Although improvisation is part of Daves’ musical DNA, his new album features careful arrangements designed to both preserve the character of the songs and push the sonic envelope. Photo by Jason Zucker
Is that the mandolin on the intro to “June Apple”?
Yes, the electric mandolin is one of the first things you hear on the record.
I’m assuming you took off a string from each course of the mandolin. Why’d you do that?
When you send the doubled strings through a pickup, you get these weird phase interactions between the strings. The mandolin never sounds perfectly in tune, and it sets off unpleasant harmonies when you send it through a fuzz or overdrive. I fingerpick the mandolin on “Pretty Polly,” which is a lot easier to do on courses that only have single strings. Also, I just didn’t want it to sound like a mandolin.
Speaking of “Pretty Polly,” there’s one other instrument I play on the electric track that’s never been available commercially. That’s because it’s a one-off guitar my father-in-law made entirely of metal. He’d never made an instrument before, but is adept at welding. The neck is half of an old truck exhaust pipe, and he borrowed a small guitar from a friend and took its exact dimensions to use in the guitar he made me. It was something he intended to be hung on a wall, but it actually plays and sounds really cool—halfway between a National and a sitar—so it ended up on the album. It really shocked my father-in-law. [Laughs.]
How’d you decide to release a double album with two versions of each song?
I’d been mulling over what sort of album to do next and it ended up being sort of a creative solution for dealing with my simultaneous interest in two very different kinds of music and my commitment to making albums that are cohesive and hang together by their own logic.
Back in my college years, I was into blending a lot of different styles, but over time it became clear that it was important to focus and commit to fewer directions. I can’t escape bluegrass because it’s always been such a big part of both my social and professional life, so I wanted to do a straightforward bluegrass project, but I also have other creative goals. I didn’t want these twin interests to turn into lukewarm water, so I maintained distinct aesthetics for the bluegrass and electric albums.
In the process of planning the albums and figuring out what songs to include and in what order, I had a fascinating puzzle to put together. I didn’t write any new music—these are all traditional songs—and so it gave me a new creative level to work on. It was a really fun challenge.
How did you choose the songs and ultimately put the puzzle together?
It started off as a body of songs that went back a long way—deep meditations on the human condition. Some of the songs have been around for hundreds of years and musicians tend to play them in whatever style is familiar to them. There’s an inherent flexibility to the songs, and I picked ones that especially had that long-term relevance.
As far as song order, I played around with that quite a bit. One of my goals creatively was to have the two versions of each song not be doing the same thing. So for something like “Stargazer”—the one non-traditional song on the record; it’s by Mother Love Bone—I played it as an uptempo bluegrass number on one album and a grungy dirge on the other. I also wanted each song not to perform the same flow in the function of the albums, so I had to monkey around with the order until I found something that flowed differently, but worked in both cases.
I knew the order before going into the recording process, and I recorded the bluegrass album first. That definitely informed the decision-making process on the electric album. I let the bluegrass album be what it was. I got all these great players in a room together for three days and had them do what comes naturally for them, so it was very organic. The electric album ended up involving a lot more planning and editing. I kept rearranging songs at the last minute, and as I got farther and farther into that aesthetic world, the ideas just kept coming. At some point in the creative process, you’ve just got to pull the plug!
How did you determine what, if anything, to change between the pieces on the bluegrass and electric albums, in terms of big-picture stuff?
I tried to hit different tempos and moods. Some of the arrangements maintained the same basic chord progression and melody. I didn’t mess around with “A Good Year for the Roses”—after all, the original chord progression was good enough for George Jones when he recorded it. But other tunes, like “Drunken Hiccups” and “The Dirt That You Throw,” I reharmonized. “Darling Corey” became a one-chord, almost psychedelic jam.
It was definitely a goal for the electric album to not just sound like traditional bluegrass played on electric instruments. I wanted to take it into its own world and give each song a different thing. My original idea was to release these albums separately at the same time, for different audiences, and let them take on their own lives. I wanted each album to be something a listener could approach and appreciate without knowing the other existed, but I ultimately decided to put them together and the project became about comparing radically different versions of songs.
Given your background, you’re obviously an improviser, but there doesn’t seem to be very much of that on the albums.
There’s not a tremendous amount of improv on either album. In much of traditional bluegrass, you just get these quick two- or four-bar solos and nobody takes 18 choruses. And the electric album was really a chance for me to put something together that was very deliberate, unlike, say, the stuff I play with Chris Thile, where we just let it all hang out and see what happens. That said, when we’ve played the electric album live, we’ve been stretching out a bit. We’ve started working with Kid Millions, the drummer for Oneida, noise-rock pioneers in Brooklyn, and are taking things in a more experimental direction than on the record.
The bluegrass and electric sides are not just different on a musical level. They seem to have been recorded in a dissimilar way. Can you talk about the processes?
The recording process was very much a part of the creative decisions around how the albums were made. We did the bluegrass album live to tape in a 19th-century church hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn—a really amazing room where I love playing music and have always wanted to make an album. I have a couple of tape machines—half-inch 4-track decks, reel-to-reel machines—so we did all that live to 4-track, singing and playing into one mike, another mike for the bass and fiddle.
Whether Michael Daves’ performance of the standard “Pretty Polly” is innovation or heresy depends on which part of the bluegrass spectrum one embraces. For staunch traditionalists, who make up a high population of devotees, electric instruments alone amount to insurrection. But the torn tones of his Kay K-400 electric reframe the tune with a nerve-jangling jolt of modernism.
It was all about capturing these great musicians playing live in a great room. I wanted to put some pressure on the musicians to get it right live and not go back and fix things. When you have musicians of this caliber, that usually pushes them to livelier performances.
The electric record started with the drums and guitar, and then I added bass and all of the other elements. I did that in my own studio, direct. I got all of the ideas down and then worked with Vance Powell, who’s mixed all my other records and who’s also worked with Jack Black. He’s a great champion of analog, so we have a lot of shared production values.
I talked to Vance about the sense of space I wanted and about the overall aesthetic of the project, and he just ran with it. Working remotely—he’s in Nashville and I’m in New York—he live-streamed a mixing session. He ran the mix through his live room in the studio, running stuff through guitar pedals and adding effects like phase sweeps, delays, and reverbs. Witnessing the tracks transform into something unrecognizable, but totally in line with my vision, was really cool. Vance was definitely a very big part of how the record turned out.
The mastering engineer, Jessica Thompson, was also really onboard and tuned into the goal of getting the albums to relate to each other sonically. I was lucky to have two such talented engineers who were equal to the task of helping me reconcile the two very different worlds of these records.