Natural Selection: An Interview with John Davis of Title Tracks
John Davis, formerly of Q and Not U and indie darlings Georgie James, talks to PopMatters about his past breakups, covering the Boss and the Byrds, and the transition from drummer to front man for his new band Title Tracks.
I love to play six degrees of separation, and the sense it reinforces that humans, for the most part, are connected by some common bond. In my case it's only two degrees of separation, but still interesting nonetheless. John Davis, known for his danceable and unquestionably original rhythms with D.C. post-punk band Q and Not U, may soon be better known as the front man for Title Tracks, whose album It Was Easy came out February 9th on Ernest Jennings. A little background: Davis began his career in nearly unknown D.C. band Corm. Davis' band mate at that time later became my biology teacher for a brief moment, and while teaching me about nervous systems and two-way digestive tracks, he also slipped me a few of his favorite tapes including Fugazi's In on the Kill Taker and a release by Gray Matter. Thinking back on it now, I remember coming to the conclusion that the music didn't make much sense, because there was no “formula.” But in the long run, it struck a chord with me.
Because our interview began with some sentimentality over former bands, it soon led to Davis' explanation of his last band Georgie James' brief existence. Signing to Saddle Creek in 2007, Georgie James' debut Places which the label described as “...setting the stage for a series of artistic triumphs” had only been out for a few weeks before Davis knew the end was coming. “By the time the record was released I already kind of knew that this was just done,” Davis explains. “When the band started Laura and I didn't really know each other. Every band I have ever been in, those people are my best friends. My first band [Corm], those guys are still my best friends. And then Q and Not U, that band very much became my family.” When Davis speaks of Georgie James, it’s with nothing but respect.“Laura worked really really hard with me, but…our personalities weren't a good match for something long term and I couldn't really see us working on more records together. I felt no desire to keep doing it. I wanted to break away from it and do something different.”
After the dissolution of Q and Not U and the quick turn around to form Georgie James, record for a thriving label with national and European tours, one could argue that Davis' resilience was something that couldn't be shaken. In reality though, most of that momentum was spent questioning his situation at that time. “I was just really unhappy with how things were going with Georgie James and I was pretty close to making up my mind that I was just going to start to make my own records. By the time that we announced that Georgie James had broken up, which was summer of 2008, I pretty much had all of the songs written for the album that is coming out now.”
Although Davis admits to going through a bout of self-deprecation, most of his frustrations of Georgie James' failings were what directly influenced the songs that became Title Tracks' debut. Musically, It Was Easy pumps steady, forward-moving rock, with bits of the Clash and Ted Leo-inspired pop, and softer moments of doo-wop and light reverb. The choruses are melodious, sing-along anthems, the verses are a warm path, leading the listener into a comfortable territory, full of shakers, handclaps, and, thoughtful rhythms. Lyrically, Davis bathes in the theme of broken relationships and the push and pull struggle so common to them. In the song “It Was Easy” he offers a snotty response to a stand still relationship.
After awhile I'll see I shouldn’t have gone
I’ll understand that true friends don’t get along
Wouldn’t I want to be back before long?
How could I live without you proving me wrong?
But, it was easy
"The song that the album title is based on is slightly sarcastic, not a put down, but the lyrics are about a situation where someone is saying to you 'How can you give this all up because if you leave this situation then there's nothing good outside of this for you.'” Davis explained, growing animated. “But when it came time to leave, it was actually really easy.”
One of the album’s two cover tracks is a keyboard driven version of Bruce Springsteen's “Tougher Than the Rest” featuring backing vocals by Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell, that transform what could have been a flat song into a moving piece of music, harmonizing with Davis, giving it an optimistic touch against his somber voice. Davis and Campbell have been friends for a few years, a relationship that began on a US tour with Camera Obscura and Georgie James. “On the first day of the tour I remember thinking ‘She's not very friendly,’” Davis admits with a laugh. “But within a couple of days our bands kind of started interacting. They were so, so nice. By the end of that tour Tracey and I were sort of talking about one of these days we should work on something together. It was something that we just kept afloat, and in the years after that when we would see each other we would say, 'One of these days we should work on a song,' or 'Let's write some songs' or whatever. So when it came time to work on my record, I had those songs and I thought her voice would be great on a couple of tracks so I sent them to her and asked if she would be interested and she said she'd do it.”
Closing out It Was Easy is Davis’ interpretation of the Byrds' “She Don't Care About Time,” a track that flawlessly fits in with the rest of the album's original material. Davis seemed taken back when I asked him about the thought that went into choosing those covers. “I haven't even thought about the psychological implications of why I chose those songs. What I would have said when I first chose them is that I just like them and I think they're good or something like that,” he chuckles. “I think that “Tougher Than the Rest” appeals to me because there's a real sense of being hurt in that song, a vulnerability mixed with a bit of bravado and also a feeling of ‘This Is All We've Got--Let's Go’. And I think that's how I felt at that time, with the end of my last band and being kind of alone, and trying to do something new. It's a pretty sad song but there's a little bit of fight in it.”
As for “She Don't Care About Time", Davis offers a less heady take on the process. “That was just one of those songs where I heard an alternate version from a box set and it was much more rocking than the Byrds' release. I thought man this is a great song, I'd love to play it and just see how it sounds. So I went to the practice space and just worked out my own version and I really liked it. There's a slight melancholy to that song and one of those things that appealed to me. The Byrds are definitely a huge influence on me, and Gene Clark is this sort of a wounded figure, and someone also who just kept going and I guess I just identified with that.”
While the writing process for It Was Easy came naturally, finding a way to get it to audiences was more of a struggle. Since 2005, Davis has been on three different labels and after splitting with Saddle Creek in 2008, the search for the right label had to start from scratch. “The search for a label is definitely a challenge. It's hard you know, putting yourself out there and trying to find a home.” He continues, “I spent a few months talking to labels. I was getting a little antsy. I wanted to get settled and get on a good label and get the record out. It took almost a year.” It was only when Davis' agent suggested he send his record to Ernest Jennings Record Co., whose notable acts include raucous songwriter Chris Mills and New York Americana interpreters Oh Death, that Title Tracks found a home. “I met them through my booking agent and, I didn't know it but I had dealt with Pete, who owns that label, here and there through the years. They're really supportive and there's definitely a feeling that they are behind you which is a really good feeling to have.”
While Davis has now made the transition from drummer to frontman, he makes it clear that his evolution as a musician did not stem from any intense desire to strike out on his own. “There was a really long gap where I didn't write music at all, other than with Q and Not U, writing little parts and contributing occasionally here and there. This wasn't like a Foo Fighters thing or something. I wasn't busy compiling my own songs and just waiting for an outlet.” And although Davis has grown musically he admits that he was somewhat apprehensive about fronting a band. “I definitely remember that first show, being pretty nervous beforehand and thinking 'What's this going to be like?’” Davis recalls. “That's one good thing I'll say about Georgie James is that it gave me the confidence to be able to write songs by myself...so when it came time to write I just did it, and it came out.”
Now that Davis has fully grown into his role as front man, he plans to take the band out in February and tour into the spring. The backing band, comprised of Davis' friends Nick Anderson on guitar, Michael Cotterman on bass and Andrew Black on drums, is one of Davis’ favorite parts of not only Title Tracks, but of music in general. “I certainly couldn't play the shows without the guys that are in the band, and that is the best part of Title Tracks for me, when we play shows… I think the concept of the band and people making music together, that's just part of humanity.”