Dangermuffin has battled through triumph, disaster, and lineup changes since their inception in 2005. Far from being an average bar band, the proficient Charleston trio recently tightened up on their expressive songwriting and recorded a new set of material that signifies a high point of confidence and a major step ahead.
Firmly rooted in folk rock, blues, and reggae, the band never quite had an identifiable style. On the band's brand-new album Moonscapes — its third disc in three years — lead singer and acoustic guitarist Dan Lotti digs deep into his most recent mystical musings and comes up with themes of loss, soul-searching, and optimism.
"The notion of moonscapes comes from when the tide goes really far out on the beach, and there are these little craters that look like tidal pools. To me, that seemed like the notion of the sea of tranquility ... on the moon or wherever," he says.
While a beachy, breezy atmosphere permeates the music, the main lyrical concept on Moonscapes deals with reflecting on life experiences and seeking meaning and connections within them.
Maybe Dangermuffin can be defined as an organically elegant neo-beach band.
"The music we're playing definitely comes from the American experience because we all grew up listening to so many different types of music," says drummer Steven Sandifer.
Even with an eclectic mix of musical influences, what these three musicians documented on Moonscapes doesn't seem fragmented or random. A running lyrical theme and a musical backdrop connects everything evenly.
"A lot of the songs came to me as I walked my dog on the beach," says Lotti. "Little things, like watching seafoam break up from the waves in the wind [referring to the song "Seafoam Tumbles"] provide metaphors and notions. You have to be willing to let things go and let the song be what it's going to be. You have to be okay with allowing a song take its own direction."
There's plenty of Folly Beach in the imagery and vibe of Moonscapes as well — some of which is figurative and general, and some of which is historical and specific.
"There's one song at the end of the album called 'Coffin Island' [featuring harmonies from singer Shannon Whitworth], which was the old nickname for Folly Beach in the 1700s, back when ships would come into the harbor," says Lotti. "It was like a leper colony. Before they docked downtown, they'd drop the really sick and dying passengers off on Folly and leave 'em there to die, basically."
Lotti, Sandifer, and electric guitarist/banjo player Mike Sivilli celebrate the release of Moonscapes at this week's show. The collection covers a lot of musical ground, from fatback funk and reggae rhythms to gorgeous balladry and strummy mountain music.
"I think it takes a few albums of original material under their belt before any act has an identifiable sound," says Lotti. "Since Steven has joined, there's such a different process for how we write, arrange, and record our music. Nothing was set in stone."
Moonscapes started on Folly at the Surf Bar, where the trio plays a regular Sunday night acoustic gig under the nickname AcousticMuffin. They were playing there last winter when they struck up an acquaintance with a fellow from Nashville named John Van Meter (referred to in the album's liner notes as "The Sheriff"). "We became friends and talked a lot about music," says Lotti. "He started listening to some of the new song ideas, took us under his wing, and pushed us along on the work for this album."
Van Meter assisted as the trio recorded demos of new material. They polished the rhythms and arrangements of each tune before booking serious studio time this winter at a facility called The Court with Nashville's Cheyenne Medders.
The spirit of collaboration guided the threesome through frequent sonic and instrumental experiments. The trial-and-error experience turned out to be remarkably healthy and productive.
"We've all been professional musicians for years," says Sandifer. "We talked a lot about making an album that really sounded like the three of us playing in a room, with just a little bit of extra juice. That was the goal."
The Muffins worked hard and agonized a bit over big ideas and small details during the making of Moonscapes. From the lilting and whimsical title track through the funky "Gutter Dance" and the guitar-licked rock-grass of "Walk into the Wind," they designed the tempos, breaks, harmonies, and overdubs with care and consideration. If they keep it up, 2010 will surely be their breakthrough year.