After chart success with rock band Augustana, Dan Layus has changed his tune – and, as Acoustic found out, is now enjoying life more than ever
Words: Huw Hopkins
“I don’t necessarily mix it up in public when I’m out on tour, but I went busking in Amsterdam and thought ‘I wonder if any Augustana songs will get a reaction?’ I started to play ‘Boston’ and lady walked by mouthing the words and gave me a thumbs-up. I thought ‘does she know it’s me?”
You might be able to walk past Dan Layus in the street without recognising him – though it’s likely you’ve heard his band Augustana’s hit single ‘Boston’ on the radio or one of its many TV spots, including on Scrubs or One Tree Hill – but with a few million album sales behind him, it’s not surprising that he can play anywhere in the world and find those who know his music.
Layus remains the only permanent member of Augustana left. He released Life Imitating Life in 2014 under the Augustana moniker, but decided this year to put out music under his own name. The result, Dangerous Things, sees Layus armed with a brand new sound, inspired by his new home and a long-time musical passion.
“My family and I moved to Nashville from Los Angeles about three years ago,” Layus tells us. “I already had a massive love for country music, but moving here, it seeps into you. There’s something in the air that’s unavoidable and seems to make a mark on music you write.
“I tend to gravitate towards traditional country artists from 50s, 60s and 70s like Don Gibson or Ray Price or even Ray Charles’ country records. Those, blended with Roy Orbison or the Everley Brothers, are not necessarily country, but they’re specific to the town of Nashville and its sound. I didn’t set out necessarily to write in that way, I just couldn’t write songs, melodies, lyrics or chords for a typical Augustana song.”
This caused the singer-songwriter some consternation, and, at the ripe old age of 30, he considered hanging up his Gibson Hummingbird. “I’d lived 10 years in this industry and felt incredibly fortunate to have had that, but I was thinking ‘what comes next?’ I wasn’t sure if I loved this as much as I used to, I had to convince myself to have this life. In order to do that I had to sit with a guitar or in front of the piano with no one around and remember what it was like to write songs because I wanted to write songs – not because I had a tour coming up, or an album deadline or the pressure of needing a big hit.”
But Dan’s guitar offered something to turn to, just as it had done since the beginnings of Augustana. “I’m a Gibson guy. I don’t know why, but they feel really natural to me. The first big-label, real-money guitars I bought were a Gibson 345 and a 1968 Gibson Hummingbird. I realised I needed a lifer-acoustic – one that’s going to be with me until the end, and that Hummingbird has been my right-hand man since. They were pretty worn in when I got them and they’re even more so now – I get a nick on the guitar and I notice another wrinkle under my eyes.”
Layus is also preoccupied with making sure that the acoustic sound on his tracks comes across as pure as possible. “I used the same guitar on the record as we do live. We didn’t double the tracks – we put up rhythm microphones and line-ins but apart from that it’s completely pure. Everything you hear is one guitar there’s no stacking or doubling or stereoing, that’s my guitar. There are audiences and artists that grow together, and you can see artists like David Rawlings or Nickel Creek where there’s no DI, nothing is altered. I’d like to get to that place, to just put up an SM58 mic and play, like you would in your living room.
“I don’t change my strings often. My friend and guitarist Jay Barclay has to force me to change the strings. A lot of the time, I suspect he’s changing them without telling me when we’re on the road. I’m a sucker for a dead rhythm sound, not for a lead guitar player, but for me. I’m currently using some Martin medium 13-gauge acoustic strings, so I can tune the guitar down a whole step. Travelling on tour leads to few hours of sleep and it is useful to set it up a whole step down if my voice is feeling tired or I need to, but I haven’t had to do it recently.”
Apart from Barclay on guitar and the occasional fiddle player, Dan plays most of the guitar, piano and vocals on Dangerous Things. But toward the end of the process, there was clearly something missing. He says: “Everything was mixed but it felt like we were about 75 per cent of the way there. I was sitting down with my manager and it felt like we needed some background on it. He suggested the Secret Sisters and I said ‘done’. They’re incredible. You set up the mics, they sing at the same time and they just nail it. They came out and sang with us as we opened for Dixie Chicks and sang exactly the same as the record. Hopefully we can work together for a long time.”
But while Layus has attracted support from one of Nashville’s hottest vocal duos, his fans come from all walks of musical life. “Harry Styles and I spent some time writing together,” Layus explains. “As far as I know all five [of One Direction] were writing for the band and then collaborating for the albums. We wrote some great songs together but nothing ever came of it, apart from some great songs and good times. It resulted in a nice friendship, though. Harry reached out last year because he wanted to help us reach a larger audience so we supported 1D at the O2 over a few nights. That was the first time Augustana did a proper show in the UK and it blew the doors open for us.
“The band was completely landlocked in the US, so if we needed to tour it was going to be Pittsburgh or Charlotte or Chicago, and that’s great, but at some point you have to be able to expand your reach. Something had to happen for something to happen, and playing the O2 with One Direction was it for me. We then did a headline run in the US, then we supported Dixie Chicks throughout Europe and the momentum has continued.”
In October, Layus returned to the UK again, and he has since gone back to the US and played on the grandest of stages, including an official debut at The Grand Old Opry. His existing fans are enjoying the new direction, while his sound is attracting a previously untapped fan base. Layus thinks he knows why: “You must first make music for yourself, and secondly make it for the fans. When I made music for someone else, they didn’t seem to like it and neither did I. So to make everyone happy, start pure and from within. It’s essential for me.
“Between 2005 and 2008, I was rarely home and that was hard on my wife and I with a new baby. But in recent years, my career has become more manageable and we’ve hit a rhythm at home and on the road. We no longer need to familiarise the rest of the country with us and no longer have to tour nine or 11 months of the year. I can be a full-time dad, I get to take my girls to gymnastics, watch my son’s soccer game, drop them off, do homework with them, ask how my wife’s workday was and cook dinner. I can be part of their lives 8-9 months of the year, because I only go out in three to six-week blocks.”
With the new sound, style and album, Layus is gearing up for this to change. “I’m proud of the work and the money we’ve put in to the UK to be able to continue to go back. I love it. I love the fans, I love the cities and the culture. I’m fortunate that music has taken me nearly everywhere, but I’ve never been to Paris or Berlin and I’m looking forward to going there.”