“An Englishman in North Carolina” – Blurt’s Jennifer Kelly talks with Dan Melchior
The über-prolific lo-fi maven reflects on a recent past beset with personal and professional challenges, but manages to remain optimistic and upbeat.
“Living in America is quite difficult for an English person,” says Dan Melchior. “Americans really think they know all about you. And they all think they can do an English accent, which they do, to your face, over and over again.”
Melchior has lived in America for more than a decade and during that time has made little headway in convincing the locals that he has no interest in the Gallagher brothers, Posh and Beckham, the Royal family or any of the other topics that that all Brits are supposed (by Americans at least) to obsess over. Yet he is quite British, in his way, from the thick cockney vowels that clot his speech, to his penchant for surreal English comedy, to his obsession with World War II. “English Shame” from his latest (though by no means new; more on that later) album, takes a wry look at America’s misguided Anglo-philia, setting trash culture icons like Sting and Jagger up against Melchior’s real British heroes.
“William Blake is a hero of mine. J.M.W. Turner is a hero of mine. I just drop those in as people that I would hold up as being English, rather than some of those other people that I would rather forget. They’re the equivalent of Carrot Top, you know?” says Melchior. “They’re not someone you want to think about when you think about your nationality.”
Catbirds and Cardinals is Melchior’s 19th full-length in a career that has spanned decades and continents. In the late 1990s, he recorded with cracked primitivist Billy Childish and, later, with Holly Golightly. In the ‘00s, his band, the Broke Revue, signed with In the Red, made three records and toured with the White Stripes, Jon Spencer and Mudhoney. In 2004, he ditched his band and started playing all the parts himself. Dan Melchior Und Das Menace is another way of saying Dan Melchior and Dan Melchior. It’s all one guy on all the instruments.
All along the way, whether solo or in front of the Broke Revue, Melchior has been the standard bearer for elegantly structured, bizarrely offbeat lyrics that are not quite submerged in distortion. He makes the roughest sort of garage rock for people with library cards. In what is possibly his best and best-known song, he follows J.G. Ballard around a grocery story (“Me and J.G. Ballard”) and loses out on the last package of frozen peas to the sci-fi writer. His album Fire Breathing Clones on Cellular Phones is, quite possibly, the most blissfully, perfectly named record of the 21stcentury. Catbirds and Cardinals is more of that excellent same, a collection of bitterly funny, blithely sardonic songs, blistered with feedback, but nonetheless, every word clear.
Like many of his records, Catbirds and Cardinals took forever to come out. Melchior says he wrote most of the songs in 2008 and 2009, while working at a restaurant. “Most of them have references to annoying customers,” he confides. He’d jot lines down between order taking and make a note about what he wanted the song to sound like. For “Squalor on Sunday,” for instance, he wrote down 13th Floor Elevators to help him remember that he wanted a 1960s-psychedelic guitar riff in the song. Then he’d go home after his shift and record the songs. They were all finished before 2010, and the record should have come out soon after, but Melchior’s deal fell through and the material languished. Finally, he put the songs up on the Free Music Archive, so people could at least hear them. The Northern Spy label found the tracks and offered to release them.
The record is heavily distorted, as Melchior’s records have been in the past, and it has a roughhousing, full-band sound. Melchior says that he was in a phase back in 2008 and 2009, where he wanted to sound as much as possible like a band…without actually having a band.
“Oh, I don’t like bands,” he says, when asked why. “I’d rather not ever be in a band again. I’m kind of a dictator. I can hear all my songs in my head before I ever record them. I know what they’re going to have on them. So when I have people playing with me, I’m always more or less saying ‘Will you play this please?’ And then they get upset because they want to write their own parts. And then, if you do get them to play the part, they get the impression that they came up with it, and then they get all upset with you because you don’t appreciate them enough.” It’s a typical Melchior rant, biting and funny and not, really, the least bit mean-spirited, and it ends, as they all do, with self-mockery. “It’s terrible really,” he concludes. “I’m the sort of person who would have a report card that would say ‘Does not play well with others.’”
So Melchior played everything, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and synths, and did all the recording as well. As in the past, he favored a buzzy, murky, feedback-heavy sound. “I’ve always liked distortion, even as a kid,” he says. “I always thought it would be great to have a record that sounded just like it sounds when you’re standing right in front of the stage.”
Moreover there are practical considerations. Put enough distortion on and no one will hear the missed notes. Melchior remembers the time his computer died and he lost the recording settings on the raw tapes. “My wife kept playing the tapes, because she was trying to practice and learn the songs,” he says. “It was a physically painful experience, to listen to how inept some of the playing was. I can play the guitar quite well, but everything else I play quite rudimentary. Shoving loads of reverb into it is a very good way of making it sound better than it is.”
Yet no matter how good the reverb sounds, it can’t cover up the words. “It doesn’t work for me when the words get lost,” he says. “That was one of the things about having a band. When we used to play live, in order to hear the words, it became a shouting match. You sing in a very different way to be heard. And it wasn’t really my own voice. It was a kind of a Van Morrison fake voice. And I don’t like it. When I hear it now, it sounds like a bad American accent to me.”
The words on Catbird are endlessly fascinating, from opener “Summer in Siberia,” which compares a love affair to Hitler’s siege of Stalinburg (Melchior explains that he got the details slightly wrong – Hitler never got anywhere near “Siberia”), to the weirdly compelling, ghostly closer “Gnomes on the Runway.” Many of them reflect longstanding Melchior obsessions. The World War II stories he heard from his grandmother (who was bombed out of her home during the war) show up in “Siberia”. “The Ghost of Peter Cook” revisits the skewed alternative humor that Melchior sees as one of England’s best contributions to world culture.
Melchior says he’s happy with the way that Catbirds sounds, the way it balances distortion and clarity and how you hear and understand pretty much every line. He’s so pleased with it, in fact, that he may be done with feedback altogether. “I probably won’t make any more records like that last one. I think I might have gotten that blown out distortion to where I want it. I might leave that alone now,” he says. His next two projects are almost entirely free of distortion. He’s recording an album of soft, pretty acoustic songs for Graham Lambkin’s Kye label and, for Northern Spy, a series of collaborations between him and noise/experimental artists like C. Spencer Yeh.
Meanwhile, Melchior and his wife, Letha, are navigating some very difficult life events. Letha became ill in 2011 with a malignant melanoma. After a year of treatment, she exhausted her health insurance. (Melchior says that without the old insurance, they would owe health care providers at least $1 million.) Now the couple has a $5000 deductible policy, and must raise all money for treatment up to $5000 on their own. Melchior has been doing what he can to raise funds – selling paintings and holding benefit concerts. Friends and colleagues have set up a fund for Letha’s treatment (gohere for details and a link for donations).
And a number of musicians have also stepped up to help out, most recently on December 30 in Asheville, NC, where the Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright (unveiling his new combo The Report Cards), Don Howland & Wooden Tit, members of The Ettes and others mounted a benefit concert for the Melchiors. According to BLURT’s Fred Mills, who was in attendance, “The music was hi-nrg and celebratory, as would befit a pre-New Year’s Eve show, and with everyone knowing it was for a good cause, the vibe was communal and sharing.”
Melchior says that he may have to return to England with his wife to try to get her on the National Plan, but because she’ll have to wait six months for coverage, they need to wait until she can take a break in her treatments. And, naturally, touring has become very difficult.
Yet if you can’t see Dan Melchior Und Das Menace, there’s no shortage of audio to tide you over. Catbirds is his second record for 2011, following Assemblage Blues, and he has as many projects in the pipeline for 2012 as ever. “I’ve always got lots of stuff coming out. Sometimes things take so long to come out that you don’t think they’ll ever see the light of day,” he says. “But there definitely will be a progression forward from here, where you’ll probably end up hating everything I do.”
Dan Melchior on the web:
[Photo Credit: Letha Rodman-Melchior]
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