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Published: 2012/02/11
by Mike Greenhaus

Brad Barr, Nathan Moore and a Decade of Davis

In many ways, Surprise Me Mr. Davis is a name for the longtime friendship that exists between singer/songwriter Nathan Moore and The Slip. Over the years, Davis has been a loose collaborator, a formal side project and even a musical priority. Though the group has only released a few recordings and only tours a few times per year, Davis continues to impact how primary songwriters Moore and Slip guitarist Brad Barr approach their craft. In 2010, the group also added longtime friend Marco Benevento to their lineup and the ensemble entered the studio last year to work on their first, full-length album. While aboard Jam Cruise, Barr and Moore discussed the group’s fuzzy history, future plans and favorite moments.

Surprise Me Mr. Davis slowly evolved out of a series of sit ins, opening spots and chance encounters, so the project does not have an exact start date, but 2002 was the first year Nathan first really started working on music with The Slip. So that means that this year is in many ways this is the 10th anniversary of Davis.

Brad: Originally it was Nathan Moore with The Slip. That’s how we billed it—I think we had known each other vaguely for about a year. We first met at High Sierra in 2001, so the story of Surprise Me Mr. Davis is really the story of High Sierra. We [The Slip] saw Nathan play there and stopped him to tell him how much we enjoyed his set.

Nathan: [Laughter.] Actually, I saw The Slip play and ran over to them when they were pulling away in their van. I said, “I really just wanted to tell you that I enjoyed your set.” Shortly after that, I became The Slip’s merch guy. A lot of people might not know that I started off as the Slip’s merch guy. There is a great story that goes along with that. I am a pacifist and one time this guy stole a t-shirt off the merch stand, and I chased him down and tickled his arm-pit to stop him. That’s what pacifists do.

Brad: Then in the winter of ‘03 into ’04 Davis was born. In fact January/February of ’04 is when we started tracking songs and we named it Surprise Me Mr. Davis. We wanted to release the album without our names on it—that was the idea for a while, to sort of make the band a mystery and veil who we really were. Before that, we were just friends playing music together.

Nathan: For me it is strange to think back on that time—what it must have been like for me to have gotten in my van and gone to visit you guys because I just don’t do things like that [sarcastic laughter in reference to Moore’s traveling living room Hippy Fiasco Tour]. There was something going on there. The youthful magnetism was strong.

Brad: Nathan doesn’t just get in cars and drive around to places without a plan. [Laughter.]

When I talked to you both five or six years ago, and you both mentioned how much you learned from each other, musically, during that period. I can still hear it in your songwriting—both of your approaches shifted after those early Davis sessions. Especially in terms of The Slip, who before that time were more jazzy and instrumental. Do you still feel like you still influence each other on a songwriting level?

Brad: When Nathan was on tour with The Slip we were the two smokers in the group. We’d go downstairs when we were at the hotel and talk about songwriting. I think back in those days we had more time together.

Nathan: And we had a deeper need for it. I mean deeper is maybe a terrible word but I think that when Brad and I saw each other, we both had wanted to get from something each other—very specifically. After a while we sorta got it. I remember the time when I was like “Oh shit, Brad doesn’t need me anymore.” I forgot what song it was, but after he wrote it I was like, “Damn! He just doesn’t need me anymore.”

Brad: That’s… not true.

Nathan: And he said he felt the same way when he heard “In The Basement” [off Moore’s 2011 album Dear Puppeteer ]. It was like, “Oh, he got it” though that’ll never be completely true. But when we were younger, there were more specific reasons why we were together. There were certain things we took from each other—their playing crept into my music and these old lyrical sensibilities became part of their music. We just had a lot to learn from each other. It’s some heavy shit right there.

Brad: That’s nice to hear. I guess I always felt like I took more from you than you were able to take from me.

Nathan: Are you kidding me? You knew how I played music before I met you. I took guitar lessons but just hanging out with [The Slip] changed the way I played, the way I heard music—the way my fingers moved. The effect is almost like doing a drug or something. I would soak it up like a sponge, and [Brad] would teach me specific things. But it was mostly the sponge thing that was so addictive. Like, “Oh my god, just being with them made me better.” [But to get back to your question], it’s still very true that we learn from each other.

Brad: That’s incredible. I thought that I was the only one using the sponge. I wouldn’t have written any of the music I write these days if I hadn’t met Nathan. Any of the songs where there’s a lyric that makes you go back and want to hear it again would never have happened if we had never met.

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