Dana Wachs has a panoramic perspective, coming to music from every possible angle. Starting cello at just nine years old (of her own volition) and taking rigorous lessons from acclaimed member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Trading in her cello for a bass guitar when she stumbled upon Herbie Hancock’s Rock school on PBS. Joining the Dischord band the Holy Rollers, and picking up sound engineering on the road. Cultivating her engineering skills at the Black Cat in DC and over the course of 20 years touring all over the globe with brilliant musicians like St. Vincent and Deerhunter. At last, she shares her musical voice on the EP Black Horse Pike, out February 24th on Styles Upon Styles.
The album is an experimental five-song meditation on memories and sound. She plays Brooklyn at Union Pool on February 25th with I.U.D., and Faten Kanaan. I talked with her about how she arrived at this album, and what is has like growing up in rural New Jersey.
You were first on a Dischord band. How did you start playing with the Holy Rollers?
They were playing at CBGB’s, and the singer mentioned that their bass player was quitting, and I said “Well, i play bass.” My boyfriend at the time said “you know, they want a real bass player. They want a professional.” So I said I’m going to learn these songs and prove him wrong, and then I got the job. Anytime someone tells me I can’t do something I’m going to do it. I don’t like being underestimated, I guess. I like a challenge.
I had to learn them just by listening to the music, there was no sheet music. It helped me fine tune my ear. It was a great experience, I learned a lot about bass playing. I moved to D.C. and within two weeks I was on my first tour, I was 19. When you are 19 it’s the most exciting thing in the world to share one Motel6 room with four other people and travel and see cities you’ve never been to.
So how were you introduced to doing sound?
Halfway through the tour we joined up with 7 Year Bitch. I’d heard about, and was intimidated by, but they completely took me under their wing. They were so amazing to me. Their sound person, Lisa Fey, taught me how to do sound. She started teaching me the basics of doing sound on that tour. It was a lot to take in at once, but it was completely invigorating. That was the beginning of my education about everything I use today.
I would loiter by the sound booth and ask her what everything was. As a musician on stage, I didn’t know how to ask. Sound people have a horrible reputation for a reason—a lot of them can be pretty bitter and just above it all. I considered it a tool so I could get what I needed on stage. Lisa taught me how to use it creatively.
So you’ve been doing live sound since then?
Pretty much. I got back from that tour, and I started working at this club in dc called the black cat. The sound guy there at the time, Nick, ended up being Fugazi’s sound engineer. I’d come in during the day and play with the PA as long as I let the beer guys in to drop off the kegs. So I would just sit on stage and make things feedback, and train my ear.
My first job doing sound at the Black Cat, I was doing monitors on stage for Desmond Decker.
How does touring affect your workflow, since you’ll be gone for months at a time?
Last year between several tours I would just record and have to shelve it before I went on tour again. Then come back home and record some more and then shelve it.
The songs have been written for a long time, except for “SPL,” which I wrote right before I started recording. I said I’d never write a love song, but I wrote a long song. It’s a love song about sound. How many love songs are there? The world doesn’t need another love song, but I do love sound, and I thought I’d give a little homage to what sound does for me personally. Everything else I’ve written over the course of five years, just experimenting.
Some of the songs I wrote years ago. But they were always there. I’d go back and change the instrumentation or the words. “Souvenir,” didn’t have any words, it was just instrumental and the lyrics just came to me in a rush and it fit. I got very lucky that way. This EP is going to be very different then anything I put out, because i’ve been sitting on these songs for a long time. I’ve had the luxury to ruminate on them and marinate in them for a bit.
The title track “Black Horse Pike” is some sort of highway in New Jersey?
Black Horse Pike is a road in New Jersey, that goes from where I grew up in the West side of New Jersey, close to Philadelphia, all the way to the shore. Once I got behind a wheel, I’d go out there with my friend. We were both dating these two guys. We would take weekly trips out to the shore in the summer, and get on black horse pike and end up in the pine barrens which is a very haunting beautiful place in New Jersey.
Growing up in NJ you learn that’s where the New Jersey Devil, the folklore tale originated. Apparently, there is a bottomless pool there where it lives. It’s a forest of evergreen trees except there’s no soil, it’s just sand. It’s a biological phenomenon which no one can really explain. The sand eventually gives way to the Jersey shore. It’s a weird broken down place. There is something very beautiful and dark about it. And I gravitate towards beautiful dark things. I was trying to conjure up a musical representation of these. And that’s when it evolved into what it is now. That was the genesis of it.
How did you go from playing the bass to more electronic sounds?
My brother gave me an acoustic guitar, and he knew I was into the police so he gave me a book of police tunes with tablatures. So I moved from bass to guitar, cause I wanted to create songs. I guess when I started doing sound and I started picturing the mixing consul as an instrument itself, I would play the consul instead of just mixing.
Did you experiment with a lot of different guitar pedals?
When I got into pedals, it was from me doing sound and guitarists bringing in pedals. And me being like hey what does that do?
My sound was basically overdriving the pedal and then looping it. A Line 6 DL4. I was playing with that, delays and reverse. Feeding it into itself. Not reading manuals, just experimenting. Trying to get different tones from my guitar. One of my favorite recordings is on my laptop and you can hear the fan. Literally using the built in microphone. The sound is generated from the fan of the processor overheating and the amp overdriven.
Do you use the computer?
I never got into using the computer as an auxiliary processor. I track into a computer. But I process sounds into a tape machine before it goes into the computer, sometimes, not all the time. I feel like a computer just sounds so clean. People use presets and it drives me crazy. Tweak it and make it your own. I try to get something new with all my gear and hardware.
I listened to some of the earlier recording you made and I could tell it was a guitar. There was a lot of organic sound and expansive feedback but I wasn’t sure about these songs. Do you use guitar on this album?
I process my guitar through a synthesizer. So on “Black Horse Pike,” for example, the staccato rhythm that opens the song. I’m playing a guitar into a synthesizer, but I’m triggering the sound by pushing the button assigned to the guitar. It’s a manually triggered gate. It’s a Korg Electribe.
It’s made for like DJ’s and dance music. I had the first version, but it eventually died. A lot of the songs are super bro-y. Bro-typical. I came up with a sound that you can’t find anywhere. I put the Electribe through a Moogerfooger, it’s a chorus and flanger.
I don’t want to make too much of a point that I’m not making EDM, but sometimes it’s fun to see if you can take the sound out of it’s typical environment and make it listenable and exciting and different.
What did Greg Fox do on this album?
He plays snare. I went to his studio, and I did a very simple one mic recording technique. Then I just put him on headphones and played him the track and said improvise, just one snare. No cymbals, nothing. I think we did two takes.
Greg is in my top two drummers of all time. I’ve done sound for Liturgy and I’ve listened to him play and he’s just a remarkable musician. He’s very intuitive, and I love that connection that he has. I’m really grateful he got to play on it.
Something a lot of people struggle with is translating their recordings to a live show. Do you worry about that?
I always wanted to do something I could do live. I wanted the recording to be true to my live show, because performing is really fun for me. It’s a really intense, almost out-of-body experience. I don’t know if I’m generating the adrenaline or I’m getting it from the people, but I have a pretty intense reaction to performing live. Being a live sound engineer, I wanted to reflect what I do live on the recording.
How did you approach lyrics?
I’m very, very strict when it comes to writing lyrics. I want to make sure that there is no filler. I can’t stand reading lyric sheets where somebody uses the words “Oh baby.” There are so many clichés. That I’m not saying something in the same way it’s been said before. Which is difficult, because everything has been said before. I’m not an innovator lyrically, I know that about myself. But what comes out on this record are lyrics that came to me pretty quickly. If it doesn’t come naturally I’m not going to force it out there. Especially now, working on a new record. There’s so much I want to say as politically.
Were you surprised by how the album came out? There are more pop song elements then I would have expected given your previous recordings?
Yes. It’s so different. If somebody said write all new music, right now and put out a record, it wouldn’t sound like this at all. But I felt that those songs deserved a release because I lived with them for so long. I don’t think they misrepresent me at all, but I do think they represent me at a different time in my life. I always go back to the word honesty, because that’s what I admire the most in music. I think it’s really important that you see the growth in artists. Hopefully the next album will show some sort of evolution, or path towards a new sound, or process or method.
I work with a lot of artists as a sound engineer that have had more than five records come out. And I like seeing that process, so maybe that’s influenced how I’m presenting my music now that I have a chance to.
What do you imagine for your next album?
I want to keep the momentum going but it’s hard to force it out. If you force it out, it becomes pretty blatantly unnaturally. I got lucky that the lyrics of this album seemed to work in a memory cycle. I could get very intellectual about it and try to make a trilogy or a triptych. This album was the past, the next album is going to be the present, and the album after that could be the future. But for me it has to be honest, so if the next album is mostly instrumental I’m not angry with that.
What are your plans for the next few months?
I’m going out with a band on 4AD called Methyl Ethyl. They are from Perth, Australia. I’m doing sound for them, and I’m opening up for them. So that’s my ideal situation. I’m doing a lot of west coast dates and some in the mountain range. It’s my first van tour in a long time. I’ve been on buses. Sitting in a 15 passenger band for 10 hour drives. [laughs].