portrait Interview with Dan Zanes

interviewed by Misha Angrist

Published in Issue No. 54 ~ November, 2001

Dan Zanes grew up in New Hampshire, a self-described “Yankee
WASP.” In 1981, at the age of 20, he moved to Boston and, with
bassist Tom Lloyd, founded the Del Fuegos, a band that also featured
brother Warren Zanes on guitar and Woody Geissman on drums. From humble
beginnings (“We could barely tune our guitars,” Zanes says
with characteristic modesty), the group went on to become one of the
seminal roots rock bands of the 1980s and perhaps of all time. The Del
Fuegos released four albums between 1984 and 1989, each garnering
critical acclaim and enough commercial success to keep the enterprise
going. However, as Zanes observes, after a turbulent decade marked by
lineup changes, sibling animus and the requisite (?) substance abuse
problems, the band had “…gone from being a spirited r&b
garage band to a professional rock group and it suddenly became clear at
the end of the eighties that it was all a lot more fun for everyone back
when we didn’t know what we were doing.”

Zanes laid low during much of the 1990s, resurfacing in 1995 to release
the brilliant and shamefully under-publicized Cool Down Time.
Although Zanes’s trademark tremolo guitar,
just-woke-up-and-ate-sandpaper voice and polished songwriting were all
there in abundance, the record marked a sea change from his work with the
Del Fuegos. Songs such as “No Sky” and
“Carelessly” were more apt to traffic in sober reflection
than were the balls-out narratives of heartache, alcohol and misspent
youth typical of the Fuegos.

After Cool Down Time, Zanes disappeared again. By now he’d
married and become a father and, having gotten his personal life in
order, had begun to confront the difficulties in reconciling his artistic
goals with the joys and responsibilities of family life. It seemed that
maybe they were mutually exclusive. Or were they?

Beginning with a simple idea to make kids’ music that’s
palatable to the whole family (God knows there’s plenty
that’s not) Zanes recorded Rocket Ship Beach with friends
famous and not-so-famous in late 1999. He then set about the daunting
task of selling it himself via the Internet. festival five records,
Dan’s homegrown label, is well-represented by its cordial, detailed
and singularly unpretentious web site. Perusing the
site, one begins to understand the pleasure Zanes gets in making music
and involving others in the process he adheres to the nitty-grittiest of
the folk aesthetic.

Slowly, stellar reviews for the album began to appear and the orders
started to roll in. Zanes has since been profiled in The New York
Times Magazine
, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly and
elsewhere. Moreover, Zanes and “The Rocket Ship Revue” have
become a Sunday afternoon fixture at The Park, a relatively new
restaurant and bar in Chelsea. Glitterati such as David Duchovny and Tea
Leoni, Stella McCartney and Liv Tyler have been spotted there. More
important to Zanes, throngs of toddlers can be seen moving and grooving
to his music with an enthusiasm and lack of self-consciousness that is
decidedly un-Downtown.

Recently, Dan finished the follow-up record: a family dance party album
similar in spirit to RSB: loose, organic, funky, soulful; a
mixture of covers and originals performed by Zanes’s Brooklyn
irregulars and a variety of out-of-town co-conspirators both young and

We spoke in Brooklyn on September 7, 2001. A few days after September 11,
Dan assured me that he and his family were fine, though his daughter had
called for “a moratorium on twin towers talk. She’s ready to
get back to her life, but who isn’t?” After preparing to
cancel gigs, Zanes found that parents and children both wanted him to
play, which he and his band have continued to do “with

Misha Angrist: In a recent e-mail to fans, you talked about
getting a nice note from Pete Seeger and what a huge influence he was on
you. I am wondering if that’s something you would have freely
admitted, say, ten years ago.

Dan Zanes: Oh, yeah. Nobody would have asked me, but I never had
any problem acknowledging that. When I was in the rock world, he was
always there somewhere in the recesses of my mind. When I started out, I
was listening to Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Ella Jenkins. I used to go to
the library in my town and get all those records. We’d go see Pete
Seeger in Boston. I remember going to the Seabrook nuclear power plant
demonstrations and seeing him there with Jackson Browne. At his shows, he
would always get people to sing alongthat was a big part of it.
That’s all come back to me now that I’m doing kids’

Even with the Del Fuegos, I think we tried to carry Pete Seeger’s
spirit into the rock and roll world; the main idea being to simply
“do it yourself.” Folk music in the sixties was the
“people’s music,” which I think could also have been
said about rock and roll at one time.

I think the lesson of Pete Seeger is something along the lines of
“Everyday we have the opportunity to do something useful.”
And I think that that’s right: we have to. What choice do we have?
Anyway, Pete raised the bar pretty high.

MA: Was there an epiphany involved in the decision to make
children’s music or was it more of a gradual realization that this
is what you needed to do?

DZ: It was like so many other things for me. I’m clearly not
in the driver’s seat as far as my life goes; I’m just kind of
along for the ride. After trying for a long time, my wife and I had a
daughter six years ago. Not knowing anything about parenting, not having
thought about kids in any way to that point, I had no idea about the
state of children’s music. I assumed that there would be an updated
version of the music I loved as a kid, kind of an updated folk music. I
heard a sound in my head that was kind of like early rock and roll, which
to me was never that different from folk music. I had been
immersed in West Indian music at the time, which is another type of music
characterized by that same “handmade” spirit: everybody
participates. So I just assumed that this music already existed.

MA: But it didn’t.

DZ: No, but let me be clear: I am not one to complain incessantly
about kids’ music. There are a lot of people making music they
believe inthere’s a lot of good music. However, there’s also
a lot of stuff that just reminds me too much of the corporate culture
that surrounds us every day. I know there are real people behind it who
are making it, but I can’t get with it. In any case, I never really
found the sound I was looking for. I did find some things that inspired
me to go make my own: Jonathan Richman, Jerry Garcia and David
Grisman’s second record (Not for Kids Only), for example. I
listen to that stuff whether my daughter’s around or not. So, when
it came to my music, I thought, “Why can’t it be palatable to
both kids and adults?”

MA: But Jonathan Richman is not stuff that’s actively
marketed to kids.

DZ: Not at all. And so, as a result, parents give up they’re
not all as willing to go in for the big search as I am. I don’t
blame them. I know parents who go down to Tower Records, go to the
children’s section, find a bunch of Barney CDs and the latest
Disney junk, throw up their hands, go home and get the Beatles records
out.  Now, as great as the Beatles are, I don’t know why a
two-year-old needs to have his whole musical experience so intertwined
with themes of romantic love. That just doesn’t cut it for a kid. I
think there’s a place for music specifically for kids, music
that introduces them to the mysteries of life, the natural world.
It’s all there in traditional children’s music. I wanted to
update that in some way and write some new tunes, too.

MA: In other words, you wanted to “do something

DZ: It is useful and I’ve found my spot in it, I think.
Which is good, because I don’t really have any other skills

MA: Tell me about the genesis of your record and record label,
festival five.

DZ: What happened was, in 1999, I made a tape and gave it out
to kids in the neighborhood. There was never any thought to taking it any
further. I wasn’t “plotting my next move.” I had studio
space over in Globe Studios (in New York) and recorded some things.

MA: Is that your studio?

DZ: No, I don’t own it. Thank God (laughs)  I’d
be even crazier than I am already. It’s a big studio room with a
lot of little writing rooms on the sidealmost like a writers’
colony. So I had a room, [Bad Company drummer] Simon Kirke had a room,
[former Raybeats guitarist] Pat Irwin had a room, [producer] Mitchell
Froom had a room. It was great. Some of my all-time favorite people in
the world were hanging around there. That was a fun time.

MA: Do you still hang around there?

DZ: No, I moved here to the basement in Brooklyn. Which makes a
lot more senseI just get on the horn and get people over here.

MA: How did you feel when you started recording?

DZ: I was apprehensive; part of me was thinking that maybe
there’s a reason no one’s making this kind of music.
Maybe it’s too hard, maybe it just doesn’t work, maybe it
sounds corny no matter what.

Well, the way it turned out, everything I had wanted from my solo record
(Cool Down Time) but didn’t get I wound up getting from this
cassette I was giving out to families: people wanted more, they passed
the tape around to friends, they were getting excited. I started playing
some shows in parks and began having fun for the first time in a while.
With the solo record, I was working my ass off, it was a crowded field
and there wasn’t a lot of good will in the air at the time. But
with this, everyone seemed to enjoy it; families were listening to it
together, which was very gratifying and has become a source of pride for
me. Somewhere along the line, kids music became this thing you had to
endure for a few years before getting into “grown-up” music.
Well, why? Why can’t everyone listen to music together?

MA: Was the project always meant to be a DIY thing? Did you ever
contemplate approaching major labels?

DZ: Somewhere along the way, Rykodisc expressed an interest in
putting the record out. I thought about it. But I realized I’d made
five records up to that point and had never really had control over a
single one of them. Not that I had bad feelings about the music business – I
really don’t – but it just is what it is. You’ve gotta accept a
lot of things if you want to deal in the music business and I just
didn’t have the stomach for it anymore. Someone said, “Why
don’t you just put it out on your own?” And that was it.
That’s all I had to hear. I’d just renovated a house – how
much harder could putting out a record be?

And now, I’m that much prouder having done it on my own, though
I’ve had tons of help. It’s been totally grass roots: just me
and Barbara (Broussal, singer-songwriter) working away. We rely on the
kindness of strangers, people giving us ideas for stores that might carry
it and that kind of thing. The press has been great and that’s
helped a lot. We don’t know what we’re doing but we’re
doing it ourselves.

MA: How else have people helped?

DZ: My friend Judy McGrath is the President of MTV. She really
believes in what I’m doing; it has nothing to do with what she does
during the day. But she wanted to throw a record release party for me.
And she invited everyone she knew. It helped a lot!

MA: I saw the pictures of that party on your website.
They’re great.

DZ: Yeah! It was in Annie Leibowitz’s studio. A big groovy
affair for such a lowdown thing. So people have been remarkably
supportive. I feel like I had a good idea and I worked hard on it, but
it’s been such a team effort. Everybody’s pitched in in
whatever way they can. It feels greatI am the lucky recipient of a lot of
good will.

MA: Let me ask you a couple crass questions about being a
self-sufficient musician. A lot of famous people – Sheryl Crow, G.E. Smith,
Suzanne Vega, for example – appear on your record. Was this just a matter
of calling in favors? Do you have to pay them scale? Do you have to
somehow appease their record companies and managers and agents?

DZ: In the case of Sheryl, I had taken her over to the studio
where I had space and she wound up making a record there. So she was
around everyday and I asked her if she would come sing “Polly Wolly
Doodle” and she said, “No problem.” And that was it.
With Suzanne and the others, it was the same thing: I just said,
“This is what I’m doing for kids in the neighborhood. Do you
want to be a part of it?”

Now, after the whole thing was done, I had to go back to them and
say, “You know that tape? Well, I want to start a record company
and put it out.” I didn’t want anyone to think I’d
tricked them into making a “real” record under the guise of
this casual thing. But they’re my friends – they were fine about it.
My lawyers had to spend a little time dealing with their record
companies. But we put an offer on the table that, I felt, reflected my
gratitude for their participation and would let them share in anything
good that came along.

Having them play and sing was greatgreat for the record and great fun. I
mean, they’re all so talented: Sheryl, Suzanne, G.E. Smith, Simon
Kirke and everyone else. I wanted everyone to feel acknowledged.  


MA: They really made their presence felt.

DZ: Yeah. Another thing is, I like to hear these people out of
context. I like to hear Sheryl, for example, sing in that way, in that
setting, doing a kids’ song. And having her and Suzanne on the
record is also a way to throw the grown-ups a bone.

Having lots of guests is an idea that’s carried over to the new
record (Family Dance). We have some more interesting people on it:
Rosanne Cash, Loudon Wainwright III and Sandra Bernhard. 

MA: Sandra Bernhard? That must have been fun.

DZ: Oh, yeah. She’s on this song I wrote called
“Thrift Shop.” It ends with a long musical tail and over that
she and I are having a comic dialogue as if we’re shopping in the
thrift shop. She was here recording in my basement and I was really
nervous. I was thinking, “Who do I think I am that I’m going
to be telling Sandra Bernhard about comic timing?” But she was
wonderful to work with.

MA: Staying on the sideperson subject, you’ve said that you
don’t need to be a professional to make great music. And you do
have some non-professionals, don’t you, on RSB and Family Dance,
who play and sing their asses off – I suppose it’s the best of both

DZ: I think so. I don’t think there’s anything to be
gained by always going out to find the biggest and the best. On the new
record we have a teen-age presence. We have a string bass player, Jacob
Eigen, who is going into tenth, or maybe eleventh grade.  His friend Josh
plays the saxophone. They go to my daughter’s school. It’s
good – it feels more like a family. And there’s a group called the
Ruby Theater Company from the Lower East Side that’s primarily
Hispanic teenagers – they do an a capella tune. We’re casting a
wider net, I think. And of course there are the kids who come in and
sing. And the Sandy Girls, who are not professional

MA: They’re not? They sound fantastic! How did you meet

DZ: They’re great, aren’t they? I met them in the
kids’ park – they were just babysitting for local kids. We got to
talking about music and they came over to my place and sang. I told them
I had a string band and that we’d back them up if they wanted to be
a group. And one of them, Rosita, or CeCe as she likes to be called, is
our drummer. She’s got a really unique groove. I couldn’t ask
another drummer to play that way. In fact, I’d rather not have a
drummer at all unless he or she can do something different. I’m a
big believer in that.  

MA: How do you choose songs?

DZ: At the end of the day, they just have to be great
songs. It’s all gotta feel great. On Rocket Ship Beach I was
just trying to hurry up and finish. My wife said, why not “Polly
Wolly Doodle?” I said, God, I can’t even remember that song.
But it was a great idea.

I found an amazing two-CD set by Mike and Peggy Seeger doing all of the
songs from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s songbook called American Folk
Songs for Children
; that’s where I learned “Goodbye Old

Others came about in different ways. “Over the Rainbow” and
“Keep on the Sunny Side” my daughter wanted to hear. I just
try and keep my antennae up – that’s really what it is.

MA: Another crass question: is money ever a consideration in
choosing covers? I mean, do some songs cost more than others?

DZ: No. It’s called licensing a tune or what we call
“mechanicals.” There’s a fixed rate. Now, a lot of the
songs I cover are in the public domain, which means they’re free
for anyone to record or perform. For the others, there’s one agency
that most of the publishing companies will use to handle the paperwork
for mechanicals: the Harry Fox Agency. So, I call them up
and say I want to use “Bushel and a Peck.” They send the
paperwork and I give them 7.35 cents for every record I sell. Now, you
can plead for a discount, but it’s generally seven cents plus. It
feels fair to me – it’s a pleasure to be able to record those

On the new CD we only had to do mechanicals for a few tunes. A lot are in
the public domain, I wrote four, Barbara wrote one and Jose Garcia from
the Ruby Theater Company wrote one. So, of course, I’m happy to be
paying Barbara and Jose mechanicals.


MA: Tell me about “Bushel and a Peck.” It’s from
Guys and Dolls, right? What made you want to cover it?

DZ: Oh that was easy. I would hear so many mothers sing that to
their kids. I knew it was from Guys and Dolls. In fact, I’m
not a big show tune guy, but almost every song in that show sounds like a
folk song to me, like it could be played with a few chords on a guitar.
So, I wanted to do that with “Bushel and a Peck,” to break it
down to its skeletal elements.

MA: Even so, it still sounds fairly sophisticated for a folk song.
I mean, it changes key after every verse!

DZ: Yeah – that makes it really fun. But the actual chords are very
simple, like a country and western tune. But it’s a good example of
what I’m after: there shouldn’t be anything daunting about
doing a show tune at home. Just pick up your guitar! I want my records to
be a springboard for people. They should say, “Yeah, that sounds
simple and easy and fun.”

MA: When I discovered that you had words and chords on your
website I suddenly became a hero in my house.

DZ: (laughs) It was big pain in the ass assembling all of
that stuff, but I felt it was important to do it, to make it

MA: You describe festival five as “…the sound of a
neighborhood band on the front stoop playing tunes after dinner for a
family dance. festival five records is the sound of a group of 9 and 10
year olds singing a sixty-year-old broadway song in the basement of a 150
year old row house. it’s the sound of a 40-year-old dad on a blue
porch singing a 400 year old story song about a frog that marries a
mouse.” It seems like a long way from a sweaty bar in Ohio at 2AM.
Is it?

DZ: Yes and no. It feels like it’s a huge step up in terms
of the hours (laughs). But it’s really not if you look at
what we originally set out to do with the Del Fuegos. Not long ago I
found an old business card we had made when we were still up in New
Hampshire trying to book shows; we called ourselves “a dance
trio.” That’s really all we wanted out of the whole deal: for
people to come out and dance. The attitude was really communal then, as
it is now. We want people to participate, we don’t want to be the
big band on the stage. Of course, that’s what the Del Fuegos became
ultimately and that’s when it started to become sort of a lifeless,
uninteresting scenewe got onto the taller stages, the pants got tighter,
scarves started to appear, more colored lights, all that junk. So I feel
like it’s come full circle back to the original idea, which is to
play live. At the beginning of the Del Fuegos, that’s all we cared
about. We weren’t interested in getting a record contract per
; we just wanted to make records so we could keep playing in front
of people.

MA: Tell me more about the new record. It’s literally a
family dance album?

DZ: Exactly. Songs you can dance to from start to finish. Like
any good dance, it ends with a waltz. Father Goose (portrayed by
rapper Rankin’ Don
) is back on a couple tunes.

MA: How did Father Goose happen?

DZ: He’s the son of a woman I know. There was a period
around the time my daughter was born when all I listened to was Jamaican
music. During that time I ended up meeting Rankin’ Don. We hit it
off and stayed in touch and he wound up on the records.

MA: Was it difficult to integrate hip-hop and Jamaican elements
into a standard like “Sunny Side of the Street?”

DZ: No, not at all. Don’s a tremendous cat; a man of few
words but really very creative. I sent him a tape of the song, he heard
it, called me up and said, “I think it’s a crossover hit. I
know so many people who are having such a hard time – I think this song
could really speak to them.” I said, “Well, actually, Don,
it’s been speaking to people for a while now”
(laughs). But the point is, he heard it with fresh ears. He
started doing his rap over the phone to me and that was it – he came in
totally prepared. On the new record, he was the one who pushed for
“Skip to My Lou.” He does “The Hokey Pokey,”


MA: Let’s talk guitars for a minute. When did you first get
a “tremolo jones?” That seems to be your trademark.

DZ: It just kind of happened after the band broke up. Prior to my
obsession with Jamaican music, I listened to a lot of gospel music and
the Staples Singers were it for me. I still look to [late guitarist] Pops
Staples for that tremolo sound. I got a tremolo unit and I realized that
everything started to sound good as soon as I turned it on.

MA: Do you collect guitars at all or do you just borrow them all
from G.E. Smith since he’s probably got what? A thousand?

DZ: (laughs) I would borrow them from him but I’d be
scared since his are all so nice. I’ve got one guitar that cost
more than $100. But mainly it’s Harmony Silvertones – those are my
guitars. I’ve got a nice reissue Telecaster but I’m going to
try to trade it for a banjo as soon as I can.

MA: Banjo, mandolin, lap steel guitar – are those recent pursuits for

DZ:  Relatively – within the last three or four years. I dabble.
I’m going to get a dulcimer next. The next record’s going to
be night-time music and I think a dulcimer would sound nice in that
context. But I just love fretted stringed instruments. I love them. I
feel like if I could just play banjo and mandolin for the rest of my life
that that’d keep me busy.

MA: You violated the old showbiz axiom “Never work with
children or animals.” Is it difficult, say, getting kids to sing on
key, doing multiple takes with them, that sort of thing?

DZ: As far as kids singing on key goes, apparently I haven’t
accomplished that yet (laughs).

MA: I thought they did great.

DZ: I thought it was fine, too. But I sent the CD to one guy who
used to run the musician’s union in New Hampshire and he sent me
back a letter with the steps I needed to take to get kids to sing in
tune. I appreciated his help…and threw the letter out

And then I spoke with the woman who runs the “Music for Little
People” label and we were talking about having them possibly
release Rocket Ship Beach. She said that she was afraid people
would hear the kids singing out of tune and return the record. I mean,
come on! And then later in the course of the conversation she says,
“What we really need is to find someone hip.” I said,
“Look! That’s me!” Now, in all fairness, they’ve
put out some great records: I’m thinking of The Persuasions and two
great Sweet Honey in the Rock records.

MA: I agree. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be with you and

DZ: Yeah. I don’t know how well I’d fit. Not to pick
on them or anyone else, but on a lot of kids’ records I can hear
the recording studio – all the gizmos and gadgets. I understand the desire
to make things sound professional, but I wanted to get away from that.
Why not let it sound like what it is? People in a room playing and

MA: Do you ever miss playing in a loud rock band?

DZ: No way! I don’t have enough eardrums left to deal with
that. I don’t miss it all. I feel like I already got everything I
ever loved from making music in that way.

What I have now is great: I’m still playing for my peers, only now
they’re there with their kids. Half the audience is grown-ups, so
there’s all that good stuff there. I get all the excitement I need
by doing what I do. And the group is great – an exciting group to play with.

MA: Do you think it’s ridiculous that Mick Jagger still does
what he does at his age?

DZ: (smiles) Live and let live.

MA: You’re not going to be baited, I see. OK, here’s
another straw man for you. You’ve spoken about your desire for
families to play music together. Maybe I’m cynical, but when I
picture families playing music together I tend to think of the Everly
Brothers at each other’s throats, Ray and Dave Davies slugging it
out, the guys from Oasis, the Black Crowes, George Jones and Tammy
Wynette, the Jackson Five, and – you saw this coming – you and your own
brother….I mean the music is all great, but you of all people know
how hard it can be to make music with a blood relative or anyone you

DZ: (laughs) Well, maybe I should clarify. I’m not
saying that families should start bands and then go get record deals.
Just play around the house and have some fun with it.

I see the irony – “Look at your own family band, Dan.” I
should’ve tried to broaden it a bit: family bands, neighborhood
bands, any sort of communal music-making.

MA: Did you have that in your family? Communal music-making or
even listening?

DZ: Listening, definitely, but not making – music making came later.
But in the seventies in New Hampshire there was a lot of communal stuff
going on: contra dances and that kind of thing. I was also fortunate
enough to go to a camp called Interlocken that was the embodiment
of what I’m trying to do now. It changed my life. It was folk music
being made by groups of people for their peers, hanging out and learning
instruments, teaching each other songs – that was it. That’s still a
major point of reference for me. You grab whoever’s around and you
make some music.

It brings people together and, let’s face it, people need to be
brought together. TV’s not gonna do it, computers aren’t
gonna do it, Monsanto’s not gonna do it.

The other thing is, I think people have so much creativity in them.
Everybody does. One way to bring it out is music. I’d just as soon
see people start up community theaters, but music is my bag so
that’s what I do. There’s a tremendous amount that can come
out of two kids on a stoop clapping their hands and singing.

I know I sound like a Luddite, but when I see music videos, I worry that
that’s what people who watch them will think music is – the show of it
all. The truth is, it’s about people getting together. It’s
really easy and available to anyone. 

MA: I loved Cool Down Time. I thought it was criminally

DZ: Thanks, though in retrospect, it was probably the best thing
that could have happened to me. Like I said, I’m not in the
driver’s seat.

MA: What I’m getting at is this: Can you envision ever
making another “adult” record?

DZ: I don’t right now, but I wouldn’t want to close
the door on it. I hope that I won’t be perceived only as “the
guy who does the cool kids’ music.”

MA: Well, I guess Raffi had a pretty tough time when he tried to
make music for adults…

DZ: Tell me about it. I read his autobiography.
It was heartbreakingI really feel like I understood his emotional

If I could have my way, I’d like to be thought of as a cool
musician who focuses on the kids’ end of things. But sure,
I’d like to be able to move freely between musical worlds.
Sometimes Barbara and I will go out and play as a duo and throw in some
tunes dealing with heartbreak and play some traditional folk music. And
yeah, if someone were to approach me to make a roots record, I’d
probably say yes, but it wouldn’t stop me from doing what I’m
doing now.

MA: Did Rocket Ship Beach exceed your expectations in terms of its
popular appeal?


DZ: Yes and no. Initially, no. But I had pretty high expectations
once I made the record and started the company. To the degree I allow
myself to have expectations, I feel like the whole thing is just
beginning. I’d like to think my best music is ahead of me. 

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Misha Angrist is a writer based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Tin House, The Pittsburgh Quarterly and elsewhere.