February 27

Interview: Dan Saulpaugh – Before the Fire is Gone

I should confess that even before I started songwriting, I wanted to be an open-mic host.  But alas, I think I lack the consistency in scheduling, even temperament and unyielding patience to be even an adequate one.  That’s why I’m always impressed by people who have managed to run successful ones – Ben Krieger, Somer Bingham, Niall Connolly and Bert Lee, for instance.  I ran into Dan Saulpaugh while he was hosting the excellent Two Boots Open Mic in Williamsburg (now hosted by Gabrielle Marlena and Matteo Scher), a very welcoming spot, where you can play a short set and then sit down for a nice hot slice and a nice cold beer.  Having only seen Dan do short open-mic sets, my interest was piqued when I saw that he was releasing an EP, Before the Fire is Gone, in April.  (You can get an early listen to the title track HERE).  Fortunately, Dan was nice enough to give me an early listen, and sit down for some questions.

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Andy: I’ve only interacted with you when you were performing songs with just a guitar. The songs on the EP are presented in a band format, but did you write them on just guitar originally? How was the transition into this kinda small band format?

Dan: For the most part, I just write on guitar. Once in a while I’ll check a melody against a certain harmony on the piano, but really, all of these songs were sung and strummed into existence in my bedroom. The transition into a small band format was pretty seamless. Most of my guitar writing is fairly specific. The rhythms, the voice leading (especially the relationship between the top and bottom voices in my chords), the register, and the harmonic density of each chord are all intentional.

Because of this I didn’t have to change what I played when I started a band. All of the rhythm section hits were already built in, and there was enough negative space in the arrangements already that adding sax solos was just a matter of plugging Kellon into the in-between parts of songs. The only really striking thing to me was that I found I could get quieter with a band than without one, because the dynamic envelope is wider, it meant that (like on the last section of Ghost) if I played alone it sounded so much smaller and more intimate after having heard all of the full band passages.

Andy: I was listening to the title track, and I get the sense that it’s a kind of desperation song – the protagonist needs his love to do something “before the fire’s gone”. I guess I’m wondering, is it that he needs the other person to rekindle passion in the relationship because he’s worried that the relationship will die without it? Or is it that he sees his general passion for life fading out unless the other person does something?

Dan: Before the Fire’s Gone is absolutely a song about longing and desperation. I wrote the lyrics for it while riding the subway to gigs and open mics, thinking of the strain that pursuing a career in music puts on my marriage. The lyric “before the fire’s gone,” and much of the imagery in that song is borrowed from a passage in the book of Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible (Isa 6:1-8). Isaiah is called to prophethood and has a vision of a burning coal being brought down and touched to his lips to purify him. It’s one of those images that I heard as a much younger person and found evocative. I’m still unsure if I’m the one asking her to touch the flame to my lips, or if I’m her asking me to touch the flame to her lips. It’s some of both, I think.

Andy: In that song you also have some general (what I’d call) circa 80s/90s r&b guitar chord influence, with all those 7 chords and the transitions. Does that sound right? I guess it’s not as present in the rest of the songs on the EP, but it’s interesting because you keep the saxophone throughout, which I think ties everything together in terms of having a consistent sound.

Dan: Sonically, when I wrote that song I was just getting really into D’Angelo. It was maybe a year before Black Messiah dropped, and I was also just starting to get into Isaiah Sharkey’s guitar playing. Harmonically though, I was really trying to take the parts of the modern jazz language that I loved and fuse it with my songwriting outside of jazz. Wayne Shorter has long been one of my biggest compositional influences, and a lot of the chord progressions in that tune come from his harmonic language on records like Speak No Evil and JuJu. Between those two influences bouncing around in my head, you get what you hear on my record.

As for the saxophone, I like being able to stretch my legs stylistically as a writer. The thing that I think gives the record cohesion is the homogeny of instrumentation throughout, which glues everything together. It’s just four instrumentalists, so everyone’s personality gets to shine through on everything, which is a big part of my sound.

Andy: You were the open mic host at Two Boots for a while, yes? How was that experience? Did you feel you grew as a songwriter from that experience? Or what did you get out of it?

Dan: I hosted the Two Boots open mic for just over a year, before passing the baton to Gabrielle Marlena and Matteo Scher (both of whose bands I’ve played in), who are still running it every Thursday. Before that I hosted one at a bar called Mess Hall in Harlem for about six months. Hosting an open mic was fun. It taught me a lot about stage presence, and how to interact with a room.

Talking to an audience is very much a learned skill. Learning how to read the energy of a room, and command an audience’s attention for 2-3 hours once a week was invaluable in making me a better front-person for my own shows. I also instated a word-a-week song challenge periodically. Most people didn’t participate, but having to crank out a song a week for a couple months consecutively here and there really helped me get my ideas out of my head and into my songs. It makes the writing process a little less precious too, which I generally think is a good thing.

Andy: The song “Lovers at Dawn” is maybe the opposite of “Before the Fire’s Gone”, no? The protagonist doesn’t think they could be lovers at dawn, meaning that they woke up the next morning, and don’t see the relationship going beyond an occasional hookup – whereas in the title track the protagonist sees the other person as a kind of necessity? Does that sound right?

Dan: That’s pretty spot on. Before the Fire’s Gone I wrote about my wife, and the longing I feel for her. Lovers at Dawn I wrote about a girl I had a crush on, who I had no intentions of pursuing anything with. I wrote the opening lines to that song late one night while half-drunkenly riding the train home from an open mic shortly after moving here. I was in that phase that I think many of us transplants go through where I was still punch-drunk in love with New York.

Suddenly here I was, and everyone was beautiful and interesting, hanging out in Greenwich Village of all places. I heard this girl sing, was bowled over, and then had a few hours of great conversation with her and a few friends. Heading home alone I wistfully thought to myself that even if that night had turned out differently, emotionally we wouldn’t still be lovers at dawn, and that the “what if” was more interesting than anything else.

Andy: What do you have in the queue after the EP is released?

Dan: After the record comes out on April 12th, I want to tour more frequently than I have. I’m tentatively looking at a west coast tour in the fall. I’m also from northern New York, and will definitely do a couple small-scale Northeast tours through the spring and summer to promote the record. I have a few ideas for a series of videos I want to do late in the summer. I also have to write the next record (something I’ve already been working on)!

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