Interview: Sean Moeller of Daytrotter (Rock Island, IL)

Daytrotter, in a short period, has become an institution in America. Started by the humble Sean Moeller, its team of passionate music lovers have created a Field of Dreams in the heart of the Quad Cities for thousands upon thousands of indie, national, and global musicians passing through on the quest to conquer hearts with their music.

Earlier this summer, I had the chance to stop in as a guest into their studios to talk with Sean, meet the team, and catch a little bit of the magic. If you can, stop by to Daytrotter, subscribe and support this wonderful group of people and the musicians they record in the Horseshack.

So talk a little bit about the London studio. How did that happen?

We did that with the guys at Communion like the Ben [Lovett], the keyboard player from Mumford & Sons. I’ve known them for a while. That’s their studio where they do a lot of the Communion recordings. We hooked up that way. They have a Communion club night once a month. They always plan our dates around them. So they usually have a lot of people in town around those. That’s how it works out. Our engineer there has worked on some of the early stuff [of Mumford & Sons]. He’s been their guy for a while. They have the pick of the litter now. His name is Ian Grimbale. He’s really great.

We only use it about four days a month. We pack as many things into those four days as we can. Then they use it as their normal day-to-day stuff the rest of the day. It’s usually the very first Wednesday through Saturday or the last Wednesday through Saturday of every month.

It’s nice to have the London situation to get a lot of those people who aren’t going to get over here unless they’re massive.

One thing I explored while living over there was how they are chosen or how that happens to come to America.

Unless you have some sort of major label backing or personal fortune, to come over here and lose a ton of money seems crazy. Think about how many US-based bands travel around the United States and lose all kinds of money when they’re starting out because they can’t. But at least they have friends in certain cities who they can crash with. If you’re coming over from a foreign country, you don’t even have that network of floors to sleep on. It’s tough. You think every day you’ll spend a couple hundred bucks on gas and a hundred on hotel rooms-you’d need a pretty solid guarantee to pay that off.

Based on what you’ve seen come through Daytrotter then, what tips would you have for foreign artists coming over or try to come over to play in America?

Coming over from over there, you just have to be on a good tour. I don’t know how often that happens where you’re an unknown UK band getting on a good supporting slot, but that’s the way to do it. Get a good booking agent that probably works both sides of the ocean. I was surprised to learn that there are booking agents who book over here and over there. To me, it seems mind-blowing to efficiently do that. If you’re based in New York, booking the US and Canada is already a massive endeavor. Booking overseas too seems like it would be too much do to, but many do this.

It’s so weird over there too with modes of transportation. Nothing is super far away. Everything is condensed. But the thought of a four-hour drive, or lack of actual wheels is such a different thing. Here it’s “Let’s get in the van and drive to Pittsburgh. It’ll take x number of hours. We’ll get on the highway and just go.” In Europe, it’s taking ferries and subways and trains. It’s hard to really understand being an American when we’re used to getting into a car and going.

How did Daytrotter begin? Did you expect it to catch on as it has?

I’d be pretty foolish to think that it would catch the way it has. It started off as a thing we decided to try and do. I wouldn’t call it something that started as a hobby, because there were always desires to make it not a hobby. How could you call it anything but a hobby when you’re all working regular jobs and doing this on the side? That’s a hobby. There was always that desire to have a life to it. I had built up a number of connections working for the newspaper in town. I was doing freelance writing for magazines. I knew a lot of the people and publicists at record labels. They liked the way I wrote.

It’s hard to really imagine eight years ago when we started. The whole internet music scene was considerably different. There’s always been radio sessions, but marrying the internet with a studio session thing just wasn’t happening. We started Daytrotter pretty much the same exact week as La Blogothèque started the Take Away Shows. It’s weird to think about in hindsight, since they’ve become so entrenched. The Take Away Shows have spawned so many others-art mirroring art. Many people have taken what they have done in Paris and just ran with it. Some of them are cut and dry imitations while others have taken that to a different place. As far as there being like what Daytrotter and La Blogothèque were, those didn’t exist at the time. Now you go into any city and you have two or three opportunities to do a session here or there.

I don’t know if we thought it would be anything like it is now. We were just hoping to do something interesting.

How has it helped with putting the Quad Cities on the map?

You saw it with Alyssa coming through here. Anytime anybody lives in a place long enough, you get disillusioned by it and fantasize about going somewhere else. I’ve never wanted to leave here. It’s fascinating when we have people who come through and complement where we are, and really dig it. A lot of it is them seeing things on the periphery and not living here everyday. There is something instantly appealing about here with the [Mississippi] River. I’ve always loved it here. Doing what we’re doing and the fact that lots of people know that the city Rock Island exists and the Quad Cities are here, and that if they pass through this is where we are, there certainly is a consciousness now. The fact that it is a stop on people’s routings, whether its for a couple hours or for a show that night, is interesting and will only get more so that way. A lot of people seek us out even if we do a session in London, or Nashville, or San Francisco, or a couple of the other spots that we do things occasionally. There is always that want to get here just because of who we’ve had come in through here. The majority of the biggest sessions we have done have happened in this studio.

Was the Sheryl Crow session done here?

Sheryl Crow was done in Nashville. She was there for a charity event. Her people hit us up on a Friday afternoon and the session happened on Monday. She played four new songs, and three of them she had never put out there anywhere else. I wasn’t even expecting it. We were expecting maybe the single from the new record and a bunch of old songs. I didn’t know she did all the new songs until we got the recording back from our engineer there. It was pretty amazing!

Yes, we work with Sheryl Crow and some bigger bands. But even some of the sessions like Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver, they were here at the same point in their career that almost everyone else is. You wouldn’t have said, “Oh man! A Vampire Weekend session!” When we actually posted that, they essentially didn’t exist! They came in and recorded on this one week summer tour they did when they were unsigned. They were nobody. They played the pizza parlor downstairs. Like I said, I hope that’s how Daytrotter works for some people. You trust who we work with. Hopefully every day there’s a good handful of people that we posted that have never heard of these people. Guaranteed that out of the five that we post every day, there’ll be one or two that will shock you a little bit.

What are your thoughts on the comparisons to John Peel?

I didn’t really start reading about John until after people started saying that about us. I obviously knew the name, but I didn’t know how he did things until doing research on how he worked. It’s similar, yet quite a bit different. For most of those sessions, he was essentially making albums. They would take all day. It was more elaborate. They were a lot more involved. These are more snapshots.

It’s a hell of a compliment. Where it hits closest to the mark is the thought that John worked with only people that he loved. If he loved a band, it didn’t matter if someone else thought they were good or not. He took the leap with them. If that was what people were essentially saying in comparing Daytrotter to the American version of John Peel Sessions, then that’s absolutely a compliment I’d take many times over. That’s the one thing I’ve tried to do with this. I don’t care who is writing about who. Who’s signed to whatever label. If you send me a link to your stuff and I like it, you’ll get invited in. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard. You still have one person you have to impress.

At the same time we give a lot of people chances. I feel like there is a solid level of curation. I know who we can make sound good in our setting. Frankly, there are things that won’t sound good in our setting. Not saying they can’t. Screamo, I have nothing against it but when we’re doing it live in one room, it’s really hard to convey. Some bands don’t like turning down and it’s hard to get everything sounding good and not muddy. We know what we can help with and where we can be of assistance. It still comes down to if it sounds good, you’ll get an invitation. Somebody sends me something, I’ll listen to it. We’re not snooty.

I feel like we give chances to people that maybe don’t get chances all that often. You don’t have to be signed. You don’t have to famous. You just have to write good songs. From everything I’ve read about John, it seems like he felt the same way.

You seem to be one of the few people who really know what’s happening at any time in American music. What about overseas? Have you noticed the difference in being known overseas versus in America?

I feel like I have a finger on the pulse of the US. It’s pretty rare for somebody to come on, unless they’re a really young band. But over [in Europe]…It’s exciting. Publicists over there send me things all the time. I’ve never heard this name. I have no idea what this is like. Then I’ll get a SoundCloud link and it just blows me away. It’s such a good feeling. Then you’ll go and look at their Facebook page or Twitter and they have 200 fans. So not even there! It’s an invigorating feeling to open it up and find something. I hope Daytrotter exists for most people like this.

Like Biffy Clyro, they’re rock gods over in Europe. But when they come over here, they’re not known at all! I mean, don’t come over here and stay over there where you can live like superstars! Even somebody like Muse, they’re big over here. However comparatively it’s night and day compared to what they are there and then over here. Over there, they are the biggest band imaginable. Here, it seems more forced. But Biffy Clyro is such an interesting case.

Dark Dark Dark does so well in Europe. Their concert in Paris was sold-out.

It’s crazy. They were a band that around here, when we had shows in the pizza parlor, the very first time we thought, “You’re a great band!” The first time they came in for a session, we offered to set up a show. No expectations. We thought we’d get twenty people, if that. We had 80-90 people. The last one we did was sold-out. Even here, they’re from Minnesota and we didn’t know about them. The fact that anybody in Paris know about Dark Dark Dark and they can sell records over there is just mind-blowing. For some people, it’s this weird luck of the draw things. There’s no explaining it.

It’s one of the things that keep people doing it. If anyone things that there’s any rhyme or reason to what hits or what doesn’t.

If there is an artist over in Europe who’d like to record, how would they get a session?

Hit me up. Everything still goes through me.