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Physics frontman Daniel Hart considers the seriousness of his own sound and how Ben Folds changed his life

The Physics of Meaning 

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Throughout his Texas childhood, Daniel Hart studied violin, performing the usual classical suspects in school orchestras. In high school, he kept playing the violin, but he began lending his skills to rock bands, forming Fool's Cap with several Dallas friends. In college at Southern Methodist University, Hart studied theater, and Fool's Cap morphed into other projects.

After a stay in New York, Hart relocated to the Triangle early this decade, recruiting two of his Fool's Cap bandmates—David Karsten Daniels and Alex Lazara—to join him in Durham. Together, they formed Go*Machine and Bu Hanan Records, the projects that have since spawned Daniels' solo career, The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, and The Physics of Meaning, the band Hart now leads.

Hart—an occasional member of The Polyphonic Spree—still calls the Triangle home, but he's spent nine of the last 13 months on the road, touring as a sideman in the bands of John Vanderslice and St. Vincent, or at the helm of The Physics of Meaning. Physics' second record, Snake Charmer & Destiny at the Stroke of Midnight, reflects Hart's early interests: There's the metaphorical and narrative devices of theater, the magnetism of good pop melodies and the complex, rigorous arrangements of classical music.

We played Hart a wide range of music, from stuff with rigors and lifts that reflect his own to pieces that seem to bend with the breeze of psychedelics additives. He responded with his reflections on doo-wop, being too serious and the appeal of lyrics in unknown tongues.

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RUFUS WAINWRIGHT, "14th Street"

[from Want One; 2003, Dreamworks]

DANIEL HART: Every once in the while in the Physics tour van, I'll actually relinquish control of the stereo and usually what happens at that time is Will [Wright] the bass player plugs in his iPod. And about 90 percent of the time that's awesome. He has a lot of stuff I haven't heard or stuff I like but I don't have. And then he plays Rufus Wainwright and expects me to like it. I want to like it because he likes it, and I like him. But the Rufus Wainwright I've heard doesn't do it for me for whatever reasons, maybe because it's too close to home or something.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: I could see that someone who liked Physics enough to join the band would also appreciate the grandiosity and lavishness of Rufus. Is that what you mean?

Yeah, it sounds great.


SIGUR RÓS, "Inní mér syngur vitleysingur"

[from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust; 2008, XL]

Is this Sigur Ros?

This is the second track on the new one.

I have not heard this. It sounds awesome. Is it all more upbeat, the new one?

The first two tracks are. The first track sounds a little bit like Sigur Rós covering Dave Matthews. I'm kidding, kind of.

I guess this isn't too far from Dave Matthews, at least in his verses.

This track sort of has that perfect grandiosity that the band's always had, except it's really paced. It still sounds big.

Yeah, those strings sound really good. Did DKD [Bu Hanan labelmate David Karsten Daniels] ever tell you about his Dave Matthews phase? Huge Dave Matthews fan. I never quite got that far. I liked "Crash" but I never saw him play or anything. But I would say that Fool's Cap [David and Daniel's college band at Southern Methodist University] is heavily influenced by Dave Matthews. This sounds great. Have you heard the new TV on the Radio?

Yes. Do you like that?

A lot. A lot more than their older stuff. I like Sigur Rós's older stuff a lot, too. But this sounds like a turn of face in the same way that the TV on the Radio does. I do like the grandiosity of this. Back to back with the Rufus Wainwright song, it doesn't sound so different, but for whatever reason this gets me more.

In a lot of ways, The Physics of Meaning is definitely instrumentally driven, but the lyrics seem pretty cared for, too. I think that Rufus Wainwright is kind of a regrettable lyricist sometimes, and that may hinder the enjoyment of the music behind it. Do you think that helps enjoy Sigur Rós, not being distracted by lyrics that you're analyzing?

Definitely. That's one of the things that gets in the way of my enjoyment of Rufus.

In the same way, do you think that not knowing what Sigur Rós says helps that in a way?

Absolutely. It takes me a while to listen to lyrics. I can't hear them the first five or ten times I listen to a song because all I hear is the music. Then, once I can actually start paying attention to the lyrics, then they start to affect how I feel about the song. That's one of the main reasons I don't like [The Arcade Fire's] Neon Bible and I really like Funeral. Funeral is one of my favorite albums, and Neon Bible is one of my least favorite records. The lyrics to Funeral are dense and complex, and there's a lot of metaphor. The lyrics of Neon Bible are straightforward.


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BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT, "Oppressions Each"

[from Motion to Rejoin; 2008, Matador]

Who is this?

It's Brightblack Morning Light. This is the new one.

It's awesome. I heard some of their older stuff, and it didn't do it for me but this sounds different, a little more their own. The other stuff sounded a little like other kind of dark '70s stuff. Maybe I really like it because I've really been thinking a lot more about doo-wop lately.

You have been listening to TV on the Radio, huh?

I really like that influence, and I want to listen to it a lot more so it could get in my brain. I could use it more in the future. You know the song "I Only Have Eyes for You"? That's one of my favorite songs of all time. [Starts shoo-wopping over the song.]

How do you see that fitting into what you do?

I have no idea. Because what I'm doing now, it doesn't seem to. I don't hear any of that in there. But it's also one of the things that I like about Funeral, the parts of Motown that they borrowed. Maybe I'll just borrow what they borrow and borrow on top of that.

One of the reasons I included this track is the very relaxed atmosphere. It's arranged, but not very strictly. And you kind of go more toward the other side, where everything is very strictly arranged.

Very much so. Everything's planned out. I would love to be able to give that up but I think in order to do that I would have to take up some kind of drug usage because my brain—if I can't figure out ways to do it—my brain is always going to organize things. I wish that I could turn that off sometimes.

Is that just you or studying music? You studied music for a long time, right?

Not in college, but I took violin lessons for 14 years before I went to college. It could be that. I think I tend to keep everything organized in my life or want to have control over everything and make sure everything's in line, that I can see things clearly, all my ducks are in a row. That's just the way that I am. But every time I come into a new song and start working on it, I think it's another opportunity to let go of the control. That never happens.


STEVE REICH, "Music for 18 Musicians, Part 4"

[from Music for 18 Musicians; Nonesuch, 1998]

I feel like I'm watching a documentary on New York City. "The hustle and bustle of the..."

That's kind of appropriate. Does this sound familiar?

I don't think I've heard this.

It's Steve Reich. Section 4 of Music for 18 Musicians.

I really like everything I've heard. I do like the parts of Sufjan Stevens that are like this. I stopped listening to classical music when I got into college. I got tired of it. I played it a long time.

What are the latest period classical pieces you ever played? This was premiered in 1976.

I played [Igor Stravinsky's] the Firebird Suite in at least two different orchestras in high school. I played some Copland. Adagio for Strings. I think that's as far back as I got.

Have you returned to any classical music?

I listen to Stravinsky a lot and I listen to [Modest Mussorgsky's] Pictures at an Exhibition a lot. I really like the Debussy and Ravel string quartets. But other than that, I haven't gotten back into a lot of classical music. I tried to listen to all the Mahler symphonies a couple of years ago, and the first two were as far as I got. Not because I didn't like it, but most of my music listening now happens when I'm working on other things or when I'm driving the van. Driving the van does not lend itself to listening to classical music. ... Listening to this makes me want to listen to more classical music, though, 20th century classical music.


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BEN FOLDS FIVE, "Narcolepsy"

[from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner; 1999, Sony]

I haven't listened to this in a long time.

I hadn't either until they reunited.

I didn't like this record at the time. I thought it was an unfortunate departure from the other two records. But listening to it now, it sounds better. Did you see them perform this year?

Yeah, it was really good. It was great.

I think I probably told you this before, but Ben Folds Five is probably the reason I moved to North Carolina. Probably the reason I picked North Carolina over anywhere else to go. The other Bu Hanan guys probably would not have picked North Carolina but I had been here first. They had to make the choice to come here and follow me or not, and they did.

When did you first hear this band?

I first heard this band on the radio in Baton Rouge. I was driving a van and it was on some college radio station in 1997. I was doing an alternative spring break, which is where you go and volunteer somewhere. I was volunteering at an AIDS clinic with a bunch of other college students, and one night after we had done whatever and we were driving back to where we were staying, the song "Underground" by Ben Folds Five came on the radio. I'd never heard it before. I thought. "This is the most exciting song I've heard in my life. Please, DJ, tell me who this is after they come up."

And no one ever said anything. Occasionally, over the next two years of my life, I would ask people if they knew the song and would describe it to them. I couldn't find anyone who knew it, and then I moved to New York and started working at this non-profit for Americorps. One of my coworker said it was probably the first Ben Folds Five record, which she had and she didn't like. So she gave it to me. Then that same year someone made me a mix tape that had two songs from Whatever and Ever Amen. And they quickly became my favorite band of the time. The other songs on that mix tape were all OK Computer songs. That was the best mixtape ever.

That's funny because this record was the one that got dissed as being an attempt to be a Radiohead record. Someone called it "the Muppets playing Radiohead."

That's some cold shit. I do like this song a lot better now. I did not like it at the time. But "Underground"—man, that song changed my life.


EKKEHARD EHLERS, "Plays John Cassavettes Pt. 2"

[from Plays John Cassavettes Pt. 2; 2001, Staubgold; taken from DJ/Rupture's Uproot]

Is this George Martin's son's re-working with that Beatles track?

No, it's Ekkehard Ehlers, and it's called "Plays John Cassavettes Pt. 2." It's originally from a 12-inch he released on Staubgold. DJ/Rupture just used it on his latest mix.

It sounds very sample-able.

Yeah. I guess it's built on sample, too.

I could see someone putting a track behind it, and then using it to sell cars.

Speaking of indie rock advertising music, it's huge these days.

I'm always speaking of it. Why do you think I brought it up?

Some bands are really wary of that still and some fans are, too—"This band I love should be able to support themselves off of the records I buy and the tickets I buy." But people aren't really buying those as much anymore. How do you feel about the ethics or the loyalties of licensing?

I don't think I'd use my music to sell Lockheed Martin products. But when M.I.A. sold "Galang" to Honda and they used it for one of their car commercial, she got flak from her fans. Her response was, "Hey, that money they just gave me I can use that to do all sorts of good things for people. So is it really so bad that I sold that music to a car company?" And whether she actually did good things with that money I don't know. But I see that as a valid argument.

At the same time, I would not sell my song to Outback Steakhouse because [Of Montreal's decision to do just that] was a real bummer, and I don't want to listen to the original song anymore because of the way they used it. I know there are some things that I wouldn't give a song for because of the product.

I think licensing and publishing is where most of the money is now for independent artists. That's the truth of it, and I would love to be able to pay my bandmates more for touring with me—more than we actually make on tour. So I'm looking at other sources of revenue, since I'm kind of living off what I make from other bands.


THE WALKMEN, "In the New Year"

[from You & Me; Gigantic Records, 2008]

I've never listened to the Walkmen, besides the stuff that got released on the radio and MTV. I was very impressed that they put out their own record this year, and it did so well. I thought they had faded into the distance a bit as far as mainstream fans were concerned.

What do you think about the strings in this song? It sounds sort of lazy, almost like, "Hey, do that trill thing."

Within the context it seems totally appropriate.

What's the laziest string section instruction you've ever received?

Scott Solter ... I've worked with him on three different records now and he is a pitch perfectionist, which is, in my experience, not the name of the game when it comes to strings. When there are no frets, it's really hard to get things in tune. I played on the Pattern Is Movement record that came out this year, and we were working on the single for it right away this summer, last summer in June of 2007. The foundation for that song is a reed organ, an old reed organ that's not even in tune with itself. I think the song is in C sharp, which is the worst for an open string instrument in traditional tuning because there are no open string notes in a C major scale. Which means everything has to be fingered and that the chances of getting it in tune are less than any scale. I must've played this one five-second section 50 times, over and over again.

At first Scott said, "That was real close, buddy, just give it one more shot." and then I'd do it, and it wouldn't be what they wanted and then he'd be "Yeah, that's almost it. Just keep trying." And then after a while, he just stopped giving direction because what can you say after the 30th time? So then it was like no direction, and he was like "We're going to take it again." Then I'd play it , and move my finger a fraction of an inch that time that I thought might get it in tune. Then it wouldn't be the one, and then I'd move it the other fraction of the inch that I thought would get it that time. Then I'd do it and it wouldn't be the one.

And then after the 49th time, I thought, "I have moved my fingers in every possible position, every fraction of every inch that could possibly be the in-tuneness of this note, but I'm playing against a reed organ that's not in tune with itself. How can I win this battle?" On the 50th time, they decided they were happy with it, they being Scott and Andrew [Thiboldeaux, of Pattern is Movement]. To my ear, the 50th take was very much like the 3rd take, which was very much like the 13th take. So I guess that's the laziest direction I've ever gotten: no direction.


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JOANNA NEWSOM, "Peach, Plumb, Pear"

[from The Milk-Eyed Mender; Drag City, 20054]

I never liked harpsichord growing up. I found it really abrasive. I heard someone play jazz harpsichord once when I was in high school at my parents' church.

It wasn't very good?

No, it was good. Still, most times in rock 'n' roll settings, I think, "This is someone who doesn't know anything about the harpsichord, but they wanted to use something that sounded different." I think Joanna Newsom is a really good songwriter, and I always wish I could write songs that good. But, still, the use of the harpsichord—I don't know. It doesn't seem necessary or right for the song, especially when all these voices come in.

It just sits still, when everything else is moving so much.

It's not expressive as a piano or even a Rhodes because it's all those tacks. It's still a great song.

What about Joanna Newsom's songwriting is great to you?

It's usually very simple. Musically simple, not very many chord changes in a song. But then lyrically, it's clever and fun and emotional. And she's melodically adventurous, but in a way that still maintains a pop sensibility.


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DAVID BOWIE, "DJ"

[from Lodger; EMI, 1979]

You've jammed with this guy.

David Byrne?

David Bowie. This is "DJ" from Lodger.

Yeah, I thought that was David Byrne singing for sure. It's clearly now David Bowie.

It's such a weird song. Every time I think this is one of the singles from this record, and it's sort of a successful single, I'm like, "Really?" Did you hear the strings at the beginning of this song?

Awesome. So fucked up. So good. I keep hoping that David Bowie influences will pop up more in my own songwriting because I listened to Ziggy Stardust way too much in high school and college.

But then you'd be Dan Bejar, right?

Exactly. But I wouldn't want it to pop up that much.

When you think about that influence in your music how do you think it would sound?

It would be a lot less melodically restricted because he really speaks with his voice. And then I think the music it drives a little more than my stuff, which it meanders a little more than this. Those are the two things that I would want to take from him. .... I love David Bowie. Opening for him was one of the more special experiences of my life.

How many shows did you guys do?

It was a bunch. It was the North American tour.

Did you talk to him?

Not much, but he talked to Tim [DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree] the most. He referred to us as his "Pretty Pollys" and he was very nice in the brief passing hellos that we had. We did do a song with him in his encore. It was a song from the 90s. It was named after uncle somebody that had a TV show that he watched as a kid. It was like a Captain Kangaroo but his name was Uncle someone. I think he was from Jersey, the uncle guy and he had puppets on his show. So this song was an homage to this guy [Ed.'s note: The song, 2002's "Slip Away," is an homage to "Uncle" Floyd Vivino, who hosted The Uncle Floyd Show for two decades]. I was hoping for something from Ziggy Stardust.

You were playing?

I wasn't playing, I was just singing. Everybody was just singing except the horns, we did have the horns section. But they didn't have enough inputs or microphones for anyboy else to play and the horns would really carry through the vocal microphones and the strings would not. But every night he would do four songs from Ziggy Stardust in the encore. They would do "Star Man," "Ziggy Stardust," "Five Years," something else. It was such a long time ago.

The Physics of Meaning plays Duke Coffeehouse Friday, Nov. 21, with Butterflies. The 8:30 p.m. show costs $5.

  • Physics frontman Daniel Hart considers the seriousness of his own sound and how Ben Folds changed his life

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