At the dawn of the aughts, guitarist-singer Dan Schwartz was working at Burlington’s Magic Hat brewery and playing in a handful of local bands. (Sound familiar?) Like a lot of local players, in between shifts and gigs Schwartz tinkered with his own solo project, dubbed Unlikely Cowboy.
A move to Philadelphia and a chance meeting with drummer Tim Arnold changed everything. Schwartz wanted to record some Unlikely Cowboy demos, and Keith Goodwin — the singer in Arnold’s band, Days Away — offered to lend a hand. The three started playing together, casually at first. But when Days Away disbanded, Good Old War was a natural next step.
For the past two and a half years, Good Old War have been touring the U.S. Their upbeat folk-pop has garnered praise from glossy rags such as Rolling Stone and Spin. Their sound blends classic ’60s elements — think Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, or Crosby, Stills & Nash — in a way that resembles an acoustic version of fellow Philly pop-harmonizers Dr. Dog.
In advance of Good Old War’s upcoming Higher Ground Ballroom show — they’re opening for Xavier Rudd & Izintaba on Monday, September 13 — Seven Days caught up with Schwartz by phone. The Queen City expat was happy to reminisce about his time in Burlington, and to discuss Top 40 hip-hop from the band’s van as it traveled from Los Angeles to New York to begin touring with Rudd.
SEVEN DAYS: It’s funny how a personal project from 10 years ago can turn into the way you make your living.
DAN SCHWARTZ: Oh, exactly. I think the main thing I’ve realized the most is, your path changes endlessly. This is definitely not the end of our path. Who knows what happens next? I remember there for a while I was just, “I’m going to be a guitar teacher.” But you never know what you’re going to end up doing.
SD: Bands like Good Old War and Dr. Dog are bringing back elements of classic ’60s pop songwriting — and we’re talking about really popular influences, like Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills & Nash. I took a look at Billboard last week and thought about how different pop music is today. It kind of surprises me that these great elements of songwriting seem to be missing from the pop charts. It feels like Black Eyed Peas are a million miles away from Crosby, Stills & Nash.
DS: I think what’s interesting is that what you can do now is combine those things. There is certainly something about those hip-hop songs — the production, the sound quality of them — that is extremely impressive and something brand new. That’s something that we are inspired by — making the sonics work in that same way while still having good songs. To me, there are definitely things to be taken from that stuff. I think that we’re interested in the idea of, What is everything that works? Or, What is everything that makes us feel a certain way? Because there really are elements of just about everything that you can take and turn into your own thing, and nobody will ever notice.
SD: Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s like that old adage: Steal from everyone, but don’t get caught, right?
DS: Well, it’s not really stealing. It’s more like seeing what are all these things that just automatically make people do certain things. There is something about hip-hop that automatically makes people dance or move or shake their head. That can be applied to folk music, too. Or any music.
SD: What do you find the experience is like opening up for different acts? I can imagine some nights and some acts work better for you guys than others.
DS: You know, it’s really interesting. We’re really lucky. We’ve put a lot into our live show, and we’re able to manipulate the show a little bit to suit the audiences. For Xavier Rudd, we’re able to do a little more of a jammy thing … that we feel his fans would be a little more into, a little more improvisation than we normally do. Whereas if we play with a loud rock band, we’ll do a more upbeat set. When we play with Dr. Dog, we’ll make that about the songs — the best harmonies and stuff like that.
But at the same time, that stuff’s in all of our songs, so it doesn’t take a whole lot of changing. We just have a lot of freedom, I think, with the kind of music we play. I think we’re getting better at learning how to read crowds…
SD: You guys have had positive press in traditional media, and a pretty active social-media presence, including a recent contest you called the “Good Old Contest” where folks had to complete a list of items — such as covering your song “Coney Island” and posting it on YouTube — to win a 30-minute Skype concert. What do you find is more effective, A-list media attention or online, grassroots efforts???
DS: I think online grassroots is the best way to start out, because you really can make a difference that way. And we have a team. We have management; we have all that. So it’s not like we came up with the idea. At the same time, we were fully into it. But I think the main thing that bands like us have to do — and I think any band at any level has to do it — is remember to treat everybody like they’re important. And make sure they realize that they actually are. From openers to any kind of interview to radio stations to any kind of fans. If people care about you, that’s what’s important. That’s what these contests really do: They give people a chance to meet with everybody else. We get a chance to actually discuss things with our fans and make fans out of people. I think people can interact with other people in a very human way now with the Internet…
SD: How did that contest go?
DS: It went really well. The winner was this kid who did “Coney Island” on a Game Boy. He did all the programming on Game Boy. It was the coolest thing ever. People really put a lot of work into these covers, really cared about it, and it makes us feel so — I don’t know. I don’t think people realize how honored we are to have people spend time on our songs.