Michael Daves: Bluegrass’ Jekyll and Hyde
This NYC guitarist goes trad acoustic and buck-wild electric on his edgy new double album, Orchids and Violence, pushing the roots envelope and igniting a bonfire of vintage fretboards and modern fuzztones.
Not long ago, Brooklyn-based guitarist and singer Michael Daves found himself wrestling with a musical conundrum: how to integrate his love of traditional bluegrass with his penchant for more left-of-center fare, without cheapening either style.
It occurred to Daves that his twin interests could, in fact, exist alongside each other agreeably, so he made a two-album set, Orchids and Violence—the follow-up to 2011’s Grammy-nominated Sleep with One Eye Open. Each disc of his new, third album has the same traditional tunes, in the same order, but with very different interpretations. The albums can be enjoyed individually or taken together as a study in contrast.
Daves, who is 37, is a prominent player on the New York bluegrass scene that includes virtuosos like the mandolinists Chris Thile and Sarah Jarosz and the banjoist Noam Pikelny—all with whom he’s collaborated with extensively. Speaking to his enviable command of the guitar, Daves has also worked with Steve Martin, Tony Trischka, and Rosanne Cash.
On his tradition-approved D-18, Daves picks hot lines with stylistic rectitude, but he’s known to swap out the Martin for a plywood Truetone, for a subtly grittier approach to the idiom. Daves’ odd choice of the Truetone in a bluegrass situation hints at his unconventional way with the electric guitar. On a single-pickup Teisco, he calls forth a wide range of gestures and timbres—at the same time working a kick drum and hi-hat—and he does sound rootsy and experimental at the same time.
Speaking from his home studio in Brooklyn, Daves told us about the evolution that led to Orchids and Violence, as well as the musical strategies behind the project. He detailed the peculiarities of his D-18, what it was like to record with some of today’s hottest bluegrass musicians in a Brooklyn church, and how it felt to bond with a $2,000 overdrive pedal.
Orchids and Violence showcasestwo sides of your musical personality. Which came first for you—bluegrass or rock?
Bluegrass is something I grew up with in Atlanta. My parents played fiddle and banjo and I couldn’t help but absorb it. Up the street from my house there was a weekly bluegrass jam session where touring groups would often come through, and I eventually joined the jam sessions whenever I could. I got to meet musicians like Norman Blake and David Grier, and bluegrass musicians also came to parties at my parents’ house. Of course, I had a lot of other interests as well: rock, like you mentioned, and eventually jazz and experimental music.
When and how did those other interests take hold?
My interest in jazz really started in high school, and I got into it in a chronological manner. I started off with Americana, bluegrass, ragtime, and fingerstyle, and then became aware of early jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong. From there, I went to Western swing artists like Bob Wills, and then on to Charlie Christian and a lot of jazz of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. Learning how to play standards, my interest in jazz progressed to bebop and then to soul jazz and beyond.
When I went to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, one of the professors was Yusef Lateef, a legendary multi-instrumentalist and composer. I got to study with him for four years. He had started out as a jazz musician, but got very into contemporary and experimental music and abandoned the label jazz. He called his work “Auto Physio-Psychic Music.”
I picked up an appetite for new music and sounds from Lateef. But he was very concerned that students find their own voices, and that helped me embrace my musical upbringing. He actually encouraged me to write a bluegrass concerto, but I still haven’t gotten around to it. [Laughs.] So something that I continually work through as a musician is reconciling my upbringing in traditional music with my interest in exploring new sounds.
Playing both traditional music and new sounds must require a good assortment of gear. What instruments are you playing on the traditional side?
I’m playing my Martin D-18, a 1960. Sometimes when I play bluegrass with musicians like Chris Thile I also use a Truetone, which is a plywood guitar from the Kay factory from the late ’50s. I keep that one tuned down a step. For this recording, which is more or less straight bluegrass, I just stuck with the D-18. It’s a nice ensemble instrument and a particularly good example.
What makes it particularly good?
This one has an especially strong midrange that really tends to punch through the mix. It doesn’t have as much low-end warmth as a D-28 or even a prewar D-18. But I find that, in practice, the low-end strings end up washed out on a recording and it’s the midrange that really helps a solo punch through. It fits better in the mix, and it mikes really well. You mike a boomy guitar, and it gets even more boomy. My D-18 has great clarity, but it’s also a little bit gritty. I sing really loudly, and it’s a really wild, sort of nasally guitar, so it kind of matches my voice. [Laughs.]
“I wanted to put some pressure on the musicians to get it right live and not go back and fix things,” Daves says about his acoustic recordings. “When you have musicians of this caliber, that usually pushes them to livelier performances.”
Is there a special story behind the guitar?
It was, in fact, a special find. I got it from the former guitar player of Helmet, Chris Traynor, who currently plays with Bush and Gavin Rossdale. He’s really into vintage instruments, and he found this guitar and sold it to me. Early in its life it was kind of fancified by John Lundberg, who was one of the first luthiers on the West Coast to get into restoring the old D-45s and whatnot. So it’s got the torch inlay on the headstock as well as fingerboard and bridge inlays similar to the ones on a D-45. It has gold tuning machines, too. It’s got the original neck, but the headstock veneer has been changed to accommodate the torch. It really doesn’t look like a D-18.
I’m a big fan of Martins from the early ’60s. Whenever anyone asks me to recommend a reasonably priced vintage guitar I usually say to look there, as ’50s Martins start getting more pricey and later ’60s examples tend not to be as compelling. They started making changes: going to a different glue, changing the bracing, and all that. Anyhow, this guitar has been a really good match for me. I’ve had it for nine or 10 years now.
What about on the electric side?
A 1960s Kay—another plywood beauty—which I have an old DeArmond soundhole pickup on. On the record, you’re also getting a little bit of the acoustic sound of that instrument through the drum mic. I play drums and guitar at the same time, and I conceive of the Kay as part of the drum kit, because there’s this kick and hi-hat, with the strumming of the guitar filling in the eighth-note pulse.
And then to play over the drum-guitar parts, I overdubbed using my favorite electric guitar that I’ve been playing for years, a single-pickup Teisco—one of the ones with the striped aluminum pickguard. That guitar is all kind of broken and barely functional, but it has a great vibe and I just love the sound of the pickup. I play the Teisco through various effects—a Shoe Gazer fuzz pedal, and I borrowed a Klon Centaur from a friend. I’m not buying one of those! [Laughs.]
That pedal’s, like, two grand, right?
Yeah. It’s spectacular, and I’m just glad that there was one available to borrow.
Do you play any other electrics on the album?
I also play a kind of no-name Japanese electric, probably from the same factory as the Kay. It’s a short-scale guitar, and I keep it tuned down a minor third, sometimes dropping the sixth string to B. Then there’s quite a bit of electric mandolin on the record—a Kay mandolin from the ’60s. As it happens, most of my instruments were made between ’65 and ’67, and so are my wife’s. She plays bass on the record and has three. In any case, for the electric mandolin, I took off half the strings and stuck a McIntyre pickup in it, tuned it down a little, and ran it through the fuzz pedals and whatnot.
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.