Interview: Deep Breaths Talks Collaboration On First Release

Deep Breaths, the Los Angeles-based solo project from Daniel Berkman, has grown to include a full band after releasing their first EP earlier this year.

It’s a strange thing to have followed a band for so long, and I’ve followed the trajectory of Deep Breaths since its inception a few years ago. After returning from Portland, Daniel ended up in Los Angeles by way of Oakland, where he’s originally from. It was shortly after that I found out what he was working on, and would listen in on these songs being written in their early stages. Every now and then, Daniel would show me a skeleton of a song in progress, a torn out page from his lyric book, or invite me out to a performance. Daniel has a natural fingerpicking style, a distinct falsetto, and a penchant for writing beautifully sad lyrics pulled from personal experiences and turning them into the dreamiest arrangements melding folk and dreampop.

Last year, Berkman started the process of recording his first release with the help of Trevor O’Neil, longtime friend and collaborator (Daniel contributes guitar and vocals to Trevor’s project Sympathetic Frequencies). Like most DIY artists, home recordings are a must, but for the first Deep Breaths release, Berkman enlisted the producing/mastering talents of Aki Ekara, of San Francisco-based band The Seshen. Together, and with a small group of players, Deep Breaths has been able to jump from bedroom-pop to realize the full band sound as well as a first physical release. And full disclosure, I was invited to shoot the cover art for the EP along the way.

These days, Berkman is ready for the full band experience and already working on the next release. We sat down on a Sunday afternoon for a quick chat about the progression of the band, the songwriting process, and what it’s like being an artist in LA.

So you just finished your self-titled ep. It was something you self-released, and comprised a collection of some of older material and some new, correct?

DB: Really, the only one that was straight up new was “Bones,” so the first three tracks had been started at some point when I was in Portland.

TO: Yeah, it’s been a couple of years of bouncing things around, like “Easy Does It” existed for a long time in different forms and it kept coming back. I feel like years ago Dan sent me a really stripped down demo of it and said ‘hey mess around with this, see if there’s anything cool.’ And then we missed with it, we liked it, but then we just walked away from it again. Then one day, Dan played it on piano, and that’s when we came up with changing the rhythm. So it’s just been one of those songs we didn’t know exactly what to do with, but knew we wanted to do it. So we just kept pushing until something worked.

I didn’t realize that started all the way back when Dan was in Portland. That was years ago. How did they end up finding their way into Deep Breaths?

DB: Geez, I would say some of these songs were even originally written for my band in Portland. They were songs started at the end of that period. And a lot of them, I just never finished. And then, when I came back to LA it was to be a a part of Trevor’s band Sympathetic Frequencies, and so my songs kind of went on the backburner even though Trevor and I had been bouncing ideas around for these songs for a long time. I think there are moments here or there where they would take a big step forward, like with the guitar on “When I Was Younger”. And so there were a lot of things we knew wanted to pursue, but they got pushed off to the side. And then Sympathetic Frequencies had some label stuff we were dealing with and kind of like took a lull for a little bit. That was when I was thinking maybe now is the time to finally finish this stuff and get it out there.

TO: Yeah, that’s exactly how it went. These ideas had been bouncing around forever and there are songs that we really liked, but we know they weren’t quite right for Sympathetic Frequencies. We weren’t sure where they were going to live, and then we had that chance. It was like ‘Oh well, we have to take a break from Sympathetic Frequencies, so let’s do this.’

It’s funny, because you two are in each other’s bands, but out of a natural progression of playing together so long.

TO: It’s funny, the way we started playing together was that Dan was opening for my old band. He was playing solo, but eventually, he put a band together to play that stuff too. And then we did a tour together, with our respective bands, and I was playing in both! It’s always been that type of thing for us. We just like collaborating, even outside of music. We do design together. We basically work together whether it’s on music or design.

For sure. One was your solo project and the other was his solo project. But they are so much more interconnected than anyone realizes. One came out of the other?

DB:  Definitely, I think that’s how both started. Trevor is definitely the frontman of that band and he steers that ship. But it came more collaborative as we brought on more people. It formed from Trevor’s solo project into more a band and I think we’re kind of hoping for the same thing is happening with Deep Breaths. Trevor’s helped me to realize and shape these songs. As this project grows, we can kind of expect the same kind of thing. More collaborating.

So it’s a solo project, but now, you have a full band (with the show on the 25th being the first full band experience). Since it’s grown to include more players, what has that process been like to invite people to play and find these other collaborators?

DB: It’s been really exciting. On the EP the drums are electronic, but a lot of that was necessity. I didn’t have a band, so how do I create a full sound with what I have? I think a lot of what Trevor and I do guitar-wise is really textural, we want to create a really lush sound. It’s fun to now to be able to actually feel that more tangibly in a room with people. We were just playing “When I was Younger” for the first time in a room with the full band and it was so exciting. We don’t even have strings on that yet, live. Still hoping to get that for the show, not sure if it’s going to happen. It feels so lush and it’s so exciting to finally be able to hear the set in a live context because for so long I’ve been using looping or guitar effects to help achieve that. It’s nice to be able to sit in a room with people and actually make those songs.

TO: It’s interesting too because when you make a record that is so electronic, that’s a pretty studio record. A lot of stuff was arranged, written, and created in the studio. So when you take that into a live setting you kind of have to start over a little bit, you know. You have all these ideas available to you, but it’s about filtering through them and figuring out the best way to create them live. And I’ve always really enjoyed that process. Like I used to fight it, but I learned pretty quickly that it’s really an incredible thing to get to rethink your song and create the live version, which doesn’t have to be exactly like the record. It could just be something special that happens at the shows. As a listener,  when I go see a band that I love and they play a song and do something a little differently live, I’m thrilled because I got to have this special experience. It’s about context. It’s a fun challenge. Being in a room with people making music live, that’s the pinnacle. That’s the ideal.

DB: I used to be really married to the idea that if wasn’t going to sound exactly like the record, then you shouldn’t do it. And my thoughts on that have really evolved, and now like Trevor, I’m okay with it. Obviously, there’s certain things that need to be consistent from the live show to the record, like don’t put notes on your record you can’t hit. Beyond that, I really like exploring the live version of a song.

Well, every time I’ve seen you play it’s been so different in terms of the live performance. You’ll switch up instruments and sounds, and they do end up different than the recordings, which came about through digital transformations. That studio process is completely different than the live version, which tends to see you more grounded in a folk tradition, that you as a performer tap into. 

DB: Well the singer-songwriter thing is something that I’ve been fighting for a long time.  I don’t really feel like a traditional troubadour singer-songwriter, you know. At the same time these songs really do convey that, from fingerpicking through the rest of it. What’s great about working on these songs with Trevor is that I think he approaches guitar from a textural point of view as well. And putting these songs in a space is another part of what’s really important about Deep Breaths. Having these songs start from the folk tradition is important, but also, what happens when you bring these songs into a darker space.

TO: That’s what we want to make consistent. Whether it’s two guitars with vocals, or full band, it’s the vibe of the song, like what you’re trying to get across like emotionally. I don’t think necessarily, for me, that it’s never a goal to be just like “I want you to think this when you hear it!” But we want to put the song in a space where the listener has a feeling that comes out of it. That can be done so many different ways, and we get to try new approaches everytime we play. Even if it’s just the two of us, we kind of come back afterwards, and go ‘that was cool, what if we do this next time?’ So it’s always evolving, trying to get closer to finding that feeling.

With lyrics, in terms of your writing, there’s certain dark places that they go. There’s so much emotional weight in them, which if you’re talking about creating a deeper and darker sound, a lot of them are tied to real experiences. The themes in the first EP followed points of heartbreak, haunting memories of a relationship, you have self-realization, and moving on. You get the sense you’re picking up your life and starting new in a way. It’s been out for a few months now, and I know you’ve been writing new songs. where do you see yourself going with new material?

DB: I think that me and Trevor write in a similar way, where it may not be a literal ‘this happened to me,’ but they’re definitely very related to our lives. I feel that’s something that’s important to me, not because it I think it needs to be done that way, but because I think that’s how I’m most effective. A big part of this project for me is that I definitely think I’m someone who lives a lot in my own head, and this is a way to just escape that a little bit. Just getting it out there. Sometimes I wish I were more of a intellectual lyricist or that was a certain more of a literary approach to my lyrics that I really respect in other songwriters and poets, but I also feel like I’m kind of at my best when I’m not thinking about that, when I’m just letting myself feel what I’m feeling and try to communicate it. You really hit the nail on the head with noting that this EP is kind of being about transition. I feel like I graduated from college and fell flat on my face. It took me like a good ten years to get up. I feel like the stuff that we’re writing going forward is less electronic, and is much more rooted in a physical band.

TO: For these newer songs, we’re starting to play them live with a full band. And doing that before we actually go into the studio to record them. Some of them aren’t even done yet. With lyrics too, we’ve collaborated so much, and we can write guitar parts for each other, and that is a natural easy thing. But one of the great things about that having these separate projects, is that for lyrics, we like each other’s lyrics, but we have different approaches. I don’t feel like I could write different lyrics for Dan. Every time I think about it, I’m like, ‘I don’t know, is that what he wants to say?’ It’s just weird. It’s such a personal thing because you’re going to be the one standing up on stage singing them.

DB: The other thing about this project I’m really excited about is that it has become a communal thing. Even if it’s not through songwriting, even having you to work on the cover with and the art. We’ve been able to bring together all of these friends to help us realize this. Aki’s a great friend who I met through Trevor, and he produced it. And we would go up to Oakland to work on it with Aki. And our friend Scott Goldbaum, who’s an amazing guitar player. I got to meet Molly Rogers, his fiancée, who put strings on “When I was Younger” super graciously. To be able to realize all these aspects of the project with this extended network has been wonderful. I feel like I’m bit of a wallflower, so it’s been fun to have be thrown into the fray of the Los Angeles music scene and to have other people be a part of bringing it to fruition.

That’s a good point. I wanted to bring up the idea of community. Both of you play here in LA. Dan, you were coming from playing in Portland when the project first started and now it’s leapfrogged to whole other thing. Basically, you’ve gone from one DIY music community to another. Did you get a sense that Portland might’ve been more supportive of singer-songwriters versus LA, in terms of just  having a smaller population, where LA can be a bit of a monster.

DB: They’re all their own monsters.

Definitely. Do you find that there is a supportive community of participants and players here that you’re discovering that are like-minded, or closed off? What’s been that experience?

DB: To be completely honest, and I don’t say this bitterly in any way, I think they’re both pretty insular and closed off in their own ways. I feel like genre-wise, yeah, maybe it’s definitely more common in Portland. Deep Breaths it’s still different, but maybe closer to whatever’s going on there in some ways. That scene is very protective of itself as well. I grew up in the Bay Area, I lived down here, I lived in Portland. And I never felt like I was at the center of any of those scenes, for better or for worse. I’m definitely kind of eager to see if that changes. On some level, I’m kind of okay with it.

TO: When I first came to LA, there was a sense of competition with each other where everyone was trying to be heard and competing for a record deal. And now so much of the industry has collapsed, especially when you look at the rock industry. It’s obviously had a negative effect on the ability to earn money as musicians. One of the nice things to come about is that if you’re still making rock music that isn’t straight pop, you’re not doing it because you’re hoping to get rich, you know. You’re doing it because you love it. Even if there aren’t a lot of bands in the scene that sound like us, I feel like we have an awesome network of musicians that support each other, not just by coming to shows, but emotionally, like being able to talk to each other about things we’re trying to figure out, how we’re going to survive as musicians. Like at the end of the day,  I don’t really want to live on my friend’s couch. I want to try to be a self-sustaining person and play music. In that sense, there is a community. But I also think the scene is pretty confused right now, it’s not particularly friendly to all kinds of music. There are few pockets right now that are very open, like if you play garage rock, there’s a place for you.

I can see that. The DIY isn’t just about garage rock, punk, hardcore, hip-hop, noise, or whatever. It’s everything at once, but for some people it can be a lot harder to find, or embrace. But I feel like something that’s not that explored in the underground is the folk side of it, or what’s typically considered “indie” that’s mostly associated with Hollywood and big label dreams. It kind of fell off the radar for awhile, but I do feel we’re seeing it more now, more acoustic/solo performers, especially in the underground. 

DB: Yes, and even when you took me to see Shannon Lay. We went to that show off Temple and it was just like ‘holy shit, I love this, this is exactly what I love.’ And I feel like I’m still stumbling and finding those experiences. Now that we have this EP, I feel much more comfortable about reaching out to the community in general and just saying I love what you do, I’d love to play sometime. We’re also a bit of our own animal. Something I always experienced growing up playing, as that the audience might dig my sound, but don’t know quite what to with it. I grew up in a punk/emo scene. Once there was a circle pit going on because there was some really fun punk band before us. And then I got on stage with my acoustic guitar and started fingerpicking. It’s not like they were against it, or didn’t like it, but  they didn’t know what to do, so they started slowly walking around in a circle in the pit. It was a strange experience. But it ended up being kind of cool, like you saw these kids thinking ‘how do we interact with this?’ It wasn’t normal for that space, but they still wanted to interact with it on some level. That’s a good illustration of being open to play in different scenes,  especially when you’re a bit of an outlier in a way.

TO: With Stag, who Deep Breaths is playing with, that was a band that our other project started playing with. We were like ‘oh, here we go, this is a very different band than us.’ But our sounds totally go together. and we can play shows together. We have a good relationship. You find those people and you try to build on that and carve something out.

I’ve seen LA embrace all kinds of bands, but shows these days are becoming more genre-bending in terms of the lineups. You go to a “punk” show and you don’t see strictly punks.

DB: I love that about the DIY scene. When you start going to the actual venues, you see them catering to a certain crowd. Whereas the DIY spaces, it’s more about the community, and it’s the importance of them. It’s kind of why it’s sad to see the Non Plus Ultras of the world and spaces like that get stopped. Those are really the opportunities for building communities. It’s getting harder. It’s harder. Bigger venues run a business. Their running in a way that they have to. But with a DIY space, Deep Breaths can play with a hardcore band, and it can be cool.

TO: I like hardcore so why not.

DB: This is the very beginnings of this project, and I’m really excited to see where it goes and what opportunities it will bring. 

Catch Deep Breaths TONIGHT, July 25, for their first performance as a live band for Stag’s farewell show, with Brothertiger at The Satellite. Free. Starts at 9pm.