John Davis knows a lot about music. After fifteen years of playing in bands and a lifetime of concentrated fandom, it’s a subject that he’s well-versed and seasoned in discussing. It comes as little surprise, then, that the simplest of questions can produce long, thoughtful responses; responses that meander beyond the initial topic, but only in a way that anticipates and eliminates any need for a follow-up. But before we can get to the business of discussing music and, more specifically, his latest project, Paint Branch, he needs to bring his daughter home.
When I call Davis a few days ago, I catch him in the car with a raucous eight-month-old. Her attention-getting skills are something that I can not hope to compete with. “She’s a loud one,” Davis tells me when we reconnect later. The birth of this child – his first – and the completion of a Master’s degree combined to create what was a somewhat sleepy 2012 for Davis, at least outwardly, at least for someone who has displayed a creative restlessness over the years, through bands past (Georgie James, Q and Not U) and present (Title Tracks). But that “sort of quiet” year closed with the eagerly anticipated announcement of a debut record with Paint Branch, his first collaboration with Chris Richards since the dissolution of the beloved Q and Not U.
That record, I Wanna Live, is a beautiful, understated thing. It sounds like the work of two musicians comfortable in their own skin, celebrating the ornate and ambling singer-songwriter tradition of the 1970s, even if that’s something that’s long since fallen out of vogue. It was released digitally by the band yesterday, and you can listen to it for yourself on Paint Branch’s Bandcamp page now. In his conversation with BYT, Davis discussed how he and Richards reconnected musically, their expectations for the project, and how a couple of punk rock kids came to love – and be inspired by – country music. The two will perform songs from I Wanna Live when they make an appearance at Red Onion Records on Saturday.
How is fatherhood treating you?
It’s great. It’s a lot of work. Things definitely change, but it’s been great. She’s really cool and she’s changed so much, even in just these eight months. Every day she does something different. She’s starting to do really early talking stuff right now. I’m really excited to be able to communicate with her more than we do now. I’m also trying to enjoy what it’s like now, because things change really quickly.
Are there any plans to leave home and tour?
Right now, no, but I would expect to again in the future, though probably not with Paint Branch. I think Title Tracks will tour again in some capacity. Touring is a lot more difficult than it used to be. Obviously, the family stuff makes it undesirable to leave town for a long block of time for questionable results. You never know with a tour what you’re gonna get: It could be great, it could bad, it could be somewhere in between. I don’t know exactly where we’ll tour or when or for how long. I’m going to play music my whole life, so I definitely expect to tour the U.S. more and go back to Europe and do all those kinds of things again, but not in the immediate future.
With Paint Branch, we really don’t intend to play too many shows. Part of our ethos from the beginning has been to be really laid back with the whole project and just enjoy it and work on music and try to enjoy the recording process and perform. We’ve done a couple of random acoustic shows over the last year and we’re doing another one this weekend. We are preparing a full live band to play some shows later this year. We’ll play DC and maybe a little bit outside of DC, but not too actively; at least, that’s how it is at this point. We’ve done this for a pretty long time in a lot of the traditional ways, so we’re excited about the new ways that you can promote music without having to tour. As much as I love playing music every night, touring is just really expensive. It’s hard to tour and not be irresponsible about it, because it is often a money loser. We’re just kind of doing Paint Branch as a fun thing.
Is the decision to digitally release I Wanna Live yourselves a reflection of that?
It’s connected to what I was saying before, about not going through the whole dance that pretty much every band that I’ve been in has had to go through, which is, “Let’s try to find a label, and send [our record] out to places!” and “Come on up to New York and play for us!” or “I’ll see you at SXSW!” or “Come play in L.A.” There’s all that sort of stuff that you have to do, but it just didn’t seem worth it to us. Chris and I are both in places in our life where we don’t need to make this a living. I have been trying to play music for a living basically since I got out of school, so it’s been a nice break to form a band like Paint Branch, where it’s purely for the sake of making music and working on a project together.
Chris and I have been friends for a really long time – 18 years, I think. Removing all of those external pressures has helped keep it enjoyable and fun, and that’s a huge part of what this is about: writing songs and enjoying doing it and not feeling any pressure. Plus, like I said earlier, we’re probably not going to tour at all, and I know most record labels, understandably, would like for their bands to tour. Rather than go through all of that, we figured that if anyone was interested in working with us, they’ll know where to find us and they can come talk to us, but, in the meantime, we don’t really care. We’re just going to put out this record ourselves, get it out to our friends and to people who might be interested, and promote it as best that we can using all these amazing new tools that really weren’t there ten or fifteen years ago, when we started making music. We’ll see what happens. The main thing is that we just want to write songs and get them out there to people with as few barriers as possible. We thought that releasing it ourselves digitally was the best way to stay true to the ethos within our band of keeping it low key and fun.
What was the conversation like when you and Chris decided to start working together again? Were there certain touchstones or directions that were discussed?
There was some talk in the beginning of musical touchstones. Q and Not U, our old band, broke up in 2005, so we hadn’t worked on music together for five or six years, until we started working on this again. I remember that we were on a road trip up to a great record store in Pittsburgh called Jerry’s. A whole group of us had gone up there for the day to buy records and hang out in Pittsburgh. On that trip, we were listening to a lot of country music or something like that and Chris said to me, “If you ever want to start that country band, let me know.” At that point, we had not talked at all about playing music together again, but I said, “Yeah, well, you know I love this music. We should get together and work on it one of these days.” He had a number of parts of songs that had been laying around for two years and, at the very end of 2010, when we first got together, he brought the stuff that he had and we just started putting them together.
For as long we’ve known each other, it’s been like, “Check out this song from so and so. Isn’t the vibe on this great?” So it was like, “Here’s the rhythm vibe of Danzig, which actually matches really well with the rhythm vibe of this Graham Nash song, believe it or not.” It was things like that. We talked about all the country music that we liked, and all of the rock music, and that we wanted to make something in the spirit of that. All of those things wound up being mixed in, but, at the same time, it’s Chris and I making these songs, so it’s also going to be through our filter. It’s not going to sound like Waylon Jennings. It’s not going to sound like [Harry] Nilson. It’s not going to sound like Danzig. It’s just going to be us.
Was country and folk music something that you grew up with or something that came to appreciate later?
I don’t think I came to country until I was maybe in my late teens, early twenties. That was not something that I really grew up listening to. I associated country music with Cannonball Run kind of shit, just that really icky late 70s and 80s country thing that I still have not grown any real fondness for. But somehow along the way I was hearing indie rock and power pop and punk people performing songs that were actually country songs. I heard the Paley Brothers do a version of “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing”, which is a great song of the Browns. I heard Rose Melberg do “Loose Talk” by Buck Owens. I really liked these songs and eventually in my late teens and early twenties, I thought, “You know, I should actually find out who really did these songs originally and check out those records.” So I did. I went and got the Brown records. I got George Jones records, because I liked the Elvis Costello’s covers of his songs. It was really those cover versions by punk and indie rock and power pop people that got me into country music, like fifteen years ago. From there, it sort of blossomed into this extensive love of country music and countrypolitan music from the early ‘60s. I know Chris is a big fan of outlaw country stuff from the 70s, which I like too, but not quite as much as he does. We just really like a lot of that stuff, both of us.
I don’t know if it’s something that Chris listened to when he was younger, but my guess would be probably not. I was definitely raised on Top 40 radio and rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s mostly what I listened to when I was a kid – classic rock and stuff like that. When I was eleven or twelve is when I got into punk and that was obviously a big life-changer [Laughs]. I would say that country or folk music was not something that I was raised on, but it definitely spoke to me and worked its way into my life, and I think the same goes for Chris. We just were feeling that’s what we wanted to explore right now – rock music and country music and folk and whatever it is that the Paint Branch record sounds like.
Your Downed City Rise Tumblr provides some great snap shots of DC’s music scene in the 90s, which was clearly a time and place that you were deeply immersed in. Do you still try to keep up on homegrown music?
Definitely. It’s been difficult this year, because I haven’t had the time to go to shows. I hardly got to see any shows in 2012, not only because of my daughter being born, but also because I’ve been in a Masters program at Catholic University for library science. I just finished that, which has given me more spare time. I’m totally into music in the same way as then, but I can’t go to shows four or five times a week like I used to, nor would I really want to.
I like a lot of what I’ve heard over the last year or two. I like Protect-U. I like Beach Week. I like the Ambulars. Imperial China still makes good records. I could make a full list. Actually, someone asked me for one recently, like, “What’s good in DC now?” It was pretty easy to just rattle off a list of ten or twelve bands. I don’t think I would ever lose touch with that. Even through this past year, when it’s been so hard to much of anything other than family and school, I still feel connected to it. There’s just so much good music here, so many good venues to play at, so many record stores, and just good people.
I think there was a little bit of a crisis of… I don’t know what it was – maybe a year or two ago, there was sort of a lot of talk about how things had changed in DC. I feel that’s something that has really passed. Comparing now to the 90s or 80s is pretty irrelevant, even though I understand the impulse in many ways and had done it myself years ago. There’s so much good stuff here and everyone. You have everything. And it’s something that I want to stay in touch with for as long as I can.
What is the status of Title Tracks? I read you had been working on a covers record.
As soon as I have time, Titles Tracks will resume. It’s been nice to not really have to be worry about it that much. It’s not like there are other musicians who are waiting on me to get it together. I’ve always played with people who are cool with just doing some shows and then someone else steps in and does some other shows. It’s always been flexible in that way, even though I’ve primarily played with the same group of people. I’m not pressured to pick it up right now. But, I will do that again this year. I want to play Title Tracks shows again this year. I’m really excited about it again in a way that had sort of been dampened a bit, just from not taking break ever. It had been so long making albums and touring and playing shows, so this last eight or nine months, where I’ve been hardly able to play, has really rekindled that excitement of performing and working on music. It’s probably pretty easy to predict that I would be excited again after taking a break, but I had just never really taken one.
As far as the covers project goes, it’s something I’ve been working on when I’ve had the time, just recording the stuff myself, and I definitely want to finish it. I thought it would be sort of fun to record all of those songs that we play at shows or even at practice with the various people that have played in the Title Tracks live band over the past three or four years. I intend to finish that. It’s the next thing I’m gonna work on.