“My lyrics became more and more about characters I’d create, or situations, vignettes, plots.”
Longtime Dig readers will certainly remember Dave Wildman, one of our first standout film critics and a powerful cultural siren about town for other outlets as well. When he left our paper more than 10 years ago to pursue music full-time, Wildman promised we would hear from him, and in the years since he has delivered on that pledge, becoming a familiar voice as a member of the Unfamiliars with bassist Jay Raffi and as a solo artist bleeding through the microphone at pubs around the region.
With his band TELL, a trio with Raffi plus Chuck Ferriera on drums, releasing their new COVID-inspired project, Stir Crazy, at the Jungle in Somerville on July 23, I connected with our former film editor, whose crotchety insight I have always admired, to ask what moved his pen through the pandemic.
You know we have to start with something Dig related. You were our film critic, but after your stint here you angled hard toward the music industry. So the question is basically, Why weren’t you a music writer? No positions available at the time?
When I first came to the Dig I’d had about eight years of being a local music and arts columnist at the Boston Globe during which I got to interview pretty much everyone in town who identified as a musician. So I knew personally the pool of people that I’d be either praising or giving shit to if I became a music critic. Not only that, I was a musician myself, and I’d seen what a bad review could do. A drummer in one of my bands quit once when someone at the Noise described his playing as “encephalitic.” After we looked it up, he stormed out and never returned.
So although I’d written extensively about music, I’d never written a critical review, and never wanted to. Films on the other hand I had no personal or emotional connection to. So it was easy to be as caustic as I felt, to dump on, say, the latest Will Ferrell fiasco, or kick the shit out of self-indulgent auteurs such as Terrence Malick when they dropped a turkey like The New World. When I left the Dig I was still the chief film critic at Worcester Magazine, and wrote for the Boston Phoenix, plus freelancing journalism pieces all over as well. But writing jobs began to quickly disappear around 2007 due to factors like the internet and YouTube turning the loudest voices into “experts,” who were all happy to do the job for free.
The Phoenix crashed and burned, the Globe had broken the writer’s union 10 years before and were paying slave wages, the Village Voice lined most of their film critics up against the wall and shot them, and so on. It was a ghastly time for the industry. So I started teaching to pay the rent and focused on my music and fiction writing instead. I figured if I was going to get paid shit to write, it might as well be the kind of writing that really meant something to me.
You have earned a rep as a gifted songwriter, an observer and a guy who sometimes “opens up [his] soul to show you where it all comes from” on a track (though not always so straightforwardly). In any case, is that a gift and a curse? Do you ever feel like writing total junk? Not necessarily for commercial purposes, but just because you’ve been listening to and loving some kind of shit music that you’d probably never admit to digging in this or any other forum?
It used to be a total curse. For years I wrote only about my personal feelings and relationships. It was real sensitive shit because I’m a bit of an introvert, despite the public nature of a lot of what I do. But I began to hate my songs. It was that Mark Eitzel style of attempting to be overwhelmingly brainy while pouring your guts out, or Lou Barlow being so raw, open and honest it’s almost uncomfortable to listen to. It wears on you, because any rejection of your music becomes a rejection of you personally. So a lot of the stuff from that period was, as you say, total junk, even though I felt it was good when it was written.
We’re talking over a thousand songs total, sometimes a new one or two every day. Once a month or so I’d turn on the tape recorder, open up a vein and do six in a row. It makes me shudder to remember. Anyway, things began to change when my fiction writing started to find an audience. Maybe it’s because I got older, smarter, and built up buffers. My lyrics became more and more about characters I’d create, or situations, vignettes, plots. The subject matter was still personal, but it got more interesting, detailed, and unpredictable.
I think this album I’m releasing is the high water mark of that. There are songs about relationships, but I look for unique angles. Like “Rosemary Goes Away” is about a guy who can’t move forward with his life until his ex is removed from it. “Ghost on the Radio” is about someone hearing a musician they loved played on the radio after they’ve died, like say Bowie. It gives him the feeling that his own life can be both timeless and ephemeral. And of course “Stir Crazy” is about the fucking pandemic.
Before we get to Stir Crazy, can you just briefly break down some of the differences between your work as a solo artist and the stuff you are now doing with TELL? And from the music you made with Jay Raffi more than 10 years ago as the Unfamiliars?
Jay is an unbelievably creative partner. He takes deep pride in coming up with parts that no other bass player would ever think of playing. His tone is a deep, growly sound like JJ Burnel of The Stranglers, although he doesn’t really listen to them, but he’s also influenced by ’70s funk gods like Larry Graham, plus he has a unique sense of melody. I never know what a song is going to sound like until he adds his part, even if I’ve already worked out a bunch of it.
Ten years or so ago as the Unfamiliars we were spinning out these massive epic numbers. It was like our “Stonehenge” period. When we reformed as TELL the arrangements got simpler and the songs catchier. We have stuff from both periods that we have revived, and some of them ended up on the record. The rest I wrote in the last year, recording everything but bass, and using drum programming. Then things really came vividly to life when we brought in Chuck Ferriera to put live drums on it.
To answer the other part of your question, I also still write songs that don’t end up in the band, and I usually perform them solo around town, often finger-picked on an acoustic, and occasionally solo piano, so they tend to be more mellow.
Tell us a little bit about being bottled up in your “familiar hell” while recording this album. I mean, we were all a bit stir crazy this past year-plus, what makes your nightmare so special? And why did it work well as a record?
Well, I mentioned before that I’m an introvert and writer, so it was probably easier on my psyche being stuck alone with myself than it was for most. I finished two novels and a chunk of a third. There was no playing music with anyone though, which was a serious bummer. When I had an idea I had to go right to the computer software and knock out all the parts to see what it would sound like. Then we realized that Jay could record his basslines and send them to me, so we were able to bounce off each other a bit, and keep things going that way.
So yeah, while some aspects of the COVID were trying, like not being able to go anywhere or see my friends except on Zoom, or get toilet paper, and watching helplessly as Donald Trump tried pretty effectively to destroy democracy and anyone that wouldn’t vote for him. But in other ways it was a creative boon for me. And then we got Paul Q. Kolderie involved which led us to the label Lunch Records. So the song “Stir Crazy” was more about what all my friends were feeling, most of them with families all stuck in the house together for a year. Some of them are actually in the video we did for the song, singing along, filmed on zoom or their phones. We did one shoot with Liz Linder at our practice space, the four of us in the same room, and we all had to wear masks. The song is written from the point of view of a guy who just wants to go out, have fun and meet girls, but the goddamn beaches are all closed. That sort of thing.
From knowing you and your writing and listening to your music in the past and even seeing you perform in person, I gotta say this album is a lot more upbeat than I expected it to be—musically, at least, since there’s still that underlying pessimism where “everything real dissolves into yesterday” and a song titled “Followed By Helicopters”? Did you intend to have some songs that people can actually dance to when you started this project?
Hell yeah! I have to say, the other thing that happened when I started writing about more interesting subjects and worked more with drum programming was the revelation of how important rhythm is to a song. I used to focus entirely on chord progressions, melody and lyrics. Now I see a good rhythmic hook as the primary engine behind any music, even if it’s not a dance song. So you’ve hit it on the head as far as one of the big things that has changed in my writing. The second single off the record “Citizen of the World” is another with a solid groove to move to and it’s doing really well on college radio. I made a video for it and will be sending it out mid-July.
For this upcoming record release party we’re going to open with a song that will be on the next album, “Shotgun Future” that is a super funked out Gang of Four kind of thing. And yeah, the lyrics are dark: “I’ve been staring down the future like the barrel of a shotgun.” But it will get your ass on the dancefloor, before your brain has time to complain. Almost every song on the album is danceable, building up to big, what one reviewer described as “widescreen choruses,” and we’re going to play them all. I think the kinetic nature of the music is a function of becoming a better songwriter and musician, and also the funky phenom that is Jay being turned loose on the world.
And finally, speaking of dancing, you have a show coming up, and of course you’ve been on many stages in this region in the past. So, emerging from a stir craze, during which you no doubt dreamt about performing in person again, what are some venues that you can’t wait to do some of these songs in?
Any one that’s still standing! We’ve lost some good places to the COVID, like Great Scott and ONCE (although that’s being relocated), but there seem to be new ones out there I’ve never heard of. We’ll be at the Midway Sept. 4, and we’ll do Warp and Weft in the near future. The show on July 23 is at the Jungle, a relatively new venue that I’ve never played or been in, behind the Independent Bar in Union Square. It’s an early show, separate from the later show, so Long Autumn, a wild and inspired group with a really dense, futuristic sound, go on at 8pm and we go at 9pm. Hope to see you there!