In a recent Substack post, renowned journalist, documentarian, and Mister Organ survivor David Farrier recounts meeting Daniel Smith for the first time at a party. His new acquaintance, he says, proceeds to tell him an “utterly engrossing” story, one so captivating that various drunken revellers cannot distract Farrier.
“An outsider would have looked at this busy room of moving bodies and just seen the two of us locked in conversation for about 45 minutes,” he writes before introducing Smith’s story in full.
That story is not for here – suffice to say that it involves a rental scam and one of the most memorable characters from Nathan for You – but it’s pertinent to mention it here as Farrier realised in less than an hour exactly what Smith is: a skilled storyteller.
Listeners to the debut album of D.C. Maxwell – the artist project of Smith – are fully aware of this, too. Lone Rider, released last Friday, is, first and foremost, a collection of stories, the work of a writerly musician. From lonely cowboys to desperate murderers, Maxwell fully inhabits rather than uses his characters.
He offers striking sympathy towards their stories, without ever letting any of the stories wilt into sentimentality (as Tony Stamp noted, his songs are often subtly funny). Recalling the incisive raconteuring of Father John Misty or the deep soul-searching of Nick Cave, Maxwell decided to create these songs “to give songwriting the respect it deserves as a craft that can change lives and make people feel less alone.”
It also helps that the music backing the songwriting is coolly stylish. Maxwell crafts experimental country-pop with a flourish, inspired by everyone from Scott Walker to Glen Campbell to New Zealand’s own Chris Knox. As he details these stories of love and loss, rich production always accompanies him, including contributions from some of the country’s finest musicians.
Earlier this year, much was made of the fact that Maxwell was asked to support Future Islands in Auckland without having one single to his name yet. But Smith wasn’t a musical newcomer: he previously made “bratty teen pop-punk” as a teenager in Roidz (We’ve all been there: this writer suffered through an obnoxious punk band phase in university. “The Guinness Shits” chose their name because they “drunk too much of the former and played too much of the latter. They would book two shows and die a death each time.)
Smith’s return as D.C. Maxwell is, really, the maturation of a musician, finally ready and able to tell the stories they want to with empathy and poise (note that Joshua Tillman toiled in the majestic yet ill-fitting Fleet Foxes before being reborn as his Father John Misty troubadour character).
“I realised that songwriting was not done with me, even though I thought I was done with it. The album represents me coming back to myself; a stronger person and a much better songwriter,” Maxwell says.
To celebrate his debut album, Rolling Stone AU/NZ asked Smith to break down in greater detail just five of Lone Rider‘s songs. The feeling persists that he could have foraged through these stories for much longer.
Fans can also catch Maxwell live on his upcoming Australia and New Zealand tour, beginning in Wellington this week before concluding with a hometown show at Auckland’s St Mary’s-in-Holy Trinity on September 22nd (see full dates below).
D.C. Maxwell’s Lone Rider is out now via Danger Collective.
“The Last Stand of the Killer”
From its opening line “Get on the ground you motherfuckers,” I wanted this song to put the listener inside the head of an adrenaline pumping maniac during a bank robbery going sour.
While I have not yet robbed a bank, I still relate to the situation ‘the killer’ finds himself in. I, too, sometimes am a person with extremely poor decision-making. Who hasn’t been in a situation when you realise your plan was fucked from the beginning, and it’s going deeply wrong, but its too late to turn back and you just have to buckle in and see it out to its bitter end?
While a lot of my songs deal with the perspectives of people in heightened emotional states; love, lust, anger, grief, I think this song tops the list in hectic, stressful situations. The song was influenced by great robbery scenes in films such as Dog Day Afternoon, Straight Time, and the great early Heath Ledger film Two Hands.
The song itself I think of as a lilting Scots/Irish folk ballad of a doomed hero. My family going back are Scots, and the ‘Maxwell’ in D.C. Maxwell is my Scottish clan. So I am proud to honour my ancestors with this track, even though it probably has a lot more swearing than they’d like.
Some people find the song funny, but I tend to find it deeply sad. Especially when the doomed killer makes his final plea for understanding from the people he has taken hostage, before he faces his grim lonely end.
A dark song about a man confessing his obsession with his dominatrix. While on the surface he seems a hard-working ‘family man,’ the truth is that he only feels truly alive for ‘one hour a week’ in which he is tied up, choked, pissed on.
As a songwriter, I’m interested in love in all its different forms. The one-sided infatuation and power dynamic offered in a dom/sub BDSM relationship is a form of love not really explored much in music outside of The Velvet Underground.
It was important to me to keep the narrative closely tied to dominated man. In the song, the dominatrix is a faceless, nameless, imparter of pleasure via leather, violence, and urine. I wanted to talk about how passion, especially the idolatry worship of women some men find themselves in, can be a tormented and lonely place.
When I wrote the song, I always imagined the menacing churn of acoustic guitar surrounded by a swirling string section, influenced by Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”. But my producer Peter Ruddell knocked it out of the park writing a score that is dark, brooding, with a lustful violence bubbling below the surface.
“The Leading Man”
Many years ago, I read a news story about violence in a high school musical. One of the actors had been given a real knife instead of a prop knife, and had accidentally slit someone’s throat on stage.
The idea lay dormant in my head for a long time, but I thought it was too brutal by itself. Then I heard the song “The Rising Star” by Lee Hazlewood. It’s a great old big band country number written from the perspective of a backup guitarist “sitting on the bunk in the back of the bus” lamenting that his lead singer is a drunk and spoiling every show.
Combining these two ideas, I came up with “The Leading Man”. I knew the song was set on stage in a theater, and I really leaned into the theatricality. The murderer is “waiting in the wings,” seeing the Leading Man “so drunk that he can’t stand, being held up by a stagehand, whispering the lines in his ear.”
But for me, the song hinges on the audience. What the hell are they thinking? Do they scream, do they applaud?. To me, this question speaks to the ritual of performance, the dance between reality and fiction, and the fact that whatever happens on stage, it is the audience that makes the final call.
In a past life, I used to be a boxer.
I was not the best fighter, but I had a strange, off-kilter rhythm to my combinations and would find wild angles to throw punches from, which often caught much better opponents off-guard.
But I was terrible at protecting my face. I was cocky and tried to emulate Muhammad Ali, bouncing with hands low and chin high, inviting punches to counter. The result of this is that I would come home bruised and bloody, but I also learned the delicious ecstasy of having the living shit beaten out of you.
But this masculine thrill of violence has been covered to death in songs through the ages. I wanted to tell the story of the person outside of the ring, who sees the aftermath and deals with it with love and tenderness.
Inspired by stories of the wives of Ali, Foreman, Jackson, Dempsey, and knowing myself, the fallout of loving a person whose art is hurting them, I wrote this song about a lover watching their partner destroy themselves for their art. The song in itself is a quiet, tender moment, like a secret confided in a backroom while ‘the prizefighter’ sleeps.
“Out Stealing Horses”
This song follows a horse thief and their lover as they murder a man, steal his horses, then flee a posse hot on their trail.
Probably the most overtly cowboy moment on the record, with steel guitar sweeps and big male voiced choruses booming across the plains. Riding horses definitely has a certain rhythm to it, and I tried to get this frantic four legged pace across in the song.
But more than classic westerns, I was influenced by stories of Bonnie and Clyde, lovers on the run that commit acts of violence and theft that only contribute to the fire of love they have for each other.
But the lovers of “Out Stealing Horses” are doomed. The posse catches up with them, “gunshot comes down on them from high,” and the horse thief ends up bleeding out in his saddle. It felt false to end the song on this Hollywood moment of dust, blood, gunfire, and snorting horses. While it can be exciting to be a criminal on the run, it’s sad and lonely to be the person that loved them after they are gone.
The song ends on a spoken warning to the listener, one tinged with grief and sadness, and to me feels like an older person offering counsel to their younger self:
“So listen to me people, be careful who you love,
Some men are built to last, some to burn bright just the once,
And lovers left behind, live every moment in pain,
My baby was a horse thief, I miss him every day.”
D.C. Maxwell 2023 Australia & New Zealand Tour
Tickets available via dc-maxwell.com
San Fran, Wellington, NZ
September 8th (FREE ENTRY)
Ric’s Bar, Brisbane, QLD
September 9th (FREE ENTRY)
Vic on the Park, Sydney, NSW
Retreat Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
St Mary’s-in-Holy Trinity, Auckland, NZ