an interview with daniel bachman
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
"Bachman might be one of America’s true wunderkinds. Furiously prolific, he’s managed to churn out eleven albums since he began touring at 17. His mastery of American Primitive, an instrumental genre invented by the guitarist John Fahey, became apparent on his 2012 album Seven Pines. American Primitive doesn’t quite sound like anything else – maybe blues guitar played like a banjo. Bachman’s previous albums carry glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and NPR. Jesus I’m A Sinner and Orange Co. Serenade serve well as an introduction." Staff writer Sam Gee interviews Bachman for HS-- RECOMMENDED READING: our article on his newest album, The Morning Star.
HALOSCOPE: I noticed that you have a lot of photography on your website. You’ve mentioned you did the painting for The Morning Star’s album cover, and I saw a picture on your Facebook feed of you making a carving. Are you still doing any of that art? How does it influence your music?
Daniel Bachman: Yeah, I do that stuff all the time. I don’t really show anything. I sometimes incorporate my art into the musical outlet I have, but I’ve never really had an “art show” or anything. I’ve really been getting into wood carving. I’ve got a couple cameras in my car for when I travel. I try to be better about documenting some of the weirder stuff I’m around, because for a long time, I didn’t, and I was like dammit! There’s so much! Now I’m trying to really be diligent with all that stuff.
HS: What kind of weird stuff do you see?
DB: Just – I mean – there’s so much stuff. There’s so much stuff in North Carolina too, but I’m focused on the stuff in Virginia – folk art, small museums. Friends of mine who are artists or historians take me places. I’m really interested in folklore studies and history, and I’m trying to get into using a little bit more of a creative lens to tell some of the stories I’m learning about. Like using photography and art to tell those things.
HS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re involved in an ongoing folklore project at UVA. How’s that going? What’s that like?
DB: Oh man, it is cool. I’m working on it with my girlfriend – she’s a musicologist who’s getting her PhD at UVA – and we’re working on this large archive of some of the earliest field recordings from the US. They’re mainly what we’d consider early country music, mostly ballads. We’ve got like a thousand tunes. It’s pretty immense. I’ve been working on it for two years, and it’s probably going to take at least another two.
HS: Oh my God. That’s a four-year deep hole.
DB: It really is. I never did the “college thing,” but this is like my master’s thesis or dissertation. That’s what it feels like, at least.
HS: It’s like your folklore education.
DB: It kind of is, yeah. It’s led to a number of different related things. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
HS: Are you making any new music right now? If so, will this folklore work influence any new tunes?
DB: Yeah, it will, funny enough. I’m trying to stay away from literally interpreting other people’s tunes. I played that song tonight, but that was just "Amazing Grace." Everyone plays "Amazing Grace." In the archive at UVA, we have this tune called "Some of These Days." It’s about eating fried chicken with the angels. It’s about eating all sorts of food with the angels – green beans, fried chicken, mashed potatoes. The version it’s most similar to is a Carter Family tune called "River of Jordan." That’s the melody. We’re putting together a string band with my sister, her boyfriend, and her friends. I’m just working on stuff all the time, regardless of whether I’m putting it out or not.
HS: Please make recordings of that string band. A lot of people would love to hear it.
DB: Oh, it’ll be fun. And when we kind of get it together [laughs]…
HS: What’re some of your favorite albums in any genre?
DB: Man, that’s tough. There’s some stuff that’s really blown my mind over the years. I can’t really think of anything right now. I mean, I can tell you kind of where my head’s at right now. I really like that composer Joanna Brouk. She was a New Age artist – New Age, loosely – I just love her stuff. It’s endless. It just has no form. It could be ten hours long or five minutes long. It’s just beautiful. I love that stuff right now. Man, I’m listening to a lot of the stuff in our archive. I listen to a lot of radio. When I was down here [central NC] I was listening to 102 Jamz. In Charlottesville we have 101 Jamz, I listen to that. I really just take stuff in all the time. I love music. I love all art. I just love taking it in.
HS: Have you checked out the Ackland art museum’s current exhibition? It’s really cool, they’ve shown some of Lonnie Holley’s stuff. He performed here at Cat’s Cradle last week. They have a current photography exhibition.
DB: Was he alone or in an ensemble?
HS: He was with two people. Trombone and drums. He was on keyboard.
DB: I love his stuff. He is so fucking wild.
HS: What’s your favorite guitar tunings? And what’s your general philosophy on life, on making art, consuming art?
DB: Tunings? I like G and C, pretty standard ones. I make a lot of my own tunings too. That’s a kind of trick to keep things separate from other players – or try to, you know what I mean? Because then people will be going what the hell is that? It’s hard to copy stuff if you’re making your own tunings. But I use a lot of C, a lot of G. And… I don’t know. My whole philosophy… I’ve been really blessed in my life to have made money off of music at one point. Now I don’t. Now I work jobs. So I’ve had both of those things, as a full-time musician and now as somebody who does it for fun, who does stuff like this whenever it comes up. And I just have to do it. I come from a family of people who all make stuff. I almost sound cheesy, but I really feel better when I do it, and I feel it when I don’t. Not like there’s something missing or anything, but it’s like – I don’t know. Expressing yourself is really important. I think it’s really important right now too. I wish more people were doing it, even if they didn’t have the confidence in what they were doing right now, because we need it. We need as much beautiful stuff and as much positive stuff as we can get.
HS: Anything you’d like to say to the entire world, if the entire world could hear you at once?
DB: Oh, my God. Jesus. I don’t even know. Pray for Mother Earth [laughs]. I was listening to the Democracy Now! program today about the global climate strikes. That’s really good news. People are doing what they have to do. But I don’t know, I really don’t know. I’m trying to just live my life, do my thing, make art, and not be broke all the time. And just be happy. That’s the thing right now. Just try to be as happy as possible.
HS: Are you succeeding?
DB: Most of the time. It’s a pretty twisted time in America right now, we’re all trying our best. But I’ll say I’m better off now than I was a couple of years ago. ❏
Samuel Gee is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.