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GREG DAVIS

In just a little over three years, Greg Davis has become one of the most talked about experimental musicians around. His first album, Arbor, published in 2002 on Carpark Records, introduced his blend of acoustic folk and laptop manipulations, and was promptly followed by Curling Pond Woods, which showed some slightly poppier tones. Yet, the scope of Davis’s work was to expand greatly with his more recent releases, ranging from calm evolving drones to live experimentations, either as a solo artist, or with artists as diverse as Keith Fullerton Whitman, Sebastien Roux or Steven Hess. We took the opportunity of the release of his superb collaboration with Paris-based Roux to catch up with Davis and talk about his already impressive body of work and his many approaches to music and sound.

How did you come to music in the first place?
Music has always been a big part of my life, ever since I can remember as a child. I didn’t really start making my own music until junior high, when I began making primitive hip-hop tracks and writing rhymes with my friends. In high school, I started dabbling around with the guitar and some other instruments, alongside my experiments with turntables, pedals, samplers and four-track recorders.

You studied composition at university, and you also have a degree in Jazz studies. What made you choose these and how do they help you in your work?
For my undergraduate music degree at DePaul University in Chicago, I began playing classical guitar and slowly moved towards jazz guitar and composition. By the end of my degree, I wasn’t playing too much and focused more on composition. Jazz studies happened to be the area that I spent the most time in, so I went for that degree. But I almost failed my senior recital because it wasn’t ‘jazz’ enough. So I was always on the outside of things in music school. Doing new things and experimenting and trying to erase genre constraints and traditions. When I look back on it now, I realize that these were my first steps towards an all inclusive sound-based music / composition. Then I went to the New England Conservatory in Boston and received my master’s degree there in composition. While I was there, I started getting deeper into electronic and computer music, also free improvisation. And I was composing lots of music for various size ensembles as well. Again I was somewhat of an outsider, even though my ideas were hardly new (on a similar axis to Cage or Feldman), it seems that the academic music world hasn’t moved past 1945 yet, in terms of acceptance and inclusion of new musical ideas. Most of my fellow peers and teachers were fairly ignorant about any trends in new music outside of the academic world. This was a bit frustrating, but I still managed to make the most of my time and resources in music school to learn a lot and make it worthwhile. I think that anything and everything you can learn about music and sound will help you out in some way or another. As long as you keep things open and keep exploring then it is a good situation.

Your music is often labelled as ‘folktronica’ or ‘laptop folk’, which hardly sums up your work. How do you react with people putting tags on your music?
People always want music to fit into neat categories so they can explain it easier to others. Personally, I don’t like tags or genre definitions at all. Genres don’t really exist in my world. It’s definitely not something I consider at all when I make my music. If people want to label my music a certain genre, that’s fine, but I think most people would see that, when they hear more of my music, I can’t be placed in one category or another. And this is very important to me. I’d hope that people would consider a larger sound world and be comfortable with that. I’d be happy if everyone just called music – sound or universe music maybe. That’d make things a lot easier and then we could get on to the important act of just listening.

How did you get to work with Carpark Records?
I met Todd Hyman in New York at Brownies when Parallel, my duo with Don Mennerich, played there. I was working on finishing up my first solo album at the time, Arbor. So when I was finished with it, I sent it to Todd. I didn’t hear back from him for quite some time and I was ready to release Arbor on my own. But then Todd called up and said he liked the record and wanted to release it. We’ve been working together every since then.

On your second album, you covered a song by the Beach Boys and another by The Incredible String Bands. Did these bands particularly influence your approach to music, and who else has influenced or influences you?
On Curling Pond Woods, I definitely was trying to bring in more song structures and ideas into the overall flow. I had recorded a cover of the Beach Boys’ At My Window for a Japanese compilation. It was sort of an experiment and one of my first attempts at recording my own singing. I liked the way that it turned out so I decided early on that I would include it on my second album. Then as I was working on Curling Pond Woods, I decided that I wanted some other tracks with vocals to balance out the Beach Boys song. So I opened the album with an a cappella piece, and closed it with the Incredible String Band song Air. Both of these bands have been very inspirational to me and covering their songs is my homage or thanks to them. Because I like so many different kinds of music, ranging all over the place. I tend not to let one band or type of music influence my sound. It usually ends up being a broad synthesis of inspirations and sounds. This is my way of opening things up and getting at a wider definition of sound and music. So everything I listen to, from the leaves blowing across the sidewalk to the Cosmic Jokers to Colin Blunstone to Scientist to John Cage to Zen chants to Eliane Radigue to Human League to Genesis to Robbie Basho to… is very important and inspirational to me.

Somnia collected recordings made over a long period of time if I am correct. Why did you wait to put these tracks out?
The Somnia pieces were collected from approximately 1999-2004. These were instrument-based drone pieces that I’d been working on alongside of my other music. Eventually I had enough pieces to make an album, so I compiled them all together and they all worked together in vibe and concept. After I moved to Chicago, I got to know Bruce and Joel at Kranky a bit better and after I had compiled all of these tracks onto a CD, I gave them a copy to check out. I wasn’t really expecting much, but they really liked the pieces and wanted to put it out. So it went from there. I’m glad that Somnia came out when it did because it was one of my first major releases to showcase a different side of what I do musically. I’m currently in the beginning stages of working on my next solo full-length record for Kranky.

You seem to enjoy collaborating with a wide range of artists. What is it about collaborations? Do you approach these in similar way to your solo work?
I really like collaborating with others. This is something I’ve been exploring a lot over the past couple of years. With a collaboration, it’s a looser space to work in. all of the pressure / responsibility / decisions aren’t on yourself so you can be freer to try new things and trust the music and go with it wherever it wants to go. Most of my collaborations are improvised or spontaneous music which is quite different from how I work as a solo musician at home in the recording studio. My new CD with Sebastien Roux was approached in more of a studio direction, so it’s closer to my working methods as a solo artist. I think this was my first successful collaboration working in this way. We are both really happy with the results.

You regularly play with Keith Fullerton Whitman and Carpak released Yearlong earlier this year, which collects recordings of you two playing live in a variety of places. How did you two meet and would you ever consider working on an album with him?
We met in Boston shortly after I had moved there to go to graduate school in 1999. We got along well because of our backgrounds in music and our shared interest in all types of music. I always enjoy working with Keith and making music with him. I look forward to working with him again. We have some trio material with Ben Vida from our April tour last year that we will eventually work into a sonic psychedelic love tapestry for release at some point. And I do hope that Keith and I get the opportunity to play as an improvising duo more because I think we’ve really only scratched the surface as far as what kind of music we can get into together. I think there is a lot of potential there and we are always exploring and moving into different places, which would keep the duo rich and evolving.

Longbox recently released your collaboration with drummer and percussionist Steven Hess, Decisions, which collects a series of improvisations from him that you consequently processed. How was it to work from percussions, and are you planning any more work with Steven?
Decisions was all recorded in real-time with Steve playing drums or percussion and myself processing those sounds in real-time through my computer. It was great to work from a relatively limited sound palette and see how much variety of sounds and spaces and vibes and textures I could get after processing the sound. And the processed sounds would inspire and affect what Steve was playing so it was a nice real-time communication and feedback loop. We actually have a second album that we recorded that is just sitting on the shelf. So if the right label comes along, we might release that at some point. But we don’t have any plans at the moment to record any new material.

The press release for Paquet Surprise mentioned that you and Sebastien Roux worked on the album by exchanging music files over the Internet. Is this a process that you often use?
This is the first time I've ever really worked this way on a collaboration before, sending files back and forth over the Internet. All of my previous collaborations have been in real-time and in person.

How did each one of you actually work on the album?
We each composed bits and parts and sent them back and forth. Then we would add parts on top of the other parts or process them or edit them. We really treated all of the parts and sounds as flexible material that could be shaped into songs and pieces of music. The main idea was to try to continually surprise each other with what we were doing, to keep things fresh and evolving and challenging and moving in new directions. This kept the collaboration very exciting, I couldn’t wait to hear what Sebastien would send me next so I could try to add something to it and surprise him with the new version. Sebastien has a real gift with sound processing so his technique really shaped the record and gave it a certain character, which I couldn’t have gotten by myself. And I think that I brought a wide array of sounds and instruments into the mix. So the two of us complemented each other really well in that respect. It allowed me to get away from the computer and processing and focus more on sounds and arrangements and compositional ideas instead which was very refreshing and satisfying for me.

Do you have any more collaborative work to be released, and is there anyone in particular you would like to work with?
I have many collaborations in the works. Recently I went on tour with David Daniell and Tomas Korber. We hope to put something together from the live recordings we made. There is the aforementioned live recording collage of myself with Keith Whitman and Ben Vida. Ben and I are working on a bunch of duo studio material together. Jeph Jerman and I continue to record together at least once a year. Jeph, Al Casais and myself are finishing up some mail collaborations. And I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but I’m definitely continuing to collaborate with others and I’m always open to it.

Beside your major releases, on Carpark, Kranky and other labels, you also regularly release CD-Rs on your own label, Autumn Records. Did you set up the label as a mean to publish all your extra work?
I haven’t really released too much of my own music on autumn records. There were a few early EPs and things on CD-Rs, but that was long before my first record on Carpark. There is one 7” which is a split between Don Mennerich and myself. And then I have a few things in the Leaves CD-Rs series as well. Most of my ‘extra work’ ends up going out to various labels and compilations and whatnot. I’d prefer other folks to release my music. I don’t really have the time or the resources to run a serious and successful label. Autumn Records is just a fun little hobby for me.

The Leaves series of CD-Rs released on Autumn Records focuses on ‘pure field recording and environmental improvisation’. How did the idea come up?
Around 1999-2000, I started to become pretty serious about field recording. Autumn Records was going through a lull for some time where I didn’t release anything on the label. But after I moved back to Chicago in 2002 I got the idea to start releasing CD-Rs again. I thought it would be a good idea to focus on pure field recordings, as there aren’t too many labels that really focus on that area. And it was a natural extension of my interest in field recording. Also, by that time I had met a lot of other musicians and artists that we also interested in field recordings. I’ve been very happy with the series. It has done well and carved its own little niche. And I’ve received a lot of great music for the series. It’s nice to keep my label going by moving back to CD-Rs. That way I can make handmade CD-Rs and press them up as needed and make a lot of releases. The Leaves series is on release # 19 and there are a few new ones in the works as well. I intend to keep it going as long as I’m interested in it and as long as there is interest from others.

You regularly play live. Is the way you approach live performances very different from your studio work?
I approach my live shows in a very different way than I work in the studio. This is for obvious reasons. In the studio, I often take months of work just to get a track right and spend a lot of time working on the mix / arrangements / composition / processing / editing / etc… In a live situation you can’t recreate these things. So I’ve always opted to use my live shows as a way to explore real-time improvisations with the computer (either with or without live instruments). For some time, I was treating my studio material as source material for my live sets. Kind of a springboard to develop, explore and mutate the studio material and craft that into a long flowing live piece of music. More recently, I’ve been working a lot more with live instruments and trying to rely a little less on the computer. I’ve been trying to create entirely unique live sets so that from night to night they are completely different and non repeatable. Also something that cannot be heard on any of my records. This is one of the reasons why I started offering recordings of my live sets for free on archive.org because I consider my live sets to be just as an important part of my discography as my studio albums are.

You released a CD-R on Room40 a while ago, which was an edit of a solo harmonium and laptop set in Brisbane with John Chantler. How did you meet, and how did the Room40 release come up?
The Brisbane show happened when I was invited down to Australia last year to play at the Sound Summit Festival. I figured while I was down there that I should try to play some other shows as well, so Lawrence English (owner of Room40) set up a show in Brisbane for me. It turned out that John was also back in Brisbane at the time so he opened for me at that show. That was the first time I met John and Lawrence. It was a great little show in a nice space. I borrowed Lawrence’s cheap harmonium for the show and I think I used John’s guitar for the first half of my set too. It was a completely improvised set. The recording turned out really nice and Lawrence asked to put it out as a limited edition 3” CD-R on Room40. I will be returning to Australia in August to spend some time with Lawrence and play some shows again. I’m really looking forward to it.

Your first two albums combined folk guitars, found sounds and electronics, but since, most of your major releases have seen you explore a far wider musical scope. What is your next record going to be like?
My next recordings will continue to encompass a wide variety of sounds. I’m working on an all-acoustic EP (no computers!) for the Norwegian Melektronikk label. I’ve started working on my next Kranky album, which will also be entirely acoustic. My collaborations with Jeph Jerman are created entirely from natural materials. And I have many many other projects in the works as well. Recently, it seems that my music is moving away from the computer a bit and focusing more on instruments and arrangements and composition and spaces and vibe. I never know where I’ll be at musically in the future. It’s impossible for me to predict. I just record every day and keep working on a wide variety of projects all the time.

Are you planning to tour in Europe soon?
I’m hoping to tour Europe with Sebastien, perhaps in the spring or early summer 2006.

What’s next in your diary?
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desire out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.


Love and peace,
Greg Davis
Burlington, Vermont
December 4th 2005

Thank you to Greg Davis annd Todd Hyman

Discuss this in the forum

Reviews
11'05
Paquet Surprise
09'05
Decisions
05'05
Yearlong
02'05
Somnia
05'04
Curling Pond Woods
02'02
Arbor

THE SURFER'S GUIDE TO GREG DAVIS
Carpark Records
Autumn Records
Kranky
Archive.org

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