This past weekend, I watched the documentary Danielson: A Family Movie, which is about the band/musician also called The Danielson Famile, Brother Danielson, and Danielsonship. I have been a tepid fan of the band for a little while, liking some of the aspects of their music but finding the overall sound a bit offputting. The documentary made a convert of me, and this is language the band might appreciate, as most of its songs are overtly Christian.
The documentary focuses on the discomfort many of the band’s fans, who are primarily indie music people, have with the band’s explicitly Christian message. Some acknowledge that they have no problem when gospel or country singers sing about their faith, but they find it strange when indie bands do so, especially bands as oddball as Danielson. I should take a minute to describe the band and the sound.
The Danielson Famile is primarily composed of Daniel Smith on vocals and guitar with his siblings singing and playing flute, glockenspiel, or drums. One of his oldest friends plays keyboards, and marriage to any member of the band seems to bring along band membership. His friend’s wife plays violin and sings. Daniel Smith’s wife comes aboard as a singer. One of his sisters’ husband joins the band late in the movie as a bassist. His friend Sufjan Stevens, who is a brilliant artist in his own right and many times more successful in finding an audience than Danielson, passes in and out of the band (and as a fan, I could have lived without learning of Stevens’ nebbishy/needy personality, but what are you going to do?).
There’s a scene in which Daniel Smith’s parents joke about how the indie music press always compares the Danielson Famile with bands they’ve never heard of. With that in mind, the math formula I have for the Famile would be (The Shaggs + Pere Ubu + The Pixies) covering (early Talking Heads + Deerhoof) fronted by (the guy from The Flaming Lips screeching at the top of his lungs + the Partridge Family). Odd, odd, odd music. Did I mention that they all used to dress in modified nurse’s uniforms, that Daniel Smith occasionally performs solo in an elaborate tree outfit, or that they’ve constructed an elaborate mythology around the symbols of the band?
Anyway, the documentary was thought-provoking, tackling not just the band for the band’s fans’ sake, but also the band’s faith and acceptance by pop culture mavens and indie rock fans. There’s a subtle suggestion in the movie – maybe not even a suggestion, but just a hint – that Sufjan Stevens stole ideas from Danielson to achieve his success, but I have to say that I don’t hear a lot of Danielson in Stevens’ music. And Stevens’ support of his friend appears to be heartfelt, so I don’t think the archetypical theme of the hanger-on who steals the real genius’s work and makes it more mainstream really applies in this case.
Oh, and a final note. My friend Michael Sherer of the band Padre Pio appears in the background of a scene in which Daniel Smith’s artwork has a showing at a gallery in Brooklyn. He appears to be representing the way in which Brooklyn hipsters dig Danielson, although he assures me via email that he isn’t really a fan of the band, but was there to check the artwork of Tim Rutili (of Califone). But it’s extra-cool, anyway!