BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
A veteran of the Southern California music scene, San Diego-bred and now Los Angeles-based Patrick Dennis recently weathered a tempest of personal and professional calamities and emerged with his first solo album, Fürst in the Dirt, due June 19. Luckily for the former Truckee Brothers and Wirepony member, the string of unforeseen setbacks was followed by an equal number of unexpected fortune that eventually led to the unplanned (at the time) writing and recording of his solo debut. “The record just seemed to will itself into existence,” Dennis describes. “I accidentally step on a dude’s feet coming out of the toilet at The Basement in Nashville, and the next thing you know I’m in the studio making a record with him.”
During our recent conversation, Dennis and I swapped stories about our unbridled affection for bands like The Alarm, The Waterboys and the genius of John Lennon and gushed about our fondness for the city of San Diego. Strength – losing it and eventually finding it again – was also a theme that weaved its way throughout our long discussion about the medicinal power of music and learning to march on.
I understand the writing and recording of Fürst in the Dirt was a very collaborative experience. First, tell us who some of your collaborators were and second, explain why you sought out additional songwriters.
I always love writing with other people and oddly enough this is probably the record I co-wrote the least with anybody else. These guys Cosmic Thug – Adam Landry and Justin Collins – who produced this record are just monsters as musicians and as writers, and Adam is a monster arranger and Justin is probably the most honest songwriter, I think, who’s out there now; there’s no artifice about the way he writes. So with Justin and I, we co-wrote “Kissing the Beast” cuz we had recorded this song and I was just vamping on lyric and really just couldn’t find my way in. I had a vague idea of what I wanted but I couldn’t find my way in on it and he just pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, I got an idea for this. Can we do it together?’ And I said sure, so we ran in the house, wrote the lyric for about an hour, came back out and cut the thing and that was it; we cut it in one take. I’m a big believer in even drummers – what they bring to the party – can affect what you do.
(Laughs) I’m chuckling a little bit here Patrick because I don’t know how drummers would take that, “EVEN drummers can contribute.”
(Laughs) Well I’m a drummer so I can get away with saying that. I’ve probably made more cash touring as a drummer than I have as a singer, so I can get away with it (laughs).
So, sort of on the flip side of that, is there ever a danger of having too many sonic cooks in the kitchen in collaborating?
Well certainly. That’s a really good point. You have to cast well. Making a record is like making a great movie; your casting has to be spot on and then you get out of the way. You don’t cast somebody that’s going to bring something musically that’s not going to gel with you. You wanna push your boundaries but if you cast well…you end up with something great and unexpected.
I think that’s the textbook definition of “collaboration.”
As it relates to the timing of when you first started writing these songs, the record could easily have been titled “What Doesn’t Kill You makes You Stronger.” You had a ton of personal and professional – shall we say s**t – going on. Give us a glimpse of what was swirling around you and how you used music as medicine for what ailed you at the time.
Well, I think like a lot of people, that time period after 2007 into 2010 was a real rough financial period, not just for anyone in a creative capacity. Everybody in any walk of life was having trouble and I was as well. To top it off, the bands I was in – we had worked really, really hard for nine, 10 years and we were exhausted; we were sort of at our wits end with each other and I was going bankrupt because we had laid a lot of our own money on the line to try and make things happen in the final couple of years in those bands. And my marriage was over, I was probably somewhat insane at the time (laughs) in reaction to the whole thing and there were points where I was sleeping in my car parked in downtown San Diego. So for me it was really sort of slowly getting back on my feet. I was really fortunate I had people around me; I had family and friends and my kids around me that sort of nudged me step-by-step back on my feet. And I had just started a relationship with a woman – who is now my wife – but I said [to her], ‘I’m gonna go to Nashville for a few months. You’ve been touring.’ And after about 24 hours of hitting the roof she said ‘I get ya, I think it’s a great idea.’ What Nashville did for me was allow me to…connect with people there and rebuild a sense of self and a sense of community. And that’s how the whole cosmic thing happened because I was just hanging around…and the record just sort of grew out of that. There was no intention to make a record. So I owe the entire record to the people – including my wife – who gave me the space and the time to stand back up on my own feet and heal.
Sonically speaking, songs such as “Falter” and “Josephine Baker” couldn’t be more polar opposite. How do you balance angst and I guess whatever antonym you wanna use for angst when writing?
Well it’s just about what I’m feeling, and to be honest with you, I’m a music fan at the end of the day and I really love a lot of different things, and in this case I had honest statements I wanted to make, which is “Falter” which is about stumbling over yourself to try and get back on your feet and “Josephine Baker” is while you’re doing that – in my case – I fell in love with somebody who also toured and we got together and suddenly I’m the one sitting at home. I’d never had that experience before and I realized this is what my ex-wife went through, anyone from partners of armed services people to other people who have to travel and be away for long periods of time. So as far as the differences in it [songwriting] it’s the differences in the human condition. I really love intimate things and I love rock and roll things. My wife and my daughter convinced me to put “Josephine Baker” on the record. I played it for my daughter when I was in London with her visiting and she just said, ‘Dad, you can’t leave this off the record, it has to be on the record.’ She was absolutely correct.
Good for her. So we were talking about angst and to my ear the very solo Lennon-leaning “Burn and Shine” reminds me of some of the real caustic side of John Lennon’s early solo stuff; for example “Give Me Some Truth” or “Isolation.” Tell me a little bit about the writing of “Burn and Shine” and are you a fan of Lennon’s songwriting?
(Laughs) Firstly, thank you very much for the comparison in any way…
There’s more to come, Patrick, so stand by.
That’s a great call; I never really thought about it. I mean I really love that era of Lennon. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of that but for me, I think a certain Lennon undercurrent is always there. My dad decided to get rid of his records when I was about five or six years old and we brought all of these records over from the UK and he had Stones and blues and Elvis and Howlin’ Wolf and Beatles and jazz records like Ramsey Lewis Trio and he decided to get rid of them, so while he was selling them to this guy I snagged three records and one of them was Sgt. Pepper…
Man, you just went straight to the top.
(Laughs) Yeah! And I just wore that record out when I was growing up; I still have the copy. I realized years later that a lot of what I’ve done in making records was sort of – well not sort of – very affected by that record. So Lennon would certainly have a subliminal influence going on and I love his solo stuff. But with “Burn and Shine,” that was a riff that I’d written when I was still in the Truckee Brothers and we tried to do something with it but it just didn’t work. And so when we were recording this record, we were just about at the end and we had a couple of days in the studio and Adam turns to me and says, ‘What else you got?’ I had this riff in my back pocket; I didn’t have anything else, I had no chord structure, I had no lyric, I had no melody and just said, well it goes like this, here’s the riff. And I remembered that Kevin Ayers from The Soft Machine had written a note found by his bed that said something like ‘We can’t shine if we don’t burn.’ Something really stuck with me about that. I had been a fan of Kevin Ayers and the band…and suddenly everything had just come alive right there in the studio. We did a quick little tweak on it and then ran it. I think we got it in the second take and it was done.
Now I did warn you that there was gonna be some more Lennon comparisons here so stand by. I guess there are far worse things in life than being compared to a former Beatle, so allow me to embarrass you a bit more by saying that “Life or Luck” also reminds me of Lennon and, going back to part of your answer about the Sgt. Pepper’s album that you copped early on, I guess my ears didn’t fail me too much. Talk a little bit about “Life or Luck” because again for me it sounds like the early Lennon solo stuff.
Yeah, I think that Imagine record has such a great sound and I think there’s such a Jim Keltner sound as well on the drums, which is distinctly Cosmic Thug; that slap back is real tape slap back. That immediately reminds me of Lennon. But “Life or Luck,” oddly enough, is probably more influenced by Sgt. Pepper than I would like to admit (laughs). I never really thought about it except that I acknowledge the descending chord structure is very “A Day in the Life.” I had a friend who was going through some heartbreak and I was just watching her deal with it, and dealing with my own healing, I think all of that went into that song. The emotion of, do you choose life and just push past all of this or do you choose just some sort of luck; waiting to see what hits you. It was really written for her, but subconsciously it was written for me as well.
You’ve walked on the knife edge that is certainly the life of a musician for some time now but let me ask you where and when it all began. We’re talking about The Beatles here: did you have the proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment when you heard a song or went to a show or bought a record and, looking back now, you can say that was the moment you knew you wanted to make music for the rest of your life?
I think it was a series of things. Having those records from my dad – another one was The Moody Blues – I would love music and my mom sang and played guitar when I was a kid, so music was always around. When I was in high school everybody was sort of into soft pop music, and guitar music was definitely out. But it was hearing a few different records, one of which would have been The Clash’s London Calling that just made me sort of perk up and go back and buy all their stuff. [Then] my grandparents bought me a kick drum and a snare and so I just would play every day and I would save my money and go out and add a drum to it and add a cymbal to it, and I think it was the instrument as much as it was the musical moment. It was these series of things. Like the first time I heard the War album by U2 my mind was blown. And I actually stole the first three records from somebody I knew; he wasn’t really into them anyways, I stole the records, I wore them out and then I gave them back. These were things that made me realize I really love music and I wanna do this. And then finding a bunch of guys who were into The Clash and The Who and The Sex Pistols and I started making noise.
You mentioned U2; I can still remember exactly where I was the first time I heard “I Will Follow” on the radio and from that moment on U2 has been my all-time favorite band. For me, it’s when the message and the music meld so well. Another band that I’ve been a fan of is The Alarm. I guess I just used the words “knife edge” a bit ago. I’ve had the pleasure of hanging with [Alarm frontman] Mike Peters many times. I understand you have a connection with that band. Tell us a bit about that.
(Singing) “Living on the knife edge/oh, at the end of the line!” They were a band that I had their lyrics scrawled on my wall when I was a teenager. I absolutely love the band; them and The Waterboys and that era of bands when I was a teenager in junior high and high school. For me, they really spoke to me about stuff and there was an honesty and a truth to it. Ironically enough, I’d moved to Manchester where Dave Sharp, the guitar player’s from and [drummer] Twist as well. I lived there, two of my kids were born there and then I moved back to the States and the first thing that happens is a friend of mine says to me, ‘Hey, Dave Sharp is playing a club tonight. Do you wanna go?’ So I went down, walked in and somebody day there was an open mic night. So we got up and played and went up to him afterwards and said thanks so much for having us up there. And he asked us what we were doing on Sunday and asked us to meet him at another open mic. We go, we play some songs and he says afterwards, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute. Don’t take offense to this but would you guys be into me working with you? Would you mind if I kind of put you through your paces and showed you some pointers?’ And he ended up coming around three nights a week and he would work us out. I’d never been musically worked out like that in my life. He taught us how to work, how to tighten our harmonies. And then he took us on the road. And he became a friend. He’s godfather to one of my sons. And Mike, who I didn’t get to meet until recently has just proven to be this genuinely amazing human being. I owe an awful lot to those guys.
The Alarm, The Waterboys and U2: you and I, Patrick are very musically simpatico and could go on for a long time. We did touch on “Kissing the Beast” earlier in the conversation. My guess is it has nothing to do with a Disney movie or any type of fairytale and I would wager it has much more to do with some personal stories. Am I right? Tell us a little bit more about the story.
Yeah I think kissing the beast is everything from the addictions that you find yourself wrapped up in at your worst and trying to find your way back out of that. A lot of people struggle with addictions, whether its substance of whether its relationships or situations that you can’t seem to get yourself out of and they keep repeating the same mistake over and over again. It’s definitely a struggle with loving something and valuing it and yet it not be good for you. And plus it’s just a frustrated song.
And lastly, Fürst in the Dirt; just give me something real quick on the meaning of the title, Fürst being f-ü-r-s-t.
The intent was it’s a play on words because it’s my first solo record and fürst is German for prince. When we were mixing the record I had this quote from Oscar Wilde spinning in my head which was ‘We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.’ It was this idea – having gone through everything – which is not unique to me, but having gone through that being beaten down and trying to get back up on your feet. It just felt right to describe it as a prince in the dirt, that we all have this capability of being something great; we have to get ourselves up off our knees.
That’s great. Patrick, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you and congratulations on a great record.
Fantastic. Let me know when you make it to L.A. It would be great to meet face-to-face. Thanks so much, Jim. Take care. Bye bye.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Patrick Dennis, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.