Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney
Thomas Bartlett doesn't write ballads. To know this is just to possess the logical wherewithal to understand that no one, man or woman is seduced by a well-concealed switchblade or a frothy, rabid growling. One might share a beer after the exchange of such sentiments, but on no occasion will one be quick to lie in close and press warmth to warmth with another after such a thing has occurred. One would be crazy to do so. Somebody would get hurt is how the trite and familiar warning might go. It's a long-winded way of getting back to the beginning and making it perfectly clear that Doveman, the musical project that Bartlett fronts out of New York City is not wimpy or coy with any of the words you think you may or may not hear on its debut full-length "The Acrobat." They do not write ballads for ballads are usually fuzzy and these songs are barbed. It's best to approach his songs the way a beekeeper or a snake charmer would - with the utmost care and respect. Find yourself all the protection in the world.
In this case, the pain is mightier than the sword. Bartlett has been stung and wronged and saddened and when any of those three things happen, he turns those shitty experiences into songs that sound like they were taken from the soundtrack to Makeout City, volumes one, two and three. They have that overall feel of bed sheets getting pulled directly out of the dryer and placed up to chilly cheekbones, but it's mostly a decoy, a way to distract the mind from something inevitably less comforting. Bartlett writes some of his lyrics, it seems, with dual purpose, lacing them with poison or just constructing them with an invisible liner that lures the ear in and then takes a nibble before it's suspected a thing. You think Damien Rice and Antony and the Johnsons, but then you're nailed with a blackened heart, naively fooled into falling for that old joke about Bangkok (What's the capital of Thailand? Don't know? The punchline gets pretty literal and the disruption in the belly feels about the way the original feelings do that Bartlett goes after).
More than just makers of claustrophobic streams of consciousness misfit love songs, Doveman coexists with the middle ground between the suicide note and bliss or agony and ecstasy. Bartlett holds your hand faithfully until that faith is compromised, and in most of the situations on the record, he's worried about the other person throwing him away, not the other way around. The future enemy can be the lover of the moment - just a twist of the knife away, feeling a hot rush of red flushing out and down the back. But it's beautiful. It's gorgeous and sweet to the touch and not reluctant at all to have its love torched again and again and again. It doesn't condone the cruel dance that love dishes at times - playing a matador by teasing and joking and ultimately killing in the end - but it does understand that it does exist and it's impossible to ever feel confident. Bartlett sings like a feather - light and precious, but not in a sickening way that could compromise taking him seriously. Without ever having to ask him for details, you're positive he's been hurt. When he tells you that he last cried on May 28 th, you're pretty sure it was something emotionally torturous, maybe scarring. He doesn't want to share the details and it's likely better that way as they'll be identifiable - not necessarily specifically or boldly - in some of the next songs he puts to paper and then to piano. He can't keep them inside for long or they'll rot him from the inside out. Writing about them, he assures us, doesn't fix any of the sour infirmities, but at the least they've been dealt with in some way.
Bartlett, guitarist and banjo player Sam Amidon and drummer Shazhad Ismaily do not write ballads. They write nocturnes and the prevailing mood is wait and see - this could get messy or this could be exactly what we both need. Most of the lyrics are written during Bartlett's frequent wrestling matches with insomnia and there could be no more fitting birth mother.
h2. The Daytrotter interview
*Now, we've got to start here...Yoko Ono, how was she to play music with, possibly converse with? Did you have time where you could just talk? Were you really as scared to perform in her band as you said you were? What was the show like? How were you asked to play that show? Did she personally call you?*
Oh yes, I was definitely scared to play with her. Both because she's such a legend and because she approaches things more from a performance art angle than from a musical one. The show was genuinely inspiring. She hadn't really performed much during rehearsal, always saying that she needed to save her voice. But for the show, she just erupted. It's quite something to see a 73-year-old putting out that much energy. And just by virtue of who she is, what she's done, she's able to talk about peace and love in a way that feels true and inspiring and completely untainted by irony. The show finished with the whole crowd singing along to "Give Peace a Chance." It was beautiful. I was hired by Chris Maxwell, who was the guitarist and musical director for the show.
*How long have you known Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons fame)? Do you see similarities in how you both approach music? How long will you be out with him?*
TB: I've met Antony a few times over the last few years, but I really barely know him. I don't think that there's a whole lot of similarity in our approaches. His music is so focused on his voice (which is such a sublime instrument), and is so much more informed by both classical and cabaret than mine. But I suppose there's a similarity in that we're both seriously sensitive dudes wielding grand pianos. I'll be out with him for two weeks.
*Which other bands have you been asked to work with?*
TB: It's been a busy year. Other than Doveman, the band I play with most often at this point is "Elysian Fields":http://www.elysianmusic.com. I've been playing and recording with them for almost three years now, mostly tours in Europe. I made a record with them called "Bum Raps and Love Taps," which is out in Europe, but not here yet. I've done some recording with The National. I'm going out on tour in October with Glen Hansard, the lead singer of The Frames. Some recording and a bunch of shows with "Miho Hatori":http://www.mihohatori.com, who was the singer in Cibo Matto. The album of hers that I played on, "Ecdysis," will be out on Rykodisc in November. Last year I produced and played on a new solo album by Doveman's banjo player, "Sam":http://www.samamidon.com, called, "But This Chicken Proved False-hearted," which will be out on Plug Research early next year. I've been co-writing and recording with the amazing composer "Nico Muhly":http://www.nicomuhly.com. Our duo is called Peter Pears. I often play with the band "Chocolate Genius":http://www.chocolategeniusinc.com. There haven't been any shows for a while, because he's out on tour with Springsteen, playing guitar and singing harmony vocals, but I hope to be playing with him again soon. A very little bit of recording with one of my very favorite bands in the world, "Stars Like Fleas":http://www.myspace.com/starslikefleas. That album is being mixed right now, and it's going to be a masterpiece. Recording and shows with an extraordinary songwriter named "Dave Deporis":http://www.myspace.com/davedeporis. You'll be hearing more about him soon, I feel confident. Sometime over the next few months I think I'll be going to Chicago to do some recording with Liam Hayes, aka Plush, which I'm really thrilled about. I played one show with him last year, and have gotten totally obsessed with his album, "Fed," since then. There have been a handful of other recording projects, but this is no doubt getting tiresome.
*What exactly do you hope the freelancing can do for Doveman?*
TB: I like the idea of trying to hook into a community of like-minded musicians. There's not exactly a "scene" that Doveman comfortably fits in, but I'm trying to find, or create, one. The main thing, though, is simply that I need to make a living in order to keep making music, because Doveman definitely doesn't make any money yet.
*What's the worst this mentally or emotionally someone's ever done to you?*
TB: I think I've covered that in my song "Honey."
*What's the kindest gesture someone's made to you in the last month?*
TB: My parents are giving me their cat Hopkins, a truly regal animal who will keep me warm through the cold New York winter.
*Are you taken for a sad guy often?*
TB: Not by anyone who knows me.
*When was the last time you cried?*
TB: May 28th.
*What things/people/places will unfailingly put you in a great mood?*
TB: R. Kelly's "Step In the Name of Love"
Downy pearl jasmine tea
"My Neighbor, Totoro"
"Mache dich, mein Herze, rein," from Bach's St. Matthew Passion
A Hendrick's martini
"Pride and Prejudice"
*Do you think the songs on "The Acrobat" have romantic applications? Say for instance, person X was trying to woo person Y, would it make things easier? Which song do you feel is best for a matter like that?*
TB: Totally, it's like Al Green with banjo. Seriously, though, it's true that the dominant musical mood of the album is one of coziness and safety, which I suppose can be quite
seductive, but if you listen to the lyrics I think you'll find that none of the songs are even remotely suitable for wooing.
*What were your first piano lessons like? Describe your first piano instructor.*
TB: I don't remember them very well, I was 4. Apparently I spent most of
the time under the piano, tickling my teacher's feet. My important teachers came later. Susan Klein, probably the most important musical figure in my life, was my teacher for many years. And then I went to London for a year to study with Maria Curcio, one of the real grande dames of the classical world, a bit of a legend, and deservedly so. She made the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard coming out of a piano.
*What instruments don't you play?*
TB: All the ones that don't have keyboards on them. I've been known to bang at a drum and thump at a bass and even twang at a guitar, and in grade school I was forced to drool into a recorder, but my competence on those instruments does not exceed that of a novice. But dude, you should hear my drumming, I have a pocket like you wouldn't believe. The Rolling Thunder of Tommy Bartlett, they call it.
*Can you give me the full names of everyone in your band? Where did you meet those fellas?*
Samuel Tear Amidon, banjo and guitar. My best friend and constant musical collaborator since we were six years old. We grew up together in Vermont .
Dougie Bowne, drums. I met Dougie soon after moving to New York. He's one of my heroes, and is very definitely my musical mentor.
Peter Ecklund, cornet. Sam and I met Peter when we were 12, at a folk music festival we went to each year. He's primarily a swing and Dixieland player.
Shahzad Ismaily, guitar and drums. I met Shahzad when he was playing bass in Elysian Fields. He has played with everybody, it's insane. The busiest musician I've ever met.
For this tour and Daytrotter session, the band was just me, Sam and Shahzad. But we were touring around with our friend David Thomas Broughton, and so he started sitting in with us on birdcalls and beat-boxing.
*If you had a crummy office job, but one with a window view, what would you have to see out that window every day to keep you motivated?*
TB: One of the big fluffy things from "Totoro," dancing a schottische with Eddie Izzard.
*What's your best childhood memory?*
TB: Childhood is long, my memory is short. It probably had something to do with food.
*In Europe with Antony, what are you hoping to see or do?*
TB: I generally focus on food and graveyards. London and Paris are two cities I know well. So Brompton Cemetery and the St. John restaurant in London, Pere Lachaise and Pierre HermÃ© (the greatest pastry chef in the world) in Paris. Rome and Madrid I barely know, but any pointers towards exceptional foodstuffs or gravestones are welcome.
*What's the last great book you read?*
TB: Henry James' The American Scene, in which the late James style is taken to its logical, sublime, impenetrable extreme.
*Why do you write/think about insomnia so much?*
TB: Because I have a lot of trouble sleeping, and end up doing a lot of my lyric writing while trying, and failing, to fall asleep. I've had trouble sleeping for many years. It tends to go in cycles, a few weeks where I'll be more or less fine, a few weeks where it takes hours of lying awake, no matter how tired I am, before I manage to actually get to sleep. I'm very fond of Ambien.