The throng inside Anaheim’s famed House of Blues presses toward the stage in silent, rapt attention. In the heart of Downtown Disney with all its lights, glamor and themed uniformity, one doesn’t expect to witness the raw expression and stripped-down performance of the act currently in residence. Keith Goodwin and Dan Schwartz of Philly folk trio Good Old War — armed with only an acoustic guitar and their searing vocal harmonies — hold the crowd in the palm of their hand. “When you play this way, the songs have to be good enough at their absolute core to reach people,” says Dan. “If that’s working, it means that we’re doing something right.”
And Good Old War seems to be doing a lot right in a music industry that usually values shrink-wrapped, packaged products over the artistry. Even when strolling to the venue through the House of Mouse’s curated shops and eateries, the PA systems blast nothing but sanitized post-grunge and trendy teen pop. Yet they continue to bear the singer-songwriter standard with no pretense other than the love of creating music.
For the uninitiated, the story of Good Old War is one founded in the lifelong passion of songwriting. Tim Arnold (drummer) and Keith grew up together and founded the Pennsylvania prog rock group Days Away in the late 90’s. Out of a stroke of luck, Tim met Dan and the two formed an instant connection. They started to play in their own band whenever Days Day were off tour. Keith finally came into the fold in the mid-2000’s, when Tim and Dan met with him to record this side project. “When I met him, it was kind of a light bulb moment,” admits Dan. “We both saw that we would make a really good team.” And the same went for the trio altogether. Their musical chemistry was unmistakable. “I don’t know how to explain it except that it was like going on a really great date. You just sort of know that something special is happening between you.” Keith invited Dan to tour with Days Away as a guitarist and slowly everything else faded out.
Though they kept the “Days Away” moniker, they soon realized that they had embarked on something new entirely. But for a while, they weren’t sure what that was. Anthony Green of Circa Survive — a good friend of the band — took a liking to their experiment and brought them on as the band for his solo record. The support of Green and others like him made the fledging Good Old War realize that they were on to something amazing. They struck out with their new name, instantly landing a record deal and management. “Everything sort of fell in place for us,” recaps Dan. “Since then, it’s been a billion shows. Recording and shows, that’s what we do.”
Seven years later, Good Old War continue to do just that. Their fourth full-length album Broken into Better Shape was released in late June and the band just wrapped up a summer-long tour supporting Kodaline as a duo (Tim had to part for family reasons on this outing). And they show no signs of slowing down.
Luckily, I got a chance to hang out with guitarist Dan Schwartz after their set to talk songwriting, technology and how creating something is the greatest drug there is (except cocaine maybe, but that’s just me talking).
I like that you decided to go with a stripped down acoustic approach with the show tonight, especially since the sound on the new album Broken into Better Shape is much bigger and more produced than your past work. What made you decide to take it back to basics?
It just sort of happened. When we started this tour, Tim had some family things and had to go home, so we just adjusted. It’s been a really awesome challenge to do it this way – first out of necessity, but really just forcing ourselves into doing something that we’ve been talking about trying for a long time.
And you know, it was a lot of fun, people were dancing. I think it worked.
That’s all we’re shooting for.
Speaking of which, how would you say the process for writing Broken into Better Shape is different from that of your previous records?
Writing-wise there are a few things that are different. With our previous records, we really split it between Keith and myself. He would write half and I would write half. That was a good process, but we wanted to write together more and not only that, but we wanted to see how far we could take it. We were able to get in the room with some great songwriters that we really looked up to. We’re just fans of songwriters in general and songwriting is just as big for us as actually playing music. So we reached out and it was like having a couple more members of the band when we sat down to crank out these songs. You know, sometimes it didn’t work, but a few times it worked incredibly well and we were able to participate in some really awesome songwriting. I think that really taught us a lot and made us much better at our craft, but I guess everyone can judge for themselves once they dive into the record.
I get that. Branching out and working with new people gives me a lot of perspective on how to get better at what I do.
Exactly. And I think it’s looked down upon to work with outside songwriters when you’re in a band, but I think that if you’re guiding the ship and you’re getting the opportunity to watch people who have had success in writing songs that make people happy while they do it, you can really gain new skills that you can then bring into your own work. If you get in the room with a great guitarist, you’re going to get better. If you get in the room with a great singer, you’re going to get better. It’s just a matter of being smart and picking up on what it is that makes them so good at what they do.
Getting back to the record, you recently described the sound of Broken into Better Shape as taking “serious subject matter and setting it to a really upbeat musical backdrop, so it feels like you’re celebrating your release from hard times.” How did you arrive at that theme?
You know, I think that’s really who we are. We’re the kind of people who use songs – and I think a lot of people do this when they listen to music in general – to get through the shit. So you sit down to write and you’re all bummed out about whatever it is that set you off on the creative process in the first place and by the time you’re out of it you feel great. Part of it is trying applying the music to get you there. And it’s not always major chords and “happy, happy, happy,” you know. The lyrics give it weight and musically you get there naturally. A lot of our songs start out mellow and build up into this emotional complex. By the time we get to the end of writing it, it’s like a weight has been lifted and we just feel so much better. I think that’s also indicative of the type of people we are, you know? We don’t like to sit around and wallow.
Catharsis through creation?
That’s the way we’ve always treated music.
My favorite track on the album is “Broken Record.” I remember the first time I heard it, I really wanted to sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” during the chorus. Was the homage intentional?
When I wrote that song, I was hoping to make it the quintessential Good Old War song – what I thought combined everything about our band into one song. And we started out playing Beatles songs. It’s always been a good combination of old and new with us, taking our influences and bringing them into the 21st century. We never wanted to play throwback music, but we use things that people are automatically gonna associate with old music – acoustic guitars, harmonies, brushes on the drums, things that people will automatically associate with the 60’s, but injecting it with something new. And early Beatles is the perfect example of that. They’re fantastic songs that make you feel really good and if you look deeper, you will find a whole treasure trove of other reasons to like them. But even if you don’t, they still have that pure surface-level appeal too.
Speaking of building off the old and creating something new, you recently teamed up with Mashable to write a song. Tell us a little about that.
They actually approached us. I think they were looking for a band willing to do something crazy like write a song based only on tweets. As a songwriter, I thought that would be a really cool challenge and not only that, but to complete it all under a week. And we’re not just talking about writing it. No, we also had to learn it well enough to play it live and have that be the recording of the song. So not only did we have to write it in front of the cameras and do it in under a week, but we had to have it down.
I think the thing about doing something like that is that you would need a band stripped-down, which kind of plays into the idea of tech and using tech in an interesting way. And I think we use tech so much in all of our recordings. It’s funny because I don’t think people associate us with that.
Is there an irony in a folk group that sings about technology?
Well I don’t know if it’s really about the technology per se. The way they did it, people sent in anything – lyrics, their own story, maybe just a couple words, anything at all – and all we did essentially was pick out quotes and string them together until it meant something to us. There’s a few words of our own in there and a couple tweaks just to make it all make sense, but overall we transformed it into something that wasn’t just a tech love story, but a love story pure and simple. That tends to happen with us a lot. With are songs, we can be writing about things that have nothing to do with love, yet the overall feel bends it toward something universal like that. We could be singing about a dog or losing are keys and it can sound like a love letter to a girlfriend. I think people understand that. Everybody needs that connection. Whether it’s from your friends, from your family, or someone that you love, your whole life is love.
Do you think that social media has helped you spread that message?
Oh definitely. Tech has really helped connect us with our fans in a way that wasn’t possible five or ten years ago. And it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. There are days when I just want to quit Twitter and get rid of Facebook because I don’t personally want to spend too much of my time dealing with social media. If you look around right now, you’ll see about fifty people on their phones. And I’m guilty of it too from time to time. There’s something about that isolation that rubs me the wrong way.
At the same time, I don’t know how we would possibly spread information in this day and age without it. It’s helped us so much. Every day I’m on there trying to get engaged with people. I feel like I have a personal relationship with the people who come to our shows because of it. I know them by name. That’s f*****g awesome.
What’s up next for Good Old War now that your tour with Kodaline is over?
You can guarantee that we’re going to tour a lot more. We’ve probably got another year or so to tour for this album and in the meantime we’ll be writing another. We’ll probably surprise you here and there with some covers, maybe a holiday song, and who knows what else. We’re the kind of people who are always working, so it’s not natural for us to go without creating something for too long. Expect us to be coming to your town soon.
If Good Old War was a drink, what would you be?
We would be a whiskey and Coke. There’s an underlying depth, but on top you have that sweetness.
Don’t forget to check out Broken Into Better Shape on iTunes and Spotify and catch Good Old War as they continue to tour this winter.
Tags : 2015, Anthony Green, artist interviews, Broken Into Better Shape, Circa Survive, Dan Schwartz, Days Away, featured, folk, Good Old War, Internet, Keith Goodwin, Kodaline, music, New Music, social media