Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
Will Smith, yes, Will Smith of the Jada Pinkett-Smith clan suggests - albeit through the words of a modern day screenwriter - that Thomas Jefferson (who himself copped the basic ideas from others before him) was right when he slid the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" into the Declaration of Independence. He also suggests that the most important word in the line is "pursuit," which means that happiness is never a given. Smith's character in the true-life story of man overcoming odds to care for his son and have a good and happy life believes that the pursuit is all that's guaranteed and if happiness comes out of that hunt, all the better. The overriding thought is that happiness should never, ever be expected just because one tries hard to attain it.
Dan Maloney, the lead singer of Iowa City band Death Ships, writes a lot of songs about this pursuit. It's his and it's every man and woman's. It's the idea that there's a life out there free of the cumbrances and sticker bushes of standard issue life that tangle around our ankles, wrap us up, tear us down and leave us tired, uninspired and covered in bloody scratches. Most people find themselves in a fight every single day of their lives - without the bruises, but with all the battering that comes with the territory.
Maloney began this band when an older band - Faultlines - was still functioning, but he used Death Ships for the songs that he started recording on cassette tapes and selling at shows in manila envelopes. They were the songs that come out of one man and not out of three or four men. They were songs that brought out the stethoscope, rubbed the end to make it room temperature and then placed in on Maloney's chest to examine the ticking and the motives, the ambitions and the mirrors that were inside at the time. He performed them solo and lovingly and gradually, he added members to fill out the sound.
It should always be noted and remembered where the idea of Death Ships sprung from. It was out of the desire to understand what he wanted out of life and how he wanted it to be when he got it that led to the project growing its legs. A song on the band's debut full-length is titled "Great American" and it's a walking through the end of day, after a big meal one imagines, when the wine's got the protagonist talking and there's no where he would rather be at the moment than there. It's home and it's the choice.
Maloney sings, "You've gotta hold onto what/What you got…It's the great American/Ideology." It's down and it's the very essence of the fluttering of fading light, the wind down of a stressful day of making it and then a major league call and response bridge of, "You can ride with me" catches fire and leaves a dusting of ash and soot on the floor. It's what the ideology is and what that pursuit of happiness Jefferson, Will Smith and seemingly everyone else wants. They'll take the less thrilling times - the grey moments - with the lighter ones as long as they get to pull all of the strings.
Says Maloney, "I suppose the great American idealogy is similar to the American dream of doing what you love and being happy and successful while doing it. For some, it's finding a mate and starting a family filled with mortgages, school board meetings, and Saturday morning soccer tournaments. For others, it's different, but personally I would like a life balanced with solid relationships and family structure while utilizing my creativity as a main source of how I make my living. These days my American ideology is becoming harder and harder to come by, but I remain optimistic in my pursuits."
That optimism, maybe that's the best scene we the people can be blinded by. Without the will to pursue the happiness, maybe it wouldn't even exist, like that infamous sound a tree falling in the forest when no one's around makes. Happiness is nurtured out of the pursuit and there's more than enough of that pursuit in the music of Death Ships. The world may be burning itself to hell and it may be hanging on by a thin thread, but as long as we're foolhardy and brave enough to keep pursuing that distant happiness, there's hope for us. Pursuit can ride with me and you and everyone we know.
The Daytrotter interview:
*Is a death ship the same as a ghost ship? I remember that ghosts ships on Scooby-Doo were always trouble and spooky.*
Dan Maloney: I suppose you can view it that way. The name could be derived from my subconscious viewing of tons of Scooby-Doo cartoons as a kid, but the name lends itself to other interpretations as well. Like for instance death to "relation"ships or the idea that ships being a symbol of freedom and that freedom is being ceased. Regardless, it's a name that doesn't really lend itself to our particular sound, which is probably why I stuck with it, despite the naysayers.
*Tell me about how you've changed this whole thing that you do. We talked about it a few weeks ago how this really started out as a solo thing (opening for the Decemberists in Grinnell) and it's evolved into something else entirely.*
DM: Yeah, when Randall and Adam "Lars" joined the ranks they really helped shape Death Ships into a functional band instead of a singer songwriter acoustic deal. It gave me the opportunity to write songs that weren't necessarily do-able solo and their input has shown our material veering off in different musical directions, which is exciting. I am most interested in bands that evolve and take risks rather than making the same record over and over again. Each member's musical tastes vary and influence each other, so I would expect our next record will definitely seem like a Death Ships record, but with some surprises and growth.
*Why do you think Alternative Press loves you so much? Is it just the music or is it because you guys are handsome?*
DM: I honestly don't know why they have given us soo much press, but I am happy that they are helping us spread the word. I can't relate to many of the bands they cover, particularly the emo/scream/hardcore ones that appear on most of their glossy pages, but any press especially, nationally and internationally, is great. Especially for us when we are currently functioning DIY in terms of publicity and promotion. I would be willing to guess the coverage is more to do with our music than our looks, but I am not trying to sell ourselves short in the looks department.
*You've spent a lot of time with him, so what makes Jay Bennett a sweetheart?*
DM: Jay is a sweetheart because he will take the time to invest interest in you if you let him. He will talk for hours upon end, but he is a person that likes to get under the surface of who you are and share experiences while learning from you all the same. He is genuinely a people person and also remarkably generous and easy to get along with by nature. There is a sort of misunderstood element to Jay because of preconceived notions of him based on the Wilco film that I think is unfortunate. This is a man that has overcome a lot of emotional and personal hurdles and yet he still continues to produce and make credible music.
*As a record store employee, do you give people shit about the dumb music they like or do you keep it to yourself?*
DM: I have worked at Record Collector in Iowa City for about five years and I find it funny how record store clerks have this reputation for being snooty bastards. Sure, I am not going to like every item a person is going to buy, but let's face it, the music industry is dying and most people steal or use Best Buy or iTunes anyway. Every bad pop punk or adult contemporary CD someone brings to the counter is helping keep my boss in business and keeping my meager pay checks coming. The store has been in business for about 30 years, which is a landmark in itself, but really I can care less what people buy. I just think people should own up more to what they listen to and not be concerned if it's considered cool by others. If you come to the counter and immediately say something like, "Oh, this Bright Eyes CD is not for me, it's for my girlfriend," you obviously have confidence issues in your musical taste and are asking to be ridiculed. On the other hand if you come up to me with an Aaron Neville CD, joyfully singing "Don't Know Much," I can dig that kind of unashamed enthusiasm. Wave your freak flags! The point is, buy lots of music and support independent record stores because part of the reason record store clerks are so bitter is because they probably make the same amount of money as the dudes slinging subway sandwiches.
*What was the last great show you saw?*
DM: The last astounding show I saw was Tom Waits in Chicago last year, but I have seen great shows since then. Menomena at their recent SXSW Barsuk showcase was great despite their half hour long line check. I was impressed how just three dudes could pull off a record that has a lot of different musical elements going on.
*You must be a night owl, right?*
DM: I used to be a late night man, but as I grow older I see the benefits of going to bed before midnight when you have to work the 8-5pm shift. I am currently grading tests for ACT which requires some sense of alertness when people's educational future is on the line. So I guess, no, I am slipping from my youthful party ways, but I guess I don't entirely miss the redundancy of closing the bar down every night. That's partly because I am mostly always broke.
*When do you do your writing? Are you working on a new disc already or is there a lot of touring yet to be done for this album?*
DM: I tend to write sporadically in bursts of inspiration. We already have well over enough material to record a solid follow up to Seeds of Devastation and I imagine we will start demoing and or recording in the next few months. We sat on Seeds for a full year before it was released so there are a bunch of songs that we have been sitting on as well as a steady flow of new ones popping out weekly. We are planning on hitting the east coast again in late May, but hope to have a new record finished by the summer. I would really like to get the next record out sooner than later, whether we work with a record label or not, it will see the light of day.
*Has the tape club died?*
DM: The Faithful Anchor Tape Club has died even though I am still a huge fan of cassette tapes. I would love to one day have the means to put out music I love, but basically the tape club died after the hassle of having to manually dupe tons of tapes all the while knowing most people don't have functional cassette players anymore anyway.
*What makes you sour?*
DM: Overt pessimists, parking tickets, gas prices, cigarette taxes, lack of health care, and whiners.