Interview: Dan Zanes

DanZanesAfterShow.jpgWith Dan Zanes visiting Phoenix for the first time on tour with Dan Zanes and Friends less than two weeks from now, I thought it'd be a good time to catch up with the singer. I've done both these things before (seeing him perform in Tucson in April 2007 and interviewing him back in summer 2006), but nothing ever stands still in Dan Zanes' world these days. So I called him up in Puerto Rico and chatted a bit.

Read on for his views on what makes a good Dan Zanes and Friends concert and what he does the first time he visits a city. (Phoenix-area readers, feel free to chime in with suggestions for what he should do here.) Find out about the upcoming album, ¡Nueva York!

And even if you've never even been to Phoenix, you'll want to read the end of the interview where I find out exactly what he was doing in Puerto Rico and what Paul McCartney has to do with it. Trust me, it's worth the time. (And thanks to Dan for making the time.)

Zooglobble: How would you describe a Dan Zanes and Friends concert?
Dan Zanes: As much like a little Grateful Dead show as possible. I try to make the theatre feel like your living room. There's lots of people singing along, lots of people on stage, and as much roaming around, laughing, and crying as possible. And then the whole dissolves into a whole dance party. I want everybody who comes to feel like we're all in this together.

What's your favorite part of the show?
Two things: first, how much people throw themselves into singing. Are they singing their heads off? Second, what's the level of the dancing? Are the aisles filled? How many people are upfront? How much chaos? How intense does it get?

I can't even remember the last show where people didn't dance. In the world of young people, it's so much how they relate... in a physical way.
Will this be your first time playing Phoenix and Flagstaff?

What do you do the first time you visit a city?
Try and find good Mexican food. I look for music stores, I look for thrift shops. See if someone we like is playing in town.

Most of the band likes walking and exploring cities. Elena (Moon Park, fiddle and trumpet) has a graduate degree in urban policy.

How do you choose or find local musicians you have joining you?
Usually we start with the presenters, who tend to be tapped into the community. A lot of times I'll go online, research Latino/Mexican cultural centers or African drumming groups.

Often I'll look for groups working with young people. If kids are seeing other kids on stage, that's really meaningful. I think most of the groups we have are working with traditions that require creativity but also understanding of cultural roots. For me, that's very, very emotional to see. Young people will really keep the traditions going. It's an incredible feeling because there's so much inspiration for where the country's going.

You have a new album coming out soon, right?
Yes, ¡ Nueva York!, in April. We're celebrating the music all around us in New York City from the Spanish-speaking south. It's the sound of the band collaborating with Latino musicians in New York City, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Columbia, Argentina.

On a personal level, it's my pro-immigration record. What I haven't heard is much acknowledgment of how much the culture of the United States is revitalized by this culture. When I learned Spanish couple years ago... I spent time on the border last year with humanitarian groups, and I saw the whole zone on both sides of the border. I saw more than I imagined and it was heartbreaking. I want to be building bridges instead of the mean tone of conversation. [The album] is the sound of people getting together sharing stories and celebrating each's others culture. Everybody's welcome here -- let's get the party started.

I've heard a couple of the tracks, it seems like maybe it'll be geared for a little older audience. Will this be like Catch That Train or will it be a little more like Sea Music or Parades and Panoramas?
It really is the next family record. For a lot of people it might be hard to hear it that way. But for other people, it might be this fantastic thing that there's this family CD that's all in Spanish. There's not as much out there in terms of family music in Spanish. I think a lot of our existing fans will get on board. It'll be a fun year. We had an amazing time collaborating in New York -- the whhole thing has made me feel happy.

How much of the new album will you be playing at the show?
1 or 2 songs. Definitely at least one.

So what are you doing in Puerto Rico, anyway?
We're working on a new CD, actually. We got this crazy call from Paul McCartney's publishing company. He's got this company, MPL Music Publishing. They've got a fantastic collection -- Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen -- and they decided they wanted to actively work the catalog. The first call they made was to us to see if they wanted to make a family record of Broadway tunes. I said, "Are you sure you want us?" But then I explained what I thought we could do with them.

We love Sir Paul and they're a great group of people. It was going to be an interesting challenge to take these songs and make them sound like wild folk music. And since they're writing the check, we thought maybe we could make a wild adventure. This is my best band yet and I wanted to do something a little different, more of a musical collaboration with the group, where we went somewhere, worked hard for a week. So we're here in Puerto Rico. It's been great -- we've recorded about 18 songs. We'll go back to New York and finish it up.

I don't think I own a single soundtrack except for Fiddler on the Roof. It never connected to me. But these songs are incredible. We take 'em apart and work 'em up...

Thanks to Dan for the time... Phoenix-area readers: C'mon -- now you know what Dan and the band does on tour -- where should they visit in Phoenix?.