Just five minutes into a Daniel Ellworth & the Great Lakes show you will start developing symptoms. Your hands will clap. Your feet will tap. You will sing along to songs you are hearing for the first time. Do not be alarmed; this is a natural reaction. The well-traveled foursome from Nashville, Tennessee possess the showman’s skill of making the complex seem simple and making sure you have a damn good time watching them do it.
Their 12-song debut, Civilized Man, (which landed a spot on Amazon’s 100 Best Albums of 2011,) showcases a group well beyond its years. These are the junior high kids who drive brother’s Firebird and steal dad’s whiskey, and they don’t let you forget it. Their sumptuous blend of old rock and traditional folk with singalong harmonies brings together eras and genres in a sound that becomes instantly their own. The band — led by frontman Ellsworth and supported by guitarist Timon Lance, bassist Marshall Skinner, and drummer, Joel Wren — write songs both sonically intricate and lyrically full. Much like their revered influences, Wilco, The Band, and Jack White, they strive for (and more often than not, hit) a modern but timeless sound with cross-generational appeal that could easily propel them into the margins of the mainstream, much like their fellow Nashville rockers, The Black Keys.
Perhaps it is no coincidence then that their live show often brings together fans of a wide demographic. And it is at the live shows that this the band really shines. Individually, each member is confident, precise, and well-trained experts in their particular crafts. When they combine they bring a raw vigor and contagious enthusiasm that you would expect from four twenty-something Nashvillians who have an affinity for dive bars, diners, and donut-eating competitions.
Next week, they’re bringing their plaid shirts, skinny jeans, and Nashville charm to New York City. The band will play not one, not two, but five shows all around the Big Apple as part of the CMJ Music Marathon (the festival that launched the superstardom of formerly underground indie artists like Sleigh Bells and Gotye.) But before they take over NYC (and maybe the world,) check out the exclusive video premiere of their new single, Wolf is Me, and our interview with the band’s namesake and piano-playing ringleader, Daniel Ellsworth.
You’ve spent the majority of the year traveling and playing shows — how has that affected your performance? How have you grown as a band from the experience?
Yeah. This year we will have played close to 150 dates. Every single date has been self-booked and self-promoted, which has pushed us all just short of insanity. When you play that many shows together, naturally, you get tighter as a band. Every single time we play we feel more and more confident in our live show. Doing everything DIY has also forced us to learn how to operate as a small business when we’re out on the road. You have to be your own tour managers, your own merch salespeople, and somewhere in there you have to be a rock band. People assume we are off partying, traveling, and having the time of our lives – don’t get me wrong, all those things are true – but there’s also a lot of fucking work that goes into every show we play. People don’t realize that. Making ends meet in a small, independent touring band isn’t easy to do – but I think playing this many dates has forced us to grow stronger and learn how make the most of every show.
You and the band recently took a trip to Minnesota to work on your record — how was that experience? What was the writing process and how did it differ from writing in Nashville?
We had some time in between shows up there so we hunkered down in a lake house in northern Minnesota to write for a week. Bon Iver would be really proud of us. We literally just set up and wrote music all day every day. There hasn’t ever been a time in this band where we’ve been able to dedicate entire days at a time to the writing process. It was much more focused because of that. For our new material, I’ve been bringing chord structures and unfinished melodies to the guys, and then we build them from the ground up as a band. We spend insane amounts of time talking about what each instrument should do where, why it should do that, and how it will affect the entire song. It’s a very open, very communal process.
What’s your approach to trying to make the most of CMJ and will you be doing anything special for the festival?
We’re super excited to be playing CMJ for the first time. As of right now, we’ll be playing 5 times in 3 days. When we’re not playing, we’re going to be all over the city catching shows and going to parties and whatever else it is bands do during CMJ week (drink). We’re actually going to be giving 1,000 downloads of our album away for free during the whole festival. If you happen to catch one of our sets or just run into us on the street at 3 am – come say hi – we’ll be sure you get a copy.
How has the sound changed since Timon Lance joined the band? What other changes have you made (in terms of technique, aesthetics, etc.) since the bands inception?
We have definitely become a louder, more aggressive rock band since Timon joined DE&TGL, which I love. I’m not sure if that is partially just the natural progression of the band, or what – but him joining has definitely helped shape that sound. Timon brings a perfect blend of technique and unabashed aggressiveness with his guitar playing. It’s been a really great, really smooth transition. I don’t know that any other intentional changes have been made with the band – I feel like the more shows you play and the more time you spend together, a band sort of naturally progresses and changes and becomes whatever it is they are. Does that make sense? I’m pretty drunk. Just kidding. (I’m not kidding).
What can fans expect from you over the next few months? What are you looking forward to?
Between now and the end of the year, we’ll still be touring. In November we’re heading back to the Northwest, West Coast, and Southwest – we’re super excited for that. The first part of next year we are going to continue writing and working towards being back in the studio by March to begin on our second album.
Be sure to catch Daniel Ellsworth & the Great Lakes @CMJ:
- 10/17 – Pirate! Promotions Annual CMJ Party – presented by: Anti- Records, Pirate!, and Backbone! @ Fontana’s 12:00pm
- 10/18 – CMJ Showcase, presented by: Young Giant + Maimed Tamed @ Arlene’s Grocery, 12:00pm
- 10/18 – CMJ Showcase @ The Trash Bar, 9:00pm ($7 at the door, FREE with CMJ badge, 21+)
- 10/19 – CMJ Day Party Presented by Tretorn @ Impossible USA studio (425 BROADWAY. 5th FL.) 3:00pm
- 10/19 – CMJ Showcase @ Rockwood Music Hall, 2:00am