swingset

Dan Melchior interview


illustration by Chris O’Neal

Dan Melchior is an anomaly in the modern music world, even for the underground. As one of the world’s last truly great songwriters, Melchior’s voice grows stronger than ever over a string of recent releases by his “band” Das Menace. His music can’t be neatly partitioned into a narrow genre although one can detect elements of blues, vintage R&B, British psych pop and more recently even brazen experimentalism. His latest solo album, The Backward Path is a journey into the depths of existential dread, mortality and humanity as the record documents aspects of his wife Letha’s ongoing battle with cancer and their lives in the struggle. As their bills pile to the ceiling, unable to work, they have had to rely on the music community for help. As an artist that truly speaks about the world around him in the most honest of ways, The Backward Path is an experience that no other record this year can offer. The best albums are not an escape but a confrontation.

So musically it seemed that when you moved to North Carolina is about when Das Menace started, and that seemed really like a vehicle for your solo work rather than putting a band back together. Can you talk to me how conceptually Das Menace stands out from your other projects?

Well, I just wanted to sort of put a full stop after the whole Broke Revue era and do something more in line with my actual tastes at that time. As you say, there was never a band on those recordings, I just felt that it was a way of introducing a new, freer approach to doing stuff, that didn’t really rely on the input of others. When we first got into this house down here (which stands alone) we immediately realized the potential for doing a lot of things we hadn’t been able to do recording wise in a new york apartment! I already had the basic tracks for the Christmas for the Crows album and when I got here I overdubbed drums, some guitars, etc. – so that it became a much fuller sound. I have stopped using that name now, because I feel the last few releases seem to have got me far enough away from where I was to need to hide behind a fake band name anymore! We’re going right down the rabbit hole now.

Growing up in England I know you had a connection to various American roots styles of music, having moved from New York to North Carolina have you felt the influence of the Southern haze?

Growing up I was really only interested in that music for many years. I still have a very large collection of country blues, early electric blues, old time country etc. in the UK. Moving here (the US) I just gradually got closer to my own identity I suppose. Back in England I really did not enjoy any of the bands that I came into contact with, or saw on TV, so I suppose I was looking for a different universe of some kind, where there was music I would have interest in playing. Truthfully it’s not such a big stretch when you come from the area I come from, as it was basically the area where all that UK blues worship got going. I wasn’t really interested in that though – I was more into Robert Pete Williams, Rev Robert Wilkins, Skip James, Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb – all the more untrammeled stuff. I felt that the whole dark undercurrent of the thing seemed to have been missed, and I wanted to plunge into that. As I say, moving here (particularly NC) I no longer feel the urge to sort of put that ‘mask’ on anymore. I think it’s fine if you don’t question it, if you believe in it – but if you start to feel uncomfortable with playing the part, doing the accent, etc. – it gets very uncomfortable very quickly. My singing has become a lot less emotional/powerful in many ways, but it is also my own real voice – so it has power in that respect.

Over the course of the Das Menace lps the music seemed to become more fractured can you talk about that process from the Daggerman and S-S albums of what that material focused on and the choices in its presentation?

My tastes have changed a great deal, especially since moving to NC. By being in contact with various people like Tom Lax (Siltbreeze) and Graham Lambkin, I’ve learnt about music that I previously had no idea existed. I have always wanted to push my music further, but always felt that there were barriers of some kind around me, and that anytime I got beyond them I was being ‘in-authentic’ or something. But, I now feel the opposite to be true. It’s like the practice of painting. I am only really happy with a painting that to some degree painted itself, I don’t want to know exactly what’s going to happen when I get a paintbrush in my hand – I want accidents to happen, so that I can surprised by the outcome. I’ve now got to the point where I am also doing that with music to some degree.

You had up to this point been known primarily as a songwriter. With your records for Siltbreeze and Kye you moved in post-song realm where lyrics were either non-existent or used in non-traditional ways. After having made so many records of songs, what was it like working without a set structure?

With the Siltbreeze record (‘Assemblage Blues’) I mainly wrote songs, and then dismantled them (although that sounds a bit scientific so ‘detonated’ might be better) I recorded the way I had previously and then just sort of took elements out of the songs until they were barely hanging together, then overdubbed something that seemed to be at odds with the song, and very quickly seemed to become integral to it. I learned a lot by doing that one. ‘Excerpts‘ was like the logical extension of that process – but I did have help with editing and sequencing on that one from Graham, who did an incredible job.

Was making abstract music a reaction to having to deal with absurd situations in other areas of life?

I feel that for me, it was really just breaking down the self imposed barrier I’d made for myself that said ‘you can’t do this kind of thing’ – I mean some reviewers might say I can’t – but the records achieved exactly what I was after musically, and it’s very hard to imagine that I would ever fully step back from that breakthrough. I think it’s much more possible to evoke complicated emotions with less lyric based music, although the contributions of Haley Fohr, C Spencer Yeh, Ela Orleans and Tony Allman on the new record have also helped to bring more of that depth to the lyric based songs I think.

The new album seems like a perfect combination of your more recent abstract work and songwriting. How much of a concept was the Backward Path? It seems with the addition of outside musicians you had some things to say that you needed others to help flesh out or did it just evolve?

Yes, exactly. I wanted to do a record that was a pretty straight split between instrumentals, and songs played on acoustic guitar. When I’d done the basic tracks, I started having the urge to overdub on them, but I knew exactly what I would end up playing, and I really didn’t want to be as in control of the songs as that. So, I reached out to people whose work I admire, and got them to record tracks that could then be mixed into the final tracks. I think it worked out extremely well. There are moments on there that I would never have been able to achieve alone.

Can you speak a bit on the song “The Night Comes In”? It’s a beautiful ballad. What were the circumstances of its creation?

Well, as you know my wife Letha has been battling cancer for a while now, and a number of the songs on the record address that pretty directly. I wrote most of the songs at a time when she was stuck in the hospital undergoing treatment, and ‘The Night Comes In’ was just about the time when everything slows down and you are getting ready to get some sleep. At very stressful times that sleep can feel like a very wonderful thing!

The new record deals with themes of existential dread based on true-life themes. You’ve always been a writer to cull from personal experience as well as add social commentary but has your songwriting changed to speak to these issues?

Well, I didn’t want to be as snide as usual! The situation I find myself in is very difficult, but I didn’t want to shy away from it, or bury it in some fake bravado as a way of denying the effect the events are having on me. I wanted to be a bit more ‘heart on sleeve’. I think Haley’s backing vocals are one of the factors that really allow that aspect of things to come through, because it’s almost like they draw the sorrow/pain (fun stuff!) out of the lyrics, in a very beguiling way.

On a more general note in regards to the art of songwriting, having written songs for so many years and making a body of work for yourself, what continues to motivate you? What makes for a perfect song?

As far as motivation goes, I think I just want to surprise myself. As far as perfect songs go, I have no idea. I feel at this stage that I’m very removed from trying to write those kinds of songs. I mean, for me, however corny it may sound, I think of certain Beatles songs as being as close to perfect as I can imagine (in that kind of campfire acoustic mold) but that is achieved from a craft man-ship approach, and I feel that what I do is almost the opposite of that. It’s more like ‘first chord, best chord’. I used to labor over chord changes, and phrases a lot more in the past, but I found that a much more spontaneous approach seemed to achieve pretty much the same results (or at least a slightly less fussy version of the same) and that is the way I’ve been working for quite a while. I like some better than others, obviously, but I feel all my stuff is a bit of a mess, and I like it that way.

What plans do you have for future musical projects in the works? Any future collaborations we can look forward to?

Well, I already have records in people’s hands ready for release (big surprise!) and they will emerge next year. Letha and I did a record together called ‘The Heron’ which will come out in a very limited edition on Limited Appeal records next year. A lot of the ‘songs’ on that one are in the same vein as the ‘excerpts’ material, but Letha reads excerpts from the book I am trying to write (that Swingset printed an excerpt from!) over the top of the music. She was feeling a bit under the weather at the time, so the reading is a bit stilted, and she stumbles on her words and stuff, but I think it gives it a much nicer feel than if it had all been done perfectly. It’s an interesting record! I should also mention a collaboration I did with Russell from the Pheromoans, and Letha (on clarinet), which goes under the band name ‘The Lloyd Pack’. Russell does all the vocals on that one, and wrote all the lyrics. I took his spoken word things from a cassette tape, and put music to them here. A 5-track e.p will be coming out any day now on Siltbreeze.

 

Those who wish to contribute to Letha’s cancer fund can do so here. Please donate if you can. http://melchiorfund.blogspot.com

 

by STEVE LOWENTHAL on 10/23/2012 in Features, Interviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,