Blood Harmony may have an americana vibe but Dave Hause’s rock’n’roll heart beats as strongly as ever
Philadelphia based singer-songwriter Dave Hause is now a quarter of a century into his career that has encompassed punk rock, heartland rock, folk rock and americana, both solo and as a duo with his brother Tim, and with his full band, the Mermaid. While he may not have attained stadium level status, he has built a dedicated and loyal fan base that is attracted by Hause’s songwriter, whatever the musical genre it may be set in. In common with many artists, Dave Hause has just released his lockdown album, ‘Blood Harmony’, and it marks a shift on various fronts from his previous four solo albums, including the backing of musicians normally found working behind artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Dave Hause over Zoom as he was on his way to a promotional gig for ‘Blood Harmony’ to discuss the apparent maturity of the new record, why he has decided to take the risk of self-releasing the record, the joy of working with his brother Tim, and why he believes he learnt more from listening to rock’n’roll than through formal education. He also shares his belief in the power of song to change the minds of individuals, and he discusses how and why he wrote ‘Your Ghost’ following the murder of George Floyd. Finally, he shares some advice that originally came from Bruce Springsteen that explains why Dave Hause values his European fans very highly, so much so he decided to play his first post lockdown full band gigs with the Mermaid in Europe at the start of 2022, rather than in the States.
How are you? I hope you’ve managed to get through COVID?
We sure did, we were very lucky, living where we do, we were able to spend a lot of time outside and distanced from other people. We’ve been raising our twin toddlers and we’ve literally watched them go from one, two and they will be three in January, and it is quite a blessing to be that present as a father, and also to have the time to work on these songs and make this record for as much pain and strife that is in the world, we were lucky in that we got a lot of connected time.
A lot of people have had a similar experience, and as long as you have escaped the actual disease itself there have been a lot of positives to the pandemic.
It really makes you wonder if we should be pausing as a society, and also privately as families to get this time away from the madness. I don’t know how to do that, but I really hope we learn something after eighteen months of COVID.
What was the idea behind your new album ‘Blood Harmony’, is it the mature Dave Hause?
I think the last record we made, ‘Kick’, felt like we were drowning, and it was a socio-political pointed response to the idea that things we had counted on as being the norms were failing here in America, and certainly in the UK. We made a decidedly more rock album last time, and I think with having children and with some of the things that shifted with having the quiet in 2020 that was demanded of us, it sort of just gave me and my brother Tim the opportunity to write and write. We wrote about thirty songs for this album, and I think it is a bit broader than the last album and a bit more balanced. I think it is just more reflective of where I am with life. If you see maturity, that is cool, I don’t know, I think ultimately it is about more than the topics at hand, it is about the ties that bind, for me, and those ties are our family and the music, and all that stuff is reflected in the writing. It just came about naturally through the discipline of writing the record, writing songs each day for about three months, all the way through January, February and March Tim and I were writing each day, it is just what naturally sprung forth.
What are the dynamics like working with Tim, your brother, because not all brotherly musical acts have been peaceful partnerships?
There are fifteen years between us, so this helps because we have never been trying for the same resources, and I think what can create a lot of the brother and sibling quarrel dynamic is that you are essentially looking for the same attention of parents, or the parent’s love or time, or perhaps in the same friend group there is overlap when you are trying to establish the pecking order, and that has never been the case for Tim and I. Even now, he’s 28 and I’m 43, the things we are doing in our private lives are pretty different. I’m raising my twins with my wife, and Tim and his wife are in that approaching thirty phase so they own a house, and they can travel, they are making their bones in their professions. We are about to make Tim’s debut album, we are going back to Nashville in a couple of months, and out of that same batch of songs, there was more of a Tim voice developing rather than a Dave influence. In terms of the creativity, that was a new thing to establish, and I think by writing a lot we found themes and we found a distinct voice for each writer, more than in the past, and I think out of that Tim and I both recognised that we need to make a Tim Hause record, whatever that is going to be called and however that is going to be branded we are still developing ideas.
Generally, we broke up the songs differently on this record than we did on the last, on the last one we just co-wrote everything, whatever came. There was one song, ‘Civil Lies’ on ‘Kick’ which was mostly a Tim idea, whereas we are actually creating a new lane for Tim after this big outpouring of songs this year. It is growing and changing as we go, which is exciting and really good. There weren’t many quarrels, there were one or two times where we wrote a song and Tim had the majority of the idea for it, and I wanted it so I was like let’s put it on the record, and he was like no, this is mine, haha. That was good, a really open dialogue in a really communicative way, and our relationship comes first so if he says I want to do that I’m like, cool. It did prompt me to write a better idea, and I think that is another development in the songwriting process that is really fun. I want that, no it’s mine so keep writing, haha. It has been one of the great joys of my life to work with my brother, and the best is the creative writing of songs, though I work with my brother when we tour together, the songwriting is where so much of the joy in my life comes from, creating in that space where we feel safe and comfortable, and no idea gets struck down right away. That is a really freeing situation.
How did you manage to record ‘Blood Harmony’, and what did Will Hoge bring to the recording?
Will was pivotal. He was suggested by our manager, who works with Will and works with us. I was initially a little bit trepidatious thinking here we go, you get commission twice, haha. But no, it was great, we got on a Zoom call like this, and we made a pitch with demos and he was really excited, and he was like, look, I don’t produce much because I don’t find songs I love that much, but I feel this is a batch that we could take up to the mountain top and I know some great players. Who knew it was going to be Bruce Springsteen’s bass player and Brandi Carlile’s drummer, and Jason Isbell’s guitar player, I didn’t know that right away, but he quickly let me know who we could get. He just handled it all, he said he had a relationship with Sound Emporium in Nashville and you guys just need to fly in and make this record, and it will be great.
There was an instant sense of trust and chemistry on the call, and it’s funny, I come from a rock background when I was younger but other than that we had all the same touchstones, Dolly Parton, Nanci Griffith, Bruce Springsteen. Will and I have a very similar sensibility as working musicians and we are not playing at stadium level or anything, so we have a very mutual understanding of how each other’s lives and business works. He is married to a therapist, as am I, so there is all this overlap that created a deep trust and we just landed, went in and cut the record. He did it all, he said everyone had to be vaxed and that wasn’t a problem, and everyone was hot to trot in Nashville to get back to work so everyone had done the requisite vaccinations and so on. We just went in and worked, and it was initially really weird to be back in a room with people, but it wasn’t weird for long once the music started flowing. Everyone was so excited, and we have a documentary we shot about the making of the record and I can’t wait for people to see that magic we were part of, it was tremendous.
How did it work, who made the calls in the studio?
When you are the songwriter and you are the label, you absolutely get veto power, haha. However, you would be a fool to exercise that power wantonly, and Will approached things kind of like a basketball coach, and he wanted to be a basketball coach when he was younger, and he loves being in that chair and he is really good at taking his ego out of the equation and doing what is best for the song and what is best for the team. He was leading by example, and I was more than happy to defer when I needed to. In a few instances, I had to say that is too country for a Philadelphia boy, or that is too rock for what we intended the song to be. There are a few parameters where Tim and I had to say I don’t think so guys, which is really hard when you are dealing with this echelon of players, but you have to trust your instinct, the song has to come first. But generally speaking, there was not much of that, I’m just talking about two or three small instances where we steered things a slightly different way. At that level, everyone is so intensely talented and able to play things so well in many different mediums. We had an embarrassment of riches in that sense, it was like we can do this like the Stones, or we can do this like Merle Haggard, it was just so crazy in that sense, haha. It was mostly just joyful, 97% was a joy and the other 3% it was let’s try it a different way. And there is a joy in that as well, it is just kind of hard when you are telling a guy who has played with Springsteen for fifty years, haha.
You started out in a punk band, people are now calling you americana, how do you see your music yourself as opposed to the marketing people?
It is just rock’n’roll music at the end of the day for me. That was what I was raised on, I like that umbrella term and it is the music that changed modern culture in a way that impacts most people. Rock’n’roll has its roots in R&B and country, and that magic is what came from America and was perfected, for lack of a better word, in England and brought back to the States. The whole cyclical nature of rock’n’roll is what I find us to still be part of today. Americana I suppose is sort of left-leaning country or something, I guess, it is like country for people who don’t like the attitudes associated with country, which I guess I’m cool with because I’m from Philadelphia and I don’t have much of a Southern take, but the roots of country are in rock’n’roll, and rock’n’roll is the closest thing to a religion that I have so I’m OK with it. I think that when people hear americana they know what it is, they know it is a music based on roots instruments and the roots of rock’n’roll, and songwriting is really the main driver of americana as far as I can tell. I am cool with it, it is a better term for what we are doing than punk rock because punk rock carries a set of very stringent musical rules, and that is the irony of it. Joe Strummer broke those rules right away, but for some reason, it has boiled down into a two-dimensional sound that I am not as interested in.
You mentioned americana being defined by songwriting, tell me about ‘Your Ghost’, what was that project about?
That was a direct response to the helplessness that we felt watching George Floyd being murdered by the police. It is such a terrifying country to live in currently, America sometimes, and it has got to be true by a multiple factor for people of colour, for women and minorities of any kind. To see that play out in the gruesome violent way shook everybody to the core, and I didn’t know what to do, I just felt compelled to write about it with Tim. We right away got to work and we got some of it right, and some of it wrong, and we kept working at it and we geared up with some friends. We wanted to make sure we got the tone right, so we shared it with black friends of ours, and other artists and stuff, and they all helped us along and gave us some good things to think about as we were writing the song. It then became time to cut it, and we cut it at home and then we gave it to Amythyst Kiah and Kam Franklin, from The Suffers, and they made it become three dimensional as far as their vocals and the banjo that Amythyst played on it. I gave it to the world and then hoped for the best, and hopefully, raise some money for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.
It was all we could do at the time, and it still feels like a small pebble in a huge ocean, but it was a healing process in some regards, just because it felt like we could do something. If we could make one or two people think about things from a different perspective than they are used to hearing, then it felt worthwhile. We had a song years ago called ‘Seasons Greetings From Ferguson’ which had a really pointed take on the Michael Brown killing in suburban St Louis, and I met a couple of guys who I would assume would want to fight me on this matter, they came up to us and said listen I heard that Seasons Greetings song and it changed my whole perspective on how I feel about race and how I feel about cops, minorities and so on. That emboldened me to want to put the song out, knowing that we had a positive impact on some people with the last thing we were driven to do. Hopefully, that was true this time as well, I don’t know, it just seems infinitesimally small when it comes to the problem, but you do what you can and hope for the best.
From what you have said, you clearly still believe in the power of song to change people’s minds.
It changed my mind. I’ve been listening to songs for all of my life, and I’ve probably learnt more from songs than I have from school, Public Enemy or Joe Strummer, Rage Against The Machine, Bob Marley. I mean, there are so many instances, look at Johnny Cash, and if you listen to songs you get so many perspectives, and each one of those writers is trying to give you a little slice of their empathy and there is so much to be learnt from that. I don’t have an audience like any of those artists I have just named, but we do have an audience and a lot of them came from working-class backgrounds where maybe the cops hold too much sway in the community. My dad is an Irish police officer in Boston, OK fine, but let’s really look at this problem and really look at the humanity that gets stomped out of people when racism is left to fester. I think that is what you kind of hope gets through, and it has got through to some people, and that is more than I can do posting on Facebook or going to a rally, this is what I can control and what comes out creatively. It does feel like a worthwhile endeavour, albeit small.
What is happening with the Mermaid, and what do they do when you are on your solo tours, how do you keep them together?
You just ask, haha. I try to keep all that simple, it is a family business with my brother, and I try not to play solo if I can help it, I try to make sure that at least Tim and I are there, and he makes everything better because we can harmonise in such a special way. Also, we are trying to showcase his songwriting little by little over time, because I believe in his voice and in his perspective, and that is that. When it comes to the band, we have been lucky in that we have had the same drummer now since we started in 2017, our bass player has changed but Matt has been with us since we toured all of ‘Kick’ and he will be our bass player next year when we come back to England. We have a new keyboard player that we have rehearsed with, a guy called Luke who is going to come with us on the European tour. The Mermaid is essentially a metaphor for an ideal that seems to swim away when you get close. That to me is exactly what a band is, there is a deeply held belief that rock’n’roll bands, that kind of gang thing, is what people put their faith in often when they are into this kind of thing, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Jason Isbell has that kind of thing with the 400 Unit.
It is something like when you have it, you have it, and it will swim away at once, and you can’t always keep a band together. I think approaching it from that perspective, there is an understanding with the players that if they are available and they want to do it we would love to have them, if you get a gig that pays you more or you just want to stay home then that is OK too. Approaching it that way has given us a lot more freedom, and it is really clear with them, whereas with bands that I’ve been in in the past, that clarity has been lacking and that is how you get yourself into trouble if you are not clear. That is kind of the story, and we have been able to thankfully keep mostly the same line-up over the few years we have done the band. I guess we are getting into the fourth year and by the time we get to Europe it will be the fifth year of having Dave Hause and the Mermaid as an idea, and that idea has had mostly the same players and that has been fun.
‘Blood Harmony’ is released by your own Blood Harmony label. Why do that and was it easier self-releasing?
Well, when you are an independent artist, you really can’t quite afford to not make most of the money that comes in on your back, in my opinion. I’ve experienced it for years, and I’ve seen us be successful and yet the label takes most of the money when a record sells, that is why they are in business I guess and I understand why they make the investment, and why they collect most of the big rewards. We were in a position, finally, with ‘Blood Harmony’ to fund it and we were out of contract, and we had a great offer from Sony’s label services company Soundly Music to distribute the album and they will be on your team, but if you fund it you will get a much better cut out of the backend. I’ve watched guys like Jason Isbell, or Sturgill Simpson and on the punk side of it, it would be Bad Religion and things like that. They have all had the idea, and when you are making most of the money on both sides, the live and the label, you are able to sustain your career better.
You can invest in a band, it is a risk, you know, because you may be funding a record people may not like or may not buy, and in that sense it is scary, but it is also pretty clear at this point that the people we have been in a conversation with in our audience, they have been sticking around through a lot of strange output. I’ve made loud punk rock records, I’ve made quiet finger-picked records, we kind of do what we want and despite that, people have been interested in the writing and have been so good to us. It was kind of a hedged bet to risk that kind of investment because I have faith now that people are going to show up, and so far it has been true. Certainly, now we are on base to chart on Billboard with our own record label, and it looks like we will sell more records in the first week than any other of the records we have put out with a record label, which is tremendous and so gratifying. We are so grateful that people are meeting us where we are, it is kind of mind-blowing.
What is next for Dave Hause, do you have a detailed plan?
We all have detailed plans but we know what happens to plans, haha. Right now we are playing some listening rooms to deliver the record to some people in record stores as the record comes out, and all of our Dave Hause and the Mermaid touring starts in January over in Belgium, then we come to England and do a full round of that, then we will do America, and that is the plan. I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t attached to that plan, I really hope that happens, but I would also be lying to you if I said I knew whatever was going to happen now after what we have been through as a species. You make the best plans you can, and you just have to be ready to pivot. That is what we have on the calendar, what fate has on the calendar we will see, haha.
Was there any particular reason that you chose to start your tour in Europe?
It was down to a really firm commitment on Tim and my part to go where people have been warmly welcoming us. There is something spectacular about being thousands and thousands of miles away from home and having people respond to the music you have made on your couch. Europe has given us so many great nights of music, and so many years of support, that I said to our people I want to start principal band touring there. We can do warm-up stuff on the record in America, but we were also over in Germany in August for a private week of shows our fan club set up in gardens, completely ticketed through the fan club, and that was our first foray in playing live at all. I thought we have to make sure our first foray in band touring is also in Europe. I mean, Bruce Springsteen told our friends in Gaslight Anthem, always go back to Europe and focus on Europe because it will never let you down. The States is an up and down rollercoaster, but the UK and Europe have never let me down they will never let you down if you keep coming back, and so far that has been just as true for us as it has been for Gaslight Anthem or Bruce Springsteen. We are committed to that.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
The new Brandi Carlile album is as fantastic as we all assumed it would be. The record that has really captured my imagination the most is The Felice Brothers new record, ‘From Dreams To Dust’, and this is tremendous work, just tremendous writing. What a keen eye these writers have for the world, seeing it in such a unique and funny way. When you can mix humour and heartbreak in songs, you are operating at the top level of songwriting, that is John Prine, Leonard Cohen territory. These guys have made a hell of a record, just put on that first track ‘Jazz on the Autobahn’ and every time I’m thrilled to be hearing it, so that is really the album for me right now, but I do like the new Brandi Carlile record ‘In These Silent Days’. Tim has been really diligent about listening to Mick Flannery, it is terrific. Tim and I went out to see Jason Isbell and Kathleen Edwards in Philly, we were opening for The Avett Brothers and we had a day off, and Kathleen has been really kind to me and we are mutual admirers of each other’s work, and she said before we left have you guys heard Mick Flannery, and I hadn’t and Tim hadn’t. Tim got to him first and he was like, oh man Kathleen knows what she is talking about, this guy is great.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
Just that we are excited to bring these songs to you next year, thank you for any and all the time you are willing to spare to listen to this record, I think if you do spare the time you will be pleasantly surprised. We worked hard, and the players were tremendous, and we will do our absolute best to honour that when we come to play in the UK. We have maybe five or six dates, and date one is in London, the Islington Assembly Hall, and that is a big capacity that we are trying to make look good, haha. We are confident we are bringing our friends, so please come and bring yours. We had a wonderful trio show we did over there at the Union Chapel right before COVID hit, and it was one of the greatest shows we have had the honour to play, so we are hoping to come back and this place is a little bit bigger, so we are bringing the band. We are just so damn excited about coming back, we love touring the UK, we feel like we are those people who are looking around for anything Beatles or Stones or Who related, haha, we are always thrilled to be there.
Dave Hause’s ‘Blood Harmony’ is out now on Blood Harmony via Soundly Music