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Walking Mix Tape

From Ramones collaborator to Jessica Simpson musical director—and back—Jed Davis’ discography reads like a Malcolm Gladwell case study

by Ali Hibbs on November 3, 2011

At first glance, the Wikipedia entry for “Jed Davis” looks like a defense for every high school history teacher who’s banned the class from citing the user-edited online reference. Jessica Simpson’s former touring keyboardist and musical director; co-author of a rock & roll musical with the Ramones’ creative director, Arturo Vega; progenitor of the electroclash movement; recorded a solo album with legendary producer Steve Albini; toured with David Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels as his sideman; was the subject of a tribute album featuring performances of his work by Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis and members of Agnostic Front. Right . . .

Photo by Joe Putrock

But then a package arrived at the Metroland offices sometime last year from Davis’ personal label, Eschatone Records, that triggered a suspension of disbelief rivaling the most histrionic Broadway song and dance number. Inside a small cardboard tube with a sepia-toned label was a wax cylinder. Only the most wise and aged among us knew what this contraption might actually do, but old as our desktop computing modules were, none sported an Edison phonograph port. Luckily, Davis’ web presence preceded him, and some of the links on his dubious Wikipedia page actually worked.

“Behold the bitter exodus from down beneath the bridge/As the yuppies and the hipsters quit their lofts and move away.” So began the ragtime tune on the cylinder, streaming conveniently in digital form. “Yuppie Exodus From Dumbo” was more than a cute homage to the New York City cultural milieu Davis had spent the past decade navigating in service to one of the Internet’s most unlikely discographies. It was also a parting glance that heralded Davis’ return to Albany after having attended SUNY Albany in the mid ’90s. Taking a job with the school’s Auxillary Services department (which he’s since left), he arrived with a handful of unfinished musical projects that no longer required the New York City Rolodex but still featured a Surreal Life cast of rock luminaries. When his Steve Albini-produced solo record Shoot the Piano Player came out this summer—on 8-track—the time had finally come to sit down and see if this wasn’t all some kind of joke.

“That’s how I feel when I look at it,” says Davis, smiling from under the brim of a ragged baseball hat. There’s almost nothing traditionally rock-star about the accomplished keyboardist and prolific songwriter. His eyes get wide when he starts to talk about his musical heroes, between whom his own story is closely interlaced, and he giggles self-consciously when the narrative gets too convoluted.

It all began in an Au Bon Pain on the ground floor of Crane Communications in Manhattan, where Davis had taken a job copywriting fresh out of school in 1997. On his first day, he saw Spike Lee eating lunch. The plucky young musician waltzed over, chatted the director up, hit it off, exchanged contact info, sent a demo to his people, got signed—right? Not exactly.

“That story is not even, like, a real anecdote,” Davis admits sheepishly. “I just happened to see Spike Lee eating some food. I didn’t even interact with him. I’d never seen a successful creative person before.” It’s not so much a story as an illustration of the kind of happenstance that would come to punctuate Davis’ subsequent years. “If you’re around in New York City long enough, all kinds of weird shit happens.”

Around this time, Davis had just dissolved his college band the Hanslick Rebellion after a performance at LarkFest. In-fighting had rendered the group a textbook rock & roll casualty, so to avoid that volatile dynamic, Davis formed Collider, a guitar-keyboard duo supplemented by a drum machine. “We tried to have electronic drummers but couldn’t find anybody who could afford electronic drums at the time,” he says. Billing themselves as “electropunk,” Collider were something of a novelty in a scene dominated by post-grunge third-wave punk bands like Degeneration and Kitty and the Kowalskis. Perhaps incidentally, a number of bands (including A.R.E. Weapons and Fisherspooner) picked up the formula, and in the annals of Wikipedia, Collider has become recognized as pioneers of “electroclash.”

“I’m not exactly sure where that comes from,” Davis admits. “Some dude about 10 years ago called me out of the blue from some electroclash enthusiast website and basically declared that we had started the genre, and wanted to do a radio interview about it. I did it, but was really confused. He was asking me about bands I didn’t know anything about. I just kept saying, ‘I guess they’re pretty good.’”

Meanwhile, Davis had begun releasing solo material on a small label in Connecticut called J-Bird Records. With a generation of aging classic rockers looking to revive their careers in the late ’90s, tribute albums had become abundant, and J-Bird decided to invert the concept by recording a tribute to Davis’ relatively unknown work. Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, Brian Dewan, Anal Cunt and King Missile were all called upon to record for the topsy-turvy project. “Some of it made sense. Some of it made no sense,” Davis says. “I was happy when it happened but it slowly turned into a crazy nightmare.” The label sank under the weight of a Billy Squier record and never got to properly promote Everybody Wants to Be Like Jed, leaving Davis with a tribute album to himself and no one else to vouch that it wasn’t his idea.

The booker at Coney Island High, a club in the East Village, took a shine to Collider and started booking the band to any free hole in the schedule, partially for their unique sound but likely for their no-frills stage setup. The band were asked to play the Cyber Punk Blitz in the fall of ’99, which was thrown by the Ramones’ creative director Arturo Vega to celebrate the launch of the band’s official website, a project Joey Ramone had embarked upon while he was dying of cancer. Working with a band who never really had hits or drew very well, Vega “pretty much invented the concept of sustaining a band that doesn’t sell records with merch,” according to Davis. Collider caught Vega’s attention, as they were the only band on the bill with keyboards, and Davis became fast friends with Vega, eventually moving into his loft from 2001 to 2005. Davis gave Vega the stuff he’d recorded with J-Bird, and one day Vega called back with the verdict.

Davis squints his eyes to remember the exact words: “‘For rock & roll, it’s 1985, but for Broadway, it’s 2005. We’re going to write a musical.’ I was, like, fuck that. I hate musicals! But he said, ‘If you will not work with me on this, I will take your songs and I will put them into a format for a musical and pay you for them.’ I finally agreed to work with him.”

Having been bullied into writing a rock musical with the guy who designed the Ramones’ T-shirt, Davis spent the following decade at work on Rise and Shine. When asked what it’s “about,” Davis takes a deep breath. When pitching a production—as the duo did repeatedly to investors—it’s best to summarize the concept in a single sentence. He needed all the wind he could muster:

“It’s about a club in New York City where two friends from college, eccentric artists who had a falling out, reunite five years later, and a girl from the past shows up and fucks all their shit up and sends them spiraling into this weird conflict. It’s also about all the other people who hang out and party at the club. Then it became a commentary on how things have changed since September 11, which was just a tacked-on thing that sucked.”

The project has been placed on indefinite hiatus, but Davis’ relationship with the Ramones has remained strong. After Joey Ramone’s death, Davis penned a tribute titled “The Bowery Electric” that remaining members recorded for a European release.

Collider had been recording with Tommy Ramone at a studio in lower Manhattan in 2002 on days opposite the Berman Brothers, the production duo responsible for the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” The duo needed a backing band for a group they were producing called the Deuce Project. “We did a lot of session work as a full band, completely derailing everything we were working on in our own band,” Davis says. “It was my music we were neglecting, but I couldn’t really say anything about it because everyone needed the money so bad.” Despite one chance encounter with the Deuce Project’s lead single at a Ruby Tuesday’s on Long Island, Davis says the group disappeared into Amazon.com soft-release purgatory.

Enter Jessica Simpson. Her production team—namely, her father—had begun branding her as a TV star and only booked her as a singer when it fit the storyline of her reality TV show. So, they decided to cut performance costs by firing all their hotshot LA session guys and hire some scrappy New Yorkers. Collider’s drummer (they’d become a proper rock band by now) got the call and brought Davis with him. Before long, Davis was made musical director for Simpson’s sporadic gigs, but things soured and Davis quit just before Simpson recorded a cover of “Take My Breath Away,” which caused her father to rebrand her as a singer and hire Stevie Wonder’s musical director in Davis’ old chair.

“I broke up Collider at that point too,” says Davis despondently. “It felt like it was as good as it was going to get but it sucked. When I had to make money off of music, it made music not fun. You end up doing very odd things and then your work kind of sucks.”

So, he focused on his day job in graphic design for ESPN The Magazine and started making music on his own terms. “Around 2007 I was amassing some songs and just started calling in favors,” he says. “The conceit of the record was that I wanted to be no more than one degree of separation from someone who was an idol of mine.” A lifelong KISS fan, Davis hired Anton Fig to play drums and rounded out the rhythm section with King Crimson bassist Tony Levin. Splitting time on guitar were Dweezil Zappa and Reeves Gabrels. Rebuilding his own career after quitting David Bowie’s band in 2000, Gabrels agreed to tour with Davis in support of the record I Am Jed Davis! The band got as far west as St. Paul, Minn., playing empty clubs on off nights before turning around. “It was depressing because I had this great guitar player with me and I saw him getting abused.”

The most valuable thing Davis had to show for his effort, in the end, might have been the van he purchased for the tour. The following summer, a publicist he knew from Sub Pop asked a favor: Would he loan his van to a young band called Avi Buffalo who were asked to tour with Vetiver but couldn’t get funds from the label to cover transportation? “I have this distrust of Millennials,” Davis admits, largely due to his time working at the university. “Their inability to engage freaks me out.” But the group of 18- and 19-year-olds surprised him with their energy and enthusiasm. “I didn’t think that generation could get that way. It was affirming and energizing. So I said, anytime, I’ll drive you because you’re helping me like things that I forgot how to like.”

After the tour, Davis was hired to play keyboards in Avi Buffalo, but there was a reciprocal exchange. Davis formed his own band, Sevendys, currently his primary gig, with Avi Buffalo’s Avi Zahner-Isenberg and Sheridan Riley and a dream team of bassist Chuck Rainey and percussionist Jerry Marotta. The group are working toward their first record, but in the meantime Davis busies himself attempting to finish a handful of other projects. Last year, he released The Cutting Room Floor, a record that started as a collaboration between the Hanslick Rebellion and Television’s Richard Lloyd yet turned into a Jed Davis solo record—produced by Dave Friddman of Flaming Lips fame. Two additional albums featuring the Fig-Levin-Zappa band await release—one slated for next July. And then there’s Shoot the Piano Player, the Steve Albini-produced 8-track of Davis tunes—mostly piano, drums and Davis’ wry lyrics—that came out this summer. Picturing Albini at the mixing board while listening to the record’s “Piece of Crap” or “We’re Both Wrong but You’re Also a Dick” is as surreal as any other part of the Davis story.

Having settled back in Albany, Davis is eager to recalibrate his work to the Capital Region scene. He gushes about the potential the area has to foster and attract the kind of artistic community that drives people—like himself—to places like Brooklyn and Austin. The chaos of his biography certainly lends the sentiment some weight. If there’s a lesson somewhere in the convoluted story that begins and now continues in the 518, it’s that there’s no quick path to becoming Spike Lee—even in New York City. In the end, as Davis says, it’s all about the quality of your work and surrounding yourself with the people that make it better. Sometimes that can be awfully mundane. “I feel kind of pathetic right now because I don’t do anything but music,” he says. “I want to be a normal person and, like, find a girlfriend or something.”