Dan Israel Interview

INTERVIEW WITH DAN ISRAEL FROM TheCelebrityCafe.com ARCHIVES

DM) Where did you come up with the name The Cultivators?

DI) Actually, I didn't come up with the name. Our bass player, Jeremy Smith, did. He just blurted it out one time at practice, and it seemed to fit pretty well. I had gone through a whole bunch of names that really kind of sucked (we won't discuss them...too embarrassing), and I wasn't having much luck in coming up with one that worked. Naming a band is incredibly difficult, I think. Everything sounds so stupid. Or it sounds really good at the time, and then the next day it sounds stupid. Or it's already been taken, a common problem these days. But I just liked the name "The Cultivators" right away...It had a lot of different connotations. Plus, I still think it's kind of funny that when you plug our name into an Internet search engine (oh...not that I've ever done anything so egotistical and self-serving...heavens no!), you pull up all these "home growers" pages, if you know what I mean. By the way, we used to be "Dan Israel and the Cultivators", but then that jerk Dan Israel got a big head and left the band...No, actually, "The Cultivators" just sounded good on its own, I guess.

DM) So that evil jerk of a bum never really left the group?

DI) No, I never left the band--not even for a moment.

DM) Have there ever been moments when you've thought about it?

DI) Not really...not with this band. The lines have been drawn a little more clearly in this band. It's not a dictatorship, but it's not a total democracy either, I suppose. There had been times with my previous band, Potter's Field (in Austin, TX), when I would get so incredibly frustrated because we were supposed to be this equal partnership-type of band, but the workload fell increasingly onto my shoulders as time went on. With the Cultivators, I'll admit that I've felt some frustration at times, but we started off on a better foundation...or maybe just a more honest foundation. That is, it was essentially going to be up to me to do the legwork for the band...the booking, the contacts, etc. But I would delegate certain things out to the other band members. So no, leaving the band has never really been something I considered much. It's a great band, and we work together very well musically. Maybe sometime off in the future I'll get the itch to play with other musicians, or maybe the other guys in the band will get that itch, or I might even want to record a solo acoustic album or something, but that's about the extent of it.

DM) Do you ever cover any other bands when you perform live?

DI) Yeah, we do a few covers, but not a whole lot. For a long time we've done "Down By the Seaside", by Led Zeppelin, off their album, Physical Graffiti. That's kind of a crowd pleaser. The Beatles' "Ballad of John and Yoko" has stayed in the set off and on over the years, as has John Prine's "Picture Show." And if we're feeling a little goofy, we've been known pull out Blondie's "Heart of Glass." It's a pretty incongruous cover for our band (four Midwestern guys, you know), so it has more humor value than musical value; our version does, anyway. I always thought that was a great song, though..."Once I had a love, and it was a gas, soon turned out, to be a pain in the ass"...great lyrics, in a funny way. And we do Dylan's "Highway 61" sometimes too; that's a fun one. I guess my philosophy with covers is that they should be really fun to play, and if possible we make them ones that people kind of know; otherwise, why bother? But I still think we average about 90% originals at our shows.

DM) How did you get into doing The Beatles' "Ballad of John and Yoko"?

DI) It's funny that you ask that, since it's sort of a strange song to be doing, in a way, especially since I'm Jewish and the main line in the song is "Christ, you know it ain't easy, you know how hard it can be, the way things are going, they're gonna crucify me." But I guess I try not to think about it too much and just chalk up our performance of that song to my hero worship of John Lennon. The main thing is that the song has a great groove that people like to dance to, and I doubt when they're doing that, that they're thinking about the greater significance of it all.

DM) What do you admire about John Lennon?

DI) I always admired John Lennon's honesty. He always seemed to write and speak from the heart. He seemed to follow his own muse, no matter what, even if something seemed unpopular or uncool. The whole Yoko thing...I've always thought it was ridiculous that people blamed Yoko for "breaking up the Beatles." The guy was in love. It seems simple to me, and if you want to blame someone for that, I guess you should have blamed John. I guess in this day and age there just don't seem to be all that many people who will stand up for unpopular or uncool things. Everyone seems really concerned with impressing people and getting ahead. I'm not pointing fingers. I'm probably as guilty as the next guy, and John Lennon wasn't perfect either. But he did take a stand many times in his life, and he defended the things that really mattered. I was only about 10 years old when he was killed, but I remember being really upset.

DM) What's your songwriting process?

DI) Well, lately I haven't had one! I haven't written a new song in a while; it just goes like that sometimes. Usually, when I'm in a writing "mode", I tend to have a few songs that I'm working on all at once, like a little "batch" or something. Usually, they're just made up of ideas...musical ideas...maybe a chord progression I like, combined with some lyrical idea that seems to match or something. I don't really know how it all comes together. It's magical, and yet it's totally something I have to work at, too. That probably seems contradictory, but it's rare that I don't agonize over some aspect of a song along the way, even if the original idea came really easily. But it can be best to just kind of leave it alone for a while and see what happens. Then, with a lot of songs, I just get so frustrated that I put them away for a while, unfinished, and revisit them later to see if there's still anything there. And make no mistake, this is not a "pure" process, at least for me. I recycle riffs and ideas, use dummy lyrics that are totally stupid, just so I can play something...I don't know. It's a weird craft. Plus, part of me is such a "popster." I always wanted to write a song as good as the great one I just heard on the radio. (Sadly, that doesn't happen as much for me these days, since I don't hear a hell of a lot on the radio that makes me want to stretch like that.) So it's more a matter of challenging myself to create something that I feel really proud of and want to come back to and play again and again. That's the challenge. I'm probably my own worst critic, so it becomes a challenge to appease that internal critic. A lot of times, there's this voice saying, "No, that's lame, that's a cheesy rhyme," etc. Then there's times that you just feel you definitely connected with something, lyrically. My friend Colin Leyden, who's a great songwriter in Austin, TX...we always talk about struggling with lyrics and stuff. Basically, you're just trying to express something...anger, joy, sadness...and that can be a really difficult thing to do while avoiding some of the cliches. Cliches aren't all bad, mind you. A lot of great songs are totally cliche-ridden...they just do it in a good way, I guess.

DM) What do you do for fun outside of music?

DI) Really, I'm kind of a family man. I'm living back in my hometown of Minneapolis. I've been back here for about three years, after living in Chicago and Austin, TX for seven years, so I really like being able to be with everyone, not just when I can afford to fly or drive home. I have lots of old friends back here, too. Also, I'm a big movie buff; I go see a lot of them, rent a lot of them. I guess I sometimes see great screenwriters and directors in the same light as I do some songwriters. You get really interested in what they do and you want to see all their stuff. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick... there's a lot more, many more. People whose films kind of take a unique look at things. Oh, and I'm married now, so my wife and I are going to try to do some traveling this summer, just get away from it all for a while. Everyone needs that, I think. I work at the Minnesota State Legislature, and for approximately five months a year (when they're in session), I do nothing but look at words, so I probably don't end up reading as much as I'd like to. When I get older and my schedule gets less hectic--hopefully!--I'd like to get more into reading. I've always found a lot of peace in a good book. So no crazy revelations to share here. I guess I'm a pretty average person, in many ways. I just have this "bug" that makes me want to make music and pursue the rock and roll dream. Now that part is a little crazy.

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