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INTERVIEW: A Dialogue with Dead Man Winter

I’m waiting in the Minnesota Public Radio lobby holding a baby that isn’t mine when Dave Simonett takes the seat across from me and asks if it’s sleeping. At first, I don’t recognize the singer-songwriter, frontman of the long-celebrated folk-fixture Trampled By Turtles as Dead Man Winter. He’s with JT Bates, Erik Koskinen, Tim Saxhaug, and Bryan Nichols, who introduce themselves respectively. I’m ruminating on the irony of being a newly appointed local music journalist who clearly knows nothing about local music when a sound engineer arrives to shepherd them away to The Current’s recording studio.

Later, when I hear that session, I’ll whisper-call myself an idiot, google the correlation between jet lag and memory loss, and email my editor. The lyrical introspection radiating from Furnace, Dead Man Winter’s sophomore album, reads like a evolved departure from the TBT material I used to get drunk to 8 years ago…but there’s no misplacing that voice.

A week later, I meet Dave at a bar in South Minneapolis. Dead Man Winter kicks off their tour February 10th with a sold-out show at First Avenue; we spend two hours talking about typewriters, aloneness, and the record he didn’t want to make. 


Listening to Furnace, I was struck most often by the senses of place. I’m also interested in what it was like writing this record alone. Then I’d like to talk about what it was like once you got your band behind all the stuff you wrote alone. Talk to me about where you went to make this.

I made the first draft of this record two years ago.  My wife and I split up and at the time I was staying at my friend’s studio, just writing like crazy, vomiting…. I wrote a lot then and I made a record, actually got the record done, but before I went to the next step of releasing it, I trashed it. I didn’t like it.

I mean, I liked it fine, but it wasn’t right. It wasn’t the record I wanted to make.

How did you know?

I knew the whole time. I was just trying to force it out because I had time at that point. (Trampled [by Turtles] was off the road for a few months.) It was like the most unartistic thing to do to: to try and be like, “I have this window, I have songs recorded, so now let’s make a record.” And so before it got to that,  I scrapped it.

Finland, MN (Population: 195).

And then I was just lost. Nothing. I thought I like some of the songs. I didn’t like a lot of the writing. So I thought maybe I’d give it some space and that’s when I went up north to Finland, Minnesota—this little village. I rented a cabin outside of it—it was pretty secluded— and for a week I just wrote.

Did you tell yourself you had seven days until the girl crawls out of the well and this thing gets done?

No, but I did say I had seven days and all I’m going to do is write, which I had never done before.  I think I know better, with my way of working, to not say “it has to be done by X”. Or else I might not have made anything.

What do you pack for that? What did you bring?

I bought a typewriter, a cassette recorder (a little Marantz — it used to be a field recorder which reporters would use if they had to go on location, you could probably run it on D batteries), and my guitar. And my clothes.

And some cigarettes.

Lots of cigarettes.

Were you drinking?

(laughs) heavily, yeah.

Just your acoustic guitar?

Yeah, it was just a writing tool. I mean I can’t play anything else very well, like the piano.  Switching up instruments helps me a lot in writing, though, especially if I can’t play it very well…because it makes me think about it differently, helps me to not fall back on the same chord structure, etc.

I wrote down the word “exile” at one point….

I wouldn’t go that far. Red Wing was more “exile” than the cabin.

Okay, wait, but first, can we talk about the typewriter? Why the typewriter?

I love the typewriter.

Why?

Percussion. It makes me slow down, too. And my particular typewriter, I only know this because I took it to… [well,] there’s a guy in Richfield….

Yes!

You’ve been to the guy in Richfield?

An Olympia DeLuxe Cursive Typewriter, one of the most in-demand classic typewriters because of its cursive font.

Yes.

I have two typewriters, a portable one and the big one, and both of them needed new ribbons. But my bigger one that I type on… First of all, it writes in cursive, which I had never seen before.

Shut up.

It only writes in cursive—

I can see this article right now… [Author’s Note: And then we talked about typewriters for three hours…]

—and apparently that particular model, you have to be very steady. You can’t speed up or slow down or it will skip. Or the hammers will get tied up.

Metaphors…

So it’s kind of a nice force to make you chill the fuck out. Because I talk fast and I write fast.

Especially on a computer

Well, I’ve never written a song on a computer before. I’ve tried…on the road especially, because it’s so handy.

I’m best with a pen. I don’t know why. It’s not like I’m a purist or anything.

Okay, now talk to me about Red Wing.

Red Wing, MN (Population: 16,513.)

I moved to Red Wing just to get out of town. I was just so sick of being in Minneapolis. Going through all that. And friends, god bless them, but I just didn’t want to talk to anybody. And I knew people all over the place because I’ve lived in this town for a while….and all of the sudden everything in Minneapolis would be amplified—the traffic—I just felt claustrophobic. But I also have two kids, so I really couldn’t go where really want to go (which was far away). So figured Red Wing was a happy medium—it’s beautiful: the river, small town, I didn’t know anybody. But it ended up being too far away.

I felt like the song “Same Town” was about that —about how the skeleton of Minneapolis was haunting you. It resonated. I left Chicago for good because of that. I was like “all  these sidewalks don’t belong to me because they used to belong to us and, whoops, now I’m just one person.”

Who hasn’t [ felt that] It doesn’t matter how big of a town it is either. They all get pretty small pretty fast.

Okay, so the tack “Red Wing Blue Wing” — what is “Blue Wing?”

I just thought it sounded nice.

Like “One Fish, Two Fish.” Maybe you were reading some Suess and it crept in?

Happens all the time.

So Red Wing…

I had a [rented house in Red Wing] for a year. Turned most of the place into a studio where I was working on the initial version of this record.

It was really weird at first for me. Because I think I was being kind of romantic about moving to a small town. And it ended up being that way. But initially it wasn’t…like, I moved to a place where few people move to. There’s no college there, it’s not a very transitory spot. So I knew I’d feel like an outsider there, but then I have a weird job, you know, and people are like “what do you do for work?”

And you say that you’re a musician…

And they say, “No, but what do you do for work?”, “But what’s your job?” [, etc.]. And there’s barely any live music either, which I didn’t realize: there’s one open mic.

So did you become a fixture at the open mic?

No, the opposite. But by the end, I did find a bar I would go to, and some friends (pretty much when I was leaving).

I was splitting my time partly in Minneapolis and also recording other bands in Red Wing. That’s when I was really enjoying it and I think I could have gone on that way for a long time…but I had pretty much two houses full of stuff. Two of everything. And it was too expensive, too complicated, kinda convoluted.

Yeah, you’re like, when do I  take the garbage out here when do I take the garbage out there….

And I was doing half a job at both places. And then I’d go on the road and both places would be neglected.

I wish I still had [the house in Red Wing]. Maybe it’s not even ironic, maybe it’s just how these things go; that when I was stuck there, I wasn’t really liking it, and then when I found out I was leaving, I started to really like it. But I probably could have predicted that anyway.

What was so likable about Red Wing?

Red Wing was just slow and easy. I could go anywhere in town in five minutes. I never had to think about the time of day it was. I could walk anywhere. My life was a lot simpler, I wouldn’t say easier, but simpler.

I feel like there’s so much chaos in being a modern person, including traffic. If you didn’t have to be in Minneapolis right now, where would you live?

Grand Marais, MN (Population: 1,327).

Probably Grand Marais. I lived in Duluth for a long time. Never really wanted to leave it. I went to school there for a year and then stayed.

So you don’t have a college degree.

No, I’m high school-educated.

But you read books?

[laughs] I’ve read, yeah. I found out you didn’t have to go to college to do that part. But college was just an excuse for me to move to Duluth, I wanted to since I was a kid.

I had a very singular mind when I was a teenager—all I wanted to do was move to Duluth and play in a band. That’s it.

And you did it!

I did it, but it wasn’t an easy road. I couldn’t picture an alternate reality for either of those two things. I didn’t make it easy on myself.

Do you wish you would have had a broader perspective?

Not at all. I wouldn’t change either of those things. If I would have had a broader perspective I probably would still be working a job I didn’t like and playing music on the weekends.

I wrote down “scathing inventory,” meaning that I noticed some lyrics that seemed like self-declarations (i.e., “I’m a destroyer”, “I’m a disaster,” etc.) And I have this image of you wrestling with yourself in this solitude—probably too romantic of a portrait—but maybe not, because you had a typewriter. What was going on while you were writing?

I was coming to terms with a lot of stuff…feeling like I was being honest with myself for the first time in a long time.

Did you find resolution through the catharsis?

No. But it was a step on the path, saying something out loud sometimes, even if it’s just to a microphone and not a therapist.

I’m really bad at talking about negative things with people. I never really want to get into it with people. I think for me that was the way I could communicate because it’s to nobody.

I bet 90% of the time people ask someone how’re they’re doing and don’t actually mean it.

Of course not, it’s politeness.

And it’s a Midwest thing, in my experience…but that was the reason I left here in the first place.

You know every time I’d see somebody I knew, it was a charity case all of the sudden. I got sick of lying to everybody, really. But it’s easy to write it into song.

[Author’s note: I dug into my purse and handed Dave a Terrible, Thanks For Asking podcast promotional button.]

So you wrote your honesty into the songs and laid out your chords. When you brought it to your backing band for them to add their flavor…and they were confronting the material for the first time (I know you’re all dudes…) …did you talk about the material?

No. We’re all dudes.

These are friends of mine, too. All the guys that I brought in to record the final record, we’re all really close friends. All close to friends as I have, but even with them, I have a hard time…and these are guys that I trust with my record, more than my feelings.

There was never really any open conversation of what I was going through. I don’t know if it’s a guy thing or if it’s a “Who I am” thing.

“I’m not even that big of a fan of breakup records, myself… I mean, there’s some I really love. Like ‘Blood on the Tracks’, fuck, I love it. But it was just kind of a necessary — that’s the only way I know how to let it out. It would have been pretty hard to write about anything else at the time.” –Dave Simonett

I think you give people space. And you trust how they’re interpreting their stuff.

This was the first record, [the] first-time I’d written this much of a self-indulgent pile. This record was straight about a literal experience that I’d be going through.

I fought it for so long. I didn’t want to write like that. I don’t like writing like that. I prefer some metaphor in there. But I tried as hard as I could, really. I threw out so much shit and wrote other versions of songs that were less honest and more cloaked. I tried to make it not a breakup record, but that was all I could write and that’s all I was feeling.

I have the best experience with writing if I just let stuff come out the way it is. I’ve never been good about writing about something specifically or on purpose  — like, ask me to write a song about that pepper shaker — I’d have no idea where to start. But my process is kind of like that, I just write pages of [stuff] and then go through it and find a song.

I have a lot of notebooks that look like yours does now.

This is a really shitty analogy, forgive me, but it’s kind of like bleeding the sickness.

That’s a perfect analogy for it.

Well, I took note of how many times you said some variant of “blood” in your record and then I wrote down “The Seven Stages of Grief.” Sorry.

This anecdotally did not happen during the course of writing Dead Man Winter’s Furnace album.

Nobody died.

Talk to me about the composition of your track list.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that. But it’s not all lyrical-based. I have to think about it musically, too. I think everybody who makes a record goes through this process of recording a bunch of songs in whatever order, and getting them delivered to you in whatever order and then the puzzle game starts.

So what do you keep top of mind [ when arranging]?

I’d say my first priority there is sound. Like how do these things flow throughout the whole piece? Because I consider a record—If I’m accomplishing my goal—as one piece of work, with different parts and movements. So it’s a lot of tempo. I mean honestly lyrical content has very little to do with that part for me, if anything.

I’m focusing heavily on lyrical content.

Well, you’re a writer. Lyrically, I don’t think I was telling a story front to back on the record.

Let’s talk housekeeping stuff. Touring. How long have you been packing all your stuff into a space and moving with it?

2004 is the first time Trampled went out.

I saw you play few times as Trampled [by Turtles], but I was younger.

So was I.

Is touring different now, regardless of what band it’s for?

Touring with Trampled is much more established. It’s a well-oiled machine. There’s a crew, there’s a tour bus, the venues are different. But for Dead Man Winter it’s all of us in a van.

Comfort levels [are] different, personnel [are] different. I haven’t really toured with Dead Man Winter before. We did one show in Chicago [to promote Bright Lights (2011)].

Random, but I read your Reddit AMA for Dead Man Winter. People kept it pretty tame.

Yeah, no one really took the “anything” literally. I didn’t really expect anything. For all intents, Dead Man Winter is a new band so that’s how we’ve been treating the release and the work. But no one knows what to ask about yet. It’s been a long process just to get up to the release. Two years.

Two years is a long time.

I’ve never spent that long on a record.

How are you doing?

(laughs) Terrible, thanks for asking.

Well, you’re sitting in this thing that you made and felt, this thing that is a reality and it’s kind of cemented in the past.

But I also feel like it just got done. The release is the beginning, a record is ‘new’ when it’s released, but for me, the release marks it as done; it’s out in public now, it’s not just mine. Now it’s time to go have fun and enjoy it, play it live. The process of making it is over. The point of no return is the release date. You can always decide not to put it out, you can always change it up until that last day.

Furnace was released on January 27.

Did you have trepidation about putting this second attempt out?

Oh, yeah, tons–absolutely. I still do.

People forget that there are other people involved. I mean you, as an artist, don’t forget. Listen to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or something… His ex-wife listened to that, and that was a mean record—to her. Thankfully, mine came out, generally, just mean to myself

Has aloneness been difficult to navigate?

I feel like I’m still made for it.

Some people need to have people around them all the time. I think I get enough of that in my line of work.

Do you know your Myers-Briggs?

Should we do it right now?


The bar is now loud, my phone battery is waning, and I’m being a poor interviewer by suggesting we let an online questionnaire do the rest of the illuminating. The highly uncredited website 16Personalities.com tells him to “Answer honestly even if [he doesn’t] like the answer.”

He taps ‘disagree’ for I often get so lost in thoughts that you ignore or forget my surroundings, ‘strongly disagree’ for I try to respond to emails as soon as possible.  I learn that Dave doesn’t remember his dreams anymore and feels any time spent worrying what others think is too much.

Twelve minutes later, the results calculate him as a rare and special INFP—a “Logistician.”

We agree the test is bullshit and walk separately into the night.

 

Ali O'Reilly

Ali O’Reilly (Associate Music Editor) is a writer and performance artist. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, she has written for McSweeney’s, Thought Catalog, and Revolver, and has performed with Mortified Live! and the Minneapolis Fringe Festival. Her conceptual work has been shown at Fresh Oysters Research Center, CityWide Artist Gallery, and the American Swedish Institute.

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