At just 23 years old, Cleveland-born songwriter Max Sollisch, who performs under the moniker Dolfish, made serious waves last December when Afternoon Records, which is also home to John Vanderslice and Cincinnati’s Pomegranates, released his debut EP, Your Love is Bummin’ Me Out, on vinyl. The witty, lo-fi record met praise from all the biggest tastemakers who compared the 23-year-old to everyone from Neil Young and John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) to Guided By Voices and Times New Viking. ? ?
For the first proper Dolfish LP, Sollisch enlisted producer, friend and label-mate Patrick Tape Fleming (of The Poison Control Center) to help with the effort. The ensuing record was recorded in the living room of a friend’s apartment in downtown Des Moines, Iowa in five days. I’d Rather Disappear Than Stay the Same, which Afternoon Records unveiled on October 30 features a backing band of all Iowa musicians whom Max had only met upon arriving in Des Moines. Tracked live with little overdubbing, these 12 songs were rarely rehearsed giving the record a spontaneity and rawness rarely achieved on a studio album.
For Sollisch’s live performance he appears solo creating an intimate connection between performer and audience. While appreciation for the positive press is acknowledged, foremost on his tongue is Sollisch’s love for his craft and the positive reception he’s received from fans and peers.
Ghettoblaster Magazine caught up with Sollisch while he was in the midst of a 30-plus day tour in support of IRDTSTS, to discuss his earnest and heartfelt approaches to the songwriting craft and live performance. This is what he told us…
You’ve been putting out records with Afternoon records – the latest one as well as the EP that came out last October. How did you guys find each other?
The EP was first out on Indicator Records via cassette. They’re a label out of Ireland. I liked their roster, so I sent them a blind demo with a hand written note. He loved it and they ended out putting it out on cassette. Before this, when I was 18, I did a cover of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin’s “House Fire” on piano. Their lead singer Phil Dickey was searching Google and found the cover that I did in my freshman dorm. He downloaded my band’s EP and emailed us asking us to open for them in Cleveland and Columbus. So we were opening for my then favorite band, playing to 250 kids, and they called our first album one of their favorite albums of the year. They talked about it on their website, Myspace page, and they also name dropped us to Filter Magazine.
I kept in touch with Phil over time and when I put out Your Love Is Bumming Me Out he asked me for a couple copies of it. He sent them out to labels that he knew, one of which was Afternoon Records. So I got this call from them saying they wanted to put out YLIBMO in the states and sign me for a full-length. It was wild. It was completely from a weird random connection.
A lot of the press that has come out about those records compares you to John Darnielle and Neil Young and Guided By Voices, folks that are not singer songwriters who are 23 years old. These are folks who have had long careers. Do you consider that a huge compliment?
Oh my God, yes. It is unbelievable. The whole thing has been pretty surreal. These are people who have influenced me for a long-time. Many of those guys weren’t getting their due until later in their careers. John Darnielle was touring and his records were circulating in the underground for several years but he didn’t have any sort of mainstream press until he was older. So to have my first record come out and be talked about in the same breath as any of those guys has floored me.
Do you think the internet has made it easier for a band or artist to get their due a lot earlier?
Yeah, on some levels it has. But, getting some of that press during the internet age with such a saturation of bands around, no longer equates to financial success. In the ‘90s it was more difficult to find your scene and find a following on some levels, but when you got that press and were signed to a strong independent label that meant that you were selling thousands of copies of your records. I don’t think it is like that now.
So have you been able to make Dolfish your day job then?
Actually yes. It is pretty wild. I am fairly business minded; I manage myself, I book all my own tours and those kinds of things. I also perform solo all the time. I travel the road in a car. And I’ve spent the last 21 days driving over 5,000 miles alone. It isn’t the most fun way to tour. But financially it was the only way to make this become something that was paying my bills. I think this is at a point where I can save enough on this tour, come home for a couple months and live on that money until the next tour. It is awesome. For the first time in my life I will have savings.
If I was in a band though, and we were splitting this several ways it would be chump change. Or if I was living in New York City it would be chump change. But I live in Cleveland, Ohio, and I’m a solo performer. No booking agent takes a cut, no manager takes a cut. I grew up in Cleveland Heights and went to school at Ohio State. My girlfriend got a really good job teaching at a school for autism in Cleveland so we moved back.
Have you done anything to support autism awareness as a musician?
No, but I worked as an aid to autistic children when I was living in Columbus. My girlfriend got me into that and it is very near and dear to me. To bring awareness to that or playing a local benefit would be good. I don’t know where to start, but some of the people at home might know how I can do that. That’s a great idea. That would be awesome. I’d like to do some volunteering with my free time while I’m home too. It will be great to have the time to do that stuff without worrying about using my time to make money cause I’m broke.
What did you think of Des Moines?
I really like Des Moines. Poison Control Center is also on Afternoon Records and I did ten tour dates when I hopped in the van towards the end of their never ending tour a couple years ago. We did a bunch of tour dates and it was awesome. We ended in Des Moines. We did an early and late show and they were phenomenal. It was awesome.
Everyone was so nice when I was there recording. Musicians lent their time to the record, and it couldn’t have been more exciting.
Were those collaborations done on the fly, had Patrick planned those out, or was that part of your artistic vision all along?
No. I wrote the songs and had in my head what I wanted for them. But Patrick was like, “Your away from home, would you like me to enlist some of my friends to back you?” I was like, “Sure, pass the demos around if you want.” And when I got there I had a bassist, an organist, a drummer, a guy that played trumpet, a guy that played killer lead and slide guitar. So I met the guys and showed them the songs with the idea that they’d be recording them in the next 20 minutes. So I’d play the songs, play with them, and then we’d do a take. And a lot of times those takes were final. We recorded it all live. They played along, following me, and then we’d do a couple of over dubs.
Do you think that the inability to overthink it made the end product more genuine?
I think so cause we weren’t freaking out about, “Is this the perfect part?” I knew what I wanted to do, and Patrick had a lot of great ideas that we went with on the fly – he’s a great producer. But other than that, I thought, “I wrote these songs, I hope that they’ll speak for themselves, but I didn’t want to overthink it.” I wanted an honest and raw recording of them. And people have been gravitating towards that with the record.
Were there times when you and Patrick butted heads creatively?
We did butt heads a bit during recording it. He’s one of the strongest personalities I know, and I have a strong personality too. And we both had vision for what we wanted to do and what we are passionate about. But I also think that Patrick is my biggest fan. He has always believed in my music more than anyone. He’s invested in it. So it wasn’t like someone was just recording the record. It really felt like we could make something brilliant together.
I’d never done a record where anyone else ever had a say about what was going on. So it was a new learning experience. And we made compromises, some of them after days of cooling off on a song that we’d moved past. But when we finally recorded the album and mixed it and it came time to decide the track order we went off separately to make a list of the flow of the record. There were 12 songs, we each made our own order independent of each other, and we sat down and looked at them and they were the exact same order. Every single track. It was so bizarre.
When it isn’t cost prohibitive will you take a band on tour?
I want to do this as a one-man operation. I love performing solo. It has forced me to become a better guitarist, better performer, better storyteller. The response from crowds has always been that I shouldn’t add a band. That is part of the reason that six of the songs on the record are just me solo. It seems like people are gravitating towards that. I love being able to engage a crowd who has no interest in me and try to get to the point where everyone is so engaged that you can hear a pin drop. It is a huge rush.
At this point I don’t see myself as the kind of artist who will ever have such a huge following that I could have a full band and still be living comfortably. I don’t know that I’ll ever have a period of my career when I play a 2,000 capacity venue and pack it out. Maybe I’m wrong. I think that at best there may be 200 kids in any given city someday. That would be the most incredible thing in the world to me. Right now there are 10 to 50 in cities that I’ve been to a couple times. And they are great, great fans.
This is what I love so much, it is the only thing that I’m truly good at, and I’m so appreciative that I can make a living doing something that I love so much. I’m fortunate also to have a family and awesome girlfriend who see that there is something here and that I’m not just chasing a pipe dream. I have people who are proud and happy that I’m doing this.
Part of the flipside of being recognized as an artist with legitimate output, and someone press and fans are interested in is that there’s pressure for a follow-up that these people will love too right?
Totally man. I didn’t feel like there were a lot of expectations after the EP, but there were some. And since this record has done so well, I feel like the next record needs to be something that is received well. But whether it is or isn’t, if the fans and people at shows love it, then I’ve ultimately delivered for the people that mean the most to me. I’ve played some new songs and people’s responses to those have been amazing.
So while I’m nervous, I feel like home and tape recording, rather than trying to put myself in a sterile studio environment to please critics, can work. I’m never going to abandon my sound for some kind of over the top orchestral production or that kind of thing. I’m not going to do any crazy crossovers, or write a thematic record. I’m just writing songs about myself, people I meet, characters I dream up, and try to create some interesting package or backdrop for the songs to fit in. And so far the response has been awesome. I’m so glad that people care about it and a few love the songs, so I’m like, “Why shouldn’t the next one be received as well or better?”