Did I Step on Your Trumpet? Searching for Daniel Smith

Did I Step on Your Trumpet?  Searching for Daniel Smith
Where is Daniel Smith?  It’s raining here in Baton Rouge as I walk my dog and somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Daniel Smith and a van full of strange, strange people are driving about.  I can see them in my mind’s eye.  Smiling.  Laughing maybe.  Probably singing a sugary little song.  You may have forgotten about me, but don’t think that I’ve forgotten about you, Daniel.
Who is Daniel Smith and why do his carefree travels bother me?  And why should you care?  Because May 9 saw the release of Ships, the latest effort from Danielson, the collective headed by Smith, a.k.a. Br. Danielson.  And don’t be fooled; that “Br.” stands for “Brother,” as in Christian Brother.  That’s right.  There’s something strange happening with Christian music up North.  While most people associate Christian music with Godspell and pipe organs, musicians like Smith and Ships contributor Sufjan Stevens have been blazing a holy trail through small bars just outside the gates of college campuses and down the pipelines of Soulseek.  Consider it bringing the gospel to the indie masses.  But unlike most better-known Christian bands (and you know who I’m talking about so I’m not going to drag names through the mud), Danielson are, uh, good.  Very good.
So where is he?  It’s May 22 and I’m in Atlanta, visiting my dad and watching the Flaming Lips; I’m scheduled to talk to Daniel at 1:30 pm.  I scribble down questions in my journal (shut up): “Ships is much more rounded and complete.  Less sugar, more substance.  Why the shift?”  “How complicated is it to make noise-pop with a band small enough to fit in one van?”  “How on Earth did you, a Christian, get along well enough with Steve Albini to record with him?”  I glance at my cell; 1:45.  Quick call to Leo, who puts in a quick call to Secretly Canadian, Smith’s label.  The interview, it seems, has been rescheduled to Wednesday.
Part of the reason that I’m so anxious to interview Daniel is because I myself am a Christian who is a part of the (and God knows how much I hate this term) indie scene.  In my imagination, Daniel and I chat lightly about his music before moving on to issues with the American church, the awesomeness of grace, or good Christian bands (post-rockers Saxon Shore make my list).  I scratch in my journal about what it must be like to be a Christian musician touring in largely non-Christian venues, playing to mostly non-Christian people.  Are they hostile?  Does the faith get attacked?  Are they patronizing?  Respectful?  Do they even care?
Faith would be no issue for you, gentle reader, if Smith’s lyrics weren’t peppered with references to his relationship with God.  Despite the mile-a-minute, Unicorns-on-speed music which his fans have come to adore, Smith’s lyrics are straight from the Confessional, more personal than the Dashboard variety.  It is this insight into the artist that gives Ships its most tender moments, particularly when the parade stops and Smith quietly weeps over his guitar.  In “When It Comes to You I’m Lazy,” Smith’s boozy melancholic lament to the lack of vitality in his spiritual life, mournful trombones and whirring organs transform the squeakiness of his voice from annoying into heartfelt.  It’s at these sparse, vulnerable moments that the album (and its author) becomes something real; gone is the man who ate the one-pound bag of Skittles in favor of man whose spiritual life looks less like a bottle of Xanax.
These are the sounds being choked from my Camry’s speakers as I sojourn back to 225.  It strikes me now that the manic-depressive state of the music on Ships is perfect for exactly what I am doing:  growing up.  I’m 21 years old, Christian for almost one.  Perhaps unintentionally, Danielson have captured that nervous spirit that life-changing events yield in a person’s psyche, from the album’s rickety title to its cover’s silver and blue stars.  See, I had violent tension headaches for a while after my conversion which were caused by my persistent fear that my inability to be perfect was pissing God off.  Smith captures this tension in the noisy final segment of “Two Sitting Ducks,” with pianos crashing against overly-dubbed vocals while the horn section (the Holy Spirit?) wails away in pain.  Of course, “Two Sitting Ducks” plays into the gorgeous “My Lion Sleeps Tonight,” whose twinkling bells sprinkle down like grace upon my burning head.

Finally back in Baton Rouge after many slow miles, I settle down again to interview Daniel Smith.  “Hello?”  Holy crap, his voice is just as nasally when he talks as when he sings!  With Dictaphone rolling, and boring preliminary questions out of the way, I begin the real interview.  “How hard is it to make all of the noise on the record with a six-person band?”  Allow me to make at this point in the article a comment regarding cell phones.  Yes, they’re lovely.  But when you’ve been chasing down one of your musical idols and finally get him on the phone, the last thing that you want is for him to drive through West Virginia, home of mountains, moonshine, and apparently not enough people to warrant a decent phone tower.  “Let me call you back from a truck stop,” I pull from the static.  That’s fine.  I’ll be here.

Now, for those who do not know, the most crucial tenet of the Christian faith is that of grace.  Like I mentioned before, grace was the secret anodyne for my miserable headaches.  Grace tells me that God loves me exactly the way that I am, that I don’t have to look like everyone else in my church and that I don’t have to watch the same movies, listen to the same bands, or vote for the same politicians.  God just wants me to love Him.  Grace causes every single sin I could ever commit, from the theft of a car to the relatively innocuous (but still grievous against God) itty bitty white lie, to be completely overlooked by God.  For those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, the Bible teaches, there is no punishment for sin.  Of course, the love of God in a person’s life should compel them not to, uh, smoke crack or anything like that, but grace exists to erase any and every stupid thing, past and future.  As Christians, Daniel and I are called to distribute this same sort of grace to the world (You remember the Our Father:  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”).  Put shortly, grace is the most appealing aspect of the Christian faith when it’s working in your favor, but when you have to dispense it, it’s not so attractive.

A few days pass.  I have yet to hear from Br. Danielson, which was initially a relief given the amount of work which looms over my head, but that work includes this very interview, so I give him a ring again.  “The publicist didn’t get back to you?  I told him to set up another interview.”  Another quick call to Leo, a quick call back from Secretly Canadian, where I am assuredly on speed dial by now.  Sunday at 1:30.  Daniel was in the Eastern Time Zone when I last attempted to talk to him.  His publicist nonchalantly tells me that Daniel will be somewhere in the Mountain Time Zone when I next talk to him.  Two days and he’s halfway across the country.

Danielson.info, the collective’s website, details an anecdote from Daniel’s sixth grade band class.  One fine day, a kid named Billy left the band room only to discover upon his return that his prized silver trumpet’s bell had been caved in.  Billy immediately accused Daniel, who, like any good sixth grader would, quickly denied any wrongdoing.  But that was twenty years ago.  Daniel states on the website, “I really do not know if I stepped on it or not.  I feel like I may have.”  As some sort of bizarre twenty-years-too-late act of penance, Smith recorded “Did I Step on Your Trumpet?” as an apology, encouraging his fans to make amends with anyone whom they have accidentally offended by politely asking, “Did I step on your trumpet?”  The move has become the major marketing campaign behind Ships, with fans writing their apologies on a 3×5 card and mailing them to Daniel, who in turn personally inserts a “Did I step on your trumpet?” pin and mails it out to the offended.

“Hi, this is Daniel Smith.  Please leave a message.”  It’s Sunday, and this is what my end of the phone gets at 1:30 pm.  I try again thirty minutes later.  With a thousand apologies, Daniel explains that the interviewer before me ran over time and the group is now eating in a Cracker Barrel in North Dakota and can he call me back when they are done eating?  Sure thing, I say.  Sure thing.

As of this writing, I have yet to interview Daniel Smith.  We have an appointment for 4:00 tomorrow, seven hours past Antigravity’s deadline.  To his credit, every time that I have talked to him, Daniel has been incredibly friendly and very apologetic concerning the situation.  He just forgot to call me back, and I can forgive him for that.  See, one of the hard things about being a Christian is that people expect us to be angels on Earth.  We are never to lose our temper, never to offend anyone in any way, never to pass judgment.  That’s a tough image to live up to.  But that’s the beauty of grace.  I’ll tell you right now, I’ve sinned like fifty times in the writing of this piece alone.  I’ve lied (ooh, try to find it!), I’ve cheated (I read other people’s reviews), and I’ve procrastinated like a bandit (sloth, frighteningly enough, is a sin).  But if God’s grace can forgive me for all of that and for implying that I may one day steal a car, then surely I can forgive Daniel Smith for stepping on my trumpet.


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