Dave Carroll Talks With Grand Rants About The Amazing Past Year And What Lies Ahead For The Talented Singer Songwriter
Note: This exclusive interview with Dave Carroll is being published simultaneously with the release and posting of his third and final video in the “United Breaks Guitars” trilogy, “United We Stand On The Right Side Of Right.” The video is now available on Youtube and here on Grand Rants (click either link). For more information about Dave and his music both as a solo performer and with the band, “Sons of Maxwell,” visit Dave’s web site. And for more Grand Rants articles on Dave, just type “Dave Carroll” in the “Search” box which is to the right of the title line of this article.
A year ago, if you asked someone who Dave Carroll is, outside of his loyal fan base as part of the popular Nova Scotia band “Sons of Maxwell” (and those working in the United Airlines Customer Service division), a good many of those asked would have been stumped.
What a difference a year (and a flawed approach to customer service by United Airlines) has made!
As most of the on-line world knows by now, Dave’s first two “United Breaks Guitars” music videos became an Internet sensation as they chronicled his 9-month battle with United Airlines over damages to his guitar caused by their baggage handlers.
After United gave Carroll their final refusal, he informed them he would make three videos and post them on YouTube, asking the public to vote for their favorite. For those of you who have not yet seen those videos, I urge you to watch them here:
At the time, nobody knew just how viral this would become: The first video had over 1 million hits by the end of the first week, making the 20-year music veteran an “overnight sensation.”
I’ve been in touch with Dave on several occasions (indeed, Stoutcat and I have written rants in support of Dave and the first two videos and I have featured Dave in several other topics).
With the posting of this final video of the trilogy, I thought our readers might like to get to know more about the man behind the music. Dave was kind enough to give me an exclusive interview for Grand Rants. I spoke with him following his appearance on “The View” in NYC and as he prepared for a several concert dates in Europe. As we spoke, I found him to be amazingly balanced, polite and in possession of a keen sense of humor. I invite you all to come join me as I talked with Dave.
So, please put your tray tables and seatbacks in their full upright position, as the United trilogy comes to its conclusion and Dave’s solo career takes off.
When did your affinity for music begin?
My dad, Max Carroll, used to sing to my brother Don and I before bed when we were young. His policy was “if you don’t know the music, sing louder and if you don’t know words play louder.” That philosophy of playing and singing for the fun of it, without worrying about if everything is perfect, is something I’ve grown to believe in.
Who or what was it that made you decide, “Music! Yeah… THAT’S what I want to do!”
I was at Carletone University in Ottawa and Don and I entered a talent contest in the residence pub. I recall how it felt doing those three songs that night and knew it was what I wanted to do.
Any early musical influences that might have contributed to making that decision?
I recall seeing a professional one man band play at the same residence pub who put on a great show with just himself and a guitar and thought “I’d like to do that”, and even though he was talented I figured if he could do it then maybe I could too.
Do you recall the first song you wrote?
I wrote a song that had to do with a traveller who meets this older waitress in a roadside restaurant ( I think I made 24 years old …that was older then) and he asks her to travel with him and make an adventure out of Life. I think I called it “Kathy’s song” but I don’t think I ever played it live.
At what point did you and Don get interested in making music as a team?
It was a team plan from the start with that first show in Ottawa.
Does your family have a musical background?
Our dad, as I said, played for fun and knows a few chords on guitar and plays everything in the key of ‘C’ on the piano (no black keys). Aside from that no one else in our family played much at all.
Describe the Nova Scotia music scene for us. Does it have a unique flavor as so many “regional” music sounds do here in the States? If so, can you describe it or compare it to any other styles?
The Nova Scotia and East Coast music scene is extremely diverse and interesting. There’s a strong Scottish/Celtic tradition (Nova Scotia means “New Scotland”) but there is a lot more to the scene than just fiddles, jigs and reels. We have some amazing songwriters here and some really strong rock and /artists/bands. For some reason the East Coast has an above average concentration of talented musicians which I think raises the bar for everyone and keeps the quality high and evolving.
For the benefit of your new fans, Let’s talk a little bit about “Sons of Maxwell.” What was the inspiration to put together the group?
Sons Of Maxwell (S.O.M.) weren’t exactly a group with a plan. We just sort of kept looking for and finding local gigs in Ottawa as we finished university. We enjoyed singing at parties and with friends and so we decided to start doing it more often and in bigger rooms, to more and newer friends… Before we knew it, we were making a living at it.
How did you come about the name “Sons of Maxwell?”
Don thought of it. Our Dad’s name is Max (technically Maxwell but he goes by “Max”). We wanted the name to establish we were family without saying “the Carroll Brothers.” We had gone by the name “The Don and Dave Show” for 2-3 years I think, but people were confused sometimes figuring they were about to see a comedy show.
The group’s music seems to have some roots in Irish folk music. Is that correct? If so, how did that came about and how would you describe the S.O.M. “sound?”
We call it Pop-Folk. We began developing a strong following playing a mix of Celtic/Traditional Irish songs and popular covers in a high energy fun show. Eventually we started inserting the odd original and people started requesting them. Since then the originals have been an eclectic mix of trad, folk, country, pop and easy rock. The songs usually tell a story but the melodies are dynamic.
How long has S.O.M. Been together?
Our first show was in 1989 but we didn’t play many shows that first year, so I guess we’re nearly over the 20 year point. I have been playing solo shows in support of my original music for the last 2 in addition to S.O.M. gigs.
First, congratulations on recently winning TWO Nova Scotia Music awards for United Breaks Guitars (U.B.G.)! Tell us about the experience, and how that affects you professionally and personally.
I’m always grateful when either S.O.M., or me as a solo artist, get a nomination (especially from your peers) but I don’t put too much stock in awards.
Professionally it adds some credibility to presenters looking for sound bytes because people are more interested in hearing you if they think other people think you’re good. Awards have a way of saying that. Personally though they don’t affect me much. There’s no point in getting too excited when you get them, because that would mean when you don’t, that you should feel that you’ve failed to achieve in some way.
Besides, I’ve always been more interested in what the people who are paying to see my show think which is why I love social media channels like YouTube… reaction to your music is based on what the individual thinks rather than radio station being serviced by a record label with deep pockets.
What prompted you to seek a second career as a solo artist?
I had been writing more song than S.O.M. were using or could use and some of them weren’t a great fit for the band either. Harmony is such a key part of the duo and some of the songs were more introspective and written with one voice in mind. So, I decided to make the Perfect Blue recording with no limitations on style or genre and allowed myself to write about anything. It was a great process and I think some of my best tunes came out of that process.
How do you maintain a balance between your solo work and S.O.M.?
Don is now a full time fire fighter and doesn’t have the flexibility to travel like we did so it actually works out really well. I spend most of my time these days on my solo work but we play “Sons” shows when the opportunity is there.
Your solo work is more mainstream, but covers a number of genres. Is there a particular style or genre you see yourself fitting or do you prefer no fences?
I consider myself a songwriter first and foremost, so I like the idea of being free to write about whatever I choose. People often would prefer for you to be one thing (ie. Garth Brooks is their “country artist” and they’ll enjoy Pop from someone else). Because of that record labels have been slow to get behind us since they can’t get their heads around it. “A band must be one thing to be successful!” they might say. I would argue a band must produce consistently good material and stay fresh if they want longevity and that variety can exist in a single recording (within reason).
I know I don’t listen to just one style so there must be plenty of others. My goal is to write good songs that sound good to my ear (whatever that means) with quality production and play them for people who appreciate the rainbow.
Who or what influences you as
- A song writer:
I appreciate a clever lyric that surprises you with a surprising rhyme or turn of phrase… That makes me say “I wish I would have written that!”
- A performer:
Someone who can draw the crowd in with the conviction in their performance. Like when Bonnie Raitt sings, her delivery and phrasing sells the lyric every time. In many of her songs, it’s like she’s confiding in you as a friend. Likewise with James Taylor. He does nothing flashy on stage but people hang on his every word when he sings because he draws you in. Bruce Springsteen’s performances are the opposite of their’s in many ways but his conviction is equally as obvious. Those folks almost make me want to stop watching them right away and go play a show.
I respect when I play with or see a musician who has complete mastery over their instrument. My guitar playing is ok but by no means great. A great musician who has put in the 10,000 hours of practice to get to where they are inspire me to improve what I do best. I’m inspired by great guitarists like Raitt, Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot, because they understand that every note has to have a purpose or it’s superfluous. Sometimes, it’s what you don’t play that’s as important as what you do.
Describe your songwriting process: When you write, do you start with a melody and build lyrics for it, or vice versa? How did it happen for the 3 United songs?
I typically write the melody first. It’s how I hear songs If the lyrics are great but the melody is too static or uneventful I can’t stay interested. I wish I could but I have a really hard time The melody has to be memorable and at least somewhat hooky so for me, if I write what I think is a good melody I start playing with phrases and words that reflect the way the music makes me feel.
With U.B.G., I had a slightly different approach and wrote it simultaneously. I knew I wanted a narrative song that told the truth simply and to the point. Country is the best genre to do that and it has the “hurtin song” component so I went that route With U.B.G. 2 I tried a different feel altogether and imagined a big gang of people swaying back in forth in a happy “come together” type song. So, I wrote a meody with a Tuba line in mind and lyrics that seemed to fit.
The last song is Bluegrass and my favourite of the bunch. Again it was done almost simultaneously (music and lyrics) and has a strong call/answer” thing in the chorus so I wrote it with lots of tight bluegrass harmonies and hooky melody.
At what point did you really feel comfortable as a composer? A performer?
I felt comfortable on my first gig. I was nervous and still get nervous but I have a certain “knowing” that playing/writing music is what I am supposed to be doing.
Every good writer has a muse. Who or what would say is yours?
I like great songwriters and story tellers who have shown that their work can withstand the test of time. It’s one thing to have been a one hit wonder but to continue to write hits over decades says something significant. Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor. They would be some of my inspirational artists.
What performers do you like to listen when you’re the listener?
The same artists as above.
What instruments do you play besides the guitar and how do those instruments affect your songwriting?
I pretty much play only the acoustic guitar. I dabble with mandolin and bass on my home demos to get the point across but I wouldn’t say I’m proficient at them.
What direction do you see yourself headed in musically both as part of S.O.M. and as a solo performer?
I want to explore my writing more deeply and continue to record the songs that sound good to my ear (and hope that others agree and are willing to support me doing that). Since U.B.G., I have been asked/challenged to write for others and I like the idea of doing more of that. U.B.G. ocurred because I challenged myself to write 3 unique songs about the same story. A good challenge sometimes brings out the best in someone so I’m always looking for a stretch. Sons of Maxwell are well established in what we do and I don’t foresee any musical changes with the band.
Do you have specific goals for each aspect of your performing (S.O.M. & solo act)?
My plans for world domination must remain a secret.
Let’s take care of the obvious question first: What, ultimately, did you do with the Taylor guitar that was damaged by United? If you got it fixed, will it ever really be the same?
The broken Taylor ultimately got fixed for $1200 and although Harland Suttis did an excellent repair it doens’t sound quite as special on stage according to my ear and that of others who heard it before. I have a calton flight case for it now but don’t travel with it. It sits on my wall i my living room and I play it almost daily when I’m home.
Rumor has it your shot the first video for under $200. How were you able to create such a award-winning video for so little?
Volunteers! EVERYONE volunteered their time and expertise. The amount was $150 but it is misleadng because we had professional people working on this and they all did it for nothing but the fun!
Did you have a larger budget for Song # 2? And now, Song 3?
Song 2 was $600 and Song 3 looks like it will be about the same.
What was United’s justification for refusing to pay for the damages to your guitar?
The hill they decided to die on was “You didn’t file your claim within 24 hours.”
According to Wikipedia.org and several published news stories, the sudden popularity of your “United Breaks Guitar” videos happened at precisely the same time United’s stock suddenly dropped by 10% which represented a loss to United of about $180 million. Your views on that?
I don’t think the loss can be all attributed to the video but the BBC suggested it was. I think all the airlines suffered that quarter but I don’t think anyone would argue that some of the stock drop was because of the millions of people humming that song.
I understand United eventually came to their senses and offered to repair your guitar, but that you refused their offer, instead, asking them to donate the money to charity. What prompted that decision on your part? As of this date, has United done that?
United donated money to the Thelonius Monk Jazz School after I turned down their compensation offer. I turned it down because the only reason they were offering was as a response to the negative publicity. I gave them 9 months to do the right thing and my final offer was simply $1200 in flight vouchers. They said the matter was closed and I agreed. If the matter was closed in Nov of 2008 it was still going to be closed in July of 2009 and my 3 videos were going to be released as promised.
There’s a report that United has asked for permission to use your first video as part of their training for new baggage handlers. True? If so, what’s your thought’s on that?
They didn’t ask permission. They told me they were doing that. I think it’s both funny and necessary. Many companies around the world are using it as a training tool. Happily, most have asked permission and are willing to buy a copy for non-home use.
How would you describe your relationship with United at this point? Will there be any Dave Carroll/United bonding over this?
I hold no grudges against the airline and address that in Song 3. My career has exploded and real change for consumers/customers is happening across the world in small ways because of this song. It’s been the most rewarding experience of my career. That being said, United may feel differently and hasn’t approached me about working together. I’d like to see them make meaningful changes and then hire me to write a song and produce a video for them. I prefer happy endings.
As you close out this chapter and move on to the next, what do you ultimately take away from all that’s happened as a result of the incident?
My take away is that no one customer is statistically insignificant (which is what big companies have grown to believe). We all have a voice now thanks to the power of social media and that we can all effect powerful changes in a broken system.
What does “closure” mean to you in regards to this whole chapter?
I said I would be done with the United story when I completedand released the third video and I meant it. Song 3 marks the end of the trilogy and my story with United. The story about Dave Carroll as a public speaker on customer service and social media and as a songwriter and performer is just beginning though.
What’s your next goal, musically?
I have several individual song projects on the go and am debating about whether to release another full length cd or treat each one as a separate project. I think the music industry will move away from albums as physical sales continue to give way to digital. I am starting to speak professionally to audiences about my experience as well so I enjoy that. I am working on a movie that would see me in a lead role and use Perfect Blue as the sound track (the song “Now” from that record is the title).
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully in the same size pants I wear today. Seriously, I don’t ever see myself not writing songs or doing something creative as my profession. I think I’ve been self employed in this field to stop now. I’m living each day as it comes and trying to make the most out of the opportunities each one brings.
Any final thoughts/words to the millions of people that have shared the ride with you through your 3 songs?
The last 6 months have been an incredible change in my life and I’m grateful to the fans of my music both old and new. I’ve been a professional musician for 20 years before U.B.G. and that fact alone has always made me feel successful. U.B.G. has introduced millions of new ears to my music and so my gratitude seems to have grown exponentially too.
Thank you, Dave, for the interview. In a year that has seen tremendous political upheaval in America, you’ve been one of the most popular topics on Grand Rants. I think it shows that when all is said and done, people like to be entertained by a quality performer. And the readers (and writers) of Grand Rants have certainly found that in you.
Thank you! It’s been a cool experience being a part of it all.