Daniel Bachman Knows How to Get to Carnegie Hall
Over the last five years — and the course of a thousand performances, give or take — Daniel Bachman has approached the guitar as a vessel of history and sound. Bachman, native to a small town near Fredericksburg, Va., grew up in a family of collectors and musicians. To hear him speak about his father, and his father’s guitar playing, is relatable; Bachman played the banjo for years before turning to the guitar. Why? Because the guitar was his dad’s instrument. At least until he heard some Jim O’Rourke material. Since the banjo is frequently played in an open modal tuning, the translation to American Primitive guitar-playing was an easy one (at least, relatively speaking).
As Bachman's output grew, so did his compositional prowess, as indicated by tight, burgeoning swells and the inclusion of more avant-garde or drone elements. Previous to his upcoming self-titled LP (available on Three Lobed Recordings), this maturation crystallized on “Won’t You Cross Over to That Other Shore,” the 15-minute opener to Bachman’s most recent LP, River; but on the new record, Bachman takes another step forward, brandishing new instrumentation, longer tracks and even tighter finger-picking, a phenomenon he attributes to his ambitious live schedule, sometimes appearing before audiences 200 times a year.
Over a lulling drive between New York and Massachusetts, we called Bachman up to talk about his new record, the unique drone instruments included and the reality of being a full-time musician.
Tell me a little bit about the new LP. Where did you record it? How long did it take to write?
We recorded it in my old dining room in Durham. We set up a mobile studio and did it in two days. I wanted to do a couple longer things, and once I got those knocked out, I knew about how much time I had left. It probably took about a year. When we recorded the last LP, I already had a lot of ideas, which is my style. Even when we recorded this new LP, I was ready to do the next one. We’re working on studio time right now and will probably record it in May. It’ll take a while to get the next record ready, but I need deadlines to be productive and work out my time.
The last time I saw you was at the First Presbyterian Church in Durham for Moogfest. You played with two guys playing drone instruments. What were those instruments? Are they on the record?
My friend Forrest built those, and, yeah, they’re on the record. If I could go back, I would have recorded the record like we did as a trio at that show, and added a couple more layers. Everyone compares the instrument to a hurdy-gurdy, but a hurdy-gurdy is keyed. It’s only similar in that it is cranked with a wheel. The instruments were made for drone. You can’t play anything melodic on it. It’s played with a bow, and, from what I know, is unique to itself. He’s currently experimenting with different sizes and widths — it’s very much an experiment right now. He calls it an octatone since it’s eight-sided and atonal. It’s a pretty literal name. He’ll make you one for two or three hundred bucks — all you have to do is get in contact with him. He’s a very strange guy — I love him.
This new record has some longer-form tunes on it. Your last record, River, opens with an almost side-long track. Were you happy with how that was done? Or had you always wanted to do longer compositions?
I think that’s where my head was going anyway. The first song on the last record, the 15-minute one, was something I knew I wanted to write. I had an inspiration for how I wanted it to sound, so I put it together as almost a writing challenge. Same thing goes for this new record, though a different inspiration. I don’t know if it’s a conscious decision as much as another tune in the can. I do like really long pieces. If I could do a 45-minute tune, I would, but those are hard to translate onto an LP — you have to flip it, and it can ruin the flow. You still could do it. I think about records in terms of being an LP. You can’t put more than 22 or 23 minutes on a side. It’s necessary to be conscientious about that stuff. It sucks. But that’s why you do double LPs. [Laughs] That’s the next step, one I’m taking for the next record. I was more worried about cost, you know? Not in terms of production, but for purchasing. I sell my records for $20 a piece, but if I have a double LP, I wouldn’t want to sell it for more than $22 or so. But I found that we can do a pressing where we can try and make that work.
That’s great. It’s also awesome that you’re working with Three Lobed. Did you listen to, or get, any of those Jack Rose reissues? Did you already have originals?
I actually don’t have that many of the originals. My sister has a bunch, though, because she’s lived in my hometown and knows a lot of people that knew him very well who gave her copies. She’s got a shitload. I don’t. That Opium Musick record alone is super expensive. I had had the Three Lobed ones and the Thrill Jockey record, but now I’ve got them all. They sound great. Cory [Rayborn] does excellent stuff, and he’s not backed by anyone. He does things exactly as he wants, and doesn’t have to worry about selling records. Nobody could buy the record that I put out, and I don’t think he would care. You know what I mean? It’s not for financial gain for him.
So, you’re on tour right now. Where are you at? How does the touring life affect you?
I’m driving to Western Mass. — outside of Northampton. I’m about to get on the Mass. turnpike, and I like how it has little pilgrim hats on all of their signs. It’s a personal touch to the state — I appreciate it. Doing this stuff for a living is weird. It’s hard. It’s isolating and uncertain. Not having something like a college degree can make your life less sure. I spent years in North Carolina hoping to go to UNC. It was a way to take a step towards consistency, and ultimately, [I] was disappointed to find out I couldn’t go.
Is that a fear of yours? Not partaking in a lifestyle that feels sustainable?
Well, I don’t have health insurance. I’m not eligible unless I’m paying $250 a month, which would cover getting cancer or my arm cut off. I worry about that. I worry about my gigs drying up. I worry about getting 20 years in and falling on my face, but I’m not going to think about that stuff. I don’t talk to a lot of people who do this, either. You kind of make up the rules on your own.
I idolize that lifestyle, but I guess it’s one of those grass-is-always-greener things.
Yeah, it’s fucking weird, man — I’m not going to lie. You do 200 nights a year and you’re not home a lot. You see people in cities like New York or Philly more than you see your friends sometimes. People move on. People get older. People get married. People have kids. You’re still on the road. It’s a decision. It’s a lifestyle choice. I think I’m finally making my peace with it. For years, I’ve told myself that I’m going to stop, but now I don’t think I am.
What are some of your favorite things to do on tour?
I like to go to museums. [Laughs] I like to go to the weirdest attractions I can find. Roadside America is goofy, but very interesting. I’m going to go to the Emily Dickinson Museum [in Amherst, Mass.] tomorrow, and it should be fun. I was in Huntsville, Texas, and went to the Huntsville Federal Prison Museum, which was one of the craziest fucking museums I’ve ever been to. I’ll probably never go back, but I’m glad I went. It was pretty spooky.
What are some of the weirdest things you’ve seen?
Actually, in Petersburg recently, I saw a house made from tombstones. They were demolishing a cemetery in town, and one guy bought all of the headstones in it at a dollar a piece and built a house out of them. Crazy! I like stuff that shows a person dedicating their entire life to some specific, odd mission. Some people are born knowing exactly what they want to do, and build stuff or make cool art. I like that.
You’re a pretty serious record collector, too, aren’t you?
I have friends my age that are much more serious than I am. I’ve never spent more than $100 on a record. I’m just a collector — I come from a collector family. My dad is an amateur paleontologist. He spent his life collecting dinosaur bones, and I like records, books and art. I like the stuff that’s cheap, though. I’m trying not to have the fetishized version of rare psych records or hillbilly records, but … I dig music [laughs], and a lot of stuff I like has never been reissued even digitally or on CD, so you can only find them as LPs or 78s, but I don’t mess with 78s. It’s too intense for me.
Speaking of intensity, you play 200 nights a year?
I did for like two or three years. And I’d do it again, but it’s really hard to book. You’ve got to do a lot of work — I was going over to Europe a few times a year, and then two West Coast tours, four East Coast tours and four Midwest tours. I don’t mind it if it works. Right now I’m trying to do one week each month. That’s a little bit more manageable, but it’s still about 100 shows a year. I play guitar alone at my house probably between two and four hours a day, but you don’t get tight doing that. You only get tight by going on the road. I believe that. You can practice all you want in your bedroom, but going on the road and having the pressure of playing well in front of people — especially in front of people you may admire — has helped me more than anything else. You’ve got to be on it. Weird fucking thing to do with all of your time.
So, where do you see yourself going in the future?
I don’t know. All I want to do is make enough money to continue being a creative person. I’d like to be able to own a house, and I’d like to be able to have health insurance. [Laughs] I don’t care if I sell more than a thousand records a year or make a ton of money. I’m fine living in cheap places and having an affordable lifestyle, but I’d like to be able to keep doing this. My one goal, even if it takes years and years and years, is to play a venue like the Guggenheim or Carnegie Hall. I think that if I try for my whole life, I might be able to get there. Everything else is pretty cool. I hope people like this record. I didn’t think anyone would like the last one, but people did. So, I’ll keep crossing my fingers and working as hard as I can.