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Interview with David Daniell & Douglas McCombs

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm in Chicago. Doug is somewhere with Tortoise - Germany, I believe, at the moment.

What's on your schedule at the moment? 
Doug is really busy touring with Tortoise through the fall. We have a couple of shows on the horizon, including the album release show for Sycamore, coming up on September 24th at the Hideout in Chicago. We'll have all three of the drummers that played on the album joining us - John Herndon, Steven Hess, Frank Rosaly - and we'll be sharing the bill with the amazing guitarist Jack Rose. I'm also staying busy with solo shows and starting to record a new solo album, and I expect Doug and I will start some duo touring late this year or early next year.
You and Doug met during the Donnergötter tour. What was that experience like for the both of you? 
At that time (March 2006) I was living in New York and was one of the four guitarists in Jonathan Kane's "February" band. To play Rhys Chatham's "Die Donnergötter", Jonathan's band was extended to six guitars, bass, and drums, via the addition of Chris Brokaw and Doug as the two additional guitarists. The tour was Kane's band, Tony Conrad solo, and the Die Donnergötter band, touring from NYC down to Austin where we played as part of a day-long showcase at South by Southwest.
Playing Rhys' music was a new experience for all of us (except Jonathan Kane and Ernie Brooks, drums and bass, who have played with Rhys for years), reading the music from charts and having all our guitars tuned in odd tunings specific to that composition, but it really worked out well musically, and we took a lot away from it. And it was fun.
After the tour, it took some time before you started making music together ...

When the tour ended and we all got back home (me to NYC, Doug to Chicago), Doug and I traded albums of ours with each other - I was familiar with Tortoise of course, and a couple of the Brokeback records, but hadn't heard his more recent albums at that time, so he sent me those; I sent him some San Agustin albums, some of my solo recordings, etc. I think the real common ground, where we seemed to see a potential for a collaboration, was in a territory where Brokeback meets San Agustin.
I moved to Chicago a few months after that tour - ostensibly just to take a break for a few months and study pedal steel guitar with teacher Ken Champion - but I'm still in Chicago three years later - and Doug and I played together for the first time shortly after that: a rehearsal or two to map out some territory for exploration, and then our first shows as a duo opening for the Boredoms in Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio. 
The core idea for this duo was to keep things as improvisational as possible. We'll sometimes work out structural frameworks or specific melodic ideas in advance of a show, but they are very loose, leaving lots of room for spontaneity in the performance.
When you started recording in 2008, was there any kind of concept before you hit „record“or was it really just a question of playing first and evaluating later? 

The initial idea was to record several improvised sessions just as a duo as well as with the three drummers who we have played with live and pick the best sessions to put on the record. There is one track on the album which was conceived in advance, and which we recorded several versions of during the recording sessions - "F# Song", the first track on the album - but beyond that it was a fairly blank slate. The main goal was to record a lot and try to capture the different abstract ideas that had evolved from our live shows.
Once we finished the recording - five days of tracking at two different locations, two days of just the duo and one day with each of the three drummers - we had so much material which felt "successful" that rather than pick a couple of complete recordings from the sessions, we decided to take segments of the recordings and work with them as raw material to be re-composed into new structures - taking different parts from the different live sets and overlaying, mixing, cross-fading, etc to develop them into entirely new pieces of music.
You made use of two loft spaces on the basis of the acoustic characteristics. What kind of characteristics were you after specifically?

The idea was to get a "live sound". We knew we wanted to have the sound of the guitars and drums come out very natural, more of a "sitting in the room with the music" sound than a pristine studio sound. The first three days we recorded in a third floor loft in Wicker Park which also doubles as a private movie theater, with hardwood floors and brick walls. The last two days were recorded at a loft-space venue called Av-Aerie (now sadly defunct), a huge room with really high ceilings and lots of natural reverb. Our sound and approach has come about through live playing, and we wanted that to carry over into the recording process.
Did you take any kind of sketches and prepared ideas with you to the session?
The only specific prepared idea we brought in was the melodic basis for "F# Song", along with the plan to use the Spanish guitar on that track. The rest of the ideas coming into the recording sessions were more general, things that had evolved over the course of live shows without much discussion or planning - recurring loose themes.

In which way was Jeremy Lemos actively involved? 

A side-effect of not recording in a proper "studio" was that the sessions were really very comfortable and relaxed. I've worked with Jeremy Lemos a number of times, he's a good friend, so having him engineer the sessions added to that comfort. We would do four or five "sets" each day, over the five days, with each "set" being an improvisation that could last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes on average. There were big breaks in between these sets in order to clear the head. Jeremy adapted to the non-traditional recording environment with no problem - he brought in a great mobile recording rig with some really nice mic preamps (at least one of which was borrowed from Bob Weston) and microphones.
How collaborative was the ensuing processing part of the production? 
We knew by the end of the recording sessions that we would be using more of the recorded material than would fit on an album, and therefore that we would probably take the approach of extensive editing and compositing of material to make use of a great deal of what was recorded. We took a big break between the end of the recording sessions and the beginning of the actual "production" of the album - the selections, edits, mixing etc. Taking a break was a conscious decision, to give ourselves some distance from the recordings, so we could come back to it somewhat objectively and treat all the original recordings as raw construction material. 
I have a fairly functional studio in the basement of my house, so Doug and I spent a great deal of time in there working on the selections and edits, composing the final structure of the tracks using rough mixes of the original recordings. It was completely collaborative, literally sitting side-by-side at the console for hours on end moving bits and pieces around, overlaying parts of different recording sessions and so on.
What did John McEntire add to the equation? 
We went into Soma to do the final mixes and edits with John after we finished mapping out the structures in my studio. The translation process was fairly convoluted - a lot of the edits Doug and I had put together were very specific (synchronizing a specific note of a guitar line from a set recorded on day two of the sessions with a specific snare-drum hit from a different set recorded on day four of the sessions - that kind of thing), so I had to unravel all those edits into a map that we could work from to redo them all "for real," from scratch, with John - charting out what of the original recorded material was actually used in the final edits, and where all the edits and cross-fades happened.
With John we went back to the original recordings and properly mixed all the elements, into stereo mix-downs - step one. We then took those and recreated all the edits, using the stereo mixes as the component parts - step two. It was a tricky way of working - John had to anticipate how individual original recorded parts would sit within the mix of the edited versions, and make mix decisions during step one that couldn't really be heard in context until we got to step two. John plays his studio like a musical instrument though, and the process was amazingly fluid.
Teo Macero is mentioned in the press release, so were you consciously trying to integrate some of his editing ideas for albums such as „In a Silent Way“and „Bitches Brew“?
Once we decided to take the approach of extensive post-production / editing, those Miles albums immediately became a model for our way of working - using editing techniques to take apart live improvised recordings and reassemble them into something new that is hopefully greater than the sum of its parts. But there wasn't any processing in the sense of a complete mangling / re-shaping of the original sound in the post-production; what you hear in the final tracks is the result of more of a film-style editing of the live recordings - jump-cuts, mixing, cross-fading. So all the sounds you hear on the album actually were played live, but at times you might be hearing a quartet or quintet of overlayed recordings from multiple different times instead of a duo or trio, or may hear a cut between things recorded on different days, etc.
7,5 hours is a lot of material. Are you keeping what has not yet been used as a basis for future projects? 

Definitely. We already have one additional completed track that we're holding onto for future use. And there's definitely plenty of material from those sessions which we're happy with but didn't get used, which we'll keep around to use and add to in the future.

Is there any personal connection to painter Arik Roper? I find his contribution adds a lot to the listening experience ... 
I've known Arik for a number of years, via common friends in NYC, and long been an admirer of his illustrations and paintings. I'd hoped for a while to have the chance to work with him for album artwork, and this worked out to be a good opportunity for that. I'm really happy with his visual response to the music.
Have there been new sessions since then? In how much is your live work together shaping new material? 
We haven't done any recording, but we play live on a fairly regular basis, and new ideas come about at every show.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: David Daniell
Homepage: Thrill Jockey Records

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