Dan & The Wildfire Frontman Talks New Album 'Bull Moose,' Tour Plans, A Memorable Trip To Build-A-Bear & More [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
Boston-based Americana band Dan & The Wildfire are set to release their new album Bull Moose, which features the singles "Austin, TX," "Backwash" and "Buzzard," on March 31. Ahead of their March 19 album release party at New York City's Rockwood Music Hall, frontman Dan Htoo-Levine spoke with Music Times about the project, a memorable visit to Build-A-Bear, the milestones they've reached so far, what lies ahead, and more.
Music Times: First off, can you tell me a little bit about how the band came together?
Dan Htoo-Levine: The story really isn't all that exciting. [Trumpeter] Thom [Brennan] and I had lived together back in 2008, and [keyboardist] Matt [Hines] and I had been playing together in another band for about a year. I called both of them and we started playing music in my completely empty apartment. We wanted to do something different. At the time, it was just acoustic guitar, vocals, trumpet, and melodica.
At the end of the day, it was a pretty cool vibe, but we wanted something more. So, to make a long and uneventful story short and even less eventful, Thom mentioned auditioning [drummer] Kyle [Jenkins] and [bassist] Sam [Katz]. Kyle started playing with us in the summer of 2010, and Sam, who was playing in a different band at the time, came to us about six months later. That's pretty much how it went down.
MT: Your new album Bull Moose comes out on March 31. Is it ready to go or are you still working on it?
DHL: It's ready for action. The music is ready to be loaded up onto iTunes and Amazon and whatever, so we're ready to go!
MT: I know that you funded some of it on Pledge Music, have you completed any of the special rewards for pledgers?
DHL: Yeah, we've been chipping away at those. So far, my favorite one that we've done is Build-A-Bear. It's a funny story actually. Tom's sister was one of the pledges, and she got the Build-A-Bear. We have this video that we made of the experience, and it's just ridiculous. We're five grown men in Build-A-Bear, and you know how you can give them their own voices and whatever? You can record a little greeting, and I did like a bear in a really creepy voice, and it was pretty funny.
MT: So going back to Bull Moose -- what are some of the themes that inspired that album?
DHL: There's a lot of stuff going on in Bull Moose. It's a really diverse record in a lot of ways. Stylistically, it is rock. There's some folky stuff, there's some bluesy stuff and more New Orleans-y stuff. So musically, there's a lot going on. And also, in terms of content, it's kind of all over the place. I have a song "Austin, TX" about a friend of mine who used to play music with us, and now we don't play anymore, he obviously moved away to Austin. There are some love songs. "Backwash" was inspired by my grandfather, who actually likes to drink vodka [not whiskey], but try to rhyme vodka with something. So that's kind of what that came out. There's a lot going on.
MT: Were there any specific albums or books that you were listening to or reading during your writing process? Anyone specific influencing you?
DHL: Honestly, it's hard to remember, but I was listening to a lot Amos Lee. I remember because I just got his album Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song and loved it. It's a great one. I was also listening to a lot of old soul music, so there's that too, and a lot of country and blues bands, so it's got a big mix.
MT: When did you go from putting music under just your name to adding "The Wildfire" name to yours?
DHL: So, we wanted to move forward as a band, and I was like, "Look, this is a collaborative effort," and I was still kind of feeling a little bit paranoid about my last musical experience, how that ended, and I wanted it to be something where if they decided they didn't want to be a band anymore, I wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel, you know what I mean? So that was how Dan & The Wildfire came about, but looking back on it and seeing how things played out, if I could have done it differently.
MT: Is there a big folk/roots scene in Boston?
DHL: Yeah, there's a lot of, there's a bigger folk scene in here than you might think. Club Passim, which is the really famous folk club in Harvard Square that's still up and running, you get a lot of these folk artists that are coming out of there. I think that we sort of do it a little differently than a lot of artists. Not that that's good or bad, but I think one of the things that sets us apart or makes us stand out is that it's not just folk and it's not just roots, we kind of want to do that Ben Harper thing and play whatever style we feel like doing at that particular moment in time.
His albums are different from album to album and even from song to song. You look at "Diamonds on the Inside" which is one of my favorites, then "With My Own Two Hands" is a reggae jam, then you have slower stuff like "Amen Omen." It's all different, but it works as a record, and I think that's what's our ultimate goal, rather than just setting into a roots scene or whatever scene. Our ultimate goal is to play what we want to play and make it all somehow fit together.
MT: What are some of the milestones you guys have reached so far and, conversely, what are some things you guys are still struggling with?
DHL: That's a really good question. So this is our second year that we're nominated for a New England Music Award, which is really cool. This year we're up for Best In State, which is really awesome. The New England Music Awards look at groups from all over the region, so to even be in the conversation is a kind of cool thing. But we've done a lot of touring, and we've traveled a decent amount, and we have really worked hard to build up our following. Every hometown show we play is bigger. Every New York show we play is bigger. So regionally, we're doing really well. Not saying we're Taylor Swift or anything, but all relative right? We're always struggling to make it bigger and figure out how we can reach more people, and how we can play better quality gigs, and how we can push ourselves to the next level. It's always a give and take. Every time we reach a goal, there's not a whole lot of celebration because we just say, "It's really great that we did that, how can we get to the next thing?"
MT: So essentially you've done a lot but there's more to be done.
DHL: Yeah, right. I feel like if you get comfortable, that's how things go south. You need to always want to be better. And I think that's one of the things that I love about this group, we really just want to better, and whatever that means, in whatever day it is, we just try a little bit harder everyday.
MT: Can you talk a little bit about what your live show is like?
DHL: It's fun. We kind of don't take ourselves too seriously. I mean not from a musical standpoint, we take our art very seriously, but when we're on stage, we're loose and there's a lot of communication between band members and the audience. Every now and then we'll throw in an interesting cover. We try to do one cover per show at least. It's fun for us; it's fun for people. Our most recent cover was a ukulele version of "All About That Bass," which was pretty cool -- it's upbeat, light-hearted. Even though we're singing a lot of times about heavier issues, we try to keep things light. We want everyone to be having fun.
MT: Do you have any plans to tour in support of the album?
DHL: We try and get out of the region every few weekends or so. So we're after Rockwood, we're also going to Philly and DC. We're talking about DC in the summer time. We'll be back in my region of New York in August. I grew up in Poughkeepsie, which is right up there on Metro North. So yeah, we're all around, we're trying to get to Nashville this summer. There are always plans.
MT: Is there anything on Bull Moose that you're particularly proud of?
DHL: That's a good question. My favorite thing about this album is that we really pushed ourselves in a lot of ways. There's a track where Sam, our bass player, is playing mandolin. He worked really, really hard to make it happen, and it sounds awesome. I was doing a lot of slide guitar, which is new for me, but it was something I was really pumped up about.
I think the songwriting and the arrangements are at a different level than our previous work and that's something we're really proud of. Our vocal harmonies are always something that we like to showcase and put in the forefront, and this album is full of them. So yeah, just as an effort, it's something we're really, really pumped up about.
MT: Was the album recorded live like your previous one?
DHL: This one's live too as far as the basic instrumentation goes, but we did overdub way more than we did last time. We're not talking produced like Kraft Mac & Cheese level; we're talking like minimal production, pasteurization.
MT: How did the recording process for Bull Moose differ from your previous albums Smoke Signals and Nothing, Anything, Everything?
DHL: The instrumentation is the same, but the ideas are way more developed. We spent a lot more time. Just to give you a little backstory without talking your ear off, when we recorded Smoke Signals, Matt was in England, and then he came back and, basically, we had a week to arrange and record the record. We did everything live and taped and it was awesome. But for this record, Matt was no longer in England, and we had a lot more time to sort of think about how we wanted to do it and what we wanted to include.
Our engineer and producer, Ted Paduck, he's absolutely brilliant. This is the fourth record I've done with him, and he always just knows how to bring out in the best in me. He came to the rehearsals, made some suggestions, and it really was a group effort from the five of us, plus Ted. I don't want to minimize that. Ted was a big part of this record, as much as any of us. And he's also up for Producer of the Year at the New England Music Awards, and as far as I'm concerned he totally deserves it. But anyway, we just had more time to develop it. We had more time to lay more out on the table and talk about things, which was really great.
MT: Lastly, I noticed on your Pledge Music campaign you have All Dog Rescue as a charity you're pledging money to. What's the connection with that?
DHL: Nothing in particular, but we're all big animal lovers. I'm a huge animal lover. I have a puggle at home, and he's the best. I just love dogs. Every time one of those commercials comes on with Sarah McLachlan singing, it totally breaks my heart. It's important to bring awareness and bring, help in anyway that we can to these causes that benefit animals as well as people.