Songwriter Interviews

Dan Reed

by Carl Wiser

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With the Top 40 hit "Ritual" and tours with The Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, Dan Reed was living the Rock and Roll good life. But then he did something truly extraordinary: he went to India and spent two hours interviewing the Dalai Lama.

Taking a break from his band The Dan Reed Network, Dan bought the nightclub in Portland, Oregon where the band was discovered. He turned it into a hotspot for live music and DJs, but owning a club had too many temptations, and Dan stepped off his spiritual path and succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse. Leaving the club, he did construction for a year and returned to India, where he lived with Buddhist monks for a few months before moving to Jerusalem for three years.

Returning to the United States, Dan found inspiration in Barack Obama and a renewed interest in music. He played at Obama's inauguration, and released the solo album Coming Up For Air in 2010. Here, Dan explains what it's like meeting the Dalai Lama, the transformation from rock star excess to a more spiritual life, and what he thinks of Obama two years later.
In 1993, you wrote to the Dalai Lama's people and requested an interview with His Holiness. Is there really an address for the Dalai Lama, and when you sent the letter, what did you think of your chances of getting the interview?

I approached His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, through a Tibetan friend of mine in Portland, Oregon named Jigme Topygal, who happened to be a boyhood friend of one of the ministers for the Tibetan Government in Exile, so it helped having an inside track to reach him. It seemed the Dalai Lama was interested in his message of compassion being sent to the youth of the US through SPIN Magazine, who at that time had 2 to 3 million readers. We were surprised to get an answer back within two weeks of sending my letter stating "You have an audience with His Holiness, scheduled for January 20th at 3pm for an hour." Bob Guccione Jr., the publisher/creator of SPIN, was thrilled and decided he would travel with me to Dharamsala, India and conduct the interview together. In the end we spent almost 2 hours with the Dalai Lama.

Please describe your thoughts on spirituality and religion, and how your encounter with the Dalai Lama shaped those thoughts?

After studying many different faiths, as well as scientific theories on the creation of the universe, it appears to me that science describes spirituality in technical terms, while religions describe science in poetic terms. Therefore I believe that all paths lead to the same destination, and whether you are Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or any of the many other beautiful and fascinating religions in the world, including the "new age" faiths, everyone is reaching for the same resonating truth. And that truth is that love, compassion, peace and living in harmony with our surroundings is what is important for our survival and evolution as a human race.

The Dalai Lama is the head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet. Dan spoke with Tenzin Gyatso, who is the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama. When a Dalai Lama dies, he is believed to be reincarnated as an enlightened being and the manifestation of the patron saint of Tibet. After the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, Gyatso was discovered at age 2 in a village in Eastern Tibet.

In the 1950s, the Chinese government occupied Tibet, which borders India, Russia, China, Mongolia and Nepal in the Himalayas. In 1959, the Chinese government put down a popular uprising and took control of the area. The Dalai Lama, then 24 years old, fled to Dharamsala, India, where he established a government in exile and still lives today.
How have your thoughts on the Dalai Lama and his teachings changed since you met with him?

Seeing that the Dalai Lama was very approachable, humorous, and giving during the interview actually gave a sense that everyone can reach a higher state of consciousness, for he really made you feel as if there is nothing special about him as an individual, but it was all about the focus and intention we each give to living a life of clarity. It was truly inspiring knowing his story of being raised from the age of four years old to be the "wisdom keeper" of Tibetan Buddhism, but even more influential was him feeling like a guy you could live next door to. A "simple monk" as he calls himself.

Do you think there will be another Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama himself says that the tradition of having this form of leadership for the Tibetans may be coming to a close, mostly due to the fact the Chinese government kidnapped the true Panchen Lama years ago, who traditionally was the Lama who would envision and play a major role in finding the reincarnation of each succeeding Dalai Lama. With that role no longer filled, the true Tibetan temporal leader may not be found. China will undoubtedly prop up their version of the new Dalai Lama once His Holiness passes this life, using their own "elected" Panchen Lama. This will unfortunately divide and conquer what is left of this long standing and important tradition.

In response to your question, "Why do we have evil"?, the Dalai Lama replied: "Impatience - we need something immediately." That was in 1994, before the rise of the internet and cell phones. Are we doomed?

It does seem that we are addicted to speed and information, equating that with enlightened evolution, but it is proving to create as many problems as it solves. I believe that in the decades to come we will harken back to a more relaxed form of living, community based societies, growing gardens. Governments becoming "smaller," while slowing down in our lives. The Dalai Lama is correct that our impatience may be our downfall, especially in our desire to use carbon based machinery to travel and create goods, especially when we have the technology to use other sustainable energies but do not implement them simply because big oil companies like the status quo.

You went to India and spent four-and-a-half months in a monastery. What did you learn from that experience, and what was it like returning to America after so much time away?

Returning to the US was not that big of a shock due to the fact that I spent almost three years in Jerusalem after leaving India. The main thing that came with me from the Monastic experience is what was discussed in the previous question, and that is "Patience." Although I still "lose it" regarding my impatience, it is much easier to stand in line at the post office, in traffic, at security check points, etc.

Another thing I find is that I am pretty comfortable living/sleeping anywhere after the experience in India, and although I very much enjoy a comfortable bed to sleep on, I am just as satisfied to sleep on an uncomfortable couch, or even the floor, without much complaint. This was not true before the Monastery. But what I gained on a deeper level are the countless conversations, insights and lessons on "why" it is important to be compassionate toward the future and to the humans we come in to contact with.

Your music is much more radio-friendly than what you would expect of someone who has lived among Buddhist monks. Is that on purpose?

Considering that Buddhist Monks don't curse, live a life of clean living and focus their entire existence on loving all living entities, I would say that they are very radio friendly. Now if I was living amongst anarchists, I would see the relevancy of this question much more clearly :-)

The Dalai Lama told you: "Life is based on hope. Hope means something good. For these reasons, we can see the purpose of our life is happiness." You were a Rock Star, a construction worker, a club owner and a monk. Where do you find happiness?

These days "happiness" comes from connecting with people, sharing creativity, and trying to be dedicated to the intention of the music, both creating it and performing it live. It is my only meditation at the current time, that and having conversations and sharing meals with good friends.

The Dan Reed Network fused funk rhythms and power chords on their 1988 debut album, drawing comparisons to Lenny Kravitz and Living Colour. Nile Rodgers produced their next album, which was released in 1989, and a third album followed in 1991. Signed to Mercury/Polygram Records and managed by Bill Graham, they toured the world and drew favorable reviews from the music press, including a 1991 review in Q that began: "With the help of his absurdly talented Network, the muscular but nimble singer from Portland, Oregon has been cheerfully bucking heavy rock codes since the release of his eponymous debut in 1988."
You cracked the Top-40 with "Ritual" in 1989. Tell us about that song.

"Ritual" was simply about the addiction to another human being, for better and for worse and the admission that deep down we are all desiring and searching for the same satisfactions in life. It was the last song to be written for the first DRN album and immediately everyone behind the scenes in the record company and in management wanted this to be a single. It is still performed today, but the meaning of the lyric has shifted a bit, to encompass more than the libido.

Please tell us about one of the songs from your Dan Reed Network days that you're particularly proud of.

"Pride" is something that I have tried to slowly delete from my life, but there are songs from the past that I am still comfortable playing and being behind the lyric. I think that "Salt of Joy" is one of those songs. Although blindly optimistic, it still rings true to how I feel today regarding having hope for the future even in the face of corporate globalization and all that that brings.

Derek Shulman, who also signed Bon Jovi, Tears For Fears and Nickelback, told us that while Bon Jovi was nothing special musically, they had a great deal of personal ambition. Were you similarly ambitious when Derek signed you?

Absolutely. I was driven by ambition as well, the need to be loved and the hunger to want to rock the audience and get them moving on their feet. 20 years later it is my hope that "ambition" has been replaced by a "desire to help move people's hearts beyond the veil of division and the loss of hope." The "need to be loved" has transformed into the "need for me to love more," and the "hunger to want to rock the audience" has not changed, but I would also add to that hope that the live set and recorded songs help others take pause and contemplate the many gifts we have been given in this life. The years fly by... and we must embrace our ability to change our reality, while at the same time respecting all those before us who have done their best to build the foundation on which we stand.

Please describe your songwriting process.

This comes from many different angles. Sometimes there is a song title, or guitar riff that inspires a song. Most often with me it is a story I personally experience, read about or hear from a distance. A story of a pain that brought some lesson with it. A song may be born from a simple drum beat looped on the computer, or overhearing someone expressing their affection during a phone call on a train ride. I think any songwriter's best inspiration comes simply from keeping their eyes, ears and heart open to what surrounds them... and then trying to find the important message in that story, putting it to a melody and finally finding the courage to record it. Believing what you wrote should be heard by others is the hardest part, but a hurdle that must be overcome if you want to be an artist.

How close was The Dan Reed Project to major stardom?

I can only answer that by saying in Europe and the US between the years of 1988 and 1991 we toured with and played shows with Run–DMC, UB40, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi. We had a few songs in the charts on both continents, sold nearly 2 million records and we were fortunate enough to have been managed by Bill Graham and Q-Prime, some of the most respected folks in the business. To this day it seems like a bit of a daydream that all was happening, and I have a deep respect to have been a part of it all.

Please describe working with Nile Rodgers and his production style.

Nile is a very passionate artist and producer, always up energetically and thinking of ways to push the envelope regarding the bells and whistles of the production, but was also very into song structure and lyric. He didn't seem to focus so much on the melody of a song, but rather the feeling it gave, which I found fascinating.

Is your song "Closer" about a specific person? Please tell us the inspiration behind it.

"Closer" is about missing a dear friend, who is countries away, a person that made me see love and acceptance in a deeper way, and although you are no longer in their physical presence they are never far away in your heart. It is a personal story and to some degree I wish it to remain that way.

Please tell us the stories behind some of the other tracks on the album that are very meaningful to you.

"Promised Land" concerns itself with the "changing of the guards" that happens each Friday in the old city of Jerusalem. Each afternoon on Friday the Muslims gather on the East side of the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) and pray to the God of Ibrahim. As the sun sets, they all head home and the Jewish faithful gather on the West side of the Wall, praying to the God of Avram. I found it interesting that Ibrahim, Avram and Abraham are just three names for the same person, that these two similar people, the Jews and the Arabs, are actually blood brothers separated by a three-foot thick wall and a million disagreements, but in fact are really not that far away from each other.

"Promised Land" discusses how brothers in a family feud can become family again. "On Your Side" is another special track to me in that it was the first song I wrote coming back to music while living in Dharamsala, India. It was composed with the thought that being on the side of elements that feed your soul is the path of wisdom. Being surrounded by energy vampires is the path of darkness and delusion.

You describe "An artistic and spiritual longing for more than I was witnessing on The Rolling Stones tour." What were you witnessing on The Rolling Stones tour? Please tell us about that experience.

Nothing shocking, just par for the course in the world of rock and roll of the time. Parties, girls, shallow backstage conversations, everyone concerned about T-shirt sales, record sales, marketing, and second guessing what songs should be singles that will be accepted by the masses. Seldom was the music or the meaning of the music the focus. This aspect of the business engulfed me and wore my spirit out at the time, for I too looked in the mirror and found I was part of the problem that I was having issues with.

You spoke with the Dalai Lama about why there is so much illness in Western culture. What are your thoughts on why Americans tend to get sick?

Westerners in general, not just Americans, are all too often focused on career, money, status, image, addiction to speed, wanting everything and wanting it now... all stress-based aspects of living in this modern world. For example before China invaded Tibet in 1959 there were no documented cases of cancer, heart disease or mental illness. Clearly this is a statement that attests to the fact that stress and how we "feel" about ourselves is a major factor in our physical health. We like fast food, fast lives, and this does not allow us to eat and exercise properly, not to mention how companies like Monsanto continue to genetically engineer our seeding culture, making fruits and vegetables less and less healthy, sacrificing nutrition for size, color and fast crop turn around. Add on to this the delusions we live under that money will solve our problems and therefore we are on a constant treadmill chasing that "dream," the source of our lack of mental and physical health becomes clear.

You bought the nightclub in Portland where you got your start. What was that experience like for you?

"The Ohm" was both a blessing and a curse. It allowed me to experience so many beautiful evenings of rock and electronic music, opening my mind to different production ideas, conceptual visions, and of course much dancing, but it also became a very dark period where drugs and alcohol ended up controlling my daily life. I had managed to steer clear of these pitfalls while in DRN, but it wasn't until later in life, while co-managing and co-booking a nightclub that the grip of these most insidious practices gained hold of me. All in all, looking back, I feel it was a wonderful experience to be involved with so many artists, DJs, and creative spirits at the club, and although I would not suggest the path of substance abuse to anyone, because I survived it I have rid myself of the shame of those days and now choose to lead a more balanced life.

You played at the Democratic National Convention and at Obama's inaugural celebration. Two years into his presidency, how do you think he's doing?

I believe that the hope and inspiration he instilled in the voting public during his campaign, election and inaugural has been squandered on petty divisive politics. I also feel there is a deep seeded racism inside many people in the US, which even they may not be fully aware of. A half African American named Barack Obama wanting to create new social programs like healthcare for all, proved to be too much for these folks to handle. I am disappointed that he has not shown a stronger backbone in his actions in the capitol, but also am fully aware of the political landscape in DC and how difficult it is to navigate getting anything done there of consequence.

All in all, Mr. Obama has done a decent job given the parameters he is working under and being handed two wars and a broken economy brought on by eight years of the failed "trickle down" policies the Bush administration implemented. Halliburton, Enron, weapons manufacturers, Wall Street and the private banks are all running away with billions off the back of financial breakdowns and violent conflicts in other nations, while the average Americans are condemned to die on the battlefield and pay their taxes to fund these conflicts which are nothing more than ways to protect our oil interests. All the while the technology that could free us from our independence on oil lays in waiting. Asking any one person, including the president, to make a dent in this status quo is simply too much to wish for. In fact any president that did try to break the system down to help the people instead of the institutions has been assassinated, or discredited as a lame duck, like Jimmy Carter, and it's what they are attempting to do to President Obama. We not only cut off our nose to spite our face as a nation, but time may just prove we have cut off the whole head of common sense.

December 30, 2010
Get more Dan, including his album and tour dates, at

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Comments: 5

  • Pete Thompson from England/ft. WorthGreat interview with Dan. I have always wanted to meet him in person as I am in the business myself, and a song writer with great history in the music world... Nice to see he found himself after all the things that can grab u in this business.
  • Chris Wilson from SeattleNice new music and great profile for a very talented guy. I love Dan's new record and the song, The Dictator.
  • Sophia from New HavenFabulous interview! Welcome back to music Dan, you were missed!
  • Nigel from UkGreat interview; Dan talks a lot of sense and his songs are great!!
  • Bethany from ClevelandI loved Dan Reed Network!!
see more comments

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