Don’t Sleep – ‘You don’t want to paint the same picture every single time’

Words: Miljan Milekić

Down By Law, ALL, DYS, Dag Nasty, Dave Smalley & The Bandoleros, and the list goes on. If we were to talk about every band and every project Dave Smalley was involved in, this wouldn’t be an interview. It would be a book. But also, it would be unfair to Don’t Sleep, his latest band, and their amazing debut album ‘Turn The Tide,’ released a couple of months ago. By combining hardcore, post-hardcore, and the elements of classic rock, Don’t Sleep quickly developed their unique style and gathered a significant fanbase. Myself included. So, the only logical thing was to have Dave for an interview and get to know all about it.

Let me get this straight – I promised myself that this interview only about Don’t Sleep, as otherwise, it would be hours long. (laughs)
Dave: That’s perfect. (laughs) I’m happy and proud of my crazy life, but I’m very happy to talk about Don’t Sleep. So let’s do it.

So, what’s the story behind this band? How did it come together?
Dave: Yeah, it’s interesting. Like in anything in life, whether you’re an accountant or an engineer or whatever you do in life, your prior experiences contribute to who you are and make you have new opportunities. Like, I know so-and-so and me, and I want to change my career. So you call your friend and say – “Hey, do you know anybody over in this field?” And then your friend says, “Yeah, there’s a great place over here. You should try that.” You know, that’s how life works. I mean, you can look on or, or whatever, but generally, a lot of jobs are gotten from contacts and people. It’s the same thing in music.

I’ve been doing this for a long time, I know a lot of people, and then also, a lot of people know me through my music. And that’s, kind of, how Don’t Sleep came together. So three of the guys were in a band at that time called Very Americans – which was funny ’cause they had a British singer. But anyway, they were great. They sent me some songs through Facebook, and they were like – “Hey, we’re big fans of yours, we did these recordings, please let us know if you’re interested. We thought you would like it.”

So, I listened to them and they were great. I mean, it’s pure power pop, like Elvis Costello meets R.E.M. meets Gang Of Four or something. I’m trying to think of the right bands, but anyway, it was great. It was right up my alley of the stuff that I love, besides hardcore. So I wrote back to them right away and said – “Hey, this is fantastic.” And they asked me to come up and do a solo show in Pennsylvania. I did it, and we played an encore of two or three Dag Nasty songs.

So obviously, everybody went crazy for that, which was great, but they sounded really good. And, Dag Nasty is not an easy band to get right. A lot of people can play the chords, but you got to have the right attitude. I always think that about any cover, it’s not just playing the right notes. It’s what you are putting into that song, emotionally and spiritually. If you want to do a good cover, and make it good, and distinct, and unique, you gotta put a little something of yourself into it.

So they played it great, and then we did that a few times. Then we did some shows with them playing the whole set for my solo shows, which was really cool. We were doing Down By Law, All, and Dag Nasty, and they sounded great. Then finally, they wrote some songs up there in Pennsylvania and said: “Hey, we wrote some songs for you, hope you’ll like them.” And I was like – “Okay, here we go.” (laughs) I listened to it, and just like the first time when they sent me their other music, these were great songs. So I said – “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And that was the first EP.

Speaking of covers, I need to touch on ‘Running Down A Dream.’ How did it happen? I could never see it coming, but when I heard it, it was like the most logical thing in the world, because, I feel like I can hear that 70’s and 80’s vibe in your other song, as well.
Dave: That’s awesome. That’s just what I want to hear. (laughs) And that’s a great observation. It wouldn’t surprise me if you’re right, because, I’m 10 years older than the other guys. I’m in my middle fifties, and they’re mostly in their middle forties, a couple of guys even younger. One is closer to me, but anyway, I’ve got some extra age on me.  And what that means is that I grew up in the seventies, man. My formative years were in the middle of what they now call classic rock. So, I’ve been listening to Tom Petty since I was a little wolf cub. (laughs)

But I didn’t think of doing the song. It was actually our lead guitar player Tom [McGrath]. We were talking about songs to do, we had all kinds of ideas, and everybody had a song they wanted to do. It’s kinda like, I don’t know if you have any children, but like when you’re coming up with names for a kid, or a dog or something. You come up with a lot of different names, and then your wife or your husband or whatever, says like – “Nah, I don’t like that,” and they’ll have a reason why they didn’t like that. You know, someone wants to name their son Frank, and then it might be – “Oh, no, the guy I hated the most in high school was named Frank, I don’t want to name my kid that.” And you go through this for days and weeks and months, before you finally get to the right name, that both of you love.

It was kinda like that for us to choose a cover song. We knew we wanted to do a cover song because, to be honest, the guys in the band are really good musicians. Our drummer, Jim Bedorf is phenomenal. He’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with, and that’s saying something because I’ve worked with some great ones. So, we knew we wanted to do a cover and we wanted to do one that we all loved and could vibe on. But every time we came up with one, it was like, “Nah, I don’t want to do that because blah, blah, blah…”

Then we were going to do ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by The Cure, I think it was my idea. And then we found out that, of all bands, Sheer Terror did a cover of ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ And, it’s awesome. And it’s so funny because you would never expect Sheer Terror to do that song. (laughs) It was like that over and over again. And finally, Tom said – “Hey, what about ‘Running Down A Dream’ by Tom Petty?” And everybody was instantly like – “Okay, yeah, that’s it.” The light bulb lit up above our heads, the angels came out and sang and all that stuff. (laughs)

It felt really great when we were tracking it, I gotta tell you. I’ll never forget that. We were in the studio late, late, at night, and we were grooving, man. We could have played that song for half an hour straight. You hear at the end, it goes on for a long time. We were just clicking. It was one of those spark moments, and it was really cool.

Tell me more about the writing process of the album. From what I could hear, it seems like you gave yourselves a lot of freedom, and most importantly, that you had a lot of fun recording it.
Dave: That’s a great question. Thanks for asking it. I totally agree with you. We all love hardcore. Obviously, my roots are DYS and Dag Nasty, and all that stuff. When I get cut, and I bleed, it comes out as American hardcore. And those guys all grew up, maybe one generation later, but also loving, especially the New York hardcore stuff, because they’re so close to New York. They grew up with Youth Of Today, Judge, Agnostic Front. Of course, we all love Agnostic Front and Sick Of It All. I think we had that as our common glue, the foundation of the house was hardcore. But also, and I’m not trying to sound vain, but everybody in the group is a pretty good musician, so we have the ability to do other stuff too.

So, our foundation is hardcore, especially East Coast hardcore, but I mean, I sang in church choirs and for musicals. Jim, our drummer, has played jazz and all kinds of different music. I guess that’s the best way of putting it – we’re all hardcore guys, but we’re also musicians. And being a musician is like being an artist, you don’t want to just paint the same picture every single time. Or what you’re doing with your blog and your creativity here, you don’t want it to be always the same. You want it to be something different, and you try different things. Whatever you do in life, it doesn’t always have to be about music, it’s nice to try and explore different things, to have fun, be creative, and utilize other sides of yourself.

We come at it as an American hardcore band, but everybody has a lot of love for different genres. I, particularly, have always played a lot of reggae in my private life, and find it very spiritual. I’m not a rasta, but I appreciate what it is, and I have respect for it. And obviously, Jimmy Cliff or Peter Tosh or Bob Marley, the ska stuff from Jamaica from the sixties, all that stuff. I love The Specials and that first wave of ska revival in England. So, that was where, for instance, ‘The Wreckage’ came from. I had that bassline and that melody for the vocals in my head for months and months. And, in another life, I would have probably given this to Down By Law. But Down By Law, we’d already finished recording our album.

So I was like – “You know what? This would be great for Don’t Sleep. ‘Cause no one would expect that.” I brought it to the guys, and a couple of them were like – “I don’t know, we’re a hardcore band.” And I said – “Just try it. Let’s just track it, and lay it down, and see how it goes.” And they killed it, man. It sounds fantastic. And not me, I’m not saying me. (laughs) They sounded so great when they were doing it. And I was like – “Oh my God, this is beautiful. This is the right band to do this song because nobody expected it and because they’re such good players.” It just clicked really well. And then when I was singing the vocals for that one, I’ve had several people tell me they think that’s the best song that I’ve ever sung in my career. And that’s nice to hear when you’re an old guy like me now. (laughs) It was just a beautiful moment, creative, and passionate, and fun.

What I especially like is that the record is really diverse but yet cohesive. How challenging was it to put everything together, to combine all those influences in a way that nothing feels out of place?
Dave: It was challenging. One of the things that people sometimes don’t realize is that artistic tension between the players is not always bad. It’s great when everybody’s smiling and happy, but sometimes, artistic tension leads to making sure that you don’t put something on the album that doesn’t fit. Or you’re a little bit pissed off when you’re playing, and that energy translates into the recording. So there was a little bit of that on some of it, too.

We actually recorded 22 songs. So there’s still a lot of songs that are going to come out as an EP later. And that part was great. There were some discussions, but never bad, never angry. You know – “Nah, let’s not do that!”, “Oh, we have to try that!” “Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s make that bridge twice as long,” or whatever. It’s part of the creative process, and this band has a really distinct sound.

Everybody always concentrates on the singer, and that’s fine, but the players are a huge part of the identity of a band – the sounds that they were getting, the way they play. Tom‘s guitar playing is phenomenal. Tony and Garrett are both excellent at their instruments, they’re both great, and they have their own style. If it all vibes and it all clicks, then you have your own sound, and you don’t have to worry so much about the cohesiveness. No matter what you do, it’s going to sound like Don’t Sleep. And that’s where we are now. That’s why we could do a song like ‘The Wreckage’ or ‘December,’ which is the last song on the album. It still sounds like Don’t Sleep.

‘Turn The Tide’ is out via Mission Two Entertainment. What was the thinking behind the decision, and why do you think they were the best choice?
Dave: Like I said earlier, we all have that common root of hardcore, and Mission Two Entertainment was Victory when we originally signed. And if you look at the list of bands, the albums that they’ve put out over many years, it’s incredible. So, I’ve talked to Tony Brummel, the owner of the label, a lot and, and I just became more and more convinced. He’s a guy who started his label with almost no money, thirty years ago. He loved hardcore and started a label because he loved it. He put his own money into it. He built it, and it grew, and then he put out more and did some really amazing stuff.

And he had that DIY ethos of hardcore, like Brett and Ian, Greg, like Corey in the Midwest who did Touch and Go, and all those people. There’s a lot of labels that started out with just a guy or a girl and their vision and their love of music. And they made it work. They put out some great albums. And to me, that backstory is very important. It wasn’t just like – “Oh, let’s try and get it onto a major label.” Let’s try and find the right label that gets us, that loves music and loves hardcore.

And I’ll tell you something else. When we recorded the first batch of songs, our manager sent them, and the label loved it and everything. And this is before we did ‘The Wreckage,’ ‘December,’ ‘True North,’ and another one that’s gonna be on the EP. So I was talking to Tony, and he said – “I want you to go, write a few more. Don’t worry about money. If you need to go to the studio, I’ll put you in the studio. If you need another three months, I’ll give you three months, whatever you want. I want you to write and be completely free. Don’t think about being in Don’t Sleep. Don’t think about being in Down By Law. Just be free and write some songs. I want to hear what you can do without any limitations or goals or anything. I’m just curious. I want to hear what you come up with.”

And nobody had ever said that to me in my entire recording career. It was always like – “Okay, you guys, you have an album, you need to record in June so that we can put it out in October.” It’s always a process and a schedule and a calendar. And Tony just said – “Go do it. I love your songwriting, and when you are free to do your songwriting, I bet you, that’s going to be like the beautiful icing on this really delicious cake.” And I went and wrote ‘The Wreckage,’ and ‘December,’ and ‘True North,’ although Walter [Schreifels] from Gorilla Biscuits wrote that one with us. He wrote the chorus, which is great. But anyway, it was really cool. No one had ever said that to me. And sure enough, those songs were such a transformation for me.

Yeah. And at this point, I think they have like five bands. So it seems like they know what they are doing, and want to give every record the attention it deserves.
Dave: I think you’re right, and I hope you’re right. They are very good people. I think you’ve talked to Tom [Wojcik] and Tom is a great guy. I just talked to Tony a couple of days ago. Just called him up, and we didn’t even talk about music at all. We were just talking about the stupid COVID-19 and terrible period that we’re in right now, and how much it sucks. And then we started talking about music.

And for some reason, we talked about Public Image Limited. Tony was saying that he’s a little bit angry that the world is so fucked up right now. And I said – “Yeah, me too, man. But from that anger can come creativity. Anger is an energy, remember that line from that Public Image Limited song – ‘Rise?’ It’s a great song. And he said – “That’s it! I haven’t thought about that song in years. That’s a great song! Alexa! Play ‘Rise’ by Public Image Limited!” So we were listening to the song together, I was where I live, and he was where he lives. It was just a cool moment, and he’s a good dude.

And speaking of shitty times – the record is out in weird times for everyone, but especially bands and musicians. And I know that musicians didn’t get the worst of it, that there are people who got seriously sick and even died, but how does it feel to be in a situation like this, not being able to tour and play shows?
Dave: It’s really hard, man. Your first point is the best, we shouldn’t complain because there are people who have been sick and died. And obviously, that’s far more serious than me, or any of us complaining, that we can’t go out or whatever. But that being said, it still sucks even for those of us who have not gotten sick. It’s definitely terrible to be able to put out a great record – and I do think it’s a great record – and then not be able to play it for people. As an artist, it’s very frustrating. I was telling this to the guys, actually. 

If you’ve ever seen me, especially in a band where I don’t have a guitar on – in Down By Law, I have a guitar on – but when I am with Don’t Sleep or All, or Dag Nasty or whatever, I’m down in the front. I’m grabbing kids, we’re screaming into the same microphone, spit and sweat are flying everywhere, and all these things. And it’s great, it’s like a magic moment. It’s part of hardcore. And to not be able to do so, I don’t know what I will do. And I can say this for, you know, Roger Miret, or Lou Koller, or Jim Lindberg from Pennywise. All of us are singers who get right there and sing with the crowd.

Am I going to feel okay doing that if it shows open up next summer? Am I going to feel comfortable? But even more important, I don’t want to get anybody else sick, either. A lot of the transmission of this disease is through unaware transmissions, through people who don’t know that they have it, and then give it to people by accident. And I certainly would never want to do that. So how does that impact hardcore bands, and especially hardcore singers? And the audience? The audience is slamming, jumping on each other, and stage diving. So how does that all translate into the future of hardcore?And I don’t have an answer for that yet. Maybe it’ll be a “wait and see” type thing. It’s going to be very interesting to see if Dave Smalley gets down in the pit with the audience again. I’m stupid, so I’ll probably do it, but, you know. (laughs)

Yeah, I just imagined a socially-distant Sick Of It All show with people sitting down six feet away from each other. And I’m not sure it’s going to work. (laughs)
Dave: No! (laughs) I think that, if we get to the point when we’re having shows again, people who go are just going to be saying to themselves – “I’m willing to take the risk.” You can’t not live. That’s the other side of all of this, in some ways, I think we’re forgetting how to live. You can’t hide in your basement for the rest of your life. You can’t hide from it forever. Somehow, sometime, someday, someway, you have to go live again. It’s a balance that people have to find. And it’ll be interesting to see what that balance looks like. Even with the vaccine – I don’t want to be the first one to take that vaccine that’s been done so fast. That’s injecting something into your body, right? I’m not anti-vaccine, but I don’t want to be the first one to take it. I’m gonna wait and see me for six months, or whatever. ‘Cause a lot of medications have side effects that don’t show themselves for a while. So yeah, it’s a really tough situation for the whole world.

Almost every band you played with is huge in the skateboarding and extreme sports community. Have you ever been involved in the scene yourself, and do you think that connection helped your bands in some ways?
Dave: Yes, I loved skateboarding in high school and a little bit in college, but honestly, I was never very good. I broke my wrist three times, doing the easiest things you could ever do. It’s pretty funny how bad I was. And on the third time, because it meant that I couldn’t play guitar for a long time, I was like – “Yeah, I think I have to concentrate on my art and, and let other people do it.” But I’ll always support it. And you’re right, there’s a lot of great ties in my career to skateboarding communities. Down By Law is huge in the skateboard community, and we love it. It’s a spirit, right?

We talked earlier about why you pick a label, or why you do a certain song or a cover. It’s the spirit of it. And the spirit of skateboarding and the spirit of hardcore and punk is so tied together. It’s freedom, it’s independence, it’s breaking free of what people expect of you. It’s trying new things, and not being afraid to get hurt. All those things. I mean, think about a guy, for the first time, going into a pit. A really violent, big pit, let’s say it’s a Sick Of It All show. So, it’s a huge pit. And there’s a kid who’s 16, going into the pit for the first time. Is that any different to a kid on the edge of a pool, with his board, about to go in for the first time? There are similar ideas. There’s fear, there’s excitement, there’s a challenge. There’s a love of what it represents. All of those spirits are very, very tied together between punk and hardcore, and the skateboarding lifestyle. All those spiritual things are why there’s been such a connection for me to skateboarding.

So, one last – is there some kind of a weird contest between you, Brian Baker, and Bill Stevenson of who will be in more legendary bands in his career?
Dave: Well, thank you for that. First of all, they’re both phenomenal players, and Billy and I are still good friends to this day. I’ll leave it to history. (laughs) Oh, but HE was in DYS! – Yes, but HE was in Minor Threats! – But HE was in Descendents! – But HE was in Black Flag! – But he was in Down By Law!” (laughs) We could do that all day long. But actually, that would be a great band right there, starting out. (laughs) We just need to get the right bass player who has the same kind of history with lots of well-known bands. You’d have the perfect band – we would be like The Traveling Wilburys or something. (laughs)

My rule of life is to try to always challenge yourself, and to try to believe in what you’re doing. And again, it could be, whatever. You can be an engineer, or you could be a barista at a coffee shop. The profession doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it with love and passion and try and do it really well. To believe in what you’re doing, to challenge yourself to be the best you can be, and try new things. It doesn’t even have to be your job. Somebody might have a job that they don’t really love. A lot of people do, unfortunately, right?

But you can do stuff after work – you can be a painter or make a fanzine, write a book, or a blog, or do a podcast. You know what I mean? But if you do love your job, even better. Then try to be positive about it and make it great. That’s kinda how I’ve minded my life and art, I don’t want to stand still. I don’t want to be sitting on the porch, in my rocking chair with a cup of coffee just yet. I will take a cup of coffee. (laughs) Actually, I have one in my hand right now, but I’m not ready for that yet.

I feel like I’m still the most creative I’ve been. I’ve been able to try, and do some new things that I wasn’t able to do in earlier times. I wasn’t ready for it artistically, or maybe I was scared, or maybe I didn’t want to do it then, but now I do. ‘The Wreckage’ was a good example. I wouldn’t have done that in DYS or Dag Nasty. That wouldn’t have been the right song. But it was inside of my heart for four months, and I finally wrote it, and when it came out, I’m so happy with it. Just do what you do in life, believe in it, love it, and be kind to the people around you, and life will be okay after that. Even in the middle of all that crap, that what we’re going through right now.

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