The Thirsty 7 with David Karsten Daniels

By Brandon Forbes

Having recorded three self-released albums before being picked up by Fat Cat last Fall, David Karsten Daniels is a part of the Chapel Hill musical force known as the Bu Hanan collective that has produced such buzzworthy acts as The Physics of Meaning, The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, and Kapow! Music. From a collegiate music degree to bedroom 4-track experiments in France to participation in the Bu Hanan collective, Daniels has traversed a wide musical path and it shows. February saw the release of Sharp Teeth by Fat Cat and the variety and cogency of song composition on the record is overflowing with both musical rigor and pop flair. Featuring a wide range of musicians, Sharp Teeth moves from freak folk to distorted fuzz out to New Orleans dirge to haunting piano with equal ease, creating a song sequence ripe with lyrical profundity and rock n’roll sensibility. Equal parts Wilco, Neil Young, and Mogwai, Sharp Teeth is without doubt one of the best records of 2007.

We caught up with David before his trip to South by Southwest to talk about recording, songwriting, and the God of the South.

1.  How has your training as an academic musician affected your "pop" songwriting?

Music school certainly helps with regards to instrumentation. One thing I like to try to do, and the song “Minnows” would be a good example of this, is to stuff a song with as many tracks and parts as possible just to see how far I can take it while making sure all the additions are still in service of the song. Having had the opportunity to study orchestration, and to play a lot of orchestra pieces -  being exposed to Carlo Gesualdo, Gustav Mahler, Stravinksy, John Cage - it opened my ears up to putting sound together in a way that can be harder to find in pop music. Polychords, more extreme dissonance - these are things that I got really turned on to in school. Academia made me think about form as well. There is some verse/chorus/verse/chorus on Sharp Teeth but a lot of it is somewhat modified. Sharp Teeth has songs with one only one chorus or with only a chorus and no verses at all or with only verses. The latter is very much like a hymn, actually.


2. Songs like "Scripts" and "Minnows" feature a wide variety of instruments and, according to the linear notes, players as well.  Were the arrangements for these songs written out ahead of time, or did a lot of studio collaboration produce some of these multi-instrument moments?

Sometimes I write parts out ahead of time. But often it’s more fun to bring players in and just guide the process between takes. To communicate with the player, I may use an analogy. So, for example, I might say: "The feeling of this song is like a large stone falling through a pond of molasses and the stone is sooo heavy and yet the molasses restricts the movement of the stone so that it still falls incredibly slowly.”Some people require less direction than others. With Daniel Hart, who has played in The Physics of Meaning and The Polyphonic Spree, we have played together for almost 10 years now. He knows what I'm going for without very much discussion. Another thing I'll do, is to record way too many takes and then paste together (phrase by phrase) the parts I like the most to create the end result. It feels like painting with sound and the visual nature of computer based recording is very useful. The trumpet player who played on “Scripts,” Zac Peterson, is an incredible musician from DC. But we had very little time to record, so he did several passes and then I just cut them up as I needed.


3.  How do you interpret Sharp Teeth's visceral and violent cover art?

Beth Tacular, a Raleigh NC painter and member of the Bowerbirds, painted that cover. I had seen some of her work and thought her style would be perfect. I think on first listen, if you're not paying attention to the words, the record may seem somewhat pleasant - at least the first half. But the record, I think, is about the notion of disconnect - particularly a human disconnect that seems to me somewhat innate. On the album the narrator tries to consider that disconnect from many different angles: personal, cultural, spiritual, physical, emotional, but at the end that narrator finds some sort of peace in it. The narrator, in a sense, comes to terms with his own 'animal' and I think that's more or less what the cover is about.


4.  The guitar solo at the end of "American Pastime" seems to be a spot-on homage to more recent Wilco.  What musical influences do you count as most important to both your development as a songwriter and the emergence of the songs on Sharp Teeth?

I went to Wilco concert a few years ago and heard Jeff Tweedy play one of those schizophrenic guitar solos and turned to my friend beside me and we sort of laughed. I had only heard earlier and tamer Wilco up to the point and was amused to find that Mr. Tweedy and I seemed to be going for a similar sound as far as the guitar soloing goes. I think Jeff Tweedy is probably referencing Neil Young which is what I was trying to do on a song like American Pastime – it’s kind of a rejection of slick guitar playing, or an emphasis on sound or timbre over technique. For electric guitar playing, I think Neil Young and Pavement are key for me. Generally though, from my point of view anyway, I think a lot of Sharp Teeth is an attempt to synthesize folk, shoegaze and jazz. So Mogwai, old church hymns, really open, relaxed Kind of Blue-era Miles Davis and also those 'classical' composers I mentioned earlier are the influences that come to mind....


5.  Both "Beast" and "We Go Right On" seem to discuss the animalistic/brutal side of human nature that sometimes raises its ugly head. Could you talk a bit about this theme as you see it on the record?

My current view is that people are inherently selfish. I think when things go badly, most people look out for Number One. Actually, I can't say that is my current view, but it was my view at the time I wrote these songs, which was two plus years ago, mostly.


6. Tracks "Jesus and the Devil" and "Universe of No Parts" are laden with theological imagery.  How has your past relationship with religion affected your songwriting?  Do these songs help tell that story?

As far as I can tell, one can't begin to try to examine this particular part of human nature, the selfish core, without addressing or at least wondering about Man's relationship to whatever it is that is outside of Man. I'm inclined to think there must be something bigger. But I can't be very certain about much more, and I can't have faith in much besides a very basic belief in some sort of higher power. So those two songs are different ways of trying to get at that issue. One is from a more traditional Christian point of view and the other from something more....uh...Eastern, I guess. A few people have remarked that they thought that the figures on the cover were Adam and Eve - an interesting reading of it, though not one I ever considered. I grew up in the Church and in the South, which is a very religious part of the country for those that don't know, and that experience continues to play out in my songwriting...


7.  What projects in the near future can we expect from the Bu Hanan collective?

Very soon someone will put out the new Kapow! Music EP. It's called Trees and is excellent. John Ribo, Kapow's main man, is responsible for all the ambient guitar in my live band. Perry Wright and Alex Lazara from The Prayers & Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers are, right at this moment, recording the follow up to 2005's The Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia. Daniel Hart, who played most of the strings on Sharp Teeth, is recording the second Physics of Meaning Record. So though the last two years have been a little quiet for the collective, you're about to see quite a bit of activity.



All opinions expressed by Brandon Forbes are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.