In these lean times, we can all take comfort from the fact that 2009 is shaping up to be a great year for music. Even for those too cool for Bono and Bruce Springsteen, there are plenty of feisty start-ups that are well-deserving of your attention and affection. Such is Wisconsin trio The Daredevil Christopher Wright, whose whimsical melodies and whip-smart lyrics are setting blogs on fire the world over, and the off-line community is taking note. They’ve done sessions for Daytrotter, been featured on NPR, and got their upcoming full-length debut produced by some guy named Bon Iver. When I saw them open for Cloud Cult in Chicago last November, they converted the crowd from a skeptical group of strangers into lifelong fans by way of their virtuosic, imaginative instrumentation. They defy categorization (fans of Midlake and Anathallo should take note) but anyone who doesn’t find themselves swept off their feet by TDCW is too cold-hearted for my company. Jon Sunde, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, took some time to give me his thoughts on band practice, sermons and Animal Collective’s screwy vocals.
Q: Let’s start with the band name. Who is “the Daredevil Christopher Wright” and why did you pick the name?
A: When we got started—we’ve been playing for four, going on five years, we were going under the name “Waltzes With Bears.” (laughs) Just for a few months! I don’t know. It’s always a struggle to find a name that makes sense or is just cool. Anyway, I had just written the song “The Daredevil Christopher Wright” and I was really excited about it. It just sounded like a good name; it comes from a work of fiction. There was a guy trying to look up what it was on Wikipedia or something, but it’s just fictional.
Q: There’s been a lot of buzz about you guys even though you haven’t released your full-length In Deference to a Broken Back [it’s dropping on May 19]. Have you been surprised at all by the attention?
A: We’ve had nothing but encouragement. It’s been an awesome experience. We started in Eau Claire [Wisconsin], and it’s a cool musical community. It’s cool to be shaped by it. Right from the beginning we’ve had nothing but encouragement from people. The Daytrotter sessions we did were just great. We’re going down this weekend to play a show with them. It’s been an overflowing of encouragement and kindness most of the time. Whenever you do something that you’re passionate about, there’s a large degree of frustration and questioning—all these kinds of these things—and there’s been that, too. When I calm down and assess what has happened, it’s really clear to me that we had so much help from people and encouragement from people along the way. It’s affirming, I guess.
Q: You guys are pretty original. How would you describe your sound to someone who had never heard you before?
A: It’s cliché to say “I can’t describe it,” but … (pause) I like the movement in music these days where it’s pulling through a lot of genres and wearing those genres on your sleeve. You’re pulling from recognizable genres all over the place and working to incorporate that—and working to incorporate that in the same song. Pulling in a lot of different stuff. We lean toward the indie-pop and indie-folk traditions, and I came from the singer/songwriter vein. I’ve always been a big “words” guy—definitely influenced by that.
Q: How about role models? Are there some bands that you would cite as influences?
A: Sufjan and Danielson a few years ago, when I really got to know them, they were really inspiring. And the complexity of it, too, there’s a certain amount of whimsy and, I don’t know, I think it’s beautiful to take on these heavy themes and concepts and do music that’s the opposite of that. I like those kinds of juxtapositions. Heavy music that’s light. Also, I really love Animal Collective. Those guys are just … they showed me that there’s no parameters to how one uses their voice. We’re getting more and more into voice stuff, trying to do interesting stuff vocally. Me and [fellow band member and brother] Jason went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for voice, and got all kinds of vocal training. That pairing that Animal Collective has of this odd and ambient music with all these amazing pop melodies and sensibilities. Meshing these very discordant melodies on one side and these pleasing whatever on the other. They’re amazing to me. Also, back in high school and still today, I’m really amazed by Elliott Smith.
Q: What are you listening to these days? Is there any music that’s caught your attention?
A: Actually, I went through a long period where I stopped listening to music. I work at a computer all day and for the first six months, I just listened to my entire record collection. I was on this writer’s block that was messing with me and I was burned out. Everything wasn’t—I wasn’t satisfied. It was a crazy time. Anyway, more recently, it’s been really getting into Grizzly Bear. And recently, I went to see Danielson. And this band opened for them called Cryptacize—they’re really great. They’re fronted by a female vocalist, and she sings and there’s little bit of keyboard. And this minimalist percussion guy. It’s really awesome. And Deerhoof, I was just re-introduced to them, all their stuff is great.
Q: Your live show is something to see—it’s obvious that you guys have a lot of confidence in each other. Has it taken effort to form that kind of bond?
A: Absolutely. It’s funny because Jason and I—we’re from a really musical family, but we never really … I guess we’d play with each other now and again, but it felt like the first time when we really started to play together in this band. We have one other brother, but we didn’t play a whole lot together. Even with Jason, we’ve had to learn each other. A lot of that has to do with just—it’s bizarre being in a band. It’s like a marriage. It’s this intense, complex relationship. Not only sharing a band, which is your business venture, but also your artistic venture. You have to line up your sentiments and compromise. It’s very complex. What’s allowed us to interact really well, is learning to be honest with each other. Expressing our emotions. It’s been a lot of learning in that it all that comes together to shape the whole thing. It’s been kind of amazing to just grow with these guys and feel each other out. I was in a band in high school for a little bit, but I would consider this my first real band experience. It’s kind of amazing when you’re close enough with people to learn artistically and musically, it’s been interesting to see how that happens. To gain that trust. (laughs) And we practice a lot.
Q: Let’s talk lyrics a bit. You write about some pretty profound stuff on In Deference to a Broken Back. Are these just personal musings or do you hope that people take away something from your songs?
A: I certainly hope people take away something. Either from lyrical content, or they like the sound of it. For me, I guess lyrically, it often leans toward the spiritual. Faith. Amongst that, everyday things. We were trying to think of the theme of this record. It’ll be two years when it comes out since we started that. It’s been a really long process. We’ve had the songs on the record for a long time. We’re getting to the point now where we’re trying to figure out emotions. One of the things that’s hanging a lot is this idea of the profound and the mundane. It’s like there’s depths in these normal things. I think I try to when I’m writing, I want it to come out like that. Two of my uncles are pastors, and I was talking to one of them and he was saying for his seminary class one of his professors said, “If you want to speak to your entire congregation, write your sermon to one person.” People can identify with that focus. Too often, songwriters try to be like, “I’m going to expound on love or heartache.” We try to take on way too much, and the counter-intuitive thing, you have to access the breath of this concept, instead of trying to write on the whole concept. A lot of my writing is then, a lot of just—some of it’s autobiographical. Some of it’s fiction.
Q: You’re pretty outspoken about your faith.
A: It’s been cool—I can’t speak for the other two guys completely. For myself, I feel called to do music. My parents, I’ve been realizing my musical heritage. Both my parents, actually my entire extended family, are all involved in traveling music ministry. Went all over the world and all over the country doing this traveling music ministry. I’m realizing that I have this long heritage of people who have been called to use music in ministry. I feel called to that, I feel called to use music. It’s what I’m best at. I’m just being honest, as much as I can. Faith is a motivator. I express that, it’s been cool. It’s brought on some conversations that have been good. We’ve never had a hostile conversation with people or anything. I don’t know, it’s encouraging to me as we’re playing and stuff that there’s a great community of people who love art and are willing to hear what you have to say. I hope people talk about it. Up until this point, it’s been really cool. When people ask about it, they’ve been very civil and nice, or they don’t say anything (laughs), I like the freedom of being as honest as I can be and see how people will take that and recognize that and accept that. That you’re just being genuine.
Q: Do you have a favorite song off the new album?
A: The single, called the “East Cost” is my favorite [EDITOR’S NOTE: as well it should be. You should listen to it here.] It’s the newest song on the record, but it’s kind of about my brother and his wife moving to the East Coast to go to grad school. I really like that song; I love how it turned out on the record. Before we were going to the studio, we just could not figure out this song at all. It was really one of the breaks, pretty much all the arrangements came out in the studio and it just came out awesome. That’s my favorite song. And it’s pointing in the direction we’re going, in terms of our sensibilities and our styles. I’ve seen through that one what I want to be more like. It’s a step forward.
Q: I think one of your most intriguing songs is “A Conversation About Cancer.” What’s the story on that one?
A: That song was written pretty directly from an email I received from my mother. A good friend of hers through church had been struggling with cancer about five years. They’d hang out and pray, and after one of the visits she emailed me and all the brothers. It was just a beautifully written email. I was struck by it. She was talking about how she and this woman—it wasn’t looking so good, the cancer. They had talked about the David and Goliath story and regards to the cancer, and my mom said, “She’s teaching me so much.” That really struck me. I was encouraged, just her beautifully written email that responded to this. A lot of the lyrics are just taken directly from it or started from it.
Q: What’s next for the band?
A: The album will be released on May 19. And we are planning to try and do as much touring as we can. Up until this point we’ve been doing weekend jaunts and three or four ten-day tour things, and I think we’re gonna take the plunge and tour like crazy. We’re working out the logistics and lifestyle. It’s a daunting thing, but I think we’re feeling pretty ready for it. We’re gonna give it a try, and get connected with some bands along the way. We don’t really know what we’re doing, this is all new. We’re waiting to see what opportunities will present themselves. I’m really excited and scared and interested and all the things one feels in these transitions.