Listener’s ‘Talk Music’ | Feature

by Tatiana Ryckman

It’s hard to tell sometimes, when guitar, trumpet and vocals are all going at full force, that Listener is just two men: Dan Smith heads up the duo with his scratchy, pleading vocals, brass and bass; and Chris Nelson provides support on guitar, drums, and keys.Though separated by a number of states and differing topography, these two have been touring and recording together since 2007. Smith sings from Georgia while Nelson works out of Nevada. They unite Saturday, July 16 for a performance at The BemisUNDERGROUND.
The list of attributes that make Listener unique is topped with the fact that Smith doesn’t sing his lyrics — he speaks them. Smith calls this “talk music” — an impressively appropriate way to deliver lyrics that sound so much like poetry. Take, for example, the emotionally swinging "Falling in Love With Glaciers," off their most recent album, Wooden Heart. Though the music has a sweet, disarming element, Smith’s rasping vocals communicate a different feeling: “I met a shell of a mountain who knew she was finished / claimed she grew up from a grain of sand / with every year wider she bloomed a little bit longer / to the roof of the sky with outstretched hands."

Talking about keeping the lyrics' form free from that of the instrumentation, Smith says, “We want to serve the song, and make the music that goes along with what the song deserves and is trying to make and say … and not make our words or music try to fit in a re-formed box.” Considering Smith's history in hip-hop and rap, it’s easy to see this migration toward talk music.
“Any genre comes with a set of base expectations you have to conform to in order to be accepted or a part of it," he says. "I didn't want to write words and make music for just one group or genre of people … I wanted to make and write music for everyone if they would listen.” 
Nelson’s background is in music traditionally heavier than what we see in Listener, but Smith readily touts his bandmate's ability, “Chris came up through the punk and hardcore scene playing in bands and trying out all kinds of different music. He's done it all.”
With the collective goal of diversifying its audience, the band's name seems pretty apt, so does its varied composition, which makes the music accessible to a wide audience. Incorporating poetic lyrics, jumping cadence in its spoken songs and folksy strumming, Listener spreads itself — but not thin — across genres. It’s difficult to ignore that all these characteristics are reminiscent of the kind of music that has made Omaha a music hot spot over the last 10 years. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the band's playing at The BemisUNDERGROUND, initiating a return of music to the arts venue after nearly a year without it.

Smith says the music in informed both from his experience and his goals. 
“It's out of making records and touring and practicing on the road and just trial and error and trying to melt it down to the most honest thing," he says. "I was in marching band, though. I played the cornet.” 
When asked where the music is going, he seems excited, “We are touring Europe again in August … that should be great, and perhaps going on our first support tour ever all over the U.S. and Canada later this year," Smith says. "Then we'll take some time off to write a new record. [We’re] looking forward to that, for sure.”
Listener at The BemisUNDERGROUND Saturday, July 16. Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. and costs $5 for members, $7 for non-members.
* photo by Jonny Hoffner
Tatiana Ryckman is pining for corn fields from Lake Champlain, but keeping her finger on the pulse of the good life. If you’re in Vermont you may find her milking a cow, picking raspberries, or reading a book. Leave glowing praise here, and send all other comments to