Within the cult world of instrumental fingerstyle guitar, Daniel Bachman is something of a living legend. Although only in his late ’20s, he’s left a lengthy and enviable trail of recorded output behind him. With ferocious technicality and sheer imagination, he’s crafted a compelling body of work that already stands alongside genre greats like Jack Rose and John Fahey, despite a career only going back a decade. We spoke with him shortly after the culmination of a lengthy tour throughout the UK and EU with folk sound-weaver Jake Xerxes Fussell, a tour that saw the two on fine form – as our review of their Bexhill show attests.
How did you meet Jake Xerxes Fussell? You went on tour together so you must have known each other for a while before then? Had you toured together before?
Jake and I lived in Durham [North Carolina] at the same time. We met through mutual friends and musicians – there’s a cool group of people that live in that area and I met him through a party that I had at my house. We’ve been trying to do a tour over there together for a while and this [recent UK/EU tour] worked out for both of us.
So how many times have you toured the UK overall now?
Maybe five times… maybe six? I don’t know – some of those years were really busy; I came over, like, two or three times a year.
Do you book all your own shows?
I did and [then] I had about a four year period where I was working with a booking agency called Paper & Iron but now I’m doing all my own stuff again.
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Do you enjoy that side of things?
Not really. I like talking to my friends and I think it’s better because you get to meet all the people that are booking you and you meet them in person. It’s more of a connection – which seems like a good thing. I like doing it that way but it’s a lot of work [laughs]. [The UK/EU tour] took, like, 6 months to organise and I do other stuff too so it’s part of your day. Every day you sit down for two or three hours and work on it. It’s not bad [but] I’m probably going to get to the point where I just do it once a year. It’s just too much on top of everything else I’m doing.
Plus, touring is so intense that I can see how you might get burned out doing too much of it.
Oh, yeah. I did the first half of [the tour] alone and that’s heavy, too – especially being in countries where English isn’t the first language. I’m used to it, though, but this was just a long one; that’s the only thing that made it different. But it’s cool, though, I dig it. I’m trying to not do six week or two month long tours on a regular basis, that’s where you really start going nuts. It’s crazy.
How did you first get into touring and recording music?
I knew this guy – I played in Philadelphia and Washington DC at these house gigs – and this guy in Washington DC was like “you should go on tour”, so I was like “OK” [laughs]. And he gave me all these people’s email addresses, phone numbers, myspace names and stuff like that and I emailed everybody. I went [on that tour] with my friend. I was 17 and he was 27; we went to New England in the winter time – there was lots snow and the gigs were really bad but I actually met some people on that tour that I still know. That was almost 10 years ago, too, which is crazy.
Is there a different dynamic for you when you play live in front of an audience and when you record an album?
Oh yeah, totally. I think that recording is different for me. It’s not something that I really enjoy so I do it really quick, over the course of a week or a couple of days. I prefer playing in front of people.
So what is it about recording that doesn’t do it for you?
As soon as you put a mic there, I recognise it and there’s not as much of a loose, carefree way of playing – I see [the microphone] and I’m like “oh, there it is”.
Maybe you become a bit self conscious?
I don’t know, it’s easier for me to get stuff out playing live because I know it’s not being recorded.
Have you found it harder to get noticed playing instrumental music?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t have any thoughts of getting really big gigs or anything like that because I know that what I do is not for everybody [laughs]. Sometimes I’m surprised at the people that come [to my gigs], that are just giving it a try. It’s a small world, guitar music. It’s not bad, though – I feel comfortable with that. I like it.
Like you say, guitar music is a small world – do you consider yourself part of a scene, either geographically or even in your musical approach?
I don’t know, maybe. I feel like if you compare some of my stuff to other stuff that’s going on you can draw comparisons with other people doing similar things, even geographically. But, I don’t know, man – I’ve always had a problem because I’ve never felt part of a scene. I like to think that people like Nathan Bowles or Jake [Fussell] are doing things in a similar spirit – or trying to, at least, even though it’s all different shades.
Early on some of your releases were put out in quite a DIY fashion. You put out a few cassette tapes and CDrs, right? Was that done out of necessity or because the DIY nature of those formats appealed to you?
It was a little bit of both. I have a ton of tapes – I’ve done tapes that nobody [has heard], I was just making them at my parents’ house and I did some CDrs and an LP, too. I have this period in the year where I just push stuff out and I was doing that then, too. That stuff that I made, those tapes or that LP – a lot of that stuff was to sell at shows. I really wanted to make a record and I worked for a guy who showed me how to do it and showed me how to get everything ready for it. My friend Forrest, who I still play with, helped me record it. I worked this job for the park service for a season – you get paid a chunk of money for two or three months work and I used that money to put [the LP] out. It was something I just really wanted to do, you know? It wasn’t out of necessity it was just a goal in my life – I wanted to make a record.
Is it difficult to lead a normal life on the road? Can you still eat well and sleep well?
If you have the money, yes. [laughs] I do stuff cheap and that’s because I want to go home with more and when you do stuff cheap you get what you pay for. I try to be healthy – I try to eat as best as I can. I try to exercise, I’m a runner at home and I bring my running stuff on tour. On this last tour I [ran] six times over forty days – that’s not that many but it’s tricky because some nights you get in at 3am, some nights you get in at midnight and sleep until noon because you need literally 12 hours. I don’t know, it’s hard to lead a normal life on the road because it’s just… it’s not normal [laughs].
Would you say audience reaction is different in Europe and the UK to the US?
I’d say that the UK and US are very similar and Europe is different. In the US and UK you’ll sometimes get really chatty crowds, you’ll sometimes feel like you got undercut a little bit – nothing’s free, you know what I mean? Like, in the US, last summer I drove 10 hours and I got paid $5.
You got paid $5 for the gig?
Seriously? That’s unbelievable.
Yeah, I’ll show you, I even saved it [produces receipt showing outgoing costs and $5 payment]. I’m going to frame it! [laughs] It’s pretty brutal still, you really gotta go after it. It’s like that in the UK, too. It’s pretty cut-throat sometimes – I’ve never had anything that bad happen to me [in the UK]… actually, maybe once. On the first tour I went on there I got paid like £10 or something. Europe is different, it has Arts Council funding and people go out more. Tickets are a bit more but people are used to spending a bit more, I think it’s just different culturally. I don’t know why. It’s pretty rough [in the US], you’ve just straight up got people not giving a shit over here. You can go some place and no one will come out.
Is that disheartening?
As long as I play well, I’m like “OK, I did a good job” and then I usually get paid a little bit and you’re just like “OK, that was practise, I tried hard and I did well, I’ll try again tomorrow night.” I don’t really let it affect me anymore; I’ve had some gigs recently that were disastrous and those kind of sunk in but it’s alright.
Do you have a favourite city – or even country – to play in? One where you know you’ll get a good crowd?
I lived in Philly for a little bit, that’s usually good. I lived in Chapel Hill, Durham and I’ve got a lot of friends down there, that’s usually good. Richmond is usually good – that’s the biggest city close to where I live and that’s usually good. Home town and stuff around here is pretty good, anywhere else [and] it just depends; sometimes you can go to San Fransico and get 60 people out and have a great gig and then come back 6 months later and there’s 5 guys.
I’ve never understood why that would happen.
Well, I remember going and seeing Jana Hunter play in DC around Thanksgiving and there were 6 people there. I was like “damn, that’s crazy”, you know? I’ve been to a bunch of gigs where I thought they were under-attended.
America is rich with folk tradition and there’s been a lot of really old archive folk recordings made there, is that stuff an influence?
Oh god, yeah. I’m totally into that shit. That stuff is never-ending, it’s one of those things where you think you hit the bottom of the well and it just keeps going deeper and deeper – I’m really into that stuff. I’m into a lot of other types of music, too. I’m not just into the American stuff, just on this last trip I got introduced to all these Scottish guitar players and I’m listening to that shit a lot. I like a lot of far-out music [too]. It is cool that you can listen to some of these records and go to the places where they were recorded pretty quickly, in some parts of the country. If you go west in this state or in North Carolina or Georgia and places like that, you can go to the places where these people were making this music and at a lot [of these places] the deal is still kind of the same. It’s coming up to the 100 year anniversary of a lot of those recordings, too; it’s an interesting time. It does feel like ancient Greece through. I mean, the life then is as foreign to me as probably Greece or Rome, it’s a completely different world. We live in the future, it’s crazy.
It’s interesting that you mention visiting the places where these old folk recordings were made because I like to visit important places to musicians I like, when I can. I live not so far from the house that John Martyn lived in during the ’70s and I’ve visited it a few times, it’s really cool.
I’m super into John Martyn, I’m into all that stuff. I knew some other poeple that were really into him and it took me a while – the first John Martyn record I ever really listened to was ‘Bless The Weather’ and it was cool but I used to go over to my friend’s house and we’d get really drunk and listen to records and the first time I heard that it was 3 o’clock in the morning and it didn’t have the full [impact]. I love that record now but I didn’t like it then [but when] I heard that first solo record, ‘London Conversation’, that record fuckin’ blew my mind. After that I started getting everything. His records are really hard to find over here. I find them in the weirdest motherfucking places, I found ‘Bless The Weather’ in Salt Lake City but I’ve never gotten ‘The Tumbler’ and I don’t have ‘London Conversation’. But you know which one I like a lot? ‘Inside Out’. That one is badass.
Yeah, I love ‘Inside Out’. I think ‘Sunday’s Child’ is very underrated, too.
Oh, hell yes. ‘Sunday’s Child’ is great. ‘Solid Air’ is the shit, [too] but I rember not being totally a big fan of it the first time I heard it but then when I came back to it, it’s a great fuckin’ record – a fuckin’ masterpiece. I remember when he died, my Mom was in New Mexico with my Sister listening to the radio and they were like “John Martyn died” and [I was like] “who’s that?” NPR gave him a whole day and I remember listening to a lot of that stuff for the first time the day he died. The one record that I always really liked was that John And Beverly [Martyn] record, ‘Stormbringer!’ and some of that is kind of softer and not as punchy but it’s still good. I found that in a fucked-up, weird place too. There’s still a lot of small fucked-up record stores in the US [where] they own the building, all they have to pay are their utilities and it’s [run by] some old guy sitting somewhere. In a lot of those [places] you can still find really cool records. Actually, you can still find good thrift store records, I mean there’s some good thrift stores around [where I live], places where you can still find some cool stuff.
It’s always a good feeling when you find a really rare record priced at far less than it’s worth.
I’ve found some fucking weird shit [that way]. I was in North Carolina and I found these records from this church in LA that combines the Tarot and Kabbalah and Color Worship. I was looking for a lot of different stuff and I found these two records – I kind of don’t even like owning them, it just feels really heavy and fucked up. It was kind of a cult and it still is a church but they’re so fucking weird. It’s chanting and organ music and they’re form the ’50s and ’60s. That’s a weird fucking thing that I found.
They sound a bit creepy.
Yeah, I kind of don’t like having them around. I’m kind of superstitious and something about them just freaks me out.
Could you give us an insight into the creative process behind your songs?
Well, I guess having it in one tuning helps. If a song is in just one tuning then you always have something to come back to, you always have an open place to start and finish. From that, I compartmentalise all these different little parts that sound like they might work together. It’s kind of like pulling stuff up to see what works and what doesn’t. What I do for a couple of hours every day is not necessarily improvise but just play, you know what I mean? Even if you’re just playing the same thing over and over again for 20 or 30 minutes when I do that, new stuff starts to come. That’s how I do a lot of [my songs].
So do you practise a lot on the guitar? I ask because obviously most great musicians do have to practise a lot but occasionally you hear about an incredible musician who never seems to practise.
Um, yeah. I’m not one of those people [laughs]. I lose it really quick – actually, I’m starting to lose it right now. I’ve been home for a week and I’ve only played, like, 1 day out of that 7 or 8 days [I’ve been back] and my calluses are already starting to fade. You lose a lot of stuff really quick, or at least I do, so I gotta practise everyday. I probably practise for about 2 hours at least every day.
Is practise something that you actually enjoy or can it be a chore at times?
Some days it feels like a chore but I do feel good about [being like] “OK, I got 2 hours to finish this out” even if it’s a bit of a drag getting through it, it feels good to finish it. You start getting to the point where it’s more of a – not that it’s a job – but it’s more… professional, maybe? I really want to slow down touring a little bit and maybe even get a part time job so I can sit down for a little. It’s hard to get out of [touring] once you’re in it.
What sort of strings do you use?
I use D’Addario – the cheap, regular ones. For the lap guitar I use John Pearse strings, they’re for Hawaiian style guitar, they’re cool. D’Addario also make strings for the lap guitar too, they’re cheaper. I use the cheapest stuff I can get because I go through strings so quick. There’s no spending 20 bucks on one pack.
So, do you change your strings after every show?
It’s really every 3 days on the road and at home, it’ll be every 2 weeks. I play differently on the road – different climates and different rooms. If you play a really crowded room and there’s not much ventilation and you’re sweating, your hands sweat and the sweat gets into the strings which changes the sound. If it’s cold, a set of strings will last me 5 days on the road but as soon as it starts warming up I change them every three days.
Do you have any favourite tunings?
G and C. I think that G is really just the best. C is really cool, too – there’s a lot that you can do with C. You can change that tuning, like, 4 times just by tuning the top string up or down a half step and it changes completely. I’ve never tried it going up into E but usually if you go down from open C, it’s really cool. There’s a lot of variation too.
You tour with a really nice Martin guitar, could you tell me a bit about it?
It’s from 1970. It was my Dad’s and he gave it to me when I started getting really into [playing the guitar] because he has different guitars he plays with. That was his guitar that he bought brand new and it’s still a nice guitar [although] it needs work. I need to be more responsible with it if I’m being honest. I need to have it regularly looked at but that’s money I don’t really have. You do work when you have the money or when it’s absolutely necessary, at least in my book. Sometimes you just gotta let gear rot away…
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, either. A bit of degradation can add character to an instrument.
Totally. The guitar I have wouldn’t sound the way it does unless my Dad had played the shit out of it in the ’70s and ’80s. He played it in smoking bars for, like, 20 years – it wouldn’t have that sound if it had been daintily laid in a case.
So, your Dad was a musician, were the rest of your family musical? Was folk something your parents passed down to you or did you get into it yourself?
Well, I got a lot of my Dad’s records and he had some cool stuff – that’s honestly how I initially heard about some old time and blues stuff. I knew a little bit about that stuff but not a lot. My Grandfather was a professional musician and he played trumpet in the ’30s and ’40s and I played trombone for a while because I was really into the stuff too. My Mom doesn’t play, my Sister is musical, my Dad is musical – we always had music on a lot when I was in the car or at home with them. A lot of that stuff I heard through my parents but then when I started getting deeper into stuff like old time music and blues and [John] Fahey – I found that stuff on my own. I’ve always been curious about music and I haven’t walled yet; every couple of years, even when was, like, 15 or 16, looking at music… you know how it goes. Just a music fan.
Also, I don’t know about you but for me, the internet was invaluable for how my taste in music developed. You discover one great artist and it’s easy to find 10 more like them, and they all lead to 10 more and so on.
Oh yeah, it’s totally crazy. It’s endless. Jake [Fussell] sent me some archive [recordings] from the University Of Georgia that are crazy. It’s like a bottomless pit of live music and field recordings and video and I didn’t know about any of those musicians. It’s wild and it never ends – it’s exciting, man. It’s a cool time to be into music, it really is. Politically everything’s shitting the bed but technology [means that] everything is available. Sometimes it does make things kind of less special because you’re kind of always waiting for something else to blow your mind so when you get something really cool sometimes it’s hard to appreciate it [but] it’s a really cool time to be alive.