Monday, March 8, 2010

Exclusive Interview: Nathan Moore of Surprise Me Mr. Davis

Surprise Me Mr. Davis is not your average rock and roll band. Their journey has been long, longer than you might think. Nathan Moore was the singer and guitarist for ThaMuseMeant when he met brothers Brad and Andrew Barr and Marc Freidman of The Slip. That was over ten years ago now. Their natural connection and amazement with one another’s music would ultimately act as the catalysts for an amalgamation of sounds. Just last year, Davis picked up another musician, longtime friend and collaborator, Marco Benevento, propelling the band into “super-group” territory. I had the amazing opportunity to chat with Nathan, the humble wordsmith, over the weekend. We discussed Surprise Me Mr. Davis’ new, long-awaited record, the frustrations, as well as the uniqueness of having your fellow band members scattered across the globe, and the band’s game plan for 2010.

Let’s talk about the new album titled "That Man Eats Morning For Breakfast" which is being released on April 13. It seems like it’s been a long time coming, five years to be exact. The last Surprise Me Mr. Davis release was an EP in 2005. Tell me about the recording process and the new record.

NM: The new record is really still just our demo. It’s a little embarrassing in that respect although… that was really our intention from the beginning when we set out to make it. I can’t even remember when that was now, time moves so much faster than it used to. I was on my way with Marc Freidman to go to Montreal, we were going up there to record in Brad and Andrew Barr’s new studio and I got turned away at the border so we found ourselves back in Burlington, Vermont drinking in a bar. We ended up talking to Brett Hughes, a local musician there and he was like “just come into my barn studio and do it”. So Brad and Andrew came down this way and we ended up recording there all week at Brett’s house. We got all these tracks done and then we went back into another studio and tried to work them up even bigger but that’s when we started to feel that we were exceeding our initial ideas and trying to make them too big and ended up reverting back to the original demos. They had the raw spirit and energy we were trying to capture. So now it is finally seeing the light of day. I don’t want to downplay it or diminish it; there are a lot of practical aspects as to why it exists.

With so many songs in the Davis cannon, why release an EP? Is an LP on the way?

NM: When we signed with Kevin Calabro, in order to manage us he needed some representation of us, and we had the demo and he liked it quite a bit and he was like “I would love to just work with this for now” as opposed to hurrying and trying to get us back into the studio to make something else. We just polished the EP up and came up with a nice cover for it. A lot of it is real practical for Kevin to have something to work with while he is out there pitching us. I still don’t feel like Davis has made “its album”. We’ve had a couple of moments in the studio but we’ve yet to find the opportunity to create a fully realized work of art that is worthy of the potential of the band.

Marco Benevento has been collaborating with the band and its members for years. How did you and Marco first meet?

NM: I think the first time I met Marco was, my band ThaMuseMeant was playing at the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, I don’t even remember now where that was. Some college out west that had some building or something that was called the Enchanted Broccoli Forest and The Slip was on the road and ThaMuseMeant was playing that night, and The Slip had the night off and they showed up and they had Marco in tow. I believe that was the first time I met him. That was probably ’98 or ’99. The second time I met him was the High Sierra following that and I knew I was going to like him. He always sort of reminded me a little of myself, something in his eyes. Then he was running around High Sierra making these cards float around, a magic trick his dad had taught him and I knew right then we were going to get along just fine.

At arguably the busiest point in his career, why has Marco now officially decided to join the band? Has there been a shift in the band’s dynamic now that he has been added?

NM: That is still yet to be seen too. We haven’t really done a lot of shows with Marco but the shift is huge, when it opens up. We’ve really only had a few nights that I think have pointed to the stars. One night somewhere in New York State and we were playing this gig with hardly anybody there and that freed us up to experiment a bit more. That night lives on in my mind as just how amazing this band is and the potential that lies there. With Marco, for one it gives Brad somebody to communicate with on that more melodic level. It’s almost too overwhelming to talk about, the potential sounds we have now. There’s so many chapters to the book and we haven’t even read the first sentence yet. I get a little boggled when I try to describe how the dynamic shifts with Marco. Just from bawdy piano pieces to psychedelic organ pieces, I mean its mind-boggling.

How has The Slip influenced the sound of Surprise Me Mr. Davis?

NM: Going back to the early days, and the first experiences we had was really my limited experiences with playing with a rock and roll band like that and it was more like The Slip getting behind Nathan Moore songs and giving them a big push. Back then it felt like flying, I never felt a feeling like that in my life. To take these songs that I had written and then to all the sudden be playing them with them it was really the difference between walking and flying. All the sudden they lifted the stuff up so high. It just made my universe so much bigger. I think that that spirit and excitement and that smile they put on my face right away is to this day what I think about when I think of Davis.

You and Brad are the core songwriters for the band. Can you talk a bit about your relationship and approach to songwriting?

NM: There is a certain chemistry that you find with certain people in life. It’s hard to explain but it’s just real comfortable and I’m sure everybody has had the experience of starting to talk with somebody and their sense of humor and things like that are just right there at the tip of their tongue. I had somebody describe once that eloquence is not when one person is graceful communicating with another but where two things join together. Actually the root of the word eloquence is an old word for joint, where two things meet. Brad and I always just sort of found a certain eloquence, it was always really easy with each other. There was this sort of effortlessness to it. In terms of our writing, we were both so fascinated by each other and we both immediately saw something in the other that we wanted in ourselves. I think that’s one of the reasons that made the relationship so symbiotic was that we were both young and hungry and wanted to get better and saw something in each other that we wanted to incorporate in our own thing. For me with Brad it was his incredible sense of melody and being able to follow a line where it wants to go even if it’s somewhere you didn’t think you could go. For him with me it was probably a certain simplicity.

Does Brad bring you a piece of music and together you put lyrics to it? What’s your approach in that sense?

NM: We’ve sort of done it all. I’ve brought him words that he has put music to and he’s brought me music that I’ve put words to. And we’ve sat around with guitars and written together. We’ve finished each other’s lines and added little parts. Sometimes I’ve brought a finished song to him and he’s added to it or re-worked the music. We don’t have a set method, but we’ve employed almost all the approaches you could imagine.

With the members of the band scattered across North America, has it been difficult to get together, record, practice?

NM: We’ve found it close to impossible. On one hand that’s sort of the ultimate bane of Davis and the curse and the frustration is that we’re in all these other places so there’s so many phases that we go through personally and stuff like that that we don’t get to share with each other and aren’t effected by each other. On the other hand it’s sort of the blessing of Davis. It has always felt like a vacation for us when we get together. So in that sense it always maintains this special thing, and the camaraderie is so strong that whenever we do get together it still to this day feels like a rare opportunity and enables us to enjoy ourselves even more. A lot of the tensions and troubles and struggles that regular bands have we don’t have the luxury of such things.

When the band does tour, it seems to be in short chunks, often with lots of time in between. Scheduling wise, has it just not worked out for you guys to do the whole long-winded tour?

NM: Yah, I think that is definitely part of it. We aren’t as young as we used to be. That factors in there a little bit. We’re all busy in other ways. The long-winded tour, I still hope some day to be able to do that with these guys, it’s just not in the books yet.

Is there any chance of Davis making it into Canada in the future, where The Slip has a strong following and thus Davis would likely too?

NM: I wish. That’s more of a legal situation I still have to try to jump through all the hoops to see if something can pan out. I got arrested for mushrooms going into High Sierra in 2004 or something like that. According to Canada that’s enough to keep me out. I know that I could go to the consulate in D.C. and try to get some kind of proof of rehabilitation or something like that but every time I’ve researched it, it just seems a little overwhelming. It makes me wish I had enough money to hire a lawyer to take care of it for me. If it weren’t for that we would probably be in a very different situation right now. They built a studio out there in Montreal and we really could be spending a lot more quality time in Canada than we have been. It’s really frustrating.

When the band has toured recently, you’ve tended to hit the road with more indie-rockers such as The Low Anthem and Land of Talk. Is the band trying to push itself away from being associated with jam scene, which some people might argue were the roots of the band’s beginnings?

NM: There has always been that curiosity of how other scenes would accept us or how well we would do in other places. I think at this point there is no concerted effort to redefine ourselves or to step out of the comfort zone too much. The jam world is definitely not something we are afraid of. It’s always been really good to us and they seem to “get it” on a fundamental level. It’s also really fun to insert ourselves into other scenes and see how they respond to it. I think at this point because we aren’t touring full time we’re really just trying to focus on the places we can have the most fun and play to the most people, wherever that is.

You mentioned High Sierra Music Festival early on in the conversation. What’s so special about High Sierra, as the band doesn’t seem to play any other music festivals during the summer?

NM: Well that’s where I met those guys. That’s where it all happened. I met The Slip at High Sierra and I forget when it was but we both caught each others' sets and met there. And then High Sierra was really the first Davis performance. Without even talking to us about it they sort of noticed we were starting to hang out a bit and scheduled a late night show with me and The Slip and that was some kind of vision on their part. That was really the first time officially I played on stage with those guys. They’ve always been incredibly supportive and are entangled in the roots of our origin. They just get that family nod at this point.

One of the new songs “Sissyfuss” has been recorded for the popular video game “Rock Band”. Can you talk a bit about the company “The Authority” who authored the song, and your thoughts on the video game medium as a perhaps a new flourishing channel of dissemination for music?

NM: I know that Marc is involved in The Authority and that might be a better question for him. I don’t know a lot about that stuff. I just thought it was pretty cool watching the video on YouTube. I thought it looked just like us (laughs)!

You’ve announced on a few occasions during shows that 2010 is the year of the Davis. What’s different about the band’s game plan this time around?

NM: I think it is sort of hearkening back to the question you asked before about the jamband scene and things like that. I think for a while we were really curious as to whether or not other approaches would be more appropriate and successful and sort of dabbled with experimenting with that. I think we’ve now just gone back to “let’s take the known variables and embrace them and try to use that to lift us”. In that sense, if there was a moment of wondering whether or not the jamband scene was for us we are no longer really thinking that way and now we’re just trying to capitalize on all the work we have done in the past and really focus on our strengths, and where we are known and trying to lift the known variables rather than exploring.

Here Davis plays their classic "When A Woman"

You can visit the new Surprise Me Mr. Davis website as well as Nathan Moore's website

Surprise Me Mr. Davis Tour Dates:
April 13 | Club Passim | Boston, MA
April 14 | Firehouse 13 | Providence, RI
April 15 | Red Square | Albany, NY
April 16 | Union Hall | Brooklyn, NY
April 17 | Mercury Lounge | New York, NY*
April 24 | Tipitina's French Quarter | New Orleans, LA**
April 30 | Hi Ho Lounge | New Orleans, LA
June 24 | Tractor Tavern | Seattle, WA***
June 25 | Doug Fir Lounge | Portland, OR***
June 26 | Axe & Fiddle | Cottage Grove, OR***
July 1 | High Sierra Music Festival | Quincy, CA
July 4 | High Sierra Music Festival | Quincy, CA

*w/ Yellowbirds
**w/ The Slip & Marco Benevento Trio
***w/ Marco Benevento Trio

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