by: Thomas D. Mooney
Saying that Dallas-based rock band Dovetail is a throwback rock band from the ’60s or ’70s is kind of a slight knock to both the band and music that from then. They aren’t a cover band or something.
Dovetail isn’t here to overindulge us with sounds of cheapened nostalgic pleasure. In saying that, I’m not so naive to think Philip and Daniel Creamer would have arrived with this specific sound without the guidance of a few notable music figures.
I guess what I’m saying is that while the harmonies remind us of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, their arrangements can spark images of Queen, and there are hints of T. Rex glam and Laurel Canyon folk, and songwriting they’re not just cherry-picking the great qualities of all these bands to create their sound without any reference or reason. The rock and roll experience isn’t one old enough to think Dovetail (and most rock bands for that matter) aren’t feeling the same way about things bands from the ’60s and ’70s were.
There’s a genuine voice from the Creamer Brothers and company. There’s a sincere, organic process happening here.
After hearing their 2013 major label debut Mount Karma, you know Dovetail isn’t in the business of trying to recreate what the elder statesmen of rock did. If that was the case, they’d have just recorded Magical Mystery Pet Sounds or something to that effect. What’s the fun in that?
Throughout, they show their range jumping from legitimate rock ramblers like “Hurricane,” Wilcoesque folk ballads like “Big City,” the simple stripped down “Can’t Feel You,’ and the elegantly building magnum opus title track “Mount Karma.” Though it isn’t drastically longer than any other track, “Mount Karma” feels like a grandiose crescendo with varying smaller pieces that create the larger whole. It’s really a microcosm for the entire record.
Earlier this week, we caught up with lead vocalist and guitarist Philip Creamer on the phone and discussed the writing of Mount Karma, being a rock band from Dallas, and what’s next for Dovetail. They’ll be playing tonight (Saturday, Jan. 4) opening for fellow Dallas-based rockers Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights at The Blue Light.
Blue Light: One of the first things people really take notice with Dovetail is that you guys have these amazing harmonies. When you’re writing songs, do you try and keep that in mind or do you just write and then figure out the harmony part later?
Philip Creamer: I definitely write songs with the tools that I have in mind. As we’ve developed, the harmonies have become more and more intrinsic and so now when I write, I’ll hear the harmonies more up front in the writing process when I’m writing melodies or writing certain parts. I’m generally already hearing Matt [McDonald] (vocals) and Daniel [Creamer] (vocals, keyboard) singing the third and the fifth or whatever parts they’ll be singing with me. It definitely helps shape the direction of the songs at this point.
BL: You and your brother are the main songwriters. Is that correct?
PC: Yeah, that’s right.
BL: With that, Daniel plays keys–and for Dovetail, it seems like keys play just as big a role as the guitar does. Most bands are guitar driven obviously, but here, keys and guitar feel just as vital. So where do most of the songs originate? You being a guitar player, do you start off writing with the guitar?
PC: Yeah. There’s definitely a little uniformity to it. It changes each time, but you know, I’ll write about these ideas that pop into my head. I’m generally not trying to write a song that sounds a certain way in terms if it’s guitar or keys driven. I guess at the beginning, I thought of Daniel as the lead instrument and Daniel and I wrote songs with the piano as the lead instrument. Not to be a piano rock band or anything like that, but the diversity with what you’re able to do with a piano, the textures are so rich. Guitar is always going to be important to the music that we make. I play guitar primarily, so I’ll write with an acoustic guitar at the studio and give Daniel a call and he’ll come join me at the piano and we’ll develop a song from there. Then we decide what parts are going where and who’s playing what. All the songs really could be done–especially the newer stuff–could be done with Daniel and I sitting there with a guitar and piano. Our bassist Scott Lee, who played with a really long time, he was a very fundamental hook writer as well, though he’s not playing with us anymore.
BL: I know with songwriters, it’s always different, but they generally fall into two camps: They either try and write every day or they write just when inspiration hits. Which camp do you primarily fall into?
PC: I used to really try and let it be completely “pure,” in the sense that I’m not trying to create something to fill a hole in our repertoire. Trying to write a song that’ll fill a spot in a setlist or something. I’d definitely say when starting off with the band five years ago, I’d just write when something hit me. But over the course of playing together, I’ve begun to write a lot more frequently but also be able to set aside time and go into the studio and write. Most days, I do spend time writing or playing. At least trying to come up with new concepts and ideas for the band.
BL: Mount Karma was re-released this year. Was there new songs added on?
PC: Yeah. Originally it was a twelve song album that we released independently at the beginning of 2012. We signed a record deal and were going to re-release the album. In that process, we had a couple of songs that we had been doing. One was a new song and the other was an older song I had written. And, they were really Mount Karma songs so we went ahead and went to the studio and tracked both those songs. “Big City” and “Hey, Hey Mama” were the two new songs. I also went back and reordered the tracks and had it all remastered. You definitely get a fresh take in that sense.
BL: With the record, you worked with Beau Bedford. Over time interviewing different band from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, I’ve gotten the sense that he’s really this central figure within the blues and rock scene over there. How important is he to the sound there and how did he impact the Mount Karma record?
PC: To speak of his importance to the scene, it’s fundamental. When you hear a track he produced, you can tell. There’s an awful lot of music coming out of the area that he’s producing. As far as what that means, I think the depth and originality behind his ideas are pretty unique. You’re able to really see that come out in bands like us, bands like Larry g(EE), songs he writes with Jonathan Tyler and those guys, and just a bunch of others. He’s done Kirby Brown. He just does great work. As far as his role with me, Beau’s one of my best friends. When we put Dovetail together, he was a real intricate part. He played guitar for us for about two years. We did shows together as well as make this record. Daniel, myself, and Beau were really the central figures of creativity and artistry of the record. Beau’s definitely in line with my brother and myself in songwriting so we pretty much work on everything together.
BL: This record, you guys worked on it for two years. With it being I guess an extended amount of time, were there ever thoughts or worries that by the time the record was released, you guys would be a “different band” or feel drastically different about songs? Did those thoughts ever creep in?
PC: Yeah. There’s definitely a sense of that. I think if you talked with any artist, they’d tell you the same thing. When you get the first idea for a song and start writing it down and then recording demos of it, get it to the band, get it into the studio, finally release it, the period of time is always longer than you want it to be. The thing with us, we’ve swapped out a couple of guys in the band over that time, developed our live sound substantially. So when we look back, we appreciate it for what it is, we love the record for what it is, but each guy would probably take out a song here or there and replace it with something else we’re doing now. The record we’re working on right now, it’s certainly going to be a closer reflection of who we are now. It’s going to be a little bit harder. It’s going to have a little heavier focus on harmonies. But I think as we continue to develop as players and learn to play with each other, travel, grow, and all that stuff, we learn and change from this first recordings. We do love and appreciate them for what they are. They’re a little more meticulous. We really took the time to perfect those songs. Each one has its’ own personality. I think the record definitely has a flow to it, but Mount Karma is a real apt title for me because there’s a lot of space between those songs been written and it being released this year. There’s quite a bit that’s going to sound a bit different live. You’re going to get the idea of the songs and the parts of the songs, but there’s been a lot that’s changed. And like you mentioned, the harmonies, there’s a heavier focus on them.
BL: I was going to ask about that. This record has these parts that feel really detailed and that feel like they were genuinely created and built in the studio. I mean, I don’t really know all the technical terms to recording, but it sounds like there’s some definite overdubs, some layering of harmonies, etc. I was going to ask if the record was difficult to replicate live or what you guys do differently. You’re saying that there’s been some changes. What do you feel is the biggest difference though?
PC: Yeah. There’s been times on stage where we’ve played the songs exactly like they were on the recordings. You’re going to hear parts that are the exact same, but we did do a lot of layering on the record. We subscribed to the Phil Spector style of recording. Layering. Like what The Beach Boys did. Sonically, to me, it’s one of the most beautiful things you can hear on a recording. But again, live, you want to see performances. So we’ve got to translate the songs. Generally, there’s three harmonies covering the vocal parts where there might be five or six on the record. You’re going to hear three specific voices. I think live it sounds richer and thicker with the three voices now than what we did in the studio because of the tones and because we’re tighter now. We pick out the parts that stand out and rewrite some things so the guitar player can play and not have to cover three different guitar parts per say. That’s not speaking technically there, but you get the point. We try and let the songs breathe a little bit. Vocally I try and let the songs become something different every night so they stay fresh.
BL: Yeah. There’s all these different styles of music that you can hear here and there on the record. There’s some big rock songs like “Julie” and “Hurricane.” There’s some real folk or country type like “Hey, Hey Mama” as well. There’s a lot of different stuff mixing and melting into the Dovetail sound. Obviously there’s some ’60s and ’70s tones coming through, but what do you think the biggest impact has come from? What were you listening to while creating?
PC: I think Paul McCartney is probably the underlying biggest influence musically speaking on this record specifically. I’d definitely say Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. But there’s some heavier things as well. That psychedelic sound you’re hearing. There’s some things from the British Invasion like Donovan. Even George Harrison’s solo stuff after The Beatles. Queen is a really big influence, the style and way that they wrote and recorded music, there’s definitely a quality of appreciation for how they put music and records together. Obviously they have a more operatic approach. We’re definitely locked into the “classic” music. You definitely know it from the ’60s and ’70s. I listen to Gram Parsons a lot. It’s really when great songwriting is the focal point. That stands for me. Freddie Mercury, The Byrds, Bob Dylan of course, guys like Donovan, but also stuff that’s more modern like Tame Impala and bands that are making really important statements with their records.
BL: This next question, I’m sure you can relate it to what you’re working on next as well as with Mount Karma. When working on an album–well, like with Mount Karma–all those songs felt connected to a degree. It doesn’t feel like a random collection of songs were just thrown together. There’s a flow to it. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly a concept record, but there’s a cohesive feel to the entire thing. They create a bigger picture. What do you do to try and keep that big picture in mind and not get fixated on one specific thing or maybe do something to a song so it fits within the realm of the record?
PC: I think the main thing is who you’re working with. Working with Beau and choosing who was going to be in the band, I knew we had a cast of characters where we all worked similarly, but each of us all has their own personality and ideas on what’s strong in music and what they personally want to hear from a record they play on. As we’ve become a band, that’s not really changed. I think through the process of recording Mount Karma, each person’s musical interests were able to shine. Rather than trying to stay focus a particular sound, I think there were enough influences in the songs themselves, you hear a variety of sounds. I think the central theme is that since I wrote the songs, I had a similar thought process and similar ideal I was trying to progress for the record.
BL: So you’ve mentioned working on new material. When do you think that’ll be coming out?
PC: Well, when I think it’ll be coming out and when it actually does is usually two very different things [laughs]. But I’m going to try and submit this record to the label within about six months. We’re working hard and I’m trying to get all my ideas down and getting them to the band and Beau. So I’d say within a year you’ll hear a new record. That’s the goal.