Published May 28, 2011Edmonton, AB's Mark Davis rips apart his country-folk pigeonhole with his third solo release, Eliminate The Toxins. Produced by adventuresome Calgary musician Lorrie Matheson, the album is a journey through to the other side of the folk/roots genre and out into experimental territory. One of the driving forces behind Edmonton dark country quartet Old Reliable, Davis has always been an enigmatic figure. His inscrutability deepens with these new songs. His rootsy sensibility is obscured with electronic effects and drum loops. His lyrics and vocals are as emotionally loaded as ever, but often fade into a fog of feedback and distortion. All the sonic dissonance, however, doesn't belie the album's enormous listenability. The grandiose rock beats of the title track and the sunny jangle of "In The Waters" light up the speakers. And after all the distortion and muted fury, the album finally relaxes into the blissful and hypnotic "Throw It Away" and mellow, though heartbreaking, closer "Wounded Wing." Mark Davis is a songwriter with staggering depth of emotion. He's not always easy to fathom, but he never fails to lay it all out there for those discerning souls who care to try.
What mark did Lorrie Matheson leave on the album?
I've worked with a couple of great producers in the past, but more than anyone I've ever worked with, Lorrie warrants the producer designation. He goes so far above and beyond what a recording engineer does. He and I completely see eye to eye on most music and we just have this thing where he's able to achieve exactly what I'm after. He's very, very thorough. He does his research too. I mentioned a couple of bands to him that I wanted to reference on the record and he wasn't familiar with them, but by the time we got to record, he was very well acquainted with that stuff. He just comes up with amazing ideas. He's a tireless worker in the studio; I've fallen asleep so many times on his couch in the studio while he just keeps on working. It's just amazing how determined he is to achieve what you're after, especially when he connects with the project.
What were the bands you wanted to reference?
I got into sort of downtempo, almost lo-fi dub rock for a while. Stuff like Pan-American and Pole, and that led to other things, like revisiting other bands I'd liked in the '80s, such as Durutti Column.
In what ways did you stretch yourself for this album?
I think mostly in arrangements and in instrumentation things are a lot more adventurous than they've ever been before. I was sort of toying with drum machines many years ago, but I sort of limited myself to one or two drum machines that were pretty rigid and just not flexible. I decided that we needed lots of drum loops; I think one of the defining characteristics of the record is the drum loops, and on several songs, multi-layered drums loops, which we created entirely ourselves, organically, by manipulating sounds that we coaxed from various items in the room. One of them was a pump on top of a water bottle. You know those large water bottles that you normally flip upside down to put into a water cooler? Lorrie has one of those in his studio that has a pump that sits on the top. We just sat and pumped this thing until we had a consistent few seconds that we could loop. But I think that every track has two additional loops layered on top. We didn't want to use any sampled sounds that we got from the computer on a drum loop, and we didn't want to use a drum machine, so we created all the drum loops from objects in the room. One, for example, I think it's "Throw It Away," for the bass drum sound we just held an acoustic guitar up by the head stock and tuned it to open D and just hit it on the back of the guitar with a mallet and placed a microphone at the sound hole and then the snare sound is created with some sort of manipulated sound of a snare brush hitting a banjo instead of a snare.
Are you happy with the way it turned out?
I couldn't be happier; I'm at a point where I'm proud of all my records. This is number eight and I'm very comfortable with where they all sit in the overall oeuvre. But I'm very proud of this one, and I definitely, definitely can see myself making another record with Lorrie Matheson. I think that's a relationship that will endure. I do believe in mixing things up, in terms of producers and the people you work with, but I also believe that a long-term relationship with Lorrie will not get me stuck in a rut because he's such an adventurous producer and an adventurous engineer and an adventurous musician himself. Fundamentally, the most important thing is he's an adventurous listener and a music fan. More Matheson, more Matheson all the time. I'm really happy with this record; I'm really happy with the folk element, the pop element, the rock element, the weirdness, at times. You listen to a song like "Dragons," I think that's the weirdest song on there and I'm really comfortable with that, and I'm really comfortable with "Throw It Away." I remember after the initial mix Lorrie said, "this song is too long, you can't put a song this long on your record." Then when we got the final mixes, I was listening to them with Lorrie and I went, "Lorrie, this song is two minutes longer than it was before!" And he said, "oh, yeah, I just came to terms with it and decided to add a little more."
Where did the album title come from?
It has meanings on many, many levels, in terms of shedding baggage, reaching a certain point in your life where you really, really know who your friends are and you know who is not your friend. Knowing exactly who you want to work with professionally and who you don't want to work with professionally, and just not taking any shit from anyone. Taking control of your life in many ways. And even in the more sort of obvious sense of trying to clean up a bit, just trying to live a bit of a healthier lifestyle. That goes on both fronts, in terms of the actual physical toxins you take into your body and your associations with other people, which can sort of poison your heart, soul and mind.
You received a lot of critical praise for the last album. How did that affect you?
I was astounded by it ― very grateful ― but I must say that I've always thought, especially in this pursuit, that you've got to hope for the best but plan for the worst. That being said, I must say I'm surprised that on the one hand there was all this critical praise, but I can't buy my way into some festivals and bookings. Between the time in 2007 when I was the most-played Canadian roots artist on CBC Galaxie Radio, and made the Exclaim! top ten internationally released folk albums of the year, and was number one on the Earshot folk chart, I haven't played a single folk festival. And I'm sort of weirded out by it. In a way, you could say that Eliminate the Toxins might be influenced by that experience. I've never been calculated in the way I've made albums before, in terms of "we have to make a folk record, we have to get on the folk circuit, we have to get back in there, it's been so long since I've played any meaningful folk festival" or anything like that. I'm not that calculated in the recording aspect of things. But I do really think that this recording is a bit of a thumbing of the nose at that sort of establishment. At the same time, I think they should like it anyway. (Saved by Radio)