By Drew Ailes
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By Kyra Scrimgeour
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By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
My strength is in writing pop songs -- punk-rock pop songs."
Dave Smalley, singer/guitarist of the Southern California-based quartet Down by Law, is spelling out exactly why, unlike his friends and contemporaries in Fugazi, he never tried juggling test tubes in the punk-rock laboratory. "From a spiritual side, I've always really loved a great melody that makes you sing for days afterward, a chorus that you can latch onto and sink your teeth into," says the D.C.-area native. "It doesn't mean that I don't enjoy the more experimental bands, 'cause I do. Fugazi really tries to do some very innovative things, which I highly respect. But I might not have the talent to play more challenging stuff; my fingers just don't work that way. You should just really go with where your strengths lie."
If Smalley sounds like a self-help guru or motivational speaker, well, it's because he is -- kind of. Throughout his twenty years of playing punk rock -- in DYS, Dag Nasty, All, the Sharpshooters and Down by Law -- he's sung his share of odes to failure, betrayal and regret. Always, though, he throws out a safety net of hope and salvation. Whether in the lyrics themselves or simply the tone of his voice and the passion of the music, Smalley's songs do more than point fingers -- they offer hands. And brains. And heart.
"I always tend to look at things in the sense of what they could be rather then despairing over what they are," explains Smalley, currently on tour with his main group, which is Down by Law. "We don't always need to look at things in the most negative light. People doprogress, things doget better, and mistakes doget corrected. And the trick of music -- or at least punk-rock music -- is to try to address some of the things that need to get fixed."
Smalley grew up in Arlington, Virginia, on a diet of typical '70s radio fare: Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and James Taylor. "He was actually a huge inspiration for me in the earlier days, just listening to how controlled his voice was and how he could tell a story through lyrics," Smalley admits of Mr. Sweet Baby James. But it was the slightly more abrasive strains of Joe Strummer and Jello Biafra that truly transformed Smalley. "Around ninth grade, my friend had this older brother; he started saying, 'You should check this stuff out,' stuff like the first Clash album and the first Dead Kennedys album. That opened a ton of doors for me in terms of how I saw things. I could perceive a whole different way of using music to express sentiments and political things, not just songs about love or whatever. It was like, wow, you can talk about everythingnow. You can actually try to change the world in a different way, in a more immediate sense."
After moving to Boston to attend college in 1981, Smalley posted a "bandmembers wanted" flier at a local record store; soon after, DYS was formed. The music the group made was raw, ardent hardcore, and it made a strong impact on the East Coast punk scene during its brief existence. "Nowadays, I still see people talking about DYS. There are bands called Wolfpack and Brotherhood [the titles of two DYS songs]," he says, chuckling. "And it's the same thing with Dag Nasty. I had no idea; none of us did back then. People never really know where they're going to be viewed in history."
Can I Say, the first Dag Nasty album, was released in 1986, and no amount of hyperbole can do it justice. Formed by ex-Minor Threat bassist-turned-guitarist Brian Baker, Dag Nasty was the prototype of a new kind of punk band: Politics, poetics, melody and outrage were combined into a sound that was as sensitive as it was corrosive. Shot through it were Smalley's strident, barking tirades against conformity, amorality and keeping one's fucking mouth shut. The record's pop-anthem orientation influenced hundreds upon hundred of bands, from NOFX to Face to Face on up through today's mall-punk minions like Good Charlotte and the All-American Rejects. Regardless of the inevitable marketability of the Dag Nasty sound, Can I Say stands as one of the gospels of punk rock -- a milestone, a classic and a true inspiration.
"I had known Brian for a while," says Smalley of Dag Nasty's inception. "We played together a few times when he was in Minor Threat and I was in DYS, and we had those common roots of being from the D.C. area. So when I got back from college in 1985, he played me the demo tape of his new band, and I told him I loved it. He ended up asking me to roadie for them, so I did. A few months later, they ended up parting ways with their first singer [Shawn Brown], and they asked me to join; I was ready to go.
"I think we were all at the point where everybody was ready to stretch their wings as far as they could musically," he continues. "In DYS, I didn't sing -- I just screamed, really. I'd never tried combining singing and screaming before, like I did in Dag Nasty. Years later, it's still kind of my signature style: mixing melody with power."