The music video for The Danbees’ upcoming single “Down at the Bar” begins in a hallway full of gold and platinum albums at Sound on Sound Studios in Montclair, NJ, and then, just as the song’s jangling chords coalesce, viewers see raw footage of the band casually setting up their equipment. It’s a little symbolic, sequencing an image of “world renown” ahead of “workmanlike regularity.” Actually, it’s sort of The Danbees in a nutshell.
If you ask The Danbees’ principal songwriter and frontman, Mark Slotoroff, about these ideas, he is about as no-bullshit as a guy can be. “We’re just four dudes playing music; nothing pretentious about us.”
You ought to believe him, too. While The Danbees have evolved since their first shows in 2014, and while their songs differ from one another in structure and tone, “Down at the Bar” is unmistakably a Danbees tune. This is a good thing: on their next EP, they do not attempt some Kid A-style left turn, nor do they grow beards and drop their guitars for mandolins and banjos to play Americana. They’re not “retro” or gimmicky. They’re not “indie rock,” whatever that even means. They are a rock band. They play rock music, and they play it well.
Wade McManus’s drumming is distinctive, but hard to describe - it’s fill-laden, but not Keith Moon-reckless. It’s heavy, but it isn’t deep in the pocket. Really, it has the effect of pushing the band’s songs along. Lead guitarist Shane Matthews has a knack for doing exactly what each song requires, nothing more and nothing less. Pay attention, though, to how comfortable he is finger-tapping Slayer-style, exploring motifs like Trey, or deftly arpeggiating like Johnny Marr. [Before you wonder: A) yes, those are consecutive references to Slayer, Phish, and The Smiths. B) Yes, when you hear Shane play, this makes sense.] Sam Enright is a studio guy, and he sounds that way: precise, meticulous, and locked with McManus: you don’t realize that his rubbery bass lines form a critical hook until you are humming them an hour later.
As for Slotoroff? Lyrically, musically: he’s a New Yorker. The time is 2AM, the place is that-dive-with-the-good-pool-table, and the feeling is one of a simmering incredulity. He’s neither heavy on the irony nor the earnestness. He sounds as though he’s been wronged, but his delivery is confident and unsentimental. Of course, he probably wouldn’t say any of this.
Slotoroff describes The Danbees’ aesthetic as “simple, done well,” before he hints, just maybe, at the band’s ambitions - at those records on the studio walls in the music video. “It’s similar to the ‘good songs; good musicians’ strategy of Motown,” he says, before adding, “...but we do it our way.”
The release of “Down at the Bar” will be followed by the release of a second single, an insomniac anthem called “Can’t Sleep.” These two tracks make up one third of The Danbees’ forthcoming EP, The Veggie Tapes: Sessions from Sound on Sound Studios, marking the band’s first release since their 2016 full-length debut, Fishnets Anonymous. If you are wondering about that title - The Veggie Tapes - you’re not alone.
“The title is a metaphor that comes from my experience working as a bartender in various restaurants over the years,” Slotoroff explains. “You’re always dealing with people’s dietary restrictions - it’s like, ‘are you actually celiac? Vegetarian? Or just an asshole?’ With music, we are often force-fed crap en masse, so we’re here - we’re your veggies, why don’t you eat us?”
If you haven’t been eating your vegetables...or...if you haven’t seen The Danbees develop from “college town favorites in Ithaca” to “venerable NYC live scene vets,” well, where have you been? They’ve been busy.
When The Danbees first formed in 2014 - on Danby Road in Ithaca, to answer that question - McManus and Slotoroff were students at Ithaca College. McManus lived nextdoor to one of Slotoroff’s classmates, and Slotoroff noticed that McManus had a guitar. When they ran into one another after a creative writing class, Slotoroff asked McManus if he wanted to audition for a group – it did not take long for the two multi-instrumentalists to become the core of the band. Upon graduation, though, the two of them did what any aspiring musicians would do: move to Brooklyn. Once there, they decided that two guitars didn’t cut it. Wade played some bass, some drums, and they started playing as a duo.
Eventually, McManus and Slotoroff decided that they needed a permanent bassist, and Slotoroff’s childhood friend, Shane Matthews, filled in: for rehearsals and shows, Matthews drove (and still drives) the 120-or-so miles of New Jersey highway from his home near Atlantic City to New York. McManus switched to drums, but Matthews’s tenure as bassist was brief: once McManus’s former bandmate, bassist (and Berklee College of Music graduate) Sam Enright joined The Danbees, Matthews switched to lead guitar, and this lineup debuted at a Sigma Chi fraternity party at the University of New Haven. “The funny thing is,” Slotoroff says, “we’ve had three bassists in The Danbees, and all three are still in the band.”
Now, four years later, the band has had residencies at Arlene’s Grocery in addition to their appearances at all of the usual haunts for Manhattan’s up-and-comers: The Bowery Electric, Mercury Lounge, the Hard Rock Café in Times Square, Café Wha?, The Bitter End, and Pianos, to name a few. They’ve crossed the East River to The Rock Shop and Trash Bar in Brooklyn, and they’ve made themselves comfortable in Philadelphia through half-a-dozen performances at The Grape Room. Elsewhere, they’ve gigged further south at Harrah’s in Atlantic City, further north in Stamford and New Haven, Connecticut, and on to points further in Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Washington DC. Through all of these different lineup changes, stages, venues, and circumstances, though, Slotoroff acknowledges what remains consistent - what remains The Danbees’ trademark - what defines who and what they are.
“We make no apologies for what we are,” Slotoroff says.
So what, then, are The Danbees?
“Not a band that can play an acoustic room,” he insists. “We started playing music because we like it loud. There’s something about being on stage, jumping around - that’s entrancing. We’re definitely not a studio band by nature.” It’s that last point that carries real weight: if by “studio” band” Slotoroff means a sort of cold precision, you can rest assured that The Danbees are not a studio band. They are what a great live act ought to be - fun, energetic, and spontaneous. “We start out with a general setlist,” Slotoroff says. “But we have no idea what’s going to happen once we’re up there. We’re like Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam - we engage the audience with energy. We’ve done hundreds of gigs and have had tons of great moments.”
So as the band prepares to release “Down at the Bar” and the rest of The Veggie Tapes, what makes The Danbees tick is ultimately what Slotoroff has been saying the whole time, a sense of “simplicity, done well.” They may not yet have the gold records to prove it, but they’ve staked their territory, and it’s fertile ground: they just... get this... they just want you to like their songs and have a good time. Slotoroff and the rest of the band eschew the self-pitying, irony-obsessed-yet-serious-as-your-life musician stereotype that seems to befall NYC’s rock scene, “Whether it’s rolling on the floor on stage, or one of Wade’s impromptu drum solos, we’re not just a ‘collective of musicians,’” Slotoroff says. “We’re four best friends who love to play music. We share a natural chemistry. We are rock and roll for the modern era.” I believe him. You will too when you hear their stuff.