Don’t let insecurity get to you. Overcome your inhibitions and don’t be afraid to express yourself. It helps to have people listening and giving you strokes to get out of that rut.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Zalles.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact genre for Dan Zalles, as his music spreads across influences of classical, folk, garage rock, funk, and more. The award-winning artist’s career spans a whopping 40+ years in music, notably being part of Stanford punk rock band British Wire Gauge (whose single “Product City” years later winded up on the TNT drama Animal Kingdom’s fifth season), and later joining fusion jazz band Wayward Monks, Outer Half and Slide Dogs in the new millennium. In August of 2022, Dan Zalles released his solo album Emotionality.
In addition to music, Dan Zalles has dedicated many years to developing educational strategies that help youth and adults think critically about controversial issues, as well as being an environmental advocate on climate change. Read Dan’s paper here on forests and wildfires, and what you can do to help.
Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?
I’ve loved music ever since I was a little kid singing harmony with my mother on folk songs. I started playing trumpet when eight years old and joined my first band as the trumpet player at 15. I started playing guitar at 16 because I wanted to be able to play a chordal instrument and sing at the same time. That’s also when I wrote my first song. My desire to write music came out of wanting control over what I listen to. Since I love listening to music so much, when I listen to it, I often start thinking to myself, what if it sounded like this or that instead? So, songwriting became an outlet for me to be able to create whatever it is that I feel like hearing at any particular time.
I also love performing. Most has been in bands but I perform acoustic solo sometimes too because I enjoy the quiet folkie coffee house vibe. Yet there’s no more of a rush than playing in a good electric band. Being in a band is more than just about making great sounds. It’s about being part of a unit. As long as you can get along with them, and as long as they have the chops and like the same types of music ,there’s nothing better. The musical camaraderie you develop with fellow bandmates, when it works, is like no other experience. And, what really helps is when you’re playing for a big audience that’s dancing and singing to your songs. Audience appreciation is an adrenaline rush that drives you to play even better. That’s the high that keeps a band together, even when they’re playing for a pittance and lugging heavy equipment around in the middle of the night.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was in my first band, as a trumpet player, we would have practices in the drummer’s basement after school and I kept forgetting to bring my trumpet. I look back at that now and think to myself, how could I have been so stupid to keep forgetting. And they ended up firing me for it.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
I would advise anybody who wants to try to make a career out of music to really be passionate about it because that passion may be the only thing that keeps you going in the face of the business part. Business is about making money and art is only respected and appreciated by business gatekeepers if it makes them money. If you’re not true to your artistry, it’s likely that nobody will be interested in your music. So, you have to be true to what you’re driven to write and play and not obsess about how popular it will be, despite the pressures from the business people to “make a hit.” Also, don’t put all your eggs in the music basket. Have alternatives for making money because being a music professional is a hard life in many ways. And, if you are successful, it may only be for a short time and you’ll need decades of money making.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
So many people have made an impact on me in so many ways. So, I’ll just focus on music here. My best friend in high school, a guy named Jim, made the biggest impact on me. Jim was a year older than me and an amazing guitarist, singer, and songwriter. At the time, I had just started playing guitar, writing songs, and singing in a very tentative and self-conscious way. My insecurities were large but he really inspired and encouraged me. I watched as he went from doing acoustic duo gigs to being in bands, most notably one called Bahama Mama, which sounded like a cross between Steely Dan and Bob Marley. The irony here is that Jim got out of music early but I continued. He became a clinical psychologist and I don’t think he’s recorded anything for decades.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?
There are so many problems in the world to be concerned about, so you have to be picky because you can’t do everything. Several years ago, I joined the League Of Women Voters and became active in a bunch of issues that concern the League, including voter registration, critical thinking about controversial ballot propositions, housing scarcity, homelessness, and probably my biggest passion, the environment. My website has a page all about the voter critical thinking process, which I call Active Policy Reflection (https://danzallesmusic.com/education/).
For the past couple of years, I’ve led a national committee in the League that does public education and advocacy for policies aimed at protecting our forests, plus policies that help people protect themselves from wildfires. I wrote a song about preserving our forests on my latest album Emotionality, called Let Them Grow. I wrote it as a sort of rousing anthem that I could imagine hearing at a forest protection rally.
Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
The forest protection issue has particularly intrigued me because it’s characterized by lots of confusion and misinformation, which has led well-meaning climate-concerned people to advocate for policies that are actually quite destructive to our planet. People spend much time thinking about how much we need to cut carbon emissions to fight climate change, and that’s important. But what many are missing is how equally important it is to preserve natural resources that store carbon. And there is no natural resource better at doing this than forests. Unfortunately climate change and years of mismanagement by public forest service agencies have contributed to large fires that are especially intimidating because more and more people have moved into formerly wildland areas where wildfires occur that are inevitable, natural and needed for longterm forest health. Also unfortunately, people in government and in the timber industry who gain from logging have had a vested interest in convincing the public that we need to cut lots of trees down to prevent people from being threatened by wildfires, when in fact the evidence shows that the best way to protect people from wildfires is rather to help them to modify their homes and landscapes to become more fire resistant.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
Many members of my committee live in beautiful areas that we call the wildland urban interface and have been threatened by wildfires so these issues are very important to them. And, impact works too both ways. Certain members of my committee actually impacted me a lot by educating me about the misinformation.
And let me say something more broad about impact. A few years ago there was a notoriously destructive wildfire that caught national attention in a town called Paradise California. The area around Paradise had been heavily logged and that contributed to the destructiveness inflicted by the fire on the town. Winds that carried embers more quickly into town than would have occurred otherwise had there been trees in the way. Then, houses that could have been protected were destroyed by embers that flew into the homes through vents that should have been sealed off. Now, I was not involved in this in any way, but I’ve used it as a clear example of impact.
Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Yes, absolutely. Last April, on Earth Day, President Biden signed a resolution calling for the protection of old-growth and mature forests, out of recognition that they play an essential role in fighting climate change. Yet, that resolution did not specify what an old growth or mature forest is. So, it has been left to the US Forest Service to define that and then establish appropriate regulations for their protection. Unfortunately there are many vested interests who want to put the brakes on this. There are several ways they can do that; first, by defining what needs to be protected in a way that in fact doesn’t protect most of them and in fact allows for expanding wildland logging, using fear of fire as the justification. They want people to believe that if you find an old tree in a forest, you’ll help protect it from being destroyed in a wildfire by cutting everything else down around it. A grassroots group called the Climate Forest Campaign is leading the charge on defining old-growth and mature forests in a way that leads to regulations that protect and sustain them. Anyone can join the campaign at https://www.climate-forests.org/. I need to add one more thing here. I’m not against logging and the wood products industry. My position is that logging can and should be made more climate smart, sustainable, and confined to existing tree farms.
Why do you think music in particular has the power to create social change and create a positive impact on humanity?
Yes, I do. Too often, advocating for change and getting involved in politics is a dry undertaking. You can get caught up in the technical details of the issues that you care about and your commitments can also lead you to feel angry and frustrated. That’s where music comes in. Music can inspire you to persevere by bringing out your positive emotions. There’s nothing more inspirational than a song that really gets to you on an issue that you care about, or maybe didn’t care about until you heard the song.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”?
First, I would say, resist your urge to be too tribal in your beliefs and affiliations. Be respectful of different opinions, values, and life styles and become better at asking questions and seeking to understand other people rather than lecturing to them. Also, spend time with people that’s not about politics, so that you can learn to appreciate them as human beings. I learned this after suffering through too many heated political arguments.
Second, I’m going to say something similar but about music. Anybody as devoted to music as I am is going to be very opinionated, not only about what they enjoy listening to, but also what they enjoy writing and playing. On both scores, respect differences of opinion. Music is subjective and if it makes somebody happy, that’s OK, even if it’s not what you like. And be open to constructive criticism. Three lessons that helped me a lot as a songwriter were to be less verbose with my lyrics, to build space in my productions so they don’t sound cluttered, and to vary the arrangements so they don’t sound too repetitious.
Third, don’t assume that your musical tastes are going to always be the same. Your musical tastes may be formed by who you happen to be around, and by whether you like those people. Your tastes may also have to do with how you see yourself at a particular time in your life. And that could change frequently. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reevaluated what I like musically over the years. And it helps to be able to stream any music you want. You can get exposed to everything.
Fourth, when playing in a band, don’t think of it as your backing band. Think instead of it as a place where minds meet and collaborate to make something distinctive that you wouldn’t have been able to make by yourself.
Fifth, don’t let insecurity get to you. Overcome your inhibitions and don’t be afraid to express yourself. It helps to have people listening and giving you strokes to get out of that rut.
You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think that people are capable of great things if they open their minds and learn to trust and respect each other. But people rarely have the opportunity to practice these skills. And I don’t think social media is the way for them to do it. They need face-to-face time, or at least time on an app where they actually talk to and see each other. Then, they need to learn how to be gracious.They should try to find common ground and if they disagree, they should agree that that’s OK. Of course, there are a lot of people who have really bad thoughts and practice really bad behaviors. So it’s not enough to just bring people together and expect everything to be wonderful. It takes patience and persistence. One thing leads to another however. Once we build a society around trust and respect, the negatives of tribalism will lessen and people will be better able to solve problems collaboratively. And that is no easy task. As members of a community and a society, we compete for resources and opportunities. Not everybody can get what they want whenever they want it. And sometimes, to get what they want, somebody else will have to not get what they want. So we compete, yet we are all in this together. We need to find a balance between looking out for ourselves and looking out for others.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
I can’t think of a particular life lesson quote that inspired me in any serious way but there are some jokes that really got to me. When I was a teacher, I heard this one from Woody Allen. He said, “those who cannot do, teach, and those who cannot teach, teach gym.” (Apologies to gym teachers out there.)
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to spend some time with Carole King, an amazing songwriter and environmentalist. She has inspired me in so many ways. I would have loved to have had as many impacts as she’s had and would love to hear how she managed to pull it all off.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!
Thanks to you too, and I wish you continued success with Authority.
Music Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Dan Zalles Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.