Daniel Romano’s new album, Modern Pressure is cool. Like, old-school cool. The singles betray as much. “Roya,” the first track released, is a meandering, evergreen haze of classic rock tones and the kind of harmonies that are inextricable from the lead melody; it sounds more like one voice, one organism, capable of harmonizing with itself. “When I Learned Your Name” ramps things up with its’ Rod Stewart chorus: “Oh, Maggie, Maggie, La, La, La!” It’s hard not to hear a mashup of “Ooh La La” and “Maggie May,” but it’s not derivative or contrived; it’s genuine and present and fucking cool. When I talk to him on the phone, I tell Romano I think as much, and I ask what he was listening to while making the record. He asks what I think he was listening to. So I say the obvious. Moondance-era Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Band; basically the cast of The Last Waltz. He ponders for a moment before responding, “I was listening to a lot of The Incredible String Band.”
“Everyone you just mentioned was a fan of the Incredible String Band, and probably stole things from them,” he says. “And I’m sure I did too.”
Romano is speaking to me from Welland, Ontario, near where he lives. The acclaimed, versatile and historically well-versed musician is preparing to release his fourth solo album via New West, a record label in Nashville specializing in alt-country and Americana. He loves New West, but he hates Americana.
“It’s so desperate for attention,” he says of the bloated, lofty term. “It isn’t genre-specific at all. It’s just anything that is willing to label itself that.” He remarks that it’s characterized by an “identity of nothingness,” not so much a genre but an empty signifier of cultural values. “It’s the McDonald’s of music,” he chuckles, before backtracking. “No, what’s way less popular than that? Let’s call it the Burger King of music.”
Romano is admittedly jaded about modern music styles. The ex-Attack In Black frontman fashioned a couple of beautiful, classic country and western record: 2012’s busy industry statement Workin’ For The Music Man, 2013’s sombre Come Cry With Me, and even in the multiplicities of last year’s Mosey, his admiration for country was present. But Modern Pressure bears little, if any, resemblance to those records (in layman’s terms, that is; of course, historically, the classic rock shuffle of Modern Pressure is kith and kin to country). But Romano was anxious to distance himself from the ‘country’ designation.
“The reality is when I was experimenting with country music, I was unaware of the [current] scene,” he shrugs. “I was a fan of the formula and the style, but the affiliation is somewhat of a disease.”
It’s Romano’s willingness to delve into different sounds, unbound by genre or classification, that leads to discomfort for some listeners. People are uncomfortable with things that do not fit in a box or on a shelf, neatly tagged and curated (Romano has spoken about angry country fans giving him the finger at shows when he plays rock songs). Part of shifting gears is making sure he isn’t complicit in tidily-packaged big-box consumption of music. It isn’t enough to just make music; an artist has to consider the broader social implications of their output. Romano is bitter about that reality. “Even if I like something and want to associate with it, I have to keep that in consideration, because it can put me in a place where I’m not liberated,” he says.
People often want to paint Romano as a nostalgia act, like some indie-Hank Williams throw-back artist. What better cash-cow than painting something a nostalgia act? Romano recoils. “Nostalgia is poison. I’m not a nostalgic person,” he states acutely. “I don’t relate to anything that would be classified as retro or anything. I understand the simplicity and laziness of statements like that, but I don’t agree with them.” Rather, Romano offers a more synthesized, less marketable iteration: “I consider myself to be a historian of music and a student of music, as anyone in the industry should. History is important, and you should know where you are,” he remarks, adding, presumably to white men oblivious to their monstrous role in ruining the world, “and mostly feel guilty about it.”
It becomes clear that what Romano seeks is an essential, base, unreplicated version of something; not watered-down, never compromised. Not just in music, but in life. And yet, if people aren’t writing Romano as a nostalgia act, it’s as a character, a mimicking of something rather than the real deal. He’s perplexed by the desire. “I’m always some version of myself,” he says simply. “I don’t feel like I’m putting it on.” He’s earnest and confused. The implication in calling him a character is that Romano is donning someone else’s sound and look, aping a caricature; that extrapolates pretty quickly into being unoriginal. His frustration is justified, but he also admits trying to avoid classification is fruitless.
“Everyone is just a character of themselves. Especially now that Instagram is so popular, everyone’s a star. It’s fascinating, this illusion of a depressionless life, and yet the underbelly is so to contrast. The idea is that the experience has lost value, and the capsule is what is key.” If I did something without putting it on Instagram, did I really do it? “That’s the mentality: ‘Without the documentation, what’s the point?’” Romano intimates, snorting bitterly. It does pose an interesting problem. What’s perceived as authentic and original: the underlying drive, or the ultimate presentation of that drive? Romano posits that it’s sadly the latter.
Even discussing these issues, Romano is never stern or lectorial; he’s just earnestly trying to work through the pressures of modernity.
“It’s like being at a skatepark. You’re like, ‘I’m going to try this trick just to be able to do it,’ versus, ‘Why would I bother trying it until my friend shows up to film it, because what’s the point?’
“The point is… well, I guess, to do it.”