BART DAVENPORT: ROCK N ROLL IS ABSURD
photo by FUNAKI
Bart Davenport is the … auteur? Artiste? Or maybe maestro who recruited a cast of L.A. all-stars (including members of Dream Boys, Nick Waterhouse’s back-up band, the mighty E.S.P.S. and too many other projects to list) to make an album that flies like an arrow straight through two or maybe three decades of impeccably put-together pop. His newest Physical World is full of songs that go left when you expect them to go right, that go up when you expect them to go down, and that turn inside out when you think they’re finally about to finish. This interview by D.M. Collins.
I think your songs are very heartfelt, and your lyrics are too, but there might be one or two songs on the new album that I feel are a little … like musically tongue-in-cheek. I don’t mean they sound 80s, which is a cop out and I think it’s bullshit, but are there parts in your songs where you’re kind of joking?
Bart Davenport: Musically joking? No. Lyrically joking? Yes. But musically joking, no. There’s no jokes. Maybe when I’m doing like the really super shreddery guitar solo on ‘Fuck Fame’ it’s a little tongue-in-cheek. That’s the only moment. There’s not a lot of musical humor there—I mean, the whole thing is humorous in a way. We understand that rock ‘n’ roll is absurd. It’s silly. It’s all a joke in a way, but then it’s all dead fucking serious.
You sound like you’re someone who’s trained a lot and you obviously know a lot about music, so why did you pick rock ‘n’ roll? Why not go pure jazz? Bossa nova?
Bart Davenport: Those other styles, if you want to legitimately do them, take years and years of dedication. I’m not in any position to become an actual bossa nova artist. Flamenco? Forget it, and jazz maybe … but that feels like it might be kind of limiting for me. I like to use these things as influences. I’ve never intended on being anything other than a rock music performer. And I find it interesting that more people don’t use those influences. They used to when rock was young and new—those influences were necessary for the Doors, that was necessary to bring bossa nova in to keep the music fresh. But for some reason now you’re looked at as some world music eclectic weirdo because you brought in a fucking bossa nova change? Big deal—it’s still rock ‘n’ roll.
The Doors are one of my favorites—they were so over-appreciated then and they’re under-appreciated now. Who’s your favorite member of the Doors?
Bart Davenport: Jim.
Is there something on this new album that you think is brand-new to you—that you’ve really never done before? And you’re excited to be like, ‘Look, I can do this!’
Bart Davenport: First of all, I’m only eclectic from a super ‘nowadays’ point-of-view. If I had been making the same music in the 60s, 70s or 80s, I would have not been thought of as eclectic. It’s just because contemporary music has gotten so narrow—so narrow in the framework of what people are willing to use to make their music. Now I’m thought of as eclectic but I don’t think of myself as eclectic—I’m a pop artist, I make pop songs. In fact, I really see a really narrow picture of what I choose to do versus what I could do.
What are some choices that you rule out?
Bart Davenport: On this record, the way I felt we expanded a bit was in some of the sounds we chose to use. There is a very different drum sound on this record from any of my previous records, there’s the use of guitar effects well beyond anything I used to do. There is so much to do with production that’s new for me. If people want to talk about the 80s as an influence that’s right out in the open—that’s really obvious to me. The snare sound, the chorus. Definitely it’s gated snare on some of those songs, the chorus pedal on a lot of the guitars … and that was influenced by me listening to Cleaners from Venus and Prefab Sprout, and I think it’s really clear and evident and obvious. It’s not any kind of mystery, it’s just really clear that we decided to go there. And that was my intention.
What’s an 80s convention that you guys have avoided? Haircuts?
Bart Davenport: Yeah … no. We could have had these haircuts in the 80s.
Which band member has the most 80s haircut?
Bart Davenport: Me.
You have such a great voice—it seems like you took good care of it. How did you escape ruining it in your younger years in louder bands?
Bart Davenport: You mean shouting and screaming over loud music and stuff? I don’t think I could have possibly physically done any damage in my early times. Whatever damage I might have done, I’m sure it got healed. The voice I have is just whatever I would naturally have even if I wasn’t a singer. I’m not very fatuous about my vocal chords. I do tend to blow them out pretty easily cuz I don’t give a shit. Whereas the irony is that I really love and almost fetishize that super-clean, kind of soft rock voice like Karen Carpenter, and it’s so not what God gave me. And I just make it worse by drinking whiskey and shouting all night above loud DJs and bands.
I’m convinced whiskey is good for singers.
Bart Davenport: I think it’s really so in a short run.
And when I try to think of singers to compare you to, a lot of them are women, like Sade.
Bart Davenport: Right. When you start talking about singers I immediately start talking about women, as far as the ones I love to listen to and I feel inspired by. Dionne Warwick, Karen Carpenter … I never took singing lessons. I was in school choir when I was a kid but I don’t really have a very technical method, I just kind of wing it. But I do really love the female singers. One of my friends that I absolutely love her voice: Nedelle Torrisi. [Now our advice columnist!—ed.]
So many of your songs have the name of a woman in the title or as the name of a character—have you had any important muses in your life?
Bart Davenport: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of them have been girls or women that I’ve been involved with or something.
So much of your music is about love and what’s funny is actually I first became aware of your music through a girlfriend. I don’t want to be gendered—I don’t think that there is masculine or feminine set in stone, but hear me out—in a way there is a certain kind of music that’s like older brother music, like Jethro Tull or something. Do you think you might be girlfriend music—like music girlfriends bring their boyfriends to?
Bart Davenport: Maybe. I have definitely seen this kind of thing that you’re talking about so I feel like you might be onto something.
What do you think it is?
Bart Davenport: I honestly don’t know. It would be arrogant of me to try and say that women like my music more than men for such and such reason. There are plenty of men who’ve reached out to me and said that they like my stuff. And yet the thing you say about girlfriends liking it has come up in the past and continues to come up. I just feel like it’s going to be an unanswered question to a degree. I will say that I was raised in a communal house full of lesbian couples growing up. I was raised by lesbians and my entire childhood I was mostly raised by women—I have about six mothers. I mean, I have my actual mother who of course is at the absolute top of the pyramid for sure. She is my mom and no one else will take her place. But there are about five other …
Bart Davenport: Assistant moms, yeah. It gets so murky to talk about because I know that I’m a man—I’ll never understand what it would be like to be a woman—and yet growing up in that kind of environment might have given me a slightly feminine sensibility when it comes to writing songs. When you’re a child and you’re constantly hearing Laura Nyro or Joan Baez or Stevie Nicks or Chrissie Hynde—these are things that I was inundated with as a child in some ways. But my favorites are always the Monkees and the Beatles and … I don’t know, Devo.
Do you believe women and men are way more similar than they’re different and the whole gender thing is a construct?
Bart Davenport: I really respect that idea and I think it’s entirely possible that that could be true, but I personally wouldn’t agree with that. I would say first of all that I would fear offending any women that would read or listen to what I’m saying. So I wouldn’t want to make a definitive comment about the genders and masculinity versus femininity. And I wouldn’t want to try and pose as some sort of authority on that topic because I would fear offending any women on that subject. At the same time I will say I think it’s much more complicated than most people tend to speak of it in any way. I think the whole thing is much more complex than the dialogue that currently exists. I think we have this crazy rainbow and all these slight color gradations and there’s this vast spectrum that we’ve only begun to talk about when we’re talking about transgender and all those things. I’ve met really masculine women, I’ve met really feminine men, I’ve met people that you want to peg as this way and then they’ll surprise you and I think that the density and the—it’s just so much greater than any of the dialogue that anyone has been having yet. It’s so much further beyond any of that. So yeah, of course I do think the super generic male and female archetypes are a construct, yes, but I don’t want to just suddenly act as if I know what it’s like to be a woman, because I don’t. I live in this construct. I occupy this construct and I’ve had to experience all of my life in this construct, so I still don’t know what it’s like. But I think that there is just this vast spectrum of types and I love that. I think that there are people that don’t fit in with the, like, five choices society is allowing us to have now. There used to be two and now there’s like five. But there is literally probably a million that you can fall in.
I think that your lyrics are very refreshingly sort of unironic. I’m not sure if it’s always written from your own real perspective or from a character, but it doesn’t feel like something we should laugh at. Are you more serious as a songwriter than you are in your regular life?
Bart Davenport: No, I think that the majority of the songs are meant to have a sense of humor to them. Perhaps I’ve previously failed as an artist in that I’ve been perceived to be so incredibly sincere when if anyone really knows me they know that these songs are—well, some of them are quite obviously meant to be taken lightly. It’s been a goal of mine in the past couple of years to be a little bit more clear about my intentions—to try and be more understood. For so long I was making this music for myself and just sending it out there. I mean, to a degree that’s what all artists will do and that’s what I will continue to do. And yet there was a point a couple of years ago where I started feeling a little misunderstood, just judging by some of the feedback I had been getting. It’s on my mind more that people are going to hear this and interpret it and I should try and write with a little bit of that in mind.
In one of the songs, you say ‘cheap thrills ain’t cheap enough’—that’s a really good line. It reminded me of the wordplay you find in country music.
Bart Davenport: I really like country songwriting. I’ve always admired the way those songs—the wordplay could be so simple and so perfect. And that’s the same thing in punk songs and really good folk songs. Being able to pack as much meaning into the simplest phrase is often the goal.
Music gets to be low-key in a way that modern poetry doesn’t cuz you get to punctuate or enforce the simplicity of meaning with the sound. Like in case people don’t get it, you can just hammer it home with a drumbeat.
Bart Davenport: Yeah, I mean—something like the Ramones, that is some of the greatest songwriting that’s ever been done and it’s so intentionally stupid. But then it’s not stupid at all.
Or Little Richard.
Bart Davenport: That’s a different kind of thing. There is a line between the original rock ‘n’ rollers and what they had to say, and then these people who kind of reopen the case for rock ‘n’ roll with the way they were able to be so clever in their simplicity and in their rawness. But there was always a little bit of cleverness behind stuff like the Ramones—
Bart Davenport: Self-awareness, thank you.
You’re somebody I think who relatively seamlessly straddles these different eras—you play music that evokes 60s and 70s and 80s without necessarily being like, ‘Oh that sounds like France Gall or something.’ So … how do you do that?
Bart Davenport: I just try to write songs. I do have some goals and an agenda in my songwriting. Sometimes you’re writing something that you think is very much in a certain kind of genre and then by the time you put it through the whole process of recording and producing it and releasing, it takes on a whole new name. That’s happened to me quite a few times. The original style that I might have envisioned might be totally left in the dust by the time the song is actually completed. Does that answer your question? The process for me is often very much in my head. I get a guitar and I just do it the old-fashioned way and even though I really enjoy working with my bandmates and working with producers and working with drum machines and all kinds of foot pedals and all of those things, I still really get a kick out of the raw words-and-music format. I really have a lot of admiration for that really old-fashioned type of songwriting. But I’m bored with just being a singer-songwriter and having the writing be the only focus—it’s not enough for me. I want to be able to do more than just that. But that’s always a compliment when people do say you can play this song on just one instrument and it would still be the song. That’s always nice to hear cuz it means that I’ve composed something pretty solid. I even want the lyrics to look good on paper if you were only to read them. I hope that they look good.
I wish more people would want to do that.
Bart Davenport: They may not be perfectly structured poetry or ballads or songwriting, and I know that people who’ve really studied these things—you’re a literary guy, you probably really understand the difference between a sonnet and a ballad or whatever—but I just want it to look good when you read it. I want to people to enjoy reading it if they ever do. Like Patti Smith—it’s so wonderful just to read her stuff. And some of those things turn into songs and they’re quite erotic and crazy and they’re certainly not conventional poetry by any means. They’re real wacky wild I guess, but they just read well. She probably loved the look of those words on page, and I have to say I do too. I get on to a typed form as quick as I can. I go from scrawled ideas with the pen and paper, random rhymes, random little ideas that might be put in a notebook, and I try to go from those random melodies and things. I take those things and put them into a complete song right away. I want to look at the Word document with my stuff all typed up in some format that it looks like what it’s going to be later on when someone has to read this shit. And that helps me to get a grip on what I’m really seeing. So for anyone that might think that this stuff is just tossed out, I’m trying to make something that has layers of meaning and multiple layers of effort being put into that process. Sometimes I may sit there for days staring at a Word document, trying to put the words together in a way that appeals to me.
I believe you that some of your songs are written from the perspective of characters, but ‘Fuck Fame’ seems to be written from your own perspective.
Bart Davenport: No, I really think it’s at least 50/50. Half the time I’m speaking as me and half the time I’m speaking as a character I have in my mind who might say this sort of thing. It’s such a character, ‘Fuck Fame.’ It’s musing about this thing that society says we should want or need—it’s rejecting that.
But it seems like it’s you rejecting it, not somebody else.
Bart Davenport: Right, cuz I’m the guy singing that. The character in the song might be me in a few lines —I used some personal experience in a few lines to say ‘here’s why I bugged out’—but there are other lines where I’m speaking for someone I know maybe or maybe I’m speaking as this character that I imagine. Absolutely when it first came to me I was picturing someone else saying all this stuff, not me.
You’ve been at the solo project for over ten years now—are there things that you’ve said that you wish you hadn’t said in one of your songs?
Bart Davenport: We all have those songs that make us cringe. It gets more cringy the further back you go. I feel like I’m on a journey and there’s something I’ve been trying to do all this time and I’m getting closer and closer to that—so it’s always my most recent work which I’m least embarrassed of.
Within the rock ‘n’ roll world there’s two rules that I think people subscribe to—one, everybody’s old stuff is better and two, with anybody you can go back far enough and find something good.
Bart Davenport: There must be exceptions to that rule—like Alex Chilton.
Do you think he was better the year before he died than he was in 1979?
Bart Davenport: Gosh, I don’t know about that, but I definitely think that all the stuff he did after the Box Tops was equal to or as good as or maybe better.
But with country musicians—like Waylon Jennings was way better at age 50 than he was at age 20, and Tom Waits is better at age 50 than he was at age 20, and a lot of blues guys are better at age 50 than they were at 20. Dionne Warwick, that’s debatable but I think that she was pretty good at age 50.
Bart Davenport: There is the camp that likes the young Billie Holiday and there is the camp that likes the old junkie voice of Billie Holiday. It’s all a matter of taste. There is also this thing where we’re getting into the later work of some artists that’s been kind of overlooked. We’re much more likely to go out to one of our friend’s DJ nights and hear ‘Temporary Secretary’ over anything by the Beatles. So the later work from some of these artists that are so iconic still can sometimes be the thing that fascinates people—cuz we’re bored of their early shit that everyone knows about. I wouldn’t even know where I personally fall on any of that cuz I am still quite obscure, and it’s not as if my early work is even more obscure than my current work. I think not having gotten particularly famous may have been helpful for me in some ways. It wasn’t helpful for me financially, but it might have been helpful for me artistically in that I was able to just keep on going down a certain path and trying to do a certain type of thing.
Why do you think you’ve never had that financial kind of success?
Bart Davenport: If I answer that question I’m going to get into the territory of negativity and that’s something I don’t really want to do. I’d rather be able to be positive about the things I’m saying about my work. So if we get into that ‘why aren’t you famous’ stuff, it’s just a vicious circle that leads to a crappy interview. Like the song says, ‘Fuck Fame.’ I’m not even certain fame is what I’m looking for. In the greater sense, I’m not sure what it is I’m looking for—I’m just a music artist trying to make my way. I’m more popular in Spain than I am in the United States and it’s a nice place to be popular. I’m thankful for that.
I realized that I know far more about Peruvian rock or Mexican rock than I knew about the Spaniards. Even Los Bravos—I guess because of Franco it was a weird place for rock.
Bart Davenport: Some real Spaniards could probably speak to that better than me, but what I understand is under the fascist regime of Franco, the rock ‘n’ roll groups were dealing with an era of suppression and oppression. But I’ve also heard that the members of these bands were actually often the sons of the government. And so they were guys who were allowed to get away with going to England to buy their clothes and buying electric guitars and emulating the Kinks or the Stones.
There might be rock ‘n’ roll’s dirty secret. Like I love Eastern Bloc sort of Shadows-esque instrumental rock and there are only about eight bands who ever did it, and it was okay for them because they were like sons of the ambassador of culture or something.
Bart Davenport: Right—I suppose we always have to have these rich kids who have financing and are able to make something subversive happen. That’s good. I’m not against rich kids, but I’m not a rich kid.
Someone who’s very different than you but … I was always fascinated by the interview with John Cougar Mellencamp, who when he was young was in a bunch of sort of glam rock bands. He was hip, he was in the studios and all that stuff. And he says, ‘No, kids should be into that stuff, kids should be into the new, loud aggressive thing. But when you get older you have to have your own voice.’ Do you feel like that’s been true for you? When you were young, you were doing something ‘hip’ and now you’ve actually found your own voice and that’s a better thing? Because that’s the way that an artist should be?
Bart Davenport: No—I disagree with John Cougar.
Now he’s John Mellencamp.
Bart Davenport: I don’t identify with what he’s saying there. I’ve just always been trying to do the thing I want to do. What’s considered hip or what’s considered even good is such a subjective thing and I just don’t even see the relevance. Of course, as you get older you start relating to new things but if anything, I’ve stayed very immature.
I’ll grant you immaturity, but I will disagree about something. I think that there is a certain attempt in your music to achieve an objective level of quality with your vocals, with the music elements, with your lyrics that you said you want to be good on paper—there is an attempt to be ‘good.’
Bart Davenport: Be adult.
BART DAVENPORT WITH LUKE SWEENEY AND MILLER CARR ON WED., JUNE 4, AT HARVARD AND STONE, 5221 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., EAST HOLLYWOOD. 9 PM / FREE / 21+. HARVARDANDSTONE.COM. BART DAVENPORT’S PHYSICAL WORLD OUT NOW ON LOVEMONK/BURGER. VISIT BART DAVENPORT AT BARTDAVENPORT.COM.