You recently re-released “You & Your Sister” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the album. First, that made me feel VERY old, as I used to listen to and love it in high school! Are you an inherently nostalgic person? What was it like to revisit your and Robert Ray’s work from an older (and one would presumably wiser) vantage point?
The big thing that jumped out at me was how thin the original album sounded. We'd remastered some of the songs from Please Panic and noticed modest improvement. But the remastered tracks from You and Your Sister may as well have been remixes, they sounded different, so much deeper and nuanced. There were some parts I'd forgotten we'd recorded, they'd been so far back in the mix. For the most part, I'm happy enough with the tracks themselves. There are a few I think could have been better realized ("Margaret Says" and "Cry Real Tears" come to mind), but overall the album holds up for me.
I don't know if I'm a nostalgic person or not. I'm very interested in the past, as well as in a lot of older music, movies, architecture, etc. But I guess I associate "nostalgic" with interest in something simply because it's from a bygone era, i.e. for its quaintness. Which is not something I'm interested in at all.
You were picked to curate a week’s worth of material for Magnet Magazine’s website, and your choices ranged from Elmore James to the names of beauty parlors you’ve come across. Both of these things seem oddly but perfectly in step with the Boatmen’s music and influences. How does the everyday make it into your songwriting? What is your process like?
We had no set methodology for writing songs, but almost always the melody came first. At least in my case, while working on that initial melody, I'd often find myself singing a few words, maybe a couple lines or a hook phrase. If we liked those words and they sang well, we'd keep them and build the rest of the lyrics around them. Us “liking” them usually meant that they sounded conversational, every day. Anything too weird or opaque was usually discarded.
Your arrangement within Vulgar Boatmen was (or is) fairly unique – two functioning recording and touring units that operate symbiotically but apart. Was that simply a function of pre-internet geography? I have to imagine that there were some difficulties (and probably some opportunities) that arose from that set-up.
It was a matter of geography, yes. Robert and I lived 900 miles apart and we both were fronting bands. As we wrote more and more songs together via the US mail, the repertoires of the two bands started to mirror each other. When it came time to make an album, it only made sense to pool our resources. The arrangement made for occasional difficulties, hurt feelings, but there was also a big upside. Sometimes Robert's band would have a better arrangement of a particular song than mine did, or vice-versa, which gave us twice the opportunity to get it right in the recording process.
What are your thoughts on digital distribution being the primary delivery system for music? In one sense it would seem a benefit to expose younger listeners to lost gems like “You & Your Sister”, but the royalty rates and mechanicals are so out of line with what could (or should) be given to recording artists and songwriters. Does it have any impact on your writing and recording?
[I'm going to skip this question, because I really don't have anything original or interesting to say. Sorry.] (Ed. Note: I’ve included the lack of response because I find it interesting…you can infer what you wish from Dale’s reticence!)
A bit of a specific one for you: what was the inspiration for “Decision By The Airport”? I have always found that one of your most affecting tunes.
Sometimes a phrase or a lyric will seem to write itself, in which case I tend to go with it and assume it connects to something, even if I'm not sure what. "You need a decision by the airport tomorrow" is a good example of that. I came up with the melody and just found myself singing those words, liked them, so kept them. I also wrote the words to the "Somebody else" part, about occasionally glimpsing my ex around town after a significant relationship fell apart. Robert put lyrics to the verses, so you'd have to ask him about them -- though I know his second verse was also about saying goodbye at the end of a relationship. So there.
I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?
I guess I would say “There's a Family.” I've always found that one very satisfying, both the words and music. And the recording came out especially nice, driven by Jonathan Isley's drum part and Helen Kirklin's gorgeous viola solo.
What’s on tap for you next? Is there the possibility of new, recorded music from Vulgar Boatmen?
There are no hard recording plans at this time but I'd never say never. We do have some shows coming up, including two or three Midwestern dates this summer with Walter Salas-Humara, which we're looking forward to a lot.