In February I had the chance to speak with Runaway Dorothy's Dave Parnell ahead of the release of their latest album, The Wait. See what he had to say about his musical style, the band's second album, and performing in New York City's subways.
E: The album's sound is sparse and, while I respect that you chose to let the songs stand by themselves rather than stuffing them full of theatrics, why did you decide you wanted to make this style of music?
Dave Parnell: Stylistically, I guess, it's kind of new for me; I've always been into rock bands and full production stuff and layered [tracks] and I like the idea of that, but sometimes it can overshadow what the song is doing. I've always created with [the] unsung philosophy of simplicity upon simplicity upon simplicity: almost like a symphony kind of thing, where you have your violin in one part and your cellos in one little part but, when you start bringing it together, they complement each other. The guys I have in the band are such good musicians, if I'm just like "go, do whatever you want" they really could be so technically proficient; they're also smart enough to know that what they do helps move the song forward
I got obsessed with a band called The Jayhawks, just with their arrangements and stuff; I was just like, that is so melodically beautiful [and] catchy, with every instrument they did. It wasn't just that the vocal melodies were so melodic, it was the guitar parts and the bass lines and anything they did with the keys; everything seemed to push the song forward.
E: So, what was the first band you played in?
DP: The first band I played in was like this U2, bad.. I mean, they were a good band, we just sounded like a bad U2 cover band.
E: You recorded Runaway Dorothy's debut album by yourself; was it important for you to see how everything came together, musically, before you brought anyone else in?
DP: I had just moved to New York from Charleston, South Carolina and written a bunch of demos and put them together in my apartment and sent them to my friend who was still living in North Carolina. He was driving around in his car one day and I get this phone call from him [saying] "what are you doing; you need to go record these immediately" and, at this point, I'd been in bands before, but I'd never been 'the guy': the guy who had to coordinate everything and who had to make all the decisions. So [my friend] was like "I'm going to call the studio now and I'm going to set it up for you. You're just going to fly out to Missouri to work with this producer I know; he's going to take care of everything and I'll come out and join you". So, like, three months later I get a call; everything's booked and I'm flying out of New York City to the middle of Missouri and I'm working with this guy I've never met before but in ten days we're going to finish this album, and that's kind of what happened. My best friend who lives in North Carolina flew out and he, Oran -the producer-, and myself kind of banged out the perfect album in about ten days.
Now that I think about it, probably yes [it was important] because, at that point, I had been in bands and I'd had roles in bands where I was writing; there's always this camaraderie around a band of people being able to check you and [say] "that's not very good" or "let's work on that" and in this situation, even if it was bad, I could pull the trigger and say "let's do that". I went and did this and by the time I got done with it I [could] trust myself a lot more in my decision making. Then I was able to bring in the band and kind of become more of a leader, because I knew what I wanted going in: I could hear the sound, kind of in my head, and it was just learning the language of moving it from there to the recording. I think having that first album where I kind of had to do all of it, when I brought in other people I was able to communicate to them what I was looking for.
E: How did you decide who to bring into the band, aside from your brother, after completing the first album?
DP: My friend and I started the band and we started with two other guys I'd never even met. I was living in New York, he was living in North Carolina [and] whenever we toured I would just fly down to meet them and we'd rehearse for a week and then go out [and perform] and we did that for about a year, where we would go back and forth. We were doing pretty well but then I started getting more shows in the Northeast and it became more difficult for them to travel [but] I was living with my brother at the time and he's pretty much the best guitar player I've ever met so I was like "I'm going to have you fill in on these gigs for me". Then the bass player that was living in North Carolina decided to move: he graduated from college and was ready to get out of the state so he moved to New York; so then I had three fourths of the band here. I was helping a buddy of mine on a project that he was working with and I kind of stole him and, before I knew it, I had bumped into all these people that were musically on the same page as I was and [I] just kind of beg and stole them into Runaway Dorothy.
E: Was the songwriting for 'The Wait' a group effort?
DP: I still do all the songwriting. The way I kind of do it is I go off on my own, write the songs, and then I usually do a little demo in my apartment of the song, send it out to the guys early in the week, before we have rehearsal, and kind of let them get the song in their ear and then I'll call them and say "I know I want this, I know I want that, and I kind of hear this guitar part" and then I usually whistle the melody and then I give it to them and trust what they do with their instruments. I don't give them too much direction because I don't want them just to be doing exactly what I'm saying. [I] give them enough to where it kind of puts them in the direction and then just let them go do what they want; I can always say "well, no let's do it this way".
Our new guitar player is such a great guy and great player that I don't want to hinder him in any way; like we came up with this song called "Desperation": I've had it for awhile but it never really was working and I brought it into rehearsal and he started playing this guitar part and I was like, "that's nice but I want it a little more playful. It's gotta have this kind of vibe to it" and in three seconds he knew exactly what I was talking about and [the song] took on this new life that I never expected. I kind of like to give them a little direction and then get out of their way for a little bit; let them make their own arrangements because, really, each person in the band has their biggest strong-suit and I think mine is bringing the songs to the band. Our bass player, Warren, is such a great singer: he has this ear for melody and harmony and he helps us work out everything vocally that we're doing. And my brother went to Yale for classical music; his arrangement skills are just insane. He can hear everything in small pieces and make sure no one is stepping on each other's parts.
E: You said your bass player has a great voice; does he sing on this album?
DP: He actually doesn't do any [singing] on the new album. We're working on this third album now, kind of in secret, and we kind of feature him a lot more on [the third] album. On the first album I did like ninety percent of the vocals and brought in a little bit of harmony and then we started exploring with a lot more, almost like Mumford & Sons, with lots of three and four part harmonies. Everybody in the band has to sing and I know a lot of stuff on our newest album is going to feature a lot of it too, but we let him [Warren] have his moment to shine on a lot of the stuff live because he has an incredible voice.
E: What inspired the album's lead single, "Give Me A Reason"?
DP: I was obsessed with Oasis when I was a kid: I loved the idea of having your brother in the band -I definitely hit with that- and I loved their song "Wonderwall" and I wanted to write almost like an alt-country version of "Wonderwall". A lot of songs on the album are reflections of relationships that -specifically one or two- didn't work out for some reason or another and "Give Me A Reason" is kind of this apology song. It's this guy who is dating someone who is really good for him but he's such a volatile, crazy person that, at any moment, he's just going to run out the door and it's like he's pleading with the person he's with like, "tell me to stay. Tell me a reason to stay here with you and I'll do it, otherwise I'm probably going to go and you might not ever see me again". It's kind of this weird romantic way of him trying to tell the person that "I know you're good for me and I know this is going to be great, but I have such crazy tendencies of running away that you just have to step in and put your foot down".
E: Is there a particular song from The Wait which you're most proud of?
I think one of my favorites on the album is the very last song, "The Ballad of a Dead Man". As far as story-telling quality, it's the most unlikely that I think I've written because, when I look back at writing it, it doesn't even make any sense to me like, this is not anything I would do. I was living in a friend's basement for about six weeks; we were working on some recording stuff and [the basement] got no sunlight and all he had was this massive T.V. - I mean, it was probably five feet by five feet- so that was the only light and [the T.V.] would always be left on. So I remember waking up one day and National Geographic or one of those channels was playing a serial killer documentary and I [thought] it would be interesting if I could write a song about a serial killer; I didn't want to glorify that in any way but I wanted to figure out a cool way that we could empathize with someone who had to murder somebody. I got the idea of the story and created it and, little by little, I started filling in the holes; like I would write a little bit of the first verse and then a little bit of the last verse and then it kind of met in the middle. All of the melodies - I have no idea where they came from, I was just hearing it in my head - I finished it all in a matter of minutes and I kind of put it away because I was like "it's not really catchy [or] upbeat and we're never going to play it live". I didn't think I would ever record [the track] but, when it came time to do the second album, I was like "alright, we're putting it on the album".
I don't know that there's a special meaning behind it. Usually, whenever I play that song for friends, I give them a twenty minute introduction of what the back story of the song is; one of my goals in life is to write a novel that is the back story to that song: the last page of the novel is sort of the first note of the song. I think a lot of the themes on this album kind of deal with making tough decisions and heartbreak in a way that's not a traditional heartbreak and I think that, just the way the song parallels to my life in that I've had loss and how I'm dealing with it, and kind of how the main character feels, I guess, because the song is told from the perspective of a little boy, it fits on this album.
E: Do you have a favorite song to perform live?
DP: Right now we just brought in this song called "Desperation" which is not on the first album; not on the second; it's from the third album. The song should not be fun, it's about sad things that are hidden inside this happy, up-tempo song but, just the way everybody in the band sort of plays their parts, [this song] feels the most cohesive to the band.
E: Now that the band has been together for a while, would you say it has hit its sweet spot?
DP: I think so. I'm surprised every time I go in to do a rehearsal or to do shows [by] how comfortable everyone is on stage with each other and we can go into little tangents and everybody follows everybody else and I kind of catch myself sometimes listening to the band and being like "I would listen to this band, I really like this". It makes me happy to know that putting in that work and somehow finding the right people to be in the band has paid off.
E: Have any fun stories from performing on the subway platforms in New York City?
DP: Honestly, it's one of the most fun times I've ever had playing. When you live in New York or when you're going on tour, you're going to places and you're trying to convince people to come see you play. The long and short of it is like "I'm here; come see us play" and you almost feel like a really bad advertisement so when you go [to the show] and people show up, you're in a good mood; but when you go and people don't show up you're like "man, we just drove all this way and no one cares" so it can kind of take away from the thing you wanted to do to begin with: I just want to show up and play music.
So we started doing this thing where we would rehearse on Friday and then, at the end of rehearsal, pack up and do the rest of our rehearsal in the subway. We were working on our harmonies and wanted to make sure what we were doing was really working. It was kind of like boot camp for our band. You have to stand really close together to hear each other and you have to be extra good when you're playing or people won't care and they won't listen.
We started playing the subway to see who would react to [our music] and we were doing it at rush hour on a Friday, when New Yorkers should not care, but we were finding people were stopping and listening and it wasn't just the people we thought it would be either, it was all over the board: I couldn't come up with a better demographic.
We had this one time - this is probably the most amazing experience I ever had - this super elderly Chinese grandmother came through - she had heard the music and clearly just come from the grocery store and did not speak a word of English - she came through and gave us two of her oranges that she had just bought from the grocery. Now, that's pretty cool, because we connected even though she had no idea what we were talking about; we brought her joy with our music and it was the best kind of response that we could get.
E: You've made some mentions of your third album; have you chosen a direction for the next album?
DP: Yeah, it's more [of a] reflection of our live set: the first album was more of a singer-songwriter type album and the second was an expansion on that, but the third is what it's like here; just five guys together in a room playing off each other. It's stripped down and we're sort of following The Strokes philosophy, that you don't do anything in the song that can't be performed live, and the tracks sort of take on that live energy.
E: Is there anything you want to say to your fans about the album or your music in general?
DP: Just, thank you for listening. A lot of the songs are written for selfish reasons, like I have to get it out, but our connection to people, because of those songs, has been really great. [I] get messages from people every couple of weeks that say "thank you for writing this song; it helped me get through this", and I just think that's great because I almost didn't write the song.
Make sure to check out the band in the links below and grab their sophomore album, The Wait, now for sweet alt-country tracks you can listen to on repeat.