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Q&A: Archeology (Plus “White Walls” Exclusive Video Premiere)

By Nevin Martell on June 3, 2010


Q&A: Archeology (Plus “White Walls” Exclusive Video Premiere)

The name Archeology evokes the image of digging up what has been hidden or thought lost. It’s a fitting name for this Portland, Oregon four-piece, whose spiritualized acoustic folk exhumes the band’s collective past experiences with Catholicism, which were less than enlightening. Singer/guitarist Jason Davis, singer/bassist Daniel Walker, drummer Benjamin Haysom and guitarist/keyboardist Zach Dilday all grew up in strictly religious households before they discovered the higher power of rock ‘n’ roll and decided to leave the church behind them. Their impressive debut, Memorial, tries to answer some of the big theological questions that are normally pondered by peers decades this young group’s senior. Non-churchgoers shouldn’t worry though, because Memorial is an engaging collection of decidedly secular songs that fall somewhere between twee indie sing-alongs, campfire hymnals, and slices of rustic Americana.

Below, FILTER catches up with Davis to talk about his unusual upbringing, how Pet Sounds and Smash Mouth changed his life, and the band’s latest video, “White Walls.” (See the exclusive premiere of “White Walls” here.)

Both you and Dan [Walker] have fathers who are pastors. Was that kind of religious restriction hard to bear as a child?

Jason Davis: It’s hard to talk about, because we really don’t want to ever tell anyone what to believe or to ridicule anyone else’s personal beliefs. When we were growing up, we were forced to be Christians by the lack of other options, but it’s all we knew then.

How did that affect your spirituality today?

I don’t want to say it brought on a 100% loss of faith, but it did make me decide that that wasn’t the path I was going to take in life. It’s not that I’m not religious; I’m definitely an agnostic. I just don't feel comfortable ever making absolute statements about something that cannot be proved; and that’s what I felt during my childhood. But I’m not pinning this on my parents – I’m pinning it on the entire modern church, the thinking of that church, and the way everything is an absolute or nothing. Through Memorial we are addressing what happened to us, the modern church, and the way it interacted with us. We want to be true to ourselves, while being careful to not discourage anyone from pursuing religion in general. While religion has caused some pretty ugly things to happen in society, for some people it allows them to get through some pretty tough stuff in life. And if it serves a good purpose for someone, who am I to tell them not to believe?

How did you discover secular music in such a strict household?

My parents forbid me from a lot of stuff, but we did have Pet Sounds on cassette. I remember the first time I heard it thinking, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” I listened to it over and over. For some reason, my father thought Johnny Cash and Elvis were OK, too, and I listened to their albums on repeat on my Fisher Price record player. My dad was a very musical person and a really great guitar player, so he would always play these old country and western songs for us. I didn’t know what the words meant, I just loved the fact that he could play, and sing, and entertain us.

That was pretty much my musical diet until I figured out I could tape the radio with an old tape player. I’d stay up late at night, pushing record right when the song started and stopping it right when the song ended, so I could make little mix tapes. The nearest radio station was 107.3 in Yakima and it played nothing but Top 40 stuff, so my first mix tape had stuff like Smash Mouth, Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” all bleeped out, and Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy.”

When did you first start playing music?

When I was in high school my parents bought me a Costco Yamaha guitar. It sucked so bad, but it got me to start playing. I wrote my first song halfway through my sophomore year; it was horrible. But it started me writing music. In between my senior year and when I started college was when I first got started playing with bands. One of them was Faux Hammer, which was named after a weapon in one of Tolkien’s books.

How did you end up joining forces with Dan?

We actually met on an archeological field study. We were surveying an area to look for any surface indication that there was an archeological site, and we got to talking about music as we worked. It turned out he was a bass player and I was working on a project at the time that needed a bass player, so I invited him over and it went from there.

How did Archeology take shape out of that partnership?

Archeology was originally a band called Mon Marie, which never really saw any commercial success, but we played a lot of shows. After the band kind of fell apart, Dan and I didn’t know what we wanted our sound to be, so we just kept writing songs. We challenged ourselves to find out how many EPs we could release in a year, hoping that at the end of the year we would have settled into our sound. We ended up releasing five EPs in 2009, which was amazing.

Memorial was conceived at the end of this yearlong experiment, what was writing for it like?

We wrote Memorial in a month, November of 2009. The songwriting was so fast; I still can’t believe how quickly everything came out. Writing songs was just like Dan and I talking about the things that mattered most to us. We wanted the recording process to be very organic, too, so we recorded in a couple different friends’ basements and an abandoned schoolhouse. We even recorded some tracks outside in some spots we really like, just to see how it would go. A lot of the recording quality is sub par by studio standards, but it’s exactly what we wanted to do.

The image on the album cover—the rough Native American figures approaching the burning bush—obviously has Biblical overtones.

That was very purposeful. To be honest, one of the things that bothers me most about Bible stories was that any time God reveals himself—mainly in the Old Testament—he reveals himself to one person and no one else gets to witness it. So I thought it would be cool to have multiple people. The other thing is that I think it’s pretty inconsistent—and I’m sure a lot of theologians would disagree with me—is that God only revealed himself mainly only to one people group, until you get to the New Testament. So, I wondered how the Native Americans would react if He revealed himself to them. How would they really react to a burning bush? They would probably want to put it out. And if it talked to them, they would probably want to stab it. They wouldn't just stand there and have a conversation with it. The art plays with all of those ideas.

What do your parents make of the album?

Since I’m their child, they are going to get my album and they’re going to sit there and listen to it over and over. My mom had questions: “What does this mean?” and “Is that anti-God?” I was truthful with her, because the truth was what this whole album was about. Though they are very supportive, they are hoping that I’ll come back to the fold at some point.

“White Walls” has a feeling of hopelessness to it; what inspired it?

There’s a home being demolished right by our house that sparked a story in my mind about an imaginary homeless family that could be squatting there. They’re living there because it’s the only shelter that they have, and then it’s going to be torn down. It made me think about what a tough situation that would be. That led to thinking about growing up in a house where you couldn’t escape and you have nowhere else to go, but you know that you don’t want to be there. When you see that there’s an outside world for the first time and you know you want to be a part of it, but you don’t have the means to get there, you’re willing to destroy everything around you just to be rid of your world. That feeling was definitely present in parts of my life, so “White Walls” became about being willing to tear down your house and do away with everything in order to be rid of what you feel like you’re trapped in. We’re definitely not pro-suicide, even though the song is definitely speaking from that mindset – just not from the resolution standpoint.

Do you think the “White Walls” video will shock some people?

The whole video is a suicide note, so some people might be. If pop music ever touches on controversial subjects, musicians always try to resolve it by saying we’re not pro-this or anti-that. But the music itself needs to capture the moment, and if that’s what you want to talk about, then leave it there. For us, music’s not about winning fans, it’s about writing about what we’re moved to write about. Hopefully, we can make a living at it, but in the end, if we can’t, I’ve got to be true to what I want to write about. Otherwise, I’m going to fall back into everything I tried to escape. F

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