Dag Juhlin: the man, the myth, the legend. I snuck out of my house to see him play at the West End in The Slugs. When my mom found out, she grounded me for weeks. I snuck out the next night anyway. My mom finally understood that this music thing was real for me. Such is the power of the music of Dag Juhlin.
In any configuration, The Sunshine Boys, Expo '76, Poi Dog Pondering, The Slugs, or guesting with The Zimmermen, Tributosaurus and the like, his is an unmistakable presence, one of momentum, sheer joy, and a willingness to play with an elbow grease that is matched only by his legendary wit.
He is also a writer of magnitude. Hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.
"Songwriting is the most consistently engaging, challenging, rewarding and maddening creative mystery I've ever encountered. Chord cycles and lyrical couplets keep me awake, pouncing on me at 4am, mocking me, laughing at my threadbare and frazzled state. A divided man, twisting in the night -- his songs seeking to solve a problem on one side of his brain; and the other side of his brain harassing by his inability to do so. It makes for some long nights, people.
Commissions and deadlines have proven to be my greatest motivators as a songwriter these past few years, but that's not meant to sound aloof or clinical: I like writing with a purpose, putting some puzzle together, figuring things out as I go along, being able to hand the finished product to whomever and have them declare, Yes! You've done it! My group Sunshine Boys had been an all-consuming experience for me, and we were in the throes of a tremendous outpouring of energy that sort of got derailed by slamming into the same wall we all did when COVID hit. But since forming in 2016, we put out a pair of 12-song albums that I consider the peak of a lifetime of creative efforts. The world will get hip to them at some point, or they won't, but I'm proud of every note, every sound on those albums.
The thing that drove me, the thing that inspired me was simple: it was my bandmates, Jackie Schimmel and Freda Love Smith. I had this inkling that if we joined forces, our individual styles, as well as our individual and collective influences would gel into something unique and powerful. And it did, from the first downbeat of our first practice. Holy fuck, did it. When I heard that sound in my head, realized at last: the unkempt gritty jangling major sevenths of my guitar meshing with Jackie's song-serving, inventive, savvy and melodic bass lines and the natural hypnotic swing and musicality of Freda's drumming -- seriously, the subtly swaggering bad-assery of both of them, JESUS! -- I felt that I had found my purpose as a writer. I left our practices and gigs thinking, We are the best fucking band on the planet: and that's an important thing for a band to feel. Also, rather an insane concept for three veteran rockers in their 50s with proper (well not me, I was in radio at the time) day jobs, oh, and children. But that's how I felt.
And from that point, every day, I'd pick up a guitar and start banging away. The iPhone voice memo recorder became the great documenter of instant ideas, whether they were fully formed on the spot or half-assed pieces of nothing. Things became songs, some other pieces were picked apart to feed other songs, much was discarded, nine tenths of it I have no recollection of recording or why I thought it was worthwhile, and very few times did I make a note of the chord changes or hybrid shapes. But there are hours of snippets.
But it was that zone of songwriting, or collecting of parts, of constant writing -- Song Monster Mode, I came to call it -- which proved to be the place I wanted to live. I'm always trying to move forward, and one of the things that helped me move forward, I don't know how many years ago, was being asked to do a gig with Tributosaurus. There's been a feeling I've learned to embrace as an artist -- aw, hell, as a PERSON -- and that's: This scares the shit out of me; I guess I'd better do it. My friend Joel Murray relates it to the improv world, where the motto is: Follow the fear.
And so, performing with Tributo was a way of trying to raise my game, to call my own bluff, to see if I had the stuff I thought I was made of, to see if I could deliver for those guys, AND get invited to the post Martyrs late night breakfast hang at Golden Apple, which I am happy to say I did, on more than one occasion. I have been, and continue to be, humbled and awestruck by their power, individually and collectively. And blessed by their friendship.
I've always been sort of left alone in my songwriting. I presented the songs to Freda and Jackie, and they made excellent edits and had spot-on arrangement ideas. The Slugs, from long ago, also took my songs and helped mold them into shape. But I'd never really sat in a room with another musician and really rolled up the sleeves and pounded something into shape. Spitting harebrained theories into the air, searching for the lost chord, etc. And Chris was really inspiring -- not to mention as fun as possible -- to work with. We'd had a writing session a couple of years ago, but without some sort of deadline or impatient haiku ringleader waiting at the end of the line, we, as musicians tend to do, dawdled and sort of made plans to make a call to try and arrange a time to discuss maybe getting together (etc.) and whatever thing we had started just fizzled out into the margins of life.
So we seized this opportunity to write together and we found that our joint dismay with the world (i.e. the president) wrapped neatly around some of your angrier (I confess, they gave us a certain buzz) haikus, and we let our imaginations have the run of the place. We envisioned a musical (!) with our lead character, the jig finally up and the well-armed authorities finally closing in on him, hurling himself out of a penthouse window from one of his gilded-shit-towers rather than face the music, and the whole song cycle taking place as he falls to the earth; at last a moment of self-awareness, of clarity, from this pickled, fetid, rampaging horror of a man. And it was generous and charming for us to bestow a moment of self-awareness on him. This bean bag. This fucking insult to humanity. This con job. It was a fun thing to attempt in first person!
I love Chris and I love working with him, because he takes my timid little chords, my cute little Steely Dan aspirations and he turns them into actual music. And then I come in with some lyrical angle that he hadn't considered, and we are both "Yes, and..."-ing up a storm and whittling away and hacking and thinking and joking and drinking beer and getting equally pissed at our subject matter... and then it's midnight on a weekday and we're frazzled but by gum we've got a song. Or at least the skeleton of one.
And then we reconvene, and we tighten things up, we both agree on what we liked and didn't like, and then there's a song. Phew. Rest. Pat on the back. Crack the beer. But then... the Song Monster is hungry and needs another song. It's off to the next one, to get right all the things you didn't get right with that song. The next one, that's the one." - Dag Juhlin