Out Standing in His Field | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Out Standing in His Field 

Birdcalls, acoustic guitar, and electronic flourishes are all part of Greg Davis's folktronica mix.

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With his full beard, wire-rimmed spectacles, and quiet, careful demeanor, Greg Davis seems like the sort of guy you'd expect to find settled down in a cabin in the woods, taking long walks and talking to the birds. But the 28-year-old Chicago musician and composer is in fact an international celebrity, at least in certain quarters. On the strength of two solo albums--his 2002 full-length debut, Arbor, and the February release Curling Pond Woods (both on the New York label Carpark)--Davis has become one of the leading lights of a nascent genre that critics are variously calling folktronica, laptop folk, or pastoral electronica.

"But it's not really a movement," Davis insists, referring to the handful of other artists presumed to occupy the folktronica category, including Four Tet, Minotaur Shock, and Ogurusu Norihide. "It's more like, 'OK, we've made up a genre, now we have to go find people making music to fit into this genre.' It's not any sort of unified thing. It doesn't really bother me, though. On a purely technical level, 'laptop folk music' is actually a pretty accurate description of what I do."

Arbor's fusion of folk guitar, gentle dance beats, and field recordings has become a touchstone of the genre, but Davis also denies that this is the result of any visionary inspiration on his part. "I never really made a distinction between acoustic and electronic elements," he says. "It seemed very natural to bring those two together." Indeed, there's already a long history of folk-based artists incorporating electronics into their music: Buffy Sainte-Marie's 1969 album Illumination, which uses processed vocals and tape loops, is perhaps the best early example. "There's an old track from Bridget St. John called 'Ask Me No Questions' with field recordings on it," says Davis. "And [there's] lots of Incredible String Band stuff with field recordings--and although they didn't really use electronics, they used other instruments for almost the same effect. Basically those people were thinking about sound and not genre."

As a kid in Crystal Lake, Davis remembers pilfering prog-rock records from his father's collection: "Genesis, Gentle Giant, and Yes totally freaked me out," he says. In high school he recorded homemade hip-hop tracks and started messing around on guitar; in 1995 he enrolled as a guitarist in DePaul's jazz program, but soon shifted his focus to composition. "I realized I didn't like performing other people's music," he explains. "In the long run I ended up having too many ideas of my own." His schooling also fueled his interest in electronic music: "IDM and ambient, that started influencing me pretty heavily. But also musique concrete, tape music, and some of John Cage's electroacoustic stuff--some of the things I was studying."

After graduating from DePaul in 1999, Davis moved to Boston, where he earned a master's in composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. While in Boston he returned to the guitar, but not to the jazz or classical music he'd spent so much time learning. "I started playing acoustic guitar for the first time, really," he says. "Very intuitive stuff, purely for enjoyment." Soon Davis was toying with guitar recordings on his computer, adding found sounds and IDM beats and doing his best to pull off the sort of complex, layered pop arrangements he admired in the work of Brian Wilson.

Although he'd already put out a few limited-edition CD-Rs of his music through his own Autumn label (autumnrecords.net), Davis's first official release was a 2001 seven-inch called "Clouds as Edges" on the tiny Boston imprint Grounded. Arbor followed in early 2002, selling about 3,000 copies--a respectable number for a debut on a small indie--and making a huge splash in underground circles. Critics heaped praise on the album, many singling out the song "Nicholas," which sampled the instrumental intro from Nick Drake's LP Bryter Layter.

Davis returned to Chicago later in 2002, after touring internationally in support of Arbor (a solo laptop performance from a date in Holland has since been released as part of the Staalplaat label's "Mort aux Vaches" series). He began work on a follow-up album, establishing two rules: no beats and no samples of other recordings. "In a way it was to try and move away from IDM elements of the first record," says Davis. "I just felt like I wanted to distance myself from that....There was a lot of music coming out that was stale or repetitive, a million people trying to sound like Boards of Canada or Autechre."

Curling Pond Woods kicks off with "Red Barn Road," a wordless, multitracked 26-second a cappella piece Davis intended as an homage to "Our Prayer," the lead cut on the Beach Boys' never-released album Smile. He'd used his voice for background texture on Arbor, and on Woods he decided to sing lead on a couple full-length songs: a cover of the Beach Boys' "At My Window" and an album-capping rendition of the Incredible String Band's "Air." His warm, reedy voice is strangely affecting--and very much at home in the tasteful mix of acoustic instruments, electronic flutterings, and natural sounds.

Field recordings are a vital part of Davis's aesthetic, and he carries a minidisc recorder and a set of stereo mikes wherever he goes. "If something perks up my ears," he says, "I can record it right then." On Woods the found sounds are more prominent than ever: The gentle tapping of rain on "Centermost" was captured at his Logan Square apartment; another snippet of rainfall, from "Slightly Asleep," was recorded at a hotel garden in Amsterdam. The symphony of birds in the title track was taped at dawn near his childhood home.

So far this year Davis has made a short trip to Japan and a longer tour of Europe in support of Woods, and during a stateside jaunt in March and April he performed supported by a live band for the first time. "When you play [solo with a laptop] everything is really fixed," he says, "whereas playing live you get those subtle variations or mistakes, so it's been exciting."

Next month German imprint Tonschacht will release a solo Davis seven-inch ("Gather" b/w "Scatter"), and this fall the local label Kranky plans to put out a disc of his drone pieces called Somnia. Carpark is preparing a collection of his improvised laptop duets with Boston colleague Keith Fullerton Whitman (aka Hrvatski) for release early next year. Also in the pipeline is a free-improv session with percussionist Steven Hess, for which the pair used only natural objects as instruments. "Things like stones and leaves and branches," says Davis. "It's very sparse textural stuff."

Davis will play a free solo set at the Empty Bottle on Monday, May 24, opening for Hometapes artists Paul Duncan and Shedding (see Spot Check). He also begins a regular DJ set at Rodan this Saturday, May 22, after which he'll spin the third Wednesday of each month.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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