Playing for the trees: Dangermuffin to benefit nature conservancy
Dangermuffin makes music about the elements. The band, which got its start on Folly Island in South Carolina, now operates out of Western North Carolina.
Toggling between the ocean and the mountains may have had something to do with the band’s focus on subjects that touch on earth, water and fire. I spoke with singer and guitarist Dan Lotti earlier this week by phone from his home in Asheville about the band. Their goal is to subtly awaken people to the idea that we are part of nature and the elements, and because of those connections, some of our troubles can be healed by reorienting our perspective about where we fit in with elements around us.
That’s all true on one level, but on another level, Dangermuffin just makes reggae-inflected feel-good acoustic folk with a mellow beachy feel and hints of Americana and a jam-band expansiveness. Fans of Jack Johnson, the Police, Sublime, and the Grateful Dead will find plenty to relate to in the music. Lotti and his bandmates don’t want their music to be preachy in any way, and they might even be reluctant to jump right in and expound on their beliefs about our interconnectedness, and about the mysterious ways that energy moves through our bodies and through the cosmos, and the ways that music relates to all that. You don’t really need to concern yourself with their views about how the universe might operate: Their songs give you a pretty strong hint of where they’re coming from.
Dangermuffin will play at the Crown at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro on Friday, Aug. 9. (The event is the kick-off to Scrapefest, a street music festival to be held on Aug. 10.) Proceeds from the show will benefit the local nonprofit Piedmont Nature Conservancy.
If a lot of roots music is about retracing and exploring where our grandparents and great-grandparents came from, which oceans they crossed and which scraps of their heritage they brought with them to blend into new combinations, Dangermuffin makes a kind of roots music on a geological frame, probing more ancient timelines. Lotti is into origin stories, mythology, deep time and archetypes. The band’s 2017 album Heritage gets into questions about where we come from. The opening track, “Ode To My Heritage,” isn’t exactly about any particular cultural identity, but more of a general open question: “Pulls me forward, feels so strong, ode to my heritage, wherever I’m from,” sings Lotti in a song that starts out solemn and almost hymn-like and slides into a New Orleans-ish march groove, with slurring slide guitar and syncopated accents on the drums. “I take you way back, before the flood,” goes one line.
Notice the way the lyrics tie heritage back to the water, to the sea. For Lotti, the ocean is an anchor for reflection, a powerful constant that allows us to be alive on earth, but that also links us to the rhythms of the heavens. And while many of us might think of the beach as a place to go on summer vacation, to bask in the sun and surf, Lotti said when he lived near the shore, the quiet of the offseason was one of his favorite parts of the year.
“Some of the most inspirational times that I had out there were in the winter, and there was no one around, and it was just you and the ocean,” he said. “When you’re able to be out there alone, it’s meditative, and it was sort of a basic starting point for a lot of the songwriting.”
Tides, currents, the salty breeze, the surge and swirl of the sea, the ways that our minds and our consciousness have vastness, rhythm and mystery akin to the ocean — those ideas cycle through Dangermuffin songs like “Waves.” Desert, forest, ocean and sun are forces that link and shape us, and Lotti’s songs, like “Ancient Family,” seem to suggest that those commonalities are as real and meaningful as any other idea or man-made thing we might build our allegiances around.
“There’s no separation between humans and nature, we’ve just created all of these artificial constructs,” Lotti said. “There’s real healing with all of these elements. They’re a part of us.”
Lotti’s wife is an herbalist, and so he lives with the notion that sources of healing spring from the earth.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about the idea of plants as being a bridge with our relationship to nature,” Lotti said.
Later in our conversation when I mention that Lotti has said in other interviews that he and the band are fond of playing their music outdoors, “We like to think that we’re playing for the trees — they’re living entities,” Lotti said.
Now, there are loads of people who might scoff at the idea that music — organized sound made by people — could be played for the trees. But Dangermuffin has an album called Songs For The Universe, so they clearly think of their music as being oriented toward, or at least made in honor of, something beyond just human ears.
Music is, after all, vibrations in the air. So it has those same relationships to the atmosphere and the earth that Lotti keeps coming back to as a lyricist. That’s one way of understanding the pull that music has on us.
“We are an energetic body,” Lotti said. “We’re all energy. That consists of our thoughts and the baggage we can carry with us, and, with music, that’s what we’re working with.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Dangermuffin at The Crown at the Carolina Theatre, 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro, on Aug. 9, at 8 p.m. $15.