The Goods & The Game: Gregory Dwane Returns with ‘XX’

Gregory Dwane’s story is a kick in the ass for anyone waiting for the perfect time, fate, or muse to act on their creative impulses. His 2021 self-titled debut (Peacedale Records) was the coming out party for an artist who’d spent two decades working on the front lines as a roadie as well as behind the scenes, helping to realize the creative visions of others as a producer (including the iconic Le Tigre, The Butchies, and Amy Ray), and crafting songs to move product as a commercial songwriter. The record is punchy and immediate, nothing to suggest Dwane had spent years standing in the on-deck circle, awaiting his turn.

In a move that feels almost prolific, Dwane is back less than a year later with XX (twenty), a 7-song EP that doesn’t serve as a stop-gap or contractual obligation full of filler but a necessary companion piece to his debut. If there’s a theme here, it’s the preciousness of time, a likely concern for someone who’s spent too long in the shadows.

We don’t have time to waste, whether it’s phone addiction in “A Lot on the Line”, the sunk cost fallacy of “Cut and Run”, or the soured love “Enough Sage in Mexico”, which boasts one of the best opening lines in recent memory: “I thought it was real because it was real good.”

Most honest and sharp are “This Ain’t a Drinking Song” and “Devils Working Hard”, two songs that upend the by-now exhausted getting-fucked-up trope. By no means self-righteous in his sobriety, Dwane simply has no use for the cliche, whether it’s the role of the tortured artist or the shopworn broken-hearted drunk of country music’s vernacular.

CF- Catching up on your background, I read your previous interview with Sound and Soul and learned that your self-titled debut had been in the works since 1996 or so. That’s a fascinating story…

GD- (Laughs) I started digging into my past for ideas during the pandemic, so a couple of ideas are that old, but I didn’t start the record then. But maybe in some ways I did. It was one of these things that was kind of cool. I didn’t need to rewrite it. Some genres are effervescent. They live on forever; they’re evergreen. I was able to repackage it and make it modern.

What about it before wasn’t so modern to your ears?

My goal is to make this record like it was 1996. There was a certain recording that was going on then. Pro Tools was kind of new, but people were still working with tape. Amps were great– there was a whole lot of boutique amps. People were just doing cool rock records in the ’90s, post-grunge. It was really song-oriented, and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want it to be too flashy.

Now you have your new EP, XX, less than a year later. That’s quite the turnaround. Are you on a roll?

I kinda am. Songwriting is a weird beast because you can get a lot of ideas, but getting finished songs takes that extra push. Like everybody, I have a ton of ideas and a ton of things started. I set out to make this EP with some leftover tracks that didn’t make it on the first record, just because they didn’t really fit. Sometimes you try things and it’s like, “It’s kinda good, but I don’t know…” I put that package together, and I didn’t like it. It sounded like B-sides, and not in a good way. So I went back in quickly and recorded 3 or 4 new songs with my band and finished the main single, “This Ain’t a Drinking Song”, which has been around for a long time, but it didn’t really fit the first record. It came to life for me later, so I built everything around that.

Also, I have an idea of the direction I want to go sonically, so EPs are a good time to kind push some boundaries. You can be maybe a little more risky– not that anybody cares, but just in my head (laughs)! EPs are low stakes versus records, and I’ve had a good response to this one.

Thinking about your creative process a bit, do you consider yourself a perfectionist when it comes to lyric writing? Is that the stumbling block sometimes?

Not at all. I’m just happy when it comes. I’m happy when I can focus long enough to get the idea out. I wish I had more of a practice because a lot of guys I admire have this real practice. I’ve avoided writing lyrics since I was in high school. It’s tough; it’s just not my thing. Technology really helps because I can talk into my phone, into my Notes app, and capture ideas that way and not have to pick up the pen. Eventually, I sit down with it at a computer, but lyrics did not come easy. Lyrics that feel honest to me do not come easy; wanting to be vulnerable all the time doesn’t come easy. But when it does, sometimes, that’s the magic, that’s the thing that makes it all worthwhile, as you find that little gem.

And yet do you achieve that vulnerability with “This Ain’t a Drinking Song” and “Devils Working Hard”, which discuss alcoholism and lay it on the line autobiographically…

Being sober for 20 years and going to meetings, that stuff is pretty easy to get in touch with because I feel so connected to recovery and the conversation around recovery and the things that people like me deal with when you put down alcohol, and there’s something else there just waiting for you, some other thing to obsess about. Some of us turn it into running– I haven’t done that, but I should– there are so many positive addictions that can pop up, and there are others, like shopping or whatever, that can also pop up that aren’t going to kill you, but they can take you to your knees one more time.

Devils Working Hard” hits on that, especially because once sober, you wonder what exactly there is to do now for fun because everything prior has been linked to drinking…

That’s the concept of these things that are always there– they don’t go away, you know? You have to willfully put blinders on. Some days are easier than others. Having a kid really helped me not want to repeat some of my past, as a child. I didn’t want to be part of that, at least. We all create our own damage with kids– as you know, it’s never perfect– but that I was not going to do, so that helped me.

Could you talk a bit about “This Ain’t a Drinking Song”? It turns the typical country drinking song trope on its head. Did you set out to write an anti-drinking song?

It’s one of those things where I had this riff that had been around for a couple years. I had tried to write another song with it. I used to write– I’ve since moved– in my kid’s room. I would go sit on my son’s bed. There was something about that space: It didn’t have microphones; it didn’t have guitars. It just had me a guitar and maybe a pencil. I wrote a lot of songs sitting on the edge of that bed. I could shut the door. It was just one of those things that came out. You don’t know where the line came from. It was just popped out, and it’s like, “Oh, this is a cool idea.”

I mean, you listen to country radio for ten minutes, and you hear every Luke Bryan or every song, “Grab a beer! Salt with a beer! Where’s the margarita?” It’s kind of hilarious! Finally, I said, “I know there are a lot of people who are sober out in the world– whether it’s through a program or whatever– and enjoy country music. I was just thinking it’s unfortunate that that is the solution for everything.

When you were younger, were you seduced by live-fast-die-young imagery that’s so pervasive in country, punk, metal, or whatever music you listened to?

For sure. Coming up in the punk scene… It’s funny– I was actually what’s called straight edge now. I didn’t start drinking until I was 21. I was kind of straight edge, part of that punk scene back in the day. And then whatever happened– the switch flipped, and it was on. But also, I was into a lot of punk bands that were into ecstasy, LSD, and a lot of psychedelic drugs, and it didn’t take long for that that fantasy of what where that leads to kind of take hold. And like anything, it’s fun until it’s not.

Shifting gears a bit, another song that resonates is “A Lot on the Line”, which calls out our collective obsession with our phones, specifically social media. What’s the driving force behind that song?

It’s another song that started around the dinner table, just sitting there and thinking about modern times. And sometimes I think about what Hank Williams, Sr. would write about today. What are the issues? A lot on the line and a lot online--it’s kind of a play on words; I mess with the way it’s delivered a couple of times– I wrote that prior to lockdown. Once lockdown happened, it was like, “Oh, this really makes sense when your entire life is just looking at other people or friending other people, all these things that are fine and innocuous, but again like an addiction, they’re fine and innocuous until they’re not, until you’re hanging everything you have on it. I’m old school, and face-to-face connections, relationships are still important.

How do you maintain a healthy distance from social media or the internet?

I don’t know that I do… Somedays, I look at it, and I’m like, “Man, I got a problem,” but it’s almost like any other addiction where you can be high functioning. I’ve worked in advertising where alcohol was part of [the culture]. There aren’t many jobs that alcohol isn’t part of the situation. With social media, your phone, and the whole thing, I question my relationship to it all the time, especially when it comes to my daughter, like my head’s in the phone, and she’s asking me for something or doing her thing, but she just seems to me not present. I struggle with it.

You’ve been around to see the music world exist with and without the internet, social media, and streaming services. If you could start over in the industry, when you rather have feet in both worlds, or would you choose one over the other?

I wish I had had the guts to do this sooner, for sure. I just didn’t. I was always a producer. I worked on the outside or was busy writing music for advertising, making a living in a way. But in hindsight, I wish I had used my energy for something like this much earlier in my music career. I don’t know that it would be better than it is right now? Things happen how they’re supposed to happen, and I don’t even know what’s happening, honestly (laughs)! It’s such a weird time where you can put out music, but there are just certain things that are really hard to do independently on every level.

Was it frustrating always being on the outside looking in when you were producing or when you were doing road work?

Being a tech, for sure, where you’re thinking, “Oh, I want to be up there.” As for producing, I do think I would have been a better producer had I done a few records on my own or a record and had that experience. There’s a real shift [between the two]. I think maybe I would have been a little more sensitive as a producer to some of the artists I had worked with.

I wanted to talk about your Tears For Fears cover [“Everybody Wants To Rule The World”]. That was perfectly timed as they’re experiencing a bit of renaissance with their new album and tour.

Again, I record that song 3 years ago. There’s a zeitgeist of things, a collective consciousness. The song was probably in the air with how things are. There was no real calculation. I also did a cover of a Prince song. I did a couple of different covers, and this one kind of rose to the top, being fun. The sound of it was cool; I liked how the mix turned out. And when you’re marketing yourself, trying to gain Spotify interest, covers just work. I was going to put it on the first record, but strangely my mastering engineer said, “I don’t think this is the record for this,” and I was like, “Thank you for saying that.” I needed someone to help me make some decisions here. So I left it off the first record, and maybe it would have helped me get more plays or more something, but again, things unfold how they’re supposed to, and I’m proud of the assembly of that first record. So odd, but the cover has done really well on Spotify and getting radio play, so it’s cool.

Are you considered an outlier maybe in your scene because you’ve embraced different types of music, found yourself in different scenes?

I don’t think I’m as much of an outlier as it possibly seems. They’re all these people that have these personas, but they’re also much deeper than the really pigeonholed Americana, alt-country lane. I know they have broad taste and have broad experiences, but you do have to package yourself, I would say, for certain genres. And I think it’s like that across a lot of genres. Most of my career is online in a way, and I’m not trying to hide it, either. My career is more in the world of people I have worked with that are not country artists, or whatever.

Do you ever miss working in the advertising world?

As opposed to the music world, in advertising, the checks cleared– there were actually checks. But in many ways it destroyed… That’s why I quit music for 5 years. I stopped and started painting and doing other things. I went too far. There’s a price to pay when you start writing advertising every day of your life for 15 years. Physically, just sitting at a computer like that, churning out music.

When I quit, I actually sold half of my stuff. I kept a rig around that my son used, but I was done. I listened to certain Waylon Jennings records or that Kacey Musgraves record. When I heard that record, I felt like country music came to me, stylistically. I was like, “I could have made that record. “ That’s an indie record with good lyrics. It made me feel like, “Oh, maybe there is a space for me and my taste level.” And when I think about producers like Jay Joyce, or guys like Dave Cobb, all those guys are dudes exactly like me who went to L.A., tried it for a while, produced all kinds of records, and ended up in Nashville. It’s not a unique story.

What was it like having to produce on demand? I can’t imagine the anxiety of having to be creative on the clock, around the clock.

It was that way in the beginning, but there’s always something to learn, right? And the thing that advertising gave me was that the muse is a wasted idea. Luckily, with advertising, they give you references a lot of the time, so working with references, which is harder with writing lyrics, but musically working with references, that’s how pop songs are written. People start with other people’s songs and then recraft. It’s reverse engineering.

And I think that can be done lyrically too if you’re smart. Look for inspiration; don’t wait for something to land in your lap. You have to always be looking and listening for that cool line, turn a phrase, that cool melody. But it’s tough. It’s a tough gig to turn stuff out on a daily.

Do you believe there is such thing as writer’s block? Some say it’s just an easy excuse…

I think there’s such thing as being tired. I think there’s such thing as needing a break. I feel like there’s a moment where people say, “Writer’s block doesn’t exist! You are X, Y, and Z!” But I do think there are times that I’m spent, and my energy is better spent taking a long walk, listening to some great record than it is sitting in front of the computer or a piece of paper. To me that is just as much a part of being creative as actually sitting down and doing the thing, You need to take care of yourself and your creative side.

What’s your advice to a songwriter or an artist who is suffering from burnout?

If you would have told me, “Hey, Greg, take a 5-year break and really figure out who you are or what you want to do and then come back and do it,” I would have said you’re crazy, but that’s exactly what happened. I’ve done music since I was 12, and the idea of walking away from it was practically traumatic for me. But I would say that there is nothing happening today that can’t happen next year, or two years from now, or three years from now. It just doesn’t matter. You may not be a 22-year-old pop star, but you can do anything anytime you want. But you do need to have the goods, which is the ability to sit down and write good songs. That’s the game.

XX is available to order now directly from the artist or through all major digital platforms. 

Charlie Farmer is a Georgia writer and professor who loves his wife, his daughters, his students, his cats, his books, his LPs, and everything else one should love in life.