Analogue Music | Dan Layus

Dan Layus

By Matt Conner

"Damn, that's so true."

The guy behind me at Dan Layus's solo show is a verbal processor. It's not the first time he's provided a running commentary on the songs, and it won't be the last. It's easy to picture him doing the same in a movie theater or other such inappropriate places. No matter. I agree with him on all counts.

Layus just wrapped a verse from one of his latest singles, "Driveway". It's a considerable distance from the singles he's most known for, pop/rock hits like "Boston" or "Sweet and Low" while fronting the SoCal-based band Augustana. After a decade or so spent writing, recording and supporting four studio albums, Layus decided to take a solo turn, citing "exhaustion" on the part of everyone. He also got sober. Eleven years after we first met Layus, he's ready for a reintroduction—this time with a pedal steel and boots.

For any Augustana fans worried about the sonic turn, one listen to Dangerous Things allays any fears that  Layus has gone cold. Instead, the opposite remains true; Layus is an artist whose heart is always open, visceral emotions laid bare in simple lived-out scenes. The guy behind me came to a Dan Layus show assumedly because he loved Augustana. He remains a Layus fan because a new song like "Driveway" connects in the same way as "Twenty Years" or "Alive" did over the last decade.

We're both giving more than we both get / This has been so hard, but we don't want to give up yet / You're in there, and I'm out here / Can't bear to leave, can't stand to stay / So I'm just sitting here, parked in the driveway,” sings Layus. It's simple, straightforward and vulnerable. It immerses you in the moment. It's why Layus could chart his course in any musical direction and there'd still be a loyal group waiting for his musically documented moments. They're always true.

Analogue: You've said the country inspiration for this latest album, Dangerous Things, is something that actually goes farther back for you than people might think. Was it finally just the right time to make this? Was it a matter of being independent as a solo artist? Was it a post-Nashville sort of turn?

Dan: It's a bit of everything. I think you're right about feeling independence, feeling creatively that I can go any direction that I want. This is the direction that grabbed me immediately. This was the direction coming from my heart and mouth. These are the melodies and lyrics that were happening, so I made sure not to dismiss those just because they were vastly different than what I'd released before.

You just have to ask yourself if you're willing to do something else to help financially whilst keeping this plate spinning as well, since it's fulfilling creatively.

I do think Nashville certainly influenced my musical intake and what was coming back out again also, whether consciously or subconsciously. I think that the sincerity of it is certainly not to be ignored. There's not a doubt in my mind that the track I've been down as a listener and fan but also as a writer and performer—that Americana... well, is it Americana? Maybe it's sort of alt-country like Wilco or Gram Parsons or Emmylou [Harris] or The Jayhawks. 

There's a Venn diagram with that sort of Midwestern/Minnesota/Illinois side of the alt-country or folk-country sound. That was always very implanted in me but it was also mixed with stuff from The Byrds or Sweethearts of the Rodeo or Flying Burrito Brothers. There's also some stuff a little left of that as well, like Gary Stewart. Even Merle [Haggard], strangely enough, who was one of my earliest attractions to country, is someone whose catalog I haven't fallen as in love with as other artists, but he was one of the gateway drugs into that style of country as well. It's a long list. 

Analogue: When you make that sort of switch, how much are you thinking about or worried about fans who have been with you for some time?

Dan: Well, there's a reality to it. There's a real difference in my ability to support myself and my family via original music if people don't come along with me. The money just won't be there. That's okay. It is. You just have to ask yourself if you're willing to do something else to help financially whilst keeping this plate spinning as well, since it's fulfilling creatively. A lot of people do that. You know, coming from Nashville, that a lot of people have two or three jobs. They have the gig that pays and the gig that feels. The ultimate dream is to combine both, where they all work at the same time—people come along with you and you're passionate about what you're doing. So there's certainly a reality to needing people to like your stuff.

I don't know about other artists, but I know that it certainly has a psychological effect on me if I feel that it's not connecting with other people. I definitely feel the need to see that happen. However, I've never been so hungry for that kind of money monster that I've given things away in order to achieve that. There have been plenty of opportunities in my career to reach for something that was probably fleeting and of the moment and not lasting or impactful or opportunities to further my popularity, and I've made sure to never take that bait.

Analogue: You've never taken any of those? Because that advice sounds like someone who has been burned by such an opportunity.

Dan: No, I haven't. It's always been a balance of finding what will keep the train moving, so to speak, but also not completely lose your creative self to the bigger picture.

Analogue: Is there a specific point in the transition when playing new music in this new style, at least to your fans, became something very exciting?

Dan: When we transitioned into this new venture, the second we made the decision—my family and my manager—and we lifted the previous band name off of my shoulders, a lightness hit me and I felt like anything was possible. I also knew it was going to be a long, hard road to get to where that band previously had gotten to. Any time you shed something that is comfortable and working just fine but is not completely fulfilling, that's a little scary. But I've never been one to rest on my laurels. I always like to try to challenge myself and find a new thing to go after.

Analogue: While this is a new sound, it seems like you've had some great opportunities out of the gate—touring with Dixie Chicks or Leann Rimes. Does it at least seem you're not completely starting over where you're playing to no one?

Dan: Well, we certainly play to no one sometimes. [Laughs] Then it seems like we're playing for everyone. I've found it's very easy to ride the highs too high and ride the lows too low. It's easy to put too much into both as they're happening. It is a challenge to ride the middle and see the field and know that some days will be better than others, that some days will be a lot better than they should be. Somewhere in the middle is an average. If you're hitting .300, it's a good day. It's a good career.

Analogue: So how is morale on this side of things?

Dan: Morale is good. It's good. I feel it every night musically surrounded by great players and a great team and an amazing wife and kids. I have all of the support that anyone could ever ask for, especially with something that's so unproven. Music listening and appreciation can be so subjective and personal, so there's no guarantee that anything will come of it at all, other than the feeling of confidence in what you're doing and the conviction that you feel in performing. I feel that, and so that's selfishly the most important thing for me right now. Let's talk again in a couple years and that might have changed. [Laughs] But as of this moment, I'm feeling good.