Interview with Dan Zanes (1995)

Juliana Hatfield squarely bonked my eighties nostalgia nerve with her 1993 alterno-hit “My Sister” and its reference to those twin bastions of Regular Joe Rock and Roll: Violent Femmes and Del Fuegos. I was vaguely aware that the Femmes were still trundling along, but drew a blank on Del Fuegos’s status — which was odd, as I’m something of a useless-musical-factoid lodestone. So puzzled, I nevertheless took the opportunity Hatfield offered to fondly replay the few tidbits I could recollect from my last Del Fuegos concert in 1987, and then made up some other generically nice stuff to fill in the numerous missing memory ports from that evening. They were that kind of band. As it turns out, Del Fuegos had indeed fizzled into nothingness during the early nineties with little media notice.

Singer/guitarist Dan Zanes, however, has now re-emerged from obscurity with a soulful solo album Cool Down Time and a tour that brings him to Bogies [in Albany, New York] this Friday. I shared my Hatfield-induced epiphany with Zanes and asked whether the “My Sister” reference had precipitated a perceptible wave of Del Fuegos nostalgia. He laughed: “Yeah! That was a really cool thing that a lot of people picked up on. In general, time and people have been very kind to Del Fuegos history. People have remembered and focused on the good things about the band — which is good, because we worked really hard and I’m proud of most of what we did.”

The hard-working Del Fuegos were founded in 1981 when, as Zanes tells it, “I went to college specifically to start a band; on the first day I met [Del Fuegos bassist] Tom Lloyd and we got together and started playing. Ours wasn’t a big studying scene.” The original line-up also included Zanes’s brother Warren on guitar and Woody Giessmann on drums. By 1984 the foursome had become icons of the Boston music scene, had earned Rolling Stone Critics Poll accolades as one of the year’s best new bands, had an endorsement deal with the Miller Brewing Company that made them television commercial stars, and had a promising recording contract with Warner Brothers.

The band was sundered at its peak in 1987, however, when Warren Zanes and Giessmann left. “Everything changed for me after my brother left,” Zanes noted, “It was just never the same again. I tried and gave it my best with another line-up but a lot of the fun just disappeared. Warren wanted to have more to do with band and I just didn’t want him to. It really tore our family apart.”

The new line-up lasted until 1990 when Zanes finally broke up the band. “The whole party-on-wheels thing caught up with me to the point where it was easy to walk away from,” Zanes reflected, “I didn’t feel good about myself, and I didn’t think the world at large felt very good about Del Fuegos. I thought I’d just take six months off to screw my head on straight and then make solo records. Six years later, I guess I’ve come to realize that I had a lot more work to do than I had initially expected.”

Zanes spent much of this (cool down?) time in a farm house in Greene County, enjoying a ruminative semi-pastoral life with his wife and daughter, listening to classic gospel music, and plinking about with the local musicians.

Zanes also retooled his musical approach: “It was all part of a process of simplifying. Del Fuegos, by the end, were not exactly making simple music–but that’s how it started and it was best, I think, when it was simple and heartfelt. Now I feel like things have come back full circle. I’m playing with a raw trio, and it’s R&B based, and I sit around and listen to records and draw inspiration, and I try to write songs without getting too heavy handed. I kinda feel like I used to feel.”

Zanes also closed and cleansed old wounds by reconciling with his brother, now a PhD candidate at University of Rochester. “It took years to get things back together, once we both started trying,” Zanes said, “Now we’re best friends, and it’s kind of amazing how much healing has taken place.”

These feelings of completeness, of redemption, of faith and energy restored permeate the rhythmically lean, gospel inflected Cool Down Time. I was loathe to dismiss anything the young Del Fuegos had accomplished by crediting Zanes’s newly evident strengths solely to the Angel of Maturity, but Zanes was actually eager to embrace the new satisfactions and world-views that come with grown up thirty-something dad-ism.

“Playing with Del Fuegos was a great way to spend my twenties,” he said, “It was also a great forum for making an incredible number of mistakes that I don’t have to make again. I screwed it up pretty badly the first time, and there’s nothing in the rule book that says I have to have another opportunity. So now if I just dig the things that come along and work as hard as I can, I know that things are going to be okay.”

Cool Down Time proves that while excess and nastiness may be key components of the rock and roll lifestyle, they aren’t mandatory elements in the rock and roll life. Zanes has traded lifestyle for life, and his self-reflective efforts have given birth to one of the year’s best records. “I’m not trying to run away from who I am,” noted Zanes, “I’m just trying to get more comfortable with it.” I, for one, will be at Bogies this Friday to offer support and attest to the fact that Dan Zanes deserves to be comfortable with who he is.

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