As with his acknowledged influence (and fellow Dayton Ohio native) Robert Pollard, much of Dolph‘s work is like collage. Just as the the album’s cover drops an ersatz REBUILDING PERMIT sign in front of his Chicago-area Studio Dolphty home base, a Dolph Chaney song is likely to gaffer-tape seemingly unrelated elements. An ’80s-ish college-rock fingerpicking pattern might jump off a shoegaze bridge. A chattering sample-and-hold Moog drone may be just as likely to whirr and bloop along with a sensitive ballad as it would with a screeching careen of runaway guitars. The lyrics are similarly intuitive and surprising, with waves of wordplay riding the edge of taking over the proceedings – when an emotional sucker-punch may be right around the corner.
Mike Deangelis wrote: Dolph doesn’t paint a picture of pain as the absence of joy, or joy as the absence of pain. “There’s just life,” and he approaches it all, unflinchingly, with humor, warmth, and the deep wisdom of a man who absolutely knows that a good road is hard to find.
Might be true, might not be true but reading a (great) line like that about yourself must be ‘strange’? Or not?
I was deeply moved by Mike’s review. He’s taken a long view of my work (having played a couple of my older tracks on his wonderful There Once Was A Note show), and so he’s partially pointing out a difference between this album and prior ones. I really tried this time not to take shortcuts, not to dodge a difficult thought by making a joke instead of writing the real feeling. All my favorite writers use humor, but the very best ones do so as a balanced ingredient instead of the whole dish. I certainly don’t claim to have any “deep wisdom,” but that’s what I tried to do in these songs, and for Mike to say I succeeded means a lot.
What was the moment you knew you were on to something?
Between my prior album SHENANIGANS (2013) and REBUILDING PERMIT, there was a long period where songs just weren’t coming. I wrote “If I Write I Down” in 2014, and I used it as a mantra when ideas were very slow to make it to paper. I had parts of 4 other songs by the 2016 election, and then of course “The President Of The United States Is The Breitbart Bimbo” was very easy to write. It was the song “Broken” where I really solidified the approach of wanting to communicate very closely with the audience — what would I want a record to say to me in tough times? But the real turning point was letting go of doing it all myself after 20 years of pure solo work. Once I decided to turn to help from my talented friends (primarily mix engineer Milk Arnold, who I’ve known for 30 years, and my co-worker Jim LeFager on drums) instead of forcing myself to do things I’m less skilled at, the songs blossomed. Recording “It’s OK” and “The Biscuit (Who Grabbed My Face)” made it clear to me we were about to make my best album.
All songs are just a little bit different. There is much more diversity in styles than on most other pop albums. Was that diversity an end in itself?
I never plan this, but just about every album of mine has this diversity. In part, it came from years of solo acoustic work; as one voice and one guitar, it’s particularly important to prevent monotony. Plus, I like a wide range of music — including styles I can’t play! I don’t so much have a genre as I do a point of view.
Dolph, the standard of the songs is so high. Doesn’t that become frightening at some point during the writing process?
I definitely get intimidated and self-critical as I write — not because I think my work is at a high standard, precisely the opposite. I throw away a lot of ideas as not strong enough, and I put others aside for long periods until I find the bits I like and rework them. Some periods of writing are freer than others, and it’s fun when I can be less analytical — but I always want to write something I will still like after playing it over and over for years.
You are part of the Big Stir family now. That is about the warmest family there is. How do you feel about your ‘membership’?
To be part of Big Stir is one of the great joys of my life. They are my first label, after self-releasing music for 32 years, and everything they radiate to the outside is exactly how they treat their artists and community. Introduced thanks to our shared admiration of Robyn Hitchcock, Rex Broome has been a dear friend for 20 years, during which we’ve traded work-in-progress, shared laughs, and helped each other through heartbreak and tough times. As Big Stir became the wonderful label it is now, when I felt this group of songs turning into my strongest work, they were the first on my mind to approach and the only label I talked to. Christina Bulbenko is a visionary and an engine of positive work, and together their teamwork and true love for this music (regardless of whether it stays in a set formula) make Big Stir a delight to call home.