If you've heard any of their older music, listening to Dangermuffin's new album, Heritage, will be a startling experience. The band, which formed almost a decade ago on Folly Beach, has spent much of their career as a trio, playing a necessarily stripped-down brand of tight, experimental jam-rock. Weaving folk vocal harmonies and reggae rhythms into their music, the band could create a melodic, danceable-enough sound, but because they didn't have a full-time bassist, they could occasionally seem limited.
This meant that albums like 2014's Songs for the Universe were piled high with catchy choruses and mind-bending philosophy (the album's concept was about alternate sound frequencies and their connection to the human body) but short on dynamics.
Heritage begins a new chapter for the band's music. The rhythm section has literally and aurally expanded, with new drummer Markus Helander allowing Steven Sandifer to move to upright bass. This has created a newly spacious foundation that's allowed lead guitarist Mike Sivilli and singer/guitarist Dan Lotti to focus more on weaving acoustic and electric guitars together. When their newly flexible bottom end meets the intricately layered riffs, it creates a blissfully melodic bed for the band's surging vocal harmonies, which were largely recorded in Charleston's two-century-old Unitarian Church.
Ironically enough, this new fullness in the band's sound grew from a series of stripped-down acoustic shows. "We'd been talking about doing an acoustic album for some time," Lotti says. "So, we'd been developing an acoustic show that we would do around town called Acousticmuffin. This new album, is basically Acousticmuffin with a drummer. We started it acoustic thinking that it would be more mellow, but it still ended up having a great groove."
Helander was a jazz band veteran before joining the group, and Lotti says that adding him, along with Sandifer's newly-discovered talent for bass playing, has been key. "Steven is capable of doing so many amazing things as a musician," he says. "He's such a student of music. His upright bass prowess had really started to shine, so a big priority for us was getting him on the upright bass and showing off his talent. It's really nice to have someone as versatile as him. We have all this range now with the live show, so it's been an exponential situation."
Not that expanding the band was an easy decision, both in terms of chemistry and economics. They'd been touring and recording as a trio since 2010, and being on the road as a three-piece is a less costly option than a quartet. But once Helander sat down behind the kit to audition, it was hard to deny how right it felt.
"This was a big deal for us, bringing someone else on," Lotti says. "But from the first note he played, Markus was right there."
Helander's Finnish origins played into the equation as well. "The album is about heritage and finding your roots," Lotti says. "I have roots in Finland; my grandfather's from there. So, it was really awesome to meet Markus and immediately vibe with him because we have those kindred roots."
The album is about more than family connections, however. It's about human beings' connection to the Earth and to nature, something Lotti has gained a lot more experience with in the last couple of years.
"Recently, I left Folly Beach and moved to Asheville," he says, "and I watched my wife develop her skill as an herbalist. And that links into these old traditions of connecting with nature and understanding it enough to be in the proper relationship with it. There's a shamanic heritage of connecting with the land. It's about rediscovering those traditions and reconnecting with them."
The lyrics on Heritage often refer to water or to the ocean, and Lotti says he was conscious of using that imagery to create a deeper meaning. "That's always been a theme of the music we make, using archetypes like the ocean or the sun," he says. "The ocean means something to everybody. And when you're focusing on that, people are moved by that on a subconscious level. I'm a fan of connecting with those images because they are archetypes, but they're also our heritage. It's all natural flow."
Interestingly, the music on Heritage came before the lyrics, and the mix of acoustic and electric sounds served as lyrical inspiration. "It was really nice to turn to organic guitars and root it back into the Earth," Lotti says. "The lyrics are the final stamps of the song; the initial inspiration is all melody for me. I hear melodies in my head, in my quietest moments, in meditation or playing the guitar. It's my job as an artist to channel and develop them and bring it to life. You have to grab that moment and hold onto it or it's gone forever."
It all sounds deeply spiritual for the band, and that goes double for the album's shimmering, multi-layered vocal harmonies. "It was such a gift to be able to record the vocals in the Unitarian Church," he says. "I had goosebumps on my arms. I was seeing things out of the corner of my eye. I felt the spirit in there."