Q&A: Dan Layus of Augustana

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Videos by American Songwriter

Dan Layus likes to talk. A lot. And it’s understandable; the guy has a lot to discuss. As leader, singer, and chief songwriter behind Augustana—the big-hearted alt-rock quintet responsible for such emotive, sitcom-scoring ballads as “Sweet and Low” and the piano anthem “Boston” – Layus scored an out-of-nowhere recording contract at the ripe age of 19 and has spent the better part of his career balancing pressure for chart success with his own personal desire to explore more adventurous music.

He’s made a name for himself as a balladeer, as his chart-landing singles have shown, but with his band’s new self-titled album, Layus wanted to step outside the box a little. Originally, he and the band hit the studio with Kings of Leon/Modest Mouse producer Jacquire King, crafting a more anthemic and eclectic collection of tunes that tapped into the arena-sized spirits of his heroes Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. But then the label came knocking and decided that his new direction wasn’t as commercially friendly as it should be, so Layus holed up with an array of professional songwriters, trying to appease the gods of The Hit Single in addition to satisfying his own creative impulses – to, as Layus himself puts it, “make a 1975 American rock record” that “Rihanna fans could identify with.”

That’s a bold challenge, but in some respects, Layus and company have done just that. Augustana is a admirable step forward, taking their hooks to bigger, and more exciting, places. Preparing for the big release day, Layus took a few minutes to chat with AS, touching on his songwriting process, his band’s unique formation, and the trials and tribulations behind his band’s new album.

So you guys have a self-titled album coming out soon. Are you ready to finally get it out there into the world?

Yeah, we are very ready and very excited, very proud of it. It feels good to have some new material ready to go.

Tell me about the songwriting process this time. How quickly did the songs come, and how did the process compare to the previous stuff?

With the first couple records, I always took the writing on my own shoulders essentially and didn’t really open up the process to too many other people or even the band. They were always involved in opinions on the production on the actual record, but as far as the groundwork on the writing process, I was always pretty guarded about it. I don’t know why – I guess that’s just where I was at that point. This time around, I felt like I needed to open up that forum and get a lot of opinions. When we went in to make this record initially, we went in there with Jacquire King, who’s worked with Kings of Leon and the most recent Norah Jones record. We went in, and it was a very collaborative process, and everybody was very involved in the writing. But we ended up having to scrap about half of those recordings and sort of take a step back and re-address the second half of the record.

We decided to open up the writing process to some other individuals – I guess you could call them “co-writes.” But I was always very skeptical, and I always felt like it had sort of a negative stigma to it – that if you write a song with somebody, not in the way that like Golden Smog or The Jayhawks or Jeff Tweedy or somebody would do it; when they get together, it’s not like a “co-write;” it’s like a different kind of thing. This is sort of like professional songwriters trying to write a hit song for you or with you. So it always kind of had a weird stigma to it to me, and I always really avoided that, and it just kinda came time where I just had to embrace it in order for this record to move forward and even come out. So I opened up that ground, and it ended up being a totally positive thing, a great process. I mean, they don’t always turn out great – I would say like 10% of the sessions are good; the rest can be pretty rough. But when they’re good, they’re great, and it really works out.

“Steal You Heart” is the first track on the record, and we did that song with a guy named Sam Farrar, who is in a band called Phantom Planet. And it was great, man. It was a great process, and from a songwriting perspective, it can really get bogged down into your own box, and it was really nice to see what other people had to throw into the ring. It really helped – it really helped a lot.

What do you think was initially holding those songs back? Were you guys just not satisfied with the songs, or was it something else?

Yeah, it was a combination a few things. The label wasn’t crazy about the whole project we’d put together. They liked about half of it, and they felt there needed to be more work done. They felt like (and we felt like) we didn’t have “the song,” whatever that means, I guess. Nobody really knows what’s going to connect with a large audience. It depends on who the demographic is you’re trying to reach, but as far as going in that direction, we were definitely nudged by the people that work around us, but like I said, this time around, I embraced it, went in with a positive attitude, and ended coming out with what I think is some really positive stuff. It was a very new venture for me, and it was tough at times, but at the end, it ended up being a great thing.

Do you think working with these other songwriters has left an impression on the way you’ll write songs on your own going forward?

Certainly, yeah. You know, I think there’s a place and a time for me to sort of do my own thing on my own in my house – sort of “no rules” and no goal other than just creating a song that I would really enjoy and that comes natural just to me with no other intentions, not about “selling the music” or being commercially competitive or whatever you want to call it. But with this particular situation, that was part of the deal. Fortunately and unfortunately, sometimes that has to be part of the conversation and part of the process, which can be frustrating at times, but it can also be exciting at other times, feeling like, “Wow, is this something that is going to connect with a large audience? Are people really going to respond to this?” because I feel that I am.

The new album feels a lot more expansive than your previous stuff, particularly songs like “Steal Your Heart” and “Wrong Side of Love.” There’s a lot more urgency to these songs. Were you consciously trying to write bigger-sounding songs? I wouldn’t say the songs are “big” in a corny, arena rock kind of way, but were you trying to write songs that, if you play them live, would be towering anthems?

Yeah, it was conscious in many ways. It was also really a product of where I think I was at that time in my life. I think you nailed it with the word “urgency.” That is certainly where we were. It needed to be big. It needed to be important. It needed to sound and feel important and be written in a way that would capture the energy that was happening at that time. Our future was – and it still is – very uncertain at that time, and it was like, “This needs to be an important song.” And when we were writing it and producing it and recording it and all those things, it was like, “This needs to be great because if we’re going to go down, we’re going down swinging.” We thought, “This has to be large.” “Arena rock” or whatever you want to call it, I don’t really know, but I certainly feel comfortable in that zone between – we have a song called “Borrowed Time” on the record – that zone between there (folky, acoustic stuff) and all-out, intentional arena-rock, trying to be the biggest band in the world. Somewhere between those two worlds is where I feel comfortable living, for whatever it’s worth.

Yeah, I think there’s a nice balance between those two worlds on here. But another thing that really struck me about the new album is that it sounds a lot more modern. It almost reminds me, in a way, of the direction The Killers took a couple albums back when they decided to get a lot more expansive. And I know you’ve been influenced a lot by artists like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, but this one seems like it could find more of a home on current rock radio. Were you inspired by more current artists this time around, or is that influence something that came about through working a lot with other people?

That’s a great question! You mention people like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen—you know, back in the ’70s FM radio time, I think what would have been easy would have been to try to replicate that sound almost to a tee and write songs just like “Here Comes My Girl”—not that that’s easy to do because those are fucking incredible pieces of songwriting and production—but that being said, I feel like it’s easy to sort of take something that’s already been done and that’s so ingrained in my mind as sort of the greatest music ever created. What I wanted to do was to kind of take what made sense then, I guess—it’s kind of hard to think (because I wasn’t alive then) that that was modern at the time—so to take that kind of classic songwriting approach and to make it “competitive” in a sense that, you know, I want people to hear it. I do. I guess I’m sort of vain enough that I wouldn’t be in this job if I weren’t sort of vain and didn’t want people to hear my music! (laughs) That’s the ugly truth, I guess. But those guys were totally commercially competitive, and those records were massive and are still to this day. But they had a timeless quality about them, and I think that came from a songwriting perspective as well as the production, but we wanted to make sure that it could see the light of day on today’s radio or whatever the stage is on which people listen to music now—you know, it’s changing, obviously, all the time. But we wanted it to feel relevant. We wanted to make a 1975 American rock record, but we wanted Rihanna fans to identify with it as well, which is a really tricky thing.

I feel like it’s really easy just to stick to the corner of the room and do what’s comfortable, and I think, at the end of the day, I want to be able to make records like Wilco and The Jayhawks and Lucinda Williams and just make records, essentially, for myself, but we’re not really in that phase yet. We’re not really allowed that kind of freedom at this point, you know? I think, to get to that point, you have to sort of try to split the difference, which is a difficult thing—to get a credible response from—well, I’m blown away that you’re actually interviewing me, to be honest. I love American Songwriter, and I’m like, “Wow, this is amazing!” I never had that kind of look before, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted to be able to split the difference between people that just love pop music and people that love Damn the Torpedoes and Darkness on the Edge of Town. That’s a hard thing to do, and I don’t know if it’s even possible these days, to be honest, but I had to try.

It’s tough to look down the road this far, but in the future, when you’ve put out, say, five or ten albums that are more commercially viable, do you think you’ll try to make music that’s a little weirder and a little more like Wilco—a band that’s able to experiment a lot? Is that your ultimate goal for the future—just the freedom to be able to do that?

I think there’s a time when that’s going to make more sense, and I think there’s a time when, hopefully, we’ll be able to feel more comfortable doing that and sort of have a little bit more freedom to make some different choices in the studio, make some different choices while writing a song. There’s certainly a record that’s going to be made just for me and for my own personal satisfaction and for nobody else. Maybe that’s selfish, but I’m looking forward to that day, and I hope that day does come, but realistically, it’s hard to make a living, and it’s hard to support a family doing that. There are a few fortunate people who are able to do that.

We got sort of thrown into this world—maybe by our own means. But we signed this big record contract with a major label when we were 19, really young, and we didn’t know how to shake a tambourine, let alone write a really good song. Not that I’m saying we know how to do that now, but it’s been seven years, and we’ve toured and played many, many, many shows and made a couple records, and I think we’ve matured quite a bit. I think that this is a really important record in our career, whether or not it does anything commercially. I don’t know if I really mind or not, but I think that’s it going to at least give us the option to be able to continue to do this…at least for a couple years to come, you know?

I’m interested in how you view the album format, especially considering how you worked on this new one—working with multiple songwriters, working one song at a time. Do you envision a record as a whole piece when you’re working on it, or do you really just focus on one song at a time? It obviously changes things when you’re working with other songwriters, but are you thinking about the big picture of “The Album,” or does that really matter as much to you?

Yeah, I’ve always thought of records as a whole while I’m even working on a song—we might even be in the midst of writing a bridge in the middle of writing a song, and I’ll be like, “This is a great ending track for this record!” With “Steal Your Heart,” by the end of that day, we didn’t know what songs were going to be on there or what the record even was, but I knew by the end of the that night, when we had finished demoing it, “This is the first song.” “This has to be the first track, and this has to be the tip of the spear.”

And I was crossing my fingers and hoping our record label and the people working around us would see that this is a great lead into the next phase of this band as far as selecting it as the single. And I was blown away that they actually took that risk. I mean, we’ll see—we haven’t really started moving on it, but I think it’s really exciting that they didn’t go with a safe song as far as—a lot of people might hate it, and a lot of people might love it, but I think there’s a better future in 50% of people hating and 50% of people loving it as opposed to it being cute and 20% of people like, “Oh, yeah, it’s good; it’s cute!” That’s kind of where we were on our past records. We just had…you know, good songs, cute songs, whatever. This is a little bit more of a challenge, I think, to get people onboard, but I think that could end up paying off and being a good thing—possibly. Of course, I have no idea! (laughs)

Does being a father and having a family—living a little more of an idyllic life—change the way that you write? Is it more difficult for you to write a song if you’re happy? Is it easier on the way up, when you’re sort of trying to break through?

You know, I can only speak from my experience, but it was actually the opposite. The first go-round, even the first two records, everything was so easy, you know? Everything was sort of given to us on a silver platter. We didn’t play a lot of shows; we’d just kind of formed this band—I was 19 years old. I didn’t have to grind out tours and try to get noticed and try to work through it all, you know? It all lined up in some sort of cosmic way, almost like being born into the right family at the right time. And in a lot of ways, I’m kind of bummed about that. I don’t regret getting those opportunities so young, but at the same time, I wish I would have had to fight a little harder and write more songs and play more shows so that when the first record came out, I would have been a little older, a little more experienced, have a little more grit under my belt.

But really, what happened is that it all came so easy for a few years, and then it all got really tough. I have two kids now, and I went through a lot of difficult things in my own personal life and really made a lot of mistakes. I certainly have a lot more experience under my belt now, and like I said, when we were making this record, we didn’t really know what the fate of it was. We could have been putting in all this work and the label just would have dropped it! Then I would have been moving in with my in-laws with two kids at 26. And it’s like, when that’s the potential fate, you’re going to work your ass off, and that’s what we did! When that kind of urgency is present, I think that comes through in the music. And, man, it was like, we were going down! I could go into a lot more detail, but I’ll keep it more on the surface, but essentially, we were going down, but we were going down swinging because “If this is going to be the end, I’m going to give it my fucking biggest swing!” Having kids, paying the bills, health insurance, missing your kids on the road—it certainly changes your perspective as far as songwriting, as far as the process of what you want to get out of the song is concerned. You need something special. When I was younger, it was just, “Sure, OK, this is a good song. Let’s put it out.” But we couldn’t do that this time around.

Whenever you are writing now, are you writing based on real-life events, or do you write at all in terms of just pure fantasy?

On the earlier records, a lot of was that I hadn’t really lived much yet, and a lot of it was sort of in a fantasy land, not based on much real-life experience because, like I said, I hadn’t really experienced that much at all! I was kind of fresh out of high school and a little of college, and here we are, making a record with Brendan O’Brien! Which, at the time, I thought was normal, you know? This is what everybody does! (laughs) But that’s not the case, as I obviously came to find out. But yeah, especially on this record, there’s a whole lot of real-life experience going in there. I’d say like 95%. Some of it is observing people around me, and some of it is more of a broad, sweeping, general idea or statement. But there’s a lot of details pulled from my own life. I identify with stories—stuff from people like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen—that always translated to me in a really real way, and I think I sort of just picked up on that as a way to write songs and stories. Personal life experiences just seem to come out naturally, I guess.

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