It can be a daunting feeling to try and understand art that feels over your head. A dense novel, an age-old opera—these experiences can be intimidating enough to avoid altogether. That’s the beauty of projects like Dangermuffin, a band that can be enjoyed from any level, whether it be for their airy, easy Americana feel, or the lyrical, more analytical examination of our very existence. Tune in however you feel.
“Folks can take from it whatever they want. I don’t think it needs to be insistent upon itself at all,” said Dangermuffin frontman Dan Lotti. “People can come out, and whether they listen to the lyrics or not, it’s of no consequence because they’re gonna take what they wanna take from it. You can look under the surface of this and find enough there to really dig deep, but if you just wanna take it at a casual level too—that’s sort of the approach we have, almost like a yin-and-yang.”
Back in 2005, Dan Lotti and Mike Sivilli began playing locally around the Folly Beach area in Charleston, South Carolina. Over the next few years, the duo picked up Steven Sandifer (and more recently Markus Helander) and formed officially under the name Dangermuffin, an odd juxtaposition chosen precisely for that reason.
“It started off as something to remind us to not take ourselves too seriously,” Lotti said. “One of the best explanations we have is there’s an old T-shirt design we have that’s sort of like the garden of Eden, Eve by the tree of knowledge, and she’s picking a muffin off the tree, so it’s kind of like the forbidden fruit, if you will.”
By 2010, Dangermuffin had begun touring nationally. Throughout the last decade, the band has recorded six albums, with their newest, Heritage, having been recently released at the end of March. Heritage delves into humanity’s collective roots, how we’re connected spiritually and how that relationship differs from a religious context.
“I think religion is more like a collectivized perspective, a one-size-fits-all sort of thing, whereas a spiritual approach would be a very individual path,” Lotti said. “With Dangermuffin’s music and what we do, it’s a very unique, independent musical expression, so it’s more along the lines of a spiritual pursuit. Less dogma, a little more open-ended, esoteric. Lyrically we use a lot of very old symbols or archetypes—it’s always about the ocean or the sun—these natural themes that everyone all over the planet has a relationship with and can connect with in their own way.”
Coincidentally, the band decided to record part of the record at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, a national historic landmark founded in 1772.
“We got into the space and immediately recognized its phenomenal energy and vibe, and acoustics,” Lotti said.
The church sits in an area of downtown Charleston that is known for being haunted, with frequent ghost tours offered to tourists. Rather than playing into the space’s spooky reputation, Dangermuffin sought out a spiritual connection with the past.
“It didn’t have an eerie feeling, but it did feel like you were tapping into the ancestry of the place,” Lotti said. “We wanted to do the lead vocals late at night with the lights off, and it definitely felt like the place was coming alive energetically, particularly for the songs ‘Ancient Family’ and ‘The Sea and the Rose;’ those two songs, when we laid down the vocals, it was very vibey in the room. It kind of became this reciprocating synergistic situation where it was imparting itself on the performance. It was really cool to do.”
On previous albums, there has been a level of electric grit in Dangermuffin’s music, a spark that would ignite more loosely formed Americana instrumental breakdowns. Though the fluidity remains, there’s a more breezy feeling to Heritage, in part because the album is completely acoustic, with more forward percussive elements.
“Dangermuffin has always been really eclectic musically. We’re running the gamut of all these different grooves and genres,” Lotti said. “We like to call it roots music, because it’s bluegrass, a little bit of reggae, some island-y vibes. The term ‘Americana’ itself is an ever-expanding sort of genre. What is the American experience? It’s all of this amazing music and influences kind of melting together in the American soundscape.”
The result is something easily enjoyed, the kind of laid-back music you’d equate with a lazy afternoon at a festival like High Sierra in Quincy, California, or the now-defunct American River Music Festival (which Dangermuffin has played). However, if you’re looking for a little more to chew on, there’s the deeper message of Dangermuffin, the one that questions where we come from, and how we each on our own relate to this planet and its past inhabitants. It explores our greater need for peaceful resolution and healing, which coincidentally could begin to be found in that laid-back sound.
“In particular, this record is about just further recognizing your roots as a human being and how much your natural surroundings are connected with you,” Lotti said. “That’s really what our heritage is—it’s realizing the truth that’s always around you, and the healing that could take place if we just get back to some of these traditions that have been sort of hanging on by a thread for quite some time. My wife for the past few years has been studying herbal medicine and now she’s a practicing herbalist, and I’m learning so much just from her growth and understanding of these older traditions that are so phenomenal when it comes to bridging the gap through plants. There’s a guy named Immanuel Velikovsky who was a brilliant psychoanalyst who made the connection between planetary trauma and the condition of humanity, and that each one of us carries around this trauma on a daily basis. The most important thing we can do in our lives is to try to heal. I think one of the greatest tools that we have to facilitate that is music.”
The beauty of layers is there’s no pressure in the choice. Whether you want to ask the hard questions or hear the light acoustic hooks, it’s all meant for the taking and for Dangermuffin, about the offering.
“Sometimes I think artists, and I’m not judging anybody, but in a lot of it the message can become insistent, like, this is how it is, we all should do A, B and C,” Lotti said. “It can turn people off. I think it’s more pure if you can approach it from a casual perspective. And a lot of people are really open to the deeper discussion, and when the time’s right to have that conversation I really value it, and we’re just getting back to continuing that conversation and connecting in this lifetime. It’s both of those things, it’s up to them.”
Get down with Dangermuffin any way you see fit at one (or more) of their three upcoming shows in the greater Sacramento area. On May 20, 2017, they play Coloma Gold Trail Grange 452 in Coloma, May 24 they’ll be at Torch Club in downtown Sacramento, and May 26 they play the Strawberry Music Festival in Grass Valley. Learn more at Dangermuffinmusic.com or Facebook.com/dangermuffin. Below you can check out the video for “Ancient Family” off their new album, Heritage.
**The article above first appeared in print on pages 18 – 19 of issue #239 (May 8 – 22, 2017)**