Q&A With Dallas Taylor of Maylene and the Sons of Disaster
The October 11 profile of Dallas Taylor, lead singer of Maylene and the Sons of Disaster (seen above in a graphic photo from the new Sons' CD II), was drawn from the following interview. It's a freewheeling and revealing look at a man who believes that bloody tales of mayhem and a life lived in Christ’s name aren’t mutually exclusive.
Taylor talks about his small-town Florida upbringing, including a production depicting the killing of Ma Barker, a 1930s-era outlaw whose family story continues to inspire the Sons of Disaster; tales he’s been told about a relative’s brutal death and the lynching of an African American thought responsible; his fascination with the light and dark aspects of human behavior; the restrictions put on him in regard to music, and his subsequent discovery of heavy stuff with a Christian subtext; the founding of UNDERØATH; the odd circumstances under which he was booted from that band; his surprising fondness for day jobs; his fondness for musical styles he once despised; and the challenge of writing a third Maylene album when the main characters all perished by the end of the second one.
Lucky for him he’s got the power of prayer:
Westword (Michael Roberts):Where did you grow up?
Dallas Taylor: It’s right outside of Ocala, Florida.
WW: How many members of your family are there?
DT: One brother and two sisters.
WW: Older or younger?
DT: Older. I’m the young one. My brother’s ten years older than me, and my sister’s eight years older, and my other sister’s six or seven years older.
WW: Were you the stereotypical surprise after your parents thought they were all done with kids?
DT: I don’t know. I think they just wanted to have another one. My mom had me when she was 36 or 37. I guess they just wanted another one in their late years.
WW: I’ve read about you attending Ma Barker reenactments when you were younger. How old were you for the first one you remember?
DT: Maybe like ten or eleven. The Lion’s Club out there in that town – I think it’s Ocklawaha – put those on when I was younger. It was really interesting but also disturbing. You know, like, eating cotton candy and watching them get gunned down.
WW: How was the show introduced? Did they put it in a moral context – like, this is what happens when families go wrong?
DT: No. If I can remember, it was really strange. You’re just sitting there, hanging out on the street, and then they start telling you it’s about to happen. And this old car comes flying by with them hanging out the back, shooting guns. And the cops are coming behind them, and they get out and run to this house. And the cops just sit out there, and they shoot back and forth between the house and the outside for a good fifteen minutes or so. And I don’t know if they still do it, but then they send an old black men in to see if they’re dead. I don’t know if that was the times or what – if he worked for them or what. But he goes in to check if they’re dead, and then he comes out and says they are – and that’s the end of the reenactment.
WW: That’s kind of anticlimactic.
DT: Yeah. And you’re just sitting there, eating a funnel cake. But I’d hear stories from my grandpa, and when they actually did gun them down, they had their bodies on display in Ocklawaha. So when he was five years old, he and his dad went to town, and they got to look at the bodies. Which is strange, you know? It’s just different times. These days, I don’t think they’d ever display the bodies, much less let a little five-year-old kid go in there, you know?
WW: There are variations of that, though. Think of all the pictures we see of dead terrorists.
DT: And Saddam hanging there, yeah. But that’s where I got a lot of what we’re doing in the band from. It’s warnings to other people. Like, watch what you do. That’s what the reenactments did a lot. And I’d hear from my grandpa about what happens to people who’ve lived bad lives. I guess that’s where I got it from.
WW: There’s a whole tradition of those kinds of productions in this country – ones that appeal to the darker and lighter sides of our nature at the same time. I think of Biblical epics by Cecil B. DeMille where he’d essential tell the audience, “Orgies and debauchery are bad, and I’m going to prove that by showing you lots of orgies and debauchery.”
DT: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
WW: What is it about our character where we want to watch those kinds of things, but afterward, we want to feel like we were watching to improve ourselves, and not just to get some vicarious thrill out of it?
DT: I don’t know. And that’s always been a big thing with me. I’ve always had an interest in serial killers. Not like an obsession with them, but I wondered what made them tick. I don’t understand how someone could do that. So I’ve always been interested in, well, not really researching them, but reading about them and watching movies made about them. It’s so far from who I am, but it still intrigues me. Like someone on a Jim Jones kick or something like that.
WW: We’re always telling each other, “We’re all human.” But when one of those humans does something horrible, it can be pretty disturbing.
DT: Yeah, it is. So I guess I’ve always been scared but also fascinated by that whole other side of life. And me and my family, we’ve always had stories like that. Like, my great aunt was raped and murdered, and the guy who did it was the last person to be lynched in the state of Florida. So that was always a crazy story growing up. Now I live in Alabama, and back then, all these guys came down from Alabama posed as FBI agents, but they weren’t. And they broke him out of jail and took him out and lynched him. My mom was trying to write a book about it when I was younger, but she never did.
WW: That’s a disturbing story.
DT: Yeah. It happened near Tallahassee, and there was a Greyhound bus there, and they saw all these people and thought there was a parade going on – but it turned out it was a lynching. And there was this guy from New York, a photographer, and he got out and took pictures, and we’ve got all the original pictures of what was going on down there. So I grew up with that, and I guess when I was younger, seeing all that, it kind of fascinated me.
WW: It fascinated you and repelled you at the same time.
DT: Oh yeah. And my great grandmother, when she saw her daughter dead, she fell on a log and started crying, and the police took a picture of her that we have, too – and that always stuck in my head. So it’s weird. Any family can relate to stories from their past, and I’ve always gotten into those, and into things that are related to the area I live in. Like since I moved to Alabama, there are so many stories that have happened around here over the years. They’re never-ending. All the bombings that happened during the civil rights era. You can see that some people progress and some people never do. You either learn from the mistakes or some people just doing the same things. So I guess I’ve always been intrigued by the good and the bad. I guess that’s what keeps me who I am, and keeps me wanting to stay on the right path.
WW: Did you grow up listening to what’s now known as contemporary Christian music?
DT: No. I was raised super Southern Baptist, so the only Christian music I grew up listening to were the hymnals, which I hated. I couldn’t stand them. They made me want to scratch my eyes out. I like them now, thought, which is weird. But that’s all I heard, and I knew there had to be another type of music out there besides that stuff. It was either that, oldies or old country that I ever listened to, or that I was allowed to listen to.
WW: What was the forbidden fruit-type of music that you finally got to hear after being force-fed all of that stuff.
DT: Well, my brother went to the other side, and he’d make me all these mix tapes when I was in fourth or fifth grade. He’d have things on there like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and the Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Skid Row, whatever it was. He’d make me all these mix tapes, and none of the kids my age knew what I was talking about, and I didn’t really know the music, either. I just knew that he made these tapes for me. So I think he was a big reason why I got into music. He was a music freak, and still is.
WW: Was there an early Christian band that connected with you at all?
DT: I’d never really heard heavy music at all. Well, I’d probably heard Metallica and Slayer. But nothing really heavy. And there was this band called Overcome, and I came to find out they were a Christian band. But at first it wasn’t even so much that they were a Christian band. I’d just never heard any music where they screamed all the time. And at first, I was like, “What is this mess?” I thought it was horrible. But it really intrigued me. I thought, I never heard this before. I didn’t even know people could make their voices sound like that. So that was the first band like that I’d heard, and it was awesome that they were a Christian band, too. I was like, I didn’t know there were people like this who believed the same things I believed.
WW: There was a period of time when Christian music was all about proselytizing. Every song had to be telling people to do this or that. But over time, the music’s evolved to the point where it’s songs about the lives of Christian musicians, and if it happens to have a Christian context, that’s fine, and if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.
DT: Yeah. My favorite songwriters are people who tell more of a story and tell what’s going on in their lives that me as a listener can get something out of, even if it’s completely the opposite of what they wrote the song about in the first place. Like a Willie Nelson or a Tom Waits or even a Tori Amos. I can take something out of their lyrics that might be the complete opposite of what they wrote about, but it still can touch my life in the same way that it touched their life when they were writing it.
WW: Is that something you aspire to in your own writing?
DT: Yeah. Hopefully something I’ve written will help people’s lives out. Maybe they won’t get exactly what I was writing about out of it, but it might help them with something they’re going through.
WW: How did UNDERØATH get started?
DT: Well, the guy who first played me that heavy Christian band was the one who I started it with. We wanted to do music, so we did some small little things, and then we decided to start another band up. He thought of a name, and then we found some members. I was just seventeen, and from then on, we were kind of starting our first band to play shows and stuff. And it just kind of took off.
WW: There are all kinds of stories out there about the reasons for you leaving UNDERØATH. Allmusic.com says the other members asked you to leave because you proposed to the girlfriend, which doesn’t make much sense. And there are other articles out there that talk vaguely about “relationship drama.” What actually happened?
DT: I was in a relationship, and I was engaged, but my fiancée, she broke up with me. And we were on the road, and I was having such a hard time going through the breakup, and I’m kind of compulsive. I wouldn’t just ask the guys in the band, “Do you think we’re going to get back together?” I’d dwell on the situation. So I think it was stressful on them. It was stressful on me, too, being on the road, but it was stressful on them, because they didn’t really know how to deal with the situation.
So they asked me to leave. And now we look back on it and joke. They were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen – around that area. They were young, too, and they just didn’t know how to deal with the situation. They’d never been through a situation like that – a guy going through a breakup and being on the road. Now we’re best friends, and we look back on it and think, "That’s not the typical situation where you’d ask somebody to leave a band." But they thought by asking me to leave, it was going to help me figure out my situation.
At first, I was really bitter. I thought, What’s with those guys? I can’t believe this. But it ended up working out for the best. We’re best friends now. Sometimes I thought at first that they made a bad decision, but it all ended up working out for the best. Now I understand. And that’s where I get my beliefs from a lot of times. At the time, I didn’t understand why all this was happening, why I’d been asked to leave. But it all worked out. I worked things out with my fiancée and we got married and I’ve got a kid now. And if I’d still been in UNDERØATH, I’d never had a family, and I’d never been in Maylene. So things work out for a reason. Some people call it coincidence, but I call it God choosing the path of my life.
WW: It feels like fate to you rather than a fluke?
DT: It does to me, and I’ve had arguments with people about that kind of thing. Like, “How do you know? That’s just a coincidence.” But different strokes for different folks. I really believe that God has a plan for me, and he had a plan for me to leave the band, however it went down. It was all for a reason. The biggest thing for me is, I’m not going to bend my beliefs or bend what I think is true just to please you. We can get along about a lot of different things. We can talk about the music or the weather or whatever and have a conversation. But you can’t really argue about religion, especially if that’s what’s in your heart. I believe what I believe, and if I can touch people in a positive way through what I believe, that’s great. But I’m not going to bend my beliefs just because something else happens. I’d be sacrificing a part of myself or compromising my beliefs just to please someone, and I don’t think that’s right for anyone.
WW: UNDERØATH has gone on to a lot of success. Did you have any pangs of jealousy along the way?
DT: Not at all. That’s the weird thing. I never really was in a band to want to be the biggest thing on the block. I just want to play music, really. To reach out to kids who are going through out what I was going through, or even just to make friends. I know that the reason I got into heavier music, the punk side of things, is because I felt accepted. I felt I had friends and almost like a family, where people understand me, they understand the music I like, or understand the things I was going through. With all the kids, it was almost like we were the same person, you know? So that’s the reason I really started playing music. So there wasn’t any jealousy at all. I’m actually really happy for those guys. I always knew they’d succeed. It was more looking at it like, I’m glad I was able to be a part of it, because I always knew it would do this.
WW: I understand you went through some hard economic times after you left. I came across a piece that talked about you having jobs putting up gutters and delivering flowers…
DT: Yeah, working three jobs at once. I was doing all those at once. I worked doing gutters, delivered flowers on the weekends, and did stock in a clothing store at night. But I appreciate a lot of that, which is weird. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I really did appreciate it. It keeps you humble, and I think when I was in UNDERØATH, I might have gotten to the point of maybe getting a big head. But I’m glad I was asked to leave and I had to go back to working three jobs to survive, because it made me realize we’re all normal people, and we can help people in their lives not just by being in a band, but wherever we work. Like, if it’s me doing gutters, being there for the people I work with. It doesn’t matter.
And that’s the biggest thing with Maylene we try to stress. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in a band onstage – because a lot of times, people look at bands like, “Oh, man, that’s it. I wish I could be like that.” But you can do just as well and be just as happy wherever you’re at. It’s not always looking for these crazy things in the sky. That’s why I liked having those three jobs. It made me realize I could be just as at peace and as happy as being in a band or working three jobs and putting up gutters in the summer in 100 degree weather. It’s just how you look mentally at your life. You can be happy with everything in your life, or you can complain and find fault.
So I’m really excited about taking two or three months off of Maylene, because I’m getting a normal job. We’ve been touring so much, we don’t have jobs. It’s basically been a band. But after we get off this tour, we’re going to take a few months off to write the record, and I’m going to get a normal job, and I’m so excited. Because there, no one’s going to care who I am, going to care that I play music. If I don’t do my job, my boss is going to get mad at me just like anybody. And I like that kind of thing. It keeps you on track, keeps you understanding that you’re not better than the average person.
WW: It’s interesting that you say that, because a few weeks ago, I interviewed Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips, and before that band took off, he worked for eleven years at a Long John Silvers. But he looked upon that as a positive period for him, and he said it makes him angry when musicians say, “If it hadn’t been for music, I would have killed myself.” He makes the same point you did: You can have a good, positive life doing whatever you want to do. You don’t have to be a rock star.
DT: Exactly. And I’ve always been like that – being happy and working at hard at whatever you do and just trying to be content. And financially, it can be hard. Even people who are in a successful band can sometimes end up spending more than they make. But you need to be content – not always have to feel like you’ve got to go for the nicest things, but to just be happy you’re breathing and that you’re alive. That may sound cheesy or some put-on thing, but it’s the truth. Just be happy with where you’re at. After all, music’s not going to last forever.
Well, maybe for Wayne Coyne. He’s been in it for a long time. But music doesn’t last for everyone. You might play music for your whole life, but it might not last as a career. So like he said, you have to learn to be happy, you have to enjoy where you’re at and wherever you’re at in your life. Things are going to change, and your surroundings are going to change around you, but if you’re happy with who you are, and you’re happy with your life no matter where the changes are good or they’re bad, you’ll have the right take on things.
WW: You mentioned you have a child. Is it a boy or a girl?
DT: Boy. He’s almost two years old now. About a year and three-quarters.
WW: What’s his name?
WW: Describe him to me. What’s he like?
DT: He’s awesome. He’s a bundle of energy. We played the other night and he got to come out, and he loves music. I’ve been around a lot of kids, but he gets so excited to hear music or to be around any kind of instrument. Like a guitar or a drum or whatever. It fascinates him. I guess that’s from my wife listening to music when he was in the womb. And he’s really well behaved. He doesn’t cry or complain at all unless he’s hungry or tired. Other than that, he’s always happy. I don’t know if I lucked out or what. Some people have kids that are always crying and complaining, but he’s really well mannered. If you tell him something, he does it, even at this young age. So I’m blessed. I’m always afraid we’re going to have another one and that’ll be the one that’s unruly and never stops crying. People always say, the first one can be a joy and then the next one could be the total opposite. You know those stereotypes. But he’s so well-mannered and gets along well.
WW: Does he like your slow songs better, or your fast ones?
DT: He likes the heavier stuff. He loves it. He likes anything that’s upbeat. He loves going to shows, and he loves listening to any kind of music. It’s awesome. And it’s funny: We got him this little drum set, and he really has a sense of rhythm. I don’t know if that’s possible at his age, but every time he plays, he seems to have a rhythm to him, which is a lot better than I have.
WW: On the new disc, there’s a real variety of sounds – heavier stuff, but also the sort of rustic, acoustic vibe in “Tale of the Runaways.” Was that one of your goals when you started out – to give the songs a big, cinematic feel? Or did it develop along the way?
DT: It developed. But I think with us, when we started the band, with this whole Ma Barker thing, we wanted to have fun with it. We thought, even if people don’t get it who are listening to it, it’ll still be fun for us. It made it more than a band. We had a story, and we could have fun with our layouts. Or even writing songs. So in the last few songs, when we were writing, we thought, if you were to have a funeral in the mountains, or if you were to die with regrets in your life, what would it be like? And that’s how it came to be.
Our producer, he always pushes us to embrace where we’re from in Alabama. Because we all live outside of Birmingham. He always tries to push us to sound like we’re not from a city, because none of us grew up in a city. I grew up on a dirt road until I was ten in Florida. He always wanted to know what our vision was, and we told him we want to go back to the way it was when we were kids, the way we grew up, and he pushes us to embrace that, to keep the focus on that, rather than getting the most recent guitar tone or whatever. We recorded in a more of country-type way, because that’s what I grew up listening to. So I love it that we have those elements to it. But when we write, we don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re just writing, and what we grew up on influences us a lot.
People are always joking like that. I never thought I’d be like my mom or my dad, but the older I get, I’m almost turning exactly into them. Like, growing up, I hated hymnals, and I hated country music. I hated it. But now, my favorite artists are, like, George Jones and Charlie Daniels and John Anderson. These old country artists I couldn’t stand, now I love it. The same thing with talk radio. I used to hate it, but now I can’t get enough of it. It’s just weird. I’m all about cooking now and taking care of my plants in my yard, and I never thought I’d be like that, because my parents run a nursery back home. But the older you get, the more you start turning into the things you thought you’d never be [laughs].
When I first started writing music, I was writing more about what I wanted to run away from. You know what I mean? If I could get rid of every part of the country and the woods, I would, because I wanted to be part of that city feel, and I wanted to listen to all the bands that were heavier. But the older I get, I’m going back to everything I took for granted when I was younger.
WW: You mentioned story-songs appealing to you. When you write a song, do you hope that listeners can picture it in their mind – almost see it taking place?
DT: I would hope so, because that’s what I really get into. That’s my favorite kind of music. Especially Tom Waits. You can listen to one song and it makes you feel like you’re in the bayou and you can listen to another song and you can feel like you’re on a ship. I like really animated type of music, where people do what they want to do. I know how much fun it must have been for them, writing those songs. Just like Willie Nelson and songs like “Pancho and Lefty” [composed by Townes Van Zandt] or “Seven Spanish Angels” [co-written by Troy Seals and Eddie Setser]. It’s sort of a whole little journey when you listen to the song.
And not all of my songs are like that. Some of them are just normal lyrics about stuff I’m going through. But a lot of times, I try to branch off and try to get into something different. And I’m trying to get better at it. I think if you write a story out and try to get it where people can picture it, I think that takes a really good songwriter. I’m working on that, and I hope that one day in my life, I can get to the point where anybody can listen to it and it’ll paint a picture. All the people I’m influenced by, I feel like I can never do it that well. But I’m trying to branch off where there are two or three or four songs on the record that will tell a story, and try to get it where I can portray what I’m feeling in my heart and get it to come across as a story.
It’s easy to get intimidated by stuff like “Pancho and Lefty.” There’s a line in there that’s like, “Now you wear your skin like iron/Your breath as hard as kerosene,” and every time I hear it, I’m like, man. I can just picture a rough old guy like that. So one day I hope to be able to do that. But I just want to write from my heart. That’s the biggest thing. I think some people like to write songs for them to be a hit. But I just write in my journal a lot and take all those bits and pieces and put them into a song. I just try to write from my heart and hope that comes through when people hear our songs.
WW: There’s not very much overt Christian messages in a lot of the songs on the new album. Do you get criticism from Christians who think your messages are too subtle for people to get?
DT: Not really. But us being a Christian band and the way we write is kind of controversial. We’re writing from the complete opposite point of view, which is kind of weird. We’re playing the role of the sons, trying to warn people not to take the path we’ve taken. So on some songs, I’ll write a song from the point of view of a son who has regrets and wishes he could turn his life around. But on another song, I write about how one son knew he was born to be evil, and kind of what happens to him. He knew he was going to have to pay for his sins some day. I’ve always been into stuff like that. Like Lord of the Rings. I’m not a huge Lord of the Rings fan, but it’s interesting that it was all based on Christianity, and the guy who wrote it was a Christian, and I think that can touch people’s lives a lot more than a Christian movie that’s really kind of closed-minded.
WW: On the jacket of the CD, you guys are all pictured as being dead, and you talked earlier about the funeral feel of the songs toward the end of the disc. It almost suggests that the concept is dead, too. Where can you go from here if the sons have been killed?
DT: I think there’s a lot of things we can do. We might make it talking from the grave, like a lot of old country.
WW: Like “The Long Black Veil”?
DT: Yeah, or “The Ghost of Hank Williams” by David Allan Coe. Or you could jump back to see what made them go wrong. Or maybe… well, the latest album seems almost like a movie, you know. And maybe we could do the next one where it would almost be recapping the lives of this family and make it more like a book. The first two records were more about us as them, and maybe this next record could be like a book written about this family.
WW: You could do the Barker boys in hell, too.
DT: Yeah, but I’m really into the book idea. I like the idea of looking at things from a completely different standpoint. But we never know where we’re going. It’s fun, but it’s a challenge. On this last record, I could have gone somewhere else. But on the first record, we’re there holding guns and stuff, and I wanted to jump to their downfall. And I like that it gives me more of a challenge about what the third album’s going to be, rather than, “Oh, I’ll just do another one with this same concept. Here’s the next step in their life.” I want every record to be a real challenge. Just like you said: “Where are you going to go from here?” It’s not the easiest thing.