DS Interview: Darius Koski (Swingin Utters) on his new solo album, “What Was Once Is By And Gone,” and hitting the road with a new Utters linuep

If you rewind the punk rock history tape back a couple of years, you’ll come across the release of Sisu, the debut solo release from Darius Koski. The album was very much rooted in Americana and marked a bit of a sonic departure for the longtime Swingin’ Utters and Filthy Thieving Bastards guitarist and principle songwriter, though it still fit within the more diverse end of the Utters spectrum at the very least. Next Friday, Koski will release his sophomore solo album, What Was Once Is By And Gone, again via his lifelong label home, Fat Wreck Chords. This time out, Koski pushes the genre-bending element to new heights; while there is still a thread of Americana that pops up, also present are very heavy rockabilly and Johnny Cash and Nick Cave and Tom Waits-inspired sounds that each create a very different, very real mood. And that’s all by design.

I don’t want to play one style of music; I like too many things,” says Koski, who spent a dozen of his most formative years playing solely violin before eventually moving on to guitar and finding punk rock. “I just wanted to write songs, that’s basically what it came down to. I wasn’t really interested in being a virtuoso, which is all that’s about. And that’s great, but I would rather write songs than be a ripping violin player.” Still, that early experience with incredibly broad musical horizons created an early, lasting influence. “Too many things influence me and I’m interested in too many things to be a one note kind of dude, you know? So yeah, I think this one is even more all-over-the-place than the last one, for sure.”

Many of the tracks on Sisu were culled from years and years of songs that Koski has stored up, forming a catalog consisting of many dozens of tracks that date back close to three decades. It should go without saying that technological advances in the audio recording world have advanced many times over in the years since Koski began writing and recording, creating an interesting set of challenges when it comes time to revisit old tracks. “For a while, I was recording on – I don’t know if you remember, but those little cassette tapes? What do you do with those?” he asks, half-jokingly. As it turns out, what you do is press play on a microcassette player and record on a regular cassette tape, creating a lo-fidelity, hiss-heavy mix to try to decipher. “For the most part, I’m pretty anal about cataloging stuff because I’m just afraid of losing things. I’m totally that guy that spends a month being a month being obsessed with transferring his vinyl!”

The process was much the same on What Was Once Is By And Gone. Some of the tracks began simply as hummed notes into his iPhone, while some date as far back as the mid-1990s. Of particular note is the track “Fresh Glass of Nothing,” a song that was coincidentally written by his wife, herself an avid poet with whom he’s actually collaborated many times through out his songwriting career; the bulk of the Utters’ classic album Five Lessons Learned, for example, was culled primarily from her old poetry books. “Fresh Glass of Nothing” went a little differently, however. Back in the mid-90s, Koski had been in the market for a 4-track cassette recorder, and his wife purchased one while he was away on tour. “She was messing around with it at home to figure out how it worked,” he explains. One thing lead to another, and by the time Koski had returned from tour, his wife “had recorded two songs! Like, fully done songs, with her playing guitar, her lyrics, and her singing the melody! She’s not  a songwriter, but she had these two songs, and the other one is great too, but (“Fresh Glass of Nothing”) was, like, phenomenal!” Koski added the solo that appears on the song, but the rest of what you hear on the album is completely his wife’s brainchild.

Speaking of touring; Koski is putting down the day job plumber’s wrenches and gearing up to head out on the road as a solo artist for the first real time, as he’ll be doing double duty by opening up the Swingin’ Utters upcoming November dates. While he’s played a handful of dates acoustic and by himself, this time out he’ll have a small band backing him up, helping to fill out the added instrumentation that is so important to the sound on What Was Once Is By And Gone. While it can be hard to afford a full band to go on the road with, it is ultimately a goal of Koski’s to make touring with a backing band more of a part of his regular routine. I really, really want to try to make that happen,” he explains, “because the majority of the stuff on both of these records really has a lot of instrumentation and drums.” On the upcoming run, Koski has enlisted the help of some of his Utters brethren: “for this tour, Luke (Ray) is going to play drums and Tony who’s playing bass for the Utters is going to play bass, so we’ll be a three-piece.” The Tony in question is none other than Tony Teixiera, whom you probably know from his time in Cobra Skulls, Western Addiction, and most recently with alongside Luke Ray in Sciatic Nerve. Teixiera filled in for Utters bassist Miles Peck on their most recent tour and will be doing so again from here on out. “He’s pretty much our bass player now,” adding that Peck “just didn’t want to fucking tour any more. It’s not in him. It’s hard, man. It’s not for everybody.

Head here to see where you can catch Koski and the newly-retooled Swingin’ Utters lineup on the road, beginning next week in Arizona. Pre-orders for What Was Once Is By And Gone, which is due out November 3rd on Fat Wreck, are available at the same link. Meanwhile, you can head below to check out our full Q&A with Koski!

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Congrats on the new album. Vanessa (from Fat Wreck) sent me the new album I think on Friday and I think I’ve listened to it ten or twelve times on repeat over the weekend since then.

Darius Koski: Oh nice! Awesome!

I know the album isn’t out until the end of next week, but how does it feel having number two under your belt now?

Super exciting. I’m happy about it. Honestly, I wish it didn’t take as long as it did. If it was up to me, I’d come up with one a year, easy. It’s easier to say it than to do it, basically because I work and stuff (*both laugh*). There’s no time, you know what I mean? The material’s all there for the Utters, for my solo stuff. It’s all there, it’s just really hard to make time to do this stuff when this isn’t what you do full-time, you know what I mean?

Yeah, right. What do you do full-time, out of curiosity?

I’m a plumber. It could be worse, I don’t do any service work. It’s all new construction. But it’s still a pain in the ass. It’s hard work. I’m getting older and my knees are shot, etc. etc. But it’s fine. It’s a good trade.

An old, long-time landlord of mine was a plumber so I got to know him pretty well and then how beat up he got as the years went on, and he was ready to teach his kid the business so he could move on…

Exactly. It’s brutal.

And then his kid was like “nah, I’m going to college. There’s no way…”

Haha…right. “Why would I want to be a plumber? Crazy?” (*both laugh*)

Exactly! So Sisu came out two, two-and-a-half years ago now, and I know that a lot of the tracks on that, according to the press at the time, had sort of been sitting in the bank of songs waiting to be used in the future.

Yup!

Is that sort of the case this time around too?

Yeah, it is! It’s pretty much the case this time too. I think it’s going to be the case for the next few, just because the way I look at it, I have over twenty years of backlog of stuff that I think is good enough. There’s a lot of songs that I wrote in, like, 1990 that now listening to them it’s kinda like “Ehhh…” you know? (*both laugh*) A lot of them are old. Some of them are twenty-two or twenty-three years old. One of them that I didn’t even put on the record was from ‘91 or something.

Really???

It didn’t make the record, but it was pretty good still. There’s other ones that are pretty brand new… a lot of them are just kind of riffs on the iPhone and just kind of expanding on that. But a lot of those are brand new.

Yeah, I was going to ask where you store a lot of that stuff. Particularly if there’s stuff from either ‘91 or ‘99, the recording media have changed a couple of times over since then.

I think there’s some songs that are stored on cassette tapes. For the most part, I’m pretty anal about cataloging stuff because I’m just afraid of losing things. I’m totally that guy that spends a month being a month being obsessed with transferring his vinyl. (*both laugh*) I’ve done that with cassette tapes and all that stuff, really. For a while, I was recording on – I don’t know if you remember, but those little cassette tapes? What do you do with those? So I had that and then I would record it into a regular cassette recorder (*both laugh)! So then I had recordings from a mini cassette onto a regular cassette…those are some really bad recordings, that old stuff! A lot of these songs I just had been meaning to do something with for so long but there weren’t … there’s certain types that would work on Swingin’ Utters records, but there’s certain types that wouldn’t really work, so they just sat there.

I feel like that’s especially the case on the new album. I feel like even though people saw Sisu as a bit of a departure from Swingin Utters, there are enough “out of left field” songs in the catalog where it wasn’t totally different…

Yeah!

…but this one goes a bit above and beyond the idea of bending genres, you know?

Yeah, I kinda think so too. I try to do that with everything that I do, with any of the Utters stuff and Filthy Thieving Bastards. Obviously the Utters stuff is — we’re a punk rock band and I know that, but we’ve tried to mix it up over the years. With Filthy Thieving Bastards as well, because all of our tastes are so eclectic and we like so many different types of music. And really, I don’t want to play one style of music. I like too many things. Too many things influence me and I’m interested in too many things to be a one note kind of dude, you know? So yeah, I think this one is even more all-over-the-place than the last one, for sure. It’s not as much Americana, I don’t think.

No, there are some rockabilly or old Johnny Cash feels, but then there are some that are quieter and moodier and more melodic and sort of Tom Waits-ian in the imagery the melodies create.

Right, yeah. Totally.

There’s a few more instrumental tracks on this one too. Is that by design?

It sort of became by design, because that’s been another thing that’s tortured me over the years! (*both laugh*) I have a shitload of instrumentals, and a lot of them are full-length songs and I just don’t want to add vocals to them because they don’t need it! They’re just instrumentals naturally. But what the hell do you do with that when you’re in a punk band? So I convinced Fat Mike into this, but I don’t think I could convince him into letting me record an album full of instrumentals! (*both laugh*) Maybe someday I’ll do something just on my own or something. But, I was like, “man, I have some of these riffs that I like a lot but that maybe don’t need to be expanded on. Maybe they can just be what they are; forty second songs.” And then I started thinking about the album as a whole and that maybe I could just intersperse them in there, just sneak them in. And that just gives it a whole different feel. So that got me going on…I don’t want to say a concept album, because I would love to do that some day. I love the Kinks, and they did a million of those. But it got me thinking more about that and it just worked. Interspersing them through the types of songs that are on this album just worked. So it certainly became pretty intentional!

Songs like “Soap Opera,” one of the instrumentals, have a sort of film score feel to them…

Yeah, that’s totally one of my ultimate goals. That’s really what I want to do eventually. I want to do that really badly, and I don’t even know how to get a foot in the door because I’m sure a lot of people want to do that. But I would really love to score films, and that’s totally how I think of that song, absolutely.

That’s exactly what I’ve thought of in listening to it. It sounds like it’s from a movie…

Yeah, it sounds like it’s from a weird, melodramatic scene! (*both laugh*) Totally!

Songs like “A Version,” which has got the horn in it and it’s got this sort of weird carnival, sad clown theme music to it. When you write tracks like that, do you start on acoustic and then think “oh, this might sound cool on something else,” or do you play all of the instruments?

No, that one, I have like this kind of shitty, $200 Yamaha synthesizer that I mess around with a lot. The demo of that pretty much sounds like the recording. It’s just organ playing that riff…that’s actually an older one. That’s probably ten years old. But then I went back recently and thought “shit, I should do something with that song” and I added that trumpet melody on this bad synthesizer, and I had that trumpet but I was like “man, it’s not really the right sound.” And then I decided that I wanted a French horn, but I couldn’t find a French horn player that I could afford. So once the French horn wasn’t going to happen, I got a trumpet player, and that totally changes the entire mood of the song, and that’s awesome. Because, I mean a French horn would have sounded much more positive and triumphant sounding, not lonely. So that was a happy mistake!

One thing that didn’t come along with the album was liner notes to figure out who exactly plays on the album with you. Do you have the same sort of cast as on Sisu? It seems like there are more instruments this time around.

It’s similar. I played more stuff; I kinda handled a little bit more this time around. Miles (Peck, Swingin’ Utters, toyGuitar) played cello on a song. Joe Raposo (Lagwagon) played some stand-up bass. And then I had Luke, who drums for the Utters, do all the drums. And then I had horns. Everything else, I did.

How long have you been playing all of the more obscure instruments? Like, how does one learn to play glockenspiel?

You know, if you know how to play piano, you can play that. The notes are the same and everything, but playing it is obviously slightly different. If you know the keyboard, you can play that though.

To go way back into the Darius history books, what did you first first start learning and playing music on?

When I was five, I started taking violin lessons and I did that pretty seriously — like, you know, practicing for an hour a day. And I did that until I was seventeen. That’s all I played from five to seventeen was classical music. I was groomed to be a classical violinist, I was in tons of orchestras and symphonies and chamber groups, and I just kinda didn’t really like the whole culture that much. I just wanted to write songs, that’s basically what it came down to. I wasn’t really interested in being a virtuoso, which is all that’s about. And that’s great, but I would rather write songs than be a ripping violin player. I wasn’t in the right place, I guess, musically, but it’s helped me a lot, obviously.

When you finally made the switch over to guitar and to eventually playing punk rock…it’s probably a weird thing for people in the punk scene to hear that you grew up playing violin for twelve years, but at the same time it’s got to be just as weird for the people that you grew up playing chamber music with to say “how did he end up in punk rock? He’s a violin player!”

I know! I don’t know anybody anybody anymore from that point in my life. I know some people that I’ve played with, but I actually knew them from other things besides that. I didn’t really stay in touch with many of those people, and I was already kind of in the punk rock scene anyways. I didn’t really listen to a lot of that music. I played a lot of it and I know a lot of it, but I never really listened to tons of it. So after hearing every different kind of music growing up, I just realized that I wanted to do that; I wanted to write music. You can’t really do that — I mean, you can obviously, but it just wasn’t the right time. I just grew out of it I guess. It just wasn’t for me! It’s very structured.

There’s a couple other sort of more “worldly” sounding songs, “Fresh Glass of Nothing” has sort of what I picture is an Eastern European feel to it. Was that in your wheelhouse too growing up in terms of your listening experience?

Yeah, I like to listen to traditional music from just about anywhere really. I like a lot of Middle Eastern stuff, I remember always liking Greek music a lot. Those melodies are amazing, and their scales are different. I like those melodies a lot and I like to play around with that kind of stuff. A big influence with a lot of that stuff when it comes to that is not just listening to traditional music from whatever country but a lot of listening to The Pogues when I was a kid. They used that kind of stuff a lot, and they were HUGE influences for me. That probably gave me the idea early on that “oh, you could do this do!” And also, playing classical music for so long was huge as far as that goes; that international flavor.

But the funny thing about that song was that my wife has co-written songs with me for years; forever. Whether it was the Utters or whatever. She used to write a lot of poetry and I would go through her notebooks and I would basically lift her lyrics and structure them a little differently and maybe add words here or there and make melodies out of them. Five Lessons Learned is like ninety percent her lyrics. So that song, in the mid-90s, we bought a 4-track cassette recorder and I was on tour when she went and bought it and was messing around with it at home to figure out how it worked. I came back from tour — and she plays a little bit of guitar — but I came back from tour, and she had recorded two songs! Like, fully done songs, with her playing guitar, her lyrics, and her singing the melody! She’s not  a songwriter, but she had these two songs, and the other one is great too, but this one was, like, phenomenal!

That’s awesome!

I was like “oh my god!” With that song, the only thing I changed was I added the solo. Otherwise, she wrote that song entirely!

She had no experience even recording things before?

Yeah, I was like “I want to get a 4-track” but then I went on tour. So she was like “oh, I bought this 4-track and I’m going to see how it works!” And I came back and she wrote these two songs and I was like “this is amazing!”

That’s rad as hell! Would you give thought to having her sing a song like that on an album?

She sings on that song on the album. It’s probably not quite loud enough —

–well, nothing’s loud enough on my shitty laptop speakers —

But yeah, she harmonizes on the bridge. She’s in there! That’s her!

Does it take much convincing to take Fat Mike to put out an album like this or because you have such a long history with him, do you kind of have carte blanche to do whatever?

I wouldn’t quite say I have carte blanche. I think it’s easier for somebody like me than for somebody off the street. I think now that I’m two records deep — I think that once I released the first one which was already kind of weird for Fat, he liked it, they liked it, it was fine. It didn’t sell shit, but I guess that doesn’t matter as much anymore because nobody sells anything. That helped, getting the first one under my belt. I’ll go for as long as they’ll let me!! (*both laugh*)

When you’re writing music, are you effectively — I don’t want to say just writing songs — but do you write for a particular project or do you just write and see where it goes?

Yeah, sometimes I do. I was kinda doing that for the Utters maybe a year ago. We were going to do a record, but we had kinda put it on hold. So I kinda needed to write some more punk kind of songs so I started doing that. Generally though, it’s not very deliberate; I write and then whatever comes out comes out. I suppose occasionally if we need a few songs, I’ll write a few songs that are specifically for the Utters, but in general it’s just a hundred little notes on my iPhone voice memo thing. It’s just whatever comes out, basically.

I think there’s a few songs that if they were reworked a little differently they would have at least fit on Sisu but would have fit on the weirder end of the Utters spectrum too, you know.

Oh sure, absolutely.

Once you make the decision that a song is specifically yours, is that when the decision to add all the other instrumentation comes in?

Well, I think once I have an idea for a melody and I hum it into my phone or whatever, I already know what kind of song it’s going to be. Basically, a lot of those songs that were sort of Swingin’ Utters album-ender songs, like “Fruitless Fortunes” and “My Glass House” and “Shadows And Lies” and songs like that – as far as I’m concerned, those are my solo songs that I didn’t want to part with but then I was like “what the fuck am I going to do with them, they’re just sitting here collecting dust.” So I put them on Utters albums and it worked for us because the whole thing is to be diverse.

There’s obviously a lot of instrumentation on the album and you’re headed out on the road doing double duty on the Utters tour in a couple weeks. When you’re opening these shows, will it be you playing acoustic or do you have instrumentation things in mind?

Well, pretty much except for one time, every time I’ve played solo it’s been acoustic, which is fine. But I really, really prefer having a band. That’s my goal, to have a band. It’s hard to afford a band if you go on tour, but I really, really want to try to make that happen because the majority of the stuff on both of these records really has a lot of instrumentation and drums. For this tour, Luke is going to play drums and Tony who’s playing bass for the Utters is going to play bass, so we’ll be a three-piece. It’s sounding really good. I’m stoked!

That’s awesome…but so wait…who’s playing bass for the Utters now?

His name is Tony Teixeira.

Oh okay!

He basically grew up with Luke and they’ve been in a million bands together. They are in this band Sciatic Nerve together and they are AWESOME!

Yeah! I just, just got that from…

…Anxious and Angry. It’s so, so good. He was also in the Cobra Skulls and he’s also in Western Addiction. He did the last tour with us and he’s doing this one. He’s pretty much our bass player now.

Oh wow. I guess I didn’t realize Miles wasn’t doing it.

Yeah, it was really sad. He’s just over — he doesn’t want to tour. It’s not in him. He just didn’t want to fucking tour any more. It’s hard, man. It’s not for everybody.

I can only imagine, really. I normally hate asking song origin style questions because I feel like so much of that stuff is subjective to the listener, but I think it’s the last song on the album, “Another Man” — that song hit me like a ton of bricks, man. That song I find to be just pitch perfect.

That’s really funny, because that song I wasn’t even sure if it should be on the record, but everyone at Fat loved it. I was like “aww, really?” That song, literally, is one of those songs that just came pouring out immediately. I didn’t work on the lyrics or the music. I put my phone on “record” and played the song, basically. I didn’t have the lyrics obviously at first, but I just wrote it totally organic, stream of consciousness. There’s a lot of sentiments int here that are just me, I guess.

That sentiment about wanting to be the envy of another man, that line is perfect and it’s got so many layers of meaning to it, man.

Thanks! (*laughs*)

Like I said, this stuff is obviously subjective to the listener —

Right!

— but that song totally made sense in a really, really personal way. So thanks for putting it on the album as it turns out!

Yeah! I know (*both laugh*)

Are you excited to get this album on the road? Have you been out to the East Coast solo before?

No, not solo. I’ve done very little solo. I did a show at Punk Rock Bowling. I did about a week on the West Coast, and just a smattering of shows here and there but just in California. I haven’t done much solo at all. I’m really planning on getting out a lot more on this one.

Good, I’m glad. Even though I guess that means putting the plumbing business aside for a while.

Oh my god…yeah! (*both laugh*)


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