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Dave Smalley: Introspection and Passion Lead Don't Sleep

25 June 2023

Singer Dave Smalley continues building upon his legacy as a melodic hardcore trailblazer. As humble as he is to be celebrated, Smalley is always quick to defer the spotlight and hail the achievements of his respective music subcultures. Beginning his lifelong dedication to hardcore as a teen with DYS, Smalley immediately embraced DIY ethos and the subculture’s dedication to unity.

Smalley then transitioned from the Boston hardcore community to the now iconic hardcore community in D.C., joining Dag Nasty after a stint serving as their roadie. Founded by Brian Baker in 1985, Dag Nasty built on the DIY ethos of Minor Threat, but Baker worked to take hardcore in a more melodic direction. Smalley immediately created his signature vocals that continue standing as his hallmark and despite the group’s unsteady history and Smalley’s early departure, the group is still held in high regard today and often credited as the early founders of melodic hardcore.

Smalley has remained a stalwart figure within hardcore for decades and Don’t Sleep stands as his newest testament to his passion for the subculture. Built on hardcore’s foundation of immediacy and sincerity, the group elevates the genre with aggressive and memorable melodies, and with Smalley’s evolved introspection Don’t Sleep is poised to grow with their newest record, See Change.

“I feel this is the heaviest record we put out. We worked to avoid the sophomore slump by actually recording our first two records in the same session but releasing them separately. Our debut was in 2017. There is always a lot of pressure but when you release your first record, you have more time to refine your songwriting and forge those lyrics because the expectations are a little different. If you release a strong debut, the pressure increases to replicate that,” said Smalley.

Smalley sounds energized within Don’t Sleep and with his hallmark melodic vocals as strong as ever, a listener takes comfort in this familiarity but is surprised to quickly learn Smalley has not lost any sense of urgency.

“You cannot live in fear during creativity. There will sadly be people willing to cast you aside if you don’t fit their ideals or ethos but if your passion is organically expressed and you are creating with sincerity then you are doing the honest thing as a writer. I feel excited with this group and it’s the right time for me,” stated Smalley.

Don’t Sleep evolved from serving as Smalley’s backing band when he performed solo material. He immediately recognized their enthusiasm and with renewed vigor, the group composed original material built on the premise that Smalley would front a new band. He just didn’t know it yet.

“They were all very talented and experienced members from The Commercials, Junction, and Very Americans. I loved their passion! I was messaged online that they worked on a demo designed with the idea to have me write and begin a new group with them. They asked if I was interested in checking it out. Honestly, before hitting ‘play’ I didn’t want to like it because of all the demands that go into beginning something new, but from the moment I heard it, I knew they poured so much passion into every song. I couldn’t say no,” he laughed.

Hailing from two iconic hardcore communities, Smalley gladly celebrates the legacies of his peers but also recognizes the limitations hardcore can sadly place on itself. Original groups suffered immense scrutiny when initially pursuing new creative endeavors. Don’t Sleep is not lazily paying homage to Smalley’s legacy, instead, the songwriting urges to counter stagnation and recognize history’s energy to examine the present and creatively propel forward, without being captive to a singular moment in time.

“I look to the author Eckhart Tolle when he said the past has no power over the present moment. I still love everything I experienced during the beginning of hardcore but I want to embrace the present. All of us have some pain in our past but I won’t let it ruin my present. We can spend too much time looking backward. As for people criticizing hardcore bands for evolving, the later DYS records were a reflection of what we were passionate about at the time,” reflected Smalley.

He added, “We were all into Metallica and worked to get better at our instruments. This brought out something new in all of us. In Boston, a lot of the Boston Crew began to change and incorporate heavier music influenced by some Metal. I didn’t personally witness or experience any of the violence that was documented later on but to me, the brotherhood made such an impact on me and love beats hate every time.”

Hardcore’s initial evolution to either a more melodic approach or incorporation of Metal to carve a new, crossover path, sadly resulted in division, in marked contrast to the positive messages of unity Smalley continues embracing. He reflected on the genre being at a crossroads as several groups began their creative diversions from Hardcore.

“We were all growing creatively. Looking at the bands on Dischord, they all sounded different to me and I loved that! What Ian MacKaye did to build a community entirely dedicated to DIY ethos and a clear, focused consciousness with building straight edge is still incredible to me! When Baker played me the Dag Nasty demo I thought it was magic. It was a special time because we had all the passion of hardcore but the songwriting evolved and it was powerful but melodic. We immediately had a creative fire and it was magic when we all got together,” reflected Smalley.

Dag Nasty’s seminal Can I Say joined 7 Seconds’ New Wind, Embrace, and Rites of Spring as essential melodic hardcore records. On the West Coast, TSOL incorporated keyboards to complement guitarist Ron Emory’s dark and powerful leads to create Beneath The Shadows. Hardcore was at a pivotal moment, almost being pushed to evolve or wither. Not every group was well-received, some were greeted with violence and even deemed hardcore ‘turncoats.’

Smalley recalled Dag Nasty earning positive support, with little resistance. The group was poised to build upon their successful debut but Smalley struggled to choose between his pursuit of higher education and his growing music career. Ultimately leaving Dag Nasty to pursue a college degree, clarifying he earned a scholarship from NYU which became the deciding factor.

“I had no money when I worked to earn that scholarship and for me to turn it down was not an option. When you’re younger, things move faster and nobody sees things in hindsight. We thought the distance between NYU and D.C. was huge and when you’re young, it can be difficult to assess all aspects of a challenge. In hindsight, could we have kept the band going? I have already enough spent time thinking what-if but I am at peace with that decision,” reflected Smalley.

Baker regrouped Dag Nasty in 1987 with singer Peter Cortner and released Wig Out at Denko’s, a departure from their quicker tempos featured on Can I Say but a poppy, melodic undertone still preserved their signature sound. Building on the energy of their reformation, Dag Nasty then released Field Day, an even greater departure from their debut, and with Cortner’s more aggressive vocals, Dag Nasty fans were divided on the album’s merits despite initially strong sales.

The group disbanded after touring for Field Day and didn’t return until 1992, this time with Smalley on the mic for Four On The Floor, released by Epitaph. Seeking to build upon the newly grown modern underground punk community, Epitaph helped propel several groups espousing DIY ethos and celebrating Punk’s mainstream acceptance and success. Dag Nasty was not able to tour in support of Smalley’s return and once again, the group lay dormant until 2016, releasing a new single but fronted by original singer Shawn Brown.

Today, Smalley proudly retains every hardcore conviction that shaped him, even if he has evolved, it appears his hardcore spirit has grown alongside him. He continues recognizing the value of straight edge but with a more poignant view.

“I always thought that straight edge was an amazing thing because it enabled an individual to challenge themselves to think more clearly amid difficult times. I think it’s a beautiful thing but I sadly have seen the movement, if you, will, attacked by both sides. You see one side attacking because of a conscious choice not to drink or engage in substance abuse, while there is another side that attacks because they perceive you for not being militant enough. Hardcore and punk forever shaped us to work to change ourselves and communities to be more positive and change our immediate world for the better, by doing it with a clear mind,” stated Smalley.

He further expanded on his straight edge view. “If your only goal for straight edge is to just be straight edge, I feel the point is lost because what else are you doing with it? It takes on a very narrow and even limited path. Are you working to make yourself and the immediate world better? I think one of the most beautiful and important things about Hardcore and Punk was to improve yourself, your family, and your community by being more aware and within the straight edge and its ethos, it elevated being more aware. The music and message have made me a stronger and a better person to this day,” stated Smalley.

Smalley’s poignant songwriting within his hardcore beginnings flows seamlessly within Don’t Sleep. The enduring merits celebrating the subculture remain and while Smalley reminds us to not be beholden to the past and stagnate our present, he acknowledges history’s omnipresence but it’s what we do with its power that can help shape the future.

“I strongly believe the past plays a strong role in having us examine ourselves and evolve. Speaking specifically about hardcore, I think it’s a little unfair for any of us to expect or demand bands still playing today to be fully beholden to messages they wrote and sang about years prior when they were younger. Think of it like snapshots within a big scrapbook. You may not be the same but each of those photos helps paint the next, new picture. Just because an old band today plays a song from their youth this does not invalidate the conviction they initially felt when they wrote the song. If they still happily recognize the song and the role it played in their life, it will have meaning today and that’s a beautiful thing,” said Smalley.

He continued recognizing how hardcore music and its message still endure and how its ethos remains inside him, even if we are always evolving.

“To see the music and message endure over time as we all still evolve, reinforces the beautiful power of this music. I still love hardcore! It’s a great form of music that resonates with so many people and when done with conviction and honest songwriting, it will spark something inside all of us. It has created bonds and friendships I cherish to this day. Don’t Sleep is the right message and music for me coming at the perfect time. I live in the present and I am even more aware of its value now.”

Photo: Ryan Brosius