Ben Davila Needs to Write Songs Like a Dog Needs to be Walked
Davila has put a year's worth of his one-song-a-week efforts on four seasonal albums. He released the second album, Summer, last month. Following this pattern, Autumn will come out in August, and Winter... sometime in winter. During the remaining free hours of his week, he's making music with his bands, Polkadactyl, a concept band comprised of Davila and his musician girlfriend Elysha Rom-Povolo, and Okay Jose, a six-member group that performs Davila's songs. Because we were beyond curious how someone can write a song in 30 minutes, we caught up with Davila this week. He told us how ideas come to him in the shower, why he left England and The Wombats, and how he's like a dog.
Why did you decide to write one song a week?
Ben Davila: A friend of mine who I was in a band with... we got really drunk together in a bar and we were complaining about how we never write as much music as we'd like to, from lack of any external motivating factor. So we said, "By next Tuesday, we're gonna write a song about that girl in the blue peacoat." I had no concept that I'd do it for an entire year. It was just an exercise that I enjoyed, and I'm still doing it now. We've had about 300 songs on the Song Club site. It's really fun because it's like having a theme album every week by a bunch of different people.
How did you get the idea to split the songs up by season?
BD: I was going to release them all as one big album, but then thought that was silly. Who'd listen to 52 songs off one album? I realized the first song I did was three days after the March equinox, just by dumb luck. I figured I could split them up by date and have them be in the seasons themselves. The third song on the winter album is a Christmas song. I was like, "Cool! This thing sells itself!" [laughs]
"Party in The Castro" is so funny. Why did you write that?
BD: I wanted to write something about my neighborhood. I love living in the Castro. The challenge for that week was to write a song about the neighborhood you live in. Actually, in Okay Jose, we play a song that Casey [Saran] wrote a song about the Sunset. I guess we're very neighborhood friendly!
How long have you lived in San Francisco?
BD: About four years. I was living in Liverpool before that and then I moved out to California, because I like food. [laughs]
What's your favorite place to eat here?
BD: Right now I've become kind of addicted to green chile pies [from Chile Pies and Ice Cream]. For a little extra money, they'll take this beautiful slice of pie and stick it in a blender and turn it into a milkshake for you. It's the most wonderful thing in the world. I have to tell myself not to go there.
How long do you spend on each song?
BD: It varies. Some songs I'll spend a lot of time on, and others I'll do in 30 minutes or an hour. It depends on how much time I have and how inspired I feel that week.
Was writing a song in 30 minutes an acquired skill?
BD: Yeah, I've been writing music since I was 14. I've always written fairly fast. My sister always would say I am crazy neurotic, because if I do any little thing, I'll do it until it's absolutely done. I'll forget to eat. Sometimes I'll write a song in my shower. I'll just sit there and get an idea and then have to get out of the shower and towel off really fast and go to a computer. It's like that Greek philosopher [Archimedes]. He came up with the water displacement theory while he was in the tub and ran down the street screaming "Eureka!" in his underpants. It's a comfortable place...the shower, just being in the bathroom. You're alone with your thoughts and there's not much to do. It's a natural place to let ideas flow.
What instruments do you play?
BD: I play most of the rhythm section stuff -- piano, guitar, bass, drums. I have an addiction to buying musical instruments on Craigslist. I'll be like, "Oooh, an autoharp, or a bulbul tarang [Indian banjo]. I don't even know what that is!" That's another thing about the Song Club that I like. Before I'd have all this stuff that I'd never put on a record. And now I think I've used all of it.
Is listening to your songs from the past 52 weeks similar to reading a diary?
BD: Definitely. There is a song I wrote about camping, and whenever I hear it, I always think of that point in my life. In your diary, you may have written something like, "I'm in love with this girl who doesn't notice me." And then you read it later, and you're like, "Aaahhh, I'm a total dork!" But at the same time, you think, "No, I really felt that way." I feel that with music. "Oh yeah, that was me, on that day, where I was."
You used to play guitar with The Wombats. What's the story?
BD: We all went to music school together in Liverpool. The Wombats started out as a college band. Then I moved back to America. Then they got super huge. And I wept deep in my soul. [laughs] I loved playing with them. They're these Northern English kids. They can drink more than anyone I've ever known. I'm just this skinny little California boy and I couldn't hang. But I don't have any ambition to rejoin that band because that's his [lead singer Matthew Murphy's] project. Now I'm doing my own thing, and I like that.
How long will you continue to write a song per week?
BD: I don't know. I enjoy it. I'm happiest when I'm writing music a lot. Sometimes I feel like I'm a dog. You have to take a dog out for a walk once a day, otherwise it'll get neurotic. Writing a song for me is like going on a walk. And the project makes me feel good about myself at least once a week. You write a song, and you're like, "Ah, cool! I did something!" A lot of times, with playing in bands or recording proper records, you're trying to make it perfect, and you end up not getting anything done. It tends to be not so much a sense of accomplishment as sort of a push. So it's nice to have something that's like, "This is what I did, and that's how it is. Now I can move on and do something else now."