Daniel Bachman The American Primitive guitarist talks music in the Trump era, drones, and his new album “The Morning Star”

Photo: Greta Svalberg

Daniel Bachman emerged as a guitar wonderkid at the beginning of this decade, quietly asserting himself as the heir to John Fahey’s throne with his prolific and deeply traditional approach to American Primitive music. While others who rode the wave of the instrumental guitar resurgence turned their six-string dexterity to modern interpretations of the style, Bachman has steadfastly mined the limitations of what ghosts can be summoned from his acoustic instruments.

Although he had been touring from the age of 17, Bachman “arrived” around 2015 with nods from NPR and Rolling Stone. His charm was found in his traditional approach: a young kid from Fredericksberg, VA paying homage to the deep roots of American music with album titles like Jesus, I’m A Sinner. But there was nothing contrived about his approach. Bachman is not only a proponent of the American folk tradition, but also a true scholar of it, and his constant stream of releases (he’s released 11 records between 2011 and 2016) and near-endless tour schedule on both sides of the Atlantic added to his credentials as a musician cut from the old mold that was otherwise stamped out by global record conglomerates, release cycles, and the homogenizing reach of the internet.

While Bachman’s prolific streak ended in 2017 — it was the first time since he was 21 that he didn’t release a record (let alone two or three) — he made his triumphant return this year with The Morning Star. The album, out now on Three Lobed Recordings, is a masterstroke from the artist, retaining everything he stands for and supplanting it with field recordings and radio sermons he has amassed over the years, placed in such a way to make it abundantly clear which side of American politics he stands. It’s not a departure from the American Primitive hallmarks — parts of the album were literally recorded on his porch — yet the record wonderfully captures the zeitgeist, enlivening the best parts of our traditions while remaining progressive.

We had a chat with Bachman about The Morning Star, making music in the Trump era, and what’s next.

Congratulations on The Morning Star. It feels to me like a step forward into a less structured sound, letting the mood take center place instead of technical prowess. What inspired this approach?

Hey, thanks! So I had all these ideas for songs and longer pieces that I had been playing with for a while, and when I sat down to listen to examples of them I had already recorded on my phone or field recorder, I realized I had already done most of the work. Over the course of 2017, I had recorded about 3/4 of the record I was trying to make through those devices. At that point, it was really just about assembling all the pieces, editing them together or recording the parts that I still had missing. Patrick Klem mastered the tracks and was able to beef up the fidelity of the phone recordings, and in the end, I think it works as one piece all the way through.

Your use of field recordings gives it a specific feeling of time and place. Was this a deliberate decision or a byproduct of the recording process?

None of the natural sounds on this record were captured in the process actually; all of them are deliberate in their placement. “Sycamore City” has a recording of Sycamore Street, downtown Petersburg, Virginia, where I was living for a while. In this case, the recording I had of a summer rain storm from my front porch happened to match almost exactly the length of the guitar recording I was planning on using, so it was a natural fit. The next tune, however, “Car,” has some AM radio feedback on it. I didn’t manipulate anything, and as it is on the record is how it was coming out of the truck speakers. Those clips of that sermon were from Southampton Co. Virginia and were recorded by chance around the same time and day that violence erupted in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally less than 100 miles away. All other bug, train, and owl sounds were recorded at significant locations in my life between Staunton and Fredericksburg, where I’m at right now.

After a pretty relentless release schedule, The Morning Star comes after a quiet 2017. What were you doing during the time away?

Well, I was touring pretty regularly for a little bit, actually hit 10 years on the road in 2017, but towards the middle of that year, I decided to take time to work on other things close to my heart that I had not had time for while gigging a lot. I started getting serious about a independent research project in the library at UVA and am still working weekly on that. It’s more or less a large cache of unknown field recordings from Virginia that predate the Lomax efforts here (or in general), and it’s the kind of thing I always wanted to study in school. I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to all the material and am plugging away at it, but not without a lot of help from family and friends.

I also collaborated with my longtime friend and artist Mary Welcome. We finished up a photography book called Star Route 1 that M12, the Colorado arts collective, published this year. Really I’ve just been working on projects and pieces that I’ve not had time for in the last 5 or 6 years, focusing on visual art and independent folklore work, but still playing a lot of guitar too.

There’s obviously been some pretty heavy shit going down in your country with installation of Trump as your leader. Does The Morning Star reflect any of that chaos?

I’d like to think so. When I was editing the record together, I had a 24-hour cycle in mind, and I feel like the up-and-down feel to this record is close to my daily experience of these last two years — those normal, serene moments of daily life that are now interrupted on an almost daily basis by some heinous news story that is almost impossible to ignore. The words spoken during the first song I recorded and processed as a teenager, and are from conservative AM radio from late-era Bush administration. The speaker voices that “ours is a society that can take the newly arrived and they become deeply American.” It doesn’t matter what they said 10 years ago or today; they are making it abundantly clear they do not have any respect for life in any form in this country.

I understand you moved back to Virginia while making this record. What prompted that?

Well, I had been living in the triangle area of North Carolina for a little more than three years while I was trying to get into UNC Chapel Hill to finish up a degree and try and study folklore in an academic setting. When it didn’t pan out, I made the decision to move home so that I’d be closer to my family. It was hard to leave that community of supportive, kind, and creative people, but coming home has been a real joy. It’s been almost 10 years since I’ve lived around here for any serious amount of time, and things have changed quite a bit. But for some reason, I do feel a pull to this part of the world and always have, so its nice to be home.

Does home seem different in the Trump era?

Yes, I’d say so. Environmental, economic, social issues, etc. can be felt here just as much as anywhere in the US, and I could run off a long list of disturbing happenings in our region if I had more time. Luckily, I am from a large, diverse family, and we all agree politically, but I know many people who don’t really talk to their relatives anymore because they support Trump and his culture of cruelty.

On a local level, a shop in town has popped up distributing white supremacist literature, and the KKK has been leaving their leaflets in folks’ driveways and mailboxes again. As a family, we are all trying to support positive growth and understanding through public events my dad runs, being outspoken in our daily lives, and not normalizing any of this. But that being said, at a recent community meeting where 200 people expressed their concern to the police and FBI, we were all told that there are no active hate groups in our area, so they were either lying to us or failing to see a problem with the situation.

I’d say that everyone in this area at some point or another has had an experience with the portion of the population that is unwilling to grow beyond hate and wilful ignorance. Unfortunately, all those folks are very loud right now, and in charge.

I’m also very concerned about the environmental changes in this region and beyond. Not too long ago, I saw hundreds of dead maple trees in a marsh along the Potomac, dead from changing salinity levels as the sea/bay water level rises. You can assume that thousands more in similar waterways are probably experiencing the same thing around here. Tree death, wind storms, and the litany of climate-related changes in this area and beyond are terrifying, and we have no idea how it will affect all of us. I just wish we had more of an open dialogue around here about all these things instead of apathy or downright denial.

Being an instrumental guitarist, would you consider any of this “protest song”? Any thoughts of using voice, be it your own or as part of a collaboration?

Yeah, I think this is about as close as I can get to sending out a political message without opening my mouth and singing about it. Always up for being an accompanying voice and would love to collaborate more with like-minded people, but don’t think I’ll start singing anytime soon.

You’ve been steering back towards your early drone work, and The Morning Star is quite unabashedly embracing this aesthetic. Why drone now?

My whole life I have felt very comforted by music, natural sounds, or otherwise that have the drone element to them. When I was a kid, I liked to match the hum of my voice to the lawnmower engine; cicadas are in my music because I love theirs, and I really do feel eased by the use of drones in a lot of the world’s musical expressions. I guess I would have to say that, during this time, these tones and intervals that I make or listen to help me feel better, so I’m going to keep it up.

The guitar work feels quite improvised on The Morning Star. Is that the case?

Yes, the tunes on this record were improvised takes, with the exception of the two “Setting Sun” songs — those are composed. Some of these longer tunes have very loose structure, and it’s more about exploring the tuning and mood rather than trying to nail it the same way every time. I might get to the point playing them live that they start to conform and take their own permanent shape, but for right now, they are pretty loose.

Do you intend to replicate the songs from The Morning Star in a live setting?

I would absolutely love to, especially the pieces that were performed in a group setting. I’m fortunate to have some very talented friends — Forrest Marquisee and Ian McColm, who both play on this record — and I’d love to be able to explore the ideas we’ve had as a group with people in a live setting. Hopefully we will get the opportunity to this year or next. As for the solo guitar tunes, I absolutely plan on bringing those out to the gigs I have coming up and always have new stuff cooking.

Given the inherent limitations of your instrument, do you envisage at any point “going electric” to explore new possibilities?

I do play electric guitar occasionally and actually have a pretty nice instrument. I would love to someday have a group of people to play heavy music with, but right now that’s not a possibility. And if that were to happen, it would have to be its own musical entity. As for new possibilities with my instrument, I’m content exploring and abstracting the themes and motifs I have been. There is always something new to learn and always a new depth to reach for in your instrument, and I’m going to try and dive a little deeper.

What’s next for Daniel Bachman then?

Right now I’m trying to find a way to balance a job where I have regular income coming in with the time and energy it takes to work on my creative or other pursuits. I don’t have much of an education, so it feels very limiting at times, but I’m going to continue to work towards publishing the material we’re all researching, keep making music, and continue expressing myself in different ways. I just feel very fortunate to be able to share these things with a larger audience than my immediate community and hope that I’ll be able to keep doing it in the future.

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