It’s Monday evening (happy hour, actually) in a booth at Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown. And Bennett Daniels, the creative force behind Neighborhood Choir, just admitted that he’s never been interviewed before. However, he’s cool, collected and much more comfortable than would be expected.
All of Neighborhood Choir’s gently rippling lo-fi pop tunes are written by Daniels, at home, layer by layer. What makes them sonically intriguing comes from the reel-to-reel tape machine they’re recorded on: a Tascam 388.
“I like using it because it’s modest,” says Daniels. “What you play is what people hear. Can’t change notes like Pro Tools. And the fidelity is really strange. You only get eight tracks because it uses quarter-inch tape so sometimes things bleed together. But that makes it kind of fun, to see how things will turn out.”
But how Daniels got the Tascam 388 is a better story than how it works.
He took a cross-country road trip to Portland, Oregon, where they answered a Craigslist ad in Seattle for it, in the summer of 2009 with his then Neighborhood Choir bandmates, Parker Cipolle, Daniel Bickart and Paul Sukeena. They lived in Portland for the whole summer, surviving on menial house painting jobs and finagling different housing situations.
“Originally we kind of wanted it to be a tour,” Daniels says, pausing a moment, distracted by something happening out the window on Frankford Avenue. “But we only played in Chicago and maybe once or twice while we were in Portland the whole summer.”
While trekking through Utah in the middle of the desert on a highway that went on straight as far as Daniels could see, they almost got into some serious trouble that could have kept them from getting to Portland at all.
“We were doing about 90 miles per hour and smoking a doob,” says Daniels, “when suddenly there was a cop car coming at us on the opposite side of the road. Suddenly he parked across the road to block us and we had to slam on the breaks and we started freaking out. When the cop came to talk to us he basically had us busted and was about to call for back-up to search the car. And suddenly hail started pelting down and the cop just told us to be careful and get out of there. It was like God said, ‘no, you’re not going to jail today.’”
Daniels may have gotten away by a stroke of luck that time. But he didn’t have the best of luck returning to Philadelphia. He holed up in a warehouse, what’s now known as DIY-space Hong Kong Garden. He was roughing it, heating the whole place by burning scrap wood in a stove from an industrial pallett manufacturer down the street. And occasionally the pallett manufacturer wasn’t reliable.
“One time it was about January or February and they didn’t put any out,” he says. “It got so cold I actually considered hacking up my upright bass and old acoustic guitar to burn for some heat just for the night. I’m really glad I didn’t do that”
Daniels’ ability to write thoughtful pop songs that flow lazily out of your headphones (the best way to listen to his music) isn’t by chance. He’d studied jazz bass performance at Temple’s music school, but dropped out. That explains some of his recordings’ juicy bass licks on tracks such as “Easier.”
“St. Raymond of the Dogs,” a song that glows dimly, was written a long time ago but recorded fairly recently. It came from a time that he was living alone, hot off of a break-up, depressed and drinking too much, he says. Check the pensive lyrics:
“I dug a hole deeper than the eye could see / And buried everything I thought that I would ever need / Because worrying about tomorrow ain’t all it used to be / It’s everything.”
“But the song’s essentially about recovering from being in that awful feeling,” he says. Notice the next verse:
“I climbed a tree higher than the eyes could see / And lived as a leaf floating in the green leaf sea / The seasons changed and I felt too old to be / Part of anything.”
Daniels isn’t shy to admit the rest of Neighborhood Choir’s songs are about girls, “because you can’t kill them.”
The live Neighborhood Choir setting is considerably different than what’s heard on Daniels’ Bandcamp page. He’s joined Paul Sukeena of Spacin’ and Andy Molholt of Laser Background (whom Daniels also plays in) on guitar and drummer Steve Urgo. Right now Daniels is amid recording the first Neighborhood Choir LP. He says it’ll be layed down similarly with him doing all of the writing and recording. But Urgo will likely be doing some of the drum tracks rather than using the Tascam 388’s drum machine. So keep your ears peeled because when it’s ready, Daniels has some plans to catch everyone off guard with it.
“I should be done with it all around September and then shop it around to press it to vinyl,” he says. “But I’m not going to share it with anyone until it’s ready and just drop it on everyone all at once.”
Neighborhood Choir performs with Mac DeMarco tonight at 7 p.m. at Kung Fu Necktie, 1250 North Front Street. Tickets and information on the show can be found at the venue’s website.