I would describe Doveman's music on their debut album, The Acrobat (Swim Slowly Records), as 'minor keys and major locks'. It's sad music that twists its way into the locks and tumblers of your aching heart and neurotic mind. It's blues for the head. It's very nearly indie rock as 'blue' bruises... intellectual bruises that swell out of the sleepless music penned by Thomas Bartlett. Sad songs which are spontaneously distilled by the improvisatory skills of the band, Doveman... and as many of you know... the best songs are sad songs.
Alan Williamson, betterPropaganda contributing writer and mp3 blogger at *Sixeyes, spoke to Doveman's Thomas Bartlett.
betterPropaganda: Is The Acrobat a concept record in any way? Does the title have any significance... why The Acrobat?
Thomas Bartlett: No, it's not a concept record. I called it The Acrobat because I like the word, and I like the image...the old-fashionedness of it, but it's also very gently ironic, since I took it from the chorus of the final song on the record, "Dancing": And I could take her dancing/ But I don't like to dance/ My life reads like a book now/ A Harlequin romance/ The edges hold together/ The center falls flat/ Can't blame it on the weather/ My heart's not an acrobat.
BP: Your music seems carefully constructed, as if great care was taken to achieve just the right notes and the right space between them as well. When contemplating recording a new song, is much time spent on deciding which instruments would best suit the song, or do you already hear the song in it's complete state in your songwriter's mind?
TB: No, I definitely don't hear the song in a complete state in my mind. We work very loosely, and quite quickly, with a lot of improvisation. "Honey," for example, had originally been a mid-tempo, folk-rocky sort of song, and as we were setting up to record, I decided to try it much more slowly and softly... slow and soft, as you've probably noticed, is kind of our default. The take on the record, I think, is actually the first time we'd tried playing it that way.
I don't think about instrumentation or arrangement much as I write, and I don't think of the versions of the songs on the record as definitive in any way, just the way we ended up recording them on that day. When we play live, things can be completely different -- different structures, different tempos, different instrumentation, whatever. I'm glad it sounds so carefully constructed, and I think that's probably because it's just very carefully played, played with a lot of concentration. It helps that everyone in this band has done a lot of improvisation, and been involved in the downtown New York jazz/new music scene.
BP: You said that the songs find shape and form in improvisation with the band, is this an outgrowth of having been part of the Celtic music scene and their 'everyone-join-in' caleighs?
TB: To my ears, there's very little crossover between the Celtic music I've done and Doveman... although I know some people certainly hear a common thread. The improvisatory free-for-all that is this band has more to do with having assembled a group of musicians whose instincts I trust so implicitly that I don't feel much of a need to direct them--and also the way that our collective experience leans towards loose structures and improvisation, and the experimental scene in general. Sam (Amidon) is very involved in free improvising, as is Shahzad (Ismaily) -- he plays with Marc Ribot, Butch Morris, Nels Cline and many others, Jake (Danziger) does a lot of more minimalist electronic music and improvisation, Peter (Ecklund) is primarily a swing trumpeter... and actually, dixieland and swing, with all those horns improvising together, simultaneously, around those loose tune structures, is very conceptually linked to what we're doing in this band, I think... and Dougie (Bowne) was the drummer of choice of the downtown scene in the 90's, so he did much, much improvising, with the Lounge Lizards, Marc Ribot, Arto Lindsay, David Murray, etc.
The background of all these musicians kind of links this band, in my mind, to two other rock bands that have, like us, very much grown out of the downtown New York improvisatory scene that's based around Tonic... and used to be based around the Knitting Factory...not coincidentally two bands that I play in... Elysian Fields and Chocolate Genius.
BP: You have a new record on the way, what stage are you at in putting together the album, will it be self-released or have you found a label?
TB: The Acrobat will be released on July 26th by Swim Slowly Records, a small label owned and run by Ryland Bouchard, who has a wonderful band called The Robot Ate Me.
BP: Melancholia permeates your music, aided, not a little bit, by your voice, a cool-to-the-touch blue whisper. It's fairly easy to listen to a singer and rattle off other singers they resemble--although I find it interesting to know who the singer is in awe of, who they tried to sound like when they began singing? Or perhaps whom they 'think' they sound like?
TB: I definitely wasn't trying to sound like anyone particular when I started singing -- I was too focused on getting a sound out, which was tremendously difficult for me. I'd had a real complex about singing, and had always completely refused to do it at all, just a really intense self-consciousness about it. But I knew I wanted to write songs, and eventually just forced myself to do it. My voice, as you've heard it, is pretty much what came out when I very tentatively first tried singing.
Vocalists I'm in awe of: Billie Holiday, Al Green, Chan Marshall. Vocalist I (flatter myself to) think I sound like: Nick Drake.
BP: I understand that you got your foot in the 'musical' door, so to speak, playing for a funeral parlor. Did this experience give you a different view of how music can comfort people... of how powerful music can be? How old were you at the time?
TB: Oh, not a funeral parlor, I was just asked a number of times to play solo piano pieces at funerals for friends of my family's. I'm not exactly sure when the first time was...probably when I was 10 or 11.
I already had a pretty strong sense of how powerful music could be at that point, just because it's always been such a powerful thing in my life.
BP: I read that the band had dubbed the Doveman sound as, "Insomnia pop". Was that done with a winking eye or do you feel that's as apt a description as any? And I'm wondering, because of the name, if insomnia afflicts any of the band members?
TB: Oh yes, I have pretty bad insomnia, and much of my lyric writing happens while I'm lying there, trying to go to sleep. I guess it does seem like as apt a description as any -- which is to say, not very apt. It's pretty difficult to come up with a one or two word description of music that actually tells you anything...but it's always demanded that you have one. That's why we like both "lamp rock" and "insomnia pop." They both sound nice, they both at least hint at something we hear in the music, but they're also completely vague and non-descriptive.
BP: I like that term, "lamp rock". Well, now I know where you got "insomnia pop", now how does "lamp rock" fit in?
TB: We always perform with a floor lamp onstage (and usually no other lighting). My performance lamp, I call it. I like it to feel cozy, to feel like a living room. I'm into coziness. For a while, I considered calling the record "Doveman vs. the Anticoze"... the anticoze is a bit of personal mythology, just the force of uncoziness in the world.
BP: When it came time to record The Acrobat, did the band do any rehearsing before entering the studio, or did they know the songs by that time? Also, with Doveman relying heavily on improvisation, were you ever afraid that the next version might be the best, but settled on what was already on tape due to time constraints? I guess I should ask if there were any time constraints?
TB:We don't rehearse very much at all. For most shows, we'll have at most one rehearsal, often without the whole band. I don't think we did any rehearsing specifically for the record, just went in and recorded, quite quickly too...we did all the basic tracks live in two days.
There weren't any real time constraints, I just like to work quickly. I find I rarely make things better by spending a whole lot of time on them.
And yes, I think it's always a worry that the next version could be better than the one you've settled on, but this just isn't the kind of record where we were concerned with that. I have no doubt that we'll make a detailed, obsessively perfectionist record at some point in the future. Every member of this band has that in them--and works that way sometimes in other projects, but we were just excited to be playing together when we made The Acrobat, and excited by the feel we were getting, and didn't worry very much about messing with it.
BP: Playing carefully, or with concentration, seems very important to you and I am wondering why? Is it your grounding in classical music?
TB: Well, I worked for a while with a really amazing teacher in London, Maria Curcio, and she taught me many things, but really emphasized the importance of focus, of playing with complete intensity at all times. She'd make me hear the most minute differences in tone, make me listen at a more detailed, fine-tuned level than I ever had before.
But it's not just from classical music, it's a lesson I've learned, in some way, from every musician I've ever admired. Dougie, who I admired hugely long before meeting and playing with him, plays with a single-minded intensity that is really dazzling. So does Marc Ribot, so does Martin Hayes, so does Keith Jarrett, so did Arthur Schnabel, etc. Those are all musicians with really amazing technique, but there are also people who are far more limited -- Abdullah Ibrahim, Chan Marshall, Chris Whitley are some examples -- who render those limitations meaningless by virtue of the kind of focus they bring to the music they play.
BP: You employ Sam Amidons's banjo skills in many songs, but the banjo has, for me, such an 'up' or bright tone, almost jaunty--how do you see a banjo sound fitting into your self-described sad songs? I mean, is it there to relieve the blue tones or as contrast to emphasis them... or do you just love the sound of a banjo?
TB: It's interesting that the banjo has a jaunty feel to you, because that's not really my association with it...I think more of Dock Boggs, or some of the players on the amazing "Black Banjo Songsters" that Folkways put out, where it has a pretty dark feel.
There are a number of reasons that I like using the banjo in this band. First really is that I love the banjo, and also think that it's often not used to its potential -- too often you hear it as just a lazy country or "hoedown" signal in the music. With only a few exceptions, like "Walk On", we're using the banjo pretty far out of the folk/bluegrass sort of mode you'd normally hear it in. I like the droney possibilities of it... particularly the way we use it on Boy + Angel to build up a kind of Velvet Underground-y wall. I like that we use it in a similar role that many other bands use an acoustic guitar, just because it's a less simply pretty sound than the acoustic guitar, it has a little more bite, a little more strangeness. And I like there being limitations to what we can do in this band -- my voice, after all, is seriously limited. Sam has a great deal of facility on the violin, and not nearly as much on the banjo. But he's a fabulous musician on any instrument, and not having that easy facility makes him... makes all of us... play more carefully.
BP: Finally, Thomas, what does the coming summer and the rest of the year hold for you and the band, Doveman?
TB: I'll be doing a lot of playing and some touring with a few different bands over the next while -- I'm still working out what shows to do at this point, but I know I'll be doing some stuff soon with Elysian Fields, with Chocolate Genius, and with Miho Hatori (from Cibo Matto). We're all pretty busy with things -- Dougie is producing some records, Shahzad is constantly touring and playing with different people, Sam is booked pretty much all summer doing folk festivals -- which is great, but it also means that none of us have much time to spend on getting Doveman off the ground from a business perspective. Ideally, we'd love to do some touring as an opening act in late summer or in the fall, but we don't really have any leads on that yet. We are, though, probably going to do at least a short tour in the fall with The Robot Ate Me.