Dance Gavin Dance Stay Light Years Ahead on ‘Mothership’
For over 10 years now, Dance Gavin Dance have been one of the most polarizing bands in post-hardcore, for several reasons. There's the three vocalists, all of whom have brought their own edge to the proceedings. Former singer Jonny Craig was a constant scene-tabloid star, infamous for not only his drug habit, but his scams to fund it, while counterpart Kurt Travis would end up a live performance liability. The music itself is also fiercely against the genre's norm — quirky guitars shift in emotion and tone rather than adhering to one specific sound for an entire record. In the course of one song, a poppy, sugary chorus might lead you to a sledgehammer hangover, providing an unexpected and exciting ride each time. Nowhere is this more apparent than the band's newest effort, Mothership.
Mothership is singer Tilian Pearson's third DGD record, the most full-lengths that any vocalist has done with the band. His chemistry with "unclean" vocalist Jon Mess' stream of consciousness assault is more effective than previous incarnations. But on this record, Pearson is fiercer than ever: "Deception" melds the beauty of his voice with a sharp intensity. He's fully settled into his role, providing the scream / sing pair with just the right balance. The rest of the band sounds equally focused, resulting in their most experimental — and potentially best — record to date.
We spoke to Pearson ahead of the album's October 7 release on Rise.
In the last year and a half, Mothership is the fourth release you've worked on. You've had your solo project [Tilian], Instant Gratification came out last year, you had Tree City Sessions, and you have the new record. Do you fucking sleep?
[Laughs] Well, luckily, Tree City Sessions only took a day. So, that helped there. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know. There's a huge delay [from] when you record something to when it comes out. Instant Gratification was, like, I think I recorded that in September 2014, and then I did my solo album, most of it, September 2015, and then Tree City Sessions happened literally the day after I was done recording my solo record.
So, it was just one big go of it?
Yeah, it was literally the next day. But then I've got plenty of time in between. [Laughs] And then this last one [Mothership] will be the quickest turnaround.
When did you actually record it?
We finished in June.
So, there was a push to get it done quickly because we already had a tour booked surrounding it. That's the first time that that had happened, too. I'm happy about it; I wish all albums came out this quickly. That'd be awesome. But then you run into things like not knowing what the first single is going to be.
On this record, there's definitely a lot of poppy points, but I do get the feeling you wanted to make it a lot stranger than the previous couple.
It's definitely not. It definitely doesn't have too much of the last album, Instant Gratification, like this kind of straightforward — I guess you would call that album post-hardcore with a pop structure? This one is definitely not that. There might be one or two songs that hint at that. And I think, [guitarist] Will [Swan], who's like the ... I describe it as if we're painting a picture, he kinda traces it, or he draws the outlines for everything and everybody kinda fills the colors in. I think he intentionally was like, "No, we're not gonna do that again." [Laughs] So, he kinda made it so that it was pretty tough to make things repetitive and structured, because it wasn't that way.
Right. Was that something that you felt? That you wanted to make sure that it wasn't as — I don’t know if "accessible" is the right word, but as poppy as the last record?
Yeah, I feel like there are sections of the new album that are even poppier, if you just took that 30 seconds and made it into a three-minute song, if you just threw in a bridge. But yeah, there's definitely a lot more — I don't know how to describe it. There's, like, more colors in the same song.
One song that stuck out to me was called "Inspire the Liars." The song is going along, and then there's this one-minute break where I get a heavy Michael Jackson vibe, that really classic '80s pop that's super danceable. Then immediately afterwards, you're in a section where you're yelling, "Let's start a religion," and it's like this huge expansive thing. Even the super poppy parts are juxtaposed by really huge parts like that. It was interesting.
Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think that was the first song that was written instrumentally and vocally, actually. That was the first one. And I think Zach Garren, who used to be in the band, I think he wrote it with them. And that was one of the ones where — this album features a lot of guests, and most of the time it was kind of like done over email and they'd get the song, they'd kinda put their part on it and send it back, but I think Zach was actually in the room with them, working it out on that one, so that's cool. But yeah, I don't really know. It's hard to keep track of what you're doing [laughs] when you're doing it. Just kinda do it, and then afterward, [try] to reflect on what you did. I find that that happens a lot, especially with this band, in making music. There's not really like, "This is what we're gonna do." There's no band meeting that happens where it's like, "Guys, I wanna do this in the next album." It just kinda happens, and then afterward we're like, "This is what we did." [Laughs]
So, Will writes a part and then everyone puts their instrumental parts in and passes it to you? Do you do the vocals right away, or do you have time to sit with it for a bit?
No. On this one, there was a lot of time because Tim [Feerick] is kinda building up his own studio — he's the bassist. He's building up his own studio in Sacramento. He did demos in pre-production for every single song, so John and I had a long time to sit with it. And then Will — this time, Will was in the studio the whole time we were doing the vocals, too, so it's kind of like all three of us together. Still, about, I would say, more than half of the vocals weren't written before we went into the studio. So, it's just a few weeks of very intensive work.
That makes sense. Curious — you grew up in Clearwater, Fla., right?
Was there a music scene there? What was it like growing up there?
Not really. I went to high school in Oregon. Kind of the age that I would have been getting into music in Florida, I wasn't there. I went to a really small boarding school in Oregon. The first rock show I ever went to was — in my school, you had to write kind of a request to go off campus. So, the first rock show I went to was Cursive when they were touring The Ugly Organ. That was in Portland, and there was, I don’t know, maybe 100-200 people there. That kind of started the inspiration to make music. The first concert I ever went to was the Up in Smoke tour with Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Eminem. [Laughs] I have an older brother figure who's really into that kind of gangster rap. Out of high school, I moved to L.A. pretty quickly, just because a lot of my friends who went to this school were moving out. We all moved out together.
Was music always what you wanted to do?
When I was 16, I wanted to be a pilot. I got my pilot's license at 17, and one day, my private pilot's license. I was just kind of flying one day and I was really bored. [Laughs] Just sitting there in the sky, and I was like, it's kind of like first world problems because I got that all paid for — but anyway. I was in the sky and I was like, "I think I want to try something else." My sisters growing up were musicians; they were into music and they were getting lessons, doing plays and singing in choirs and doing that kind of stuff. They could play piano, and I got a girlfriend in high school and she was into country music. She played guitar; she taught me the basic guitar chords. I started messing around with that, and there was this digital recorder that the school had that I learned how to use. So, a few months into learning guitar, I was writing and recording my first songs on this digital recorder. I just went with it. My first band was actually in Florida. I was on Christmas break with my family and I just stayed in Florida and started the band. That was a pretty jumbled explanation, but you get the idea.
The first time I saw you play was with Tides of Man. It was on that Squash the Beef tour with DGD and Emarosa. What was your perception of DGD before you joined the band?
I had heard of them, and heard them before that tour, but I never really paid attention. Then we played a show with them, actually; Tides of Man did right before that tour. They were on their leg going home from Warped Tour. I think the first time I met them was Little Rock, Ark. We played a very tiny show in a coffee shop. They were touring [2009's] Happiness at the time. That was the first time I had seen them, my whole band; we were floored because we had been playing some local shows and we had just come off a tour, our first tour ever with Asking Alexandria, and A Static Lullaby was headlining, and Motionless in White.
When did they contact you about being DGD's new singer? Was it a permanent thing in the beginning? Or was it like, "Hey, we got this tour"?
I don’t know, should I be honest? [Laughs] Jonny Craig had gotten kicked out, and I think Matt [Mingus, drummer] called me, and they were all really drunk. They were like, "Dude listen." And basically, Matt was like, "Let's do this shit! You're perfect for us! Let's jump into this shit! Let's fucking destroy the world!" It was a very inspirational drunk chat. At the time, I had been flirting with a few bands, and I had a very conservative mindset. I was like, "Yeah, I'll tell you what: Let's do this tour and see what happens." Then we did that whole first tour and for them, I think coming off of the split with Jonny, it was kind of a flop, but for me, it was awesome. The time of my life.
How do you and Jon do the vocals? What was it like during the beginning?
On [Acceptance Speech], he had a lot of it written, as far as I remember. I had also done a good amount of demos without him. I had some songs written without him and he had some songs written without me. Then we kind of just collaborated from there. I think we got some of our more coherent work that the band has ever done lyrically, at least on that album. Just because, in terms of how hard I've ever tried on vocals, I'd say that one was the hardest. We weren't satisfied with stuff, we'd change stuff, we'd try to make it better. I think we wrote "[Strawberry] Swisher [Part] III" at lunch over a burger and a beer. [Laughs] It was important to both of us. Jon didn't want to be like, "Oh, the band is done." I didn't want to be like, "Oh, I killed the band," so there was a lot of pressure on that album.
Then on Instant Gratification, there was a lot more freedom. We just went in and did whatever we wanted. There wasn't as much pressure, and we just blurred our way through it and after the fact, we were like, "Wow, this is cool."
Do you take on characters? It seems like there's a lot of songs on Instant Gratification where you're performing roles that aren't 100 percent you.
There's definitely a piece of me that's seen at times, but yeah. There's definitely an aspect of ... I kind of see it as being sarcastic, where I kind of take on [a character], specifically in "We Own the Night." That's kind of from the viewpoint of a villain, almost. Kind of pulling somebody into this world that's toxic for them, but every easy and fluid. So yeah ... definitely — but at the same time, I've been that villain before. It's not completely another person, but definitely a character.
The self-awareness has always stuck out to me. On Instant Gratification, the song that I listened to the most was "Awkward." I don’t know what your intent was, but it seemed like the lyrics were about making fun of brain-dead singers.
Kind of. Yeah. If you listen to a song, you get an interpretation of it. That's the whole point of it being a song rather than — you want to get whatever interpretation you get out of it. For me, the song was kind of about someone who's a free spirit and doesn't really question who they are. Then, they kind of take a friend who is "really good for them." It's really good for me to be friends with this person because he points out my flaws and he helps me "get better." Without him — or her — I wouldn't know that I was doing something wrong, and I wouldn't know how to correct it. It's the descent of somebody who is a free spirit and kind of just lives life as a game. The descent of, "This is serious and I need to question what I'm doing and I need to figure out ..." I don't know. "I need to figure out what other people think of me, how I'm gonna come off. I don’t want to come off as an undesirable person." So, it's, in a sense, making yourself smaller to please those around you. That was the thought behind it, but I guess the genre creates a canvas where you can be vague. The genre of the band. Or at least ... you get the idea.
Did you bring that sarcasm — or character acting, almost — into the new record?
Yeah, definitely. [Laughs] I think a lot of the time, Jon and I were writing a lot of the newest record about the worst versions of ourselves. I know that's not very inspirational, but it makes nice fun and easy writing. We put it out there so you can see it and laugh at it rather than keep it inside and slowly die. [Laughs]
What's the worst version of yourself then?
I get "disloyal," "narcissistic," "drug addict." All-around piece of excrement.
Do you think sex is a major theme of DGD lyrics?
I guess. Sex is a major theme of life, really, especially when life is uncensored. DGD isn't trying to censor, necessarily. Unless it's specifically avoided, I think it's a major theme in life whether you're doing it in your mind or in reality, or whatever. It's just the major part of what takes up your ... I don’t know. Maybe I'm crazy, maybe it's just me. It's definitely something that's on your mind.
I like the idea of DGD being this uncensored thing. In a lot of other bands in the scene, I think real human reactions are only often implied. But when you can say something explicitly — even to the point that it's gross — you've got something more effective.
I think ... the art form of the band isn't necessarily this untouchable thing that needs to be this perfectly constructed package thing that's greater than any person's mind or more — I don’t know the word for it. More pure, I guess? It's kind of just what goes through our minds; we write it down and just do it. Of course, we're trying to make something groovy and catchy at times. I guess occasionally heavy.
When people hear Mothership, what do you want them to get out of it?
I hope they like it, and if they don't like it, then that's OK, too, I guess. Hopefully, the mixes and everything turned out in a way where everybody can see all the work that was put into it. I think this one is pretty transparent. There's nothing covering anything up. At the same time, if it changes your life, that's great, but that might not be the purpose, so that's why that question was ... I don’t know. Just hope they like it.
I'm assuming fans will come up to you and say that. Is that a strange thing to hear from people?
No, I mean, I had the conversation — this is maybe 10 years ago — with somebody, and it always stuck out to me. You're not looking for that piece of art that's going to mold or shape you and change your life. But maybe the reason you live is to experience those pieces of art, and kind of all of it as a whole contributes to how you are. Not necessarily who you are, but how you are. Then, instead of finding something that you want to change your life, you're kind of just living through everything to experience.
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