December/January 2024

by Jasper West

DC Maxwell: Finding A New Horse To Ride

by Jasper West

DC Maxwell: Finding A New Horse To Ride

Previously the frontman/essence of underground Tāmaki Makaurau punk act Roidz, Daniel Smith took a well-earned break from music over a few years since 2019 and has re-emerged, re-imagined as DC Maxwell, an amalgamation of a family name and his own initials. Jasper West caught up with the enigmatic songwriter about his well-titled solo debut album, ‘Lone Rider’.

With his debut alt-country album ‘Lone Rider’ recorded for Danger Collective Records, LA’s artist-run indie record label that had previously hosted him as Roidz, Daniel Smith/DC Maxwell found himself writing anti-western stories of lives lived on the outskirts and on horseback, encapsulating his own feelings in song characters’ experiences, with prowess.

“The album comes from this place of grief,” he quickly acknowledges. “I’m reckoning with the loss of losing friends, but understanding the fact that grief is felt because love was present too… I hope others can connect to that. It’s an incredibly common experience to lose someone before their time.”

During a musical hiatus after the loss of two friends, Smith studied creative writing at Victoria University, cutting his teeth on short stories and a “terrible novel,” insisting that he never planned on returning to music.

“I realised that I had hit a bit of a brick wall in songwriting that I didn’t have the skills to get over. Once I did come back though, university had leveled up my writing skills quite a bit, and I was able to tell stories and get in touch with emotions that I wasn’t previously able to put down.

“I hadn’t written a song for three or four years, and then my parents moved house and told me to take the beat up old nylon string I had from when I was a kid. Honestly, after picking up that guitar, the 10 songs on ‘Lone Rider’ poured out in about a month. I heard that Tom Morello writes his riffs on a similar guitar!”

An alternative country record that harks back to Scott Walker, Marty Robbins’ sounds and Nick Cave storytelling, DC Maxwell brings a murderously fresh take to a well established genre.

His album is somewhat a musical journey of two sides; the first drawing the listener in with infectious hooks and vamps, the second taking your breath away with darker themes and vivid imagery.

Although the second half can get quite hectic, Maxwell sprinkles some clues in the first. ‘Like Darcy Clay, I never shook no babies’, he sings in I’ve Been Wrong, and fondly remembers calling in JY Lee (Yoko Zuna, Avantdale Bowling Club) for a saxophone solo in the threatening album opener.

“It went like, ‘Oh hey, JY we have this part in a song where we want the sax to go crazy. 3 2 1, rolling’… and he nailed it in one take! That’s one of my favourite parts of the whole album. It’s this crazy release, the moment where you are like, ‘Oh shit, this album could get crazy.’ There is this thread for the potential of darkness going through the whole album, for sure.”

DC Maxwell had traction right from the start, selling out Auckland’s Wine Cellar before releasing a single track, followed by opening for US-band Future Islands before celebrating the release of debut single, The Leading Man, in May.

Perhaps giving a nod to his punk history, from the inception of these songs to the final recording, his core rock band only had three sessions to familiarise themselves with the songs before the string players were brought in.

“It was a funny experience of showing people the songs and having them immediately jump into recording them. It gives a fun, wild energy when people aren’t so familiar with the songs that they’re bored with them.”

Producer Peter Ruddell (Sulfate, Jazmine Mary), was the perfect sounding board for Maxwell’s ideas, bringing these 10 tracks a big ’70s Scott Walker country sound.

“I can’t really overstate his impact on the record. The string score that he wrote, particularly for Faultline, really lifts it up. I had already imagined the parts and had some melody lines, and then Peter would go away and write them. Before we knew it, we were in the studio recording. It was one of his first times writing scores and there were maybe 50 to 60 pages of score for the record!”

The characters in his songs are varied and detailed, drawing a picture for the listener with painful accuracy at times. Stories of death through alcoholism or thievery (horses in this case), it’s not a far stretch to find metaphors to regular lives.

“One thing that happened between Roidz and DC Maxwell, is the epiphany I had that songs didn’t have to be written from my perspective – which changed my life! As soon as I noticed it, I realised that almost all great songs aren’t written from the singer’s perspective, which freed me up to explore different places and things that I might have not had the guts to go into. The weird thing that happens is, when you give yourself the freedom to write about someone else, you get closer to yourself anyway, revealing things that you didn’t realise and discover along the way.”

Maxwell draws the audience closer to him as an artist by telling stories of others, investing the listener in the song, not himself.

“Someone can be experiencing something on stage and feeling an incredible emotion but if they’re not doing it in a way that brings the audience with them and shares that experience, it can become quite insular and potentially egocentric. Something that they really hammer into you in writing school is that you can have the emotions and the skills to put them into sentences, but no one cares about it unless you do the work to make them care.”

Smith uses his learned writing techniques to greater effect in tracks like Prizefighter, which embodies the toxic masculinity still experienced by too many Kiwis, flipping it on its head in a way that cuts through our culture.

“In NZ it’s very hard to talk about masculinity. A New Zealander trying to express masculinity is like a fish trying to explain water, it’s everywhere.”

Detaching his personal self from the song (on the surface) encourages the listener to deconstruct the character, not the performer and hopefully draw the parallels to themselves.

“By the way, my favourite book is True Grit.”

DC Maxwell just finished a tour of the country with many highlights, not least among them the final night in Ōtautahi, Christchurch.

“That was a really special show in one of the country’s oldest cathedrals, from the 19th century. It’s all made of a dark hard kauri, really beautiful. We had a string section and lights. It was a real level up moment for me, hearing these songs performed in a sacred place like that. It made me feel proud and happy that people were connecting with the songs and we were able to share them in this way. I’m so grateful to everyone who came.

“On stage, the sound was not so great as the band was all behind me, far away. I finished the set thinking, ‘That was terrible’, but then when I saw videos people had taken, I was relieved to hear it sounded great. I haven’t told anyone yet but we actually filmed the set and will be releasing a ‘Live at St Mary’s’ series of music videos!”

On the topic of which, DC Maxwell’s engaging debut album boasts two impressive cinematic pieces for Lone Rider and The Leading Man, with a third for Last Stand Of The Killer, in the works.

“That’s coming out soon, it’s going to be epic.”

Although fairly new to horse riding (four years), the video for Lone Rider features the artist atop a stallion, bareback. “I didn’t do it as a kid, but I really love horses now and am an unashamed horse guy. I go riding on the weekends when I can. We had to do a lot of training for bareback, but that horse just made me look good! He was a proper movie horse [LOTR, Mulan], super switched on!”

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