At PAC3: The calm of Zen, the volume of punk, the duality of Davis
Ryan Summerlin September 20, 2012
CARBONDALE – Becoming a practitioner of Buddhism and meditation had some of the predictable results on Stuart Davis. “I found there was more stillness, I was more centered in my spiritual life,” Davis said.
Perhaps in keeping with the natural duality of things, Buddhism and meditation also tended to have the opposite effect on Davis’ music. After starting his career with several folk-leaning albums, Davis has gotten louder, edgier and more aggressive in his musical expression. Davis’ new album, “Music for Mortals,” is packed with power chords, spiky rhythms, punk-inspired shouts and even cheeky jabs at God. (“We all know God is a sucker for a monkey,” Davis sings in “Reaper.”) Play “Music for Mortals,” which was released earlier this year, as the backdrop for a yoga session, and you might get a lot of pulled muscles as people try to coordinate their poses with Davis’ propulsive music.
“I would agree that the perception of Buddhist practice is this serene, contemplative thing, a lot of placidity,” the 41-year-old Davis said from his home in Boulder. “But is also definitely increased the amount of energy and passion I had. The music became much more combustible, and much more interested in going into the fray of human interiors. I became more interested in exploring the dark, shadowy stuff, more interested in those parts of my personality. That’s why there’s a lot of noise and energy. I like to give voice to parts of myself that I’m having a difficult time with.”
Davis was introduced to Buddhism 15 years ago, when he was making the album “Kid Mystic” in his native Minneapolis. His drummer on that project, Mark Anderson, was a Zen priest, and Davis began going to local Zen centers. At the same time, he took up meditation, which has also had a profound effect on his music. (Davis can’t discern which changes in his artistic direction came from Buddhism and which came from meditation.) Having delved into those traditions, Davis concludes that the evolution of his music into something louder and bolder isn’t all that uncommon.
“In Vajrayana, the Tibetan school of Buddhism, there’s a tradition of these paintings, the thangkas, of all these Buddhas and deities,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of really fiery depictions, these wrathful deities, quite frightening and intense. I was curious about that – a lot of disturbing imagery, dark forces in this transformational narrative.”
Davis also traces his sound back to his individual history. He grew up on a lot of ’80s Brit-rock, including Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello and XTC, that had a streak of venom to it.
“I have a default attraction to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s cathartic for me to feel that intensity. There’s so much force and passion,” he said. “So those power chords are the right body for these energies.”
So listeners who hear of a musical monk and expect to hear atmospheric chimes and soothing chants can be in for a jolt when Davis begins a performance. (For the record, Davis explains that he is not actually a monk; the term “Punk Monk” which has been attached to him is only a nickname.) But some Davis fans get an even bigger surprise when they discover that Davis makes music, not comedy. Several years ago, Davis created a TV show for the HDNet cable channel. Davis describes the show, “Sex, God, Rock ‘n Roll,” as similar to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” – “but instead of politics, we focus on spirituality and show business stuff,” he said.
Davis says that the kind of audience that turns up for his performances varies depending on the location. In Minneapolis, it tends to be college kids and hipsters; around Berkeley and Santa Cruz, it’s more spiritual seekers. While he has lived in Boulder for a decade, his performance Friday (8 p.m.) at PAC3 in Carbondale, is his debut in the Roaring Fork Valley, and he doesn’t know what to expect.
“Some people just know me from the TV series, and they think, ‘Comedy,'” he said. “And they get spirituality and rock ‘n’ roll. So that’s interesting.”