A Conversation With John Davis (Lees Of Memory)

With the new, self-released Moon Shot, singer/songwriter/guitarist John Davis and his Lees Of Memory cohorts (guitarist Brandon Fisher and drummer Nick Slack) have fashioned another fine LP of psych-inflected power pop. Davis is a sorely unheralded songwriter—one of the best of his generation—and Moon Shot does nothing to dispel that notion. The default reaction is to say a lot of it sounds like Superdrag (“Lonely Everywhere,” “Crocodile Tears”), albeit with a fairly surprising closing track, but what it really sounds like is John Davis. Even before our current reality—but perhaps amplified now—that’s exactly what we need. We talked to Davis about life during quarantine, staying positive and funk influences. Yes, funk influences.

How are you and your family doing “in these uncertain times”?
Hanging tight, man. [Laughs] Efforts are being made. We’ve been distancing to the max since March 13. I have a sick family member I’m helping to care for who is mega-super-compromised, so I can’t take any unnecessary risks whatsoever. I hate it the most for the kids. Our oldest son went out for his high-school baseball squad and made the cut as a freshman, which we were obviously super-psyched about, then their entire season was 86’d.

Speaking of baseball, you’re a San Francisco Giants fan. How much have you missed it? Is the record’s title a nod to a long homer?
Not enough to start watching like the 1983 NLCS or something, but I’ve definitely missed baseball something terrible—especially seeing my kid play. And yes, the title is absolutely a reference to the long ball.

You’re a man of faith and, if you’ll allow the generalization, a pretty positive person in addition to being a husband and father. How do you keep it together with everything going on in the world these days?
I’d like to think so. I’m glad you think so. Keeping it positive is definitely a choice, though. It’s not my default setting by a long shot, but I’m trying to think the best instead of constantly bracing myself for the worst. I try to keep my words, thoughts and deeds as positive and uplifting as I can, building up instead of tearing down, with love and compassion toward all people. Whenever I get weighted down by my own sorrows at times, I try to either pivot toward an expression of gratitude for all the things on the plus side or focus instead on ways that I could help somebody. I will say that my heart especially goes out to anybody walking through a season of life that’s extremely difficult in a best-case scenario—but in the midst of the pandemic. That’s kind of where we’ve been at for the past couple of months. It tends to make a difficult time way more difficult.

What was it like creating a record in the current circumstances? How much, if any, of the LP was completed prior to lockdown?
We were lucky to be able to cut all the drums, all the bass and almost all of the guitar the way we always do. That was the last session before Nick (Slack) moved Rock Falcon to its current location. Rock Falcon II ruled. The studio was built in 1968, and Roy Orbison owned it for most of the ’70s. It’s a classic Nashville temple of sound. The room drums are ridiculous. He claims the new spot is even better for drums. But we were able to get a solid framework for every track together at the studio with Nick the old-fashioned way. When it came time to finish overdubs, everybody was quarantined and there was really nothing happening at the studio, but I was lucky enough to get Brandon (Fisher) down here for one long vocal and guitar session at the house before they started locking everything down. I had to learn ProTools well enough to overdub, but then I kind of went off the deep end. Nick loaned me his Mellotron for a little while; that was crucial. Brandon actually had to finish his last couple of guitar overdubs remotely from home also. When we finally finished all the overdubbing and it came time to hand in my work drive, I just left it on the front porch. It was all zero-contact. Very weird. But Nick was able to mix the whole thing from home, which really says a lot about his ears and overall levels of wizardry, and we were very psyched to have it mastered by Ted Jensen. Having his ears and EQ on it was huge.

If I’m hearing Moon Shot properly, it’s recorded in stereo, and the last two Lees records (The Blinding White Of Nothing At All and Unnecessary Evil) were in mono. Why the change? If I’m not hearing it properly, please be kind, as I’m old.
No, it’s definitely stereo. I didn’t even mount an argument as to why it should be recorded and mixed in mono. Brandon’s way into stereo guitars, and Nick is, too. I know the mono thing is off-putting for some people. I just prefer to have one big sound pointing straight at the third eye most of the time. Wacky stereo gets in the way of the music sometimes, if you ask me—like some of the extreme panning on Led Zeppelin II or something. I don’t intend to be sacrilegious. I love Led Zeppelin II. That’s just the first example that came to mind.

Blinding White had 24 songs, while Moon Shot has 10. You’re a prolific songwriter, so did you just have 10 songs you liked and concentrated on those? Or are you holding out on us and another record will be here sooner than later?
No, I wrote 30 songs to get to these 10. A handful of them are set aside for the new Rectangle Shades LP. Some are forming the basis for another new project with one of my favorite Nashville rhythm sections—Jared Reynolds on bass, Lindsay Jamieson on drums—called Glory Ride, then some others are insinuating themselves into a remote collabo with my friend Jason Brewer from Explorers Club, Andrew Dost from the band Fun and Shane Tutmarc from Dolour that doesn’t have a name yet. “Band To Be Named Later”? And I’m working on a reggae LP with my buddy Ethan Luck, Magic Panther & The Deliverers. So I have four other records in various stages. It sounds crazy, but I think we can make all four of them this year. It’s always just driven by the ideas, and there seems to be tons of ideas.

The basic sentiment of “Crocodile Tears”—music can help you feel better—isn’t new, but it’s certainly the case for all of your work with Superdrag, solo and the Lees Of Memory. What are some bands or songs that evoke that in you? Did anything in particular inspire this song?
There are so many. I guess that’s why I felt like writing the song. I wrote that one super-fast. When I was registering the works, I had to supply dates of creation, and I had forgotten that I wrote “Lonely Everywhere,” “Crocodile Tears” and “No Floor No Ceiling” on back-to-back-to-back days. That was a good little streak. As for the inspiration, I think it’s a little bit like something Robert Pollard might do. I hoped it would be. His voice sounds triumphant. On that chorus, I wanted mine to sound triumphant, too. Plus, it has a couple of nice little worlds in it. I was way into creating little worlds on this album, with bridges that would take you to a different place for a little while. I feel like “Crocodile Tears” is kind of a power ballad, in a way.

I’m not sure anyone was expecting the funk workout on “Far Beyond.” How did that one come about? Your taste is pretty wide-ranging, so I imagine you listen to that kind of stuff every so often at least.
Man, I just try to fully commit to playing exactly what I feel at any given time. I think the closer you are to hitting that mark consistently, the better records you’ll be making. I really do. I got the idea for the main synth hook listening to Snoop Dogg Presents Tha Eastsidaz. In light of his passing the other day, I should definitely mention the maestro Ennio Morricone in terms of those twangy guitars in the verses. They were definitely inspired by the guitar-playing in his scores to the max. It’s obviously a love letter to Prince, but I honestly spent more time with George Clinton’s music while we were making these tracks. I listened to Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome every day for several weeks at one point. I listened to tons of Wu Tang Clan and related joints, too, but primarily Liquid Swords by GZA. I definitely tried to get into some Shaw Brothers kung-fu synths from 1979 in a few key areas elsewhere—the kind of stuff the RZA might sample for an interlude or something. As far as “Far Beyond” is concerned, we felt like it had to be last—we didn’t know where else to put it. It’s kind of like the record ends with “Wrong,” and “Far Beyond” is the after party. If showing love for the Purple One is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. He’s been my hero since 1982.

You’ve played a few Lees shows, but I recall you telling me once that playing live wasn’t something you were all that interested in anymore, at least the touring aspect of it. Do you still feel that way?
Moreso than ever. [Laughs] Man, ultimately it all comes down to time. It’s our most precious resource. With work and family obligations, we have a pretty narrow bandwidth available for rocking, and I’ve never been much of one to be able to write on the road. The conventional deal kind of dictates that you make an album, then spend the next year or two playing it live, then go make the next one. We just don’t have time for that creatively. In the amount of time it takes to woodshed a set, get nine musicians together, sit at the club for five hours, then play, then tear it all down and go home, I could write four or five songs instead—and two of ‘em might be good enough for the LP. [Laughs] I mean, since 2014, we’ve put out 12 full-length sides of vinyl, plus five double-sided non-album 45s and a sixth 45—our first—had two songs on it that ended up on (debut Lees LP) Sisyphus Says. If we only exist on record, we’ve got to keep the records coming. Writing, recording and producing are the elements I enjoy the most—with joy being the main objective.

Matt Hickey