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The veteran musician talks maturity and reinvention via songs from Fugazi, Blonde Redhead, Des Ark, My Dear Ella and more.

Listening with Ben Davis & the Jetts 

Stay loose: Ben Davis & the Jetts

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Stay loose: Ben Davis & the Jetts

The domesticity is pervasive: Just after noon on a Thursday in Chapel Hill, Ben Davis—a rock 'n' roll musician for two decades now—sits cozily on the couch of his band's bassist, Pete Wagner. Davis' thinning hair is hidden beneath a black cap, and his long beard is drawn to a point by frequent, thoughtful strokes. Wagner, who has just completed a batch of home-brewed beer, joins him with a cup of carefully brewed coffee. His excitable dog, Beadie, leaps up and then nestles beside him.

After a stretch of hard-touring years with the punk outfits Sleepytime Trio and Milemarker, Davis, now 40, settled down, got a job at UNC-Chapel Hill and started a family. His band of seven years, The Jetts, is a hobby, not an occupation. The band is also an outlet for a veteran musician who refuses to let adult responsibility quell his creativity, even if it does slow the frequency of his output.

"It's like either you're a band with crazy flakes or drug addicts who are super-artistic and make really awesome music, but it takes them a long time because they're like missing for a week," Davis says, laughing. "Or you're a band with solid people that takes forever because they have jobs and other bands."

Storms We're in For, the Jetts' forthcoming LP, is proof of his undaunted ambition. Where 2009's Charge It Up! fused hardcore energy to perfect pop hooks, Storms favors menace over momentum. Strung-out riffs from guitars and keyboards dovetail with metallic bass lines in spacious compositions. They highlight Davis' propensity for engrossing melody.


Fugazi, "Long Division"

[From Steady Diet of Nothing, 1991]

[With their second record, the D.C. post-hardcore legends began exploring space and texture in a way somewhat removed from their aggressive roots.]

BEN DAVIS: Obviously, Fugazi's influence is huge and wide, but I went to school up in Virginia, James Madison University, worked at WXJM. This was basically the point where I went, "Oh, it doesn't have to be so wall-of-noise anymore." The rules were changing. I think the first Fugazi record was still pretty much following the pattern. This was like, "What? There's no, like, big, crazy part." That was a way to look at things differently: You could be heavy without being heavy. I didn't really do that until the Milemarker days, but it was a good awakening in my mind.


Unwound, "Disappoint"

[From The Future of What, 1995]

[Emerging in the early '90s, Unwound gleaned drama and intensity from post-punk and grunge, fashioning them into a sound that was both unique and influential.]

DAVIS: I just found it really unpretentious. It was emo without the whining—emo in a way that was actually emo. They had a lot of different styles, too. But for me, this was a song that you'd put on when you were really bummed out, but you weren't going to whine about being sad.

PETE WAGNER: I grew up in the Bay area, so when I had first heard Unwound and seen them, it was awesome. It was aggressive and not necessarily pop-driven. It kind of hooked you in without a hook.


Blonde Redhead, "Jewel"

[From La Mia Vita Violenta, 1995]

[Hitching noisy elements to catchy pop-rock hooks, Blonde Redhead made mainstream inroads with sounds that had, up to that point, been mostly contained to the underground.]

DAVIS: They crossed this line: "They're a little bit DIY, but they're pretty popular. [Now] they're pretty huge." For some reason, it was OK to like them. It was one of the first bands where I was like, "Just because they're on MTV doesn't mean you have to be snobby to them." They're just a good band.

I think a theme that I'm tapping into is that I came from a lot of hardcore stuff, but the Ben Davis stuff is more pop-y. A lot of this stuff influenced me into realizing that there's more than just screaming.


Des Ark, "Some Are Love"

[From Loose Lips Sink Ships, 2005]

[Des Ark leader Aimee Argote played in an early Jetts lineup. She and Davis also released the split Battle of the Beards in 2007.]

WAGNER: Her songs to me always are deceptively complicated. They sound pretty simple, but there's no way that I could play any of the guitar stuff that she does, partly because she does all those crazy tunings. She's one of the most ripping guitar players I've ever seen.

DAVIS: This song, it's short and so simple. But it gets me every time.

The songs we did together for Battle of the Beards, the production turned out pretty terrible. We did them over at UNC in the music department to these [Alesis Digital Audio Tapes]. We had lined up string players and horn players. This was before Lost in the Trees. No one was really doing that around here. We lined up all these people and recorded to ADATs. The guy didn't even get new VCR tapes for them. It didn't quite turn out how we envisioned it.


The Kingsbury Manx, "Pageant Square"

[From The Kingsbury Manx, 2000]

[This Chapel Hill outfit specializes in refined chamber pop, simply trimmed with charming psychedelics.]

DAVIS: Clark [Blomquist of The Kingsbury Manx]—I was playing in his metal band, Goatthrower. Clark lived with us at the Milemarker house. Clark was like, "I'm joining this band called Kingsbury Manx," and I'm expecting it to be hardcore or metal or whatever. Then he played this for me.

I was just blown away. "Wait, someone here in town is making this kind of music?" It sounded so amazing and was just so not what anybody was doing around here. Their ability to take a part and play it for a long time was also a little bit influential for me. You don't have to have 17 parts. None of the songs in the Ben Davis stuff usually have more than three or four parts, because I just like that simplicity.


My Dear Ella, "Set Me Running"

[From Bright Orange Tailspin, 2004]

[Jetts guitarist Eric Wallen played with this Chapel Hill pop-rock outfit when he first met Davis. He now fronts the psych-rock outfit Minor Stars.]

DAVIS: The reason I love it so much is one winter, it snowed, and me and my oldest son were just trapped in the house. We took all the pillows off the couch for three days and had wrestling fights, just made like WWE in the house. He was obsessed with this song. Kids get that way; they just play songs over and over and over. I had taken video of it, so every time I watched the video, I'd hear it too. It was just an awesome positive association.

I'm really terrible at remembering song titles, so I'm always like, "Eric, what's my favorite My Dear Ella song?" This has more of an emotional tug to it.


Pinback, "Penelope"

[From Blue Screen Life, 2001]

[Pinback's synthesis of meticulous songcraft and electronic elements succeeds on precision, an element found in some of the Jetts' slower songs.]

DAVIS: We got to open for them at the Cat's Cradle, and I was pretty psyched. This is another game changer. You can have really pretty melodies and still have it pound you.

WAGNER: It's the idea of—instead of focusing on just what you're doing and trying to be as cool or interesting or as complex as you can—just playing what fits. These songs all fit really well together. The vocal is the thing that you end up coming away with.

DAVIS: You could have a pretty busy bass line, and you could do a pretty repetitive guitar part over it and a nice, mellow vocal, and it blends really well. I was coming from this view: "You shouldn't be complicated when you play. You shouldn't be busy on the bass. You shouldn't be showing off on the guitar. That's not punk."


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It was Boo's Hideaway, not Blues Hideaway. Otherwise, great article!

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