Interview: Daniel Bachman

A gifted young artist on a weird life of playing guitar. Daniel Bachman talks chilling at Duane Allman’s grave, cicadas, and his new album, Jesus I’m a Sinner.

November 04, 2013


Daniel Bachman is a 24-year-old guitarist working in an old-timey vein similar to acoustic legends like John Fahey and Jack Rose (who was also from Bachman’s hometown, Fredericksburg, Virginia). On his excellent new album, Jesus I’m a Sinner, Bachman’s third LP in two years, out now via Tompkins Square, he wisely doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but keeps his head down and hammers out virtuosic picking in a rich American tradition. Bachman lives in North Carolina now, but the album was recorded in rural Virginia, that setting employed for especially moving effect on the song “Under the Shade of the Trees,” his raw picking accompanied by a droning chorus of cicadas that swarm the mid-Atlantic every 17 years. Hearing Bachman and those bugs, you’re reminded that even if it’s sort of happened before, it’s just as fucked-up and eye-opening when it happens again. Before a recent show in New York, we spoke about chilling at Duane Allman’s grave, recording the album and why, even if he doesn’t do this for the rest of his life, Bachman’s going to enjoy the hell out of it now.

Stream: Daniel Bachman, "Honeysuckle Reel"

Just a minute ago, you were telling a story about visiting Duane Allman’s grave. Would you mind retelling it? Yeah, it was two months ago in August. I live in North Carolina now, and I was going down to Atlanta and Savannah with one of my best buddies, Shane, and playing some shows. We were just running around, drinking beers and stuff and hanging out, and we got a really cheap hotel room in north Georgia, and he was like, “We should go to Duane’s grave, man.” Because we’d been listening to a lot of Allman Brothers. He was like, “Yeah it’s in Macon.” So we went, and it’s like this old school cemetery, like rolling hills, lots of mausoleums and cast-iron fences and stuff. These cops stopped us because we looked like hippies kinda, like riding around in a Volvo, and they’re like, “Are you going to Duane’s grave?” And we’re like, “Yeah.” And they’re like, “It’s over there.” So we went over, and there’s this big guy in like an F-150 pickup track and all camo stuff, just sitting by the grave by himself, just like, probably tearing up a little bit. It’s cool. It faces the railroad tracks, so there’s the railroad line and then about 100 yards back in this little cove of the cemetery is Duane’s grave. There’s a big fence, because I think, like, for the all the people who do shit, like drink there, smoke whatever, fuck around, you know what I mean?

And you said the fence was covered in motor oil? Yeah, there was motor oil all over so you can’t climb the fence. My friend put his hand on the fence and pulled his hair back, because he has real long hair, and he was like “Awwww nooo!!” But yeah, it was cool, there was like a guitar on his grave, and there’s like Allman quotes on it and stuff, it’s cool, it’s cool.

"These cops stopped us because we looked like hippies…and they’re like, 'Are you going to Duane’s grave?'”

So the album is called Jesus I’m a Sinner. Where does that name comes from? I was in the Salton Sea in March, by that Salvation Mountain place. It’s this really big, man-made mountain that this guy—I forget his name, he’s in a nursing home now, but he’s been painting it and building onto it and building this cavern and stuff. It’s all very heavy religious imagery that you’re like driving through really gnarly, like Salton Sea, California wasteland shit. And you get this one place that’s just beautiful. It’s a hand-painted mountain with hearts and crosses and vibrant covers everywhere and flowers that he’s made out of adobe and stuff. And the big piece in the middle is a giant heart that says like, “Jesus I’m a Sinner.” Like I’m not a religious person, but I don’t know, I thought it was a powerful kind of message that you find in the middle of the fucking desert. There’s no real significance, you know, it was just like a weird month that I spent and a good photo that I saw that I thought I would be able to use on the record. But yeah, the Salvation Mountain place, you should look it up, it’s really cool.

Tell me a little bit about recording album. I always got the sense that you recorded fast—is that something that you always like to do? This one was like three days of heavy tracking. My friend has recorded everything except for the last Tompkins record. His name is Forest, and he’s lived in a number of different places but now he’s back living with his folks in Rappahannock County, VA, it’s like in between Sperryville and Washington, VA. It’s right in the foothills of the mountains, they get pretty big out there but it’s like before you really get into the shit. His parents have an outbuilding at the bottom of the hill they live on. It’s all wooded, pretty far back in there, and you go over the creek and there’s the outbuilding. It’s his dad’s woodshop, because his dad was a carpenter until he broke his back and now he just makes mandolins, banjos, and guitars and less labor-intensive woodwork. He’s really skilled and good. They sectioned off half of that and turned it into a proper music studio, so it’s really cool. I went out there for two days all by myself and did all the solo stuff, and then with Sally and Charlie, the banjo player and the fiddle player, we went out there one more day and finished it up.

The song with the cicadas, “Under the Shade of the Trees,” stands out immediately. Is the environment something that you’re concerned with while recording, or are you really just trying to bang it out and that happened to go down? That just happened. My parents’ house is pretty wooded—it’s close to a major highway that goes out to the bay. The cicada sound is really strong there, and it’s like my favorite sound in the whole world. I can fall asleep to it instantly. It just worked out that while we were recording there was the big brew. Kindergarten was the last time that happened, and I remember collecting all the shells. It just worked out. Forest lives in a rural area, so we just went about two miles down a private driveway, sat there for about five minutes, recorded the track and left. I don’t like a lot of overdubs and stuff, but I felt like that was something that was like, I don’t even know if I’m gonna be making music 17 years from now, so I might as well throw it on now.

On this album you play banjo, and you play lap guitar. What does introducing new instruments into your repertoire mean? Seriously, it’s just songs. I really don’t think I’ll play banjo on another record again ever. There’s this song called “Goose Chase” by that guy Virgil Anderson, and it’s just so beautiful, and his version is so beautiful. It’s very rough and very strange, but really pleasant and pretty, and I tried to figure out a way to play it on the guitar, but I couldn’t figure it out, how to get the same tone or anything. I’ve got a couple banjos, so I learned it on that and just threw it on. I just really wanted to try and do a version of it. A couple of the tunes on the record were like that—“Happy One Step,” that’s just fiddle and guitar—it’s just songs that I really love and wanted to try and do a version of. And I’ll never play “Happy One Step” live, and I can’t, because my guitar part is boring, it’s all about the melody part on the fiddle. I just wanted to do songs that—this record was like a lump of stuff of stuff I wanted to do and just threw it out.

For a lot of fans of your music, having Sally Morgan of the Black Twig Pickers play fiddle on that song is going to evoke Jack Rose, because he did a record with her band. Is that comparison something that you feel a lot of weight of? Well, I don’t know. The thing is that I make music that sounds like the way that he played, so it’s impossible to not bring it up, you know what I mean? So it’s gonna be there. But I don’t know, I didn’t really think about it. It was just like Sally is now playing with the Twig Pickers, and she rips, and the girl in DC that I know couldn’t do it, so they sent down Sally and, you know, I’ve played with Sally before, and it just kind of worked out.

"It’s my life right now, but it’s not my life forever, you know what I mean?"

Being on a historically minded label like Tompkins Square, do you feel that you’re contributing something new to this style of playing? Or do you feel a responsibility to? I mean, really, it’s like the only thing that I can do. I don’t know. I played bass in cover bands when I was in middle school and high school and stuff… in 2006 I started doing all this stuff, and this is like, all I’ve got. I don’t really think about it in terms of contributing. I know that everybody always uses that “American primitive” thing—I don’t like that. I kinda just want people to feel like, “He’s a guitar player.” Just a guitar player. This is all it is, it’s nothing crazy. If it contributes something, and if it fits in any kind of weird lineage, cool. But I’m not really concerned about that. It’s my life right now, but it’s not my life forever, you know what I mean? And I enjoy it and I love it. I especially love that type of music a lot, but it’s also just like, it’s just what I do right now.

Why do you think that you’re so aware of this idea of not making music forever? I feel like not everybody thinks that way. I want to have a life that…I have other interests, like I want to go back to college. Like part of the reason why I’m moving to North Carolina is that I’m trying to get residency to get in-state tuition for UNC. So I’ll hopefully start there in 2015, still tour and stuff around it, but I have two-and-a-half years left to finish a degree, and I really want to do that. And ideally, man, I’ll play tunes forever, but like, I don’t want to do it until it’s not fun anymore. And I feel like sometimes that happens, and people just milk shit, and it’s like the only way you make money, and at that point, it’s just like, you get bummed out, you’re sad and continue that life with kids and stuff. I’d like to just do it, and have a lot of fun, and over the next five or six years just slowly fade out. Unless somebody wants to pay for me to come to London and play a gig, I’ll do it in a heartbeat, but it’s hard, man. Two years of going eight months on the road, I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life. I love it now, and I’m having fun, for real, but I want to do other stuff. It’s not a phase, it’s just like a part of my life right now, you know.

That seems like a very responsible, smart approach. Fucking every year I’m like, “I’m getting out of this,” and I keep getting deeper, so I can’t say for sure. But the plan is to go back to school in a couple years. I’ll never settle down, I’ll always travel. That’s one of the reasons I do this, to go to places I’ve never been before. It’s fun right now, and something for some reason works. So I might as well just kind of go with it for the time being. I dunno. It’s crazy. Life is weird, man. Fuck!

Interview: Daniel Bachman