For those unfamiliar, the Southern restaurant chain Waffle House serves their hash browns smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped and country. These modifiers each represent an ingredient one can add to the dish; covered is melted cheese, smothered is sautéed onions, topped is Bert’s chili, etc. Order “All the Way” and you get the full list of toppings at a discounted price.
Case Mahan, Kentucky musician and bandleader of Daniel Case, kicks off his latest EP Freeway with a song called “Smothered, Covered,” a literal reference to Waffle House breakfast. On the opening track Mahan lends a subtle and lilting mountain drawl, while the fiddle work roots us in place and the plodding drums remind us it’s a while yet till closing time. Freeway covers ground, and not just amongst the tightly packed album itself. Having last recorded under the stage name Street Gnar, releasing records with Atelier Ciseaux, River Girls and Burger Records, the Daniel Case band marks a renewal of resources and perspective; a homecoming. I recently spoke with Mahan about this new direction in his music, how he pulled these pieces together, and the people and places that raised him.
Prior to this record, you have primarily recorded under the solo moniker Street Gnar. Can you tell me in what ways this EP release differs from that body of work?
I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the two. I think the main contrast would be that this EP was really a collaborative effort with my bandmates even though it is under my own name, ironically. Though I wrote the songs, we worked them out together over the past year by playing gigs around Lexington.
In 2014 you recorded your last Street Gnar album, Blue Healer, in Atlanta, Georgia with Cyrus Shamir of the N.E.C. Did you record “Freeway” in the same way?
For this go around we stayed in Lexington and recorded with Otto Helmuth. We hit it off right away and worked really fast. In the past, I had only really written and improvised during the recording process, so showing up with the entire band ready to go, everything written, was a change in process for me. Almost too cliche to even mention, but cutting songs live with the band in the same room creates a completely new energy for the songs for sure.
Can you tell me who all contributed to this record?
Josh Blaine (Jovontaes) plays drums. Luke Ritchey (The Dolphins) bass and vocals. Sam McWilliams (Bear Medicine) plays fiddle. James Friley (Idiot Glee) keys. Warren Byrom and Josh Wright (Bear Medicine) singing harmonies. And I play the guitar and sing.
And the cover design, how did you wish to see this artwork incorporated into the project?
Lionell Guzman drew the cover almost ten years ago, I think. I love his simple drawings and he’s just the best at creating whimsical designs that convey cool esoteric feelings. The fallen horse was perfect.
“Freeway,” compared to the ethereal and dreamy bedroom-pop of your Street Gnar tapes, more directly references your personal geography of Appalachia and Central Kentucky as well as the traditional sound of the region; fiddles on the mix, twang in the vocals. How conscious of this were you when writing this record?
I grew up taking mandolin lessons and playing bluegrass songs in Eastern Kentucky when I was young, so the fundamental twang isn’t too foreign to me. That being said, I lost interest in it for some years and didn’t even get into traditional “country” music until I was probably 27. I’ve settled down in Lexington the past few years after traveling, touring, and basically completely raging all the way through my 20s.
It was fun to make a record that tips the hat to Kentucky’s yesteryear heroes like J.D. Crowe and The New South. I was listening to them, Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam, Jim Ford, etc. Similarly, I wanted to make the project a “front man” style band. Choosing to use traditional instruments came naturally because that’s what we were listening to. I met Sam (our fiddle player) during a different recording session because the song was begging for fiddle. The engineer called him up and we’ve been playing every gig together since. He’s the best!
This project symbolizes growth for you artistically, sonically and personally. Did you make this record with those intentions, or did this progression occur more organically than I am implying?
Thank you. That is a huge compliment! I spent so much time trying to find a place to land after not publicly releasing music for over five years. So much can happen in that time. I can’t say it was completely calculated to end up where we did sonically, but the intentions were pure!
For more Daniel Case, follow @danielcasem on Instagram.
Photography by Coleman Guyon.