Punk of Ages
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 do progress, things do get better, and mistakes do get 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 everything now. 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."
After leaving Dag Nasty to spend a year in Israel studying political science, Smalley returned to the States in 1988 to join the first lineup of All, a group formed from the ashes of the legendary Descendents. Now based in Fort Collins, All and the resurrected Descendents are both still active, playing their own geeky, articulate brands of pop-punk. Smalley quit the band after a year, however, because "the guys in All are like superheroes, in the sense that they do insanely great amounts of touring," he says. "I was just such a wimp; I couldn't do it." Smalley settled down, enrolled in grad school, and picked up the guitar as a way to work out songs by himself without the pressure of a group situation. But in 1990, he took a batch of his new stuff to his friends in the band Chemical People; the result was Down by Law.
"That was the first time I'd ever played guitar in a band," Smalley recalls. "I was so not used to standing up and playing guitar live that I would shred the skin off my fingers. There'd be blood literally dripping off my guitar."
Down by Law quickly signed to the burgeoning Epitaph label and released tons of records during the height of the '90s pop-punk explosion. And while the group's approach gelled perfectly with the sounds of the day, Down by Law always had an edge of earnestness and sincerity that made the ironic sneering of its peers seem phony and lame. Even the band's occasional love songs were funny, tender and saccharine-free. But throughout all the hooks and harmonies, Smalley's lyrics pretty much stuck to the political -- both global and personal. On "All American," a track off of DBL's 1996 masterpiece All Scratched Up, Smalley sings like a cheery drill sergeant: "Combat boots and a scratched up record/Signed by a hero of long ago/A pair of vans and some torn up blue jeans/This is his world; that's what he knows/He's gonna find a girl who thinks like he does/Gonna grow older but never old."
Besides Down by Law, Smalley has kept busy with his day job: "When I'm not doing this crazy touring stuff, I'm working at a newspaper; I'm an editor," he says. "I put out two sections a week of the paper that are entirely written by high school students, which is a great, great experience." He also recently began playing solo acoustic shows, doing his own songs as well as renditions of the Jam, the Who and "a lot of Irish ballads and drinking songs." His love of vintage mod music, however, doesn't stop there; in 2001 Smalley released an album with his new combo, the Sharpshooters, a full-on mod-revival band. He also regrouped with Brian Baker -- on loan from his current group, Bad Religion -- to record last year's Minority of One, the second Dag Nasty reunion album after 1992's lackluster Four on the Floor. Though in no way attaining the sheer, transcendent force of Can I Say, Minority of One is a worthy heir, buzzing with urgency and melody. Plus, the hidden bonus track is a mean cover of Generation X's "One Hundred Punks."
"Generation X, Elvis Costello, XTC, the Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers -- they just have great melodies that hit you beautifully. You never forget them. There are a lot of universal themes in that early punk scene," says Smalley of his retro proclivities. "We were talking about Fugazi being experimental, which they certainly are, but I think they were heavily influenced by Gang of Four -- which is great; there's nothing wrong with that. It's normal and natural to have musical heroes, absolutely.
"I think that everybody is pretty influenced by their main era of musical learning," he elaborates. "It's not really a conscious decision to keep that flame alive, but it's definitely a part of who I am. I think it's important for every generation to keep its torch lit."
Now touring the U.S. for the first time in five years, Down by Law -- whose current roster includes Smalley, guitarist Sam Williams, bassist Keith Davies and drummer Milo Todesco -- is supporting its seventh album, Windwardtidesandwaywardsails. After the mod and new-wave inflection that characterized the group's recent albums, Last of the Sharpshooters and Fly the Flag, Windwardtides is a revamping of everything that made Down by Law great in the first place: Punk, skate rock and pure pop collide in a jolting, bracing shot of anthemic energy. "Turn off the TV/Get up on your feet/Make some noise in your head and on the street," Smalley commands on the new song "Kickdown." This is especially good advice if you happen to be watching MTV, infested as it is with pale, empty echoes of the pop-punk sound that Dag Nasty and Down by Law helped pioneer. It's enough to make a lesser man resentful, but not Smalley.
"There are some bitter, grouchy, thirty-something guys who might say, 'That's uncool' or 'Other people who paved the way for these bands should be as rich.' Blah, blah, blah. 'Success' is such a relative term anyway," Smalley reasons. "If you want to measure things in terms of monetary success, then, yeah, you could say Good Charlotte is more important than Minor Threat. But would anyone say that, really?
"I think what's important," he sums up, "is doing what you do in life and doing it well, enjoying it and making a dent in the very large steel wall that is the world. If you can make a dent and have fun doing it, then that's what real success is to me." For someone who tore his larynx out seventeen years ago screaming the lyrics, "I try to make a dent/But it blends in with all the damage," it looks as if Smalley has succeeded indeed.
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