Now/It's: An Interview with Daniel Gardner (Pumpkinseed)

Sometimes it's easy to miss what's hiding in plain sight, thus the origin of the phrase "hiding in plain sight." Anyway, what I'm getting at is that despite being around quite a bit of music and what not in Middle Tennessee, there's still plenty of music that I manage to miss without it being placed right in my lap. Such is the beauty of living in a exponentially expanding arts scene, and is precisely the case with Pumpkinseed. Granted, I wasn't totally unaware of Pumpkinseed's existence in the Nashville music community - I'd seen their name pop up from time to time on bills at The 5 Spot, The East Room, and Cobra - but I'd never taken the time to give them a genuine listen. At least up until Daniel Gardner reached out on their behalf, and upon hearing the first couple of singles off their upcoming Big Believin' Sky record, I was hooked. Truly and unequivocally sucked into the pastoral grandeur of Whitney-meets-The Allman Brothers tonality. And in talking to Gardner, came to love the round about nature of the band itself, practicing sparingly, and touring in support of the next album, rather than the most recent, a la the way a comedian tours in preparation for taping a stand up special. There's a lot of unwrap from Gardner, and he shares some insight into the rolling punches of both Pumpkinseed and Nashville in general, and I'll be damned if Pumpkinseed isn't your new favorite band at the end of Big Believin' Sky.

Now/It's met with Daniel Gardner at Bongo Java in the Belmont/Hillsboro Village neighborhood of Nashville.

N/I - I am so glad you reached out. I’ve seen Pumpkinseed’s name popping up all over town as of late, but haven’t gotten much of a chance to check you out. So then I took the time to listen to what you have on Bandcamp…. I love it. I absolutely love it.

Daniel - I’m glad you like it.

N/I - What do you listen to? There’s so much stuff going on and every time I’ve gone through the tunes, I find something new to obsess over.

Daniel - [Laughs] Well, if you listened to what’s on Bandcamp up until two or three days ago, we were just a three piece then - so it’s a lot of Neutral Milk Hotel….

N/I - I can hear that.

Daniel - Definitely more in that vein. But we’ve always been into crazy guitar solos, which doesn’t fit into that at all, so we were doing that…. But this new stuff - we’re a five piece now, with horn stuff and I play piano mostly. The Band, Allman Brothers, Joni Mitchell, mostly stuff from the 70s, I guess.

N/I - What led to you guys adding two more members? Is it just through meeting more people and playing more shows?

Daniel - The two guys that joined the band, we’ve known them for a long time. I started playing and writing on piano for the first time just over a year ago, so having most of the new songs written on piano, I think we were just excited about new instruments and we decided to keep that going.

N/I - The juices were flowing. That’s so cool. So where’s everybody in the band based?

Daniel - I live out in Smyrna… This is the worst band to be in, logistically….

N/I - So what’s the split?

Daniel - Our drummer is the only person who actually lives in Nashville - he lives on the East Side. I live in Smyrna, and been living back and forth between there and Cookeville….

N/I - Nice! My sister lives there.

Daniel - Okay! I lived two seconds from there. It’s hard to be any further than that in Cookeville. But the rest of the guys live in little towns outside of Cookeville. Way out in the country… It’s a lovely area.

N/I - I’ve had family that lives out there. It’s a lovely area, but certain directions, you’re headed for the sticks. So are you from Middle Tennessee originally?

Daniel - I am. From Smyrna, grew up there.

N/I - Have you always been playing music?

Daniel - Pretty much. I’ve been playing guitar since I was nine. This is really, truly, the second band that I’ve ever been in. I was in another where I played mostly guitar. This is the first project that I write and lead on most of the songs. We’ve been going since 2014. There’s kind of a weird history with that….

N/I - How is that?

Daniel - I was playing solo with some of the songs that went on the first record. I was playing a house show where I met our drummer, and we played as a two piece for five or six months, then I moved to Cookeville, we weren’t a band for another six months or so, then late 2015 I moved back to town, got a bass player, turned into a three piece, recorded our first record, went on tour for a while, I moved back to Cookeville, and then we got a new bass player who is still our bass player and was also my roommate, in Cookeville, played as a different three piece for another year, put out our second album, and then last - I can’t believe it’s been a year - last March, we got two other guys and we’ve been a five piece for just over a year.

N/I - Does Pumpkinseed sound fully realized now? After what sounds like some logistical gymnastics….

Daniel - It has, for now [laughs]. We’re all really big Allman Brothers fans. Every time we hit Georgia on tour, we try and schedule a day off to go to the Allman Brothers museum - we go to the graveyard, we see everything, we do everything. We’ve never actually played in that town, we just do Allman Brothers stuff. Our bass player plays drums in another band. He’s an incredible drummer, so we’ve always wanted to do a two drummer thing where we find another bass player, and I’d love to go full Van Morrison and not play any instruments.

N/I - That’s the dream, just to front the whole time.

Daniel - [Laughs] Exactly! So we’ve talked about trying to do a couple of shows that way, put a lot of time into one big show with an eight or nine piece band….

N/I - That’d be so cool.

Daniel - So we’re where we are now, but I’d always love to keep exploring - now that we have the itch from doing horns and what not.

N/I - Absolutely. Not to blow smoke up your ass, but with as cool as those tunes sound recorded…. If I were you, I’d want to do service to them and more so when playing them out. But with that, are you arranging everything? Or is it with a producer? Or by committee?

Daniel - It’s definitely a new thing, writing more parts for everyone.

N/I - Sure. Going solo from a two piece is quite the jump.

Daniel - And I think with our first two records, there were three or four songs on both of those records that I did solo on guitar. On this record, there’s none of that. I write constantly - we have too much material. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a problem in and of itself. There are songs that I bring to them done, and they make them better, but it’s usually just me and piano, but it’s easier on me to bring a couple verses and a chorus and say “You four guys do your thing.” Most of our new record was done that way, and it’s a huge help. I’m the only one whose not in another project. In fact, some of them are in more than one extra project, so they’re incredible. They’re all incredible musicians. It’s a new interesting thing where maybe I wanted to have a guitar solo, but we have a saxophone solo. We have harmonizing vocals. We never had that, but not we have Micah, our saxophone guy doing harmonies with me. So it’s been a weird writing experience. We write really quickly, when we can get together. We probably practice less than any band you’ve talked to.

N/I - Okay, I’ll bite - how little are we talking? Let’s say in a month.

Daniel - [Laughs] Let’s do that past few months. We played a show after our last tour, on November 11th - we did not have another practice until the week before the next show we played, which was probably the beginning of April.

N/I - Oh wow. You weren’t kidding.

Daniel - I’ll counter that with saying we were in the studio for some of that time. But as far as “Let’s get together and write a new thing,” our practices are very rarely “rehearsals.” We might run through a set of what we’ve been doing lately, but we spend as much time as we can doing new stuff. We’ve got a show coming up, and we might get together the day before, maybe. It’s tough man.

N/I - I would imagine so - just from a geographic standpoint, and if everyone is in a different project…. I mean, I don’t know where the other projects fall within the hierarchy, but at a certain point, if you’re pulled different ways, you’re pulled different ways.

Daniel - Well, we’ve been trying - since I’ve been back here in since January - we’ve been trying to get a continual Nashville slot. Our dream is to do one in Cookeville and then one in Nashville as often as possible. Forty minutes north of Cookeville, our saxophone player lives on a farm, and hosts a festival that’s coming up that we’re playing called Jamming at Hippie Jack’s, it’s way out in the country, he organizes and books most of it. But he lives in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere. So we’ve been able to go up there and get away. Because when we do practice, we try and make it our day. So we try and make up for it then, but we’ll overnight practice until we start drinking too much.

N/I - That’s the dream, isn’t it? Just to do it like that?

Daniel - Do you like The Band?

N/I - Absolutely.

Daniel - Their whole thing about moving out to the middle of nowhere and making an incredible record there…. They’re just doing their thing for music and coming back into town for shows on their own time, that’s it.

N/I - It’s definitely a romantic notion, but realistically, if you take away all the history of The Band and look at them as a band instead of The Band, you can’t tell me that anyone else that is in music and pursuing music would not want that. It just sounds ideal, not having to deal with the external nonsense of this, that, or the other, we all know why we’re here and we know what we have to do, let’s do it, and once we’ve done it, bring it to the people.

Daniel - That would be the environment in which we would thrive.

N/I - But if only it were so easy.

Daniel - If only jobs would disappear…

N/I - If money was no object. Trust me, you’re preaching to the choir on that. If I could, I would just talk to people every day, all the time, hearing whatever it is that they’re passionate about, but at the same time, you can only make so much money off of one thing, one website, and I’m not about to whore myself out putting ads everywhere….

Daniel - You have a great website.

N/I - Well thanks. I don’t mean to bring this up as “Man, I love my website,” I do, but that’s my way of saying that despite not being a musician, I understand that whole dilemma. Reality bites sometimes, and you have to roll with the punches - not to throw out too many cliches at one time. So with this album that’s about to come out - because you’ve had other stuff out on Bandcamp - how do you view this album? Is this, for all intents and purposes, an introduction? A re-introduction? What’s your thought process behind it?

Daniel - It kind of is an introduction, it physically is a new band….

N/I - You’re the thruline of all iterations of Pumpkinseed. New members, new band, all five plus whoever else might have had a hand in it.

Daniel - It’s been so weird. This is the first time that we’ve gone to a studio outside of our bass player, Zack - who recorded the first two albums….

N/I - What studio did you go to?

Daniel - It was our friend’s, who was another bass player, in East Nashville. The guy who did the record, Nick Orin, he’s incredible. He’s in an incredible band called Terrible, he did it, God bless him. He whipped us into shape. Another member of his band, Ted, who plays piano and trumpets, which are our two areas of least experience on this record - he let us know what was up. He was telling the horn guys stuff, he was really playing band director. So he recorded that and then got Mikey Allred to master it. It was the first time we had anything mastered. We’ve been a band for almost three, four years, but this is the first time we’ve done anything outside of DIY.

N/I - That’s always interesting to me - as far as my question revolving around the introduction versus a re-introduction is concerned - you find not only in music, but any creative field, you learn through trial and error, and when you’re green, you think you just make music, record it, and throw it up there, and maybe your friends listen because they’re nice, and they’re your pals, but at the same time, how do you get publicity, how do get people outside of your world to listen? And with each one, you learn that mastering is a thing. That’s not always the case.


Daniel - That’s right. This is the first time we’ve reached out for press, submitted to labels, a thing we did, but nothing happened there.

N/I - Well that’s a funny thing. You learn pretty quickly that A&R is a little more political than anticipated, and you learn that it just sucks. Half the time they solicit submissions for appearances but never actually accept them. Do you put a note on it or something? What if it’s worth listening to?

Daniel - What if it’s actually good [laughs]?

N/I - It’s such a weird world. But that’s super cool to go after it big time this time around.

Daniel - And even for all the quick no’s or non-responses we’ve gotten, there are a couple of guys around town who are on pretty big labels that responded in the sweetest way possible, and really gave a listen asking about shows and to send them new songs, even though they were full. They didn’t have to be that nice….

N/I - In a way, I’m sure that’s monumental, you learn that people are actually listening to it, because that’s the type of thing that drives you nuts. At least this way, you’re on someone’s radar, and you better understand how this all works - you get them to come out to shows, and it goes from. The music is good, and if the show is entertaining, that’s icing on the cake.

Daniel - The two people who have gotten back to me - you pitch to people you like - and the two people that got to me are the two that I genuinely love the music they put out, and everything they do, I think they do it the right way. So I guess that’s a win.

N/I - I’d say it is.

Daniel - It definitely is. But the two of them that I was really happy about did get back to me in a positive way, and now I have a regular dialogue with them. That’s really nice.

N/I - So being fairly spread out, geographically. How has it been trying to get into the Nashville scene? Like you guys connected to Terrible and Nick, but I think people sometimes lose sight of just how cliquey Nashville can be in terms of bands. There are a bunch of rock n roll bands, and you’d think that they’d all want to play shows together, but then you learn that a rock band is tight with an electronic band that lives next door, so any extra slots they have, they give to the electronic band despite it not really being a solid fit, sonically. How has that experience been?

Daniel - That has been a struggle of mine my entire life. Growing up in the suburbs, but finding myself musically in Nashville. I grew up in the hardcore scene, but nobody in Smyrna would come with me, so I was going to Rocketown by myself, just standing there thinking “I can’t wait for the music to start so I don’t have to stand around.” That’s always been weird, and it’s only gotten weirder since Nashville’s grown. It’s getting rarer for something good happening for someone from here. When I was growing up, the hardcore scene was incredible, a ton of bands here.

N/I - I get what you’re saying. It seems as though the influx of outside talent has sort of forced the hands of locals, some of whom take to the same transplant mindset and go elsewhere to make a name for themselves just as the people from New York and LA have chosen to do in Nashville.

Daniel - And that’s fine. I’m not trying to “locals only” anybody, but that is kind of something that takes place. That scene, the early Infinity Cat days, what Ben Todd was doing…

N/I - Serpents & Snakes, when Kings of Leon tried that for a second…

Daniel - Infinity Cat, PUJOL, Ben Todd, Diarrhea Planet, the legacy of all those acts, you always felt like that was Nashville’s music, but now, with a lot of the people in the national conversation about “Nashville music,” most of them are people who moved from Philly a year ago with a big bag of money [laughs]...

N/I - Well look at The Strokes - I read this really great book called Meet Me In the Bathroom - it’s about the early 2000s to 2010s New York indie rock explosion, and how it all started with LCD Soundsystem, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The Strokes, which led the way for TV On the Radio, The National, and then The Killers, Kings of Leon followed suit, etc., etc. But a lot of those New York bands, they were rich kids who moved to New York after school - like Julian Casablancas and Albert Hammond Jr. - they met at some boarding school at Switzerland. Outside of Abu Dhabi in the UAE, Switzerland is the most expensive place to live! To learn that, it kind of crushed me.

Daniel - It does. You want a rags-to-riches story.

N/I - But the irony of the whole thing - and I’m glad they highlighted this at the end of the book - the two bands that sustained the longest out of that scene, were the only two that weren’t actually based in New York, and were actually rags-to-riches stories - The Killers and Kings of Leon. Those two are headlining every festival.

Daniel - They’re as big as any band can get.

N/I - And Kings of Leon are a pentecostal family and The Killers’ parents were all bartenders and cocktail waitresses in Las Vegas. Hardly a wealthy lifestyle. Anyway, I apologize for the sidebar, but it’s really interesting seeing how people come into town. I’m glad, because they help expand and build out Nashville….

Daniel - And not everyone that’s come into town is like that.

N/I - Not at all.

Daniel - But I think you can hear it in the music, the “necessity” of it all. Everyone in our band is pretty regularly faced with the idea of cooking for a living, or things like that. We’re all pretty real with ourselves about something having to happen soon.

N/I - That gives you some grit. Grit and grind helps you go for it as opposed to sitting back and waiting to see how things go because there’s no cost to you.

Daniel - Exactly. I feel like we tour a pretty decent amount….

N/I - It sounds like you do!

Daniel - We do, but those are all jobs that we’ve had to take time off of. The week leading up to tour is trying to pick up an extra shift, and then week before getting off is more of the same. So it’s never far from us.

N/I - But I think that gives you a perspective, and probably makes you a little more perspective. Like you were saying, you don’t practice a ton, but when you get together to practice, you’re effective in what you’re practicing. If it’s a new song, that might take precedence over the songs you guys have played for years.

Daniel - We’ve certainly done a practice where I show up with parts of a song, and we hammer it out. We love day of practices because we figure we’re off work that day anyway [laughs]. We’ll do a song hours after we get done. And most of the time, they don’t change too much. We’ve done that a ton. We’ve put out an album every year that we’ve been active, and that’s pretty much on track to keep happening. That’s the weirdest part of this band - the unconventional way we’ve put out records. Because usually, you write songs and record them, release them, and tour on the strength of that. We have almost done the complete opposite. I’m a huge fan of comedy.

N/I - Me too.

Daniel - I’m going to Zanie’s tonight - Bert Kreisher.

N/I - That’s right!

Daniel - Birdcloud is going to be opening. So that’ll be fantastic. We’ve unconsciously - and it’s been weird - but the way a comedian does it, they write their jokes, perform them live, take them on the road for a year or two….

N/I - And hammer out the set.

Daniel - Exactly. And that’s what we do. Live, if something happens live, like if we make a mistake but it sounds good, we’ll try it at the next show. We do that for a year, go record it…. It’s like the comedian, you build that hour, and then you record the special, and the last thing you want to do is see something you’ve already seen a month ago. For better or for worse, that’s kind of how our albums have come.

N/I - I love that. I absolutely love that approach. I’ve obsessed over comedy, ever since I was fourteen. I figured when you watch a special and see someone live, I thought you were seeing the same thing, but it’s like you said, it’s reversed. But for whatever reason, for as much as I talk to people who make music, that’s never crossed my mind….

Daniel - Well it’s not the logical way to do it [laughs].

N/I - I figure it’s more so out of necessity.

Daniel - Well that’s the strange thing - our second album, we put out in February of 2017, kicked it under the rug, and March 2017, we were on the road with the five member lineup, and we only had one song from that one in the set, and the rest was stuff from this new album. It wasn’t a conscious “Let’s do it backwards!” but the rate we push out songs, and the rate we’ve toured, that’s just kind of it. We’ve gone on three tours with this material, and it’s not even out yet. And our set now has a few songs off the next one.