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Why Benjamin Lazar Davis Had to Go Home to Rock Out

The 195-mile drive between Bushwick and Saratoga Springs unveils itself in fits and starts. You begin on Broadway — not the Great White Way, but its shabbier, Brooklyn-bound sister — to the Williamsburg Bridge to Delancey, three choked slabs of rigid concrete stretching across the city like veins. By the time you hit the West Side Highway and the turbid sleeve of the Hudson River and head north to the brown cliffs of the Palisades, it feels like you’ve landed on the leeward side of a concrete valley, the George Washington Bridge cast like a lure across state lines. The I-87 slouches northward past New Paltz and Albany before decoupling from the Hudson and scraping the edge of Saratoga Springs’ downtown.

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Benjamin Lazar Davis, 32, took that road home last year to make Nothing Matters, his debut solo album, which was released in May. Davis has been a mainstay in the New York indie scene for nearly a decade, but he’s best-known for his work with the Austin-formed folk-pop outfit Okkervil River. That knack for layered, technically demanding composition followed Davis to his ensemble project Cuddle Magic, a bedroom pop group consisting of Davis, Dave Flaherty, Cole Kamen-Green,Christopher McDonald, Kristin Slipp, and Alec Spiegelman. The band has released several albums, most recently 2017’s Ashes/Axis, an electro-synth heavy record with influences including LCD Soundsystem to Dirty Projectors.

Nothing Matters shares a few chromosomes with Davis’s other projects. It’s still stratified and instrumentally complex bedroom pop, but it’s stripped down in a few places, equal parts Shugo Tokumaru and Sharon Van Etten. “Choosing Sides” could be a single from a lost Shins album, Davis’s voice following a spare acoustic guitar chord as he sings “You got me flowers once for being brave,” before the layers begin to build and more sounds — a steadily exhaling Moog, his own voice in varying pitches — are added to the mix. “Somebody’s Speaking for Me” opens with that same spectral twang before the thump of a drum machine crashes in and low thunder of one of his synths expand the song’s cozy claustrophobia.

The sounds Davis is able to create are a direct product of his recording process. He used money earned from touring with Okkervil River and Cuddle Magic, as well as his collaboration with Joan as Police Woman on the album Let It Be You, to scoop up a trove of obscure instruments — vintage Moogs, hard-to-find Mellotrons, a damn pump organ — only a true gearhead could appreciate. Davis packed a truck full of the stuff headed to Saratoga Springs.https://vvstaging.villagevoice.com/wp-admin/edit.php

Saratoga was a welcome homecoming for Davis. “My whole family — my two sisters and my brother were up there. And their children,” he tells the Voice over a cup of herbal tea. “I have a special relationship with my dad because he’s a musician, and my mom was amazing. It was so great to kind of connect with them in a deeper way now that I’m an adult living in the house.” Davis recorded nearly all of Nothing Matters in his childhood bedroom and treated the process like a day job, beginning at 10 a.m. and wrapping up by 8 p.m. so his parents could get some sleep. (Davis’s father is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist; he led bands in the Sixties and Seventies as well as touring with the Mamas and the Papas.) The room was mostly unchanged from the way he left it for the New England Conservatory of Music at eighteen; Davis transformed it into a makeshift studio, his misfit collection of instruments lining the floor.

Davis has made a career out of collaboration, and his journey home was a way for him to emerge from that comfortable chamber of partnership and explore his own tastes. “There was an energy in me that I felt while I was doing a lot of collaborating, just that I wanted to put my print on things,” he says. “I don’t want to call it ego, but just that I wanted to show the me that was there in the collaborations.”

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Freedom comes with its own chains, though, and Davis sometimes struggled with the reality that there was no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to tell him that something was gorgeous or that something needed to be scrapped completely. Save for his mixing engineer, no one heard the album until it was completely mastered, not even his parents, who were sleeping under the same roof. “I really care about what everyone thinks, and when you’re collaborating, you have somebody to talk to about the music to,” he says. “When you’re by yourself, there can be no conversation. That’s the difference. Here I was just doing the record without talking to myself about it. I just worked on it, and then the next day I worked on it.” And so on.

One reason Davis was able to dive into Nothing Matters so fully was that he limited his musical options — though “limited” for him is something of a misnomer. He brought only one acoustic guitar instead of his usual four, and lugged only two basses — an electric and a standup — choosing to leave his collapsible one at home. He indulged his keyboard fetish, however, by bringing a Moog, Mellotron, and, yes, that pump organ as well. (NPR Music has a full run-down of the equipment Davis schlepped home.)

Offstage, Davis is no stranger to the paralysis of choice, and bringing every instrument in his arsenal to recording sessions has done more harm than good in the past. One experience in 2016 at a house in Long Island where Davis moved to record some tracks with Cuddle Magic made an especially memorable impression: “I brought all the instruments that everybody had, that all my friends had, and I took the Steinway upright that I used in my record in a moving truck to this place,” he recalls. He recorded near to thirty songs during that time, but they didn’t gel the way he wanted them to and he had to scrap the project altogether. “It was just a big learning experience,” he says. “For me, when I had a class in college, sometimes the entire course boils down to one sentence that you learned.” His lesson from his time on Long Island? “Restrictions are the best thing.”

By making the trek back to Saratoga, Davis was stripping down part of himself. He was still playing with new sounds, but realized he didn’t need every instrument in the world to make the music in his head a reality. For someone with Davis’s expansive tastes, this was a move inward. He was eighteen again, fooling with whatever guitar or cheap synthesizer he had lying around, trying to create a one-man symphony from spare parts. The sounds of Nothing Matters are of someone finding home just where he left it.

Benjamin Lazar Davis plays Trans-Pecos on Tuesday, July 24.

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Okkervil River+Titus Andronicus

Credit where credit’s due: Okkervil River have stayed with their indie label for about a decade now, even as they’ve crawled up the food chain to make dents in the top 40 (albums, of course, not singles). Still, for anyone who’s been charmed by their woolly roots music, the sleeker, more polished sound of new disc I Am Very Far is kind of disconcerting at first. Will Sheff still moans sweetly, but now he sounds like he’d rather tour with Dashboard Confessional than Roky Erickson (which OR did last time). Luckily, Titus Andronicus still sound like the drunken bar band of your dreams, albeit with diplomas. With Future Islands.

Tue., June 7, 8 p.m., 2011

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FOLK TALES

Last year, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff produced an acclaimed comeback album by psych-garage burn-out Roky Erickson, and the experience appears to have impacted Sheff’s stuff for the better: On the Austin group’s just-released I Am Very Far, Sheff and his bandmates adopt a newly ramshackle vibe that helps make his wordy folk-rock songs feel like more than short stories set to music. Tonight, they play Terminal 5 with New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus, who’ve never had trouble getting their words to rock, and Future Islands, avant-electro homies of Dan Deacon’s from Baltimore.

Tue., June 7, 8 p.m., 2011

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All Roky Erickson Needs Is Love

It’s Record Store Day, and Roky Erickson has just finished signing autographs at Waterloo Records in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Now, he’s treating himself to ice cream—rocky road!—as his partner, Dana Morris, shows him a book of bumper-sticker photos she just bought. One is written upside-down. “If you can read this,” Erickson begins, reciting it word for word, “then you are crazy as a nut.” 

That’s not how the bumper sticker ends—it says something about rolling your SUV—but perhaps this is Erickson’s way of acknowledging what he is not. Namely, crazy as a nut.

Most crazy people don’t come back from the insane asylum, electroshock treatment, illicit drug use, and alien encounters that have besieged Erickson these past 40 years, as is startlingly conveyed in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. And they certainly don’t record a triumphant comeback album at 62, as he has now done with True Love Cast Out All Evil, a glorious new collection of autobiographical numbers culled from his old songbooks and meticulously recast by Will Sheff and his Austin rock band, Okkervil River.

“When I heard the songs,” Sheff explains, “there were 60 to choose from, and there are songs like ‘Please, Judge’ [a broken-down piano ballad with a chorus of cicadas, written by Erickson while at Rusk State Hospital following a drug bust in ’69] and ‘Be and Bring Me Home’ [another incarceration song, with redemptive effects fit for an Irish pub following a wake] . . . I just really fell in love with the songs. I knew that as long as I didn’t screw it up, the songs would speak for themselves.”

True Love is truly symphonic, with tranquil touches and a rise-and-fall-and-rise completeness. It’s a much different feel from when Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators beat the Grateful Dead to psychedelia with 10-plus-minute, peyote-laced jams, later inventing horror rock (heavy metal, really) with songs like “Two Headed Dog” and “Bloody Hammer.” True Love is the at-peace Erickson, his voice front and center, shedding his various myths. (Have you heard the one about the time he levitated?)

Sheff asks Erickson to name his favorite song on the album. “Well, the one you like,” Erickson replies. “I like ‘Fore’ [as in “Forever,” a dreamy Roy Orbison–inspired song about “the pleasure of knowing one’s own name”]. And I like ‘I Am’—’I Am Satan’s All-Purpose Love,’ or something like that.”

“Wait, which song is that?” Sheff asks.

“I am,” Erickson starts singing softly, “dum, dum, I am Satan’s all-purpose love.” He then quotes the Greek-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff: “Life is only real, then, when I am.”

Erickson drank a lot of vinegar and honey to preserve his voice for these songs, a trick he learned from his mom, a classically trained singer. Sheff also helped him prepare by playing him old r&b music before each session. Indeed, the Okkervil River gang helped him focus. “Sometimes, you just have to make sure that you have guidance,” Erickson says. “Because some things can really be, I guess, annoying to people, and so I try to always just have faith that I’m doing the right thing and have patience. If you do it, do it right.”

I ask Erickson what love means to him, in reference to True Love‘s title track, a song he says his mom asked him to write, and whose titular refrain he sings with Elvis-like bravado.

“Well, I like that song by the Beatles,” he replies, attempting to sing it: “All you need is . . . help . . . somebody to help you write a song.”

“Do you think love is a really important thing to have in your life?” Sheff asks.

“Love is a good thing, yeah.” Just then, a little boy comes over, says hi, and grabs Erickson’s doughy hand, as if to shake it. Erickson obliges and says, “OK, thank you.”

Roky Erickson and Okkervil River play Webster Hall May 25

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Okkervil River’s Sweetly Sung Songs of Meta Self-Loathing

Where Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff really breaks new ground is in his recognition of the bathos and self-absorption required to fuel a song that resonates anymore—what bastards his kind must be. The hardest to suss out of the New Literary set (the shticky Hold Steady, garish Decemberists, and wordsmith’s-wordsmith Mountain Goats), Okkervil River has more in common with Cursive, another stage-obsessed indie faction that bemoaned comparable success five years ago with writer’s-block-blues laments like “Art Is Hard” and “Butcher the Song.” Sheff doesn’t spare his songs either, and it works only insofar as he refuses to get personal. Maybe 2007’s The Stage Names attempted to build self-glorifying credos with “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” and “Unless It’s Kicks,” but he quickly pushed the references to Savannah and John Berryman out front, embarrassed by the thought of using his own rootsy six-piece as a personal totem or reflexive tragic hero for too long.

The Stand-Ins, reportedly taped at the same time as Stage Names, is an improvement, not least because Sheff punishes himself (rather humorously) for the sin of relying on tragic heroes at all. If you believe the juicy excoriations of “Singer Songwriter” are sincere (“You’re keen to downplay/But quick to betray with one well-turned-out wave of your hand/You come from wealth/What a bitch they didn’t give you much else”), you can still dream he’s actually talking to Colin Meloy. Cool as the conceit may be, he just hates his new subjects too much for the album to break yet a fifth wall to comment on his own exploitation. Note the Gatsby-esque typeface of the booklet, as well as the dedication these folk-tinged (but not quite) songs show in prying apart the rock-star myth: In his most excellent song to date, “Pop Lie,” Sheff warns us that the creators of our favorite “sweetly sung and succinctly stated” tunes are no less full of shit because we can’t resist them. That one’s rather sweetly sung and succinctly stated.

Okkervil River play Webster Hall October 6 and 7

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Separation Saturday Night

Stripped of the purloined loam of 2005’s Black Sheep Boy (which took its iconography from a Tim Hardin song), Austin’s Okkervil River turn out to be more like My Chemical Romance than we thought.

The Stage Names shares the frenzy of pre–Black Sheep songs like “The War Criminal Rises and Speaks,” and if it isn’t as monolithic as the album that spurred the band’s rise to Believer-subscriber prominence, it does contain several fine examples of hyper-articulate hysteria. Frontman Will Sheff likes making a screaming mess of the kind of fastidious rhymes that Stephin Merritt would intone, and like Merritt, indulges in some pomo dabbling on the great “Plus Ones,” which mentions “100 luftballoons,” “eight Chinese brothers,” and—most touchingly—a 51st way to leave your lover, which “doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others.”

If Okkervil River’s sonic seriousness is sometimes wearying—the band plays classic rock only slightly less insistently than the Hold Steady—their words bring a smile for their deftness. The Stage Names‘ big subjects are the numbed hearts of travelers and the muddled heads of those who hear and tell stories, but these aren’t centers of gravity like Black Sheep‘s murderer; they’re arch motifs rather than howling ghosts beneath every song. And often it’s only the weird humor in Sheff’s drawl that keeps things from crossing into bathos. Near the end of the suicide narrative “John Allyn Smith Sails,” he deadpans the record’s central line: “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”


Okkervil River play Webster Hall September 28, websterhall.com