Vermont singer-songwriter, keyboardist and arranger Dan Aaron has just released a new album, entitled Phylum. While it fits well into the progressive rock genre, it gestures in other directions too. Dan, who mostly stays away from social media, spoke with me recently about the album, which is now available on all the main streaming services.
Full disclosure: Dan is also my brother, so if you suspect any positive bias on my part in this interview, you probably suspect right.
The album has complex arrangements that include keyboards and guitars, harmonica, synthesizers, flute and saxophone, a live string trio and more. How hard is it to get a recording like this together, especially when you’re based in a rural area?
It doesn’t happen overnight; you do have to coordinate a lot of schedules. But you’d be surprised at how much talent is floating around in a place like northern Vermont – a mix of locally grown talent and musicians who have come here for the lifestyle and the scenery. Also, a place like Lane [Gibson]’s studio serves as a hub – so many have been involved in other projects there over the years. And when it comes to complex arrangements, it turns out players are eager for a challenge, something they can really sink their teeth into.
If you have to label the album, progressive rock would be the first term that comes to mind, but then there’s the quirky folksy number “Like an Insect,” a playful song on which you accompany yourself on just ukulele. Does this connect with your experience as a teacher, including working with children on musical projects? And why did you take up the ukulele even though you’re primarily a keyboardist?
Yes, the uke connects with my experience as a teacher, and also with my love of the Vermont woods. You can take it anywhere. When I was a middle school music teacher, the eighth-graders had started learning ukulele from their previous music teacher and wanted to continue. So I had to buy one and quickly figure out how to play it. It was exciting to be able to share with kids something that was a recent discovery for me. Including a song like “Insect” fits my personal definition of progressive rock, namely, rock music that doesn’t follow the rules.
I hear bits of influence from the great bands of the classic progressive rock era, and from distinctive songsmiths like Richard Thompson. But I know you listen to modern-day bands that are carrying the prog-rock torch forward into new and original territory. What have you been listening to in recent years?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Neal Morse, from his time with Spock’s Beard and in the Neal Morse Band, as well as to the Flower Kings, from Sweden, Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree and most especially Big Big Train, a band that, in my opinion, has raised the bar above anything that’s come before. I would also give a special mention to Pete Jones’ project Tiger Moth Tales. All of these bands are great fans of the same classics I’ve always loved, but they’ve added something of their own. They’ve shown that there is more territory to be explored in this genre. Finding my own piece of it is the best part of making an album like Phylum.
The epic opening track, “The Dreams of Horses and Men,” contains an excerpt from a piece by Chopin. Classical (or in this case, Romantic) music has always figured in prog-rock creativity. How has studying classical piano influenced your music?
First of all, some of my best friends are three-chord songs. However, the variety and complexity in classical music opens up virtually limitless possibilities for composition. In the best instances, whether it’s classical, prog or anything else, it’s never complexity for its own sake. Chopin, in particular, discovered that through intricate and precise composition, he could express the full depth and range of human emotion. And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?
There’s sociopolitical content in some of the lyrics. “Decider (The Orbiting Wilderness Farm)” depicts a future in which Earth’s ecosystems have been decimated, with some bits artificially reproduced on a space station. “Silverback (Little Brother)” suggests humankind should look at the great apes as honored progenitors rather than primitive evolutionary relatives. Is environmentalism – the fate of the planet – a preoccupation of yours?
The fate of the planet, especially the fate of other species, is definitely a preoccupation of mine, now more than ever. To me it’s simple: being a good human means learning to share this Earth with other species. They have exactly the same right to live here that we have. Unfortunately, like everything else these days, environmentalism has become political. In my songs, I try to focus on what’s important, which is the reality of our impact on species and ecosystems, not the politics.
Why the title Phylum?
I had two things in mind when I decided on this title. First, a number of the tracks deal in one way or another with animals. Second, while Phylum is not a concept album, I do feel that there is a certain evolutionary relationship among the songs. You could say that I’m their most recent common ancestor.