The Direction of Rock by a Novice Musical Historian from Venice Beach
For someone who was completely isolated from the realms of popular music throughout his entire childhood, Jacob Dillan Summers has a firm grasp on what it takes to create a solid rock song.
Going by the moniker Avid Dancer, the Venice Beach-based singer grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household where he was permitted only to listen to Christian music up until his late teens. He fostered his love of music by becoming a champion drumline drummer and later attended the University of Tennessee to study music education.
Dropping out after his freshman year, he enrolled in the U.S. Marines on September 12, 2001, going on to serve as a drummer in the prestigious U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps. It was also in the Marines that Summer finally started exploring rock and other musical genres, encountering bands like The Beatles and The Kinks well after music fans of a similar age had discovered them for the first time.
Summers continues his musical journey on a nearly daily basis, and he’s preparing to release his first album – 1st Bath – on April 14. Recorded at Rockets Red Glare studio by noted producer Raymond Richards (Local Natives, Ferraby Lionheart), 1st Bath is made up of songs that range from psychedelic to Americana and everything in between. It’s an impressive collection of music by a musician who says he didn’t really know how to play the guitar up until a few years ago.
Already opening up for several notable musicians (Mac DeMarco, Cold War Kids, Warpaint) and coming off a month-long musical residency at the legendary Echo in Los Angeles, Summers and his Avid Dancer cohorts open up for Delta Spirit on the band’s East Coast swing (including stops in Lancaster and Baltimore). We caught up with Summers earlier this month at his home in Venice Beach as he was working on recording a reggae song.
Michael Yoder: What’s the reggae song about.
Jacob Dillan Summers: I like old reggae – like ‘60s stuff that sounds like a band. And I’ve been kind of listening to this new band all the time – Wild Belle. They sound really reggae – like dub reggae. So I’ve been doing alternate versions of a lot of my songs, and one of my songs really lends itself well to doing a reggae version of it. I’m like, “Eh, whatever. I’m just going to do it.” I’ve been listening to so much reggae lately that I’m like, “If I don’t record just one song, I just need to get it out of my system. I can bang it out in two days – done.”
MY: Is the song one of your new songs from 1st Bath?
JDS: No, it’s a song from another album. I probably recorded it as one of the first songs I recorded for the full album. I don’t think anyone’s ever heard it. We played it maybe twice live – kind-of like a vibey song. It’s weird – the song actually doesn’t sound different [from the reggae version]. It’s the same exact tempo; it’s just the beat that’s different – kind of slow and whatever. The chords already sound like reggae chords anyway, so I was like, “Ok. Well that works.” I’m having a good time.
MY: Who’s the first reggae artist that got you interested in the genre?
JDS: I do love Bob Marley, but there’s a band called Toots & the Maytals. I think those guys stopped recording in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, which sounded more like it was in a studio. But the old stuff – it seriously sounds like you’re in freaking Jamaica and they’re singing right there. The drums are real – they’re not quantized. The instrumentation is the exact same as The Beatles because they’re using the same shit. So I’ve had a Toots & the Maytals crave for like a year. And recently, my girlfriend and I were driving to Mexico and put it on as a playlist. We were like, “This is fucking sick. This just sounds so good to me.” I mean, it sounds like shit, but it sounds great. I don’t know why I’ve been into it lately. It might just be that beach vibe or something like that. Maybe the weed – who knows. But I’ve been jamming out. I’ve seriously played the stuff for like three hours in my living room, sitting on the front porch smoking and trying to figure it out. I’m on a roll now – can’t wait to freaking get in there and bust out some reggae. Anyway, I’m sure that’s not what I thought we were probably going to talk about today. [laughs]
MY: Back on September 12, 2001, could you ever have imagined that you would be sitting in Venice Beach recording reggae songs and getting ready to release your first album?
JDS: Definitely not. I was like 22 or 23 when I joined the Marines. I definitely had rock star dreams ever since then. I was always playing in Christian bands, so it was a different idea of what music could be. But no, it’s crazy. It’s really crazy to think back on that now, because I’m pretty happy with my life now. Obviously I hit the freaking jackpot. Somebody wants to put [the album] out, and it’s easy to take it for granted. But I think back to where I was then. I really joined the Marines because I had no idea what else to do. I don’t think I even really played guitar then; I may have known one chord. So it’s crazy – real crazy. But I’m sitting out on my front porch in Venice Beach right now, listening to reggae music.
MY: Can you see the ocean from your place?
JDS: No, but I can hear the drum circle. I’m like maybe a half-mile away – something like a five-minute bike ride. They have a drum circle out on Venice Beach pretty much every night when the sun goes down. So as I’m sitting outside, the sun’s going down and the sun’s all red, you can hear, “Boom, bo-bo-boom, bo-bo-bomm, bo-bo-boom,” way off in the distance. But it’s pretty badass. One time I was out there, and this guy was doing a solo thing with this beat that was kind of repetitious and very simple. But as the sun started getting closer and closer to the water, he would speed up a little bit, so by the end – right as the sun is above the water – he goes, “Du-di-di-di-di-di-du-di-di-di-di-dum!” with one final huge one as it went down. I was like, “Holy shit! That was pretty intense.” [laughs] And he does it like every day, too. It’s weird. I don’t know what he has to be doing in his life to be on Venice Beach every day when the sun goes down and drum that shit out. That’s far out. But, whatever – I love it. It’s one of the reasons I really love living here because it’s easy to be a freak. Everyone’s so crazy here that I fit in pretty normally.
MY: Have you ever joined in with the drum circle to show off your own drumming skills?
JDS: I haven’t. I have drums here, and I would definitely love to go and do that. But sometime I feel like I wouldn’t necessarily be showing my drumming skills because there’s so many people playing. I feel more like I’d go down there and not do a whole lot – that I would just play quarter notes and really get into it, like spiritually or whatever. It’s definitely something I should do – I mean, it’s every day.
MY: What was the first song that started to take shape from 1st Bath?
JDS: There’s a couple. I would say one of the first songs that I wrote was probably the song “I Told You So.” But before that, there’s a song called “Medication.” That’s the song I started doing among a slew of others – mostly garbage. But I happened to hold on to those songs for a really long time. “Medication” was an acoustic song. I think I have an audiotape of me playing it at Hotel Café in like 2008 – the day after I wrote it, which is cool to have. That song has taken a lot of different forms. I almost tossed it because I didn’t really know what to do with it because I had recorded it so many different ways. When I had the studio band, I asked my bass player, “Yo, dude. I don’t have new songs. What songs do you think we should do next? And you decide how we’re going to do it.” And he was like, “Dude, ‘Medication.’ That’s the jam. And we could do it like rock with Nirvana drum beats – that’s how it’s going to be.” I was like, “Alright, whatever. Let’s do it.” We recorded it, and I loved it. Even though it wasn’t the first song I recorded for the album, it’s definitely the earliest song that I wrote that made it on the album, which is great.
MY: Are you ready to get the album out to the public right now?
JDS: I’ve been ready for a long time. For the most part, my album’s been done for about two years. And a lot of the songs I wrote years before that, so it’s weird for me to put it out because I’ve been working on these songs for a really long time. I’m just really, really ready to share it with people. I’m trying to be as patient as I can be.
MY: Do you remember the first time you were performing live and you saw someone singing the lyrics to your songs?
JDS: Yeah. It doesn’t happen a lot. Obviously we’re really new, but it has happened for me. We were opening for Mac DeMarco at The Echo, which is a venue in L.A. I remember saying, “Hey, this song is called ‘Stop Playing with My Heart,’” and I started singing the chorus. I opened my eyes, and there’s this group of girls right at the front of the stage pushed up, singing along really loudly. It shocked me. I was like, “I don’t know these people.” I stopped singing for a second and almost started laughing. Yeah, that doesn’t suck. I’ve actually been to some concerts with bigger artists and have seen people singing – like everyone singing along. That must be insane. I don’t even know what I would do. I’d just be like, “Alright, you guys sing. I’m just going to jam. You handle the vocals – I’m just going to have a good time.” I mean, people definitely pay and are coming to see you perform, but I feel like at that point if everybody in the freaking room knows your music and wants to sing along, I’d just be wanting to enjoy the experience. I’d get off the mic and walk to the front of the stage and sing along and say, “Fuck yeah! You guys rule.”
MY: What was it like to be asked to do a month-long residency at The Echo in February?
JDS: I was obviously excited about it because it was one step closer to releasing my album – gearing up for the album release. We’ve always opened up for big bands, so it’s easy to tell your friends to go, and there’s a shit-ton of people. You get to be a rock star for a night, and then it’s out. So the day of our first show, it hit me, and I was like, “Shit. We’ve never done our own show – ever.” So I got a little nervous about that. But there was a good turnout. It seemed like there were different people each week, so that was really nice. Some of the shows were better than others, but it ended really well. It’s just nice to be able to go and invite your friends to open up for you, and it’s the people who want to see you who are there. It’s a different kind of pressure – more pressure to get people there, and less pressure to be that cool because everyone there knows us. I’m me, and I know I’m not that cool, so I just had a great time.
MY: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from Raymond Richards while recording 1st Bath?
JDS: Raymond kind of took me under his wing when I sent him a couple of demos. He was playing guitar, and I had seen him work with the band I was working with. We went in the studio, and I was like, “Holy shit! This is for me.” So I sent him a couple of demos, and he said, “I’ll definitely work with you.” Even just as a producer – because I record myself and I started recording other bands – how he segments songs and his process for recording, every single song on the album is recorded in one day. That’s it. You just book a day, go in there with the band and by 8 o’clock at night, the song’s done. So we did that a whole bunch of times. He’d be like, “Ok, this is the chorus. Only put keyboards on the choruses.” And where I might spend a couple of hours trying to find a keyboard part for the whole song, I’m only going to do it three times and then go, “Ok, what’s next?” It’s just a bunch of really nerdy studio stuff that I ripped off, because honestly, I haven’t recorded with Raymond in a while – although I would love to soon. But pretty much everything that I do on whatever scale – like if it’s in a bigger studio or in my living room – I pretty much just do what we did at Raymond’s and how he did it, but just with different gear. So instead of having 10 mics for drums, I have like two at my house. But I still do the process the same. And I kind of learned what a song really was, because I had some ideas, and we’d go in the studio. At first, I’d focus so much on what my demo was because I’d be like, “That’s the part. That’s what the song is supposed to be.” But I started getting to the point where a song could be anything. Like we could make this a heavy metal song if we wanted to, or a country song. It just depends on what is going to serve the song best.
MY: I was curious about some of the imagery behind the collage artwork on 1st Bath.
JDS: So the collage on my album – everything has a meaning on there. Obviously I made my music, and it was very personal. So now I’m giving it to people, and I thought, “Do I want a sleek, cool cover and hide behind that, or do I want to really put myself out there – like this is literally me; this is my life up until this point?” So I worked with this guy who’s done art on my previous singles, and I just brought him a stack of my childhood photos. We looked and talked about the different ones, and I was like, “Yeah, I remember this and what I was doing there.” And he ended up grabbing a bunch of pieces of it and making a collage. Some of the stuff is out of proportion – like it was a tiny part of the photo that he blew it up. So the fish – I had a pretty religious upbringing, and the fish is the Christian symbol. The water and the lake – I think I got baptized in that lake when I was in eighth grade. Then when we started talking about what fonts we wanted to use, I said, “It should be my handwriting since I’m being super personal about everything.” So for the album cover writing, I came out to my front porch – exactly where I’m standing right now – and cut my finger and bled into a dish. Then my artist came over and made a paintbrush out of a stick and his own hair – he cut a strand of his own hair out, taped it to the stick and made a nice paintbrush. And then I painted “Avid Dancer” in my own blood, and he took a photo of that and used that for the collage. Then on the inside is my own writing, and I drew my own tattoos as the art. So, yes – the collage and everything on it has a lot of meaning.
MY: So the creation of the collage was the final artistic statement that the album is totally personal and you’re not trying to hide behind anything?
JDS: Definitely. Not that all L.A. rockers are this way or anything, but I certainly haven’t been trying to make music because I think people will dig it and that this is the persona I’m going to have to represent my music. I just love music. I’ve been playing music since I was a kid – drumming for bands and all that stuff. And the idea that my songs are actually out on a label – that’s crazy to me. I’m pumped, but it’s crazy. When I wrote those songs, I honestly didn’t even know the chords that I was playing. When I was playing bar chords, I thought I was making up new chords. I was like, “Aw, dude. That sounds sick.” But then my bass player was like, “No, that’s a G.”
Avid Dancer opens for Delta Spirit at the Chameleon Club on March 31. Tickets are $20 at the door.