This house is cold, and there’s only one space heater in this room. It’s angled between a keyboard stand and a drum set, sitting a foot from the corner of a mattress on the floor. Five people are in David Karsten Daniels’ bedroom right now, and no one is warm.
But this is band practice, so everyone bundles up and focuses. David’s not really in The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, the band in his bedroom, but this is where they always practice. They have a show in three days, and David will be playing bass. The band’s songwriter, Perry Wright, talks to Daniel Hart about a guitar solo across the room. Daniel isn’t in the band, either, but he lives here. Perry needs him.
Friday night, Daniel will have one of the set’s biggest rolesthe guitar solo on “Ammunition for a Bolt-Action Heart,” a big, fast, rock climax. It’s not working. Perry wants Daniel to let go, to let it rip. They’ve almost got it. Or so they think.
Alex Lazara, the other official half of the band, looks up from his keyboard: “Guys, that guitar solo is shit.”
Daniel nods, and Perry turns around, completely nonplussed: “Oh, so you don’t like it?” They try again, and Daniel wrestles with it, frowning now. It needs brawn.
Three days later, most everything in David’s bedroomsave the bed, a table and a pianois gone. The band and its belongings are onstage at Kings in Raleigh. The place is packed. The beat drops. The guitars come up.
Three minutes in, everyone onstage lifts their head and looks to Daniel at stage right. It’s time for that guitar solo, the one that’s shit. Suddenly, notes don’t agree. Tones don’t bind. It’s exactly what Perry wanted. Alex nods. People cheer. This room is hot.
Bu Hanan Records is a Chapel Hill-based collective of seven musicians and their allies. At its core, the collective is built on five songwriters in four bands: Perry and Alex are The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers. Daniel has The Physics of Meaning. David Karsten Daniels leads the band that takes his name. John Ribo fronts Kapow! Music.
But that’s a framework. Bu Hanan is a strong, solid, interlocked structure. Members of each band play support roles in at least one of the other bands. They also share a belief in reciprocal, unbridled criticism. Say what you mean and know that, if anyone is saying anything to you, it’s because they want you to be better. They think this makes good records. They’re right.
Bu Hanan works a little bit like a fertile conference room. Raw gems of ideas come flying forward all the time and are polished in the capable minds of everyone else involved. People are always looking over one another’s shoulders, peering into unfinished projects and offering suggestions.
“I make decisions all the time that the guys laugh at the first time they hear them,” says Alex, who engineers and records most of the collective’s albums. “The standard response when anyone says they don’t like what you’re doing is to say that it’s not done yet.”
Here, criticism isn’t a personal vendetta or an ulterior motive. Instead, it’s a utopian dynamic for a big, functional family. One member criticizes another. The sept benefits.
“Our relationship at this point is more like brothers than friends. We’ve had pretty big fights with one another, and we do say what’s on our minds, quite harshly sometimes,” Alex explains. “But it’s only out of a desire for those recordings to be as good as they can be.”
Those recordings are, in fact, astoundingly good. Bu Hanan bands have mastered crafting highbrow but magnetic musical dramas from admittedly mundane momentsa phone call from an old lover, two bodies writhing in a cheap hotel room, the sight of a big balloon floating. They’ve done this by living in near-constant artistic tension and making music that’s highly mimetic of such push and pull.
Sure, there are moments of love and tides of loathing, but Bu Hanan bands capture the tension and release in both and put them at graceful odds, struggling for redemption in situations intent on denying it. That grace comes exaggerated by the collective’s talents: Daniel’s hyperkinetic string arrangements shine light over David’s twisting bass parts. Alex captures it all, his generous juxtaposition of walls of sound and barely audible passages delivering urgency by the handful.
People are starting to catch on: Last summer, David pressed 1,000 copies of his second album, Sharp Teeth, planning to release it on Bu Hanan. On a lark, he sent copies to eight labels around the world, expecting never to hear back. Fat Cat Records, an English label with international distribution and a reputation for high standards, e-mailed David. The label has a policy of listening to every demo it receives. They liked Sharp Teeth.
In October, he signed a contract with Fat Cat. They would co-release Sharp Teeth and find David a publicist and two booking agentsone for American concerts, another for the rest of the world. Already, Sharp Teeth is receiving glowing early press, and it sold well during its first few weeks of European release. Stateside, there’s talk of it being one of the strongest songwriter-driven albums of 2007.
But this is not a beginning: It’s a point on a decade-long arc built from collective talent, tension and teamwork that started when David, Alex and Daniel met in Dallas at Southern Methodist University in 1995. David and Alex were the only two freshmen in music composition at SMU, and Daniel was a junior studying theater. The trio met at a weekly workshop on free improvisation.
“They would turn off the lights, and we would improvise. Free improvisation was a totally new idea to me,” remembers David, who attended the sessions for four years. “Three-quarters of the class just left, but we stuck around.”
Graduation put David, Alex and Daniel in different cities. Daniel finally returned to Texas and immediately realized he had to get out again. He didn’t know where to go, but he knew he liked Chapel Hill’s Ben Folds Five. He visited once and moved in March 2002. David, Alex and a drummer from Texas arrived five months later. They started a band called Go Machine and formed Bu Hanan around it. The drummer left. Go Machine couldn’t last.
“Everybody was writing some music that other people didn’t want to be stamping their name on,” Alex says. “It wasn’t that we didn’t support the songs. It’s just that the band was becoming a three-headed monster.”
Everyone was getting better at what they were doing, and Go Machine’s three headsDavid, Alex and Danielpushed one another apart. Daniel, working off of his formal education, focused on layered, cinematic pop songs, while David settled into introspective, spare songwriting. He was finishing an album of break-up songs called Angles, material he had never been comfortable sharing with the band. And Alex was engineering Perry’s full-length debut as The Prayers and Tears and enjoying it more than his new role in the three-piece Go Machine. The three heads ran out of air, space and energy. Go Machine broke up.
“It’s not like there were ever fights with Go Machine,” Perry says. “No, that band breaking up was like waking from sleep. You’re asleep, and then, one day, the light comes in the room, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m awake now.’”
Awake, things got busy for Bu Hanan. Alex, Daniel, Perry and David found a farmhouse outside of Chapel Hill and moved in together. The Prayers and Tears album came first, and the band toured the country twice with The Mountain Goats. Daniel’s new band, The Physics of Meaning, recorded its debut and set out on five East Coast tours in two years. John Ribo, a friend of David’s since high school, arrived from Texas, ready to work on his Kapow! Music. While he was recording his own EP, he was playing guitar and singing on David’s album.
In fact, everyone in the collective worked on Sharp Teeth. Of the half-dozen records Bu Hanan has made since 2003, it is the most intense, controversial and involved yet. David spent nearly two years writing it. One recording dates to 2004. Nineteen musicians worked on it. In essence, for every two minutes of music, there’s another musician at work. And, for every 15 seconds that made the album, somebody spent two days in the studio. That many people working that long on one album opened the studio for plenty of Bu Hanan debates. David remembers them all.
“Sharp Teeth had a lot of people shit-talking, for sure, but it was shit-talking out of love. Sometimes, though, you do finish and you don’t feel very confident about what you’ve done,” says David. He recalls working out a track sequence for the album. He, Perry and Alex all crafted their own, but Perry and Alex discussed their choices aloud. Their reasoning often revolved around hating certain songs on Sharp Teeth. “That can be hard,” David says. “I remember saying to them at one point, ‘Right now, I feel like I should not even put this out.’”
Daniel’s beige Grand Caravan isn’t far from the New York skyline. It’s a bright, January day and Daniel is headed north, David and his band with him. In a month, Fat Cat will release Sharp Teeth in America. It’s time to get behind the record. Tonight, David plays the Mercury Lounge, a mid-sized music hall in the East Village. People from Fat Cat will be at the show, as well as David’s publicist and members of the press. Things will get hectic in the city, and there are just a few stops left before the Holland Tunnel on the northbound New Jersey Turnpike. This service area seems convenient. It’s named for Grover Cleveland, toothe first Democratic president elected after the Civil War, the one who was successful only because he cultivated support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Just as Daniel hits the off-ramp, Perry’s phone rings. It’s Alex, at home in North Carolina, sitting in front of the recording computer. He’s finally solved a problem that’s been holding the next Prayers and Tears album back. It’s time to start working, he’s saying. Perry’s excited: The next round of battles, decisions and discussions starts immediately.
The Bu Hanan system of allowing collaborative criticism to shape an end product works because it applies to everyone. Everyone has a band, and it’s all subject to the same rigors. But the final decisions rest with the person who leads the band. Bu Hanan, post-Go Machine, has allowed a songwriter to get unveiled feedback without creating systemic repercussions if that feedback is ignored. Daniel folds to most of Alex’s suggestions. David habitually stands for his original intentions. He defends most of his decisions on Sharp Teeth, but he’s also the first to admit it’s not perfect. He still regrets “American Pastime,” the record’s pop song.
“Sometimes, I’m a little embarrassed about that song,” David says. “It almost feels kind of easy, like I didn’t push it too hard and just went for the easy pop song. I feel guilty about doing something that isn’t challenging.”
Bu Hanan bands, after all, make albums, not collections of songs. Daniel agrees that “American Pastime” isn’t the best song for David’s album, even if it is the song the French version of Rolling Stone chose to distribute with its magazine. “It’s a great song. I love it. But we just all felt, stylistically, that it didn’t fit the rest of the album. I still feel the same way.”
John calls the lyrics of David’s “Beast” a “repetitive cliché,” though he does it in the same endearing, polite way he does most everything. Perry leans hard on the second half of “Minnows,” Sharp Teeth‘s sixth track. Perry was the last member of the Bu Hanan five to become a musician, and, now, he’s the most voracious listener in the bunch. Perry’s the type of person who has a developed (if not always refined) opinion on everything.
When he criticizes “Minnow,” therefore, it sounds a little like a dissertation: The first halfa foreboding build through guitar and tangled violin and saxophone convolutionsis perfect: “It builds very successfully, but, when it gets to the first payoff, there’s not enough room to kick it up a notch. And, after the vocals, it hits the second payoff, where the brass comes in and the electric guitars double. There’s not enough room for both, andbecause there’s not enough roomneither of them can deliver.”
All of these debates happen in this family’s living room, a square with a couch, a massive bank of computers and recording equipment and two spare tables. Recording sessions happen in David’s downstairs bedroom, advantageous for its high ceilings and distance from the road. Microphone cables constantly run beneath David’s door and up to Alex’s desk in the living room. There’s been more creative blood spilled across the back of his desk chair than he cares to recall.
“It’s like being beaten into a gang for every song,” says Alex. “It may border on abuse, but, if somebody feels strongly enough about a song to allow it to get trashed in the house for weeks and weeks on end, they at least believe it’s good.”
John felt that way about his five-track EP, Trees, until Alex, David, Daniel and Perry announced that the last song wasn’t working. They rewrote it, rebuilt the chorus and changed the textures. Now, it’s one of Trees‘ brightest moments.
In college, John spent time in France, and he became friends with the publisher of Louis Liard, a French record label and magazine. Recently, she asked him to record a song for a compilation the magazine was releasing. He wrote a tune called “Hank, Joan, and Serge” and liked it so much he hoped to use a reworked version for his second album. But now, he’s not so sure.
“I was really happy with what I came up with. It takes me a lot to admit that, but it’s true,” says John, laughing somewhat nervously. “And, today, David said, ‘John, I don’t think that song is salvageable.’ Don’t hold back, you know?”
The Prayers and Tears take the Kings stage sometime around midnight. John is four people away from the stage apron, clapping and grinning. You’d never guess that less than 12 hours ago, one of the guys up there was knocking the artistic wind out of him. Business as usual, of course.
John looks like a superfan, too, smiling to songs he’s heard and dissected an impossible number of times. He keeps it up for three-quarters of the set, just until Daniel takes that wretched guitar solo, the one that was shit. John’s not smiling now. He’s too busy cheering.
Sure, John wasn’t at practice three days ago, but he probably knows that this guitar solo has gone through the ringer at least once. He’s well aware of Bu Hanan protocol: If something hasn’t been a source for debate and improvement, it will be soon.
Daniel could have played a respectable guitar solo without any practice. He’s that talented. But he needed a filteror a familyto tell him that a respectable guitar solo is shit. Don’t hold back, you know.
Visit Bu Hanan‘s Web site.
Bu Hanan’s core is made up of five musicians and four bands who add up to a collective that’s a lot more than the sum of its parts.Daniel Hart fronts The Physics of Meaning. A classically trained violinist, Daniel plays strings in a number of local bands, including all Bu Hanan acts. He’s an excellent driver. John Ribo leads Kapow! Music and plays guitar. He’s taking a semester off from UNC-Chapel Hill’s comparative literature program to tour with David Karsten Daniels. David Karsten Daniels leads the band that takes his name. He’s the expert bassist of Bu Hanan, but, on tour for Sharp Teeth, he will hand the bass off to Sara Morris, a songwriter, school teacher and his girlfriend. Perry Wright is the songwriter for The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers. He is a guitarist with a master’s of divinity degree from Duke University. He’s got some pretty good jokes. Alex Lazara is the arranger for The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers and the in-house producer for Bu Hanan. His true passion is his comic book collection.