David Eugene Edwards of Wovenhand on the influence of Middle Eastern music
David Eugene Edwards
Wovenhand (due at The Marquis Theater tomorrow night with Git Some) is the current musical project of David Eugene Edwards. In his early bands, Bloodflower and The Denver Gentlemen, Edwards was developing an aesthetic that some consider synonymous with all the significant music to have come out of Denver.
But really, Edwards' ideas about music just gelled into a sound that embraced traditional American music while infusing it with an air of hazy mystery and raw emotional intensity when he formed 16 Horsepower in the early 1990s. That band helped to put Denver underground music on the map as the act quickly signed to A&M records, which released its debut EP and two subsequent albums.
Horsepower's immediacy and musical intimacy struck an immediate chord with audiences in Denver and further afield, to the point where the band enjoyed great popularity in parts of Europe. Equal parts folk and country but informed by the darkness of post-punk and the more haunting end of the blues, 16 Horsepower was an arresting live band. In the early part of the past decade, the band split, and Edwards formed Wovenhand, sometimes performing without accompaniment but often with side players to help flesh out the next phase of his songwriting.
The band's latest album, Threshingfloor, reflects Edwards' long-standing interest in the folk music of people across the world. But in a way that shows a genuine respect for those sounds rather than a clumsy attempt to hash together popular music with the types of songs that have endured hundreds of years.
We had the rare fortune to speak with Edwards at length about his musical interests, his history, his perspective on cultural tourism, some of his influences, the Wovenhand tour with Tool and what motivates him to take the approach to songwriting that he does.
Westword: Last year you attended the Huun Huur Tu show at Swallow Hill. How did you become familiar with their work, and what first got you interested in traditional non-western music? Or folk music outside of America in general?
David Eugene Edwards: I can't remember, to be honest with you, where I first heard them. More than likely, I heard them on some sort of radio show or something. I don't know where I would have been. It could have been online or...I don't know. I've always listened to traditional music ever since I was a young teenager.
At first I was mainly interested in American music -- bluegrass or mountain music and Native American music. You start listening to that, and it takes you in a lot of different directions. It takes you to Scandinavia, Germany, you know wherever the people are and the influence that they bring to American culture. That's how I discovered it all.
So you traced the lineage of the American traditional music you first got into?
What was it about the Iranian and Moroccan music you've been listening to that is so captivating to you, and what artists did you find particularly interesting?
I love Middle Eastern music, especially North African -- I like Moroccan music, Tunisian music. I like that African feel -- which a lot of American music has as well -- mixed with this Arabic culture, which is just really interesting and really cool. Also, in Spain, you have all of that mixture going on as well as the Spanish, gypsy, flamenco type of thing. It's such a cool area.
In particular, I'm really fond of Iranian music. For one, I really love the sound of the instruments. The tonality, the odd scaling and tuning that they use, which is so foreign to a Western musical person. Just the foreignness of it can be interesting. There's a few groups that stood out. The Dastan Ensemble, they're like the top traditional musicians of Iran. They've probably played for Ahmadinejad. These people are really high art.
Another one is called the Ibn Arabi Ensemble. They're much more quiet, more a religious... I don't know if they're Sufi or Shiite, but it's kind of mystic, really hauntingly beautiful.
In your bio it mentioned your playing regularly with a Hungarian folk band. What are they called, and what lead to your association with that band?
We have many times. It's this band called Muzsikás. I've known them for ten or twelve years. I heard them, fell in love with their music and wrote them a letter. We -- this was with 16 Horsepower -- were playing in Vienna, which is about an hour and a half from Budapest, and they all showed up at the show because of the letter I had written.
We struck up a friendship there, and then I probably saw them maybe four or five times after that in Vienna, and finally, we went to Budapest. I'd go to his place when we'd go there, and I just kept in contact. I saw them here in Denver, and they played just blocks away from my house, really. We just decided to do some shows together and play some music together. In Europe we played different festivals together.
We did one special show in Budapest where we played songs together; we played songs on our own. Yeah, it's just a really cool group of people. They kind of came out of this folk revival of the early '70s, that whole kind of counterculture in Hungary, going deep into the traditions of the Jewish music of Transylvania and all of the music of that region.
The instruments themselves and keeping alive that tradition -- they haven't tried to change it or modernize it. They're very wary of doing anything like that. We've talked about it and they say, "This is the real 'world music," because both of us hate "world music" -- you know, where they just throw in some hip-hop beat over some monks chanting.
Oh yeah, not real world music. World music as genre.
Yeah, I mean, I understand the intent behind it, and I admire people being interested in other cultures and other music, but this whole "world music" thing leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
It really waters it down.
Exactly. We just try to stay away from that and make it as raw and as real as possible.
Did one of one of those guys play on Threshingfloor?
Peter Eri, probably my closest friend of the group. He plays a big, long shepherd's flute. This is a traditional melody that he's playing on the song "Terra Haute." That's one thing about them. They're so ingrained in their tradition and culture, that they're not people that jam with other people. They only play their kind of music.
I was like, "Yeah, I want you to play on the record." He's not a guy that's, "Okay, I'm going to follow the music you sent me." He's basically, "This is a traditional tune from eight hundred years ago. See where you can use it." Which is awesome, and it worked perfectly with the song."
There's a different feel about this album than your previous efforts. What changed your musical or personal perspective that caused such a shift in your songwriting?
It's hard for me to gauge. It's like watching your child grow up. Other people notice, but you don't. So it's hard to identify. To me, it's all the same. To me, it's just another album. Not that it's boring to me, it's just that I don't notice the changes. To me, it was just a logical progression into the music I've been listening to and the ideas I've been trying to get across.
There's a fine line of this whole, "We are a world village" -- that whole attitude. As time goes on, people kind of say that about Wovenhand. That it's this big melting pot of culture and musical ideas, but I am very wary of that whole "world citizen" thing. That's kind of like "world music" to me -- that whole idea.
They kind of blur things together instead of letting things have their own identity.
Yeah, I think it's really important for things to have their own identity and for cultures to have their own identity. As time goes on, that's gone, basically. It's only in images now. Culture, in general, is kind of gone, and we're in a state of... You see a guy out on the Mongolian steppes on a cell phone or on a computer. It's really insane. Of course there's benefits to it, but I find it really kind of creepy.
That, and I was in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, at the Indian reservation a couple of months ago with my son for a couple of days. That's what it's like there. Complete poverty, of course, for the most part, but all the teenagers are riding horses -- everybody has a horse and everybody's riding around -- but, of course, they're all on cell phones and listening to hip-hop.
This technology that's zooming into the future, making things more accessible, easier, just does away with all culture, basically. I think that is, in some kind of way, I want to say "spiritual," but I don't know if that's the right word, that is the intent of "progress," to do away with all of the things that make differences between people and just make one society that is controllable and manageable and you can direct it the way you want worldwide.
This happens in art, this happens music, this happens, of course, in politics and everything else. It's something I'm kind of fighting against in one sense but it's a thin line. It's a strange time to make music, that's for sure.
This time around, you recorded yet again with Bob Ferbrache. What brings you back to working with Bob year after year? What do you feel he helps to bring out or highlight in your music as a recording engineer?
We recorded some of it there [at Absinthe Studio], and we recorded half of it at Pascal [Humbert's] place in Glade Park, Colorado. Some of it was done on the road, but everything was put together, mixed and mastered at Bob's house.
There's the whole comfort factor. We've worked together for so long, and we've known each for so long, so that when we do work together, he knows what I'm after, he knows how to get the sounds that I want. He's really good with all the machines that I don't know anything about and microphones and all of that stuff. He's really knowledgeable about all that.
And he cares about the music. He cares about how it sounds, how it's put out there. I do enjoy working with other people in other places, but I've traveled so much, and I tour so much, that when I record, I don't want to go to another town to record. I want to stay home and record, so I can be near my family. So it works out really well that way.
Did you ever record anything with him when you were in Bloodflower.
No. We were living in Boulder at that time, and the only recording we did was with some friends who were in another band called Boy. They had a little studio. It wasn't until 16 Horsepower started playing live, and we talked about recording. We did a live demo at the Mercury Cafe with him, and that's how we got signed to A&M Records and all of that.
The cover art with what looks like a kind of stylized Chinese dragon. Why did you work with [Westword Art Director] Jay Vollmar on the artwork? Did you give him any kind of direction on the imagery?
I just love what he does. That was a flyer he had made for a show of ours that was supposed to happen at the Larimer Lounge. The band that was on the poster didn't end up playing, and it didn't get much use at the time. I just loved the picture and really went with the idea of the Threshingfloor -- it kind of reminded me of the mood of the album. It had kind of a Persian feel with the blue and gold -- just the colors of it. It has kind of an Eastern flavor to it that matched it perfectly.
How did you come to tour with Tool last year, and how were you received by their audiences?
Every night, people clapped, and they were very kind. Of course, we had a few diehards in the front row that don't want to see anybody but Maynard, you know? They were like, "Get the fuck off the stage, what are you doing here?" That type of thing. That's to be expected. I expected a lot more of that, to be honest with you. I was kind of surprised by the... For one, I didn't know their music very well. I remember them from the '90s when they were really popular, as far as being on TV. That's probably the last time I watched MTV -- in the 90s. Then I hadn't really heard about them.
When I got the offer to open, I was like, "Tool, I didn't even know they were still a band." Then I found out they sell out everywhere they go -- like twelve thousand people in every city. I had no idea. Not that that matters much, I was just surprised. They have a serious cult following. I guess it's like a bigger version of what we do. We have a cult following, as well. We've just never had any real radio or television exposure that has really gotten us to that level.
But they still have that kind of attitude, and they like what they like, and they choose bands they like to open and usually these bands are small bands. They try to introduce bands they like to their audience, and their audience knows that. Because it's such a cult following, everybody knows what's going on, if you know what I mean, and I think everyone was respectful because they knew the band had chosen us.
The band treated us extremely well. They wanted us to do a whole month-long tour, but we had already had a show in Israel and all this tour based around that, and we could only do seven shows, but they said that was fine. We went to New Orleans, started there, and worked our way back to Denver and left the next day on a European tour. It was awesome.
You cover "Truth" by New Order on this album, and in the past, you've covered songs by Joy Division. How did you first become familiar with their work, and what is it about their music that speaks so strongly to you that you'd want to play your own versions of their music?
I listened to that stuff at the time it was out. I heard it from probably older people in the scene or at a party. The first time I heard Joy Division, a friend of mine introduced me to it, and I thought it was the worst music I'd ever heard. I was like, "Are you kiddin' me? I can't listen to that!" Then, probably by the next day or the day after, that was all I could listen to. It happened that quickly to me. I was hooked. I think I just paid attention to what he was saying. And then after I paid attention to what he was saying, the music started to make more sense to me. From then I was absolutely hooked on it.
When New Order came along, I loved it, as well. I loved that whole transition. They were sort of starting to move in that direction with Joy Division. In my mind, after the first New Order record they were just like, "Fuck it. Let's do what we want to do and be who we are and not try to recreate the past. I really admired both bands, the way they went about both of those endeavors. It was always a big influence on me, so I was just paying a tribute in some sense.
What did you find especially compelling about Ian Curtis' lyrics?
Well, nobody else was writing anything like that within the rock world, or whatever world it is. He was writing about the human condition, and the way he wrote about it was extremely personal and, at the same time, universal. It was done in an artistically interesting manner, and all of these things together really stuck out to me. I'm not like an Ian Curtis obsessed guy with an Ian Curtis poster in my closet. I don't go visit Ian Curtis' grave. I just liked what he had to say.
What about The Gun Club? Not that many people seem to know about them.
Yeah! I think they came to Denver maybe once. I was probably too young to even go. I heard them the same time I was listening to The Birthday Party and bands like that. I liked any band that had any sort of Western idea or blending alternative music with kind of a southern, or Native American... just something other than just white guys.
Anything that had that intensity to it. The Gun Club, especially, was a huge influence on the music that I've made even still to today. At the time they were going, they were not a very popular band. I don't think he was known as being a cool guy.
My wife actually knew him a little bit. She's from L.A., so she grew up around that whole scene, and the clubs that they were playing. They were just kind of a joke to a lot of people because they were mixing these ideas they had in their head. Which looked corny to people.
I think Nick Cave did it in a little more classy or hipper way, whereas The Gun Club was just raw. Literally just knock you upside the head with a tomahawk. That was the attitude. This anger at this white dominated, colonial attitude that just wants to rule the world and does rule the world. This backlash against that. Any band that was kind of doing that, I was into.
The familiar spiritual struggle and your, dare I say, earnest but seemingly contentious relationship with God and the deeper issues of existence are present on Threshingfloor, as well, but it has a different flavor or feel this time.
Well, yeah, to me, that is where... That's the lens through which I see everything. It's not something I just use to use. I don't know anything else, to be honest with you. I don't know how to do it any other way, and I don't want to do it any other way. That's what I sing about, that's what I'm interested in knowing about, telling other people about.
The whole artistic side of it is connected with it as well, just the whole other cultures and other people, especially the Native American culture, what was done to them in the name of God. All the bullshit that was placed on them. Which really has nothing to do with God at all.
It has to do with white colonial ideas -- this is how you do things, this is how you don't do things, this is how you dress, this is how you talk, this is how you live. You know? They forced it, and if you didn't comply, they killed you or locked you up or whatever. That has nothing to do with God and the Scriptures. This is completely man-imposed and man's ideas of control and power and progress.
My relationship with God is what gives me the ability, I hope, to have a connection with other cultures and to have the proper respect for them and their culture and for their spiritual ideas. I do it through music, which is a great place to be. You don't have all those politics there in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways it's just, "Oh, you like my music? I like your music, too." Then you have a relationship and you can build on that.
Do you feel that your relationship to all of this has changed or evolved over the last several years?
When we play concerts, everyone wants to hear older songs,16 Horsepower songs or whatever, which I completely understand; that's not a problem. But most of the time, I can't do it because I'm not in that place anymore. I don't even think in the same terms spiritually so the lyrics... I have come to a better understanding what the Gospel is -- which is, to me, the most important thing in life.
I've just gotten a better understanding of things, so I was in a completely different space at those times. I can't put myself back in there, because it's not like, "Oh, it doesn't matter; it's just an old song that people like." I can't do it. Because the reason I did it back then was because I really meant it, and I was really into it, and that's why I wasn't playing any other sort of music.
So today, I can't do what I was doing then because I don't think that way anymore. I've, hopefully, matured in a lot of ways and come to a better understanding of what I'm trying to understand, so why would I go back? It's impossible for me to enter into that space again and talk that way anymore. So it's this constant moving into a better understanding of life and meaning.
Some people want you to stay what they're familiar with, but you can't do that because you're a human being.
Yeah, it's happened to me so many times in my career. When 16 Horsepower finished, people were like, "What?!" They were like, "Wovenhand? No, no, no! 16 Horsepower." Everybody's like, "You're an idiot" or "This is never going to work." What people didn't really realize is that that was the same thing that happened to me when I stopped playing with The Denver Gentlemen and started 16 Horsepower.
Everyone was like, "What? 16 Horsepower? No! You gotta do The Denver Gentlemen." And it happened before that. It happened with Bloodflower, and then we started The Denver Gentlemen. It doesn't matter where I go, people are going to say, "You're going the wrong direction. It's not as good as it was before." It's a constant stream of that, so I can't really listen to those voices and just do what I do.
I don't want an artist not do what they want to do.
[laughs] I'm the same way. There's a lot of artists that I like, that do things that I don't like as much as other things that they do, but I don't care. It's like, "So what? I like these people."
It's like, "Maybe I'll catch up to it someday."
People often remark on how perfectly your music captures the haunted majesty of this part of the country. What is it about your surroundings that has consistently inspired and informed your songwriting?
That's another one of those questions that I'm so close to that it's hard for me to notice. All I can say is that I am greatly inspired by where I live: Of course my own history in Colorado in many different places all over Colorado. My family history here and the Native American culture here that thrives here, or thrived here and does not anymore. The whole mountain community, the whole mining... all these different cultures tearing apart the countryside and destroying everything in their path to get to these things underground. There's a lot of, like you say, mystery.
I don't know, people talk about "The Denver Sound." I think it just sprung out of all the music I mentioned before that was incorporating stuff from the past that's worth keeping around that we're trying to get rid of and move into the future. The kind of backlash toward that. I think that's what that whole "Denver Sound" came out of saying, "There is a lot of different music out there worth listening to. There's a lot more life that guitar, bass and drums."
There's a lot more music than that and trying to do it in a way that isn't cheesy and hokey. And, of course, never being accepted fully by any of the groups, be it folk music, bluegrass, country or rock. If you don't do it pure, then the majority of the people who like that kind of music aren't going to listen to you. So I've had to deal with those people a lot. "Oh, you hear the banjo." Then they hear the music, and they're like, "What?! That doesn't sound like the banjo the way it's supposed to be played."
Bluegrass music was just mountain music. "Bluegrass" is just the commercialized version of mountain music. It was just a way to make money for somebody in New York. It's like, "Oh yeah, we're going to the back woods and record these guys." The whole colonial culture is like, "Oh, isn't this cute. Oh, aren't these people cute." And I'm a part of that white culture, and I'm embarrassed by it, and I don't know what to do about it exactly, and this is my reaction, and this is how it comes out.
Considering you have a larger fan base outside of Denver than in it, what is it about this city that you love or appreciate enough to keep you living here?
If we play in San Francisco or New York or even Chicago and Philadelphia, we have more people [at shows] than we do here. I've been a lot of places. Almost all of Europe. I've been to every state in America. We've thought about moving to Europe many times, because I spend a lot of time there. It's difficult to be away from family and everything. But at the end, this is where my family is; this is where my wife's family is. Our children grew up here, and it would be too much of a change to move. It's still one of my favorite places on the planet. To me, it's just a gorgeous place to live. The weather is just fantastic. I love the seasons, I love the mountains.
I grew up here. I remember when downtown was a scary place to be. There was nothing going on down there but trouble. And there was something mysterious and exciting about it. Not that I'm into trouble or any of that. I guess just the way things are cleaned up and changed supposedly for the better, I'm not really interested in. Denver wants to have an image of being a sporty place. I don't really care about any of that. It's fine, but I just don't care so that's never been a part of my reason for being here or enjoying my life here. It's been a lot of other things.
As a multi-instrumentalist, what have been your favorite instruments to play and on what instruments do you feel most comfortable writing music?
I do a lot of writing on the piano. I'm not really a piano player, but I'm able to bang out certain melodies and things that I like and a lot of times I'll transpose that onto a different instrument, be that guitar, banjo, accordion, the hurdy gurdy or some other instrument. A lot of times I'll start with the piano or just the banjo. Those are the two I write the most on.
After so many years making music, surely you know it has an impact on other people. Is there anything about making that music that continues to move you to do so that you hope is imparted to anyone who listens to it?
It's difficult to say, because a lot of times, the songs are quite abstract in a lot of ways, lyrically as well as musically, and a lot of times, I don't know what the song means. It'll have a sort of vague feeling, and I'll put these words together that don't necessarily belong together or ideas that kind of clash against each other, but I put them together, just because that's what felt right to me at the time.
The songs continue to change in a lot of different ways. When we play them live, they always change. It's always heavier; it's generally a more aggressive rock attitude. That's just what I like to do live. I don't want to make it sound like the record. For one it's difficult to do, just the way I do music. I'm not really interested in recreating what I've done live the same way it is on the record. It has its own life, in that sense, and changes all the time.
Lyrically, like I said, the songs take on different meanings to me at different points in my life. They speak to me in different ways, and all of a sudden I'll be like, "Oh, that's what that means to me." Whereas when I wrote it, I didn't know. I just wrote it. Sometimes it's a really direct realization of, "Oh, this is what I meant, but I didn't know what I was trying to say, but now I know." And it also happens, I'm sure, that it changes because of my attitudes and the way I look at things and the situations that I'm in kind of control how the song relates to me and me to it. It happens in different ways. It's kind of difficult to explain.
So maybe it has the same type of impact on other people, too. I remember the first time I heard 16 Horsepower, I was not into it. Because,at the time, I was like, "This is country music; I can check that off." I mean, I have to admit that. I can't lie to you.
[laughs] No, I mean, I get that all the time.
Later on, a friend of mine said, "You have to listen to The Secret South, Tom. Pull your head out of your ass." And I was like, "No...fuck that country crap." Then I heard "American Wheeze" on the Radio 1190 Local Shakedown compilation, and I was blown away. How did I not get this?
[laughs] I don't expect people to like what I do. I like it when they do, but I don't expect it, because why should I? There's a million people playing music, and thousands upon thousands of people go to shows that I would never go to. And that's one thing I've learned over the course of my career: That I cannot judge other people's music. It may not be what I like or what I'm interested in, but whereas when I was younger I'd be like, "That's bullshit, this music is crap." That was my attitude.
There's still times when that's the first thing that comes to my mind, but always it's tempered by this... I've met so many people who play music, and I think it may be different from my standpoint than just someone who is not a musician but just listens to music. I meet musicians all the time from different bands and different types of music, and I end up having relationships with these people. Then I hear their music or I've already heard and didn't like it, but then I met them and know them and everything changes and I start to like their music.
Or at least you appreciate where they're coming from.
Exactly. I can never say, "This music is better than this music," because people have different tastes and different ideas about what they want. Who am I to say? I do what I do, and if people are interested in it great. But more often than not, they're not. [laughs]
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