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Music

7.29.2019

On the Road, for the Record: Sloppy Jane

On Sloppy Jane’s first tour four years ago, creator and lead singer, Haley Dahl, smashed her face into a snare drum to stop the stand-in drummer from ruining their basement set. With intermittent bleeding persisting throughout the remainder of the tour, Dahl’s act of logical sacrifice is early evidence of her unwavering commitment to giving the best and biggest she can physically and possibly achieve. 

“I’ve always had an anti-boring job stance,” Dahl describes herself as vehemently rejecting the millennial American dream otherwise known as formal college education. Her appetite for experiencing the extreme and contributing to more than simply surface level existence began in Highland Park, Los Angeles and continues in New York City. 

When she sat down with Milk to recount her past and discuss her future, one overarching truth emerged: Haley Dahl will never be done. Evolving forward from each experience and refusing to be interrupted, she advances the project of Sloppy Jane to the next highest level. The past informs Dahl’s exceptional mindset and creativity while her natural curiosity pushes the once teenage punk band onto the playing field of orchestral arrangements.

Consider yourself lucky if you have the opportunity on August 17th at Baby’s All Right to experience the dripping blue painted performance of Sloppy Jane. Even if you’ve seen Sloppy Jane once, she’s already changed. 

Find out below what Dahl has to say about her favorite scratched Roy Orbison CD, what she learned touring with Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst of Better Oblivion Community Center, and why she decided to record her next album in caves across America.  

Can you start by talking about your influences?

Sonically, my influences are all over the place. I like the way music contextualizes itself more than I like any one thing. I love listening to Classic Rock Radio when I’m in the car in the middle of nowhere. But I do not ever, ever listen to Bon Jovi at home in my room, you know? If that makes sense. I like the feeling of radio because I like listening to the music fight– one thing cutting in on another. Somebody will start speaking in Korean underneath a song that you like and you’re like, “No, give me back the song that I know!” 

That feeling has a really big influence on my music. The feeling of going in and out of lucidity, like falling asleep in front of the television and waking up to a loud infomercial. That jarring feeling or something that I’ve always loved is a Beach Boys, smiley smile, record, you know? That one has a lot of weird dizzy feelings like that. My favorite CD is my– I have a Roy Orbison CD that I’ve had for years, that I used to play over and over again in my car in Los Angeles. In the vocal peak of “Only the Lonely,” it completely falls apart into digital noise. After about five minutes, it goes back into the song. It’s just the best, it is my favorite CD. 

What is the origin of the blue paint? 

It started when I was dancing. I had lost a lot of connection to myself physically because you spend all day, essentially– I was objectifying myself. I was selling an image and an attitude to people and a lot of my body– I could only view it as an object. So, I wanted to do something for purely cathartic reasons, and I know it feels on the nose as a choice retrospectively, but I decided I needed the sight of my naked body to make people horrified, like totally disgusted. Secretly even, I think I’ve always wanted people to feel a little bit sympathetic. I used to fantasize about someone coming on stage and throwing a big jacket over me and telling me that I could go home now. Audiences are not sympathetic in this way though. I don’t think the gesture was ever fully understood, which is why it’s sort of being put to bed.

Now, the whole thing is very Las Vegas- it’s a character and there’s a whole arc– very cleanly done. When I started doing it though, the nudity, we’d been playing for years and I hadn’t been doing that. So people weren’t expecting it. We were at some backyard house show in the middle of nowhere and I’d take off all my clothes and all the guys were like, “Whoa.” I would start seizing and vomiting and there’d be a moment where people didn’t know what was going on. The sight of me would make people uncomfortable, and that was something that felt gratifying, on a personal level.

Also, I mean a big part of it, I mean it was honestly for attention. My early adult life and view of the world was molded by working in this place where all of my value was attached to how much money I was making off of just my body. So I just felt like if I take off all my clothes in front of everybody, they’ll like me better. [laughs] You’re going to pay attention to me or something. [laughs] It’s kind of fucked up. 

How did the sound of Sloppy Jane come to be? 

It’s always changing because I’m always trying to do something that feels like the biggest thing that I can possibly do. When I was 15 years old, the biggest thing I could possibly do is be barefoot with messy hair and scream really loud– that was it, that was the biggest thing. It keeps growing because you do something big and then something bigger is possible. 

I’ve also started having a really big fondness for classical music in the last couple of years. I’m the perfect example of Frank Zappa as a gateway drug– I got into him when I was a teen because I was like, it’s funny. The lyrics are stupid. I returned to his work in early adulthood looking for dissonance- songs like The Dangerous Kitchen and The Radio is Broken– I was really into this band Bongwater and they do that kind of stuff too. I kind of fell down a spiral through this and discovered all his orchestral work- I realized that there was a lot that I’d been trying to do with the four-piece rock band that was meant to be done with chamber instruments– which are so much more capable of extreme contrast that can’t be achieved as well by an electric guitar running through a Fender Amp and just turning on and off the distortion. It never was enough, you know? In working with strings– they can fly much higher and fall much harder. The human voice is similar in that way, and is my favorite instrument. 

How did you develop your style of songwriting? Do you write sheet music or?

Some people in my band read and some people don’t. Some of the parts are simple enough that I can just dictate it via piano. But sometimes if it’s something a little bit more complicated, like the next record, it’s all sheet music because it has to be. 

The stuff that we’re doing right now, it’s like very, very mish-mosh in the way it’s done. I’m not classically trained. I taught myself to notate and to read music and there’s a lot of holes still in my ability to do it. I started writing songs coming up with a lyric and a melody and I’d sit down and try to figure out how to play it. For a long time to get confident with music, instead of trying to make something sound good, I would make the worst sound it could be. Because I wasn’t confident in my guitar playing and I wasn’t confident in my singing, I was worried that if I tried to make something that sounded beautiful, then I would do wrong and everyone would hear me be bad. But if I could practice playing music by way of trying to make the ugliest possible sounds, then I could develop technical skills in safety, you know? I’m just starting to get over the fear of trying to make something beautiful. It’s been a really big fear of mine and it’s like, I am coming out of it– like with what I’m making now.

Can you talk about how you’ve gotten the performance to be so tight with 11 people? Specifically, how did you start veering away from your recorded sound versus your arrangements? 

Well, it happened sort of just like one thing at a time. Our record, Willow, was made by me and Sara Cath. We really didn’t have any friends or musicians around. Like I always wanted the big band and I would try, but I couldn’t even get three people who lived in my house to walk three yards to practice. You know what I mean? It was a nightmare! So Willow, it’s done entirely with track layering and overdubs. It was much larger than the sound we had at the time. There are cuttings of a Korean radio station, club beats coming in and out, a bit of strings– and I wanted all of that stuff live. Once we made the record, it was so much bigger sounding than our live shows. So I came to New York and decided that I was going to make sure that every single thing on the record was played and the band expanded for that reason. Now the live versions of the songs sound much larger than the record- so we have to make a bigger record!

For the last year, we’ve been working with the same body of material in the same order, which really makes it develop and really makes it tight. It’s always this one piece and we rehearse a lot. When I first started the band here, we would have like 8:00 AM rehearsals every day of the week. I have a lot of split up practices too where I work with just the vocals, just the strings, or even just the rhythm section. 

What was your first tour as Sloppy Jane and how many have you been on up until now?

First tour of Sloppy Jane was when the nosebleed happened…That one was in like 2015.

We didn’t have a bass player and my friend Ember Knight played bass, having never played bass before. She came straight from the airport! I taught her the bass parts in the van and we practiced it in the parking lot. We went on that tour and actually got kicked out of every single show we played– we even got kicked out of a town for having a beer fight at 7:00am in a parking lot.

We do a lot of like spotted small trips, but not that many big tours. Because it’s kind of like, I really hate booking it. I mean it’s under ten tours, for sure. Probably more than five. Somewhere between.

How do you manage to keep peace between eleven personalities? 

The band is shockingly mellow. I say this to a lot of people, and it’s surprising, but true: the 11 piece band is easier for me to manage than when I had a three-piece! Logistically, of course, it’s annoying– I won’t pretend it’s not. But when there are that many people, everyone is conscious of each other’s space. We have a lot of hands to move things, load-in and load-out is quick. People are good about taking care of their shit– the people who aren’t just don’t stick around in the band for long. But I’m bossy. I’m a big schedule monster. I get off on planning my entire life down to a minute.

If anybody does drugs or brings drugs on the tour, they’re going to get kicked out of the band. If anybody drinks before we play, they’re going to get kicked out. I have a no-tolerance policy to that kind of stuff. I think that because the tours are sober, everybody’s low-key. No one’s cranky and hungover, no one’s drunk and freaking out. So nobody’s really getting in fights. There are weird passive-agreement moments, but everyone gets tired. 

What’s your sleep schedule and where does everyone sleep?

We usually all do motels now. I used to try to find places to stay, but it feels like a joke to ask somebody to house 11 people. I just can’t even do it anymore. It just feels insane and a horrible motel is like 50 bucks, it’s fine. We do one motel room which is crazy…everybody piles in. We usually have to kind of stagger to sneak by the hotel staff. But usually, a few people sleep in the bus because they choose to. No one has to sleep in the bus. But if people sleep in the bus number one, it’s kind of the same as sleeping on the floor of the motel room. And two, then we don’t have to load all of our gear out. Usually, people sort of rotate who sleeps on the beds and floors in the motel. I’m not a part of that fight or a part of that conversation because I only sleep on the floor.

What was it like touring with Better Oblivion Community Center?

That’s definitely our biggest tour ever. It was a lot of fun. Those guys are my friends, so of course, it was great to do something with my friends. But also just playing– the band finally getting to play places with good sound made a huge difference. I was worried before we went on the tour because I felt we had a tightness in small spaces- and i wasn’t sure if it would fall apart if presented on a larger platform or if it would be better.  I was really proud of everybody. I don’t think that anybody made one musical mistake on the entire tour. The band started to function as a total machine. 

I’ve always been a control freak- the functionality of the project has always been very important to me and I’m always trying to run a tight ship even if we’re playing in this beer soaked basement where no one cares. I’ve always tried to instill that attitude, and it was great to finally be in a place where that was warranted, if that makes sense. I’ve felt alienated, often, in diy and punk scene communities I have circulated, for being massively uptight. A bunch of like, pot smoking, 20-somethings just think I’m pain in the ass and super annoying, which I am, I am super annoying. But it was nice to be in a situation where my semi-militaristic approach to having a band was paying off. 

That’s how you get your shit done.

That’s how you get shit done. 

I also felt like I learned a lot about what is successful about my music and what isn’t. Every time I play somewhere new, I learned how to perform in a new way– we used to play only in basements. I really had a thing down that works for basement shows. I was very interactive with the crowd because we’re all on the same level and had to be like a certain level of hostile to protect myself. So I had all this aggressiveness. Then, we started playing places with stages and better sound. So I was like, well now all of a sudden people can hear us it’s not just about raw energy anymore. The sound needs to tighten up because people actually can hear it! 

When we went on this tour, the Better Oblivion tour, the stages were bigger and the sound was better, and the audiences were larger. I could feel which parts of our set did and didn’t register to the back of the room. You know? Now, I can’t interact physically with the audience anymore. Now it’s not a choice, there’s something between us, I can’t get down there anymore. I’m on stage the whole time and have a bunch of space on stage so what do I do and what stuff about my music is not relevant anymore by playing these kinds of spaces? I felt like I learned a lot… there’s a lot that I’ve been working on and keeping in mind with what I’m writing now…and what I’m now instilling on the band having done that tour. That was probably my most favorite thing about it, getting to learn.  

Can you tell me about how you get your bands to rehearse like Frank Zappa?

 [laughs] Okay. So I got this from watching a Frank Zappa video, but it’s a technique that other people use. I saw this video forever ago but saw it again recently and was inspired- where he has the band play this complicated melody and then he stops and makes everybody sing the melody of what their instruments are. We recently started doing that but with the whole set. Like Joe has to sing his guitar parts and Al has to sing the drums. We do it for the whole set. It really tightened the band though! It’s very silly, you’re sitting there cracking up the whole time.

Haha amazing! Can you talk a little bit about your upcoming record? Why did you choose to record in caves and what’s your philosophy behind this choice? 

I started studying Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound– all of that oldies music that’s very huge and exciting. I was like, “I want to make something in an echo chamber, but that’s too expensive and too far fetched. So what else could I use instead? A cave– that’s more expensive and more far fetched!” I started researching music in caves, which seemed very obvious to me and cliche. 

Upon researching, though, I learned that aside from some more ambient stuff, a record actually has never been made in a cave. We are only at the beginning of a time period where technology to do this is available. And so of course once I knew no one had done it, I knew that I had to. I discovered Luray Caverns in Virginia. In the 50s, a man built an organ deep inside the cave– he sanded down formations to play specific notes when a mallet hits them. He was a scientist and inventor, but went into this cave and felt called upon by God to make this instrument. Ultimately, he isolated himself and ruined the rest of his life obsessively making this instrument. I relate heavily to the melodrama of it all- of Spector’s operatic approach to teenage emotions, to Wagner’s operas who inspired Spector’s, to the melodrama of caves themselves and to the man driven to insanity building an organ inside of one. It’s the love of my life.

Images courtesy of Nick Zinner + Lily Rothman.

Stay tuned to Milk for more from the road.

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