Are You a Dreamer? (The Militia Group)
An interview with Denison Witmer
By Tim Den
After a covers album (Recovered) and a foray into rockier terrain (…And Flows into the Sea), Denison Witmer is back doing what he does best: Quiet, affectionate, existential acoustic singer/songwriter fragility. Are You a Dreamer? contains some of his mellowest work to date, tackling subject matter that relates to dreaming (be it the actual act or in terms of envisioning better futures), but it never feels weak or powerless. The warmth is thick and the melodies vivacious, particularly on the title track where the chorus glides on a harmonized vocal line from heaven. His trademark finger-plucking (on custom-tuned guitars, no less) is graceful and firm, with just enough dazzling hammer-ons and pull-offs to fill in the gaps left behind by the spaciousness of the songs.
And though most singer/songwriter fodder mires itself in relationship woe-is-me, Are You a Dreamer? goes beyond such pedestrian whining. Aside from the lyrical focus that the album title implies, Witmer visits (presumably) deceased relatives, British castles and cathedrals, and insomnia to relay the miles on his soul’s odometer. The results are peaceful meditations that don’t lack engaging prose, proactive imagination, or musical satisfaction, again upholding Witmer as one of this generation’s best songwriters.
You moved out of your long-time home, Philadelphia, and lived in Madison, WI for a while, right?
I lived in Madison for about a year to spend time with my friends who were running a place called The Catacombs Coffeehouse. Plus, I wanted to get away from Philly for a while. I thought I’d try living somewhere else before I committed to buying a house, and I’d always wanted to live in Madison. I’m back in Philly now, though. I moved back a month ago.
You and I’ve known each other for a while now, touring together and hanging out and whatnot, but you disappeared off my Friendster page about a year ago! What happened?
(laughs) Yeah, sorry, I just couldn’t handle it. I don’t spend that much time on the computer anyway, and I started to get so many messages on Friendster, I couldn’t deal with it. I felt bad for not responding to all of them. So I just decided to close the account. I don’t even do my Myspace account, my manager does it. (laughs)
What happened to the label that put out Recovered?
Fugitive Records was a subsidiary of Tooth & Nail, but none of the bands on the label toured, so it got shut down. I was still bound to them by contract, so I did the album with The River Bends.
How did you hook up with The Militia Group?
I’ve always been in touch with those guys. I’ve actually known them for a few years, so it was a very natural decision. I wanted to be on a label with better distribution, and they were very into my music.
Is it weird for you to be on a mostly pop punk label?
I kind of thought so at first, but I’m in the same situation with my European label (Bad Taste). Once I did an interview there, and someone asked me “is it weird to be on a mostly pop punk/modern rock label?” I said “no, do you think it’s weird?” And they said no. If anything, I know my fans will look for my new record anyway, and being on The Militia Group exposes me to a whole new audience. So it’s like having two groups of fans and potential fans instead of one. I admit, I got caught up in thinking about “what ‘cool’ label do I want to do be on?” for a while. But The Militia Group guys are awesome.
The bio states that Are You a Dreamer? is a “return” to your softer beginnings, as opposed to …And Flows into the Sea‘s rock format.
We wanted to make a rock record. In fact, I want to make more rock records with The River Bends. I kind of purposely made the divergence between “rock” and “soft acoustic” so that I can do both in the future.
In a time when every band of every genre is writing about the war, you took a very interesting angle in writing about every definition of the word dreaming.
(laughs) Yeah, I became very interested in the idea of dreaming, both the actual physical process and how it relates to writing songs. Both happen without your really knowing or understanding. You know how it is: Sometimes, after you write a song, it’s almost like you wake up from a dream.
I also wanted to equate dreaming with aspirations and hopes. I think a lot of people are having mid-midlife crisis right now because everyone’s so stressed out about who they think they need to be, their aspirations, etc. I guess this is my way of saying that there’s still strength in believing in good things happening to good people.
I remember when you split up with your then-girlfriend – the one who gave my friend April a broiled peanuts recipe – any of that stuff end up in your songs?
Not really. I try to keep that stuff out because, for some reason, people think of me as “that guy who sings about relationships” just cuz my music is soft. In reality, not many songs of mine are about relationships. Maybe one or two per album. On this one, it’s “California Brown and Blue.”
So who’s that about?
(laughs) Timothy, my friend, that’s for our own private conversation later.
So how was this recent tour with Rainer Maria and Copeland? Weird, no? Two emo rock bands and a folk singer?
It was great, actually. I had a lot of fun. The crowd was younger than I’m used to, but I don’t think anyone expected more out of me than showing up and playing half an hour every night. I’d definitely do it again!
And how are things in Europe?
Great, it gets better every time. I’ve been playing Europe a lot, and each time there’s a few more people at the shows. Of course, I do the best in Scandinavia, because that’s where Bad Taste is, but overall, I think people there are more apt to check out new music.
Ever think about ditching the States for Scandinavia? I know I do!
Don’t think it’s never crossed my mind! (laughs) I have really close friends in Copenhagen. I’d love to live there, but it’s impossible to find an apartment. Everything’s taken and pretty expensive.
So, for now, it’s still good ol’ Philly. You’ve always said that you don’t really belong to a scene, even in your hometown, has that changed?
I’ve only just moved back, but I don’t think that has changed. I never felt like I was a part of a community here, but that’s okay, cuz I’ve focused on playing locally as much as I’ve focused on playing nationally. I don’t play Philly that often, anyway. Philly’s weird: Either they love you or they don’t care. Cass McCombs played here last week and there were only 20 people at the show!
Have you been to World Café Live yet?
Yeah, I went for the first time recently to watch a friend play. It’s a beautiful venue! I think it’s going to do a lot for the scene.