Griffin Goldsmith: Pocket Man

By the end of “The Weight,” Griffin Goldsmith was in tears. The moment capped a December 2011 night in Woodstock, New York, where his band Dawes helped close one of Levon Helm’s final Midnight Rambles, four months before Helm died. Goldsmith found himself living a scene from his favorite film as a kid, The Last Waltz, the 1976 document of The Band’s final concert. He and Helm, 50 years apart in age, played in unison. Not long before, Robbie Robertson had invited Dawes to back him on the road. This year, for the hat trick, the group rounded out its connection to The Band when they landed the ultimate gig in April: opening 13 shows for Bob Dylan.

That these seasoned few stand among Dawes’ peers reflects a group early in its career capable of dictating the direction of American music. Though rooted in West Coast pop-folk and R&B grit, Dawes has plucked much more from the country’s sprawling musical landscape. They owe as much to The Band and Blind Faith as they do to D’Angelo and Stax Records – Dawes’ Facebook page classifies their sound as “Americana Soul,” though they’re quick to buck labels in interviews. Stories Don’t End, their third album and first independent release, indeed sounds like a beginning, capturing a traveling band whose backbeat belongs to its youngest member.

Dark sunglasses and an Art Garfunkel-like blonde afro obscure the face of 22-year-old Griffin Wade Goldsmith, one of rock music’s few singing drummers. His style, subdued on both fronts, extends from pocket grooves to the harmonies he shares with his older brother, Dawes frontman and lead singer Taylor Goldsmith. “It’s something I’ve done for as long as I’ve played,” says Griffin of his dual role. (He sang lead on “Picture Of A Man,” a track that didn’t make the album.) “I can play better when I’m not singing. But it’s not a challenge, especially after you’ve played your songs each a hundred times, you know?”

Born November 12, 1990 in Los Angeles, Griffin grew up the son of former Tower Of Power singer Lenny Goldsmith, and often tinkered with the piano in the living room while ignoring the drum set in the garage – or so Dad thought.

“I don’t believe in pushing kids,” says Lenny. “And all of a sudden one day I took him to a drum shop, he sat down at this kit and played the s__t out of it. And I went, ’What?’ He could already play.”

It turned out that Griffin, by then a teenager, had been putting in time in the garage after all. Though he never played in the Malibu High School band or orchestra, he sang in the choir, and got his break before graduation, when he joined Taylor’s band at 17. The drummer he replaced had no interest in touring, but coached Griffin. He took further instruction in Austin, Texas, with his dad’s former Sweathog bandmate, “Frosty,” the drummer known for his work with Lee Michaels. Dawes shortened its name from Simon Dawes, shuffled up its style, and signed with a record label in 2009.

“They were these young guys who had clear, clear, clear classic influences and that was sort of a rare thing at the time,” says Andy McGrath of ATO Records, who discovered Dawes. “Griffin is one of those guys who’s just got this personality that fills a room.” You’d never know this from his drumming technique, however, which avoids overwhelming the band, even on songs from the latest album, like “Side Effects,” where Goldsmith engages every drum and cymbal.

Following the release of Dawes’ debut, Goldsmith’s father connected Griffin with drumming great James Gadson for a handful of lessons. Gadson, who says he takes on few students, teaches the pocket method, a controlled groove Goldsmith creates as a foundation with bassist Wylie Gelber. “Nowadays, everybody’s flash. A lot of people are just showing you how many chops they got,” says Gadson. “He was very humble and he was really eager to learn.”

While recording Stories Don’t End, Goldsmith rotated between five kits, six kick drums and a dozen snares, including a plastic toy snare known as a Mastro on certain songs. Listen for the Mastro on “Something In Common,” where Goldsmith uses it in place of the floor tom while continuing to play a Ludwig Supra-Phonic snare. Goldsmith gets intricate with the cross-stick technique on “Someone Will,” an idea born during the sessions with Jacquire King, who has also produced albums for Tom Waits and Modest Mouse.

“It just wasn’t quite hitting us the way we wanted it to on playback,” says King of the song, “so I took a pretty aggressive approach on the treatment of the drums and the bass, and it sort of turned things around for us.”

Stories Don’t End took just less than five weeks, mostly in Asheville, North Carolina, the most time Dawes had ever spent recording. “We could have done it in less, but it was a new relationship,” says King. “I feel like we were taking the time to just really nail it for them, and I think it was appropriate.”

“It was a conscious decision to put ourselves in a situation that was much less familiar,” adds Goldsmith of switching up producers. “I think putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation can often result in something special. That’s what we were looking for.”

Goldsmith’s subtleties shine on “Hey Lover,” a song cowritten by his old Simon Dawes mate Blake Mills and featuring a solo verse from Griffin. “He’s every bit as musical as his brother, maybe even more so,” notes their father. “But he doesn’t have the personality to front a band.” Yet it’s this background role that allows Griffin to lead Dawes from behind, as Gadson points out, via a method that drives the music without distracting from it. “He did his homework,” he says, “and you hear the results.”

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