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Dan Darrah: Mil-Spec Guitarist on Going the Solo Route for His New Album

Photo: Norman Regucera/Platinum Playhouse

When Dan Darrah is not strumming lead guitar for Mil-Spec, he’s working among the ranks of other GTA hardcore acts like RAZE and Wild Side. But today, the focus is on Darrah alone, and Close as Love, his latest solo release.

Close as Love arrives following a charming 52-second video clip for “Full Moon" (seen below), directed by Mason Mercer, that arrived three months ago. This song stayed on my radar for its breezy nature, short song structure (read: maximum replay value) and adorable footage of what I perceive to be a dog eating their last meal in style. You’re smiling at the video treatment until you remember how grim it actually is, and that’s kind of the essence of Darrah’s work at large.

The new full-length is not necessarily what one would expect from someone penning guitar for such an ahead-of-the-curve hardcore group like Mil-Spec, or perhaps exactly what you might expect. We’re certainly experiencing a moment in hardcore adjacency where musicians are branching out from core into the realms of pop/rock/folk/new wave, etc. to mixed results of sincerity.

In the case of Darrah, though, Close as Love is simple, soothing, and chalked with emotional depth.

No Echo caught up with Darrah to discuss the project.

I’ve always known you to subtly work on music of this nature, but Close as Love is your largest undertaking thus far, I'm pretty sure. How are you feeling about it?

I’ve been feeling good. And you’re right, usually it’s a lot more low-stakes, and definitely more sporadic. I have a habit of releasing songs individually, or randomly grouping a few songs together, or recording an album then scrapping it for parts. It’s stupid, actually. This time, I wanted to do something different. A definite tracklist, art, release; an actual packaged thing.

Is writing solo stuff more calculated and scheduled? Do you slot yourself time to solely write this music, or is it coming to you more instinctually?

It’s pretty instinctual. When I was a kid, it was my default mode. Since getting older, I’ve definitely had to make time for it, but I also wouldn’t say I slot myself time, either. A lot of it comes just sitting on the couch, staring at the wall and playing aimlessly until something happens, which I think is common for a lot of people.

What usually comes first for you; vocal melody, lyrics, guitar, etc.?

Guitar! Always guitar. I usually fall into a hook then build a song around that. I’ll record it quick, then start layering it with other guitars, or a piano, and a vocal melody comes from there.

What song on Close as Love means the most to you, and why?

“Full Moon” or “Look Away,” really anything with friends on it. That’s the best part by far, which I never really embraced until now, including friends in the process. I get all the resources of a band, but hang onto the control. Not a bad deal.

Who were some of your influences when writing these songs? I hear a little bit of Mount Eerie and Elliot Smith, but feel free to elaborate.

It’s weird, like, the songs are a little unstuck from time. They don’t clearly reflect what I’m listening to right now. So, a lot of it comes out of internalized love for Owen, Duster, Jawbreaker, Elliot Smith, for sure … that kind of stuff. But there are more abstracted influences, too. Contemporary stuff like Hannah Diamond, Mechatok, artists that have a real sense of hook and melody.

I noticed Close as Love was somewhat self-produced. Do you have a vested interest in songwriting and/or music production? Following your work over the years, and hearing this latest release, it seems like it’s something you’d thrive at.

Not a snowball’s chance in hell. I did record most of it myself, but Scott Downes (Iris) did a lot of miracle work and heavy lifting when it came to mixing and mastering. I have a boomer’s command of technology. Like, really a level of ineptness that would surprise you. Ethically speaking I can’t inflict that on anyone but myself.

Some of these songs clock in at under a minute, making them perfectly stated; no over or under. Was that a direct choice based on documented data of music listener habits, or something that mostly came naturally?

“Perfectly stated” is quite the compliment. I like jingles, quick ideas, a poem-song. Sometimes I just want to say the thing and grab my ginger ale and keep on walking.

I do think there is something really amazing about songs south of two minutes long that are able to achieve something. Take, like, “Game of Pricks” by Guided by Voices, or “Apple” by Bladee. It’s nice. I don’t know.

Have you worked on any music at all during quarantine? I’ve heard from some musicians who say they’ve completely lost the spark for creativity while being cooped up.

I finished this record before quarantine, so I’ve been pretty dry. Though, I am working on some new Mil-Spec stuff. Quarantine involved a bit of a gearshift for me; reading more, running, doing other kinds of writing.

Dan performing with Mil-Spec @ Programme Skate & Sound, Fullerton, CA, 2017. (Photo: Dan Rawe)

You’ve recently done some political reporting/columns of sorts for various publications. Is that something you’ve been working at for a minute, or just something resulting from most people being fairly tuned to how fucked up the world has continued to get since March 2020?

Yeah, I’m a columnist for Canadian Dimension now, which is great. I’ve loved that mag for a long time. Writing this material has been a hobby of mine for years, but I think, yeah, the present moment has really energized me. We’re living through a period of wild contradictions, like, of staggering profits and poverty, and a huge crisis of imagination among the political class. Has there ever been a better time to dream up something different?

There’s been lots of our characteristic Canadian snarky, you know, pointing south and saying, “Jeeze, what idiots.” But we’re letting migrant workers die in farms, forcing sick people — whom we call “heroes” in the same breath — to continue working with few protections. Toronto city council’s foot-dragging and doublespeak on the police budget has been brutal, too, even though anybody with a pulse can see this system needs to be torn down, not just reupholstered.

There’s a lot to be angry about. Lots to be hopeful about, too. Especially with the work being done by Black Lives Matter Toronto, Not Another Black Life, and Keep Your Rent Toronto.

Is this a project you intend to play live, should we ever return to such a state?

Maybe.

Where does the new Mil-Spec record sit in the pipeline?

It’s closer than it is far.

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Close as Love is out today via Platinum Playhouse.

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Tagged: dan darrah, mil-spec

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