Dan Melchior got set up. He’s playing along, but he clearly realizes the absurdity of the trap he’s fallen into. We’re sitting in comfy faux-antique chairs in the gelded heart of DC homogenization and sipping tea made out of bags, BAGS, while a photographer takes his picture.
Watch out, he’s British!
He might drop an adorable witticism or entire consonant any minute!
His musical career has been spent avoiding this kind of hype. From his attention-ducking role in Holly Golightly’s band to his early collaborations with Billy Childish, he jumped the early 2000’s garage-rock explosion by several years. But once he moved to the US, to New York—the heart of the suddenly fashionable world of bowlcuts and Farfisas—he couldn’t deal with the pretension and lack of musical innovation that seemed to be the zipline to success. The louder dirty blues music he was making with a full band started to bore him, so he moved his wife and home studio to Durham, North Carolina, where, as he says, “the people in the music scene could barely fill this room,” and he started making records by himself. As he speaks he waves at the tiny backroom, the chairs, the photographer, his wife Letha sitting across the way who occasionally chimes in with corrections when he gets too modest about one aspect of his art or another. She says his paintings will hopefully be displayed somewhere in Durham soon. He needs a cheerleader, maybe, since his brain seems to be focused solely on producing the art, on record or canvas or written in a notebook, not on the marketing that sends the art to the audience. I wonder if a musician can exist like this without devolving into self-indulgence, but as we talk about the state of music in the latter part of the century I get the sense that being a curmudgeon is more like a matter of self-preservation. You don’t need a scene, or a hype machine, to make the individualist personal music that Melchior loves and embodies, any more than the blues musicians he grew up worshipping needed anything more than a couple of strings and a cheap microphone.
BYT: What’s the set-up for the show tonight?
DM: Letha’s playing drums for me…
BYT: She is? She’s never done that before right?
Letha: I learned two weeks ago!
BYT: That’s awesome. It’s just the Black Cat, don’t be nervous. It’s been a while since you’ve been on tour, right?
DM: Here, yeah. I don’t really go on tour anymore. I went to the west coast late last year, for two weeks…went up and down. Seattle to San Diego—and that was about it.
BYT: That’s got to be a luxury now, to go where you want or play these single shows.
DM: Yeah well when you start playing all the time it just gets, I dunno. I did that with the Broke Revue. It takes a lot of the fun out of it, you start worrying about how much money you’re going to make, are you going to cover this or cover that. Where I live now it’s a lot easier to do that then where I was in New York. Going on tour from New York is like financial suicide. I enjoy doing it in short bursts, no more that four gigs. You do get better, the band…
BYT: But you think it loses some of its spontaneity?
DM: Well I just bored really. I’ve got a pretty short attention span I suppose. It must be why I write so many songs. Although some songs you play for so long you start to like them again. But I don’t really want to think of it like a job. It’s supposed to be creative; do you know what I mean?
BYT: Are there specific songs of yours, or albums, that you refuse to touch?
DM: Yeah some of the stuff I did for In The Red, (Heavy Dirt and Bitterness, Spite, Rage, and Scorn) because that’s when I was playing the most…Some albums I don’t play a single song off.
BYT: Like what?
DM: An album called Hello I’m Dan Melchior, which I like, I’ve never played live. At the time I wasn’t playing shows, and by the time I started playing shows afterwards, I done maybe two more records so it had sort of gone in the background.
BYT: Is it a blessing or a curse having that much material to draw from?
DM: Well sometime you do have trouble knowing what people are going to want to hear. Some songs are just not live songs; I mean they just don’t work that way. Especially when you’ve done something special with the recording, those kinds of songs are hard to do. It’s better to play things that are more direct, since they don’t rely on sound or some incredible mixing job. I mean, this place, they’ve got a decent sound system and a good sound man but when your out in the middle of nowhere and you don’t even have a monitor, you don’t really want to be doing something super ambitious—its probably just going to fall flat.
BYT: On this mini-tour (here and New York this week) are you going to play songs that reflect the new direction you’ve been going in musically?
DM: A good half of it maybe even three-quarters of it are the new stuff. The name is now Und Das Menace, which so far no-one else has been in it. It’s funny though, when Letha plays the drums it sounds more like the records, since I’m not a drummer. It’s not as bombastic, it’s more stripped down, but when the drums aren’t as full on Keith Moon you have a lot more room, more space, so you can hear the lyrics and stuff like that.
BYT: The new stuff has a wider variety of instruments that you’d hear in so-called garage rock, broken drum machines and keyboards and electronics…
DM: Yeah it has a lot more layers, in some ways. It’s kind of a recording project in a way. It was me leaning to use Pro-tools. It’s funny because people always assume it was recorded on some incredibly vintage tape-recorder, but it’s all done on the computer. It’s funny that you say so-called garage rock. I don’t really think about garage rock. I’ve never even considered that term. People who like me think that’s what I do, so, I can’t really tell them what’s happening.
He feels more in common with bands featured in a series of British re-releases of late 70s DIY punk called Messthetics, (http://www.hyped2death.com/) particularly people like the Desperate Bicycles and the Homosexuals. Mostly home recorded at weird angles and with raw over-educated lyrics like “I am the product, I use the product, I hate the product,” Melchior didn’t even know anything about the reemerging style until someone mentioned that his newer, less blues-oriented music reminded them of it. Since then he’s felt a kinship with these kids from 30 years ago.
DM: It’s post punk, but not in the style of Siouxie and the Banshees or Gang of Four. It’s very unbounded, not stuck in rock-and-roll ideas.
I mention the New Zealand lo-fi pop bands of the mid-80s like Tall Dwarfs, and he agrees with the comparison.
DM: The aesthetics of that I really like too, people treating music as kind of like an adventure. You don’t need someone telling you to give it this or that to grant it validity.
Our conversation turns to the current post-Stokes rock era. I feel like bands have a chance now to be really weird and radical in rock music, now that the hipsters have moved on from their Stones-aping to different tactics. Apparently there’s a whole crop of bands recently that are using home technology to create the same tuneful but unsettling space that he’s been aiming for.
DM: Have you heard Psychedelic Horseshit?
BYT: (Laughs) Are you pulling my chain? That sounds like a made up name. [They exist! http://www.myspace.com/psychedelichorseshit ]
DM: No, they’re great. They’re from Columbus OH. Their album is great. There’s one called Pink Reason, and a band from San Francisco called Sic Alps. They’re not all the same but…I feel like when I first came over I would play one night after the other with these bands that were influenced by this 1960s idea of garage rock. Super retro super B-movie poster. Crap like that I never had any patience with because I don’t like revivals.
Later at show as I watch a particularly mediocre specimen of this exact phenomenon, I realize I’ve been giving garage bands a pass for years. I’d still rather watch a half-baked version of Pushin Too Hard than any classy indie-rock jerk, but how much mileage can we really pull out of the same gestures, the same polka dots and high-heeled boots? “I like music that’s unhinged,” Melchior says, looking devilish, “and in the early 2000s I kept having to play with these groups like the Delta 72. Bands trying so hard to be authentic…I don’t care if it’s authentic, just if it’s interesting or not.”
Playing right before him is the Hall Monitors, DC’s answer to, well, everything that DC isn’t. They pop. They inspire dancing. They jump around engagingly. They are really really good at what they do, and I have a great time. But I couldn’t tell you what one of their songs was about, besides woah oh-yeah and wearing a suit.
Is it a problem to be part of a genre? Most great bands come out of a community of similar groups, but manage to tweak the constraints of the form to the point that they make the clichés seem new again. The Hall Monitors make exemplary garage-punk, speed and party emphasized over empty style, but I can’t shake the feeling that more is possible, even if it’s unnecessary. With Melchior, especially in the Und Das Menace album, you never have any trouble mistaking his lyrics for anyone else’s. On older songs like “This Is Not the Medway Sound” he used his disdain for the hordes of immaculately coiffed “conceptual artists” at garage shows to get at the universal experience of being an exile in your hometown. But on the newer songs he has only himself and his everyday life as a subject. “I spend my time encased in parks, sniffing drainpipes like a dog…dreams can be so painful and the world can be disdainful of a dreamer,” he says, and the rawness of the emotion clashes deliciously with the Beach Boys harmony. One of my favorites is “On the Ledge,” in which the speaker tries to comfort those who think he’s going to jump: “I’m just looking ’round…trying to remind myself why I’m living in the town,” and where he also presents a clear challenge to every rock writer who is satisfied with Ooh Baby Baby Don’t Be So Mean: “It’s better not to say anything that you can sing.” And vice versa, right? Don’t use your art to make small talk, please. We’ve had enough of that.
Hours earlier, I’m almost done with my tea when we start talking about the Fall. How can anyone imitate their wild flailing jittery technobilly? Yet Melchior feels like his own music and the music of the newest excellent bands he’s been playing with has been directly influenced by the perennial extended ego of Mark E Smith.
DM: We played with them in New York actually. We weren’t allowed to speak with him, not that I would have tried anyway. We weren’t allowed to go in the room or anything.
We swap Fall stories, his first-hand accounts of them threatening to murder a incompetent booking agent jibe with what I’ve heard about Smith’s expert torture of new band members, pushing them to be violently creative, eventually pushing them out of the band when they become complacent. Melchior isn’t a psycho, but his own career follows that uncompromising and standoffish pattern.
When they finally come on, Und Das Menace (the couple and a bass player) sound like they’re emerging from an entirely different plane of existence than the boogie-woogie that came before. Letha’s playing a flipped-up bass drum with a mallet and slapping a snare that’s been covered by a rug, giving the clean bluesy guitar a lot of space to scratch and kick. There’s no blistering solos, or harmonies, or stop-and-start vamping, just dark swampy rock-and-roll anchored by Melchior’s unique nasal snarl. As he’s gotten farther away from the blue-punk that he started with, his voice has gotten more angular and less crooning. He’s started to talk-sing, under-enunciating like Dylan or Beefheart or Leadbelly. I ask him if it’s intentional, but he can’t really answer. He is amazed he can get away with it, but he’s just being Dan.
You don’t exactly choose to become an iconoclast, it’s an evolution that happens to you if you let it. If it weren’t for mutants like Dan Melchior, we wouldn’t have musical species in the first place.
Now he’s engendering a new one. So put that in your pipe, put on your tweed jacket and matching newsboy cap, make a nice hot cuppa, and smoke this shit quick before everyone wants one. Cheers.
all photos: Joel Didriksen (http://www.kingpinphoto.com/)
and Thanks to 14U coffee shop for letting us take over their back room and snap photos and whose tea selection was probably fantastic although we both got English Breakfast.