Interview – Sidewalk Serenades with Darius Koski

Sidewalk Serenades with Darius KoskiInterview By Dustin Griffin
From September 2015 Vandala Magazine 
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You’re a very versatile writer and Sisu is one of your most versatile records. When you write do you write with a specific sound or type of song in mind, or do you just write and whatever comes out come out?

Darius: No I never do that at all. If I ever try to deliberately write something, whether it’s lyrics or music, it just never works for me. It has to be totally natural. Whatever comes out, comes out.

Do you start with music and add lyrics later or the other way around?

Darius: I guess I usually start with music first because I usually start with some sort of melody. But really I just do it whatever way I can do it. Sometimes I’ll have a melody in my head, but no guitar, so I’ll write lyrics to that melody and hum it into my phone or something. But they usually happen together in some way or another.

I read in an interview years ago that you steal a lot of your wife’s poetry for lyrics and lyrical inspiration. Does that still happen?

Darius: Yeah, I just combed through a bunch. She doesn’t actually write a whole lot anymore, but she still has a bunch of old notebooks laying around. So yeah I went through them recently and there’s at least one song on the new Swingin’ Utters record that’s hers and there’s a line or two that she did on my song ‘Empty Thing’ on Sisu.

That’s awesome. Is it difficult to adapt her poetry to into a song format?

Darius: Yeah it’s really interesting because she was writing poetry, she wasn’t writing song lyrics, so it can be tricky to make that work sometimes. But it’s a good exercise, it’s a little more challenging.

Have you ever taken one of her poems and wanted to put it on a record and she was like ‘there’s no way you’re putting that on a record.’

Darius: No, she doesn’t care at all, she’s totally into it. And we’ve done it for years. I mean ‘Five Lessons Learned’, almost all of that is her lyrics and it’s one of the most popular songs we play live.

How old are the songs that are on Sisu?

Darius: A lot of them are pretty recent. A lot of them are less than a year old. But there are songs on there, the oldest ones, that are maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. But for the most part, they’re pretty new.

I’ve interviewed both Johnny (from Swingin’ Utters) and Jack (from Swingin’ Utters and toyGuitar) and they’ve both mentioned what a prolific songwriter you are. I’m sure when you went to make this record, you had a pile of tunes to choose from. How do you shave it down to just fifteen?

Darius: It’s kind of hard. I still have a lot of old stuff that I want to do something with. I think for the foreseeable future, whatever I do will have some old stuff mixed in with the new stuff, because I like a lot of the songs I wrote, even twenty years ago. But I just kind of pick what I think is the best. And I’ll have help at the label, I’ll play them a bunch of stuff and tell them what I like and they tell me what they like. It’s hard though, to pick songs over other songs.

So why a solo record now? Why only now, I mean. It sounds like you could’ve released one ten or fifteen years ago.

Darius: Yeah. I think I just wanted a label, really. I wanted people to hear it and I don’t have much of an entrepreneurial spirit. I’m not somebody who would do very well running their own label. I guess nowadays I could’ve just released it on the internet, digitally. But I was holding out for a record deal with somebody and was just being turned down left and right and finally Fat picked me up, which was one of the best days of my life, probably. Being on an actual label seems a little more legitimate to me.

I agree. It’s more romantic. More official.

Darius: Yeah. Another reason it took so long was the performance aspect. Not really a stage fright kind of thing, more that I have major problems remembering lyrics. So that kind of terrified me a little bit because I pictured myself on stage playing acoustically and completely forgetting lyrics. I didn’t want to be that guy. I mean I forget lyrics that I wrote twenty years ago in the Swingin’ Utters, but it’s not that big a deal, it’s a punk band and nobody can really tell because you’re just screaming anyways (laughs).

You’ve been out and about doing some solo shows here and there. How have they been?

Darius: They’ve been really great, I just want to do more of it. The attendance wasn’t great for a few of those shows but it didn’t really matter. You gotta stick your foot in sometime and I really liked it. It was a completely different mindset.

Obviously you’re going to get Swingin’ Utters fans coming out to the shows, but are you looking to attract a different audience for this stuff?

Darius: That is my ultimate hope. But I think it’s going to be really, really difficult to achieve that. Once you’re known for any genre really, but especially punk rock, it’s hard to break from that. And there’s a whole, huge scene of punk band dudes doing acoustic stuff now. And that’s cool and everything, but there’s a fine line between that and the Steve Earl’s and the Elliot Smith types that are taken really seriously as singer/songwriters. So I think it will be really, really difficult for me to get a new audience, but I really, really want to. I mean I love to see Swingin’ Utters fans come out and appreciate it, obviously, but it would be great to pick up some fans who would never buy a Swingin’ Utters record.

If you started playing music now, and didn’t have this history of punk rock behind you, would punk even be a part of your repertoire, or would you go more the way you went with Sisu?

Darius: There’s so many other things I want to play, that I think I would try those first. I don’t think punk is the first thing I’d turn to. But I still write those songs and I still like them and like playing them, so I don’t think I wouldn’t play that stuff. I mean we’re (the Utters) having a lot of fun and we’ve been writing so much in the past few years and are still into it. But I kind of want to play everything, so I want the solo stuff to be whatever I want it to be, you know? I want the next record to be totally different. I mean I want to do an instrumental record, stuff like that. Whatever I can get away with.

There’s all kinds of different instruments and sounds on Sisu. How much of the record did you play yourself?

Darius: I played everything except for the drums and the bass. Miles from the Utters played the drums and percussion and I brought a couple of good friends of mine who are upright bass players in to play bass. Spike (Slawson) came and played some ukulele on a song. But I did most of it myself.

That’s pretty incredible that you did most of it yourself. Do you have a studio space at home or did you go find a studio to record in?

Darius: I did it at Motor Studios (in San Francisco). Fat Mike’s studio. The Utters have done a ton of records there.

That’s a classic spot.

Darius: Yeah.

I love this album cover. Tell me about that.

Darius: Oh it’s great man, I love it too. I showed it to the art people at Fat and they didn’t get it at all (laughs). It’s a picture that a friend of mine took that she posted on social media somewhere and I immediately thought it would make such a great album cover. She was in Mexico and taking pictures of this guy training these, they’re called zonkeys. They’re donkeys but they paint them to look like zebras for tourists. So it’s a baby zonkey. And Sisu is a Finnish word that actually doesn’t have a translation in English, but it’s a very Finnish mindset that kind of stands for perseverance and guts. My father was born in Finland.

Darius Koski sisuI asked Johnny about this and I want to ask you because I love the band, but is there any plans for another Filthy Thieving Bastards record?

Darius: No, there’s no plans for anything right now. We haven’t played in a long time, we haven’t practised in a long time. We haven’t dropped it or anything, it was just mostly because the Utters have been so busy. I think we’ll do something again. I don’t know what, but I’d like to record again.

It’s Fat Wreck Chords’ 25th anniversary this year. What has being on this label, which is without a question one of the great punk labels in the history of the genre at this point, what has it meant to be affiliated with and release records through Fat?

Darius: Yeah. You know it’s crazy to think about, because it completely changed our (the Swingin’ Utters) whole path’s and made us into a contender. We did so much more touring after we got signed to Fat and got so much more exposure. Getting signed to that label was the biggest thing that ever happened to us. But more so even is that they really are like family to us. I know people say that all the time, but Fat Mike and Erin, I would totally consider them close friends of mine. And for them to own the label that your band is on is pretty unheard of, that kind of relationship. There’s no contract with them, there never has been. I don’t think we ever signed a contract with Fat, even after all the records we’ve made with them. It’s a pretty unique experience being on this label. We’re super lucky. We’d never go anywhere else.

To find out more information about Darius Koski and to grab his new album ‘Sisu” visit Fat Wreck Cords at www.fatwreck.com

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