A seasoned songwriter, skilled multi-instrumentalist, and capable studio engineer, Dan Montgomery's impact on music run far deeper than the average fan might know.
While some may recognize Dan Montgomery as a veteran of Americana and a myriad of other genres, breeding a career that has spanned seven albums over 20 years, this time around Montgomery is going back to his roots. With a classic Danelectro guitar in hand, he’s crafted his most rocking album in a while with Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads.
Naturally, Montgomery's typical wit and the subtle-toned edge are present, but that doesn't mean his hard-earned whimsy and devastatingly beautiful musical craftsmanship have been sacrificed. While Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads might not be the proverbial "intentional return to rock" that some have labeled it, that doesn't take away from the fact that the record is nothing short of a good old-fashioned barnstormer.
As he prepares to embark on a run of live shows, Dan Montgomery joined me for an interview where we cover his latest music, his approach to songwriting which hearkens back to the music that inspired him in the 1970s, and more.
Andrew Daly: How have you progressed from your last record? What does your current approach look like in terms of how you compose songs?
Dan Montgomery: My last album [Smoke and Mirrors] was a concept album I had labored over writing for almost 10 years. I wrote and released four other albums during that time. So, that might be part of why this was the fastest writing/recording process yet. I hit on a new way of writing. It was more out of necessity than a bold new move because I would play a chord sequence repeatedly; [and] just free associate lyrically. At first, it would seem like gibberish until I'd start moving lines around, and in short order, they would find their place, and I'd think, "Oh, that's what that's about." So, most of the album was written that way.
AD: Are you more comfortable in the studio or live? Why?
DM: It's funny; I've only done about four or five shows since the pandemic, and the first couple (which were solo shows) were nerve-wracking. Forgetting lyrics to songs I've sung a hundred times but remembering the new ones. Playing with my band made that a lot more fun if only for the camaraderie, plus my band – Robert Mache (guitar), James Cunningham (drums), Candace Mache (vocals), and Tom Arndt (bass) are all killer players as well as my family at this point.
As far as the studio goes, it's not even two sides of the same coin. It's two completely different coins! And the studio experience can be so different from album to album. I'm fortunate that since about 2016, we've done all our recording at The Shack in the Back, our drummer's studio in Memphis. Robert Mache has been my co-producer and is a joy to work with. He's the technical guy. I'm more of a "what if we did this..." kind of producer, and Robert can usually make it come across.
We've been recording with the same players for a while now, so we can read each other easily by now. On the new album [Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads], one song, "In For a Penny," was utterly live on the floor on the second take. We had finished everything planned that day, and I just called out "Bo Diddley beat in F sharp, gentlemen," and what's on the record – other than maracas and backing vocals – is the second take live. Including the lyrics made up on the spot!
So, I guess the short answer is that they're too different to compare.
AD: What can you tell me about your latest music? What led you to return to your rock roots?
DM: Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads wasn't designed as my "return to rock," as some have said. I'm not nearly that calculating. During the lockdown, I bought a 1959 Danelectro Convertible [guitar] online, and while I've mostly written on an acoustic just out of ease, when I plugged in "Cate" (named after my wife born in 1959 as well!), the songs and even the riffs just fell out!
I started out at 14, playing dances and parties in South Jersey.
It was 1974, and what's now called "classic rock" was just new rock music then. It was pre- "Free Bird" rock (laughs) I cut my teeth – and fingers – playing Grand Funk, Deep Purple, Bachman Turner Overdrive, and Bad Company. And while I later went on to be swayed by punk rock and country and made some very acoustic-based records that I'm extremely proud of, when I got that Dano and turned it up, it was like being 14 again, only hopefully with something worth saying. It wasn't any calculated move by any means. Just a really rockin' full-circle moment. And they say you can't go home again...
AD: Some have said rock is dead. Where do you stand on that notion?
DM: Are we talking about rock as an industry or art form? As an industry, it may seem to be on life support if you've been around long enough to see the changes happening over the years. By the same token, rock as an art form is strong. It's just not the dominant art form in music these days. I don't think that's bad for the music. If you take away the lure of big budgets and tour support pretty quickly, you're left with people making art for art's sake. I just saw a list of all the albums [that were] released on April 7th, the same day as Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads, and it's a long list. So, if rock is dead, nobody told the rockers.
AD: What are some things you know now that would have been helpful during your earliest days?
DM: I didn't start my official solo career till I was almost 40. I was a sound man and a road manager (as well as playing in local bands in Philly) for many years and learned a lot by osmosis, but by the time I started in earnest, the business side of things had really started changing fast. I do wish I had developed a feel for self-promotion. I've never been that guy that can walk into a publisher's office and tell them it's their lucky day.
AD: What are some of the hardest things about making new music for a low-attention-span world?
DM: The most challenging part for me is measuring your expectations yet still retaining your enthusiasm. Again, if you can conduct yourself in an art for art's sake mentality, certainly on the creative side of things, you'll always have that base to return to. That said, it's harder and harder to be self-released, self-promoted, self-booked, and stand out. People keep talking to me about likes and clicks, and I just don't relate...and the music world doesn't care that I don't relate. So, it can be like me and the business are on two different paths that connect – or collide – from time to time.
AD: How has your overall approach evolved from your younger years? Do you have any cringe factor when listening to your older work?
DM: My recording career started so late that I don't have any “cringe” songs (to me, anyway) in my catalog. Now, would I go back and change things? On the rare occasion, I hear something from my first album [Man From Out of State], [where] I would change some keys and tempos here and there, but I stand by the writing. On Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads, it's the first time I didn't beg to have me re-record all my vocals at the last minute, so that's progress. (laughs)
AD: What's next for you in all lanes?
DM: Touring and more touring, plus the next batch of writing feels like it's brewing up. Going to Europe would be a real goal. I'm bouncing back from some serious health issues [from] a few years back (pre-COVID), and I'd like to take singing lessons to get back some power and take [my voice] further. I [also] recently got a piano in the hopes of breaking up [my] writing routines.