatles obviously paved the way for the future of rock music, and it might be fair to say their external inspirations helped defined their legacy. On the other hand, we wouldn't have SSD, Minor Threat, DYS, or 7 Seconds without the edge. So, to each his or her own. The libertarian in me is all about leaving people alone to make their own personal choice. And as people grow, they have a right to take new paths, to follow their own muse. That is part of what makes us all human and part of living life.

To quote the wisest woman I know, my mom, it's all about the journey, man…

You were a part of the legendary Boston punk scene, and for a while, the heavily romanticized DC scene. For those who didn't live the original punk and hardcore movement, how about giving us some of your perspectives? I understand you've been working on a book dealing with this topic?

Down By LawThe book idea came and went and came again. Basically I wrote a really short book in the Boston days, but it wasn't what I wanted it to be so it was never completed or released. Lately I've been doing some interviews with a writer friend who wants to put everything into one book, so we'll see if anything ever comes of that. He moved to San Diego, so I'm not sure what, if anything, will come of it all. It's sort of way low on the radar for me, honestly – I'm a musician first and everything else sort of seems a bit gratuitous to me.

Looking back on those times, it's really true that they were romantic periods; particularly for American music. There was a fair amount of physical and psychological danger in just about everything then – the music and the look were still shocking to many, many people. I think that the risk side – getting jumped for how you looked, constantly harassed by cops and jocks, etc. – is probably one thing young fans of modern punk groups will never experience, and something some people who enjoy the music of those times might not really fully realize.

They should consider themselves lucky. When I was in high school, there was always the constant battling between the punkers and the farmer kids and I distinctly recall a huge fight where the farmers chased the punks in a car and all hell broke loose in a cornfield thereafter. Very similar to what Jello Biafra describes in Night of the Living Rednecks. Having to stand up for yourself in defense of a lifestyle choice…that was (and is) such shit. As a former headbanger, I can relate.

Everything we did was so unknown that we were in constant danger of fights, getting jumped or fucked with by the police. No normal person in 1981 knew what these weird characters were all about – we must have looked like aliens. In Boston, we looked seriously like a gang – shaved heads, combat boots or white high tops, leather jackets. It was a really intense time and everything we were going through was new, even to us, but especially to outsiders. We never knew how each show would end – shut down by the police or horrified owner, or amps blown, or in a riot. I look back on that time as the best period for a young kid to come of age. It honestly was romantic and I think everyone who has listened to the music of those eras with empathy and love is a part of the legacy, even today.

How do you see today's revival punk scene in comparison to the days of glory? Obviously, you don't have to brawl in the name of straight edge anymore!

No, that's true. I don't know – I never wanted to be the old guy talking about the days of glory. New kids today are forming great groups. Music will always evolve. But just like so many millions of people of all ages today still know and love the great groups like The Who, Lynyrd Skynrd, Molly Hatchet, Boston, The Clash, The Jam, whoever, hopefully many people will always be moved by music from the early hardcore days and even the mid-90s punk explosion days of Down By Law or whoever. It's cool that kids today don't have to fight their way back from a show. That's part of why we did it, even if we didn't know it then – to pave the way for people to just leave our kind alone.

All Scratched UpIn an interview with Scott Puckett, you cited your dislike for people without a sense of history. I found myself screaming "Right on!" when you mentioned Chuck Berry as being punk before punk, if I may paraphrase accordingly.

Well, Scott manages to cut to my inner core quite well, and he is one of my favorite writers around. He knows I believe highly in education and that doesn't mean everyone should have a PhD; just learn things. I read about early jazz, I listened to big band and the Big Bopper – get a sense of what you're doing, whatever it is in life. Get context, understand how things were and appreciate the pioneers. And one more thing – if you want to be an educated person, and again I ain't talking about a piece of paper on a wall, don't condemn people from the past because they don't meet our modern standards. Judge people by the standards of their own day. That goes for music and politics, history, etc. With that non-judgmental sensibility in mind, you can still appreciate and honor men like Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson or Stonewall Jackson – all great, great men who lived honorably by the standards of their day, and all who accomplished greatness.

Do you find kids today reasonably knowledgeable of punk's roots (and I'm not talking about knowing of the unflattering deaths of Sid Vicious, GG Allin and Dee Dee Ramone), or do you see it merely as a case of the new breed inheriting their older brothers' Exploited jackets and calling themselves "punk?"

You know, I think the roots are well understood by a lot of younger kids. In my job as a youth editor, I get to meet some really incredible and well spoken young people and I have to tell you it is inspiring. I have no worries if these cats become the leaders of tomorrow; we'll be in good hands. On the other hand, I feel like with the explosion of 2003 punk music, there's a lot of trendiness going on out there as well at the moment. There's a lot of kids whose first punk group is Good Charlotte and who will never go beyond the MTV punk or even MTV rock stage. But in the macro sense, there are a lot of good, smart, motivated kids who get it and love bands like The Clash or Led Zepp as much as you or I do.

You have a master's in Political Science and I found you to be extremely intelligent in person. You originally left Dag Nasty to go to college instead of continuing music at that time, a courageous move I think, and it sets the right example. To me, knowledge is power and it shows in the maturity of your music with Down By Law and especially the new Dag album, Minority of One.

Thanks. I think that's one of the things I've always loved about punk rock, as opposed to many other genres of music: it encourages intelligence. From the cleverness of the Buzzcocks to the multisyllabic rantings of Bad Religion, from the passion of The Clash to the burning rage of the Sex Pistols to the simmering angst of Elvis Costello, there's a lot of intense insight out there. Of the bands I've been in, I think there's socio-political reflections in Down By Law to the angst of personal inner turmoil found in Dag Nasty or All or DYS. I wouldn't write my lyrics in any other genre – they wouldn't fit any other music and the listeners of other forms of music probably wouldn't relate. In punk, as in no other genre, we all understand that life demands some thought.

Continuing with Minority of One, if I could shamelessly plug for you, I feel the same breath of fresh air as when you four released Can I Say? It's a powerful and emotional album and obviously Dag Nasty sounds rejuvenated as four like minds set towards a common goal that has been met in full. You especially sounded like you were in a "zone" with your vocals. Each time I listen to it, I feel like that angst-ridden teenager of old who couldn't get enough of H.R.'s Jah screeches through Rock for Light, much less Dag Nasty's Can I Say? You told me how proud you were of Minority of One, and it shows. What was recording it like?

Thank you for feeling the record like that – that level of emotion is ultimately what gets me through the day. In hindsight, Minority of One was a very, very special album to make. We all knew what we wanted to do and while we had a lot of fun, there was a lot of serious undertone as well. Doing it at inner ear, a lot of seriously beautiful karma was released – it was like the muse of hardcore was there with us, encouraging and inspiring us, saying, "Hey, it's about time you guys were back here." Making a Dag Nasty record is a responsibility because it means so much to so many people. No one in the group takes that responsibility lightly.

And your respect for your audience is greatly appreciated.

There is the lingering misconception that you and Brian Baker are still at odds from the old rifts, even with the two Dag Nasty reunions. Obviously, Brian has been doing extensive duty with Bad Religion, but you mentioned to me you guys are great friends, joking to me that Brian had emailed you about missing the premiere of Gods and Generals on the opening leg of your solo tour. I'd say this puts that ugly myth to rest.

What draws Brian and I together as friends is multifold – shared history and roots in an intensely unique period of music, a love of most of the same music, being from the same area with parents who raised us well, but let us become who we were going to become, a love of the Redskins, a high degree of respect for each other as musicians (and who seem to bring out good things musically in each other) etc. etc. Ultimately, coming from such a tiny scene as early American hardcore is a bond that is nearly spiritual and one that everyone I know who was part of it still respects.

It seems to me that much of the social urgency and protest feeling has gone wayward in punk today, opting instead towards the radio-friendly "Emo" pop punk we have now. Would you concur?

Yeah, I would, generally. There definitely is a "mainstreamization of punk" right now, with the results sometimes watered down and unchallenging. A bit too much "punk" nowadays is so safe it's hilarious – safe musically, safe lyrically, stylistically, everything. There's little danger, or challenge. I mean, think of the first Dead Kennedys album, or The Clash, or Fucked up Ronnie by D.O.A. or a thousand other great early hardcore bands and songs.

Like MDC's Corporate Deathburger or DRI's Give My Taxes Back, for instance…

Where is that burning rage now? It's hard to find. That's not to say it isn't there on the deep underground level, or that it isn't good to have pop punk bands on the radio – I just would love to see an album that burns with the energy of SS Decontrol or the melodic anarchism of The Clash. However, I should add that by no means does punk rock mean one has to be left-wing. I've long come to the conclusion that, human nature being what it is, anarchy is a disastrous idea.

That's a very responsible, underappreciated comment. And to think we once spray-painted anarchy symbols on walls and quarter-pipes…

I think we need to steer away from wanting or demanding that everyone believe the exact same things, politically. I know great thinkers and artists in punk who are conservative and liberal, but the conservative ones are often on the defensive, which they should not have to be. Punk rock was always about doing it your way, and not caring what the conventions were. Punk rock should never demand conformity of thought, nor of musical style. So, to bring this back to the question: the fact that bands are mostly singing about relationships today – well, if that's what gets them motivated, far be it for anyone to judge them as bad just because they aren't trying to overthrow the world at this exact moment.

Fire & IceIt's been stated in many circles that Rites of Spring should be credited as being the first true "Emo" band, along with Minor Threat and Dag Nasty. What do you think of this "Emo" term and how do today's "Emo" bands like Hot Water Music, Alkaline Trio and even Down By Law – or say, in the commercial sense – AFI, Good Charlotte, Blink 182 and their ilk measure up?

Emo is just a label, but one that most fans of it forget was meant to refer to "emotional hardcore." That's why bands like Rites of Spring or Dag Nasty got that label. Emo bands today, though, are light years away musically from anything of those early bands. Doesn't mean they're better or worse, but I honestly don't see much connection between Emo bands of the current period and the bands that allegedly created that name. Ultimately, people need to throw labels out the window and just enjoy a band for what it is. All the other stuff is window dressing. As for the more commercially popular bands you mention at the end there, I'd actually say they were closer in legacy to Dag or R.O. Spring than more commonly associated Emo bands of today. Blink, for instance, really know their roots and are the real deal, a very honest band.

I'm glad you said that, Dave, because so often I hear neophyte punks today trash Blink as being sellouts, reminding me of when everyone accused Suicidal Tendencies of the same thing when they transformed into a thrash band. To me, Blink 182 is a '50's influenced group thrown through the spin cycle of contemporary punk and the end result is a harmonious punk band with the greatest hooks of its generation.

Moving on, I felt a vibe of raw intensity the first time I listened to System of a Down's Toxicity, as invigorating and mind-shattering as the first time I ever heard Bad Brains' I Against I. Has there been any album releases of late like that for you?

That's a tough one. I haven't listened to System of a Down all the way through, so I can't speak to that directly. I love a lot of pop music, so while I love, say, Supergrass, I don't know that I'd be able to compare their albums to I Against I. I don't know much that could. Again, it gets back to that burning intensity mentioned above – there's not a lot of it out there right now, at least that I am familiar with.

Let's turn the spotlight over to Down By Law. You guys are working on a brand new album. I've noticed a transition in concept in past DBL releases from Blue to Fly the Flag to Last of the Sharpshooters. Do you have a tentative album title, and what should we expect this time around?

Yeah, the new album is called Windward Tides and Wayward Sails and it could be the best DBL CD in years. I think it fits in musically and lyrically with Punkrockacademyfightsong and All Scratched Up! Very much back to what I would say is the essence of Down By Law. It's pretty fucking aggressive and has probably the most collaboration we've ever done. Sam (Williams, III) wrote a lot of the music and you know, I think he's just turned into an outstanding songwriter over the years in DBL – songs like All American, Burning Heart, Nothing Good On the Radio or a lot of other songs were ones where Sam wrote the music and I did the vocal melodies and words after I heard and was inspired by his music. So there's a number of songs on this album like that, and I think DBL fans will be very happy. There's also a song called (I Want to Be In) AC/DC on the new album, which I encourage the radio to pick up and make us rich.

Hee hee! I'd like to lobby to have Down by Law's Nothing Good on the Radio instated as this generation's punk anthem as a statement on where the scene should be going, farcical satire like, say, the Dead Kennedys' Terminal Preppie.

Thank you. I always loved that song, and it's one of the few we do live from Fly the Flag. Unfortunately it's still generally true.

You were fortunate enough to meet Lemmy from Motorhead at a European gig. How incredible was that?

It was really exhilarating. You can read all about it at the European tour diary entries, at downbylaw.com. He's always been such a huge inspiration to me as both a singer and just his "I don't give a fuck" aura – he's the real deal of rock and roll. Bow down before the awesomeness of Lemmy.

Kinda hard not to. I saw them last year and it's as if time has never been Lemmy's enemy. The Motorhead of 2002 was no different in sound and spirit than the Motorhead of 1982. If that doesn't deserve some sort of merit…

Performing live has to be the greatest form of self-expression there is. How do you feel about it, and what would you consider some of your greatest moments on the mike?

I like it a lot – although I'm constantly worried about my voice on tour and can't really go crazy like everyone else after a show because I have to sing the next day. But I'm not complaining. The time on stage is really a spark that is intense and special; it's a big part of why I became a musician. I really like touring, seeing the world and being with my best friends in DBL, but touring only in limited doses – that's one reason that DBL never crossed over and became as huge as some of our peers; neither Sam nor I wanted to be touring constantly. A lot of guys in punk bands don't have a family to leave behind, but the ones that do know exactly what I'm saying. My family is way more important to me than touring. I just don't want to be on the road six or more months a year anymore. Actually, the way we do it now is perfect – one tour per year in Europe, South America, or North America. The audience isn't over-saturated, the band is fresh and charged up, and there is definitely the right spark and chemistry between Sam, Milo (Todesco), Keith (Davies) and me. It's hard to pick out favorite moments. Every night is different, and the best moments are the ones where everything just sort of clicks and all four cats are locked in time and in the groove. Ultimately it's art, so you do your painting, put everything you have into it, and do the next canvas after that – and no two are ever the same, but you put all of your energy into each one.

You've been in many respected bands, as well as a slew of side projects throughout the years, and your name commands respect in the punk scene. I would think the best years are yet to come for you.

Thank you very much for saying that – good to know I'm not being seen as too much of a geezer (yet). I'll carry the torch as long as I can and try not to let people down. I can promise that either with Down By Law, Dag Nasty or the solo concerts, there will always be a dedication to the music and the audience. That's what it's all about. The late great Randy Rhoades (Crazy Train, etc.) was famous for going to different local guitarists in whatever town he was in and taking a guitar lesson – here he was, a hugely talented guy and already extremely successful, challenging himself constantly as a musician to learn new things, to never get stagnant. I find that really inspiring. The bottom line is this: whatever you do in life, pour your heart and skill into it – you've only got a very limited amount of time on earth, so make it count. It's the truest cliché I know.

Thank you for sharing your insights with me, Dave. Best of continued luck with Down by Law, and we're keeping our fingers crossed for a Dag Nasty mini tour!

Thanks for the great questions. Down By Law will be on our first North American tour in three years this summer, so I'm very pumped. Hope to see you there. Cheers.

Author sidebar: Special nod of thanks to Scott Puckett for his invaluable assistance. As Dave would say, Cheers!

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