John Davis, “The Wrong Tree”

Sjimon Gompers

John Davis is back, and up against the bricks. (photo by Walter Cump)

After a decade and a half, please welcome back John Davis as he premieres the psych-swirling sound of “The Wrong Tree”. One half of The Folk Implosion, Davis is prepping his new solo album Spare Parts for release at the end of this month from Shrimper, joined by an army of musicians to support the sound of monster length songs.

Davis presents songs that deal and delve into the cycles of life and natural habitations. “The Wrong Tree” is an ecological allegory of holistic conflicts, where John is joined by the likes of Jose Medales, Megan Siebe, Laura Burhenn, Sarah Gleason, Simon Joyner, and others. Together they fuse a dissonance that takes on an introspective look at life, that bursts into chorus swings of a pagan baptismal revival in the great golden lakes adorned by lady lucky and mother nature herself.

Nature and human nurture are portrayed both at odds and inextricably involved all at the same time all throughout “Tree”. Ripped from headlines, headaches and heartaches, John Davis takes on the giant oil pipeline rigs and the water that nourishes all plants and bark exterior of every tree planted everywhere. Verses ending with cryptic wisdom run through parallel existences like, “the oil that's in the ground will not come back again,” that matches and mixes oil with water on the following section where John sings, “I know you like the water underneath the bridge, but I'm the lemonade that's standing in your fridge.” The songs of beautiful Blue Mountains from 1997 are shifted into a grandiose scale where the interactions between humans and their environments become synthesized into a new kind of chemical compound that is more complex and intricate as ever.

Mr. Davis was incredibly generous, and got decidely deep with us the other afternoon.

How did you go about arranging the song's suite of sitar drone verses and rave up-whirling choruses?

I recorded the basic two tracks of the guitar and vocal without knowing at the time what the arrangement would be. At first I thought of making this record very sparse, just guitar and vocals and strings, some bass, and odds and ends. I had been listening to Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen at that time. Later on, I had gotten more fluid with working with Logic and was having fun with sample libraries I had picked up of ancient pre-synthesizers and also sounds based on modern classical music. There is no sitar or theremin on this song, which is another guess someone else made. The sounds come from bowed piano strings and a keyboard called an Ondes Martenot, which was invented in 1928 and used most famously by Olivier Messaien. I played them on a MIDI keyboard. I had been listening to Messaien pretty obsessively since I read Alex Ross's book The Rest is Noise, and his review of a solo record by Pierre Laurent Aimard called “Hommage a Messaien.”

Once those sounds got added, I wanted drums to feed off the intense volume of the piano strings and Martenot. Luckily, I had found Jose Medles to work with thanks to Brandon Eggleston, the engineer I had hired to mix the record. When I talked to Jose about playing on the record, it turned out he liked a lot of the kinds of creative/exploratory music I love. The intro to the song is probably my favorite 30 seconds on this album, and it was entirely played by Jose. No sampling. When I heard those amazing sounds as an isolated track, I asked Brandon to copy them and paste them on to the start of the song as an intro of 30-45 seconds. I often wish I had made it longer.

As far as the contrast between the verses and the chorus, that was inspired by a song that is much better than this track, Caligari's Mirror by Pere Ubu off Dub Housing. When I talked to Jose about this song, I asked him to do an anthemic rock beat on the chourses and then have it decompose and fall apart back into verses that had no trap kit drums at all the way Scott Krauss did on Caligari's Mirror. I programmed a beat on a drum machine for the chorus and sent it to Jose, but if I had it to do over again, I would have just let him come up with a part on his own. I made a mistake about where I told him to put the open hi-hat. I was off by one beat compared to what I heard in my head. The tempo of the basic guitar track is also inconsistent.

At first I thought of leaving this song off the record for those reasons, but then when I was sequencing it I liked the way the messiness contrasted with the rest of the record. Lyrically it seemed a match with the song being about blasting up and out of a bad relationship or network of relationships and social/political situations. Blasting out is usually a messy process! Once I put this song at the close of the record, second to last, it seemed to lock into place as a departure from a lot of the quagmires that the first eight songs on the record describe. Which also leads well into the next record, which is very different lyrically and musically.

What attracted you to the tree metaphor for this song?

I really don't know where 'The Wrong Tree' as a line came from. I could tell you where a lot of the other lines on the record come from, but not that one. It makes me think now of how people tend to spend a lot of their lives caught up in wanting things that ultimately harm them, but appear very alluring at the time. I also was making a conscious effort when I wrote the lyrics for this record to have the titles stand out as a separate image that was easy to remember or identify, as opposed to things I wrote when I was younger that were more allusive [i.e. 'Spin', 'Southwest', 'Blood Feud', 'Masoch'.]

What are the challenges in conveying the personal fabric through your various approaches to the craft of being a versatile singer-songwriter?

I think a lot of it is actually impersonal, in the sense that the problems or karma the music kneads like dough have their roots in all kinds of events that are part of a larger social fabric. This doesn't mean that it's 'universal' or common knowledge – because people have different positions across the spectrum of that fabric, and no one really understands it entirely. But it is interconnected, which is why people can relate to songs written by others. A lot of the journey of making music to me is about re-contextualizing things you experience as isolating in such a way as to see them from a more connected perspective. That's what's so important about non-mainstream music: you realize there are other people out there with sensibilities that are not rewarded by the profit-principle-on-steroids that drives everything in this society. When you hang out in that space, the 'real/normal' aesthetic and m.o. start to fall apart and reveal their dishonesty. When I first heard underground music in high school, it frightened me at first for that reason. I feel nostalgic for that moment today.

John Davis's Spare Parts will be available October 29 on Shrimper.

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