I’ve never spoken to Bob Dylan, but I have to imagine it must be a bit like the three times I interviewed Daniel Romano. The ever-evolving Romano – who seems capable of anything from heartfelt Americana to face-melting psych-rock (not to mention a complete track-by-track remake of Dylan’s own infidels like it’s being played by the Plugz) – is always a bit mysterious.
Most of my questions to the Canadian musician are answered with a mischievous smile, and I have to assume there is an occasional BS thrown in. (Hard to believe bassist Roddy Holiday is touring with Rick Danko’s real bass, but who knows?) But Romano is also surprisingly candid when discussing his unique creative process and work ethic. Ultimately, a little mysticism never hurt anyone and Romano’s brilliant music – not to mention his live shows with the outfit, truly some of the best I’ve seen in years – is what counts.
Romano and company – including Holiday, Julianna Riolino and Carson McHone – stopped by for this chat Fretboard Journal before their show at Seattle’s Substation. We talked about its spread the moon Release he recorded as a 30-minute uninterrupted suite, drums-first, the dangers of listening to other people’s music, and more.
I hoped Romano would play another song for our cameras like he did in 2019. With their gear locked in their trailer, he grabbed an old Martin tenor guitar that was hanging on our wall and sat in a corner for a few minutes tuning it by ear, then revealed an acoustic version of ” The Motions” from his 2021 album, cobra poems, with Riolino and McHone on vocals. (The tenor’s tuning turned out to be BEG#B to the curious.)
Fretboard Journal: Was this your first time trying to play tenor guitar?
Daniel Romano: This is the first time I’ve played a tenor guitar in the tuning we just invented, really fast. It’s probably just something open. I really don’t know much about guitar.
FJ: I don’t think so at all.
DR: It’s kind of true. I can find stuff with my ears, but I don’t necessarily know where to put my fingers or what it means.
FJ: It didn’t slow you down. You’ve had a pretty productive few years.
DR: That’s right.
FJ: Let’s talk about the latest version, the moon?
DR: Yes. It actually has some chords in it.
FJ: How did it come about and what was the idea behind it?
DR: The idea was to write an overture and then build a full-spectrum piece of music from that overture. The concept emerged from the music, and the concept can be left to interpretation. But I wrote an overture, and that was the big experiment, so to speak. Once I had that, I just broke it down into pieces of music that expanded. That’s essentially it.
FJ: When you say it was written, do you mean in notation?
DR: No, I don’t know how to do that. It was just on an acoustic guitar, in a small room. I made two parts: I kind of made the structure of the whole as I went along. I started the overture and made a few chords and then hummed a melody. And then I would follow that tune with another acoustic guitar, just to kind of chart the course.
I wrote the whole thing with two guitars, one for chords and one for melodies… and then I wrote all the lyrics to fit and built it from there.
FJ: Did you listen to music with overtures or classical music during this time?
DR: No, I didn’t refer to anything. [laughter]
FJ: What was the actual recording process like? How much tape was there for that?
DR: Everyone was on it. I didn’t develop it musically before. Sometimes I send these people almost finished thoughts, but the last few times I’ve kept it pretty bare. We just built from scratch whatever it was going to be, starting with the drums, then the bass, and then all that other stuff.
I had a lead voice and maybe harmonies so it kind of made sense of where you were and what was happening and the general mood, what should be happening rhythmically and what the keynote could be. But that was essentially it.
Oddly enough, we started with drums. The drums you hear on the record, which are quite packed at times, play over two sketchy acoustic guides and some low, close mic vocals of what I imagined it to be now.
FJ: What were the two acoustic guitars you used?
DR: A sigma. It was the exact same guitar, twice.
FJ: The finished product on Spotify is two long tracks. Did you imagine that it’s just a long track?
DR: Yes. It Is a long trail. In terms of format, we had to make a page break. I was thinking LP so we had to have this page break. That’s it. Technically, the master had no lateral break. It just sort of tweeted along, and there are some tweets, little tweeting tweets. Then it came back for the B-side…or what became the B-side. But we had to fade it out because those grooves don’t last forever.
FJ: But in terms of recording, did you do it in two 12 minute segments?
DR: No, it was recorded in 33 minutes. top to bottom.
FJ: That’s crazy.
FJ: Have you performed the moon live in its entirety?
DR: No no no.
FJ: Could you? Would you?
DR: I think we could. I think we’re capable of anything, but we haven’t tried it yet. We teased a few things here and there. But it supports us. We don’t support that. We’re out here and it’s supporting us.
FJ: I read on Bandcamp that there are 12 movements in there.
FJ: Did you have a story in mind for every movement?
DR: Yes, I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to structure it in terms of narrative and lyrics. The melody and everything lent itself to a certain idea for me. I just went through with it.
FJ: We’re talking October 2022. How far away are you in terms of records already conceived or recorded that haven’t yet seen the light of day?
DR: Well, we’re all really far out there… as humans. [laughter] I’d say it’s modest compared to the last few years in terms of withheld performance. But we have plans.
FJ: What actually happened to the Dylan Plugz record? It was on Bandcamp but seems to have disappeared.
DR: Because we’re going to release it on a physical medium.
FJ: I was afraid there would be a lawsuit or something.
DR: No, we are closely related to Bob.
FJ: Has anyone from the Plugz ever contacted you?
DR: All living plugz did. And the guitarist from The Nerves held out his hand. And strangely different comedians.
FJ: It’s popular with comedians?
DR: Yes. It is [mentioned] in the liner notes of the latest Bob Dylan bootleg series. You refer to it.
FJ: You’ve always had these – some would say crazy, some would say brilliant – parameters around your recordings and even your live band setup. What equipment do you use for this tour?
DR: Yes, that can be interesting. Well, Roddy uses a classic SVT [amp]. He has Rick Danko’s bass… an Ampeg AMUB-1. It’s the one you can see in The last waltzin the sound stage scenes.
I only use a guitar. I use a Greco Rickenbacker which is my guitar of choice now. A Greco Rickenbacker 330… what do you call it? RG-100 or RG-95? They have many different model names for it, probably due to various lawsuits. But I have two of these now. One is a 12 string that I gutted to a six and the other is a natural six.
I use a 1963 blonde Fender Bassman head and a black 1964 Fender Bassman head. Then I have two boxes that are actually PA speakers from a British company called Sound City. Four twelves in each cab. Eight total for the mathematicians out there. A speaker may be defective.
I use a tuner, a [Boss] TU-3. And I use a Univox Super Fuzz. The original… before the red one. Everything I have is Japanese, except for my amps I think.
FJ: Was that on purpose?
DR: I think it’s an accident. It is random.
FJ: go back to the moon and the overture that came to you. You haven’t heard a bunch of classical music, so what are you listening to? What are you playing in the van right now, if anything?
DR: We just heard Freakonomics. We don’t listen to music.
DR: It’s contagious, in a bad way. Other people’s music is dangerous. We try not to let ourselves be influenced. We gotta stay clean out there. It’s a tough world.
FJ: What’s the last great book you read?
DR: I don’t like reading a whole book. I like to jump around and read a few pages and then jump to another book. All my books are about the same subject anyway. Every book I buy is exactly the same. I can’t tell you what that is.
FJ: Will you write any more books yourself?
DR: I’ve almost finished something, but I haven’t had time to look at it for a while. It might suck.
FJ: How is your setup at home? Are you all living…
DR: We all live together in one big room.
FJ: I do not believe that. But do you live in the same neighborhood?
DR: Yes. We are all very close, within 10 minutes of each other. And then our studio is 11 minutes.
FJ: And what does the studio look like?
DR: It looks like a jungle gym mixed with a 1970s school gym. Our partitions look like clowns working in an office space.
FJ: I think I saw that in one of your videos. Are these panels from an office?
DR: No, we built them all from scratch.
FJ: And you have this studio ready whenever the inspiration comes?
DR: That’s the idea. And nobody else can go there, so don’t even try.
Don’t even call me or write me about it. It will never happen. It’s cool though. We have cool stuff there.
FJ: Do you have gear that never leaves this studio? Guitars too good to take out on the road?
DR: No, we really try not to worry about anything. This is our approach. Zero preciousness… and most of it is broken. It’s like a graveyard for tape machines, so many broken capstans and pinch rollers that just turned to dust…stuck, stuck.
FJ: Well, you played an old tenor guitar 20 minutes ago.
DR: That sounds nice though.
FJ: Thank you for coming. It’s always fun.
DR: It’s always a pleasure to speak with you.