Daniel Bachman embraces cycles of rebirth and renewal

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Daniel Bachman interview

It’s been a long time since Daniel Bachman‘s adhered to expectations of how folk music should sound. The Virginia artist began his musical career over a decade ago as an American primitivist guitarist, releasing records of acoustic guitar instrumentals informed by the likes of John Fahey, but over time he’s drifted from that core approach, increasingly experimenting with drone, field recordings and other sonic experiments, including the distorted and augmented sounds of weather phenomenon on his intense, apocalyptic 2022 album Almanac Behind.

When the Roses Come Again, which was released in November via Three Lobed, is Bachman’s most intricately woven statement of folk tradition with modern and avant garde sounds. It prominently features his guitar and banjo playing in the context of more heavily distorted soundscapes, synths and oscillators. It’s a stunning overall statement, the kind of folk album that, for instance, you might find on a list of the year’s best electronic albums. And even though its inspirations are deeply rooted in folk tradition—like the discovery that his ancestors had their own touring bluegrass band, or the song-poem (recorded by the Carter Family) that forms the track titles—the album represents how Bachman has found new and unconventional ways to explore folk tradition.

“For years, I felt like the only way to make music was to sound like Jack Rose or John Fahey, and that’s what I felt the rules were and what I needed to do to be successful or have people relate to what I was doing. But that was just my own insecurity and my own misunderstanding of how this works,” he says via a Zoom call from his home in northwestern Virginia. “The Carter Family, Ernest Stoneman, even Jimmie Rodgers, Elizabeth Cotton, that was modern music 100 years ago. Nothing sounded like it. And that’s the kind of energy that I’m trying to bring into the American folk music world—where you can make new sounds and it can be cool.”

We spoke to Bachman about his new album When the Roses Come Again, using homemade instruments, and taking inspiration from musicians from far back in his family tree.

Treble: There are a lot of different threads connected on this album—was there an overarching direction you sought when you began recording and writing?

Daniel Bachman: I think the only direction I had was that I knew what instruments I wanted to use and what sounds I wanted to use. Like, a lot of the fretless sounds that aren’t slide guitar are new on this, or the mouth bow, I had the idea of bringing in those instruments, but that was about it. The main spark, aside from the genealogy research that I was doing in my own family, was the poem that all the tracks are based off of. My partner Aldona (Dye) and I do kind of regional folklore research, and I found this song-poem and I saw that in the archive and was like oh, I really want to base a record that flows with the words of this song-poem. That kind of was the framework, that I know it’s going to be 14, 15, 16 tracks to get the poem lines so they read alright. But that was kind of it. I tried to ground myself, I was lucky that I had a rental I could use for a week that a friend of ours owns and just had the space to sit and breathe and get into playing each day, which is not an opportunity I have right now. 

What was it about that poem that resonated with you?

DB: Honestly, when you’re making some of these things, it’s hard to describe why they hit you in such an emotional way. I said it in some of the press release stuff, but there’s a cyclical nature to this record and the ambiguity of that poem, and a couple of other people told me about how it’s open ended and you can interpret it in a couple of different ways. It’s part of this broader interest of mine of using these materials from archives, and from our research, other recorded work, bringing them into my recording and abstracting them and bringing them into a new life in the 21st century.

I’m constantly looking for new ways to grow as a musician and an artist, even just as a person trying to learn things al the time.

I know you used a lot of homemade instruments on When the Roses Come Again—what were those?

DB: We’ve got some homemade electronics. My partner Aldona, she made some homemade synthesizers that generate tones, so I used those. I really like using contact speakers a lot, instead of contact mics—I like those too—but you can make drones or loops or certain textures and then run it through a speaker and then put it on the strings of your instrument and make drones that way, so I did a lot of recombinations of that kind of stuff. Even kind of like… I don’t know how else to say this (laughs), but using stuff like Garageband on my phone in completely wrong ways. Using the stock effects from that and generating echo loops from that. I used a lot of phone apps, free oscillator apps and stuff. And on eBay I got a cheap aluminum pot banjo, and my friend Joe Decosimo, who’s a banjo and fiddle player, said, “you should pull off the frets, it’s not a hard thing to do.” I was a little afraid to at first, but it was really easy and it does sound great, so a lot of the banjo stuff is just a cheap aluminum pot banjo with the frets pulled, and slowed or sped up or chopped up. And there’s a mouth bow I made, I’d been wanted to make these for years. I made two before but they broke. I was still learning to build them and if it’s too thin, the wood just snaps. But if the thickness is right, you can use a G string or a B string from a guitar on it. And it’s just a slat of wood with a ball and string that you can tune up, I put some violin rosin on it. But it’s super simple, I got it from a website we get gardening advice from. They’re very easy to make!

This album and Almanac Behind both feature some more intense, stormy sounds—what draws you to that kind of sonic palette?

DB: I’ve been having a hard time expressing more subtle emotions through my instrument and stuff through literal ways of playing. On Almanac Behind, a lot of those tones are weather sounds, even though they’re indecipherable. Like I’d record the sound of hail on our metal roof and just slow it way down. Or speed it up. A lot of those sounds on that record, I wanted to be literal with the sounds and abstracting them, because when you’re living through these things, during natural disasters, you feel different waves of emotion. We just went through that with a wildfire near our house, just three miles away from us. So I was really relying on natural sounds for Almanac, but I used a similar technique on this new album but just with all instruments. So with the exception of some oscillator tones that are pretty obvious, even some of the more electronic sounding sounds on there are all guitar, or all fiddle, I really tried to be pretty good about using just string instruments to create the tones, even if they’re pretty far out.

I felt like I kind of hit the limits of what I can do emotionally with a live instrument at all times. Bringing this stuff in—I’ve never felt like I had more inspiration or excitement about making music since I started cutting this stuff up. Stopping worrying about “how do I create this stuff live,” it’s taken a lot of pressure off and I’m just running with it.

You mentioned the genealogy project you’ve been working on—how did that inform your music?

DB: My grandma’s family is from the Allegheny mountains and she grew up really desperately poor and I think was really embarrassed about that. And when she moved in with us when I was a kid, into my parents’ house, she didn’t talk about that time of her life that much. She was really into opera. I knew [her family] had played bluegrass, but she didn’t really talk about that. But when I got older and started doing this research, it was like “Whoa, we have some really great musicians in our family.” And I think it was just that she was traumatized by her childhood and didn’t want to be a part of it. So I started to get into stuff my parents had compiled and grandma had compiled about that side of the family and found this string band. They were the Hostetler Family Band, sometimes called the Blind Hostetler Family Band. They played from about the time of the Civil War, around 1862, into the 20th century. They played their own compositions, they played standards, and they toured! There’s even some evidence that they went to Europe, and that’s kind of a big deal.

There’s some writing about them that’s kind of like, were they a novelty band because they were blind? And that is possible, but all the reviews about them said their music was excellent, very inventive. Really, what I’m into is that same kind of thing. I’m into learning tunes, I’m into learning other people’s stuff, playing old music verbatim, but just like they were, I’m into expressing my own emotions and experiences, and I think that’s something that gets lost when we’re looking at folklore, we just assume it’s all this strict, formulaic thing, they played these same songs—and that’s just not true. People were as inventive and creative as they ever have been. I’m most interested these days, and it sounds kind of funny as someone who’s interested in folklore and history, but in not relying on stuff from the past. This is our time we’re living in, and we can play these instruments and do it our own way. That’s really what I’m into, finding ways to do it that are honest for myself.

My mom had a portrait of them that she printed out at the drugstore and I just kept it next to my work area every day. That was my way of collaborating with them.

In bringing up the cyclical nature of the album, is there a spiritual element to it for you?

DB: [We’ve been] getting into growing our own vegetables, we’re just doing it for our home, we’re not selling produce or anything. But we’re really into learning about vegetable gardening, and that alone, going through each year—I saw someone talk about this the other day. Every time you put a seed in the soil and it works and you get a seven-foot tall corn plant, it’s like whoa! There is a spiritual element to that. Even coming at this, coming back to the record a little bit, we did have these musicians from my family, and the culture of this place traumatized my grandma so much she never wanted to talk about it. But the next generation finds out about it and we’re back to getting involved with it again. And the cycle is complete again. It’s personal stuff, things we witness in our own lives. But yeah, that’s what I had in mind for the listener. The way I kind of thought about it is the A-side ends in the winter, the death cycle, and then it comes back by the end of the B-side. I really like loops—my last record was a loop. And I feel the same way about this one. I just really like making stuff that’s really easily wrapped up like that.

Do you like the idea of music as an open-ended thing?

DB: Definitely. I found at times in my own experience, especially being heavy on the road and relying on that for my income, being trapped in plateaus of my own creativity. I’m constantly looking for new ways to grow as a musician and an artist, even just as a person trying to learn things all the time. I hope it’s a thing I can keep exploring and coming back to. Again, with the cycles, the next record I’ve started work on is I want to make a strictly guitar record, but using all the techniques I’ve figured out how to use over the last couple records. The challenge of working on a record like River and being like “oh, I want to write a really long piece,” that’s something I feel like I did. Now I’ve gotten enough practice in other places to take it back to the same instrument but with a new configuration. That’s what’s really exciting for me. 

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