Monday, September 12, 2016

An Interview! With Dan Melchior.

Many of the interviews featured on this site shine a light on newer artists, and given how easy it is to release music online and how difficult it is to find a gem among all those new releases, the focus on what is current partly serves to help sift through the proverbial slush pile. But it's a real joy to be able to highlight a longtime favorite, and it's been a pleasure getting to know Dan Melchior. Dan is a part-time painter, and more famously, a full-time musician who essentially plays blues in all forms. He's proven himself a witty and honest lyricist, as well as a skilled guitarist, and he releases more music in a year than many artists release in the span of a career. 

He recently returned to Durham, North Carolina, where he'd previously lived with late wife Letha Rodman Melchior, and kindly spent some time chatting about some of his work old and new. We only made it through a small ratio of his output, of course.

Choir Croak Out Them Goodies: How's the day going?

Dan Melchior: Not bad! A bit hungover earlier.

CCOTG: Ah, dear! A good yesterday, then. I was going through a couple of old interviews [of yours], and a couple years ago you said you don't like to listen to O, Clouds Unfold!, but years prior you'd said "Sticks Vs. Smoke" off it was your favorite song of yours to date. And separately, that your favorite work was usually the most recent. I think this speaks miles about the way you like what you've done until you can look back on it in hindsight and hope to evolve. It seems you're always very much about moving forward. 

DM: [Moving forward is] my main aim in doing music. I sometimes think I might be a bit too focused on it at times. I was just thinking the other day that I should try and follow up some of my previous ideas a bit more. I don't like O, Clouds Unfold! much because of how weak it sounds. It wasn't recorded well, or mastered well. I wish we had done a better job with it. It sounds puny to me, it is also very clunky in places, as I was just desperately trying to get away from the whole Medway/garage thing. We had just been on tour with a couple of really terrible bands, and it was painful to me to realize that we were thought of as playing a similar type of music to those bands. I became pretty obsessed with breaking out of that perception, and I think I tried far too hard to break out of it – it gets a bit too close to generic indie rock in places. And it is also not a very powerful sounding record. The guy who recorded it really didn't know what he was doing, and it very thin and overly compressed.

CCOTG: Do you have an idea of when it was that you realized you didn't want to be a part of a wider genre? Whether it was finally hearing too much of the same, or otherwise?

DM: I never wanted to. I always thought the Broke Revue stood apart from other bands perceived as being similar. I thought all these subtle little things that we did made us really different, but I was not seeing things from a wider perspective – not realizing how much people like to pigeonhole things, and how little it really matters, ultimately. Sixteen years later, the name Billy Childish still comes up in reviews, after several years of field recordings, backwards ukeleles, and obscure mutterings – there's no escape!

CCOTG: I think that's a double-edged thing, because of course you're your own person with your own style, but a lot of people might've initially found you through the albums you did with him or with Holly Golightly [myself included, many years ago!].

DM: Yeah, I don't care at this stage. I did then. I like some of my old records a lot. I was never part of that really, it was something I fell into. Those people were very opposed to the modern world, dressed in antique clothes, played antique guitars through antique amps, etc. I was never a true believer. I bought a couple of garage rock comps from Our Price when it was closing down, and I liked the stuff on there better than U2, so to that degree I could have been said to be a garage rock fan. However, the first music I was ever really into was hip-hop, and I was very much interested in that from the age of eleven on.

When I discovered some of the more “down home” type blues stuff later, I was struck by the same elements of groove and repetition in it. I have always been attracted to that drive, and that was something that was very much missing from the current rock music of that time. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was the first band I ever saw that actually managed to bring some of that into their music, and it was also the first gig I ever went to that didn't bore me to death. All those Medway types would have considered the Blues Explosion terrible because of their lack of puritanical revivalism. I always thought these garage rock bands were like people who go to Renaissance faires. Some of them had something going for them, because they managed to bring some of their own personality to the music, but on the whole it has never been a very interesting scene to me.

CCOTG: That's a tough call – our Renaissance Faires are quite painful.

DM: Oh, we don't have them in the UK. I found out about them here.

CCOTG: [Going back a bit, your need to constantly evolve] got me wondering about your records this year – what made you redo "Bottom of the Sea" for Plays 'The Greys?'

DM: I was in a phase of seeing how little cohesive structure could be applied to something that could be called a “song” when I did that version.

CCOTG: You touched on it with the mention of hip hop – the interest in groove and repetition. Are you familiar with Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses? I ask because, while I don't think you'd love most of her music, she started making music to force it out of her head. And though I don't imagine you have the same issues [with concussion and bipolar disorder], I do see certain similarities in the way [your] music is done. Throwing Muses had certain wacky patterns in some of their songs that were very daring, and you've had a bit of the same throughout your career. I think it was the Das Menace s/t release that reminded me of this – "Spectral Birds," particularly. It made me think of the Muses' "Garoux des Larmes."

DM: Yes, I know who she is, and I remember her struggling with mental illness. I've had problems with anxiety and OCD-like symptoms over the years. It was very bad when I was about seventeen, which coincidentally was the time I first started trying to play the guitar with dedication.

The structure of my songs tend to be extremely simple, as I don't like to think while I'm playing. At this stage I've pretty much lost interest in chord changes or singing, as what I love most in music is the aspect of losing yourself in it.

CCOTG: Do you think the music gave you an outlet for obsession or pushed it forward?

DM: Well, being obsessive about doing music is pretty positive, so it gave me something to focus on. I'd always put energy into art and writing poems and stuff, but music certainly gave me something to put my excess energy into – a nice channel for those feelings, and refuge from the normal strains of life, which can overwhelm people like me pretty easily sometimes.

CCOTG: When you're writing, do you start with a pattern you can't get rid of or do you start with nothing and see where you get lost in it?

DM: Yes, a pattern is usually the start – a simple hook or riff. Then sometimes words present themselves, sometimes not. Words are often just sounds for me now – I'm not trying to express my feelings through words anymore, really.

CCOTG: Which is very noticeable when I go through your records in chronological order – early on there was a lot of lyrical content, a combination of love/heartbreak, extremely British stories, and your ability to create a broad message without being preachy. Thinking "Your Lousy Floor," there. Is there less that you want to share now, or less that you find interested in putting into words?

DM: I used to write songs about my life, but apart from The Backward Path, I haven't done that for more than ten years. I think these days I just try to create an atmosphere through words. Usually a chaotic sort of thing. I suppose that's how life seems to me, quite bewildering and malevolent! Words fall together in these little patterns, with repeated phrases of almost percussive sounds. It's like using the voice as an instrument. Whether there's some hidden meaning, I don't know.

CCOTG: Is there a difference in what you're inclined to create [either music or art] based on each new place you move and settle into? You've talked about how much you love England but your music's obviously become more abstract since [living in the U.S.]. Has your work been affected by what your surroundings look like, or influenced by where you and [late wife] Letha had been in life? Or for that matter, is what you create affected by who you spend the most time with?

DM: Yes, my music is definitely influenced by surroundings, and relationships. My relationship with Letha was the pivotal thing in my life so far, and when she was here I felt far more secure and connected to things. Coming back to Durham has brought a certain amount of that back, as I just love the country here, and the people are so friendly and open. I don't really know what will result musically, but being up in Ohio was actually very productive for me. I didn't go out much!

CCOTG: Do you have the open space to experiment where you are in Durham?

DM: I am in an apartment, but I don't really need to make a lot of noise to record the way I do. No drummers smashing on things.

CCOTG: I'm really happy to see you in a new relationship, moving ahead. Do you see your [creative] style changing now that you've had [girlfriend] Emily for a bit? I saw [your recent] video for "It's a Hard Life at Sea" and I really love that you have another partner you can also collaborate with in some context.

DM: Yes, Emily is very supportive of my music, and I think she is a talented photographer. I've been on a pretty eclectic path for a while now, and I think things will continue to be pretty varied for the foreseeable future, although, as I said before, I do sometimes think that following through on some of these beginnings a bit more could be good. It becomes a pattern in itself to approach each new album as a completely new, separate thing.

CCOTG: Do you ever feel any sort of personal conflict with starting fresh versus moving back to where you shared life with Letha and staying close to Letha by putting out the last of her work? Does it affect you to have both women nearby, in a way?

DM: Well, it's hard obviously, and there is a little bit of a conflict as I still miss Letha everyday and no one will ever be able to replace her. I'm not looking for that, though. I'm just trying to keep going, really – trying not to end up living in the past. The music is just a part of it. Emily is good about it though, as she knew Letha, and admired her. She doesn't mind me talking about my feelings for her.

CCOTG: "All the Clocks" has been one of my favorites of yours for a couple years [speaking of Letha]. It's one of the nicest songs you've got and I hope she'd gotten a chance to appreciate it.

DM: I really like that [Backward Path] LP, although I don't feel the need to listen to it. I know it's there when I'm ready.

CCOTG: All understood. Speaking of family – Glen [Dan's bird]. My cat is absolutely terrified of "Elmore Blues" off this year's Home of the Blues LP. Every so often I think about his response to the music I play at home. Do you ever look for a response from Glen when you play [your own music] at home?

DM: Glen's reaction to practically every noise is to try and drown it out with his own (incidentally he is currently trying to chew a hole through some shelves, and bugging the hell out of me). I need to set up his Discogs page properly, as he is on at least twenty [of my] records. I just set my stuff up here the other day, and he managed to appear on the first thing I recorded twice. I don't begrudge him his backing vocals.

CCOTG: Does he often sing, or just create some sort of noise about the house?

DM: Well, he sings, screeches, cackles, whistles, and says “be right back,” “beaky,” “sweet bird” (in two ways: one the way Letha said it, and one the way I do), “good morning,” “hi beadle,” and “don't you know?” He also impersonates Emily's laugh and makes a gulping sound when someone takes a drink. There's a lot of cackling. That's often his reaction to loud noise.

CCOTG:  Will be going back for a listen to look for "be right back" in some of your old records! Glen aside, while your music is very much yours, is there anyone you haven't yet collaborated with that you'd like to or would've liked to? Time period/distance/status not being an issue?

DM: I would like to collaborate with lots of people. Most of them probably wouldn't be interested in working with me. I would really like to collaborate with guitarists I admire in a live setting – just improvising. One of my absolute favorites is Willie Lane, he makes fantastic records. I would also like to do something with my friend Pat Gubler. I'm up for any interesting pairing, really.

CCOTG: Why are you convinced that most wouldn't want to work with you? 

DM: Um, probably snobbery regarding perceptions about my music.

CCOTG: In an interview with Decayke a few years ago, you'd referred to "Only Fools and Horses," and mentioned a love of "middle of the road English comedies of yore." For those of us who grew up without them – what's a good starting point?

DM: Haha – well, it depends how low you want to go. “One Foot In The Grave” is pretty weird and “edgy” by the standards of the genre, but still beloved by pensioners. I like “The Likely Lads” a lot. “Open All Hours,” “Porridge” – then you've got real detritus like “On The Buses” and “George And Mildred.” I bet they're on YouTube.

CCOTG: Will make note of all. Aside from the more recently streamable “Keeping Up Appearances,” I need a good starting point. Finally – is there anything that you never get a chance to share that you'd like to?

DM: Um...Durham rules! So glad to be back here!

CCOTG: Do you have any favorite spots over there?

DM: Where I'm living now there is this amazing network of little paths that can get you where you want to go (I don't drive) by cutting through the woods. They aren't even on maps, so you just have to find them on your own. Beautiful scenery all around.

CCOTG: That sounds lovely! Thank you so much for spending a good chunk of time chatting today.

DM: Thank you! I hope you have a good day!


Dan has many, many albums for sale, available here. This year's releases include Filthy Frozen River Rag, Home of the Blues, and Plays 'The Greys.'

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