From ‘Lost Themes’ to Sci-Fi Dreams: How Daniel Davies Became a Master of Synths

When musician Daniel Davies was a kid, his godfather John Carpenter would show him and Carpenter’s son, Cody, all sorts of fun, so-bad-they’re-good science-fiction films — the kind that would get the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment. The two kids loved it.

As Davies told Vehlinggo in a recent phone interview, “[John Carpenter] was ahead of all of those episodes.” He’d show the boys the films and it wouldn’t be long before you’d see some of them on something like Mystery Science Theater 3000. “I grew up on ‘bad’ fun,” Davies says.

Sci-fi is at the center of Davies’ upcoming debut solo album Events Score, which on Aug. 31 is getting a digital release via Lakeshore Records and limited-edition cassette and vinyl releases the same day via Burning Witches Records. In some ways, the album represents a culmination of events: From working on Lost Themes and other releases with John and Cody to touring with them to writing songs for John Bergin’s Wednesday comic and showing up on the companion comp to The Rise of the Synths, this rocker has learned to craft stunning sci-fi synthery in profound ways. 

Eight celestial tracks complete Events Score — some lean toward the dark and the glassy, as if they are lost cues to a space horror film, while others are more likely to instill a deep sense of wonder and curiosity. Davies relies on a steady stream of experimentation, deftly taking control over vintage synthesizer hardware for which control is often an illusion. He augments that with guitar manipulations, soft synths, and other measures.

Events Score is a score to a film not yet made but one which you will really want to exist. Or perhaps, if we’re getting super sci-fi here, it’s the score to a film already made in another dimension and Davies was just tapping into his other self’s creative spark? When you listen to this album, your brain will allow itself to think of all sorts of cool and fascinating possibilities.

Vehlinggo caught up with Davies as he was working with the Carpenter père and fils on the score for the upcoming Halloween film, and some of what he learned while exploring the intergalactic possibilities of Events Score he brings to Halloween — but more on that later. Additionally, the Carpenter-Davies trio and bandmates have also announced a mostly Eurocentric fall tour that will culminate in a killer show on Halloween in Los Angeles.

DanielDavies_Guitar-w-compressor
Daniel Davies started out in rock bands.

A Rockin’ Beginning

Davies had been in rock bands for years before John Carpenter came calling in 2014. This was during the creation of Lost Themes, Carpenter’s 2015 debut album of new work that draws heavily on his talent as a minimalist, synth-heavy score composer for his own films, such as Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, and Escape from New York, the latter two with frequent collaborator Alan Howarth. John’s son Codywho just released a new synth-pop single — was also a part of the album. The whole experience would kick off a release cycle and tour that continues periodically to this day.

But before all of that Davies was in bands such as Year Long Disaster and Karma to Burn, both thick-riffed, often intense desert-rock-style groups. (He still brings on the riffage with Carpenter, to be sure, but he’s also grown adept at synthesizers.)

“When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was be in a rock band,” said Davies, whose father, Dave, and uncle, Ray, co-founded The Kinks in the 1960s. (Although Davies didn’t explicitly attribute his interest in music to his family tree in the interview – I didn’t ask – it’s hard to fathom that there wasn’t some influence there. For example, I owe my love for ’80s pop hits at least in part to my dad.)

“I really wanted that brotherhood that I thought you would get from being in a band,” Davies said. But “… things can happen,” he says. Things like managers, labels, and other factors can get in the way of why you’re in the band in the first place. “All of this stuff happens and you get bad luck and just want to play guitar and not face things. I think that’s part of being in your early 20s, as well.”

Davies is a talented musician, regardless of the instrument he uses, so in the early 2010s, when his latest band went on hiatus, he had the opportunity to think about what he truly wanted. Did he want to start or join another band and work in that dynamic? Did he want to do projects on his own? He was in his late 20s and wasn’t feeling that interested in starting another band — especially considering that the older you get, the bands start to become more of a job for members who’ve become spouses and parents, rather than a passion project.

“As the band went away, I started to regroup,” he says. Music had been changing. There was more of an interest in synth-driven fare, especially soundtrack music, in the landscape. This worked to Davies’ benefit, because Davies wanted “something I could do on my own.”

“I’m so focused now on composing and trying to get it going more,” Davies says. “I’ve put all of my energy into that.”

Synthesizers and the Horror Master

Davies began getting into the art of creating score cues, a different mode of expression than a rock song written and played by a rock band. 

“… I serve the image or the director,” he said. They might want songs that sound like The Ramones or The Cars; or they might want a synth cue, he added. Fun and amazing work that he could create on his own, for sure, but it is still ultimately a job working for someone else.

“I had no idea that the work with John [Carpenter] would be so popular.”

The score work helps foster a balance for Davies, though. He can find harmony between commissions and passion projects, and in either case he gets to make music.

“I’m doing [score work] so I can make my own album… so I can have both: service as a composer and do things I like,” he says. “I think it’s important to do stuff you like, too.”

In the summer of 2014 he joined Carpenter. Davies and Cody began contributing to the Horror Master’s compositions. Together, with 2015’s Lost Themes and then its 2016 sequel, Lost Themes II, they’ve created songs that are as lean and engaging as Carpenter’s film scores. Those releases ended up sparking a whole new phenomenon of interest and fandom for the Carpenter set.

“I had no idea that the work with John would be so popular,” Davies says.

In 2015, he contributed a handful of songs to Wednesday, the inventive comic by musician and artist John Bergin. It was a window into Davies’ growth as a synth score musician, and is a joy to hear.

Today, the Carpenter-Davies trio’s most recently released album is Anthology: Movie Themes 1974–1998, which featured the trio reworking Carpenter film themes. The two Lost Themes releases and Anthology have indeed been popular — both in with vinyl sales and in live form around the globe.

On his own time, Davies has dived deep into the realm of older hardware synths, reveling in their unpredictable nature and the need to engage in some crafty Mr. Fixit maneuvers to achieve just the right sound.

“I love experimenting and learning about synths,” Davies says. “I’m recording all of the time.”

He’d hear a certain sound in his head, but he didn’t “know how to achieve it,” Davies says. “Certain synths take a long time to sound right. [Also,] when you play a note… it might sound fine, but then it’ll go out of tune before coming back.”

Additionally, in the older synths, a battery will die or a circuit board component will get aroused out of place and short everything out. In fact, on an old Roland Juno he was using, the battery died and Davies lost all of the sounds he’d spent all sorts of time creating. Luckily, he figured out a way to save them in MIDI.

All of the intervention in which a synth player has to engage to get the right sound infuses the music with a clear and entrancing humanity.

It was amid all of that human-machine interaction that Davies wrote and recorded the stunning and imaginative Events Score.

daniel-davies-events-score-cover
Cover art for Daniel Davies’ upcoming album ‘Events Score,’ available Aug. 31 on Lakeshore Records and Burning Witches Records.

Making Daniel Davies’ Events Score

The work on Events Score started with Davies’ love for sci-fi films, especially the bad ones. He and his friend talked about how they should “… just create our own sci-fi movie. Let’s stop everything and learn how to write movies. I just have a passion for that stuff.”

Although a film itself didn’t end up happening, a synth score for a sci-fi-film-not-yet-made has indeed manifested.

In general, Davies has said he envisioned “huge spaceships cracking the sky, giant sand-snakes barreling through the desert, or someone drifting across the bottom of the ocean with just barely enough light to see the creatures beneath. It’s the score to all of that.”

Sometimes you see a movie that you like “that sticks with you,” he says. Specifically, for the track “Stasis,” he said he envisioned the pods floating through space at the end of Alien.  

There are also books that can influence a creator’s work. He recalls a book he read a few months back called The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai, a philosopher whose work is noted for its surrealistic and apocalyptic tendencies. The author himself describes the book as thus: “Each text is about drawing our attention away from this world, speeding our body toward annihilation, and immersing ourselves in a current of thought or a narrative…”

“One sentence can paint an image,” Davies says.

In the spirit of sci-fi, Davies’ creative process was heavy on exploration, recording at first with guitars and then incorporating synthesizer parts. 

“I think the most interesting part of writing and recording Events Score was working with and deciding what instrumentation I wanted to use for the music I was writing,” Davies continued. “It’s a challenge but also very rewarding when you get that exact sound — be it a synth, guitar, or percussion — and pair it with the idea you have in your head.”

The components of a given piece would present themselves clearly while writing, not unlike the process for creating Lost Themes. With each reveal, Davies would identify and organize them:  “OK, well I guess this melody is kind of the chorus in a way. I have an abstract middle section that has a more cinematic element to it. Now the song dies down, and here’s what’s going to happen. Then I’d bring a catalog of images into my head — books, movies, different things guide it that way.”

“Everything I’m always doing is influencing everything else,” he says.


Listen to “XXT” from Events Score on Timothy Fife’s phenomenal August Vehlinggo Mix.


How Events Score and the new Halloween Are Related

Indeed, what Davies was doing in the studio for Events Score has influenced some techniques he brings to his work with the Carpenters as they write the score for the new Halloween, which takes place 40 years after the original and features Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle reprising their roles as Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. (John, Cody, and Davies are all working on the score, and Red Oaks producer David Gordon Green is handling directing duties. Blumhouse is among the producers.)

The score will be heavy on synthesizers, but it won’t be entirely retro, Cody told Dread Central’s Jonathan Barkan last month.

“We’re ’embracing the present while respecting the past’ might be the best way to put it,” Cody said, noting how happy he was to be working on the score with Davies and his dad.

Although John isn’t directing anymore, his directorial skills have manifested in the studio. He allows his son and godson ample input into compositions, giving them some nudges toward the sound he’s intending to hear, according to Davies.

“I figured that was what he was doing years ago — the director’s trick,” Davies says.

During production Davies would bring ideas to John that the latter could manipulate on a computer — “He spent all of that time on the big synths of the era… [but] loves the computer now. It’s so simple. I bring elements that he can play on the computer.”

Davies would sample his own sounds, such as an ambient guitar, and then give the sample to John to manipulate on his keyboard controller to make his own creation.

It works the other way, too. The Horror Master would come up with a concept for a piece. Then Davies would “think about that sound on the drive home” and how to make it come alive, he said.

“It all just kind of flows when we’re together.”

They’ve worked together well these past four years, no doubt because they’ve known each other for so long: John and Cody through a father-son bond and Davies as godson and essentially a brother. But beyond that, they’ve been making magic together since those early days.

“We played music together from when I first started playing guitar…,” he says. “They would have wrap parties for movies and everyone would jam and encourage each other to play. [The deep connection] is still there.”

All in all, the trio’s relationship is “like a family dynamic, but unlike a family dynamic because we get along so well,” Davies said. “It all just kind of flows when we’re together.”

Daniel Davies (center, shadow) performs with John and Cody Carpenter and their band. Photo by Joakim Reimer.
Daniel Davies (center, shadow) performs with John (right) and Cody Carpenter (left) and their band. Photo by Joakim Reimer.

The Tour Master

I’ve seen the Carpenter-Davies band perform live twice here in New York and can attest to experiencing a strong form of their dynamic. (I imagine it’s richer in the intimacy of a studio, but live shows require a profound level of connection and energy exchange.)

“It’s always great going out on tour with John and the band,” Davies said. “I love performing with John, and we have such a great team of people that go out with us. Everyone is really professional and I love playing with all the guys in the band.”

Some of you will be able to see it for yourselves, if you haven’t already. They are embarking on a fall European tour, beginning Oct. 10 in Utrecht, Netherlands; that leg ends on Oct. 21 at the Albert Hall in London. Then on Halloween they play an American one-off at the Hollywood Palladium. Magic.

“It’s so great to see the fans’ reactions to us performing John’s music,” Davies says. “It’s always a pleasure to be able to connect with the audience in that way.”

Events Score releases on Aug. 31 via Lakeshore (digitally) and Burning Witches Records (vinyl and cassette). I highly recommend you buy it as soon as you can. It will quickly become a key part of your catalog.

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.