With over 20 albums to his name, will the world ever catch up with Daniel Romano?
Daniel Romano is taking a rare breather from his busy schedule. He just got back from the store with a bag full of construction paper to get to work animating a new stop-motion music video for his punk side project Ancient Shapes, who recently released a split seven-inch with Weird Nightmare — the solo project of METZ vocalist Alex Edkins — for Sub Pop. When asked about the laborious and time-consuming nature of this kind of animation, he answers with a shrug. “It's really not that time-consuming,” he says. “It just feels that way.”
Knowing his work, this answer makes all the sense in the world from this tirelessly prolific songwriter, producer, poet, visual artist and now filmmaker. Romano has released a staggering 16 albums in the past three years as a solo artist, with his whip-crack backing band the Outfit and with various collaborative projects. This fall, he and the Outfit released their most ambitious album to date with La Luna, a prog-infused rock opera that exudes the confidence of a true rock ’n’ roll technician working at the height of his powers.
Read more: 11 alt icons of TV and film that shaped a generation of emos
Romano and the rest of the Outfit base their operation out of Welland, Ontario, which is where he and his younger brother Ian were both raised. A small city in close proximity to Niagara Falls, Welland provides Romano and his collaborators the right balance of bustling energy while allowing them to create away from a magnifying glass of a larger scene. “It's a diminishing steel town that has the industry left to become more of a run-down retirement-plus-college community,” Romano says. “It's beautiful and hideous at the same time.”
Born three years apart on the same day, the two budding musicians benefited from growing up in a musical household. Their parents David and Joni Romano are gigging musicians, and their cover band Loose Change introduced the two brothers to the Beatles, James Brown and early soul hits. When band members weren’t able to make certain gigs, Daniel and Ian would fill in on drums or guitar.
Being shown the mechanics of those cover circuit standards, Daniel gained the confidence to begin writing his own material. Inspired by the burgeoning punk scene around the greater Toronto area, he played in a few bands before he and Ian started their first well-known project, Attack In Black. Their early melodic-hardcore direction landed them a deal with the Toronto-based Dine Alone Records. By their second full-length, 2007’s The Curve of The Earth, the shift in Romano’s writing had become apparent as the album traded in the crunch of dimed-out Marshall heads for a more contemplative acoustic approach.
The band, however, called it quits in 2010. Meanwhile, Romano had kept in touch with Constantines guitarist Steven Lambke, who he toured with, about the possibility of working together on their own independent label. Their label You’ve Changed Records was founded in 2009 by Steven, Daniel and former Attack In Black bassist Ian Kehoe. From the onset, Lambke wanted You’ve Changed to act as a supportive space for Romano to indulge in every creative impulse.
“It was clear that there was a lot more music being generated than what was coming out,” Lambke says, looking back at the creative predicament Daniel and Ian were in when he initially met them. “It seemed like such a wrong thing to do to put any kind of brakes on that.”
Romano started releasing solo albums at a feverish pace, first introducing himself as a vintage country crooner in the mold of George Jones with the stylized psychedelic western sensibilities production of Lee Hazlewood. Releasing nearly an album a year, he mined those influences with studious attention to detail. Romano took his chameleon-like “genre studies” as far as they could go, with the back-to-back releases of 2015’s If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ and 2016’s Mosey. The next releases would point to a seismic shift that set Romano on the musical journey he has been on ever since.
To clean the slate during a break from touring, Romano went into the studio to record a new ‘70s downtown New York-themed set of punk tunes that would become one of his go-to side projects, Ancient Shapes. Romano played all of the instruments on the band’s 2016 self-titled debut album, but after perfecting a rich croon over the past several records, he knew he’d have to dig back into his early hardcore upbringing to throw some grit onto his vocal cords.
“All of the student research aspects of the past work that I've been doing culminated in a way where I felt like I found my own voice or a way that I felt comfortable singing that felt less sourced for by influence and more like a direct delivery of ideas,” Romano says.
This watershed moment for Romano carried over to his solo career when he went to record 2017’s Modern Pressure, an album that acted as not only a culmination of everything he had done previously but the first in a new direction that he continues to follow today. Across the countrified rock album, you could not feel Romano’s struggle to color within a specific outline. The songs felt timeless on their own merits. When it came time to tour the record, he knew he had to put a band together. He enlisted Ian to play drums, Ancient Shapes touring member David Nardi joined on guitar and Roddy Rossetti on bass. The band hit the road hard, turning into a well-oiled machine that could pull from Romano’s deep catalog with an electrifying sense of urgency.
When the band got off the road, Romano quickly went into the studio to record three albums, mostly on his own, in 2018: Human Touch, Nerveless and the critical and fan favorite Finally Free. While on the road in early 2020, singer and fellow Welland native Julianna Riolino joined the band on backups and occasional lead duties, and Daniel Romano’s Outfit was officially born. Of course, the pandemic forced the band to cancel many of their remaining dates and return to strict lockdown procedures back home, so the creative roll they were on screeched to a halt. Rather than take a break, Romano went back into the studio to record with his new cast of collaborators at an unhuman pace. Daniel, his wife — fellow musician and recent addition to the Outfit — Carson McHone and Ian podded in one household, while Riolino, Nardi and Rossetti stayed in another close by. Between the two roofs and working with mixing engineer Kenneth Roy Meehan, Romano released 10 different albums in 2020, both solo and with the Outfit.
In many cases, Daniel and Ian will go into the studio with no ideas and track a completed song with new lyrics in 20 minutes, without overdubs. “I don't do much thinking when it comes to the creative process. I like to just go with the flow and apologize later,” Romano laughs.
To service this energy, Romano and the Outfit built a brand-new studio in Welland Canal called Camera Varda, after the famed French new-wave auteur Agnes Varda. Romano released a relaxed seven albums in 2021, including one live record, five solo releases and one Outfit record titled Cobra Poems, which acted as the studio’s inaugural voyage.
McHone points to Romano’s uncanny ability to be firm on his gut instincts as to why he’s able to work so quickly within the studio. This approach to writing is something that drew her in first as a fan, and now has grown strong the closer she is. “I think that's a really positive thing for me,” McHone says. “Instead of it being totally intimidating, it's like, ‘Don't get in your way.’”
With his own label funding his own records and a whip-tight band that can be used for each of the members’ solo albums — McHone released Still Life last February, and Riolino released her debut album All Blue this October — Romano’s growingly prolific musical fingerprint almost mimics a seasoned theater troupe rather than a band at this point. “I think that everybody involved feels that way,” McHone adds. “Whether or not we are collaborating, or just supporting each other in our own directions, that's pretty special.”
This approach also translates onstage, as the band have built a name for marathon sets with Daniel segueing each song into the next without space for the band or the audience to catch up.
“I'm just not in denial that I'm in showbiz,” Romano says with a laugh. “It's a show, so I just feel like, let's do a show.”
Romano first got the inspiration to go even further into the theatricality of his pursuits on a trip to visit McHone’s parents back in Alpine, Texas. While there, Romano had the idea to work on a larger concept record. While he had attempted something like that with The Outfit in 2020 with the 22-minute prog epic “Forever Love’s Fool” with TOOL’s Dany Carey on drums, this time he initially wanted to build something more akin to the grand-scale baroque orchestrations of influential arranger and producer David Axelrod.
He emerged from the trip with both of La Luna’s 15-plus minute movements entirely mapped out on acoustic guitar. These early sketches included the album’s overture, which samples La Luna’s many different sections as well as Daniel’s main vocals and harmony ideas. Romano doesn’t like to share too much of his lyrical intention on his projects, but he alludes that the dense poetry of La Luna all derives from his own thoughts on the interconnectivity of “everything” and the never-too-overemphasized theory that love is all we need.
Going off Romano’s demos, the band cranked out the album in about a week at Camera Varda. At certain moments, both Riolino and Nardi take over lead vocal duties to give the album a theatrical feel with multiple characters conveying different emotions. Much like how Modern Pressure was a turning point for Romano as a writer, La Luna is in many ways the culmination of his work with the Outfit over the past several years. It’s a tour de force performance from the band that mixes elements of rock, prog and folk, with Romano writing in top form.
When speaking with him, Romano is putting the finishing editing touches on the album’s companion film he directed starring musician Julie Doiron and featuring the band and some of his newfound love for stop-motion animation. His ability to work quickly in the studio transitioned to his work ethic behind the camera, as all of the live-action material in the film was shot in two days.
Prolific artists are often judged for the rate of their work and not the content of it. For many, this kind of assembly line style efficiency can be intimidating for prospective fans looking for a way into the catalog and can puzzle those in the industry who desire to fit artists into a more capitalistic release schedule for optimal consumption. Romano, however, treats writing and recording music like any other master of a trade. He’s simply making the most of his abilities while he still has them.
In the studio, he moves quickly and keeps it as simple as possible. “For me, selfishly, the faster I do something, the easier I forget it,” Romano says. “I did La Luna in a day or two, and then I stepped away and barely remembered any of it. Then I could go back [and] listen through the whole thing as if I was hearing for the first time, as if I didn't even make it myself.”
Most of the time, Romano is too transfixed in the act of creation to pay any mind to critics deriding his overabundance of new material. But while promoting a recent tour in Europe, a meeting with a blunt member of the Dutch press caused him to second-guess his approach. Is he working too fast for the world to catch up? In an increasingly online world where releases are devoured and then pushed aside for the next thing, why should he have to stifle his own creativity when it presents itself? “It’s almost like that’s what I'm being asked to,” Romano sighs. “There's other outlets that fill the same sort of creative need. But it feels weird to purposely not do something when one's inclined to do it.”
For now, Romano is creating his own world. Adapting to the pace is simply one of the laws of the land.