By John Cody
John Davis: John Davis, Rambler, 2005
After a decade spent fronting power pop rockers Superdrag, John Davis steps out on his debut solo album. Coming across like Alex Chilton singing the Gospel, it’s a solid effort that combines powerful hook-laden roots-rock with bold pronouncements of faith.
Releasing four albums with Superdrag, the band garnered critical raves for their pop-meets-punk sound, all of it written by Davis. They toured with Green Day, Weezer, and Guided By Voices, appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brian, and even got to play with Ray Davies of the Kinks.
By their final album, 2002’s Last Call for Vitriol (Arena Rock/Ryko) Davis was dealing with drug and alcohol addictions, and there was a palpable sense of cynicism evinced in lines like “I don’t think that living’s too attractive/I don’t think that god is interactive…” Then, in a flash, a Damascus Road experience upended his life. While driving alone – to a suite fitting for his upcoming wedding – a sensation he likens to “being struck by lightning, getting hit by a cannonball and having a piano dropped on your head-all at once” occurred. He began to pray, and realized “that the void inside me would never be filled with the liquor.” Returning to the faith he had as a child, he stuck around long enough to complete a final tour before disbanding the group. After struggling with whether to stay in the music business, Davis and his wife Wendy moved from longtime base Knoxville, Tennessee to Nashville, where he began recording his first solo album.
From first to last track the lyrics are reminiscent not so much of anything in the power-pop genre as of Bob Dylan’s faith-inspired Slow Train Coming. Evidence of a changed heart comes across on every song. A few might come close to cliché, but in every case they’re delivered with such conviction that they work.
‘Nothing Gets Me Down’ sounds like an all out raver, but the lyric tells a different story; “Every night is a Saturday night/and it makes me sick.’
“A lot of the songs just kinda wrote themselves. With Superdrag there would always be a handful of songs on each record that kinda happened…I imagined them in their finished form and I just kind of transcribed them. The ones you sit down and write in 20 minutes are sometimes your favorite ones. There were a lot of songs like that on this record, and then there were others that I agonized over.”
“At first it was a struggle for me because I wanted to write gospel music, I wanted to write about what God had done. And I just wanted to be really plain-spoken about it. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it’s hard to write about joy and have people think you’re sincere. How do you really communicate this state of being and have people think you’re for real. Especially somebody from my background. “I Hear Your Voice’ was the first song I wrote. I thought, why don’t I just try to remember exactly how I felt in that instant, right before I handed myself over to God. And I just kept doing it. I wrote ‘Jesus Gonna Build Me A Home.’ That took me 20 minutes. It was like it was already finished, and I just had to jot it down. Granted, none of these things are going to reinvent the wheel in terms of the musical arrangements. In a lot of ways it’s more traditional than any of the other stuff I’ve done. A song like that, you could be anywhere in the world… It doesn’t have to be a church gig. You hit that C – E – F -G and people get it. There’s a musical language that Gospel music works with, and whether people realize it or not, it does something. It’s really cool to watch that happen in unlikely locations.”
The disc begins with ‘I Hear Your Voice.’ Similar to ‘Meant For You’ a benediction that opens the Beach Boy’s 1968 effort Friends, the group has long been an inspiration. Davis points to Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds; “Pretty much any account of those sessions worth it’s salt is going to mention that they had prayer sessions. They wanted to make music that would make people feel loved, and I have to admit that was a goal that I had. Probably to a certain degree following that example. When I listen to his records I feel loved. We need more of that.” Davis a fan of the band’s more obscure albums as well: “Man, Wild Honey (1967) is great! It never got it’s due. It was like he went to the mountain, and was going to make Smile, and then it never happened., and what a shame that all this great, beautiful art that he made just never got a fair shake because he was constantly measured against what he didn’t come across with. When they finally did that thing, when they finally put it out – it blew my mind so much…” It’s not just Brian he admires. All three Wilson brothers are influences; “I think Dennis’ contributions to the group, especially in the Friends/20/20 era (’68-’69), is criminally underappreciated. And Carl’s singing… when I really got into those records and dissected them…it’s like the Beatles. Sometimes I just sit down to write, and that inspiration and those influences will always be there somewhere.”
Another primary influence is Alex Chilton (Box Tops/Big Star): “I have a lot of state pride connected with that man. I’ve had occasion to meet him a few times. I’m a Big Star fanatic to the bone. I love everything they did, and what they represent, as a truly American take on the British invasion. They were that first generation of Beatle fanatics or Kinks fanatics, and they happened to be from Memphis so there was an infusion of the Stax thing here and there. I love everything about them.” Like Chilton, Davis is a longtime Kinks supporter. “We got to meet Ray Davies. It was at SXSW – he got up and sang a song with us. It took us weeks to get over it. He did ‘I Need You’ – we went for the hit singles era. That was the greatest rock moment for me. I’m just obsessed with his songs.”
“I was always aware of the Beatles and the British invasion music, Motown, all the great sixties music. But it wasn’t until I was about 16 or 17 that I realized ‘man, what is this?’ When I was a little kid I had all the singles. Then there was Rubber Soul, Revolver…”
Not that he’s stuck in the sixties. “I have a long-standing obsession with anything [record label] SST. Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr… When I really starting to get into playing guitar, I listened to Dinosaur Jr everyday. I listened to Sebadoh every day. Fugazi… For a long time I had this imaginary band in my head that I wanted to be in that had guitars like Dinosaur Jr. and melodies like the Beatles. And then I saw Teenage Fanclub on Saturday Night Live playing the concept, and it was like, ‘that’s the band.’ That’s the imaginary band. They’re doing it already…”
Producer RS Field (Webb Wilder, Alison Moorer, Billy Joe Shaver) – who Davis describes as “a walking encyclopedia of music’ was the first person Davis called after deciding to do a solo album. “He’s been making records in Nashville for a long time. People put him in this alt country/Americana compartment, but they don’t know that the guy’s favorite band is the Small Faces. He was a kid at a time when you could turn on AM radio and hear the Supremes…Small Faces…the Who…Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, all on the same station… He turned me onto a lot of things that really broadened my listening experience. I love to make these records that are all over the map…They kind of give that illusion of turning on a really bizarre radio station that plays all kinds of songs.” The fact that Davis is the performer on every track insures that no matter how divergent the songs may sound – from string-laden piano-based ballad to all out rockers, there’s a sense of unity throughout. In fact, in many cases he’s the only perfumer. He plays pretty much everything on the disc, save a smattering of percussion and strings. There’s a solid line of players that have pulled this off before, including Todd Rundgren, Paul McCartney, and legendary popmeister Emitt Rhodes. “It’s a totally different subset of challenges. When you write music and you present it to a group, you have the burden of making yourself understood. Secretly I always wanted to try it. I always made demos like that. I just had the four track and one mike, and I’d just bang ’em out real quick so I wouldn’t forget. The challenge is to make it sound like a band, and make it sound like it’s not the same guy doing everything to a click. One of the most enjoyable things about it for me was for a certain portion of the time thinking like a drummer – totally zeroing on pushing the tempo, or hanging back, all these different elements of drums. And then turn around and try to think like a bass player. There is a certain element of convenience, as much energy as fast as you want to work, that’s how fast you can tear through tracking the song down. At the same time, if you’re working a 12 hour day in the studio, every minute of the day, you’re working. It’s not like you can chill while the bass player is doing something.”
The album was completed, and released this past spring. “The day it came out, I took my wife and my mother in law to the record store, and we bought it. I was sitting looking at it, and my wife said “well, put it in.” So we put it in, and we’re going down the road, and I was just kinda zoning out listening to it. And she was singing every word… and she doesn’t’ do that. She just doesn’t do that. And I looked over, and she just busted into tears. She was so happy to hear it, to see it on the shelf. It had been two or three years, with this single-mindedness, and this singularity of purpose, focusing all your efforts on this thing, and then you walk into Best Buy, and it’s sitting there. On the one hand it was a big relief to get it out, on the other hand it’s like fear and trepidation over what’s going to happen to it. You turn it loose, and it’s either you’re setting yourself up for a big disappointment, or things are going to work out okay.”
Returning to perform in many of the venues he toured with in Superdrag has been an experience; “It’s a real emotional thing for me. Sometimes I’m making the rounds, doing the old circuit, going into these places that I’ve been poured out of two dozen times, and doing this music feels like you’re shining light into darkness…It’s the last thing I would have had any reason to expect…the thing about Superdrag is we closed up shop two years ago – that’s a long time. People don’t remember records that they bought two months ago. You’re only as good as your last record, and you’re only as current as your last record. So there’s that to contend with and at the same time you’re going out under this new umbrella and right out of the box you’re going to turn some people off. But it’s a small price to pay for a platform and a means of just speaking the truth.”
Over the summer, Davis performed – for the first time – at major Christian-themed festivals in Holland, Sweden and the UK, as well as Cornerstone in the U.S.: “I didn’t really know what to expect… It’s always a good feeling to win a crowd over, or to be an untested quantity, so to speak, and show up and play for people who’ve never heard you and have them walk away with your record in hand. At least for a short time, that’s one way of taking the ‘record industry’ out of the picture completely.”
He’s also begun to take his music into churches; “That really blew my mind. To sing a song like ‘Jesus Gonna Build Me A Home’ in a church house, it just felt so right. It was in it’s proper place. At that point it’s not so much a case of shining light into darkness – it’s more like a light shining on you. It’s something that we’ve had a limited supply of, we haven’t done a lot of those shows, I would relish the opportunity to do more – I think that is something that will happen in the future, but for the time being we’ve been playing in clubs. Sometimes with the new material and different ideological thrust behind it can be the difference between playing to 300 people and playing to 30 people. I went into it with my eyes open.”
He isn’t looking to pursue one audience at the exclusions of the other…”I kinda feel like the call on this thing is to do both. I really have mixed feelings about going to churches and playing just because it’s a high dollar thing. I really feel weird about that. People tell me ‘you can go here and you can make a grand, you can make $1,500 – $2000 if you go to this church and play. I have no qualms about going and playing, but at the same time there are probably people within a five square mile radius of this church that are hungry, that don’t have a place to live, and it’s like, ‘shouldn’t you be paying the band $200 and taking the rest and feeding and clothing people and helping to heal sick people? I don’t know… it’s a real balancing act.” While that attitude may rattle some feathers inside the lucrative CCM market, he’s hardly interested in making it in that particular scene. “As a relative newcomer to the whole thing I see so many of these bands, and they all sound the same, and they all seem to have way more to do with some kind of fashion movement than a gospel movement. I’m too old, and definitely not pretty enough to take part in that. So I just stick with what I set out to do, which is just to make a really bold-faced record about Jesus. It’s funny – sometimes people in the gospel music business say ‘It’s too gospel’ It’s amazing. If that’s the biggest problem that we have, then we’re probably in pretty good shape. I just tried to zero in on what I thought and what I felt and just made songs out of it, like I always did. I don’t really know any other way.”
Critical response has been uniformly strong, with the disc garnering raves across the board in both mainstream or Christian publications. “To tell you the truth, at first the record seemed to be getting such a fair shake that I started to get worried, because well, we’ve got to offend at least a couple of people…from a certain point of view the gospel is really offensive. Sometimes people really take umbrage with the notion that they need something bigger and better than themselves to make it.”
In addition to his solo career, Davis is involved in numerous side projects. He’s recorded with Allison Moorer and Scott Miller (V-Roys), and he’s currently working with the Astronaut Pushers. A part-time semi-supergroup, the quartet features Davis, Matt Slocum (ex-leader of Sixpence None the Richer), Lindsay Jamieson (currently drumming with Ben Folds) and Sam Ashworth. Ashworth – whose debut solo disc Gonna Get It Wrong Before I Get It Right was released last month – is the son of Christian music legend Charlie Peacock. The group have just released a self-titled ep, which is exclusively available online at www.pastemusic.com. With everyone involved in other projects, the group has only managed to play a half-dozen shows, with Davis only making half of them. He’s also on Ashworth’s Cd – which he describes as “stupendous, tremendous, wonderful”- playing on half the disc, and co-writing the first single. Over the last two months he’s performed double duty with the O.C. Supertones, opening their shows and sticking around to play piano and organ with the group.
The next album is shaping up to be a more full-on rock approach.” I’m already about half way into writing the next record. It’s a lot more rockin’ than the stuff on the first album just in terms of more loud guitar, things are a little faster. A little more along the lines of what I did for a long time. When I started to write again that’s just where I jumped off. I definitely think the lyrical point of view is no less spiritually minded, it’s just the music so far is not as literally traditional gospel. I haven’t written another ‘Jesus Gonna Build Me A Home’ yet.”
After more than a decade in the music industry, Davis is well aware of the lop-sided topsy-turvy world entertainers can inhabit. “In the Good Book we’re taught to be humble, but it takes a certain amount of over-confidence, high-and-mightiness, or just plain bluffing to get yourself to walk out onto a stage in the first place, doesn’t it? The world gets pretty small, to where the song you’re cutting or whatever becomes the most important single act in world history or something. Plus when you sit in a studio for sixteen hours a day and never see the sun shine or know what time of day it is the rest of the world kind of disappears after a while.” He’s in it for the music, not the fame and all that entails. “I have little or no use for the ‘entertainment industry.’ It revolves around worshipping not so much the celebrities themselves, but celebrity itself, and the money and “bling-bling” that comes with it. We have hour-long programs devoted to JUST the bling-bling. You know, Fifty Most Expensive Celebrity Diaper-Bags or whatever it might be. I choose to turn it off. I don’t want my kid watching it either.”
Davis’ promotional material states he’s ‘always on tour.’ As a new father, I wondered how he balances family and career? “I think they gave me more credit than I deserve when they did that. My time spent on tour has been seriously scaled down in the last couple of years – for that very reason. You don’t ever get those times back. They only eat with a spoon for the first time once. You don’t get those moments back, and there’s nothing worth more to me than that. I thought about that. A friend of mine designed the package, and I got to thinking about why he put that, and in a way, as we go out into the world as believers, and preach the gospel and use words as necessary.. and as the saying goes, we kinda are on tour always. I think maybe he struck a deeper nerve than he realized when he put that little thing on there.”
© John Cody 2005