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Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 21 / 1 / 2011

Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards - Interview


Americana musician and former Absentee frontman Dan Michaelson talks to Ben Howarth about his second solo album, 'Shakes'

Crammed onto what could only in the loosest sense be called a stage, he was supporting the American folk singer Anais Mitchell. Mitchell - a bubbly, almost hyperactive performer who instinctively twitches in a strange dance as she sings - could hardly be less like her support act, whose deep, languid voice and ruffled hair gives the impression of someone who has been pulled out of a dreamless sleep just minutes before the show. “I’m often told that I look unhappy on stage”, he tells the audience. “But I actually couldn’t be happier at the moment”. He sings with a rich bass, closer to the crumpled croon of Leonard Cohen than the maudlin mumble of the National’s Matt Berninger. Underneath, piano, guitar and pedal steel play beautifully. I’m struck first by the gentle crescendos - each song seems to build from a simple introduction to a rich, wholesome chorus. Shortly afterwards, I’m even more impressed by how catchy these songs are, even when sung with a devastatingly deep voice that doesn‘t seem to have a range of more than half an octave, especially the ballad, ‘Something Awful’ in which Michaelson ponders trying to save a doomed love by going out dancing. I’m a big fan of support acts, and this is why. Dan Michaelson seems to have little in common with Anais Mitchell, although I love the music of both. I can assume their being paired together was an accident, but as soon as Michaelson’s set has finished I have made my way across the room (all of five metres, admittedly) to the merch stand to buy a CD that comes in a white paper package with black print. I assume that I’ve bought a demo CD by a new, or at least undiscovered, band. Its called ‘Shakes’ and it’s a fantastic album, easily living up to its live billing. In fact, after closer investigation, I find that Michaelson is in fact a well established songwriter, with a large back catalogue of albums to his name, most released on ‘Memphis Industries’. As well as another album as Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards, he had been the lead singer in Absentee. In December, he played a headline set with the full line up of the Coastguards at a large café/bar in Dalston, East London. A converted warehouse, it sells home cooked food and its own brand of locally brewed ale. Michaelson is more impressed by the choice of a beer from Brooklyn, which was his drink of choice when he stayed in New York. Between sound-checking and writing the set list, we crouch in the Café’s store cupboard, trying to escape the sound of a big throated blues band, tonight’s support act, going through their rehearsal. ‘Shakes’, it seems, is something of a departure for Michaelson, who has until now tended to work with a label and a producer. This time, he has released it himself and produced it himself. He even made the sleeves. Beneath his gently self deprecating tone lurks someone deeply committed to his music. “I thought it was time I produced an album myself”, he says. “I’ve worked with at least two people who I would say are really good producers, and they’ve shown me what it is possible to do. I knew what I wanted for this record, and I felt now that I didn’t need to tell anyone else what to do. I felt I could do it myself”. It helped, of course, that Michaelson actually works for the studio in which he records, although he is not a professional sound engineer. Instead, he is responsible for chasing up invoices and ensuring that studio time is paid for. He explains that his work has been helpful, as they’ve been willing to accept him taking time off to head on tours, as he has been doing recently on tour with I Am Kloot. After Absentee finished, Michaelson had decided that he wanted to work as a solo artist. His first album, ’Saltwater’ was recorded with Valgeir Sigurdsson, who has worked in the past with Sigur Ros, and although it featured a wide range of musicians, there was no formal band around Michaelson. “I decided I wanted to make another record after my old band split up”, he says. “I decided that I would like a go at being in control of everything, so I wanted to make it on my own”. The process of selecting musicians to appear on ‘Saltwater’ wasn’t in any way formal. “There was ‘a little bit of this and a bit of that’… before I knew it I had nine people on the record.” From there, a loose collection of musicians began to crystallize into another band. Even now, the full line-up doesn’t necessarily appear at every gig, and it is clear that this is very much Michaelson’s project. But, the band recorded the album together and collaborated on the arrangements for the songs. The size of the live Coastguards depends, he explains, on “what people want”. I Am Kloot, seeking a mellow opening act, had asked for just a two piece to accompany them on their January UK tour. In the week before my interview, he performed with three different line-ups of the band over three different gigs. “My old band couldn’t do that”, he says. “It wasn’t that adaptable. We all had to be there for the songs to work”. “It was kind of a surprise”, he admits of establishing a new group, but “it would have been a waste not to do it”. “When you are making a record in isolation, and other people are just coming in to do certain parts, a producer is important”, he says. “When you have a band, you don’t need that person who you bounce ideas off. No one in our band holds back!” Sigurdsson has, however, “become a friend since. I’d never met him when I began working with him when I began working with him. As well as being a producer, he is also an arranger. I think if I worked with him again, I’d quite like to work with him as an arranger. If I wanted to use strings, it would make sense to use him”. Musically, ‘Shakes’ marks a new course for Michaelson’s songwriting. In Absentee, the humour was a key part of a lively, uptempo approach. Here, the songs are grander and have more of a ‘classic’ feel, for want of a better term. “Soul music was a big influence on this album”, he says.“I was listening to a lot of 60's soul music, which sounds really big and produced, but when you listen to it, there isn’t actually much there. There are only a few instruments”. With the pedal steel and the slow, sad songs, it's hard not to detect a hint of alt-country in the Coastguards’ sound as well. Michaelson agrees that his music has lots in common with alt-country, saying that he hopes people would notice a similar ‘lyrical quality’. But, despite similar instrumentation, he says “I don’t think people who were passionate about alt-country would say that we were alt-country”. The hand made sleeves are entirely Michaelson’s work. They come in a variety of different colours, and are priced accordingly. There was also a special edition made to be sold in the Rough Trade stores in London, which had made ‘Shakes’ their album of the week. “Screen printing started as a hobby, I guess”, he says, “if you can have a hobby at my age. I really enjoy it, it’s a nice process, even if it gets a bit boring after the 500 mark. I wanted something that was limited, nice and special. I was thinking about myself, especially when I was buying records in my youth, and that’s the only reason I buy records. Something that you’re glad you bothered spending the money on”. The link with Rough Trade came about as Michaelson sought distribution for his new album. “I’d phoned up loads of record shops and they were one of the only ones that said they’d take it, which was a bit of a ball-ache, but also ties in with the way that we’d done the record. People who have a powerful relationship with the independent record shop, hopefully like having a limited thing that you can only buy there”. Would he be interested in using his experience releasing a record for music by other bands? Michaelson is pretty emphatic. “No. God, No. Absolutely not”. Michaelson’s decision to go it alone with ‘Shakes’ was not borne out of frustration with Memphis Industries, his previous label who released both 'Saltwater and Absentee's latetr tow albums and who he describes as “really amazing”. Money, instead, was the unfortunate factor. It isn’t practical, he stresses, “when you are actually losing money for yourself and the label releasing a record together”. Michaelson keeps in touch with his old bandmates in Absentee, and says “I see them nearly everyday anyway”. That band’s first album, 'Hawaiian Disco',which due to legal problems is now almost impossible to find and is viewed by Michaelson as his ‘lost’ album, has most in common with his solo work. After that, he says, the band became “very loud and often very exciting. It was fun, but it kind of drifted away from I really wanted to be doing”. He accepts that the lyrics to his new songs are bleak, and tells of how difficult he found it when asked to dedicate a song to a couple who were celebrating their engagement. Asked who he imagines is the typical Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards audience member, he says that he expects to appeal most to a “late 30s male who is probably single”. And yet, his performances are not without humour, and nor are his songs inaccessible. Indeed, the chorus of ‘Something Awful’ has the lilt of a classic country song and there is a romantic flavour to many of the arrangements on ‘Shakes’. Indeed, later this evening he performs an entirely straight, rather impressive take on ‘Last Christmas’. There were, in fact, plenty of couples around him after tonight‘s gig. A less good natured person than Michaelson might well have ordered them into some form of queue as they sought their personally numbered, personally printed copy of ‘Shakes’. I’m sure they weren’t disappointed.

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Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards - Interview

Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards - Interview

Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards - Interview

Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards - Interview

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