TAY STRATHAIRN  -  RHYTHM AND DAWES

NO ONE EXPECTED Tay Strathairn to grow up to be a piano player—least of all himself.
“There weren’t any other musicians in my family,” Tay says. “My dad played piano a little bit. But when I was little, my parents shared a house with a bunch of friends from college. One of them was a Juilliard-trained piano player. He played all the time, and that was my introduction to piano.”

Tay’s dad, Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn, debuted in John Sayles’ acclaimed film The Return of the Secaucus Seven the year Tay was born. Young Tay was soon following in his father’s path: As a kid, he appeared in two other Sayles films, Eight Men Out and Lone Star. Meanwhile he began piano lessons, which continued through his teens. And somewhere along the way he decided to extend his musical education.

“I really hated homework, so I decided to go to music school,” he wisecracks. “I graduated from the New School for Jazz [and Contemporary Music], and I’ve gotten more and more serious about playing over the years. At first it was just something I liked to do. But then I realized I could actually do it professionally.”

tay-smallAfter relocating from his native New York to Los Angeles a decade ago, Tay began playing around town. “I was playing with this band called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros,” he recalls, “and some friends of mine were like, ‘Hey, you gotta check out this other band.’”

Enter Dawes, which began as a somewhat different band called Simon Dawes, featuring guitar wunderkind Blake Mills.

“They were really raw,” says Tay. “But I was like, man, these kids—the talent was so apparent. Their guitar player, Blake, had just left, and they were looking for another permanent member. So I asked if I could play with them, and the rest is history.”

Since then, Dawes has released three records, toured nonstop, and grown a cult following for its distinctive folk-rock sound. The band has also had several unique opportunities to support some of its musical heroes onstage.

“We played the San Sebastian Jazz Festival three years ago, and we were Jackson Browne’s band,” Tay says. “We were on the beach in Spain, playing songs like “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty” with Jackson Browne! Then last summer we did some festival stuff with Conor Oberst. And a couple years ago we got to open up for Dylan for a month. Sometimes when I’m onstage I just look around and think, ‘How did I get here?’”

Tay is fortunate enough to be able to play a real piano in many live shows. “I always use a Yamaha U1 upright,” he says. “The thing I love about them is that they’re so consistent. When you’re playing a different instrument every night, it can be a little nerve-wracking. But when you get a U1, you know what you’re going to get. Especially at festivals, where you don’t really have a sound check. Somebody tunes it, you get up there, and you have 10 minutes before your set.”

“WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING A DIFFERENT INSTRUMENT EVERY NIGHT, IT CAN BE A LITTLE NERVE-WRACKING. BUT WHEN YOU GET A U1, YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO GET.”

Tay has definite ideas about his role in the band. And none of them involve showboating.

“I see myself as a member of the rhythm section,” he explains. “If you listen to Latin music, for example, like a montuno, the piano is a complete rhythm instrument. It’s doing repetitive, rhythmic patterns underneath a vocalist or a horn player. I get now why bass players love to groove. When it’s really locked in, and you’re just playing the rhythm, you can get to a place where it’s really churning.”

Dawes went into a Nashville studio earlier this year to track its fourth album, All Your Favorite Bands, which was released on June 2. "I think we tracked 10 songs in one week!" says Tay. "We recorded it live, all in the room together, so there's not a lot of chopping up ––it was just the way we sound. It felt l like we were just going to rehearsal and somebody was taping it."

Though there was a U1 in the studio, Tay finds himself primarily playing a Yamaha C7 grand piano on the new record. “It’s not as dark as a lot of grand pianos, so it’s able to cut a little bit more,” he says. “The higher register just sounds so pearly and nice.”

Dawes is out on the road this summer. They are playing a fresh round of festivals, including Kaaboo in Del Marc, CA. And there's nothing Tay would rather be doing.

“I’m really grateful for all the opportunities I’ve gotten, and where we are, and what’s to come,” he says. “It’s a real joy to play with these guys. We get along really well. And after doing 250-odd shows a year, the band really has a sound. I was a late bloomer, and the other guys were young, so it’s taken a while. But now we take pride in the fact that we’re a really good band!”