In the 1980’s The Del Fuegos were one of Boston’s most exciting up-and-coming bands. Exemplifying raw garage-rock in a pre-grunge era, the Del Fuegos combined country and punk, creating hi-energy pop-rock anthems. While controlling the local music scene, the band eventually broke through to audiences worldwide thanks to tours with bands like INXS, the Replacements and Tom Petty.
Founder and lead singer Dan Zanes would go on to become a Grammy Award winning songwriter for his family friendly songs, and earlier this month he reunited the notoriously volatile Del Fuegos for one more run of shows. The following is an unedited interview with Zanes about the now and then, and everything that happened in between. Enjoy
NG: So where are you living now?
DZ: I am in Brooklyn.
Do you still have an affinity toward Boston?
Oh yeah, when I lived there it was a jungle, but when we got back together that’s why we decided to do it in Boston.
When did you officially know it was time to breakup? I know you guys played a show last year, but…
Well, when Warren and Tom left the band after the third record. Even under the best of circumstances we were a tense and fearful group. But without them, things got more and more difficult and the lifestyle started to undermine everything. It was the first part of spontaneous combustion. There was another time when I made another record with Joe Donnelly and Adam Roth. It was probably never meant to be but when that record came out was right when Nirvana broke. We almost instantly felt like dinosaurs. By that point it was almost overdue. And it should have been, because if you look at it, everyone went on to do amazing things. It was an amazing way to waste our youth. We got to experience the “ups”, but we also got to experience the “downs”—and the downs were very meaningful. We all learned a lot from the art of it all.
I know you guys played last year, but why regroup now? Everyone seems to be regrouping. Are you in anyway trying to cash in?
No. I think I’ve actually had more fun with the band in the past year than I ever had before. But also, Kenny, who produced those shows, was willing and able to keep us going for a little bit. He connected with Frank Reilly who booked the Del Fuegos in the early days and is now one of the giants of booking agents, and the two of them put the tour together. We always wanted to do it, but we all have great day jobs and we never had the time to get the production.
Was anyone particularly hard to convince at all?
No one was hard to convince, but I think Tom, our bass player has the least amount of flexibility and has a very intense family life now. So he was the most challenging one. But he made it happen. That is a great thing. We actually just recorded an 8-song EP. We’ll have cds at the shows and have it on iTunes and all that jazz. We recorded it and mixed it and all that in a week and fleshed it out into a record to give something new to our fans. We’re really happy to be an oldies band. It’s a great rock n roll tradition.
Besides playing last year, do you remember your final show as the Del Fuegos and what was going through your mind knowing it was all coming to an end?
No, I don’t. I think I probably blocked it out of my mind. Undoubtedly it was a very painful experience. There were a lot of difficult years after my brother walked away… difficult for everybody.
Do you have any regrets about the old days?
No. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done differently, but there are more things that I think we were able to work through, and as difficult as it was, I think the universe… well, things happen for a reason and I don’t need to question it.
Looking back, how would you say the songs hold up overtime, and what would you say is the band’s legacy?
I think our legacy would be in our live shows. I think our recordings are incredibly dated and I don’t think any record should have that much reverb on it. When we did the third record, I think it was overblown and it was overblown to make up for weak songwriting. I think our legacy were the live shows. I think we had a lot of internal angst and I think we were able to work it out onstage.
Do you have any specific highlights you’d like to comment on?
I think the most memorable touring we did was with INXS. That was an eye-opening summer. We had never seen anything like that before. To see teenage girls going that crazy and to see band like that on the way up, getting so big, so fast, was a flash out of a real rock n roll story. And we got to see it right before our eyes. We were in a real good place that year, so we got to enjoy it while it was happening.
What prompted you to start doing family music after rock n roll and what did you do in between projects?
I went into hiding and turned my back on rock n roll entirely. I was just listening to gospel and bluegrass music. That was all I really cared about. I wrote some instrumental songs for some commercials and pieced together things here and there. When my daughter was born I had a solo record and was trying to think about what all ages music would look like. I was able to record something that I wasn’t able to find in record stores and made other kids tapes to hand out to their mothers. All of a sudden, no one cared about my solo record, but everyone wanted a copy of this cassette tape. And I had more fun doing it than I ever had in music before, so I stopped the pop music and went full-time into this family music.
How did that change your view of your early recordings? Was it in any way like repentance?
I was able to take my time with the Del Fuegos as music as a social thing and apply that to family music. I knew the value of live performance. A lot of people were curious. Here’s this guy going from rock n roll to family music. We’ll have to check it out. That really helped me.
How is it different playing in front of wild crazy adolescents in a rock band vs. playing in front of children and their parents?
Kids are everything I wanted to be growing up as an audience. Kids can have a wild dance party before lunch time. The whole idea that the Del Fuegos had was if the people aren’t dancing then it’s not even a gig. It was all about the audience being a part of what was happening. Kids are inherently uninhibited. They don’t need alcohol to loosen up like most adults do. The audiences are wilder now, but the underlying spirit of social music is the same.
Do you remember the music that was important to you as a kid?
Sure– Leadbelly. That was the model for everything I do now. It’s everything you need to know for a lifetime full of family music. The inspiration is all there, 100 percent.
Dan Zanes 20+ years later
I think I’ve become a better songwriter over time. I think the idea is the same. You dig down deep and add something emotional that means something to your audience and of course has meaning for me first.
And you have a daughter?
Yeah, she’s going off to college next year.
So as someone who grew up listening to your music as a child and now is at an age where she has probably grown out of that and now listens to what you used to play… how does she view your two distinctive musical styles?
I think there’s a fair amount of amusement. I think at times its kind of funny. She’s always been really supportive. But me and music is all she knows. She grew up with musicians coming in and out of the house all the time. Someone at her school told her about the Del Fuegos and she thought that was funny. It’s all kind of comical that we’re getting back together, but I think she appreciates that in life anything is possible.