On the 50th Anniversary of the first appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I sat down with Daniel Deardorff – author, mythologist, songwriter, producer and 40 year veteran of the music business – to talk about his latest projects, including the new work that he’s been posting to Soundcloud for all to hear.
Danny and I are friends. We’ve worked together and follow each other’s music. The other day, he’d sent a new piece he composed for a Hans Zimmer remix competition. The song “At Destiny’s Door” has one verse and clocks in at 1:39 per the competition requirements (Danny jokes that if he wins, he’ll finish the song).
Although it can be interpreted as a simple love song, “At Destiny’s Door” also relates to Danny’s own experience of chasing the music business dream and succeeding almost overnight, yet facing the harsh reality of being overlooked or worse because of his disability. (A survivor of childhood polio who uses a wheelchair to get around, Danny toured for years before the advent of “accessibility” and the Americans with Disabilities Act). Danny said he hadn’t talked much about this until now. Naturally, I wanted to hear the whole tale from the storyteller himself. We decided to record an interview. We spoke for about a half-hour.
MS: Can I ask first about the contest?
DD: Hans Zimmer is someone I’ve paid attention to for years. I like paying attention to music in film, because at one point, I thought that I might wind up doing that kind of stuff. That’s why I got into industrials. And I was doing those small film scores before my medical condition forced me to retire from production in ’95.
MS: Now you’re doing it as a fun thing?
DD: It’s been a kind of renaissance for me. The last couple of years, I’ve started doing less teaching mythology and cultural ritual, and doing more music. And that’s just been a gradual thing. Some ergonomic problems got solved which I didn’t expect, like the stand that now holds my guitar while I’m [sitting] in my chair, you know what I mean? That was kind of a huge thing for me [laughs] it’s easier to play. And so I wanted to play more.
After I closed my production business I started writing a lot. When I wrote my book, [The Other Within: the Genius of Deformity in Myth, Culture & Psyche] Robert Bly, one of my heroes, in a completely non-music-business direction, invited me to come teach at his Minnesota Men’s Conference, That changed my life from about 2003 to now. And then this year, in September, I told the men I’m not going to go back to teach in Minnesota for a while because I’m doing something else. So that’s what we’re talking about here is that something else that I’m doing. And I didn’t even realize until we were on the phone this morning that today is the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and that was sort of the beginning of the dream for me — that I was going to be a musician. Seeing the Beatles that night sort of changed everything.
MS: You were just a kid around a TV, and you saw it and you just knew…
DD: I saw those guys, and it was like ‘that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do that. You know, that little Martin mandolin… [points to the mandolin in its case] James [Curtis] was over the other day, and he brought me three new mandolins to play, and so then we got out my mando, and figured out that my Martin and he are the same age [he laughs]. Dad brought me to the store and bought it for me — that was my fourth mandolin. I had already decided and told him that I wasn’t going back to school, that I was a musician. And he didn’t like it, but he went and bought me the best mandolin that he could afford. That mandolin has been to every state in the union, to Panama, to Chile and all across Canada.
MS: And that’s what the song’s about.
DD: The Dream.
MS: Having a dream, and the music is a love and you’re just driven to do it.
DD: Yeah. And it’s also like the first line: ‘I wished upon a star that fell from grace’. That’s one of my favorite lines I’ve ever written. Because….[he pauses]. You know Michael Mead? Mythologist, storyteller, one of my primary teachers, he wrote a book about it called Fate and Destiny [Fate and Destiny, the Two Agreements of the Soul]. And in it he talks about this idea that fate brings the givens; things that you just have to deal with. But destiny brings the chances — the things that are meant to be fulfilled, that might go by, that might not.
So in Zimmer’s contest, the composition he wrote was called ‘Destiny’s Door’. And ‘Yeah! that’s where I feel like I am,’ I’ve dealt with what fate has handed me, consistently. But there have been times when it felt like the bus of destiny didn’t stop at my stop. Have you ever seen a bus that you were waiting for just blow by?
MS: Was there a particular moment?
DD: Well, there were so many things that happened that I didn’t know about. My manager didn’t want me to… [pauses]. I was the opening act for Seals and Crofts for seven or eight years on tour. And I didn’t know that more than half the time, when we were doing soundcheck, the promoter was freakin’ out and saying that no way was this crippled kid going to perform on his stage. And that Jimmie and Dash would basically say: ‘If Danny don’t play, we don’t play’. Well, if you’re a promoter, and you’ve got ten thousand tickets sold and the headliner’s sayin’ they’re not going to play, you’re going to let ’em do what they want. So they always let me play. And, you know, I was often getting two standing ovations a night. [He pauses] The promoter would always come back to the dressing room, and say ‘You were awesome! Thanks! Look forward to having you next year’. But the stuff about ‘We don’t want him’, I didn’t know about that until years later.
So there was a lot of resistance in the business to me — to my physical appearance. Does that make sense? I was so naive about it, but my naivete protected me. You know, I went from playing for thirty people at the Last Exit to playing for ten thousand people overnight. I had to puke before I went onstage, it was so terrifying. There was nothing in between. It wasn’t like ‘We’ll start putting you in clubs and you can play for 300 people’. You know, there was just nothing in between from the coffeehouse type-gigs to ‘I’m being a rock star’.
There were many times when I felt like those dreams had come true. My very first recording session, when Louie Shelton decided to be my producer, was Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Paich on piano, David Hungate on bass, Louie Shelton on guitar. Well, those guys [Paich, Porcaro and Hungate] a couple of years later, formed the group Toto. They were the first call session guys in L.A. in the early ’70s. I didn’t realize that I was playing with the best musicians in Los Angeles. Instead of starting at the bottom of the mountain, in a way, it was like starting at the top of the mountain.
MS: And people would knock you down even if you didn’t know about it at the time.
DD: Right. I was a signed writer and touring artist. but the record companies weren’t having it. And they told me so in no uncertain terms. That door was closed. So, I felt like I belonged but I got kicked out. I started learning production from the first time I was in the studio, because I always wanted to have more artistic control, and Louie was great about teaching me.
But as soon as I got to the place where I realized: ‘The major labels are not going to let me in. They’re just not going to do it. So, if I can’t get in the front door, I’ll try the back door’. And that was to be a producer. By that time, I was back in the Northwest. I produced albums for Tingstad and Rumble…and three or four for [Michael] Tomlinson and a bunch of award-winning albums for children’s groups — Tickle Tune and Jim Valley.
MS: So now, having learned all the skills of production and editing, and the full spectrum of things that go into making a good recording of a good song, from what I understand, part of your renaissance is the set of tools at your disposal — that you’ve developed a system that really works.
DD: I started using the Mac for production work in either late ’85 or early ’86. I started using MIDI sequencing just to get my rough ideas down. Sometimes the drum programming I did would end up on the record. Sometimes the bass player would say: ‘Well, we liked the part you did better, so we’re going to use that’. That was cool. And especially on the industrial things, the scoring, I would rely heavily on what I could do with the Mac at home and save money that way. When I first got the IPad, I got one right away because a computer that small, that would be cool. I wasn’t thinking about really doing music on it, and honestly when I first got an IPad, the tools weren’t there yet. But last year, there’s a company called Audiobus that came out with an app that changed the whole game because it allows different music apps to route audio to each other. So if you have a really cool synth app, you can send the output of that app to another app which records audio. And then it just snowballed from there. Like now we have 24-bit, 96khz audio on the IPad.
So, to some people it’s still a toy. But to me, I can plug my electric guitar into my IPad, and probably get better sounds than I could ever get on my Mac because of the software that I have on the IPad. I have an Apogee mic that plugs directly into my IPad, and the interface I use for my guitar has an Apogee converter built into it. So it’s a toy for some people, but you can make some pretty serious sounds with it. [Danny demonstrates some of the apps he uses to achieve drum sounds using the samples in Drumagog. He then demonstrated playing fretless bass lines manually on the touch screen in an app called iFretless Bass.]
I have a whole studio, racks and racks of outboard gear, racks of MIDI modules, and orchestral samples in my IPad. And I can watch Netflix [he laughs]. So, that’s pretty cool.
MS: In the last couple of days, a lot of people have listened to that song. Does that happen all the time that hundreds of people listen whenever you post something?
DD: No. This is part of why I call it a renaissance is the whole Soundcloud thing. The first time I recorded a brand new song and put it up on Soundcloud, people started listening to it, and something very visceral went through my body. I was like: ‘This is weird. There’s no manager involved. There’s no publicist involved. There’s no A&R person’. I could go down the list. I probably had between 15 to 25 people on my team, when I was really in the biz, that had veto power over pretty much anything I wanted to do musically. And they decided distribution: ‘Yes, it’s on the radio, but it’s not in stores’. So two weeks later, they stopped playing it. That was the power that distribution had. Now, with Soundcloud, there’s nobody in between me and my potential audience. And so, I think that was part of allowing myself to revisit some old wounds. Does that make sense? How that might happen?
DD: A couple of weeks ago, somebody posted the Hans Zimmer contest on the iPad Musician group on Facebook. And joking, he said: ‘wouldn’t it be cool if someone using an iPad won this thing?’ And I thought ‘that could happen’. I listened to the feed that Zimmer wrote. To me, it was beautiful. It was inspiring, and it felt like it was my kind of music. So I downloaded all the stems into AudioShare on my iPad. I didn’t have to use a computer. I just listened to each individual part, because they gave you the strings and the horns and the piano bell harp and there was even a vocal in there, which I couldn’t really hear until I heard it soloed. Most of it I didn’t use. I used the strings and I used three or four bars of the brass section. And I used two bars of the piano bell, and everything else was created on the iPad.
But going back to the dream and the fate and destiny: all of this stuff is happening for me. I’m playing a lot more and I’m writing a lot more and all of a sudden, in my headphones, I’m hearing — I’ll never forget the first time that Louie took me into a Hollywood studio to do a string session on one of my songs with a 22-piece live string section. I was in heaven. Those are the moments when you go: ‘It can’t get better than this’. And, so now here I am with my headphones on, and I’m playing with Hans. And I’m having one of those moments. And I’m in bed. [he laughs]
I started getting a melody of my own. The melody that I wrote was not his, but was suggested by the chord changes in the strings. And I realized that the words that wanted to come out were about the possibility of a second chance at the dream that was born on the night that the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan show. So I don’t need to win the contest. I got to play with Hans Zimmer and hear the music that was in my heart come to life, and then put it out there for people to hear.•