Dan has been in quintessential punk bands such as Lifetime and Paint It Black. He is a father of two, actively parenting in Philadelphia. He also has a new band called Open City. We talked about balancing in it all and staying inspired.
Please tell us about both your creative life/practice and your experience with parenting.
My creative practice has always been making music, usually in a band context. More recently, I’ve also been writing. It includes a lot of thinking about and obsessing about words and syntax and cadence and that sort of thing.
Yes, lyrics and other stuff. Rhythms, internal and external. I guess I have been paying more attention to the interior details of music. Traveling to make music is part of the creative practice too. I’ve always been inspired by elements of place and being able to have the performative part occur in different geographic contexts. Part of the creative practice is that sort of observation – and that seeps into the creative practice at large. Geographic context in performance has shifted in the internet age. It affects how I think about the overall experience. It is something that I attend to. Performing in a different place or a different continent was much more a much a part of things for me in years past. That is a factor that’s very different now.
My creative practice has probably been informed a lot by parenting in the past six years. Parenting has been an unexpected explosion of experience. I didn’t have kids until I was forty. It was probably the single most terrifying leap into the abyss that I’ve ever had and also the most joyful set of surprises. My son is three and my daughter will be six in November.
What were some of the fears you had (if any) about how becoming a parent would impact your creative life? Would you say now, in retrospect, that they were well founded?
I was pretty certain that I would have much less time for creative endeavors, and that traveling to make music would be affected. Although I am super shy in situations where I don’t know people well, I am the true definition of extroversion, in that I get a lot of my energy from other people. That I have less of that as a parent has impacted my creative experience. Being a parent has had an impact on my social engagement. That might make more of a difference than having less time and less freedom to travel.
Being a parent has primarily affected my creative practice also because I’m always sure there is yogurt somewhere on my face or shirt, and this affects the way I engage with people. It makes me more self-conscious. I am kidding a little. Jokes are good, right?
When I had an infant, I was out with her every day. As a weirdo with friends who are weirdos, we often had unconventional work schedules. I was here at Grindcore House with my friends Mike and Jeanne every Friday when Simone was a baby. Coffee, breakfast into lunch together. They were a big part of her life. I met my bandmate Andy at least once a week with Simone in Northern Liberties…I was spending time with other adult punks. That’s how I get a lot of my energy. Creative energy as well.
As your kids get older it becomes less easy to hang out in coffee shops. You have to chase them out the door, read to them constantly. None of my kids are sit-in-the-corner-and-play-with-a-train kind of kids. They say, “read to me, read to me, read to me.” Some of the things that fueled creative practice for me were reading political stuff, and now I keep getting interrupted to read a story or fix someone a snack. I don’t want to make parenting sound bad – it’s wonderful and rewarding. But it is a huge demand on your time. Some things depend on your kid’s temperament, too. I am less likely to read about current events, which means I am less enraged – that affects me creatively. I am also less social. Sometimes I don’t socialize for an entire week, and that affects my creativity.
I’m not sure I thought much about my fears, but I definitely thought I would have less time – and that is true. When it came to deciding when to have kids, I think I definitely wanted to wait longer than my partner. We were thinking of things like career, school, training, time, and also our ages and fertility. I was also very much thinking of an album I was working on in my head and I wanted to make sure I had time to record it and do some touring on it before I didn’t have time at all. When I think about it now, I feel very selfish. I probably could have stated it to my partner less bluntly during those conversations. For that I am also endlessly grateful for my partner’s patience and support. There is a lot of fallout for your family when you have a creative practice that you are absorbed in. Negotiating those boundaries is as much a part of parenting as is caring for the children. You figure out boundaries for your family and music.
What does your creative life look like currently? How is it different from before you were a parent?
Currently it is actually pretty involved but also done on a shoestring time budget. I’m always thinking about it. I am at the moment in two bands that have stuff on the calendar. Open City is one of them and Lifetime is the other. Open City is Andy Nelson, Rachel Rubino and Chris Wilson. What a lovely bunch of people. It’s like a giant hug but with power chords. Actually one of the goals is to not have power chords in this band.
How do you carve out time and space for your creative practice as a parent?
Part of forming Open City was about talking to Andy and realizing that I wanted to have a band that was practicing once a week. I really often treasure that time, that collaborative process, just as much as recording or playing shows or touring. Organizing with Lifetime for rehearsals and shows can feel very challenging. We live in five different places, really far apart, and every member but one is a parent. We find ourselves only practicing for a few weeks before a show because nobody wants to look foolish on stage for something we have committed to, but then it gets hard to write new material. I’d really like us to be doing that, but I can’t be the driving force behind that, given my commitments to my family. At times, because it’s so difficult to negotiate, it can almost feel like a high conflict divorce, which is something that I unfortunately also work around a lot through my work as a psychologist.
What kinds of adjustments did you make to your creative practices when you became a parent?
It’s all about managing time, which is, incidentally, the thing that I’m absolutely the worst at in life. Setting up time for both band and family, and putting boundaries around those. There is almost constant communication with my partner and my bandmates, although I’m pretty sure that my bandmates would say that I’m pretty unreliable about responding sometimes. I’m also lucky to have bandmates that have a lot of other projects going on, and those are respected too.
What do you tell your children, if anything, about the role of creativity in your life?
They know I play in a band but they haven’t seen me play a show yet. It’s usually happening after their bedtime. I think the time is coming soon for Simone. I think they like that I do it, but they probably don’t understand the magnitude of the role it plays in my life. I used to play guitar for Simone when she was really little, and make up songs for her, so I think she remembers that too. But I don’t talk to them in great detail about it yet. If it’s not something that they can see and touch, they tend not to be that interested.
Do you talk to them (if age appropriate) about the role of creativity in their lives?
We constantly encourage them to write stories and create art. Simone will often sit in her room during “naptime” (she doesn’t actually take naps anymore), and in the course of an hour, create an entire elaborate universe out of scraps of paper, tape, stickers, crayons and other random items. She always has these extensive narratives about what’s going on in these worlds. I’m kind of in awe of her really. We encourage her, and tell her how much we admire all of the hard work she puts into this. We want her to know that we value her efforts and labor in this way. We also try to keep screentime with both of them to a minimum, though they do sometimes get it – perhaps so that I can even just enjoy a meal and some conversation with my partner! I pretty strongly believe that they’re more reliant on their own imaginations, because they don’t depend on TV to entertain themselves.
In what ways do you think being an active artist/writer/musician/creator helps make your parenting stronger? In what ways do you think being a parent has made your artistic practice stronger?
Writing a song or raising a child with someone else both take some of the same skills. You have to learn to communicate openly and honestly, even though some of the things you have to say are scary. Those are things that in the creative domain and the home inform each other. Being a parent is a creative endeavor, very much. It’s an act of creativity day to day. Emotionally. I think that making something beautiful with another person is stunningly intimate as a piece of work, a piece of living. Then you send them in the world to be what they are – that’s like a song too.
Two of the songs on the last Paint It Black record are about being, or anticipating being, a parent. I wrote one of them in the middle of the night when my partner was maybe 7 months pregnant. We were both up in the middle of the night, having nightmares. It was more like a promise to her and my unborn daughter. I wrote it in the middle of the night and fleshed it out over the next six months. The other song was about my daughter as an infant. I would watch her sleeping, with her hands curled up in little fists, so in love with her, but also thinking about the battles she’d have to fight.
Are there other people who inspired you in the ways they approached creative work as a parent?
I think I’ve always imagined a fantasy life for Thurston and Kim, but that’s not based on me knowing much. It’s so sad that they split. It almost feels personal. I haven’t really wanted to read the specifics of their split. Do you?
Well, Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina. Especially in how they then created show spaces for their band that were very friendly to kids and families.
Well, Ian is my biggest inspiration, period. We’re not supposed to have heroes in punk, but I do look up to him. I only know him a little bit. He is a generation before me.
There are also people who are parents and creative I know through a Punk Passover that, my partner, and I are a part of. It’s a group of friends who are culturally Jewish and punk and we get together once a year for community and conversation. The people in this group have inspired me, and continue to do so. We meet up in different cities every year. This group includes puppet makers, musicians, DJs, various kinds of artists. Everyone in that group is an artist or an activist and has a practice that is about bettering the world.
What does your child think of your creative work?
Hard to say. All of my instruments are on the third floor and they rarely go up there. I really want to have a guitar on a stand in the living room so it is more a part of things. They know about it – I leave town to go play shows – but I go to band practice after they are asleep.
All the songs I sing to them are stuff I wrote – songs about robots, dinosaurs, one about Simone being a beautiful bear who howls at the moon with a blue baboon. I played guitar so much for her until she was two and a half. There was a lot more time when she was a baby. I was mostly seeing teens in my practice, and I didn’t start appointments until 2:00 pm. There was a lot of time lying around with her, walking around with her – now there is no time for anything. We now have two kids and I work about fifty percent more, since having kids is expensive. I used to have Fridays off. I work forty hours a week but some of it is not actually at the office.
Do you think creative communities are friendly to children and parents and encourage their presence? Are there any ways these communities could improve? Feel free to be specific if you would like to.
With punk shit, yea – definitely. Almost nobody has kids. Or at least people become peripheral to the music scene when they have kids. We played a show a while ago where I was in two of the bands that played, and the other two bands were people in their twenties. I thought it was a great mix, but I heard someone in the crowd say, “There is a big old people scene here tonight.” It seemed that it was meant in a pejorative way. I don’t think of myself as a middle aged person, but I guess I am. It made me sad, not about being old, but about feeling excluded.
I think our Punk Passover crew is a creative bunch, and supportive of parenting – but I don’t know beyond that. No one else in my band Open City has kids, and none of them give me a hard time with the parameters that I have to put on our rehearsing. It’s been mentioned that it would be easier if we practiced at seven thirty, and I agreed – but nothing beyond that. They all have other stuff too – Andy is with Ceremony on tour for a month right now, Rachel will be off doing bike races, Chris could be recording for Ted Leo. That’s part of the arrangement – we don’t make people feel bad for their other obligations.
How did becoming a parent affect your creative partnerships with other people?
I had to learn to be really firm about setting limits with other adults. This was hard because I tend to be a “yes man.” I will drive three hours after work to practice – when Lifetime was active the first time around, I moved to Philadelphia for grad school. I would be at school or my internship until five pm, either in Philly or south of Philly, and then drive to New Brunswick afterwards for practice. I would get there on time or early, and some of my bandmates who lived in the house in which we were practicing could be forty minutes late! It does not come easy for me to say “I will not do this.” You really have to get good making clear what you will and will not do. It is hard for me to ask for things.
Because of work, I know that anything you are anxious about is probably where your most important self-improvement work is – probably something you need to really work through. I’m still terrified to go on stage half the time, but I don’t say, “Sorry guys, I left some milk out. I need to go home.” You get up and go, you go up and do it. You do what you need to do. You stretch and breathe, you practice more – you do what you need to do. You try to lose yourself in it. It’s the same thing with telling people “I can’t.” Or “sorry, I can only do Sunday afternoon.” Or, “I can’t do that show.” Or “I have to cancel that show I committed to because I put something in my calendar wrong and I have to be with my kids.” It just takes practice to disappoint people when all you really want to do is make everyone happy.
Do you think that some of the challenges parenting presents for creative practice are impacted by your gender? Please share any thoughts you have about this.
Oh god, I am sure it is way easier for fathers than for mothers. Because patriarchy. I am totally amazed by how many punks grow up and create households that are traditionally gendered in every way. I had non-punk female friends tell me that if I thought I was still going to go away and play shows for the weekend once I had kids, I was going to end up divorced. They were wrong. My partner knows me and is also a punk and has played in bands, toured in bands, and been friends with musicians most of her life. She loves me and not some ideal of who I should be that is more convenient. That’s what love is – loving the person for who they are and not some fantasy of a person that is more convenient for you. Although I think a lot of people fall in love with that instead.
How is it different for me because I am a father? I think there is more pressure on women as parents in general. The expectations are there even if you try to circumvent them. The mother is seen in our culture as being a more present and engaged parent. No matter how hard I work to try to be fifty percent or more, I am still doing make up work because the cultural expectation for women is so strong.
When you are a woman who has a career as well, the expectations are absurd. You are supposed to be a powerhouse researcher, grant writer, physician, or attorney, or whatever, and also bake muffins and make sure everything is in the kids’ bags when they go to school. I don’t think I have those expectations put on me. I don’t know how much the mainstream culture affected me or not.
I also didn’t have to carry a child inside of me for nine months, which has to be one of the most physically demanding things a person can do. However, after that, there is automatically a piece of intimacy there that doesn’t have to be built. It’s neurological, it’s tactile. I will never have the joy and the pain of having my child live inside of me, which is sometimes really sad for me.
It may seem more okay for me to take off and do stuff than if I was a woman. I’m just the dad. I’m expected to leave sometimes to bring home the bacon. I’m supposed to check out on Sundays anyway when it is football season and during the entire month of March because of basketball. I am already expected to not be bound as much to the home. It’s already easier for me in the eyes of the world. We have to build a world where those things are equally okay for both members of the partnership, but we are always working against culture.
It is infuriating when people say fathers are “babysitting.” Language creates reality and people should know better. When you are trying to build a new world in the way that you make a family, it’s the language you don’t think about that is so important. As punks, especially those of us who came up in the DIY scene in the 90s, we pay so much attention to language. We can make our homes whatever but the rest of the world will still come at our kids with gender norms. You won’t be able to control everything the grandparents give them necessarily. I even found myself using the phrase “drama queen.” I realized I used a heavily loaded term – like “hysterical.” Like anything that is pejorative that has the Latin root for womb, hysteria or hysterical. I have to think about all the accidental things I say that are gendered. I don’t want to pre-screen everything I say, because it’s difficult to be genuine when you place conditions on your spontaneity, but I do want to think about and pay close attention to these things.
I really struggled when Sarah was pregnant to find a parenting book for fathers that wasn’t filled with sports metaphors. “Fatherhood is like a full court press!” “Fatherhood is like the 7th inning stretch!” “Fatherhood is like fourth and ten at the 20-yard line when you go into the delivery room!” This drove me crazy. It made me want to write a parenting book that wasn’t like this.
Has your creative community been supportive of you as a parent?
Yes. I don’t really have an easy time thinking of what my creative community is outside of my bandmates. I have a larger community of musicians and writers I socialize with, so I am going to say yes. People were supportive even when other people I socialized with didn’t have kids. My friends that are most anti-having kids were some of the kindest and most supportive friends when we had children. That really surprised us.
This includes my friends who have vasectomies for political reasons. These are friends who wonder why people would bring children into a world so broken, who are very intentional about not bringing children into this world, but they have been some of the kindest and most attentive friends since we’ve been parents. They went out of their way to see us even when it wasn’t convenient. They went out of the way to know and love our children. They aren’t stiff and weird around them or us. They always offer to come to our house to hang out because they know it is easier. These are some of our best friends, with whom I was worried we would lose connection as we became less easy to be friends with.
You definitely do end up making friends with other people who have children, but we only really befriended people we would have connected to anyway. It’s such a relief to meet people with kids who are also really rad. Some of our friends have a little more conventional family living situations as parents – they had to move to the suburbs and maybe one parent stays home. These folks have told us about having to be “friends” with people they don’t really like because that is who is in their proximity.
Do you have any more thoughts to share with other prospective or current parents about preserving and nurturing one’s own creative efforts while raising children?
I would say hit me up and we will talk about it. People ask me similar questions about grad school. If you have a creative practice and are going to have kids, hit me up and we’ll talk about it!