Earthwork artist profile Vol. 5: Dan Rickabus


Photography by Mae Stier

Dan Rickabus is one of those starry bright humans, twinkling infectious energy towards anyone who is lucky enough to experience his generous spirit. That surely translates through his music and on stage performances with his many collaborators. I recently had the chance to talk with Dan about his debut, solo album "Void / Journal," The Crane Wives, other exciting collaborations, and his upcoming concert at the Grand Rapids Museum's Planetarium.
-Chris Good

1. Talk about the process & inspiration behind your recently released, debut solo album? After being the man behind the drums on so many albums, what was it like to be out front?

The music of "Void / Journal" took a long and winding journey through the inspiration phase. The pieces of it were collected over almost eight years, and even though I knew it was an "album" that I was working on, it changed shape many times as the creative process went on. My partner Alex was a part of the process from the beginning, and she and I talked ideas for years! After having the ideas with us for so long, it felt right to bring it to life in a hurried flash last March as a massive collaboration with our dear friends. So in a way, it didn't feel like being out in front at all, since I was surrounded by all those inspiring voices. My task in the writing phase was to bring a healthy limitation to my ideas, get out of my own head and leave space for my friends to bring the music to life. The whole thing was a journey for me that I'm really grateful for. My family, friends and community really showed up for me, and it's thanks to them that the album exists.

My musical base-camp is in my band The Crane Wives, a four-human creative partnership that builds songs collaboratively. We first started jamming together in the Autumn of 2010, and we've been through so much life together since. I will say that I've never been more excited to be a part of the band than right now. We've been traversing some exciting new territory. I'm very proud to also be deeply involved with the Earthwork Collective. Recently, I've been so excited about the release of the new Public Access record Unlimited, Seth Bernard's Eggtones Series, and the new Gifts or Creatures record Fair Mitten... these are all albums that I'm really proud of, and I have to remind myself that I'm not dreaming sometimes. It's a dream making music with so many people who inspire me!
I feel a deep sense of home behind the drum kit, backing my friends up... and the drum kit is actually where a lot of my songwriting starts. A lot of the Void / Journal songs came from exploring the ukulele, but for a few of them, the drum beat came first. This was the case for the two "sister-songs" on the record "Stormcloud / Bioluminescence" and "Wolfpack / Phantasm." (They're also sister songs in the sense that they are both rooted in D major, and they both groove on a 6/4 time signature that is supposed to feel like a looped 4/4 beat!).
The lyrics are inspired by the relationship between humans, the natural world, breathing life on one hand, and the infinite universe, the endless light-peppered void beyond us, on the other. A big theme throughout the record is seeing one's small place in an endless universe and learning to embrace it, knowing change as the way of life, and trying to be brave enough to choose wonder instead of fear in the face of the unknown.

2. You have a super exciting concert coming up at Grand Rapids museum! How did this event come to be?

The planetarium show is truly a dream come true, and a cosmic happening in real time. To re-create the lush, densely layered sound of the record, my friends and I assembled a ten-piece big-band to perform the music for Harvest Gathering 2017, as well as Lamp Light Music Festival in Grand Rapids. That same band will be performing live at the Grand Rapids Public Museum's Planetarium on March 22nd.
- Myself: drums, lead vocal
- Alex Smith: violin
- Doug Smith: violin
- Emilee Petersmark: keyboard, harmony vocal
- Kate Pillsbury: ukulele, percussion
- Alexander Atkin: electric guitar
- Seth Bernard: electric guitar
- Steve Leaf: electric guitar
- Ben Zito: bass guitar
- Bill Chesney: samples
The show on the dome will be a live performance from visual artist / live video mixer Nate Eizenga. I've wanted to collaborate with Nate for a long while, it's been exciting seeing his work in motion! I want to send out big gratitude to Emily Hromi who manages the Concerts Under the Stars series! She saw us at Lamp Light and asked us to play, which made my 12-year-old self lose his mind.

3. You have a lot of other projects & passions that you are pursuing. Give us a glimpse into that scene & share a bit about how you see music, art, community, education, and activism flowing together.

In music, I'm just grateful to work with so many great people and players, and serve so many amazing visions. I'm grateful to be able to make a living at it. I also teach drum, ukulele and songwriting lessons to private students, and I work at the Grand Rapids Children's Museum most every Wednesday. My job there is to facilitate open-ended play as a means of helping kids form ideas and pathways. Every day, that building is full of young people and adults exploring their own imaginations together. The community there is so vibrant and full of creativity, and the staff are some of the sweetest people you'll meet. Engaging young people brings me so much perspective and inspiration, the next level kids are the future of our worlds. Listen to them, they have amazing things to say.
I've also been excited to get more involved with the Clean Water Campaign for Michigan, and have been editing and mixing a pilot episode of a Podcast for the campaign. To me, the campaign is a real, direct way to make a difference in my own state, in my own community, in a real way. It's representing what should be a basic right of all human beings, clean drinking water, as well as standing up to keep the Great Lakes fresh-water-haven protected. It's an honor to work along side my brother Seth, and he's been so amazing in bringing the whole powerful team together. It's empowering to be a part of a community full of people working so hard to create the change they want to see. In these times, I feel that we all need to find time and energy to make our lives flow with activism, and activism flow with our lives in whatever way it can. So many of us are balancing so much in our complex lives, but so many of us are being oppressed and exploited, and/or do not have their basic needs met. Especially now it's really important to stay dialed in to what's happening, and to identify and reckon with our own privileges. I like to believe that even small acts of making your voice heard help to turn the tide.

4. What's got you fired up for the near future? Upcoming albums? Tours? New collaborations?

The Crane Wives are working on lots of new material for our next project, and we're about to release a video for a new song! We'll be traveling a lot this Spring as well! We have some opportunities on the horizon we're really excited about. This May, I'm looking forward to rocking with Beauchamp, Lavengood, Lockwood and Bernard in our tribute band called Prine Time! We've got a great Mitten tour lined up, it's sure to be a riot. I'm also looking to release an album I've been working with my brother Alex Atkin on in the near future... so if you're into the idea heavy grunge-blues music, stay tuned! I was also a part of the new Joey Schultz record this past January, a special Earthwork collaboration that is also coming soon. It's a great day to be alive and making music in Michigan. I hope to see you all out there, let's get together and share in music!