Coming from Tacoma, Washington seems to give a special something to bands these days. Recent successes by Fleet Foxes and Telekinesis, among others, have cast a golden glow over the new self-titled debut by Motopony. The wide range of styles found on the release gives an image of a group that is comfortable with more than a few genres, from the rollicking “Seer” and the jazzy “King of Diamonds” to the wistful tune of “Wait for Me”. Singer/songwriter Daniel Blue has a name ready for a rock star plus the vision and vocals to pull it off. He now lives in Seattle but treasures his time in Tacoma as a formative period for musical development. His band is on a national tour in an opening slot that has audiences arriving early to venues and singing along to their songs. Blue spoke to PopMatters about these latest developments as he sat in a park overlooking Seattle while the band was loading up to drive to Boise, Idaho. It was just a moment in the sun for a guy in the spotlight . . .
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The songs on your debut release are so varied in style—is this a reflection of your taste or the entire band’s interest as a group?
The songs were written over a long period of time. Being our first release, we had quite a bit of time to gather them together. I wrote most of the lyrics and melodies for everything, and then Buddy Ross did all the production and instrumentation on everything. Then we went and hired musicians to get what we wanted. Most everything you’re hearing is a product of him and me. It kind of came out of our minds and what we wanted to express in the moment.
Then how did you and Buddy come together to make Motopony?
Well, I lost my mother to cancer when I was 22 and a friend of mine was having me write lyrics for a cancer benefit album that he was putting together with several musicians. One of those musicians happened to be Buddy Ross. I just fell in love with him and promised that once I had gotten my own songs together was going to bug him until he produced my work. Then he did it and fell in love with it, so he wanted to be in the band—we made it happen from there. We’ve been together about three years now but the rig we’re touring with now is fairly new, roughly a year.
So these aren’t the same people that played on the album?
Right, we pulled from friends and studio musicians to make the album. The live shows now are a very, very different animal. I think it’s better personally, but that’s because I get to experience it.
How did you come up with the name Motopony, and is Daniel Blue an alias?
Daniel Blue is my real name—it’s on my I.D. And Motopony is an attempt to express an idea I was having the way I was feeling about the way we treat things. I was watching consumer culture create these devices—automobiles and what have you—that break in the first couple of years you have them. I was considering how Native Americans would develop relationships to horses; they would take care of them as ponies and have them for years and years and years. You had to treat it right, just like you treat your own body right. So I started calling my motorcycle my Motopony, in hopes that I would change my relationship with it. That way I would treat it with more respect and act as if it was alive. It was my way of resisting the disposable society that we’ve created. As a band name Motopony is complicated and sort of simple at the same time.
Give us a sense of the music scene in Tacoma, Washington.
I was sort of grandfathered into supervising the Warehouse in Tacoma for several years. We did many a CD release and underground rock venue events in that spot. It was a beautiful thing, really an enclave for me. This was a place to test my voice and try out new wacky weird performance art bands that I’d dream up. The strange thing about Tacoma is it’s never just music—there’s always live painting, dancing, or fashion thrown in because all the artists there are like this big wild tribe. I will never forget my time in Tacoma. When it was time for me to go, it was time for me to go as I sort of outgrew my britches a little bit. But I loved it there. We taught each other how to speak, you know? It was a really, really important time in my life and I’ll never forget it. I live on Capitol Hill in Seattle now and it’s a very different culture, a very different scene.
Is this where you grew up as well?
No, I lived in Colorado until I was 12. I was home schooled until the middle of seventh grade when my mom had the bright idea to put me in public school in Washington. So we moved cross-country. I thought Pearl Jam was a rap group, I was so out of it. I was parting my hair on the side and everyone else was parting their hair in the middle—I was a dork. So we did the suburbs here in the Northwest here for a while before I turned 18 and ran. I suppose I really grew up on the road in America, just making my way around and doing whatever I could do. From about 18 to 24 I was just a lost kid; didn’t go to college. Then my mama died and I wanted to do something with my life. That sort of changed my course. I was doing fashion design and Tacoma embraced that pretty hard.
You mention in the Motopony YouTube Guest Editor intro that you’ve always had an interest in dance as well. Was music always an interest, and how did it come to the forefront in your life?
When I was 19, I had this epiphany that I was going to be a musician. But it also came with the knowledge that it was going to take me a long time before I was ready. Because I just knew I didn’t have the cool or the thing that a frontman needs to lead. So I just worked at everything I could that included music in it. When I did a fashion show, we’d have ballerinas as models and of course they needed something to walk to, so we’d have musicians come in and play. It just became a way for all the artists in town to work on the same project. Music was always there and I always wanted it to be there. As I kept doing art and meeting more and more people my experience grew, my voice grew, and my poetry grew—somewhere in there I started singing my own songs.
And now your band is a week into your first national tour. How’s it going?
Last night here in Seattle we saw a lot of new faces, as well as my friends. It was definitely grounding to be at home but we’re playing to full rooms every show. It’s been wonderful. It’s also weird to be the opener and have an audience around waiting for the music when you get on stage. It’s a good feeling, plus people are singing along too. I’m not super familiar with that—I used to go to Dashboard Confessional shows when I was younger and the crowd would sing along. I would think, wow, what a thrill that must be to have someone singing your words back at you. But I don’t really know what to do with it personally when it happens now. It’s like, oh, you know these songs? I can’t think about it too much or I’ll get distracted and forget what the hell I’m doing. But the live show will blow your mind. Something happens to us up there and it’s magical, feels like drugs. I have to sing so stay sober or my throat closes up but it’s a trip. The live show is really special to me right now. It’s an event, a ritual, or a service at this point. It’s like something growing—come out to see it and you’ll have a very different opinion of the band. The album is great, but the live show takes it to the next level.
8/26 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom with Daniel Johnston
8/27 Vancouver, BC The Rio Theatre with Daniel Johnston
9/5 Seattle, WA Bumbershoot Festival
9/8 Minneapolis, MN Varsity Arts
9/9 Chicago, IL Schubas Tavern
9/14 Buffalo, NY The Ninth Ward
9/15 New York, NY Mercury Lounge
9/16 Pittsburgh, PA The Brillobox
9/20 Toronto The Horseshoe
10/16 Pensacola, FL DeLuna Fest