Daniel Romano: The Cream Interview

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You’ve probably heard the one about the indie-rock guy who gets tired of striving for anti-commercial, postmodern wit and decides to join the authentically, earthily proto-punk cult of Johnny Cash instead. These things happen, but Daniel Romano’s self-reinvention is a little bit harder to explain.

Romano co-founded the Canadian band Attack in Black — which started out in post-hardcore territory but grew less aggressive as time went on — and teamed with Baby Eagle of The Constantines to set up the tiny independent label You’ve Changed Records. Then he tested the waters with a lo-fi folk trio, Daniel, Fred and Julie. So far so good. Nothing here either a Nick Cave, Conor Oberst or John McCauley type wouldn’t do. And then there’s Romano’s current solo work. His latest album, Come Cry With Me, is an unabashed imitation of the most sentimental strain of late '60s and '70s country balladry. We’re talking lachrymose George Jones territory. The closest analogy to Romano’s thoroughly throwback songwriting and rhinestone suit-wearing is Jonny Fritz, but that’s an imperfect comparison at best; where absurdity is essential to Fritz’s music, Romano plays up the sensitivity of his pitiable protagonists.

Now signed to the Athens Ga.-based New West imprint Normaltown Records — also home to Lilly Hiatt — Romano’s making his third appearance in Nashville tonight at The Basement, and his first since he got his custom-made, chocolate brown gabardine suit. See the Cream's chat Romano him after the jump.

I understand that you had family members who played you country music when you were a kid. Who do you remember hearing?

My grandpa was a big Waylon and Haggard fan, so it was mostly that kind of thing, and all his friends. He used to be a rum runner. He was kind of a hard guy. All his pals were the same way, like my uncle Larry. They were all sort of like loosely tied with the Angels and things like that, rough things going on that I wasn’t really aware of. I was sort of clued in to it, but mostly I remember at a young age thinking how funny it was that these super-hard guys were listening to this really sad, soft music with these pretty-singin’ guys. Weird combination of things, but also made perfect sense.

At some point in your teens you got into punk or indie rock.

Yeah.

That seemed more relevant to you at the time.

Yeah, it did. It definitely did.

How old were you when you started Attack in Black?

I was, I think, 20 — somewhere in there.

It’s a well-trod path, to start in some flavor of rock music and move in a rootsier direction.

Yeah. The parallels make sense to me, at least between punk rock and country and Western.

Was the first step for you doing the folk trio thing, Daniel, Fred and Julie?

That definitely opened up the door for me, yeah, because I had never really written or performed in that way at all. So that was definitely the first step, for sure.

How did people who’d been following what you were doing in Attack in Black take it?

Well, luckily for me, Attack in Black made really drastic transitions in a very short period of time. So I think people were expecting to not know what to expect, you know.

Has the same fan base tracked with you, or has it felt more like you’re building a new audience?

It’s kinda been both. I’m definitely seeking an audience to appreciate it for exactly what it is, to not think of it ironically. To bring them back, whatever it is they might get out of it. But there definitely has been some crossover and some people that have followed along since before, which is also nice, because they’re generally more youthful. If what I’m doing now can make them appreciate where it’s coming from, that’s definitely a good thing.

Have you performed to anybody old enough to remember the heyday of these sorts of hard country ballads? If your grandparents are still around, what do they think about it?

My grandmother, she’s the biggest country and Western fan of the people that are still around in my family. And she loves it. She at first was shocked that I even took a liking to it. We did a tour with Wanda Jackson pretty recently. So she’s got the sort of young rockabilly crowd but also the older rockabilly crowd. A lot of people had a lot of nice things to say of that generation that were kicking around those shows.

I read a recent feature on you from a Canadian publication, and it led with a detailed description of your stage attire. Here in Nashville, we have one of the best known suppliers of rhinestone Western suits. Where do you get yours from?

Well, funny you should say that. I have had various conversations with Manuel. I’ve talked to him on the phone a couple of times when I was considering really going for it.

There was also this blog that I follow called Golden West Clothing, that I just stumbled across one day. ... At some point it made itself clear that this woman who made all these amazing old Roy Rogers-style cowboy shirts with vintage gabardine and all this, she lives in Waterloo, Ontario, which is like an hour from my house. So I sourced her out and we met up and became good friends really quickly. She used to work at the Hank Snow museum in Halifax. It was the strangest parallel, you know? So she’s the one who I had make the suit for me. It’s done Nudie-style. It’s chain stitched embroidery, hand sewn rhinestones and hand sewn detail and gabardine — and heavy and sweaty.

Sounds expensive too.

Well, it was cheaper than Manuel, that’s for sure.

Do you have just one custom-made suit or a whole closet full?

Just one so far. We’re currently working on another, coming up with ideas.

How many times have you played Nashville?

Probably, like, three total.

Any of those times since you’ve been doing your solo country stuff?

I’ve played the solo country thing there twice. One was a strange showcase. So I don’t know that that really counts. The High Watt — is that what it’s called? And then that same building but a different room I was playing guitar with City and Colour, and I had the opening slot.

I’ll leave you with an anecdote about the first time I listened to Come Cry With Me. I’d put it on, turned it up and gone out of the room for a moment, so I didn’t have the song titles in front of me. And when your song “When I Was Abroad” came on, it sounded to me like you were singing “When I Was a Bro.” As in, a douchey frat guy.

That would totally suck if those were the words.

Congrats on not writing that song.

Thanks very much.

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