Daniel Bachman: The Cream Interview

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Daniel Bachman's music expresses a self-sufficiency that is characteristically American — his ferocious steel-string guitar technique is an analog to the rootlessness and sheer forward motion of American life, but Bachman is a musician who is very aware of the pull of his roots. That's not anything to be ashamed of, since it seems like a million young musicians are grappling with the legacy of such 20th century forms as blues, bluegrass and the primitivist anti-folk of John Fahey, and coming up with music that sometimes sits uneasily on the seam between the old and the new. Bachman comes from Virginia, and his latest music mostly dispenses with decorum: It's the sound of a young player shocked into identification with the overlapping styles of high-tension, urban existence. The drones Bachman often uses to begin his pieces suggest movement, not repose.

Bachman has released a new full-length, Seven Pines, and he's been busy elsewhere. Last year's brutally expressionistic Grey-Black-Green was recorded into a boombox, and displays Bachman at his most experimental. Earlier this year, he released Oh Be Joyful on a small Oregon label. Seven Pines and Oh Be Joyful are similar in sound and intent: Bachman employs various drones, over which he fingerpicks his steel-string guitar in relentless fashion. Although his pieces have minimal harmonic motion (as opposed to exemplary forward motion), Bachman has a way with melodies, and if part of the aim of such American guitarists as Fahey and Robbie Basho was to agitate and stimulate the emotions, Bachman most certainly fits into the continuum those players helped to begin.

Born in Fredericksburg, Va., on Nov. 10, 1989, Bachman became interested in guitar after delving into his parents' extensive collection of '60s and '70s folk music. He dropped out of high school when he was 17, becoming enamored of the folk sounds of Fahey, Basho, Sandy Bull and Pentangle. He did his first tour in 2008, and began releasing records under the name Sacred Harp. Moving to Philadelphia for a period, he woodshedded and continued to record and play gigs, and did an ambitious tour of Europe earlier this year. The Cream caught up with Bachman at home in Fredericksburg, where he was getting to ready to play a series of shows with fellow guitarist Mark Fosson. (He, Fosson and Lylas have a Nashville show set for Nov. 28 at the Stone Fox.) Bachman is enthusiastic, and he sounds like he's absorbing the lessons his touring, recording and playing have taught him so far. See the interview below.

Daniel, we've read that your parents were musical, and had a pretty awesome record collection. What sort of things did you discover from their collection, and how did that encourage you to become a musician?

Well, I liked guitar music, but I never really wanted to play guitar, because my dad plays. I played, like, bass, trumpet and banjo a lot in high school and middle school. I got a record player when I was 15 or so, and I just started going through his records. He didn't even remember havin' a lot of them. He was like, "Oh yeah, check that one out," and that's when that [1964] Inventions record, that Sandy Bull record, and I was like, "Whoa." And he had a a lot of [record label] Folkways stuff in his collection from the '60s and '70s. That was kinda what sparked my interest, and then I just kept going forward, I guess.

Did you take guitar lessons?

I took lessons when I was, like, 8. I had this little Stratocaster when I was 8. I took lessons for about a month — it didn't work out. So I never really took lessons or anything, but I knew picking patterns, and just kinda went from there, you know.

What happened when you dropped out of high school? Did you do that in order to concentrate on music?

I dropped out of high school; I was, like, home-schooled. I got an equivalency degree — it's pretty much like a G.E.D. That's a whole 'nother story. That's when I started playing a lot, when I was 17. I got into all the Fahey stuff, and the [Fredericksburg guitarist] Jack Rose stuff around that time, too. It was something I liked more than Pentangle or stuff like that, that my parents had records of. My mom, she liked all the British stuff. When I heard the more contemporary, American stuff, I was like, "Whoa, this is heavy shit."

So, when and where did you start to play in earnest, Daniel?

I played in silly high-school bands. When I started doing this stuff, I never played in Fredericksburg. I played a little more experimental stuff back then, and it was too weird for a lot of the people that would come to shows. So I never even tried. But the first show I played in Philly at my friend's house, and I played a show in D.C. shortly after, and this guy was like, "Hey, let's book a tour," so I booked a tour a couple of months later. It was horrible, but I made it. This was in 2007, 2008.

On Seven Pines, your technique is impressive. It's sometimes hard to tell if you've overdubbed a bit, or if you're just playing really fast. How did you make the record?

I had to multi-track all the drone stuff, layer sounds, but it's all me, for right now. I've played with other people before.

How would you explain Fahey's concept of guitar to people who aren't familiar with his work?

That's a tricky one. The thing I always liked is that it's based on tradition. I like things that have that kind of timeless feel. I listen to a lot of traditional music, and I like it, but I also listen to a lot of things that are really far out. Fahey's music is a really tasteful bridge of those worlds. Especially with Fahey and Basho, and the later Basho records, there's so much emotion in them. That was what really got me: It was strictly emotional music, and you know it's not the blues. There's a lot of anger and frustration in it, but I don't know — it's hard to think about.

What was your last tour of Europe like? We understand it was extensive.

It was absolutely crazy. I somehow convinced my sister to go along with me. I was like, "Hey, if you buy a plane ticket, we'll have meals and a place to stay every night, and all you gotta do is go over there with me." She did, and we made it through — it was a month long, and there were definitely parts where she said, "I think I'm gonna fly home early." But she didn't. It was the most intense traveling I've ever done. Sometimes we had 36-hour trips to get to the show that night. We went to Turkey, and that took forever. That show, it was the most people I've ever played in front of. I don't think they get that many people, especially people from the United States, to play more accessible venues, not festival gigs. I don't know if they fully understood the music, but it was cool, and I think it was pretty well received.

Do you like planning out your performances, or do you prefer the unstructured moment?

I like to leave it as unstructured as possible. I know how to read music, but I don't know how to put that knowledge to a guitar. I don't how to play in standard tuning at all, which sucks, because it makes it impossible for me to jam with people sometimes, for fun. I want to keep doing what I'm doing until it doesn't make sense anymore.

What projects do you have coming up, Daniel?

I'm doing a record soon with my friend who is a clawhammer banjo player, and this girl who plays fiddle. But it's gonna be really loose, traditional music — it's gonna be pretty noisy and weird.

Do you see yourself playing more conventional tunes down the road, going that route?

If I do play with a small group, I think it's gonna be more far out. I totally like sitting around playing old tunes with people, but it's been done, and done better than I can do it.

Finally, what are you listening to right now?

Right now, I'm listening to '70s records, like I'm really beaming in on Gene Clark records. I like this guy named Sean McCann — he makes cool records. I like some of the more electronic guys. I like [guitarist] Bill Orcutt a lot, but I can't listen to him a lot. I can only listen to him in half-hour segments.

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