After what guitarist Jasan Stepp now categorizes as an “extended hiatus,” and many lessons learned, Maryland-based Dog Fashion Disco is back with a new album that effectively fuses all the wild varied sonic elements of the band’s 17-year history into a 14-track recording entitled “Sweet Nothings.”
Released in July, “Sweet Nothings” has been described by vocalist and lyricist Todd Smith as “a love letter to our fans who missed us and grew up listening to DFD.”
Smith, along with drummer John Ensminger and former guitarist Greg Combs, formed the band in 1995. Building a local following and self-funding two low-budget CDs, DFD became known for combining ska and jazz with elements of metal, mixed with satirical and often irreverent lyrics.
“(The band) started off originally as a ska band,” said Stepp, who joined DFD in 2003. “The very early stuff was like a straight up ska band… it’s really cool stuff, but they took that and then went in this metal direction.”
Stepp explained that the band’s sound continued to progress after their 2003 EP “Day of the Dead,” along with a few lineup changes, the changes in songwriting influenced the continuing development of DFD’s unique sound. “I’m this sensible, give-me-a-big-chorus kind of writer, so taking the weirdness of what they used to do, and put a big, sensible chorus in — sort of a traditional songwriting progression — and mashed it all up. That gave us the ‘Adultery’ record, which I think many would say is the band’s best effort so far.”
“Adultery” would go on to bring the band droves of new fans and help DFD reach what they thought was the peak of success. But, due to a combination of continued lineup changes, moving labels, and financial management problems, that success was short-lived.
“We were signed to one label like 15 minutes,” Stepp said. “This band, ten years ago, was hanging on by a thread in many ways.”
All of those issues ultimately led to the group officially disbanding in 2007. However, none wanted to stop playing music, and Stepp joined DFD co-founders Smith and Ensminger in a new venture called “Polkadot Cadaver.”
Reunion and Reformation
The “Polkadot Cadaver” sound wasn’t quite the same, and Stepp said that those differences — plus the ‘fresh start’ aspect of forming a new band, helped to recharge the three of them, and they eventually decided to get together for a Dog Fashion Disco reunion show in late 2008. Based on the success of that reunion, DFD played another reunion show in 2010.
“We’d get together (for the reunion shows) and rehearse the songs, and do two shows back-to-back, and sell a bunch of merch. Then we just got to the point where we said ‘why don’t we just do a new album?’” Stepp remembers. “The lineup (we had at that point) was just so awesome, we thought ‘we should just do it. We’d gone through this time where we were kind of burned out on DFD, but now it seems reinvigorated.”
Stepp said that, having learned from many of the mistakes made early on with DFD, the group was very fortunate to have a loyal following who had kept up with the group over the years on social media platforms.
Social Media Success Drives New Album
“It was really social media that kept Dog Fashion Disco alive,” Stepp said. “It helped us keep in touch with our fans, and kept our music out there.”
So, when the band decided to record a new album, they decided to apply some of the lessons learned from the earlier years, and go back to self-funding rather than relying on a record label to produce the album.
“It’s amazing what you can do when you have capital behind you, and you have some power,” Stepp said, describing how the group decided to test out the still-developing crowdfunding marketplace to fund their new album.
“We decided to do an Indiegogo campaign. At this point, we’re pretty calculated, and we’re pretty knowledgeable in what we need to make it work,” said Stepp. “We set the goal at $30,000, thinking that we would easily make that.”
Ultimately, DFD fans pitched in $85,000 to help the band record a new album and get back out on tour.
“Truthfully, at the very beginning, I was sort of joking to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if it goes to $100K,’ never thinking it would actually happen. We set the goal at $30,000, and made that in just over a day, which is really crazy. Then we were thinking, maybe $50,000 would be great. We kept making all these stretch goals, and they just kept falling. The last thing we set was $75,000, and it went ten thousand beyond that,” Stepp recalled.
“We have really loyal fans. We have some uber-fans, but really, but our fans are also older now. They’re not kids anymore. They have jobs, and they can contribute. They can spend $50. We’re very fortunate,” Stepp said.
Dog Fashion Disco has always had a great deal of creative leeway when it comes to writing and recording, though Stepp said that this time around, the songs and lyrics have matured a bit.
“No one has ever really told us what to do. We’ve been very lucky with the labels we’ve been signed to. Being on a big label, there are — or would be — big benefits. Sometimes they can get you a better tour, or hook you up with people with an eye to the future. We are just way outside the realm of what most labels want.”
“That stuff on ‘Adultery’ was out of control, some of it… But there’s only so much you can say about dead hookers. We never used to be a political band, but we’re becoming a bit more (of one). Some of it is maturity. We’re older, and our audience is, too,” said Stepp. “I love it. I like having poignant, thought-provoking lyrics outside of just being shocking.”
2014 Tour and the Future
The fans who helped fund DFD’s new album, “Sweet Nothings,” have shown up in droves to see them play.
“We’re way bigger now than we ever were when the band existed before. We’re pretty calculated, and we knew it would be successful, but we didn’t know how successful,” Stepp explained. “More people are coming to shows, more people are interested.”
Stepp said that thanks to the ability to self-fund their album, Dog Fashion Disco was able to renegotiate their deal with Rotten Records, giving the band more control and a better financial deal on the revenue split.
However, he also warns younger bands to be wary of record labels and the loss of control signing a deal can bring. “Some view the contract as the goal, but that should never be the goal. The goal should be to make music and make a living doing it. If you want to make art for a living, you have to be financed; you have to make money out of it. It’s not selling out, it’s reality,” he said.
The group’s first tour in nearly seven years has exceeded all of their expectations, and Stepp said DFD already has plans to record another album and continue touring. If their energetic show at Houston’s Warehouse Live studio room on June 24 is any indication, Dog Fashion Disco is back to stay.
“We’ve been at this for a long time, and it seems to be going in the right direction,” Stepp said. “We still don’t know exactly where it’s going to go from here, but hey man, if it takes off we’ll take it.”
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