In the New York bluegrass scene, Michael Daves is one of the scene's biggest enthusiasts. He hosts a bi-weekly bluegrass jam and he maintains an ongoing residency at Rockwood Music Hall, both of which are on the Lower East Side on Manhattan. In addition, Michael teaches full-time, is also a member of Tony Trischka's Territory, and maintains his home studio where he works as a recording producer. His latest project is a new album that he recorded with Chris Thile at Jack White's Third Man Records studio, called Sleep With One Eye Open.
The album was recorded over the course of a few days at Mr. White's Nashville-based recording studios. It is a stripped-down affair filled with traditional bluegrass tunes, performed by the guitarist and mandolinist with only a microphone between them. But I don't want to fool you with the simplicity of the idea behind the record. It is a rich collection of songs that is filled with immediacy and passion, while emphasizing a deep admiration for the material, as well as for each other. It should also be noted that later this month, Third Man will be releasing an exclusive 7" single produced by Jack White himself, which makes a VERY interesting companion to the full length.
As an admirer of Michael's work, and as a fellow Brooklyn resident myself, I reached out to him for an opportunity to interview him about his own musical journey, his experiences in the New York bluegrass scene, and his working relationship with Chris Thile. Going beyond an email or phoner, Michael graciously invited me over to his home studio one afternoon last month for a chat that lasted about an hour or so.
I have to say that it was quite an inspiring conversation, listening to such a talented musician, who has performed with some of the best in the bluegrass genre, and to hear him talk so openly about his musical experiences, his desire to remain locally-rooted, as well as learn how deeply committed he is to teaching, performing, producing, and recording- all completely on his own terms.
Can you describe why you came to New York and what brought you here?
Michael Daves: I went to college in Western Massachusetts at Hampshire College in Amherst and stuck around there afterwards, which was about 8 years total. My wife and I were ready to move somewhere were there was more going on. She's an artist and designer.
We were up in western Mass and it's a good college town scene up there, but ultimately there's not that much going on professionally for either of us. I was playing in various bands and there's some really good musicians up there to play with, but it was time to move where there was more going on. We both liked New York a lot so we came down here in 2003 and it was around that time that I was getting back into playing traditional music, which was something that I grew up with and had done a lot in high school. I played some bluegrass and old-time music through college and afterwards. I had been focusing a lot on jazz and was getting tired of that and was ready to kind of move back into traditional music. And that coincided with moving to NY.
I didn't move here for bluegrass music, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a lot going on and was able to open up a niche for myself here in New York: as a teacher and as a performer. There seemed to be a lot of interest in bluegrass music but not a lot of people doing or teaching it on a professional level, so it kind of worked well for me.
What made you move back into traditional bluegrass music from jazz?
MD: It was more of an evolution. Jazz music kind of has a cerebral appeal and I think it was really good for me as far as learning music in general. It was a good medium and vehicle for figuring out how music and harmony works. I did a lot of writing and arranging for four and five horn bands and orchestrations and stuff, as I was learning how to improvise. If you can play jazz, than you can have the harmonic or musical tools to figure out almost anything else, because jazz gets kind of complicated in regard to harmony and improvisation.
It felt like it was a good academic pursuit and it definitely held my interests for a while, but ultimately as I grew beyond the academic aspects of it, it seemed more important to me to play music that I really related to strongly, on a personal and aesthetic level. I had grown up around bluegrass music and I played bluegrass music because my parents played fiddle and banjo, so that was very deeply seeded.
Did you play all through your childhood with them?
MD: Some. I started playing classical piano when I was four. That was most of what I did, and singing in church. I guess I got into both playing country blues, like finger-style guitar, and also bluegrass in high school. Once I started playing guitar, then I started accompanying my parents and playing with them on fiddle tunes. I was sort of reluctant at first, because you know, it didn't feel cool jamming with my parents (laughs).
But I was actually playing music, and then I would figure out ways to make it my own. But also I really started realizing that I enjoyed singing, and it wasn't really fun to me singing jazz, that didn't appeal to me- singing in that style. I really enjoy singing the old tunes, especially when doing the high-tenor stuff, like Bill Monroe style. That singing was cathartic, more immediate, and visceral, and that singing style really appealed to me. So I did. In that post-college time I was really needing to relate to music in a much more visceral manner.
So, after you left Massachusetts, and in New York, how did you connect with the bluegrass community here?
MD: When I got out of college, I just felt that performing music could not just be an academic pursuit, it really had to be a personal experience. I think it's good to go through the academic study to find how to do music, but I wanted to relate to it much more personally, and for me that was singing bluegrass music. I missed the bluegrass jams I used to go to in high school every week. There was a good jam right up the street from my house at a place called the Freight Room. It was kind of the bluegrass spot in Atlanta for a long time and then it closed down shortly after I left.
I really liked those jams and they didn't have anything like that in Massachusetts, so there was a long time when that just wasn't a part of my life. But in New York there are all of these jams. So when I moved to New York, I started going to the weekly jams and playing until 4 am. There was just something that was very satisfying to me about that, even though the music is not always good. You might have like 12 guitar players and 6 banjos, and you can't hear yourself, so it's kind of like a big slog musically, but it's so much fun socially and a really fun thing to be a part of nonetheless.
I never considered moving to Nashville. New York is great for me because it is a lot less interested in cleaning things up or being pretty and safe. Whether it's noise rock or what, New York is just more of a comfortable place for me musically. Although it's not thought of as a "bluegrass town", there's certainly enough going on here to make it worth it. And I just really like to work.
So when I moved to New York and saw that bluegrass could fill that role for me, and not just because it was was part of my upbringing, it was creatively and emotionally fulfilling. I found that there was this scene that allowed me to get out there and play all night and have a lot of fun too.
And is this around the time you met Chris Thile?
MD: Yes. He showed up maybe around 2005 or 2006. Chris moved to the city and began going to those jams too. We just hit it off, which is funny to me because when I moved to New York I was looking for a departure from the sophistication of jazz. I had been aware of Chris' music with Nickel Creek and thought of that stuff as being really on the clean side of things. So it was kind of surprising when he showed up, and that we hit it off musically. I had assumptions of what I thought he would be about, but when I got to play with him it was totally fun.
Chris has a lot of sophistication to his music, and there's certainly lots of improvisation when we play together. It was interesting and a little disconcerting because playing together tied together a lot of the things I have done before musically. It brought the jazz stuff back for me, and it became hard to deny that part of my musical background. Ultimately, this was good for me not to push that totally aside because it is part who I am musically. And when I get to play with Chris, I get to express that part of my background and we share a common understanding of these traditional tunes.
You met in 2005 and it seems that you guys hit it off so well musically. Why did you wait until now to make a record?
MD: We talked about recording something for several years before we actually made it happen. First, we hit it off in jam sessions maybe around 2006 or 2007 when we did our first show. The shows started at The Living Room. Then, when I started doing my residency at the small room at Rockwood Music Hall, about 4 years ago, Chris would show up and do a cameo or something. But then we started to doing ticketed shows at the Living Room. When Rockwood opened the larger space (Stage 2), that became our room of choice. So we've been playing there for like a year now.
We were talking about making a record for a while. About two years ago, Bob Hurwitz, the president of Nonesuch Records, came out to hear us at The Rockwood, and really he dug it. He got really excited and said that we should record. But Chris was so busy with other projects. He had things coming out with Edgar Meyer and Punch Brothers, which are his main projects of course. So he had to make sure that those were up and running before we could do something together.
Also, part of it was that we didn't really have a concept of what kind of album we wanted to make because our musical relationship had taken place, almost exclusively, in front of people, and really only at the jam sessions and at shows. We barely ever rehearsed, and it was very much about the traditional tunes that we both knew and the substance of that was very much about whatever happens when we get together to play those tunes.
Is it still like that?
MD: Pretty much. I think it's going to be different now that we have made an album because we kind of have pinned certain things down and made some arrangements. I think it will be interesting when we go out on tour because we have never done consecutive nights, playing outside of New York City. The only places we have ever played were Rockwood and The Living Room. I'm definitely looking forward to it because when we're not playing together we kind of exist in different musical worlds. Chris is doing Punch Brothers and writing mandolin concertos, while I spend a lot of time teaching, and doing my solo shows and stuff. So when we get together, we almost have to find the common ground we share musically again.
How did the album, Sleep With One Eye Open, come together?
MD: The fact is that we didn't know what kind of album we wanted to make and we thought there needed to be more of a concept there before we jumped in. Initially there had been the idea to make some live recordings that would be included on the album, but then we ended up being happy enough with what we got in the studio that we didn't feel like we needed to use live stuff. We were singing and playing all into one mic and it was very stripped down.
Before we went in we did have the sense that we needed to have a producer to have an extra set of ears to help make decisions about what's working and what's not. It's hard to have that perspective these days when you're actually recording music. So we began to talk about people who we might want to have do this and we both kind of arrived at Jack White. We were thinking about his music and his production work, and what he did with Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn. He basically took old blues music and updated that and made it very present in rock and roll. We really liked that.
It seems like there was a lot of common ground between your own musical journey back to bluegrass and Jack White's with blues?
MD: Definitely. When I heard the White Stripes it was kind of a revelation for me. When that music first came out, I was like "Wow". It was just so immediate and so visceral. Chris had already met him, and I think he knows Jack's wife, Karen Elson, and he was able to get a hold of Jack. When Chris reached him, Jack said that he would love to do it, but he would only have a day during the week of the recording to work with us.
So he let us use his studio to record the album and and he offered to record a 7" single with us directly. The single will actually be out on May 24th. So that's what we did the first day, we worked with Jack. We set it up so he would let us stay and we used his engineer. So, we basically ended up not having a producer for the recording and we did the album in about 4 days.
It worked out well because working with Jack that first day really helped set the tone for what we wanted to do. We did the single first. It's got kind of wild and crazy bass, drums and stuff on it. So that was exciting for us. Jack had other things going on, so he was in and out while we were recording it. There was a day when the Dead Weather showed up while we were playing "Cry, Cry Darling", which was cool.
Jack didn't produce the record, but there is definitely an influence, and we were inspired just by being in that environment. I think that the Nonesuch album would have come out a lot differently with Jack if he was producing because he is such a "hands-on" producer, as you'll hear on the 7".
How did you decide on the set of songs for the album?
MD: We chose songs that we thought should really be on there, like a lot of the brother duet style sings. We definitely wanted some Louvin Brothers on there, since they are such a big inspiration. The album draws on much of the "brother duet" tradition, I mean it's guitar, mandolin, and vocals. We definitely wanted to feature some of the harmony singing. But it's not all duets, there's also instrumental stuff too.
We had a list of probably about 30 songs that were all contenders and we managed to record about 23 of them or 24 of them. When we were making the album we got a sense of what we were doing and what was coming together, and that kind of continued as we chose tracks and mastered the stuff. When you take 24 songs, or the 16 on the album, and just by choosing the order of the songs, you could make entirely different albums with the same 16 songs. There's a flow of where you put songs on an album that really determines how they all sound. What comes after what. You definitely tell a story with how you put it all together.
Chris and I got together before we went down to Nashville and we recorded about 30 songs in one afternoon. We did that as a dry run and to get a sense of what was working and what was not. It was the process of us figuring out what it is that we do. So by doing that before the recording process, we had more of a chance to be objective and step back.
I'm sure when we get out on the road we'll just do what we do. We may do the whole thing off the cuff, we may have sets, we just don't know yet. We have a couple of festivals lined up, so I'm sure we'll have set lists for those.
Lastly, can you discuss your experiences as a writer, teacher, player? How did you get into teaching how does it influence your music?
MD: I've been teaching since high school really. I have a daughter and she was born when I was 21. I really needed to have a business and support a family. I knew I was definitely better at doing that than flipping burgers or trying to make it as a performer. So I decided to grow it into a full-time thing coming out of college. I really like teaching a lot. My dad and my brother are college professors, so it's kind of in the blood. I enjoy it and it enables me to do music things in one place. I don't prefer to be on the road because I like where I am and I like to be in one place. Plus, New York is great. Teaching is a big part of my life, it's definitely a full-time job. And it gives me a chance to help and be involved in the bluegrass scene here.
One of the great things about bluegrass music is that it is accessible to people from beginners to people like Chris Thile's kind of accomplishment. It wouldn't be out of the question for a beginning mandolin player to be at the same jam session as Chris Thile, and be playing "Roll In My Baby's Arms". That is one of the great things about this kind of music.
I think it's great that people are continuing to learn this music and getting out there themselves and playing it as much as they can. I have some students that have started performing, and I really enjoy that. I also enjoy living in New York, but I do go out on the road with Tony Trischka, and I will start doing more with Chris now that that the album is coming out.