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Interview with Educator & Activist Dan Zalles
1. What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
I've been playing and writing music for a long time, while pursuing another career for most of that time too. I did nonprofit work as an educational researcher, trying out ways to use technology to build critical thinking skills. That 9 to 5 work gave me the money and the stability to pursue my music without stress. It’s always been challenging to find a balance between the two however. Music has been my greatest passion but having that second career made it hard to devote as much time to music as I wanted. That all changed 5 years ago, when I turned completely to music. That’s why I’ve made so many albums recently.
2. What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I do lots of trail running and while I'm running, some of my best themes and hooks come out. A few examples from my new album are What Is Home to You, Nice Guys Finish First, and You’re Not My Dream Come True. When something pops into my head during a run, I whip out my iPhone and record the idea so that I don’t forget it.
3. How long have you been making music?
I wrote my first song when I was 15, a little breezy folk tune called Sandy Beach. That’s also the year I started playing guitar. Before that, I had been playing trumpet for 6 years. That year, I played trumpet in my first band, Prism, which did brass rock covers by groups like Electric Flag and Blood Sweat and Tears.
4. Where are you based and how did that influence your music?
I’ve been living in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1980 but am about to move to Salt Lake City. Living in the Bay Area has been a big influence because there’s such an amazing diversity of live music here and I grooved on Bay Area rock even before I moved there. I mean, just think of the Bay Area’s huge legacy in jazz, blues, folk, and rock.
5. Tell me about your most memorable shows, if you haven’t played live what is your vision for a live show?
Probably my favorite show was actually a private party. With my then-current band, Wayward Monks, I played at a birthday party for Jerry Garcia’s daughter. Jerry unfortunately was long gone but I played right next to a mantle with his picture on it. He was always a huge inspiration for me, especially as a lead guitarist, not to mention his emotional melodic songwriting, So I was really honored by the opportunity. It was fitting that Wayward Monks was the band I played with on that occasion because that band did a lot of improvisation and the Grateful Dead was my biggest inspiration for playing that kind of music. Another memorable show was with my band, Reckless Pedestrians when we shared a gig with Chris Isaak at the Omni Auditorium in Oakland. The place was packed and I managed to have a nice chat with Chris backstage.
6. What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
For years, my band Outer Half played at a county fair in San Mateo, CA. I love the energy and fun at these fairs. Being surrounded by rides, weird animal contests, livestock, artsy exhibits, and all kinds of guilty pleasure food is fun, and we always got provided with top-notch sound guys. Generally speaking, I like playing at places attended by lots of people who may not have heard you before but get exposed to you and become fans. I’ll be looking for such places in Utah after I move.
7. If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
I’d love to play with Big Thief because they’re versatile and top-notch in the current indie rock world. Another great act I’d be honored to play with is Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Larry is an amazing guitar virtuoso session guy and he and Alison put out some rocking Americana albums a few years ago. I was blown away by their set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival this Fall in San Francisco. Then of course, there are the dream monster acts. Who would turn down an offer to warm up for Paul McCartney or Elton John?
8. What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into making music and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
I’d say, think about what you especially love about music and then plan your priorities around those things. For example, maybe you like the creative process the most and don't care that much about playing live or being in a band. If so, maybe you should just get a good digital audio workstation and learn how to record your own music. Or, if it’s the performing that you like the most, find some good players and form a band and get some gigs. Also, know what kind of lifestyle you want. When you're young, it's tempting to think that living on the road playing gigs in different cities every night is going to be lots of fun and romantic but it will wear you down unless you have lots of stamina, and it's not likely to make you much money either. But then, who knows? Maybe you’ll end up being one of the special ones and actually get rich and famous. I say, good luck with that!
9. Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
Wow, that’s a hard question because I write so many songs. I’ll just speak about my new album for now. On that album, I would say the one that means the most to me is Trickle Down because it expresses how the rich get richer and the poor get the rich ones’ crumbs, and the poor then stoically accept their fate because they have no other choice. Musically speaking, being a big fan of early 70s prog rock from bands like King Crimson and Genesis, it was a lot of fun putting the prog touches into this song, like the sweeping mellotron chords, the 12-string guitar fingerpicking, the flute solo, the big bombastic lead guitar, and the interweaving vocal parts on the choruses. I wrote a song with a similar message for Outer Half, called Inconsequentiality. It's on the Outer Half Dancing With The Clowns album.
10. Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
My band Outer Half has played a lot of my songs. One that really resonates with audiences is called Great Grey Morning because it makes them feel really good in a laid-back way. That song is on my Dancing With the Clowns album with Outer Half, Audiences also really love a few songs I do from my album Waiting for My Train, called Buckeye Stew, Dance Your Blues Away, and Trouble. These three are simple blues rock tunes but they really get people on their feet. Outer Half also does a song of mine called I'm Not a Doctor but I Play One on TV. People love to sing the chorus with the band. That song is on the Outer Half album All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go. Then there is one from my 2021 album Resting Place that I've been doing a lot with my other band Slide Dogs. It's called Living in the Long Tail. That's a very funky song that people love to dance to and they groove to the jams that we throw in.
11. What is your creative process, and what inspires you to write your music?
I have several different ways of getting started on a song. One way is what I described earlier about coming up with ideas while running. Another way I get inspiration is by listening to whatever I feel like listening to on any particular day, be it rock, folk, country, funk, jazz, blues, or whatever else. I usually do that while walking my dog. Then, sometimes I’m just going about the day and a theme pops into my head which I immediately write down so I don’t forget it. Sometimes the theme comes with a melody line which I then record on my phone. Then, sometimes I start with my digital audio workstation. I may create a drum pattern and bass line and then lay melody and chord ideas over the groove. Each of these ways of writing leads me to produce different kinds of music. If I started writing every song strumming an acoustic guitar, all the songs would sound too similar to hold my attention for very long.
12. Do you have messages that you like to get across in your music, if so please tell me about them?
Some of my songs are about personal experiences, and some are about other people and their relationships. Probably the most blatantly messagy song I've written recently is Let Them Grow, which I wrote as a plea to save forests from logging. This is an issue I've been involved with a lot recently. Other songs of mine are less political but more broadly about society, such as Nice Guys Finish First, Trickle Down, Incognito, and Email Hell. Those last two are about the impacts of technology on our states of mind. That’s a theme I also covered on an earlier song called Virtuality on my Edgyometry EP and The System Crashed on my Straight Ahead album. I guess you could say that You Can Be a Hero also imparts a message but an ironic one. It's upbeat in how it encourages being heroic but also plays up the negatives. Some are meant to make a point but in a funny way, like You’re Not My Dream Come True, I’m That Guy, Glass Half Empty (on my Resting Place album), Neverending Hi Five (on my Eclectica album) and my recent single Herding Cats. Some are meant to be a little troubling, like Pandora’s Box and Refuge of Eternal Silence (on Edgyometry). Some on the other hand are meant to impart pure joy, like Dancing With the Clowns (also on Edgyometry), and Spin the World Around (on my Eclectica album).
13. What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I'm in a holding pattern because I'm moving to Salt Lake City next month. Sadly, that has forced me to end my time with my two great bands in California. But, I plan on starting a new music scene there. And, since I write and produce on my own stuff, I'm going to work on a new 2023 album after the move. My performing goals are to split my time between acoustic and rock gigs or, even better, starting shows with an acoustic set and ending with a rock set.
14. How can your fans best keep up to date with you, any socials you want people to check out?
The best way for fans to keep up with me is to subscribe to my YouTube channel, my Spotify channel, or hear my music on whatever other music streaming service you may be using. Fans can also sign up for my newsletter, which I send out whenever I have some new songs or videos to share. If some like to stream music but don’t subscribe to a streaming service, they can stream my Soundcloud channel. I have a Linktree landing page for accessing all my social media, and my website. I also have a Facebook page, Instagram page, and Tik Tok page but haven’t been posting on those much recently. My YouTube channel has different playlists. One plays my music videos, one plays solo performances, and then there are playlists of Outer Half and Slide Dogs gigs.