Gabe’s — Saturday, Oct. 31 at 9 p.m.
Dana Telsrow (or, Dana T) cut his musical teeth on mathematical rockers like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Charles Mingus. His arrangements border on messy at times, but come through as an adventurous, organized concept from beginning to end. These unconventional arrangements are thrown at the listener, who can try to analyze them or just let them bounce around and settle into place — which they do, beautifully. The compositional layers on his new album, tiny mind MASSIVE soul fit snugly around his vocals and suggest an experimental alliance between nature, man and a particular potency Dana conjures through controlled out-of-control songs. In other words, Dana knows the rules and is unapologetic about breaking them in such an emotional and talented way.
Dana and I sat down at Iowa City’s famed Black Angel monument during a recent Saturday sunset to talk about composition, performance and spirituality. tiny mind MASSIVE soul is an Iowa project, born and bred — written, recorded, pressed, packaged and distributed within the confines of Iowa City — and the album itself will debut at Gabe’s in Iowa City on Halloween.
Are you a self-taught musician, or did you take lessons?
My dad always wanted me to play sports and pressured me to do basketball and baseball and those sorts of things. The last year I played baseball, I hit the ball one time the entire season and it was a foul and I’m not competitive in anything like that, so that didn’t really work. One day we were going to my Uncle’s house. Up to that point I just listened to whatever my mom listened to; pop music and she went through a country music phase. I somehow heard Last Resort by Papa Roach and on the way I said “Hey Dad, I really like this song.” He always listened to the classic rock stations, so then finally we had a good thing to connect on.
He got me the guitar when I was twelve and I started school band around the same time playing trombone. I did school band all the way through high school and as far as guitar goes, I taught myself for a few years and then took lessons from a guy for two or three years and then he went to jail. He called me one day and told me he was going to jail and I actually took over for him for a while teaching. I was a sophomore or junior in high school teaching all his students. Basically, I was working thirty some hours a week and I only did it for about six months because I was in high school and that was ridiculous and I didn’t like it that much.
Did you miss a lot of school during that time?
No, but I didn’t get to do much outside of school because I was always there. It was kind of cool because they had a big studio space with drum sets and stuff so I did that. Then I came to school here at the University of Iowa. I started out with Tuba because I switched to Tuba in eighth grade. I did my first two and a half years on Tuba for school here. Tuba is cool, I really like the instrument but the career path is you’re in an orchestra or trying to be in an orchestra or you’re teaching and I didn’t want to do that. So, I switched to a BA which is a more general music degree. I took more art classes and more English classes. That’s pretty much up to now. I graduated in 2013. I thought about staying longer to do art but I figured I should just make art.
Do you think that music and composing came from a place of loneliness for you?
Maybe I didn’t know that it did, but it’s possible. I grew up in a very small town. From sixth grade through high school I lived in Wilton which was about 3,000 people. There weren’t any other bands in town; there was no art, no culture. I probably had an inherent desire to find some sort of company in that regard and just didn’t know it. I was sort of a single child. I didn’t have siblings around me. I had step siblings that lived elsewhere and I didn’t see very often so I could see how it could possibly feed in. I like to be alone and music is something I can do alone.
Where did you find inspiration for the lyrics in tiny mind MASSIVE soul’s songs?
I actually did write some of those lyrics when I was in some English classes here at University of Iowa. I had some classes with Steven Boyce who teaches some of the more avant-garde poetry classes, so I took two with him and they were two of my favorite classes I took here. I discovered EE Cummings, is that right? … One time I did this project and I had a talk about an artist and I talked about them in the wrong gender the whole time, so I just had a moment of ‘wait.’ Anyway, some more experimental stuff was really interesting to me and I think there is some of that in the lyrics.
Also, I have a really hard time coming up with a first, second, third verse and then the chorus. I always put the whole idea into a couple lines. So, I think some of the way I write comes out of that. I don’t really feel like stretching the idea out so I just jot it down and go from there. So some of it is stream of consciousness on an idea. This particular album overarching theme is spirituality, my own personal spirituality and the road from growing up sort of Christian. I went to church and was confirmed but my mom, whom I lived with, studied astrology and did taro so I had the ground work to do whatever I wanted, but it still took me a long time to figure it out fully.
Sounds like a major contrast.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I think we did it to be close to my grandparents because they go to church and that’s their generation. I guess that’s the theme. Even broader than that it’s more about figuring out you do not have adhere to anything or establish one thing you have to belong to. tiny mind MASSIVE soul is my own language to talk about my own personal findings about myself. To try and tell people they don’t have to use this established language or ideology. So, that’s the thematic content.
How long has tiny mind MASSIVE soul been in the works?
I started writing the songs in November of 2012, [over] Thanksgiving break. I said, “I am going to sit down and write as much as I can this week in this amount of time.” That was before I knew what it was going to end up being and I was just coming up with ideas. There are two really really really big songs that have all of the instruments on them and those are the ones I started then. It took me until last summer to totally finalize them. I had a lot of breaks where I wasn’t working on them or I was working on the other two EPs. Some of the songs came in between that time and then the last two I wrote last summer after our June tour. That is when I kind of knew I had the complete, whole record.
The word “conceptual” has been used to describe the first two EP’s. Do you think that fits the new LP?
The first one, not really. It is electronic and I didn’t have a band yet and I was kind of insecure, so I just figured I would do it all on my computer in my bedroom. The songs are really good but they are not really conceptual. I had a concept behind the release that I don’t really like anymore. The second EP for sure. It is four songs that span the length of one relationship. The LP, the next one certainly has a concept, a story, but it’s not super explicit or anything. Concept albums are my favorite type of album because they make the most sense as complete works as whole like Dark Side of the Moon, or Abbey Road.
How did you decide on the album’s jazzier, more avant-garde sound?
Charles Mingus is a big factor there and that line he always walks between having the dissonance and the groove. There are a lot of jazz players and there is something really amazing to me about improvisers, because as a composer, your art is writing something. But improvising is just taking this knowledge of technical music and theory and painting with it and expressing yourself with it … I just like to hear people that are good think of something.
Your voice works so well with your compositions. What’s it like to listen to yourself?
The reason I took so long putting out or doing solo music is I didn’t like to sing. It’s still hard. I think that I know where I am as a singer, and I don’t think I am great. I don’t sing in tune all the time. I don’t try to have a good tone, like David Byrne. I just try and do it as good as I can. So, it’s hard to listen to my voice. It’s gotten better. Every time someone says something about it sounding good, I am like, “ok, that’s one,” and then after ten people I think it must be getting better.
You spoke about Christianity versus metaphysical exploration. I believe creativity is born from spirituality, so, along those lines, why do you think you make art the way you do?
You’ve got to do something with your time to make life worthwhile. Art and music is the most obvious one to me of something worthwhile. For some people it’s sports or volunteer work or whatever. [Music] is something I found to be the best out of the things I’ve tried, and since I’ve started doing it I can’t really not do it anymore.
All of the production for this album was done in Iowa, from recording to pressing. How did that work out?
I had done some recording with Luke at Flat Black in the past with a band called Huge Lewis and Dagmar. And I wanted to get the best sound so I knew Flat Black studios was the best place to do it rather than do it myself so I talked to him about it. I did some of it on my own, and Luke’s wife owns White Rabbit and does all the screen printing, so we are going to screen the covers of the album there.
Wait, that’s not done yet?
That’s a whole other Mercury-in-retrograde thing.
Have you played a lot of the basement shows?
Yeah, a good number of house shows. Dog Mansion and Alex Purcell. If I had to put my finger on one person that is working hard to just completely making a scene strong here, it’s him. They’re doing art displays for the shows … and doing multiple shows a month. It’s unbelievable, and I couldn’t do what he is doing.