(Editor’s Note: Vehlinggo welcomes journalist and score composer Jerry Smith to the group of occasional contributors to the site. For his inaugural piece, he interviews Vehlinggoland favorite Daniel Davies.)
From the moment you put the needle down on your turntable and Daniel Davies’ Spies EP begins, there’s something enthralling, and to be completely honest, scary about what you’re about to experience.
Taking the dark and moody vibe that was prevalent in Davies’ previous album, Signals, and transporting that vibe into an EP about the feeling of being watched, the record takes its listener on a journey through the frightening and the beautiful — all at once. Over the course of five tracks, you’re met with eyes on every corner, swelling strings, drone-heavy buildups, and some of the most impressive instrumental tracks of the year.
I thought we’d reach out to the multi-instrumentalist and composer about not only the excellent Spies, but also his collaborations with artist Jesse Draxler, as well as Davies’ work with filmmaker/musician John Carpenter.
Vehlinggo: Not even 10 seconds into “The Bomber,” as a listener, you kind of already know that Spies is going to be a very immersive experience. There’s a level of paranoia in there. Can you speak on the genesis of this EP and creating an immersive ride?
Daniel Davies: It started with the first track I recorded, “Spies” — that feeling of being watched and the uncertainty that comes with that. The goal was to make it an immersive experience, so I’m glad that it worked (laughs). You finish one track and that really leads you to another. It started with that general concept of being watched. As I wrote the songs, it kind of progressed in a natural way.
The EP is able to capture that feeling you get, walking home at night and feeling like there are eyes on you. It’s a very intrusive feeling for one to feel. I have a test I like to do, where I’ll go for the most mundane, boring walk and listen to music to see if I can turn something very dull into an experience, and the moment “Out of the Night” came on, my walk turned into a pretty frightening moment.
It’s not all scary. There’s some beauty in there.
It’s nerve-wracking but also very exciting. Did the uncertainty of the past year we’ve all collectively lived through play a part in creating the EP?
For me, everything I work on, and really everything anyone works on, is a product of their environment: late nights in the studio, an empty city and really not knowing what’s really happening with everything, [and] just the stress of everything. All of that comes out in different ways for different people and I express myself this way. Everything that’s happened in this last year, I just tried to take it and turn it into something positive for myself.
“Everything that’s happened in this last year, I just tried to take it and turn it into something positive for myself.”
There’s a blanket of fear and something else I can’t quite put my finger on in “Out of the Night.“ How did that track, specifically, become what it is? It’s really one of the best tracks you’ve done to date.
You say there’s a fear to it for you, but for me that’s one of the prettiest ones (laughs). I don’t think I really thought about it, to be honest, it just kind of came about. I was just trying to see how much time I could put in, between chord changes. It was a “How simple can I make this?” That was my first thought. It was built from there and, as the chords change, you’re taken with it. It wasn’t really about what kind of feeling could I give the listener, but more of a question of could you just get lost in it and have it move you. The tension comes from moving the chords closer and closer to each other. Everything sounds tense now because that’s just how I feel (laughs).
There’s a cue in Brad Fiedel’s score for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where it shows Los Angeles and Sarah Connor has this monologue about what could happen. It’s a tense moment that isn’t scary but uncertain and grandiose at the same time. “Out of the Night” reminded me of that feeling.
It doesn’t have to be scary — the feeling of being watched. Feeling scared and excited at the same time is a good feeling and that’s why we all like those kinds of movies, the sci-fi/horror genres. They have a lot of that. That song, I had recorded a couple times before, with different instruments. I redid them all, and had strings come and play on them as well, just to find the right sound.
Was creating different versions of the track something of finding the right mood and tone for yourself?
Yeah, finding the right sound. At first, maybe it was too synthetic or too heavy, so it was trying to lighten it up a bit by trying different things and experimenting with it.
With your album Signals and now Spies, Jesse Draxler has done such a great job providing a visual competent to the music you make. The artwork is phenomenal. Can you speak on that partnership for the two releases? The art is both inviting and dangerous at the same time.
Sacred Bones had released a book he did and I saw that image of the monolith in the sky, which was originally in that book. It kind of stood out to me because it was different than all of the other art that was in the book. I started writing the track “Beyond Megalith Illumination” as I was looking at that image. After I had finished that, I thought maybe I’d see if he would be interested in perhaps doing an image for each song on the album, or if he could provide me with an image and I could write to it. I contacted him and he came to the studio and really loved the concept and loved the music. I went to his place and that sort of series that he had put together for that worked perfectly. For Spies, I told him the concept and and sent him a couple of the songs, and Jesse sent me two pieces. I picked the one that is now the cover and it did exactly what you said it did to you — a “What is this?!” It’s inviting, scary, and weird, and that’s why I like about it.
There’s almost a narrative to it.
There is and I have my own narrative to it, so you can listen to it without the images and find your own story in there, or you can look at Jesse’s images and let them guide you. It takes you where that goes.
Instrumental music is often overlooked, when in reality, I think this type of music can be somewhat profound in allowing you to feel something unique and fill in your own visuals inside of your head. Within the past 10 years, there seems to be somewhat of a resurgence in appreciation, from fans coming to see sold out shows of various bands, including John Carpenter, Cody, and yourself.
When we put out Lost Themes I, we had no idea it would be so well-received. That seemed to be right around the time that people did start to appreciate soundtracks more. I do think that it’s a bit different, making instrumental albums, than soundtracks. When you listen to a soundtrack, you’re reliving the movie and the moments in that movie. Since you’re not watching the movie, listening to the soundtrack allows you to incorporate those moments into your life. With an instrumental album, you create the imagery. You are in charge of the story.
You three (Davies, John, and Cody Carpenter) kind of helped pioneer the resurgence of the types of albums the Lost Themes records fall into. In the past few years, there have been a decent amount of records that have come out, telling stories of movies and so that don’t exist, outside of music made for them. Concept-experience albums are refreshing, it allows you to create images in your own head for these tracks.
We never really think about a lot of those things to be honest. When John, Cody, and I get together, we’re just having fun and having a great time and never really think about the outside world. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, working with someone like John, because he’s created a story, [created] a film, and then created the music, so it’s pretty rare.
The albums you three have created thus far really allow their listeners to go through an experience. When I was six years old, I was listening to bad kids music, but my own six-year old now won’t listen to anything BUT Lost Themes III, because he says it creates stories for him. There’s excitement found within them.
You’re welcome. I won’t take up much more of your time and I do know that you aren’t able to say much, if anything about what I’m about to ask….
What can viewers and more specifically listeners of your stuff expect from what you, John, and Cody have cooked up with Halloween Kills, without giving too much away?
It’s a continuation. That movie is the ultimate slasher movie. I really can’t wait for everyone to see it. It’s exciting that the movie is finally coming out now and going to be in theaters. Aside from that, I can’t say much about [it], because I don’t want to get in trouble with Jason Blum (laughs). I will say, that it is epic.
— #HalloweenKills (@halloweenmovie) October 29, 2020
Both Signals and Spies are currently available via Sacred Bones. Halloween Kils hits theaters on Oct. 15 via Universal Pictures.
(Feature Photo: Daniel Davies from an earlier press cycle. Photo credit is unknown, but will be updated here when available.)