Darren Garvey: The Music Should Flow Freely Between Me and the Audience
Talking to Darren Garvey is an experience in understatement. He speaks quietly and evenly, only slight inflection shaping his mid-western conversational cadences. His charisma and personal warmth are palpable, however. He puts his arm around a neophyte songwriter and introduces him to a fan as “a fellow musician,” giving the songwriter a glow that lasts for weeks.
Darren Garvey wrote his first song when he was nine years old for a “concert” he performed for his parents to persuade them to buy him an electric guitar. Before that, at age four, he would sit on a bumper pool table in his basement and lip synch to recordings of songs by Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. Now thirty, he reflects on his past and his future in music.
“I’ve always been pretty competitive--sometimes scary competitive,” he says. “I was so serious about sports—soccer, basketball, baseball and football in junior high that I gave up music for those two years. I would practice for hours. I broke my parents’ VCR by taping every segment of Bulls games where Michael Jordan got the ball, so I could study his moves. We traveled all over the state and won tournaments. But I missed the special kind of collaboration that music offers, compared to sports. You can’t do music without other musicians—actually you can’t play a basketball game without other players, but with music you are not competing against the other bands; you want them to do well also. Music is something you do together. In sports you are always trying to outshine everyone else—maybe even trying to hurt other players.
Most indie musicians have to work to calm themselves down when they perform, to conquer anxiety as they fear that they may prove unequal to their audience’s expectations. Darren Garvey has to work to make himself nervous. “I can get nervous about shows sometimes,” he insists. I try, unsuccessfully, to visualize him nervous. “But I try not to get too comfortable.” Brainy, quoting Emerson, well educated in music theory, self-evaluative, confident of his strengths, physically attractive, soft-spoken, Garvey is a bundle of creativity and passion packaged in a relaxed, softspoken exterior. He sits across the table and looks at you, completely at ease and friendly. He speaks softly and without much emphasis through a slight smile. He waits for the next question after a well-crafted sentence or two answering the last one.
He has a face pretty enough to turn heads, but he is far from delicate. His surprisingly blunt fingers and sturdy anatomy are consistent with his past as a star soccer and basketball player. His demeanor is unruffled by nervousness or doubt about his capabilities. It’s hard to get a rise out of him. His most typical response to questions about himself and his philosophy are, “I do,” and “that’s right.” It’s not that he is bored or unwilling to carry the conversation forward. His posture, leaning forward, his eyes concentrated on yours, belie boredom. It is instead that he has a solid foundation and is not excitable. He is reflective, clearly having thought a lot about who he is as a musician.
He channels his energy into making music rather than showing off verbally for an interviewer. The music that comes from his cowbells, or his bowed cymbal, or from his fingers playing the guitar or the accordion, or from his expressive singing voice, supplies the excitement. He is the picture of focused concentration as he sits on stage at Chicago’s Metro with Andreas Kapsalis Trio on 28 April 2006. He is surrounded by musical noisemakers while he delicately holds a fingertip to a cymbal that he has just bowed, intently watching Andreas so as not to miss a fraction of a beat. The same expression recurs in a recording studio on 13 April 2007 as he plays an accordion fill for a new folk-pop song that I wrote. He concentrates on me and the music producer to capture every non-verbal cue, seeking a perfect fit between his contribution and the overarching musical concept.
More recently, working on his first solo album, he comes into the control room after a series of guitar takes. The recording engineer says, “I thought that last one was really good,” relinquishing his seat at the screen and keyboard to Darren, who fools with the levels and listens a bit. “I want to do that one over,” Darren says, in his even, flat spoken words. He is playing all the instruments as well as performing the vocals on this album. Despite the magnitude of the performance tasks, he wants to get everything right. He competes with himself, even as he collaborates with others.
He began piano lessons at six. During recitals at his piano teacher's house, he was fascinated by other students playing the guitar. He soon began acoustic guitar lessons from the same teacher. As he learned more about popular guitarists, he began pestering his parents for an electric guitar. "No," they said, "not until you master the instruments you have begun." That led to the first concert—the one for the parental audience. That concert included Bon Jovi, Guns and Roses covers and two or three songs he wrote himself. Amazed, his parents relented and helped him buy and electric guitar. By age 10 at St. Rafael Catholic School in Naperville and then Washington Junior High, he was regularly asked to play in class. At the same age, he responded to a solicitation for the school band by beginning clarinet lessons. "I got pretty good at it," he admits. "But at that point, it was just me. I didn't know you could have a band unless you were an adult."
His parents had transferred him to a Catholic school, which they believed had a stronger academic program than the public schools. There was no real music program there, and athletics took its place. Garvey was a member of the basketball team that won the city tournament, and placed highly in state-wide soccer competition. "I was scary competitive in sports," says Garvey. That seriousness carried over to music, but collaboration replaced cutthroat competition as the lure.
Academics was not as important, however, as having fun. He partied with his friends and, later, further into his teens, had a few encounters with the police for petty offenses.
But then, when Garvey was 13, Joe Beaty, a long-time friend (now a Florida musician) invited Garvey to come see Beaty's band perform for a talent show. "I was totally blown away, watching them up there playing good music in front of an enthusiastic audience." Before long, Beaty convinced Garvey to join the band, replacing its guitarist. Garvey convinced his parents to let him transfer back to the public schools, where grunge, Pearl Jam, and singing took center stage in his interests. Another friend convinced him to join the choir, which led to the jazz choir. "That was a great experience; I learned a huge amount about harmony."
Meanwhile, he took up the upright bass. By high school, sports had taken a back seat. “I was as serious about music as I had been about sports.” In high school, he wrote and performed a song about algebra, which was a hit in algebra class, and often represented the school at other ones.
But he was not through yet. "I was always really curious about drums," and he had an opportunity in his sophomore year to begin to satisfy this curiosity. He bought a used school-bus-yellow Ludwig drumset for $100. A friend had to help him set it up because Darren did not know how. Then he set about learning how to play. After his guitar skills proved unequal to the demands of the jazz band, he concentrated on drums and other percussion instruments, where his innate sense of rhythm gave him an edge. He took drum lessons from Glenn Kotche, later the drummer for Wilco. By the time he was halfway through high school, he had been a member of four bands: Warning, Dynamite Reader, Buddy Nuisance, and Ralph's Kind. After high school graduation, Ralph’s Kind won a contest on VH1 on its first tour, being named “best unsigned band.” Looking back now, he realizes that Kotche then was going through what Darren is now: trying to break through, especially touring, sleeping on couches and in the car and making little money. At the time, Darren was to young to realize that was part of the life of a musician.
He was one of the most popular people in high school. His buddies included both the jocks and the burnouts. When he was voted the "most musically minded" student in his high school, people teased him. “Really, Darren! Congratulations! We had no idea.” Everyone knew he was into music.
His parents, though not musicians--his father is a lawyer, his mother a nurse who played piano earlier in her life--were supportive and proud. After overcoming their skepticism about the electric guitar, they subsidized Darren's expanding collection of musical instruments. But his creativity sometimes got him in trouble. “When I was a freshman in high school, I was given an assignment to write a suicide note.Once I had completed the assignment, I was really proud of how convincing and powerfully hopeless it read; so I turned it into a song.The only problem is that I left the lyrics, or rather the fake suicide note, on the keyboard in my bedroom and went to the park for a cigarette.After finding it, my parents were terrified and ran to the park chasing after me. That song no longer exists.”
When it came time to think about college, the Garveys visited and considered Berklee College of Music in Boston, but ruled it out as too expensive and too far from home. He had high ACT scores but mediocre grades. He started at the College of DuPage, where he completed two years, and then transferred to the University of Illinois, where he majored in percussion performance. At DuPage, the drum program was modest, so Garvey concentrated on percussion studies. “That turned out to be a fortunate break; I learned much more about percussion that I would have concentrating on drumset technique.” He was the drummer in two bands while he was there. On the way to UI, auditions were necessary. "I hadn’t played marimba, vibraphone and tympani all that much, but I somehow faked my way through the auditions playing marimba and tympani."
Jazz fascinated him. “It is the most sophisticated form of music being created today.” But jazz often fails to connect with audiences. “It’s hard for lots of people to relate to. Jazz musicians basically play for each other. I want to make music that connects with everyone—my parents, my wife, you; the kids that go out to bars. I want to speak to them, to draw them in, to make them think. You can make good money playing as a jazz musician in restaurants and for society events, but it’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever done: standing or sitting in the corner and playing your music, essentially to yourself. No one else pays attention. They are there for something else and your music is, at-best, part of the ambience. More likely, it’s just background noise they have to talk over.” Popular appeal is an important part of the equation. “I don’t need to be selling out the United Center, but connecting with people is an important part of it: giving them that joy can come from music they relate to.”
The "magic of writing songs" helps fill Garvey's continuing need for self discovery. His formal education supports his creative activity. "What I learned about counterpoint influences everything I do," he says. “The first thing I noticed after graduating from college is that most of the musicians I started playing and performing with couldn’t communicate effectively about their music.Lack of knowledge about theory and even just the inability to find the right terms made it hard to understand what people were looking for.I like to think that I’m a great collaborator and because of that I’ve played and recorded with a lot of singer/songwriters. I help them express their instincts. Above all, playing something appropriate for each song is the most important.”
He is not a prisoner of old formulas. He uses his own notation system, for example to remember melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas when he is composing. “When I am in a bar waiting to perform, I write songs in my head. I need some way to remember what I come up with. I have several notation systems, ranging from the traditional to others I use to write down melodies when I don’t have staff paper. At home, I have dozens of notebooks filled with these musical ideas. When I need a bridge for a new song, I can usually find something there to start with.”
“Knowledge about why things work is important in writing and improvising.On the other hand, the mystery of fiddling around on an instrument with no knowledge of why certain notes work with each other is just as valid.I’ve always struggled with finding a happy medium between blind creativity and informed strategy with music.”
"I like to teach," he says. "I tell all my students to write songs. It will help them discover who they are as musicians, and that’s what I want to help them achieve. In school, they tried to mold us to be the same. That's antithetical to what music is about."
Garvey considers himself lucky to be making music now with three continuing groups, spiced by one-off engagements with others. He is the drummer for Buddy Nuisance, doing pop rock, Cameron McGill and What Army, doing Folk Rock, and the Andreas Kapsalis Trio, doing an unusual synthesis of jazz and flamenco and exploring the intersections of U.S. traditions with world music.
“I don’t want my music to be like anyone else’s. I am not necessarily a revolutionary; creative opportunity abounds within established styles, pop rock as well as jazz. But I hate what’s on the radio. I refused to listen to music on the radio during the four years I was in college. It’s not that it’s too simple; simplicity can be a strength. But its all the same at some level; it’s formulaic. That can happen with jazz as well as with pop.” Realities within the context of simplicity should not be overlooked. “It can be as simple as what instrument you use—piano or guitar—to write a song. You can use the same chord progressions but come up with a completely different song, depending on which instrument you use.” The Internet and the Web have opened up new currents permitting unlimited combinations. “There’s so much out there, different musical streams in the world that can be combined.”
“I compose music on every instrument that I play,” he says. “ Sometimes initially writing a song on guitar, it helps to work it out on piano to finish the idea.Sometimes I completely write things out on paper; other times I write compositions entirely on an instrument or in my head before transferring them into some form of notation.”
“Musicians should not be prisoners of genre,” Garvey continues. “Chris Thile is one of my favorite musicians now." Thile, about Garvey’s age, does everything from jazz to Bach Inventions on the Mandolin, and regularly makes the US bluegrass, country, indie, and heat charts, playing bluegrass, folk, country, classical, and jazz music on the mandolin, bouzouki, mandola, banjo, guitar, tenor guitar, drums, piano, violin, viola and bass. He performed his 40-minute composition, The Blind Leaving the Blind, in Carnegie Hall. “His music is really dark, though much of it exists within a pop format," says Garvey. "Some people are put off by it at first, but then they are drawn in. That’s what I would like to do: to draw people in to something they haven’t heard before—to show them what’s possible.”
Garvey cites Vampire Weekend as another example, more in the pop mainstream. Tommy Mapfumo took music from his culture--Zimbabwe music played on the traditional mbira, often called a thumb piano--and turned it into rock music with a political theme. He became immensely popular, not only in Zimbabwe, but around the world. "Vampire Weekend took it from there and turned it into American pop," Garvey says. "I wish I had thought of that. It's brilliant.” Their first really popular song was based on Soukous, a form of rumba from the Congo. They combined African music with American pop with concerns about European colonialism in Africa with lead singer Ezra Koenig's experience in a rap band and his short film about vampires establishing a colonial regime on Cape Cod. They merged all that with a consciously groomed image as upper-income Columbia University preppies--an improbable combination by any analysis. Their music is sophisticated and consistent.
Garvey also names Calexico. Calexico strives to keep its music moving into new territory, combining influences from Portugal, jazz, Gypsy, and 1960s surf music.Political themes are important, to confront extremism. The band uses backup vocals as alternatives to horns or strings to fill out the music melodically and harmonically.
“Thomas Wirtel, also known as Thomas Shabda Noor, head of jazz studies at UI when I was there, was a great influence. He was a great teacher. He used to hold up a picture, of a child or a scene torn from Newsweek and say, ‘here’s what you should be thinking about as you improvise.’ He encouraged us to explore American jazz with an open mind to Eastern music. A lot of people didn’t understand, but I did.”
“Approach it like you are a kid, but ‘Always do what you are afraid to do,’ as Emerson said. You should never get too comfortable. A lot of musicians sell themselves short because they are afraid.”
“I have a fear of heights,” he tells me. I look surprised. He doesn’t look like he’s afraid of anything. “Really it’s not a fear at all– it’s just that the wonder and mystery in falling intrigues me so, that I want to look over the edge and imagine myself falling. The fear is only in that I don’t trust myself not to jump.This relates to the tone of my songs: I am interested in the dark.I like the writings of fellow Scorpio Dostoevsky and see the power in dark things.As autumn falls to feet, the excitement of death is all around us--the beauty in death.”
Listening to the partially finished tracks of his forthcoming solo album, I am not surprised by the richness and variety of the instrumental support: unusual vibraphone and and marimba lines expressing catchy rhythms; mellow and crystalline guitar weaving seamlessly into the vocals. The lyrics are haunting and longing. The music floats and never quite resolves. It draws you in as a catchy pop or show tune attempts only superficially.
Good-looking, one-man band, prodigy, self-controlled and calm he may be, but his music expresses helplessness and vulnerability. It is dark and introspective, while managing at the same time to express optimism.
Garvey says that most of his songs express “who I would like to be or who I am afraid to become.It’s funny how easy it is to give advice to oneself; but how hard it is to take the advice seriously and to execute it. My self-evaluative streak and constant struggle with perfection drives me out of my head.Is it possible that ‘who I would like to be’ and ‘who I’m afraid to become’ is the same person?I’d like to think so.”
Garvey might have continued Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aphorism (Emerson himself is credited as an early exponent of American transcendentalism and, later, as an early abolitionist): "Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage." “I want to be as devoted to my family as I am to making my own good music that connects with humanity in new ways. Everyone says that doing both is impossible. I am going to prove them wrong. There is no clear cut way to do it any more. That's attractive to the competitive streak in me. I want to prove people wrong who say, "You can't . . . . I want to prove it to myself. The stuff I do is valid. I believe in the music I'm putting on--even if everything is teeter-tottering. That's why I have taken up the accordion and the banjo; I didn't know how to play them--at all." And he already has reported a desire to return to the clarinet and piano of his early experience.
“Music has always been a means to express myself,” he says. “But the struggle with putting every emotion on the line in front of strangers at a bar has always been difficult. When a crowd gets it, the same emotion that was present when I wrote a piece of music flows freely between me and the audience. Sometimes I have to draw from a very deep place to set the mood. There is nothing quite like live music...the whole experience is impossible to replicate on a recording.”
I ask him what he wants to accomplish with his music. He responds: “When my music makes people feel something, anything, that’s when I’m doing something right.It’s not about how cool I look or how awesome my licks are.If that were the case, I’d still be playing jazz and taking five-minute drum solos to prove my worth.When I meet someone after a show who seems transformed from the performance in some way…that’s the accomplishment! I always hope that my music means as much to others as it does for me.So much so that they insist upon sharing it with others.”
Darren Garvey surely has the talent, the smarts, the competitiveness, the learning, and the looks to make this happen.