Dallas Green talks about City and Colourís third record Little Hell, why his writing style is so personal, how connecting with music changes as you grow older, and his constant battling with self-doubt.
Iím a little interested about your background. Obviously, your two projects have very different styles of music. Growing up, was there one you were more attracted to, or were you always interested in both?
I guess I was always interested in both. I always liked playing guitar loud, but at a young age I started learning how to sing, too. Thatís when I found out I was a big fan of melody as well. I learned how to play guitar on an acoustic guitar. Thatís what I took lessons on when I was 8 years old or whatever. I listen to a lot of different types of music and I think I always have. It makes my brain come up with different kinds of ideas.
Did you start singing once you picked up the guitar? How did that develop?
Yeah, I think it started happening when I first started learning how to play my favorite songs on guitar, when I would listen to a song and figure it out by ear. Once I started getting kind of good at that, then I would learn how to sing it, too. I would sit and play and sing along, so singing kind of came from that.
So you picked up everything on your own?
I took guitar lessons for maybe two years. I was 8 years old, so I really didnít like it, probably because I was young and it was like going to school after going to school. So once I got a little grasp of it on my own, I convinced my parents to let me stop taking lessons and just taught myself.
I think you started City and Colour a little bit after Alexisonfire got going. At the beginning of the City and Colour stage, did you have this kind of longevity in mind?
The thing is a lot of people just assume City and Colour started after Alexis because I put out that record, but before Alexis started I was playing shows by myself, and putting out early demos and selling songs that were just me and a guitar. Itís just no one knew and no one listened [laughs].
So once Alexisonfire started, kids started finding out about all those old songs. Thatís when I ended up putting out the actual first City and Colour record. I always assumed at some point I would try and sit down with my guitar and write some songs. I just didnít assume Iíd be doing them at the same time and have people be as interested as they have, putting out records for both.
This album definitely has a little bit of a different feel than your other two. What were some of your goals and aspirations for the writing and recording of this one?
The thing with City and Colour so far is Iíve never really had a chance to sit and make a record. Most people will take time away from touring to sit and write and record, whereas Iíve had to write songs while Iíve been on tour with Alexisonfire in between records. You know what I mean? I put my last City and Colour record out three years ago, but in that time I put out two Alexisonfire records and toured for both. I just write the songs, and then when it came time for me, it was like, ďOh, geez, Iíve got 12 to 13 songs. I think I can make a record of these.Ē
Alexis stopped touring at the end of December last year, so I decided to go into the studio the next month and record all the songs I had. Now, here we are. Itís weird. Itís not like I went into a room for a month and was like, ďIím going to write a City and Colour album.Ē Itís just I wrote some songs. Iím always writing songs. Thatís what I do. I play my guitar all the time. Once I have enough for a record, thatís what ultimately becomes the record.
It seems that every artist who starts out with just an acoustic guitar always eventually gets to the point where they want to incorporate other elements, whether that be more of a full-band sound or whatever. What are your thoughts on that and how do you walk the line between the two?
I think it all depends on the idea. Certain songs to me sound OK with just a guitar and a voice, but then thereís other songs that I wrote and when I demoed them at my house I would hear different things, whether it be rhythm or extra instruments. I didnít want to suppress those or put them to the side just because people have a preconceived notion of what a City and Colour song should sound like. Really, there isnít one. Itís whatever I want it to sound like.
Your lyrics have traditionally always been melancholy, especially on the last record, and you kind of address that on this record with ďThe Grand OptimistĒ where you say youíre pessimistic like your mother. Is that something that is easier for you to put out when youíre writing, and how much of that is the music talking versus real life?
Itís just my real life. The way I absolutely write songs is about things that affect me and my life. Itís the only way I really know how to write. Iíve tried to write other songs, like character-based songs or observational songs. A lot of times, it just doesnít work, so I end up writing about myself.
I donít feel the need to write a song about how happy the sunshine makes me, or how nice it is to sit outside on a patio and have a beer. I donít want to write about things like that that make me happy. When Iím feeling melancholic or feeling down about something, thatís when I feel the need to write.
I found the last song on the album particularly interesting because I think itís one of the more hopeful songs youíve done, and itís fittingly titled ďHope for Now.Ē Thereís a line on there that really stuck out to me where you go, ďHow can I instill such hope but be left with none of my own? What if I could just sing one song and it might save somebodyís life?Ē Can you talk a little bit about how you wrote that song?
That song is basically about how no matter what, I just donít have that much faith in myself. No matter how many people tell me how my music has helped them or gotten them through some tough times in their lives, no matter how many records I sell or whatever, I still have this battle with myself of whether or not what Iím doing is good enough. I donít know even who Iím really battling with. Is it good enough for me or good enough for everyone else? I donít know.
That song is sort of the epitome of what I feel inside. I guess the end is that there are times, when Iím singing at least, where I do feel good about the whole thing, and thatís the thing. To think that people have told me that some of my songs have saved them, but I still struggle unwaveringly with that sense of worry. Itís really weird and a hard thing to get past.
Thatís an interesting dichotomy there.
Yeah, but I think what Iíve realized is thatís just kind of the way I work. Always second guessing myself is the way I strive to always get better. I feel like if you become complacent and settle into that, ďOh yeah, I guess I am pretty good. People like me,Ē then maybe you wonít have that fine line to deal with to decipher whether or not what youíre doing is good and always try to work harder to make it the best it can be. Thatís the way I am. Iím 30 years old now and I donít see it getting any different. Iíve learned to live with it.
In addition to ďThe Grand Optimist,Ē thereís a couple other songs that you wrote about your family. What is it like to write with that aspect in mind?
Like I said, I write about things that are happening in my life. In the last few years, my sister was going through some pretty tough stuff. I wasnít really around to help deal with it, just because I was on tour so much at the time. The way I deal with things is by writing, so that was the way I tried to deal with not being there.
That was my way of trying to help, I guess, was by writing this song. It was like a message to her. I still think that I wrote it in a relatable enough way. I think that other people can listen to that song and draw from their own experiences, and maybe it will help them as well.
It seems when youíve been doing interviews about this record, youíve been talking about how one of the big themes is from the title, Little Hell, where itís about the valleys and tribulations you go through. Is that what this record is mostly about?
Yeah, I think so. At first when I had just written the song ďLittle Hell,Ē I didnít think it was going to be the album title. I didnít really necessarily think about how it can translate itself to the rest of the songs and into how I feel about life. Once I started really thinking about it and making the record, there was a lot of stuff that went into it that was really frustrating and defeating at times. I started thinking Little Hell was more apparent because thatís how I feel.
Life is all about those things and the little hells, whether or not you present them to yourself or theyíre thrust upon you. Itís all about how you deal with that that makes you a better person or makes you who you are. Like I said earlier, going outside in the sunshine is nice, but itís all about going through the shit that makes you who you are.
When youíre writing is it more natural for the music or the lyrics to come out, or does it not really matter?
For me, lyrics take a really long time. It usually starts with just chords and melodies. I get that together first, and then I start singing lines and decide what the songís going to be about. I guess because most of my songs tend to be about personal situations, or at least things in my own life, thatís why I feel like they take a while because I have to find the best way to describe what Iím feeling.
Writing a song from an observational point of view, you can draw from a lot of different things and maybe piece together a song, whereas I donít really do that. Iím not one of these people who is constantly writing in a book, and then you just take the lines you need to make your song.
I remember reading this thing about how Bob Dylan would have pages and pages and pages of verses for songs, and he would have to decide which ones he was going to leave out. I canít imagine getting to that point where I would have that many lyrics to have to pick from. Iím like, ďGod, just let me come up three verses.Ē
You have a little making of documentary that people can watch online, and there was a thing at the end of that which I thought was really interesting. You were saying that people who sometimes donít like an artistís new record that is different is more so because theyíve changed in their own life, so it doesnít resonate with them, rather than due to the artist changing. I was wondering if you can talk more about that and if there are any bands for you as a listener where that has happened.
I think that definitely thereís a lot of times where a band you like puts out a new record that you donít like. I think a lot of people forget to take into account how much theyíve changed as well. Obviously, my new record is different than my last two, but at its core itís still me writing the songs. I think itís a general progression from the first record to now. There will be people who donít like my new record solely because itís not a record full of me playing songs on an acoustic guitar.
The other thing, too, is that you forget that some records you invest so much emotionally into them. Theyíre such a big part of your life at that moment in time. Years later, when youíve moved on from that stage and that band has moved on, they put out a record that just doesnít connect with you the same. I think people should be a little bit more open-minded. When a record comes out you donít like, just be like, ďYeah, Iím not into it.Ē
Thereís tons of bands when I was a kid that I listened to that I was in love with, like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Those two bands when I was 12, 13, 14 years old, those to me were the end of the world when it came to music. I still love the first, earlier records, but I stopped buying Pearl Jam records after Vitalogy. Theyíve put out six, seven, eight records since then. I still think theyíre a great band, but I donít listen to them anymore. I donít blame them. I would never say, ďOh, that recordís not as good as Vs. or their first record.Ē I just say, ďTheyíve moved on. Iíve moved on.Ē
Also on this album you recorded to tape, which I understand was a rather trying experience at times. Can you talk about what that process was like?
Well, first of all, Iím very impatient, which definitely does not lend itself to recording on tape. Also, we used a really old tape machine that hadnít been used in probably eight or 10 years, so it was a little dusty, to say the least. That led to a little bit more of the frustration.
The reason I did want to do it, though, was because a) I had never done one, and b) I wanted to see if I could hear the difference. You always hear people talk about how much warmer it sounds and how much more real it sounds. I thought the songs I had written lent themselves to that sound and I wanted to see if I could hear that difference. I think it does.
After going through this process would you be open to recording on tape again, or would you want to go back to the digital ways?
No, Iíd love to. Iíd love to do it again. I think I just needed to do it once because all the records I had made in the past were Pro Tools. If something goes wrong, you just shut down the computer and reload. You do a hard restart.
With tape, you have to sit there and switch the reel or switch the record card. I think I just needed to do it once to understand the full process of how it works. Iím so happy with the outcome that I think I would definitely do it again.
Earlier this year you had that two-song collaboration with Shad, which was pretty well received. Do you have any plans to work with him again or any more collaborations in the works?
As of right now, we donít. We had such a blast doing that that if it ever presents itself again, I think we would do more songs like that. As far as other collaborations, Iím not sure as of right now, just because my main focus is on this record. I mean, itís not even out yet. Once I get it out there and let people hear it, then after that Iíll be thinking about other stuff.
The cover art for this album is pretty interesting, and I believe I heard it is of some flower fields in Holland. How did you end up with that idea?
Honestly, I just saw a photo. I think it was in an in-flight magazine. We were flying somewhere in Europe last year. Yeah, I think it was last November. I saw it, and I thought to myself immediately, ďI want that to be the cover of my record.Ē That was before I even came up with the title or anything.
It was so visually striking that I thought it would make a really great album cover. Then I Googled it and I was torn between the idea of what photo to use, and then I thought, ďWhy not have my friend paint it because then it would almost look like a piece of art?Ē Now I like that itís this beautiful row of colors to contradict the title Little Hell. When you think of Little Hell, you donít think of beautiful colors at all.
Over the last several years youíve been able to get acclimated to the U.S. music scene now. What are the similarities and differences between the music over here and what you grew up with in Canada?
Itís not that much different, other than thereís just more of it down here. Thereís tons of bands that I can mention that I grew up listening to in Canada that you probably would never have heard of. Back then, it was a lot harder for bands to make it other places, especially without the Internet and stuff. Thatís definitely helped out a lot.
There was a really great alternative, early Ď90s music scene in Canada. I was lucky enough to be a good age to be a part of it. Nowadays, if you think about it, a lot of the most popular music is Canadian. Itís weird. Arcade Fire, Drake, Justin BieberÖ
ÖNickelback. Weíve got some good stuff, weíve got some bad stuff, but it all seems to be No. 1. Itís really weird.
Real quick, what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
Most of the summer is pretty much all doing festivals. Weíre doing Sasquatch this week. Then weíre doing Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, and then some cool festivals up in Canada. We have these really neat folk festivals all throughout the country, so weíre going to do a bunch of those. Iím going to England to do T in the Park and Hop Farm, a bunch of festivals like that. In the fall is when Iím going to start actually doing headlining touring for the record, so Iím excited about that.
Very cool. I think I read somewhere youíre also working on Alexisí next record as well.
Yeah, thatís kind of on the backburner. This is where my head is right now, and the recordís not even out yet. Everyoneís just kind of doing their own thing as of right now.
great interview! Not great to hear Alexis is 'on the back-burner' though :(
I wouldn't get too bummed about it, there is an understanding within the band of the necessities of scheduling and touring and stuff. Im sure Wade will do some Black Lungs stuff and the other guys will do whatever, and then they will get back together for a new Alexis record. Pretty sure this has been the case with all City and Colour records (or BMYL at least), the band seems to think it's healthy to take breaks. Cant say I disagree.