David King and the art of the smartass song title
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To paraphrase from the Passover seder, if David King were only a drummer, it would have been enough. Anyone who’s watched him perform (with avant-garde jazz trio Happy Apple, bittersweet pop-rock group Halloween, Alaska, singer-songwriter Haley Bonar, or any of his many other projects) has seen an instrumentalist who’s not only one of the best of his generation, but one who is never satisfied with playing it safe. That willingness to take chances has earned him King For Two Days, a Walker Art Center event that kicks off with a March 11 installment of the Making Music lecture series. Then come the official "two days": The schedules for March 12-13 include performances by some of his longtime groups, plus new bands Golden Valley Is Now, Dave King’s Trucking Company, and Bad Apple. But King isn't just a drummer (or trucking company owner). He puts his acerbic wit on display in the form of stage banter and countless song titles, and he's written lyrics for Love-cars and Halloween, Alaska. King took time out from an Italian tour with The Bad Plus to answer The A.V. Club's questions (via e-mail) about his way with words.
The A.V. Club: You’re known as a drummer, but you’re also a composer and songwriter. Do you remember the first song you wrote and what it was called?
David King: I wrote a song for my mom when I was 5 called “I Live For You.” For the record, I lived for Stretch Armstrong and the chocolate raised doughnut at Byerly’s in Golden Valley much more than her, but she needed the attention.
AVC: Your titles aren’t very typical, especially in the jazz world. Are there stories behind them?
DK: There are little stories sometimes. I think there is a cinematic element when dealing with instrumental music because of the lack of words. You might get a visual or some sort of fantasia, or sometimes you just cock off and try to be funny.
AVC: Is there any insight you could provide on Happy Apple’s “The World Begins And Ends In Your Combover”? Was this a particular person’s combover?
DK: That was written from the perspective of Dick Van Patten’s personal assistant and sort of his/her moment to complain about the neediness of his/her employer.
AVC: And “Tang: The Astronaut’s Drink Of Desire.” Are you a big Tang fan?
DK: I liked Tang way back when but only the powder, not when you added water. I used to rub it on my gums before wrestling meets just to give me an edge.
AVC: Is there an art to the smartass song title?
DK: I think you need to stick with it instead of having a smarmy period. AC/DC never has to look back on a period where they tried writing for a string quartet. You do what you’re good at, and Happy Apple is fucking good at titling songs in a smartass way. We’re of course painfully earnest improvisers, so we try to balance that out with some silly shit.
AVC: A typical Happy Apple show is about more than just music—for longtime fans it’s as much about your comedy emceeing from the drum stool. When did you discover you had a talent for onstage banter?
DK: I just started doing it so we could have a breather in between our overly cathartic musings. I like talking on the mic though, so if I fail and people don’t laugh—which happens often—then we can just try to redeem ourselves by playing really fast, heavy-chops shit.
AVC: Have you ever considered a career as a stand-up comic?
DK: I’ve considered improvising comedy, which is essentially what I do. I don’t plan material and would probably not be good at that, or burn out fast from repeating jokes. I don’t know how stand-up guys do that night after night. You can YouTube comedians and see them telling the same joke two years later in the same town sometimes. Ugh.
AVC: How difficult is it to strike a balance, to pull back on the reins so it doesn’t devolve into the Dave King Comedy Hour?
DK: What’s wrong with Dave King Comedy Hour?! How about Happy Apple pulls back the reins on the 39-minute, overly introspective, Coltrane rip-off shit we’ve been doing for 14 years? Eh? Eh?
AVC: When are we going to get that The Sensitive Side Of David King album where you sing tender ballads?
DK: I just released a solo record of piano and drum duets called Indelicate. It has some sensitive moments. If you listen to Happy Apple there’s always a ballad or two on each record, and we think that’s our best shit most of the time. My sensitive side probably shows too much.
AVC: Of the songs you’ve written lyrics for, which are you particularly happy with?
DK: I like the Halloween, Alaska song “Drowned” because it has a particular person in mind. I don’t know. ... I suppose I like them all or else I wouldn’t be doing it.
AVC: Who do you look to for inspiration as a lyricist?
DK: Definitely James Diers. [Of Halloween, Alaska and a former A.V. Club editor—Ed.] Also Mark Eitzel of American Music Club and the guy from Red House Painters [Mark Kozelek]. I like sensitive shit that has a little bite to it. Also Elvis Costello.
AVC: Did you name any of your bands?
DK: I named all the bands I play with, I think. Love-cars was named after a beautiful poem by Robert Lowell called “Skunk Hour.” Happy Apple sort of named itself because of the jingly apple toy I use as a percussion instrument. The Gang Font was just based on the type used in gang tattoos, of which I have several based on West Side Story.
AVC: You’re debuting two new groups at King For Two Days, Golden Valley Is Now and Dave King’s Trucking Company. What can you tell us about those band names, and what should we expect from the sets?
DK: GVIN came from the fact that even though the two other guys (pianist Craig Taborn and bassist Reid Anderson) have been in New York City forever, we grew up in Golden Valley together and had our early forays into improvising in various basements around town. Dave King’s Trucking Company came from trying to name a band that has rootsy elements and Midwestern open-road themes in the songs—and needing to put my name on something for the first time. So instead of the horribly banal “The Dave King Quartet” or some such tomfoolery, I named it after a fake trucking company that I run with an iron fist.