Massachusetts Punk Band Landowner’s Dan Shaw: “In the creative process you can just become paralysed because you have infinite choices… having restraints placed on what you can do, forces a really focused kind of creativity”

Original photo: still taken from video filmed by Ben Goldsher. Handmade collage by B.

At Gimmie we’re big fans of Landowner! We love their clean guitar, repetitive rhythms, and sharp, socially conscious, thoughtful lyrics. They’ve taken punk and stripped it down to its barest bones making for an impactful, unique twist on the more traditional sound listeners expect from punk. We chatted to vocalist Dan Shaw about latest album Consultant, his journey into music, job as a Landscape Architect and his exploration of the similarities of designing landscapes and of making music—interesting stuff!

How did you first discover music?

DAN SHAW: I have parents that are really musical. Growing up they listened to classical music mostly, that’s how they met, and they bonded over that. My older brother is twelve years older than me and he’s also a musician, he got into industrial and grunge. When I was a little kid I was hearing Skinny Puppy and Nirvana, more kind of rock music that my parents weren’t listening to. I ended up hearing a big diversity of stuff. Later in middle school, getting into music on my own and learning how to play guitar was kind of planting my little flag in the ground and saying, this is what I’m into! This is my thing that I’m all about! It took me a little while to discover it and to be doing it on my own but once I did, I never turned back—it made a lot of sense to me. I’ve been obsessed with making music ever since.

What kind of music did you find that was your own?

DS: What I first started paying attention to, which I think a lot of people do, is the stuff that is easiest to hear with little effort because it reaches you. Like I mentioned before, the grunge bands like Nirvana, they were my favourite band in 8th grade. It didn’t take too long to seek out the stuff that influenced them, the more obsessed I got with that band the more I started to learn what influenced Kurt Cobain. Luckily he was really vocal about all the underground stuff from the ‘80s that inspired him. By the time I was in high school I was discovering The Meat Puppets and Fugazi, who quickly became, and still to this day is, my favourite band. Once I discovered that Washington D.C. and Dischord Records scene, that’s when I really started to find music that resonated with me a lot, that post-punk thing. Then I started learning about the British post-punk bands too like Wire, the Fall and Gang Of Four. Those were big discoveries that got me the most excited and that have stuck with me to this day.

The next major step shortly after that or during that, was discovering local underground music right around me. Going to shows as a teenager and discovering that, oh, you don’t have to be a big famous person on T.V. to be doing this. It could be that I’m in a basement and the person standing next to me turns out to be the lead singer in the punk band that’s about to play, that basic thing just blew my mind the first time I went to a basement show.

I had a similar kind of revelation when I discovered my local scene. It gives you a sense of, hey, I could do this too! I think that’s part of the beauty of punk rock, that anyone can do it.

DS: Yeah! As a result of that I kind of put aside the idea of needing to be a big famous musician that “makes it”. I achieved my goal the first time I played music in front of twenty people at a house show. It’s like, there, I did it! It’s great! I’m grateful every time I’ve got to do it again.

Was your first band Health Problems?

DS: I was in a few other bands before but Health Problems was my first band that started touring more seriously and really released albums. I’d always been striving for something like that, it took until my mid-twenties when I started that band to really link up with the right people and circumstances to get out there a little better.

As well as playing music, you’re also a Landscape Architect and you design public spaces as well as other urban planning; what got you interested in doing that kind of work?

DS: Initially it was the creativity aspect of it. I was in college, in my first year doing general education, then I had to pick a Major. I learnt about Landscape Architecture and it seemed like a good way to do something creative that requires artistic skills but was also a safe practical thing. The more I got into it, the more I fell in love with it and realised you can make a difference in the world around you, in society, by doing public work; that’s why I’ve worked with public sector clients in the professional sector—working with communities and helping them envision the future in places where they live. It’s very fulfilling.

I know that fulfilling feeling of working in the public sector, I work in a community service in my city’s libraries. I prefer a job helping people rather than selling them something they don’t need.

DS: Yeah, this work can give you a sense of purpose. It’s still a job at the end of the day and can be frustrating sometimes certainly but, for me it’s a good path to be on.

I understand that you did your thesis in grad school on similarities between the creative process in designing landscapes and composing music as an analogy, for better understanding your own creative process; I’m really excited to hear more about this and to hear of what you found out about your creative process exploring this?

DS: I did a graduate degree in Landscape Architecture and for my thesis project it occurred to me, really no one reads your thesis except you and your advisors, so I decided to take a more personal deep dive on what makes me tick as a creative person. Because I think musically and I work as a Landscape Architect; could the two creative processes inform one another? If they could that would be a pretty cool, productive thing in my own little way that I operate. I ended up looking at a lot! The nature of music, how it’s different, every time it’s performed, the performance is different from last time and in the case of jazz, where it’s improvised off of a rough basic composition, that to me is more similar to how I design landscape, compared to something like architecture.

To make a musical analogy, designing a building is a very engineered predictable thing, that would be like a composer writing a score of sheet music and it’s all done very precisely to a tee… something that makes designing landscapes so fascinating and challenging and interesting is how the designer isn’t fully in charge of the outcome of a design landscape. You’ll design a park in your neighbourhood and in thirty years the vegetation that I planned is going morph and evolve into its own ecosystem; the way people use the park is going to be hard to predict and it’s going to take on its own ownership by the community. The designer’s role is to nudge it in the right direction and then the improvisation takes over, with society, with ecosystems and things like that.

A lot of my thesis used musical sketches to diagram the process and change over time that landscapes all have. To better understand what the role of the landscape designer is, it’s like the jazz composer that comes in with the basic theme but then the group improvises on it and takes it in a new direction from there.

What were the things that you found out about your own creative process exploring that?

DS: I’ve found that adapting to unpredictable circumstances is really a core, important thing. When I was doing that thesis project I had a practice space where I was making my rough musical sketches and I was trying to make sense of it all… I spent more time making the last Landowner album then I did on this thesis, it was really just a capstone on my schooling. I’m trying to cram in all these ambitious, burning questions in a short amount of time, in the middle of it my practice space got shut down and we all had to leave because the building closed. I suddenly had to adapt my way of working in this thesis project to a new circumstance where I didn’t have access to my music space anymore. What I ended up doing was, I had the jams that I had made, hours of stuff that I had recorded earlier in the semester and I turned to editing those sound files and creating sound diagrams and improvisations out of what I had previously recorded. Adapting to the circumstance is something that I have carried forward… the band Landowner exists because it’s something a lot like that.

A few years later where I lived in an apartment in Massachusetts, I had landlords right through the wall and I couldn’t rock out really loud, I was like; how can I make music that sounds really cool without the space to be loud? I was like, I know! I’ll make this clean, dinky-sounding version of punk with a drum machine and a practice amp, and that lead to Landowner’s sound. I deliberately embraced the creative constraint that I found myself faced with. That’s something I was forced to reckon with during the thesis, utilising a creative constraint that was forced upon me. Ever since then I’ve always found that that really yields focus and deliberateness. In the creative process you can just become paralysed because you have infinite choices, I’ve found that actually having restraints placed on what you can do, forces a really focused kind of creativity. That’s usually more consistent and satisfying to me.

Previously you’ve mentioned that when doing your thesis you felt kind of crazy; why?

DS: Because of what I alluded to a second ago of how, I was in my early-twenties, I went to grad college and I had this feeling that I was just going to crack the code, I’m going to figure it all out… I was trying to connect all the dots at once in the way that I operate. When you’re in grad school and you’re doing a thesis, it ultimately is a pretty limited time in your life, you can’t necessarily tackle the most grandiose ambitious things in a thesis. I’ve learned in retrospect that a thesis is the thing that kicks you off to bigger and more ambitious projects that you’ll do more long term. At the time I was trying to condense it all into one action-packed, nutrient dense two months! I almost felt like I had lost my mind doing it just because the students around me were pursuing more button-down “here’s an innovative way of harvesting stormwater in landscape architecture” and it was very concrete; then here I was saying that maybe music and landscape architecture is somehow creatively the same if you really look at it from a certain way. Once I had committed to it and I was half way through the project I couldn’t turn back. I was like, god, now I ‘m forced to make sense out of this madness… and I did. I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew though [laughs]. A little bit over-ambitious, hopeful and grandiose!

I like the idea that you were exploring between creating a physical environment and then making a place you mentally inhibit with music.

DS: Yeah and that is a conclusion that I came to when doing that project. I thought maybe I could make a representation of the park I’m designing, musically. But then I thought that wouldn’t make sense. I could draw a picture of the park or a diagram, visual media, or I could make a soundscape representation, I could take a field recorder and record what the birds and traffic sound like, that could represent it in a literal way… but then I realised that music and creating a physical real space that’s built with shovels, concrete and plants and sticks, in reality are two completely different things and I had to accept that. I realised that I cannot represent Central Park with my piece of music better than any other park can represent Central Park, they’re just different places. Then I was like, ah-ha! Music is a place mentally, it’s a space. If I think of it that way, that by composing music I’m designing a space that people mentally inhabit… that might yield clues of how the creative processes are linked but it’s not that music represents landscape. We’re getting really, really deep into the tunnel here of the particulars [laughs].

I’m fine in the tunnel, like I said, I found the ideas you were exploring fascinating. Since I was a kid I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about music. When you record a record and your music gets pressed onto vinyl and then I buy it and put it on my turntable and then the energy you made the record with fills my room and transfers to this space I’m in—that just still blows my mind. I love that in Landowner’s music there is a lot of repetition, then all of a sudden you’ll get a transition that’s kind of jarring…

DS: I’m fascinated by repetition in music. My other favourite band is Lungfish and they’re pure repetition. With a Lungfish song you’ll hear the first riff and then that’s all you’ll hear for the next four minutes except the lyrics change continuously throughout the song. The idea of music being a place you inhabit, that comes especially to me with repetitive music because you start to trust that the repetition is going to continue after a few passages have been the same, in the space that is created there I find that the only things that’s actually changing is my own thought patterns during the passage of repetitive music and brings a kind of self-awareness to the forefront—it’s meditative. It feels like an environment for the listener to be themselves, instead of trying to keep up with spazzy changes in more busy music, which can be good too, that’s a whole different thing. There is a hypnotic aspect to repetitive music that I really like.

You just said something too, which is important to me, if music is really repetitive it brings all of this attention to places where there are transitions, those transitions become all the more important because of that—all the more striking. You put your trust in the music when it’s repetitive and then when something happens it catches you off guard, it wakes you up! I like being surprised by music and waking up several times during the course of a band’s set during a show or during the course of listening to a record… like as soon as I have it figured out something a little bit surprising happens.

There’s a punk band here in Australia called Arse, when they play live there’s this one song they do and there’s this part in it where they just play that one note over and over and over for a really extended period; after a while it’s almost as if it makes people in the crowd feel uncomfortable and uneasy because they’re not used to that, they’re waiting for a change. It’s really cool to watch the band do it, they have the biggest smiles on their faces.

DS: My old band Health Problems used to do stuff like that. We didn’t have a rule of using repetition all the time per se but, we would try to be aware of the psychology of watching a show and how to mess with what makes it interesting. We’d do stuff like that, one note ‘til it makes people feel uncomfortable and right when you find that limit, you change it. One of my very favourite bands that opened the doors to me of the power of repetition was an Australian band called My Disco. Have you ever seen them?

I have. I’ve interviewed them many years ago.

DS: Cool. Their stuff from the 2000’s. Their recent stuff has departed in a more experimental direction, their first three albums though were a big revelation to me when they came out.

Lyrically there always seem to be a lot going on in your songs, there’s a lot of layers to them. When you’re writing lyrics, do you have an idea of what you want to write about and then build around it? Or do they come in other ways?

DS: Most successful times I have writing lyrics is when I‘m carrying around, almost all of the time, a pocket sized spiral bound reporter’s notebook. When an interesting little phrase just pops into my head, I might not even know what it potentially means, I just write it down. At the end of the month the notebook is full and I read through the composite of interesting, evocative phrases. Some will be more developed lyric concepts too. I develop things into lyrics for a song or draw on those. I try to be ready to catch ideas during the day that are inspiring to me. The other half of it is work, time spent sitting in front of the laptop with a word document opened trying to type it all out into an arrangement that means something and makes sense. It’s a balance between the mysterious inspirations of an evocative phrase that has some potential coupled with then trying to tease out some real world meaning from it.

I’ve hit my head against the wall trying to sit down and write a song from scratch about a topic, for me that’s a lot harder and it ends up sounding preachy and annoying; I’m usually not as satisfied with those efforts. If I trust the mysterious lyricism of words and follow the trail of things that seem intriguing to me, that usually leads to something more worthwhile. With the Landowner stuff I try to resolve it into something that does has some kind of statement about the world that we live in.

A lot of phrases that I pick up on are little expressions you hear people say and the musicality in speech and refrains in conversation; things that sound ordinary that we hear over and over again catch my ear. Something like that might spark an idea for an entire song.

Is there a song on new album Consultant that has a real significance to you?

DS: I was thinking about this today, the lyrics that are the most concise and satisfying to me on the new LP are the song ‘Being Told You’re Wrong’ [laughs], which is so ridiculously brief. It captures a lot of what I’m trying to say in such a short, ripping little song. The lyrics are basically saying that; if you’re such a tough guy, why can’t you handle being told you’re wrong, without kicking a tantrum like a child. The sound of Landowner’s music is trying to tease the idea of what tough music is, instead of being all thick and heavy with distortion it’s clean and dinky-sounding but still aggressive and fast. The lyrics to the song also call out what it means to be big and tough and strong, if you’re a big muscly tough guy but then you dissolve into a childish fit if someone questions your opinion about something and you can’t handle being told you’re wrong! It’s expanding the idea of toughness that it needs to include self-reflection and critique, which it so often doesn’t. “Being told you’re wrong” is a phrase I’m really satisfied by, it’s one of my favourite ones.

What about the song ‘Stone Path’?

DS: I like the lyrics to that because it is about something in particular but I let myself be a little loose with the writing in it. The song is basically about racist housing policy in mid-20th century United States where Blacks weren’t able to own property, they were denied mortgages… that’s multiple generations of people of colour that could only rent and couldn’t capitalise on selling it. The first lyric on ‘Stone Path’: now that it’s on your radar, you recognise it everywhere; that’s the culture becoming aware of the messed up dynamic of something like that more and more. A hand tipping the scales, that’s the hand of law makers sixty years ago, eighty years ago, unfairly tipping the scales in the favour of whites arbitrarily just inherited out of hatred. The song is about, my belief is, when we inherit the results of racist policy we can’t undo those injustices by trying to be colour-blind and turn a hopeful blind eye to it, deliberate racism can only be undone with equally deliberate justice. That idea is at the core of the lyrics of ‘Stone Path’. The title has nothing to do with the lyrics, that was my working title when the song was an instrumental and it just stuck. In this case it’s almost suggestive of what the song is talking about, the idea that we get stuck in these grooves in society, it sounds like it’s a well-trodden path that no one questions that they have just been on for such a long time.

Like I was saying before, sometimes I don’t worry if I don’t know the meaning of the words right away, it can all come together by just modifying some of the words here and there, just pointing things in a consistent direction. Things can make sense after the fact. That song title is a fun example that.

On the song ‘Confrontation’ your good friend and your bandmate from Health Problems, Ian Kurtis Crist does guest vocals!

DS: Yeah. When we play the song live the bassist of Landowner Josh Owsley normally sings that part. It was a mistake in the studio when we were recording ‘Confrontation’ with the band all together, I gave Josh the wrong note. I asked him to sing the backup line in a ‘C’ but it was supposed to be a ‘G’, he recorded the whole thing an octave below my lead vocal. I listened to it after and realised I made him do the wrong thing, it was a little too late to go back in and set up the microphones and redo everything, and maybe it’s a fun opportunity to send it to Ian and get him to do it. He’s one of my best friends, I like the sound of his voice and thought it would be well suited to the song. He recorded it in his home studio and we mixed it in and it sounded really good.

Is there anything you find challenging about song writing?

DS: The most challenging thing for me has been writing lyrics, I get hung up on lyrics. Since words really mean one thing or another in the brains of human beings, whereas the meaning of music is a little more forgiving, it’s a more abstract thing. Words are so loaded, if you chose just the wrong synonym or express it a little different then how you meant it, people are going to interpret it differently. I feel bothered by the drafts of the lyrics until I know they’re just right and they resonate in me. I spend the most time on the lyrics. One of my goals is for it to sound spontaneous and conversational, with a few exceptions, it’s the part of the song that takes the longest.

The last song on the album ‘Old Connecticut Money’ I think I wrote 90% of those lyrics in one go. My pen was moving, I was at work on a break, I had this idea and I wrote it all down. I could almost read it out of the notebook and it just fell into the song, but for me that’s pretty rare. Lyrics are something that I toil over.

On Landowner’s previous album Blatant there’s a song called ‘Significant Experience’; have you had a really significant in your life that you could share?

DS: That song is another good example of where I wasn’t writing about one particular thing, I was trusting the overall mood of lyrics and ability to evoke thoughts with that combination of words.When I was putting those lyrics together, I was thinking about how the most significant, moving experiences that people live through in their lives tend to be those things that shape their political outlooks and beliefs in the world. When you come to an impasse in a political argument let’s say, usually the reason you can’t get through to the other person or the other person starts to shake and get in a rage and can’t even get words out, it’s usually because there’s some really significant thing that they lived through that’s welling up, it’s important to realise that all people carry things like that around with them. That’s what’s often behind dysfunction in how we communicate. Right now, that’s the most I’ve intentionally thought about those lyrics or put it into words like that. I just let the lyrics be the lyrics and just try to get them across, I’m not decoding them most days.

Please check out: LANDOWNER on bandcamp. LANDOWNER on Instagram. LANDOWNER on Facebook. Consultant out now on Born Yesterday Records.

*NOTE: more of this interview can be found in our editor’s upcoming book, Conversations With Punx. Featuring in-depth interviews with individuals from bands Ramones, DEVO, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Fugazi, The Stooges, Crass, Misfits, Bad Religion, The Clash, The Slits, Subhumans, Descendents, PiL, X-Ray Spex, Adolescents, Agnostic Front, Operation Ivy, At the Drive-In, The Avengers, Youth of Today, Night Birds, Cro-Mags, Gorilla Biscuits, X, and more. Coming soon! Follow @gimmiegimmiegimmiezine for updates.