Dave Cope and the Sass View Current Events Through a Folk Lens with Pied Piper
Philly-based group Dave Cope and the Sass recently released a politically-charged project, Pied Piper, as their second album of 2021. Grounded in Psychedelic Folk traditions, these songs were mostly created during the pandemic period, and many were recorded at home. While the songs contain relevant ideas and challenging thoughts, lyrics are also interwoven with Folktale imagery and concepts that, at root, are universal enough to allow us new ways of looking at familiar situations.
We spoke with Dave Cope about how his multi-media work relates to his music, the inspiration behind the Pied Piper album concept, and why the Folk music of the 60s and 70s has become such a big part of his musical DNA.
Americana Highways: I hear that you’re involved in theater and visual arts of various kinds as well as music. Are those things you see as separate in your life, or is there a lot of overlap with your musical projects?
Dave Cope: There’s been overlap lately with the art because I’ve been needing to do album covers. I’ve drawn them myself. With theater stuff, I mostly was a composer-for-hire for a theater company in Philadelphia. They’d call me when they needed incidental music. I’m not really a theater guy, necessarily, but I’ve enjoyed being part of that scene in that limited capacity. With visual arts, I used to want to be an artist when I was a kid, but that was before I got into music.
Only recently have I been going back and drawing again, doing a painting here and there. It’s kind of like an old friend that I haven’t seen in a while and have been getting in touch with again. Sometimes we block ourselves off from a creative process that could be a lot larger. You don’t have to be the person that people think you are all the time or follow the majority consensus. It’s been good for me to go to a place where I don’t have to be confined by any one type of creation.
AH: Did you create the cover for Pied Piper?
DC: I did. I found an old painting of the Pied Piper and I loosely drew a cartoonish version of it and put an American flag in the background to make it something unique and more in line with the concept of the album.
AH: It definitely works! Did the idea of Pied Piper comparison come before the rest of the songs on the album, or is that something that developed as the songs took form?
DC: It was as the songs developed. I had released some of the songs on little mixed albums on Bandcamp, which were a mixed bag of types of music. But I realized that I had enough for an album of fairly coherent Folky-kind of songs that worked. With the “Pied Piper” song, that originally had much more heavy-handed lyrics about QAnon and conspiracy theories. I veiled it a little more, then the Pied Piper metaphor came into it. That’s sort of what people do, they follow this chorus, or whoever this person is, to their doom. My other political songs had been in the making, and they all seemed to fit very well, so I was thrilled. It all seemed to make sense.
AH: It’s a great unifying principle. I haven’t come across anyone who has written an entire song about QAnon, though I have heard songs that reference it. Did you set out to do that, or did it just happen?
DC: I had a bunch of lyrics on my computer and had some musical ideas. I needed to express it and get it out, though the song changed two or three times after that. When I started coming up with the Pied Piper hook and tagline, I realized I needed some more fairytale imagery. I didn’t want to say things so directly. Because in 20 or 30 years, who knows what will be going on?
AH: Some people are fine anchoring a song to a particular moment in time, a march, or a murder, but the themes here are pretty big about leadership so it makes sense to make it more of a Folk tale feeling.
DC: I think “The Party of Lincoln” is fairly topical for now, but with other ones like “Docklands and “Pied Piper,” I tried to forgo making it too contemporary. With songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin,” you can tell that’s about the Civil Rights Movement, but it still makes sense today, or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” That’s what I was shooting for, to speak about more than this moment.
AH: Do you find encouragement inspiration in the Folk music of the 60s and 70s?
DC: I am definitely super-influenced by the Folk music of the 60s and the 70s, to the point that it’s kind of in my blood and I adore it. I will often go a playlist that I have of Folk songs by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Bert Jansch, and I love the English and Irish Folk music, too. That stuff is ingrained. I never really listened to the political Folk music much, like Bob Seger. I’ve listened to Bob Dylan, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who had things in that vein. There’s a lot of stuff in the Pop world that bleeds over from that protest movement. There’s also “Hurricane,” by Bob Dylan, which has been a big influence. Though that is topical, the way that Dylan is able to tell a story captures something eternal in it. It doesn’t even matter if he’s talking specifics or not. He has some magic like that.
AH: Do you like Donovan?
DC: I do. I love his music. He gets a bad rap, I guess, since Dylan eclipsed him, but there are times that I prefer his music. He’s got that quick vibrato thing and the staccato lyrics.
AH: Donovan does some interesting work with protest and environmentalism these days, too. But regarding Dylan, and why he feels timeless, I would say that sound can contribute to that. And this album, Pied Piper, by taking things down to the acoustic level and using Folk tales also gives that timeless feeling.
DC: If you get something that sounds good with just a guitar and a voice, that can be the real test of the power of a lyric, song, and melody. That’s a huge challenge, to get something that you don’t have to pile everything on top of to make it sound cool. To find those kernels of truth in that simple form and express it can be tough. It’s been getting tougher as I’m getting older. I feel my voice isn’t what it used to be.
AH: That makes me laugh because I think the vocals on this album are really beautiful and, at times, very impressive. In “Ways of Love” and “Rosalina,” particularly, I noticed that. There are some really beautiful moments worked in.
DC: I appreciate that. That means a lot because I tend to hear the worst in the stuff, little mistakes here and there, that other people might not even hear. I would never sacrifice a melody or anything like that. I really try to make something melodic and beautiful all the time, and it’s a real challenge. But some of these songs took leaving them alone for a few months, or even for a couple of years, and hearing them again. Then thinking, “Okay, this part’s good, but this other part makes me cringe. How do I make this better?” It’s like a smithing process. You’re always trying to sharpen that lyric or melody.
It’s a beautiful but hard discipline because it can be unforgiving, and painful, too. If you invest yourself in something, it’s hard, especially nowadays, when it’s such a priceless medium, but it’s so devalued. I play into that, too, going on Spotify. We’re all being taken for a ride in some ways. If I have to pay someone to come to the house and walk the dog or babysit, and I pay them more than I’ll make on Spotify in a year, unless you’re Rihanna or Taylor Swift, it’s very hard. It’s always been hard for musicians, but this is a tough racket.
AH: I know that for a lot of bands the selling of physical merch at live shows is one of the few things they can rely on for funds to counter these vulnerabilities.
DC: Yes, it’s extremely vulnerable. The band had just gotten started with its first album being done after getting together. Then we started playing gigs and it just all went away. I have all these CDs at home! It’s tough but I’m fortunate since I have a roof over my head.
AH: Is there any light on the horizon in terms of live playing for you or for the band?
DC: There is for me, I’m starting new gigs. And for the band, we’re trying to figure that out. It’s hard to say because our drummer is older and has underlying conditions. But also, some people have moved away now or aren’t able to do it now. But we also have another record that’s being mixed right now and will come out under the Dave Cope and the Sass name. It’s not a Folk record, but it’s more like Power Pop, and a really talented engineer is mixing it so it’s going to sound great. That’s on the horizon in 2022, but I have some solo gigs coming up at local venues.
AH: Have you played the Pied Piper songs live yet?
DC: I’ve started playing them. I played them at the last gig I had. I haven’t played all of them. I do “Come One of These Mornings,” “Docklands,” and “Pied Piper” live. I could probably do “Rosalina” live and may have done it once or twice. Something like “Ways of Love” would freak me out to do live, since it’s challenging. I used to have a really clear voice for high notes, but over time it’s gotten weaker, so singing songs like that in a high range becomes a little scary. [Laughs] I wouldn’t want to ruin that song by having my voice cracking.
AH: It’s a common issue. We can namecheck The Eagles worrying about high notes.
DC: It is. It’s like being a pitcher in baseball who’s thrown a thousand pitches. That’s a beautiful thing about life, though, because what you lose in youthful vigor, you gain in wisdom and perspective. I wouldn’t have been able to write these songs when I was younger. It’s a yin-yang. That’s what it’s all about.