Attack in Black's Daniel Romano Talks the Art of Self-Mythology
The 'King of Mosey' philosophizes on truth and his love of bad art.
All photos courtesy of the author
Daniel Romano is a chameleon and a bit of a liar. The truth we think we know is, as a musician and an artist, he’s constantly reinvented himself. During the past five years, Romano's been closely associated with the resurgence of traditional country, but never so much that he hasn’t remained on the fringes of the ‘Americana’ scene. He’s been a folk singer and he’s cut his teeth on hardcore; later turning into earthy, muscled-up rock with Canadian heroes Attack In Black. His musical trajectory, as diverse as it was, made enough sense: there’s an inherent authenticity in both genres that assure there’s no shortage of punk kids who make the switch to country. Speaking with the Welland, Ontario native about Mosey, his latest record, it is obvious that settling into a groove is never going to truly happen for Romano.
“I can say frankly that I did not want to make another sort of quintessential country record,” Romano says, sitting at a quiet coffee shop in downtown Toronto on his birthday. “The whole thing, that whole sort of scene is becoming such a funny, almost joke of itself, or something. I don’t know exactly what’s happening and I hope it’s not actually happening, but it feels like it is. And I was afraid to belong there.”
It’s not immediately clear that Romano belongs anywhere; the truth we think we know becomes muddled. While his previous records established him as a deft, incisive songwriter, they had easy reference points: traditional country, troubadour folk, ‘80s punk. Mosey, though, is something of a different sort. It spans oceans of genres from one song to the next. The twisted, devastating piano ballad “One Hundred Regrets Avenue” segues into the glittering jangle of “I’m Alone Now.” The soaring country rock of “Maybe Remember Me” caps off with a 70s urban groove that sets up a dark and creepy, minimalist psych take on Sonny Curtis’, “The Collector.” Canada’s Sweetheart, Rachel McAdams, has a cameo on the deliriously fun “Toulouse,” a swaggering pop tune about falling in love with a French girl.
Mosey feels simultaneously old and brand new. Romano takes inspiration from classic TV and movie themes to swingin’ ‘60s pop while mixing them with a 21st-century aesthetic and cryptic poetry. It can feel kitschy at times in a way that’s completely devoid of irony. It is instead wholeheartedly praising the ‘bad’ art it’s partly inspired by; giving the sounds a new, forceful weight. “Valerie Leon” came about, Romano says, because "I watched kind of a terrible movie called Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. I was thinking about how it’s still good, even though it’s really bad, and Valerie’s acting is questionable but still powerful. I don’t think that happens anymore. I don’t think you can be bad and still be good the way things are now. Or I guess there’s too much focus on perfection.”
It’s that focus on perfection that led to some homogeneity in music. Romano laments about safeguards set up to coddle what he calls the soft generation: where the approach to art, marketing, and advertising has created a system that’s “very boring, and probably damaging,” a world “where there’s no bullies and everyone’s friends and nobody has anything to say.” The Internet has helped create that homogeneity, and has thus had a major part in the near extinction of mythologies—we can prove most anyone’s lies wrong with a couple Google searches. With that eradication comes the loss of our greatest cultural stories. Do we really believe Robert Johnson made a deal with the Devil down at a Mississippi crossroads? Isn’t life a lot more magical if you do?
“I remember when I put out my first record, I wrote this totally ridiculous bio that was basically the story from the movie The Jerk, and I didn’t really realize,” Romano says about his own early truth-bending. “It was some ridiculous thing about how the tapes got destroyed and I was trying to compile it and I got shot with a BB gun and went blind in one eye. I don’t even remember, it was all totally ridiculous and went on and on. But it’s crazy, some people totally believed it. My girlfriend’s father, before I met him, was just like, ‘god, what a life you’ve had!’”
Photo by the author
Romano’s creative process, when it’s working right, has the potential to render him unrecognizable to himself. Mosey was recorded so fast it led engineer Kenneth Roy Meehan to state, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” The whole thing, more or less, involved setting up, hitting record, and blazing through the tunes, which Romano had in his head, without music to reference. Similarly, he recorded about 17 minutes of searing punk from beats he laid down after some “terrible sessions” that became a project called Ancient Shapes. It’s a CD insert exclusively with the Mosey LPs from his own You’ve Changed Records. “Basically, that’s always my end goal—to do something so quickly that I can appreciate it as if I am the listener and not the maker of it. Then you can have a real opinion about it. I don’t get emotionally attached to any of it. And that’s just kind of a thrill that’s exciting to listen to something that you made and really be so detached from it that you can feel the same way as you would if you were listening to something you like.”
Romano has set himself up to be whatever he wants to be at any time, changing his skin, presenting himself as he must to get across the thing he needs to express at the moment he needs to express it. It’s this quality that seems to define the actual genre of Mosey, which he coined himself. He defines it as topical, “not like boxcars and banjos and shit,” at one point evoking Ol’ Dirty Bastard in an interview for Southern Souls, saying it “speaks to the children.” It’s “definitely the opposite” of Americana’s old boy' club. It’s a malleable genre that serves art instead of industry. It’s the truth; it’s a mess of lies.
The final song on Mosey is “Dead Medium.” It’s “a jab at this throwback culture” of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake—as ideas are constantly recycled, art gets diluted to the point where every new thing is simply a copy of a copy of a copy. It mourns wildly, electrically, for the death of music as true art form. “[Music’s] going the way of the fine art painter or the poet,” Romano says “It’s a thing, and people like it, but it’s not representative in any sort of way that is really respectable. It should be praised, I think. Even if I didn’t play music, I would praise it.”
The album liner notes claim “Dead Medium” was recorded at the Illumination Club, a venue that may or may not exist, with musicians who may or may not be real. He tells me where it was actually recorded, but it doesn’t feel like that truth is so important anymore. I’d rather believe the myth. After all, life would be a lot more magical if it was cut there, in a club at a crossroads in some parallel dimension. It’s only a moment—less than four minutes—that you have to believe.
“Whatever’s true in that moment is definitely true,” Romano says. “Even though it’s a lie.”
Matt Williams writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.