One of the joys of working at BYT is getting to speak with our musical heroes. One of our other joys is putting good people together, like the good dinner party hostess that we are, and seeing what amazing conversations will follow. In anticipation of Cardinal’s first ever tour, with an appearance Tuesday at the Velvet Lounge, we coaxed one of DC’s favorite sons; Archie Moore of Black Tambourine/Velocity Girl fame, to sit down with one of his favorite songwriters, and ours, Richard Davies. We’ll leave it to you boys:
Tell us about your current tour. How many dates will you be playing?
6 dates – heres a link to the details:
What parts of your catalog will you be performing?
Since it is Cardinals first tour, the set will be songs from the first (4 or 5 songs) and second (6 songs) Cardinal albums, plus a couple of new songs that may become cardinal songs down the road.
Eric Matthews isn’t joining you for these dates, so who’s in the touring version of Cardinal?
There will be two versions of Cardinal live. One will be a full live band that will play with Eric’s orchestrations, and the other is a cafe style setup where its either me and Eric’s orchestrations, or a vocal lineup and gtrs. The way the Cardinal songs will be presented will mutate on a regular basis, into one of those configurations. The lineup for this tour is Malcolm Travis (Sugar) drums, Corin Ashley (The Pills, writer) bass and vocals, David and Catherine Gould (Brooklyn’s The Inner Banks) gtr and vocals, Kate Atanian (Berklee senior) kb and vocals.
Going back to the beginning – you released two albums with the Moles, one with an Australian lineup, one with an entirely different, US-based band. Shortly afterwards came the first Cardinal album, and then you began releasing records under your own name. The second Moles album (Instinct) always struck me as being more of a close relative to the Cardinal album– let’s say a weird, Beefheart-lovin’ older brother– than a continuation of earlier Moles records. And your solo albums each have a very distinctive vibe, and use different musicians… I guess my question is: considering you made six albums with basically six different band lineups and an aesthetic progression that seemed disconnected from the projects’ names/identities, what (if any) differences did you perceive or intend to present with each? When you were writing material for these, what determined whether a song was a Moles song, a Cardinal song, or something for a Richard Davies record? Or was it simple chronology and evolution?
Mostly chronology and evolution. In fact pretty much entirely chronology and evolution. What you describe coincided with my first few years in America, and the records I made corresponded with my experiences. The Moles are a very different kettle of fish than Cardinal. The Moles were chaos in the framework of songs, whether that was Australian chaos or American chaos. Cardinal is a lot more cardinal in its approach to music. My solo records are more like a diary than either the Moles or Cardinal.
I’ve always thought of your songwriting style as very idiosyncratic and peculiar (in the best possible way), and am curious about your working method and approach to music. Is music-making still a regular part of your life, or, given the constraints of daily life, does it happen more or less sporadically?
Although my life is extraordinarily busy – I have a busy trial law practice and a family – I still make music on a very regular basis. I write or play a few times a week, every other night. My approach varies but it is based on the fact that writing songs is a natural part of me.
Having been involved in bands and record-making for about as long as you, I don’t think my wife and daughter have ever heard me play a note of music at home– as much as I’d love to pick up a guitar and play Beatles and Love songs, my m.o. has always consisted of hiding away in a room and playing so quietly that nobody else can hear. Does your family know you as a musician? Do you play music at home?
I have a host of instruments and the like in my basement. I head down to the musical workshop regularly, and we sit around and listen to stuff together. I have music friends over occasionally to rehearse. My children both take music lessons (drums and piano), so along with baseball, gymnastics, reading, being nice to eachother, fighting, homework, feeding pets, kicking soccer balls, throwing footballs, music is part of it.
Did you grow up playing songs by your favorite artists, or did your songwriting style evolve from more of the classic art rock/punk ethos of learning by diving right in?
A combination. I learned some hot classic rock riffs by listening to Chuck Berry records in my early 20′s, but my immersion in making my own music came from plunging into the experience with the Moles in rehearsal rooms and pubs in Sydney.
To me, all of the Moles records have an explicitly psychedelic vibe, sonically and lyrically. Everything after the Moles, however, juxtaposes your unusual way with words against relatively straightforward, even spartan (but always interesting) rock or chamber pop arrangements. The result is often just as strange and disorienting. Is there a particular effect you strive for, or is that just how the music and words come out? If there is a desired effect, how much effort goes into trying to create it?
I didn’t come from a music background. There were no musicians in the family. So part of the effect is quite accidental.
However, I did go through a phase in my late 20′s and eraly 30′s where I suppose I was educating myself about the raw materials of arrangement and instruments, investigating the distinction between a ‘song’ and a ‘recording’. I am still in that process.
Much of the music I made that you are referring to was before the digital revolution, so, as I know you’d appreciate, the environment was very different. So that’s one side of it. The other side is that aesthetic decisions are easy to make. Like Mick Jagger said, songwriting/music-making is very ephemeral. A good example of that would be Robert Pollard. He is creative. He writes, he performs, this stuff comes out, and there it is, then he moves on. Robert and I are really very similar in that way. Thats why it was so natural and fun to do the Cosmos record. I just work at a much more elemental pace than Bob.
The Moles (particularly the Australian incarnation) were frequently compared to some of the great Flying Nun-label bands of the eighties. You released a cover of the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience song “Flex” and later mentioned the Verlaines in a Cardinal tune. Did you feel a particular affinity with that scene, or any other?
I felt the closest affinity with FN. They were /are a species of person/musician that I could relate to closely. They were the real progenitor of my thinking about making music myself. My circle of friends in Sydney all agreed. Flying Nun was like the Weimar Berlin of my friends and my own youth.
What music have you been listening to recently? Do you listen to much contemporary music? Do you revisit your own records often? Which are your favorites? Any dogs in the bunch?
I must say I dont listen to a lot of the latest music. I am familiar with and like a few bands from the 90′s and 00′s, Radiohead, and a few others. In truth, my musical inspirations come from books a lot of the time. Books, and TV. I go down to the local public library and buy books at their booksale. A buy a lot of books, shopping-bags full. Then over a long period of time I slowly digest them randomly, not often reading a book in its entirity. That seems to be a catalyst for thinking creatively. I revisit my older tunes, as well as the newer ones, when I have a tour like this one to pay attention to. I like listening to my old records. again, like Mr Pollard notes, thats one of the reasons you become a musician. Sometimes when I hear a song now that I wrote years ago, I understand better what the song was about than when I wrote it. I like the Cardinal albums of course, and I am very fond of the Cosmos album Jar of Jam Ton of Bricks. I kind of like parts of all the records. There arent any dogs of the kind that would need to be put to sleep in the bunch. I kind of like them all for different reasons. Thats a good question though Archie.
You’ve been practicing law in Massachusetts for some time now. Was there ever a time when you tried to earn a living by making records, touring, and being a full-time rock guy?
From ’94 to ’98 I made a substantial amount of money from music. That came mostly from publishing. We bought a modest house in upstate New York with some of the money. I was happy to be able to do that, given the style of music that I make. I regarded that as something of an achievement.
I enjoy my trial practice as much as the music. Each is a holiday from the other. They both involve writing, dealing with words and ideas in a creative way, and finding a way to express those ideas effectively.
Fire Records is set to reissue some of your past work. What’s the lowdown on these releases? Will there be any bonus material? Will we ever get to hear the Moles Peel Session, for instance?
Fire is going to release my entire catalog over the next couple of years. I believe there will be bonus stuff and probably some detailed liner notes to accompany each release. The Moles Peel Session could be in amongst it, as well as a host of other strange things. I’m looking at doing a series of short tours during that time, some of which will be purely Cardinal, some will be Cosmos/Moles/solo mixtures.
The new Cardinal album, Hymns, was recorded with you and the other principle, Eric Matthews, working a few thousand miles away from each other. Cosmos, your collaboration with Robert Pollard, was made under similar circumstances. Presumably, both were solutions to logistical problems, but did you find any unexpected benefits to working that way? Do you enjoy the recording process in general?
I love the recording process. its part of the fabric of my life. Eric and I have a strong sense of what we like and don’t like, for the most part. I had a good helper, Luis Leal, on the Cardinal stuff, who would come over to my place and we would record there. I think an advantage is that I was able to devote a part of my day to recording, and still do other things, like kick a soccer ball with my son, or play cricket or go fishing. This tended to keep things fresh and interesting.
There’s a continuum of musician interest and participation in studio matters, ranging from the “Let me know when you’re done” approach of putting everything in the hands of the producer and engineers, on through the reading-newspapers-in-the-control-room-and-interjecting-when-you-have-some-input style, all the way to the fully hands-on auteur style, with studio staff present essentially as translators and tech support. Where do you fit in when you’re making records?
Excellent question Archie. My role in that can vary greatly. With the Cosmos record I was recording all kinds of things and assembling them before Bob came into it to do his part. With cardinal, this time, I was focused on lyrics, tunes, chords, and vocal and gtr performances. By and large, they were my contributions to the effort. In my time in music, I have covered all of the approaches you have listed. I will probably continue to vary my approach as time goes by.
Similarly, when you’ve collaborated with other musicians like Eric Matthews, Ronald Jones, and Robert Pollard, how has the creative work been distributed? How much leeway do you give your collaborators on your compositions, and how much do you rely on their input?
Collaboration is a fascinating thing. For me, I rarely have a preconception of who should or should not do what. It often will happen naturally. There are an almost infinite number of ways of collaborating on a piece of music, and I like any combination of those. On Hymns, like I said above, my role was mostly to contribute the songs, and to sing them with some acoustic licks. I look forward in the future to any variety of ways of writing and producing records.
Will we be hearing a new Richard Davies album any time soon?
Perhaps. I have a swag of lyrics and many tapes archived in various formats. Some of that may be a Cardinal record, some may be a solo record. At some point there may be a Cosmos record. I don’t have a particular burning desire to have a ‘solo career’ – I like being in bands and contributing that way. But sometimes the songs really only lend themselves to a solo feel.
Thanks again. I look forward to catching the Cardinal set in DC.
It would be great to meet you there Archie!
We’ll see all of you there Tuesday night!