Interview with Dave Smalley (9-7-03)
By Sean Koepenick

Dave Smalley. The name may not be a household name to some music fans, but some of the bands he has been involved in are sure to shake some cobwebs out of your cranium. Dag Nasty. Down By Law. DYS. All. The Sharpshooters. For over twenty years, Dave has given punk rock music fans around the globe reason to cheer. Each song, each CD provides a positive perspective on life. Stand up for what you believe in, question authority when you think an injustice has occurred. But also have fun. Enjoy your life and try to be inclusive as well. Don't be judgmental and you'll find that the rewards that come your way will be extremely satisfying.

Although Dave grew up in the Washington D.C. area, the first band to give him widespread exposure was a band he started while attending school in Boston. DYS put out two records on Taang Records and they were part of the "Boston Crew" that included other bands like Negative FX, and FU's. Moving back to the area in the mid 1980's, Dave became a roadie for local Dischord Records band Dag Nasty. When their first singer didn't work out; Dave was asked to step up to the mike. The results were hardly surprising considering all of the band members talents. Brian Baker on guitar, Colin Sears on drums and Roger Marbury on bass created the phenomenal punk rock classic Can I Say in 1986. It was truly the voice of a frustrated generation-screaming to be let out.

Dave left the band shortly afterwards to go to school in Israel, eventually ending up with a master's degree in political science. But music's siren wails would soon call again. Dave met up with Bill Stevenson (ex-Black Flag), whose band The Descendents has recently splintered. A new band ALL, was formed and Dave stayed for two great records with this outfit. But in the early 1990's Dave decided to branch out with his own songs. Asking some friends from The Chemical People to "help out" with some demos, the result was Down By Law.

Although Down By Law has gone through many changes over the years-one factor has always remained consistent: great punk rock songs. Down By Law has not been afraid to tackle any subject-from the serious to the silly. Their longevity and "road warrior" approach to touring has made them a fan favorite not just in the US, but all over the world. If you do not own a Down By Law CD- a recently released "greatest hits" CD (they're all great and if this was a just world they would all be hits) on Epitaph Records is a good starting point for the uninitiated. Down By Law put out a new record in May 2003-Winwardtidesandwaywardsails with a line-up that has been pretty solid for the last few years: Sam Williams III (Pseudo Heroes) on lead guitar, Keith Davies (The Sharpshooters) on bass, and Milo Todesco (Zerodown) on drums. Down By Law is one of the true keepers of the punk rock flame-building on what such great acts as The Clash and The Who tried to tell music fans-"long live rock!"

In addition to these commitments, Dave has occasionally reunited with his band mates in Dag Nasty, most recently on the excellent Minority Of One- a near perfect punk rock record. He also has a more "mod" influenced side project called The Sharpshooters. Their debut release was an underappreciated gem. Dave has also recently done some solo gigs as well-these cover songs from his entire career-and a few Irish drinking songs too. When Dave takes a breather from his music, he is also the youth editor for The Freelance Star out of Fredericksburg, VA. He lives with his wife and family in the Northern Virginia area.

Dave Smalley is without a doubt a punk rock legend. You owe it to yourself to check out some of his heartfelt, melodic music that he has made with any of his bands. He is also one of the nicest performers in music today. Always gracious to his fans, and always appreciative of any admiration thrown his way at gigs, he is an artist that has worked long and hard for many years to produce fantastic music for the masses to treasure and enjoy.

Right: Down By Law

E.C.: How and when did you first get involved with music?

Dave: I guess I started singing in public in fourth grade, in the church choir. In fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Zolbe, was super cool and really loved to have the kids do musical performances for our families and the school. She discovered I could sing a little bit and really encouraged me, and it kept going from there. I kept singing in plays, all the way through senior year of high school. It was hilarious, because in the dramas, where real acting talent was required, I would get the role of "Man With Hat In The Crowd" or "Third Tree", but in the musicals I would get the lead roles- if the role depended on acting talent alone, it was going to be slim pickings for me. It was during those high school musicals that I got my main singing training by our vocal instructor, who taught me how to sing and breathe from the diaphragm.

E.C.: What bands/artists influenced you when you first started listening to music?

Dave: Honestly, in the early days, these are the people/groups that I dug and used to sing along to: James Taylor, The Beatles, Beach Boys, Pure Prairie League, Alice Cooper, Bread, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton John, America- a lot of stuff my older sister listened to, basically. She had a lot of '70s rock and a bit of Southern stuff going on, so I always really liked that. Still do- I seriously love Southern rock. I still listen to all of those artists, with the exception of Bread. All of them are key to my developing as a singer; all have incredible senses of melody and also vocal control. Also, I listened to TONS of musicals courtesy of my parents' influence. That also really helped my understanding of melody; plays like Mame" , "Fiddler On The Roof", "Guys and Dolls", "West Side Story". Amazing scores and really incredible songwriters. Overall The Clash, The Who, and The Jam were my major influences as a punk rocker. But all the other stuff laid the foundation.

E.C.: What was the first band you were in and can you describe their sound?

Dave: Well, in high school, Bishop Ireton, I was in a school folk group, called The BIsons (the Bishop Ireton sons). We did a lot of mellow covers (John Denver etc.) and played a lot of old folk homes, elementary schools, housing complex picnics. Actually for my audition to the group, I got in by singing the song "Your Smiling Face" by James Taylor. He was one of those really influential artists from when I was a kid: life comes around in weird ways. The Bisons was a lot of fun. A few of the guys in that group and I formed a "side band" called, at various points, No Success or General Disorder. We did mostly covers- The Clash version of "I Fought The Law", Lou Reed's "Vicious". I think we played only in places where The BIsons got us in the door, and then very quickly we were usually shown the door. It didn't last long and was never really a "band" per se.

E.C.: DYS was the first band that offered some exposure for you coming out of the Boston music scene. How did this band come together?

Dave: I had lived and breathed hardcore growing up in Virginia, but I never really knew the cats in the D.C. scene. I would go to shows with my Catholic school girlfriend and she would hate it and we would leave right after the show and go back to Virginia. So I never really got to know all the players, even though I saw all the early bands. I was the only punk in my high school, which I'm sure many an old schooler can relate to. When I went to college, in Boston, I put up a notice in a small record store called Newbury Comics. I think it was the third day I was there. And Jon Anastas answered it, and from there it just sort of took off. Being in the Boston Crew from the earliest days was really a spiritual thing in hindsight, odd as that sounds.

E.C.: Did DYS lead to you being asked to join DC's Dag Nasty?

Dave: Well, I'd known Brian (Baker) from him being in Minor Threat and me being in DYS and us either playing together or hanging out together when one or the other of us would be in each other's city. We always liked each other, and I think really respected what the other does musically. But once DYS broke up and I moved back home, he and I hung around together a lot and really became very close friends. It was a great time. I roadied for Dag Nasty, and eventually they asked me to sing for them.

E.C.: What record with Dag Nasty are you most proud of and why?

Dave: Well, I hate comparisons, because they're inherently flawed and also, completely subjective. To me, every band, every record, every player, has something that makes them unique. I don't compare any two groups, or even two albums, in terms of which one is better than the other. Its apples and oranges. That's true even when you compare two records by the same group. Can I Say was a special, spiritual record for a lot of people, and for us. I will forever be psyched and genuinely touched that it means so much to so many really cool people.

Minority Of One I am also incredibly grateful for. It kind of blew me away when I heard it all finished and what a great job Steve (Hansgen) and Don (Zientara) had done; it was like, man, this is everything we wanted it to be. I think it really has the chemistry the first one did. If Can I Say meant a lot to all of us when we were younger, and hopefully still does. I hope that Minority Of One can equal that for us as adults who still love punk rock and how it shaped our lives. I guess if I'm proud of anything, it's of Brian (Baker), Colin (Sears), Roger (Marbury) for being great players. Also, for Don, Steve and Ian MacKaye for being able to harness the energy of the group and get it on tape.

E.C.: What was your most memorable gig with Dag Nasty? Did you have any gigs that you would like to forget?

Dave: I remember one show we played in D.C. with Kingface, and there was a purple black light thing going on and a plastic penguin as part of the stage show. I'm not exactly sure anymore where that came from, but I remember it, since purple was the official Dag Nasty color. I also remember loving Mark (Sullivan)'s voice and stage presence-they were an incredible band. Also, there was a show in Burke, VA at a community center, where girls were "rating" all of us. I think Roger was voted best looking, which is still an accurate assessment today. There weren't really any shows I'd like to forget. Everything was part of making the band what it was and who we were. Even seeing Bill Stevenson in his underwear after a hot sweaty gig in Detroit at The Greystone-excellent.

E.C.: After leaving Dag Nasty you eventually hooked up with some ex-Descendents in All-what was that experience like?

Dave: It was pretty intense. We lived in a big walk-in closet in the back of an office with three other men, each other in Lomita, CA. We had wooden bunks built into the walls, just big enough to stretch out in, covering the whole closet except for a tiny room with a toilet off to one side. I remember when there was a pretty big earthquake and I woke up and looked at the bunks above me. I truly believed I was about to die from being crushed by the bunks coming down on my head. Those guys were great musicians, serious about practice, touring, and going for ALL, all the time. They helped make me a better musician, and really expanded my singing. I toured in All for 9 and a half months out of one year, my first year in the band. There are about a million good stories with those guys, and they're still one of my favorite bands in America.

E.C.: Do you have a favorite track that you sang with All?

Dave: Some of the ones that I remember were "Wishing Well", "Skin Deep", and "Don Quixote", "Daveage", "Paper Tiger", and "Just Perfect". I honestly liked all of them. Bill and Karl were really unique songwriters, and all of them are insanely great musicians. Allroy For Prez is still one of my favorite records I've ever made in my career.

E.C.: Did the song "Alfredo's" ever get you any free food?

Dave: Yes, yep. The LA Times did an article on the song, calling it the modern version of "Alice's Restaurant." Alfredo's invited us in to do a special lunch, brought out the article-framed and we got free food. He was crying a little bit, he was so touched that we made the song and that one of the biggest newspapers in the world wrote a major article and it and his restaurant. He was a sweet guy; and made killer food obviously. To this day, it is still the best Mexican food I've ever had, hands down.

E.C.: Down By Law put out their first record in 1991-how did the group form?

Dave: When I quit All, it was because I wanted to go back to grad school and because I was burnt on touring. I had written a couple of songs towards the end of my stint in All. Then I wrote a couple more, including "Down The Drain" and "Right Or Wrong." I asked my friends in Chemical People if they would mind playing them with me, because I wanted to hear them with a group. They were up for it, and the songs sounded good when we played together. Before too long we decided to play out, and then fairly soon thereafter we signed to Epitaph. The story is told in better details in the liner notes for Down By Law's best of CD-Punk Rock Days.

E.C.: Down By Law has had a long history-may different record labels, band members, etc-how have you been able to keep the wheels on?

Dave: I have no idea. It can be a pain. I guess it's a combination of realizations. One is being in a band is like a marriage-only you are married to three or four other people. In America, one out of two marriages ends in divorce. That's just with two people. The odds are against a lineup staying unchanged in any band for a long period of time. People grow and change at different speeds and go in different directions. It's human and it's OK.

The other realization, more important, is that Down By Law means a lot to a fair amount of people and it's a responsibility that I take very seriously. In the end, as long as the players are top notch, and good friends, and we all believe in what we are doing, we'll keep it going. It's a band that I feel really blessed to have been in for so long. Every time I meet a really cool fan who I feel is like a friend; or see someone with a DBL arrow tattoo-it's worth the headaches. We've never been as big as some of the huge bands, but the many fans we've made I wouldn't trade for all the money in the world.

E.C.: What Down By Law record are you most proud of and why?

Dave: Same thing as the answer on the Dag Nasty album. I hope all of them have something that is hopefully worthwhile. I think Punkrockacademyfightsong, All Scratched Up!, and Windwardtidesandwaywardsails are three that really I still am intrigued with from a lyrical and musical point of view. All of those really clicked the way I heard them in my head. We do most of our live set from those three records, although we play songs from all the albums.

E.C.: Do you have any particular Down By Law gigs that were truly memorable?

Dave: That is a good question but so difficult, ironically enough. We've played in so many places that were really cool, and so many clunkers as well. We've toured so much, and met so many righteous people, it's hard to single out just one or a few. I guess I will always remember a Seattle show that the cops shut down. They were literally marching in line like a riot squad-clubs in hand-towards the stage. Pretty scary stuff. I also really will never forget playing the Reading Festival in the UK, with thousands of people singing every word to every song-that was pretty special. Or the kids in Switzerland who linked arms and wouldn't let us off stage-literally-until we played more songs for them. Or some of the South America shows; I don't know there's been a lot of memories. Mostly good. I love playing live, especially when it's good. The chemistry with the audience is something that is really, really intense and indescribable.

Right: Dag Nasty

E.C.: The new CD-"Windwardtidesandwaywardsails" was released in May 2003. How has it and the latest tour been received?

Dave: I think it's been well received, but I try and avoid keeping too much track of reviews. You're doomed as an artist if you believe what people are saying, be it good or bad. You have to do what the music calls for and then after that accept that it is out of your hands. I always viewed it that once I recorded a song it's not mine anymore. It belongs to the listener; it's his or hers. Think of all the songs you love and you relate to them personally. They're a part of you. That's the beauty of the songs or art in general.

The tour was mixed. We played well almost every night I think and had some really strong shows. On the other hand, there were some clunkers this tour of the States that we're not used to in Europe or other places overseas. We are a lot smaller in America than we are overseas at this point. The promoter in Boston, Stu, actually stiffed us on getting paid as one of the headliners of a major festival (Suburban Noise) and that was really just so incredible and pathetic that he would do that to a veteran band. I guess overall it was a well-received tour in terms of audience reactions, but I don't think we'll do another 7 week tour ever again.

E.C.: The great thing about the Down By Law catalog is the balance that the band is able to strike between serious, political material-such as "Capitol Riots" on the new record-versus more light-hearted songs like "Superheroes Wanted" is this always a conscious goal?

Dave: Thanks Sean. No, I wouldn't say it's a conscious goal, really. What I think it is, is a reflection of the band that has always gone with the heart AND the head, not really pandering to anyone or trying to "grab" the "right" crowd, which I think a lot of bands do, punk bands especially, which is really lame. Honesty and developing ourselves as true musicians is our greatest strength. This is also our greatest weakness. We are hopefully a band that any real fan can feel good about being into and supporting and believing in. But we also have our head up our ass in terms of making the right commercial sound. I don't know-maybe we should have latched onto the correct punk "sound" and been far richer. But somehow commerce never managed to call the tune in Down By Law. At the end of the day, the band and the true fans will be able to sleep at night. That's worth a lot of benjamins in my book.

But yeah, we've always had a real blend of politics/socio-political messages, and some that are just human. I equate us in some ways as the punk version of Midnight Oil- a band I've long loved and respected. The Clash pretty much set the standard on the mixing of the personal and the political. That's a philosophy that DBL believes in quite strongly.

E.C.: You have also recently started to play some solo shows that cover your whole musical career-any chance of a solo record at some point?

Dave: I'm working on recording something at the end of the year, because every time I do the solo concerts; people ask me where they can pick it up. I don't know what label it will be on yet. But I'm hopeful that someone will want to release it. It's really a pretty unique musical expression for a punk rock singer that a lot of the older fans seem to enjoy. Hearing "Right Or Wrong" in a solo show, for instance, carries with it an entirely different impact than seeing it with the whole band. Not better, not worse, but definitely different and in some ways very spiritual.

E.C.: The Sharpshooters is a DBL offshoot that is a little bit more "mod" influenced-any new plans for that project?

Dave: Yes, we've been playing and writing a lot lately and the songs are coming out in a really, really exciting way. Very Wire, early Fugazi-thrown into a mod blender. It's very different but still power pop based. I think still something that fans of any of the stuff like DBL or Dag or The Sharpshooters first CD will completely get into. We're all kind of listening to the stuff saying, man, this is pretty unique. What the fuck, cool, let's keep at it. I think we want to record a demo in December of the new songs and then record for real with someone in the early spring.

E.C.: What bands/artists that are new on the scene have you been listening to lately?

Dave: The Boss Martians are the best band in America, hands down. Insanely great power pop. They're from Seattle. Also I really like Sidecar from Cleveland and Two Man Advantage from NY. On the non-punk side it's all about Hank Williams III, Dale Watson, and Wayne 'The Train" Hancock. All of them are just incredible old-school real honky tonk artists who rock.

E.C.: If you could pick any artist/songwriter that is currently active to write a song and/or collaborate with-who would it be?

Dave: Probably Hank III or one of the other honky tonk real country renegades.

E.C.: Obviously you have a lot going on in your musical career-how do you balance all that with your life outside of music?

Dave: I have no idea, to be honest. I have a big family, which is of course so important to me-even though I'm gone more than I'd like to be. One thing that helps is my wife, Caroline, is supportive and deals with taking care of our four little ones while I'm on tour or in the studio or away for solo dates. So that helps a great deal. I think the main thing is not to short-circuit your life just because you happen to be a Mom or Dad. Or just because you have a job where you're busy. I know a lot of people who think they're supposed to follow the "get a job, get married, have kids, go to bed early, grow old, retire and die" syndrome. In the process of doing all those wonderful milestones, completely forget about, or abandon, things they loved to do before. To me, life is to be lived, every second, drink it in. Get drunk on it. Don't forget to have fun, to live. Do all the "grown-up" stuff, and love that, but don't forget about living life while you do it. It's a tough balance.

E.C.: I've heard that you have written some of your life experiences down-any chance of an autobiography ever seeing the light of day?

Dave: There was a book called The Dark Side, which I wrote in the post DYS days. It never really became anything because I didn't like how it came out. Over the years I've been asked a lot about doing a new one, and I'll try to do it when I have time to breathe. It's a bit lower on my priority list right now, but hopefully someday.

E.C.: What's next for you with Down By Law?

Dave: We just got asked to go to Australia and South America, but I don't know if we will take those or not. I think we're pretty much taking a break after the long U.S. tour. I've started writing again.

E.C.: How about Dag Nasty-can you give me an exclusive "scoop" on a rumored reunion gig?

Dave: The bottom line is that we'd all love to do it. The devil is in the details. We'd want to do it right, like we did with Minority Of One. That would mean a lot of rehearsals, and then the time for touring. It would have to be great-really smoking. And between everyone's schedules, finding that time is pretty tough. I hope someday we can do it.

E.C.: Thanks for your time and we hope to hear much more inspired music from you in the future-in whatever project that may be.

Dave: Thanks Sean. Cheers.

    Dave Smalley-Selected Discography:

    With DYS:

  • Wolfpack-1983-Taang! Records
  • DYS -1984-Taang! Records
  • Fire & Ice/Wolfpack-1990/1991-Taang Records

    With Dag Nasty:
  • Can I Say -1986-Dischord Records
  • Four On The Floor-1992-Epitaph Records
  • Minority Of One-2002-Revelation Records

    With All:
  • Allroy Sez-1987-Cruz Records
  • Allroy For Prez-1988-Cruz Records

    With Down By Law:
  • Down By Law-(s/t)-1991-Epitaph Records
  • Blue-1992-Epitaph Records
  • DC Guns-(EP)-1993-Selfless Records
  • Yellow Rat Bastard-(EP)-1994-Break Even Point Records
  • Punkrockacademyfightsong-1994-Epitaph Records
  • All Scratched Up-1996-Epitaph Records
  • Last Of The Sharpshooters-1997-Epitaph Records
  • Fly The Flag-1999-Go-Kart Records
  • Down By Law/Pseudo Heroes-(split)-2000-Theologian Records
  • Punk Rock Days: The Best Of DBL-2002-Epitaph Records
  • Windwardtidesandwaywardsails-2003-Union Label Group

    With The Sharpshooters:
  • The Sharpshooters/Lickity Split-(split EP)-2000-Torque Records
  • Viva Los Guerillas-2000-Fast Music Records

More information about Dave Smalley can be found at: