David Karsten Daniels, a singer-songwriter who called Chapel Hill home until early last year, woke up at 4 this morning in the small Southern Oregon town of Ashland, where he's lived since August. He boarded a plane and 11 hours later, arrived in Birmingham, Ala., where the other half of the band that takes his name now lives. Tonight, the duo will play its first show in months and make a fast break for tomorrow's gig in Chicago, 661 miles due north.
"David Crawford is my friend from third grade, and we grew up together in Montgomery, Ala.," says Daniels of his new drummer. "We used to go chase around in storm drains, lay down in the street and play chicken with the cars. It's going to be a fun little trip with him."
Daniels has earned his reputation for playing with old friends this decade: In 2002, Daniels drove across the country with Alex Lazara, a keyboardist who joined his high school band at Southern Methodist University, together heading west from Los Angeles. In Durham, they joined Daniel Hart, another SMU bandmate, and started a new act, a cerebral and textural indie rock act called Go Machine. Hart had met an aspiring songwriter and Duke graduate student, Perry Wright, the day he arrived in Durham six months prior. With Wright, Go Machine formed a collective called Bu Hanan Records, releasing about a dozen records over the next six years. But last year, Bu Hanan's principals scattered across the country, leaving the legacy of a burst of productivity and success that influenced Triangle bands like Annuals, Megafaun and The Old Ceremony and musicians who departed as friends to find new ways to work and live. That's what's so redemptive about Bu Hanan's slow rise and sudden collapse. When it was time to move on, they did.
"For any way you could narrate the story as a sad group of musicians finding themselves distant from one another, it's not the case that it was not all for the best reasons. David's personal happiness, my own personal happiness, they've all been great reasons for our musical relationship to have shifted," says Wright. "I would like to find ways for us to continue to work together, but mainly I'm happy they've found their thing."
After all, they'd been through transitions before. Go Machine called it quits in 2004, but its members regrouped with their own projects. They moved into an old two-story farmhouse with Wright on the edge of Chapel Hill, critiquing, editing and playing on one another's records.
Soon, the bands started receiving national attention: Wright's debut as The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers received glowing reviews, and the band toured the country with The Mountain Goats twice. Daniels signed with Fat Cat Records, the British label responsible for early releases from Sigur Rós and Animal Collective. Momentum was building.
"There's this series of dominos that are all facing each other, and if you can get one of them to fall, the other ones will fall with greater ease," Wright told the Independent in 2007 for a cover story about the collective on the eve of Daniels' first album on Fat Cat, Sharp Teeth. "I think they're falling."
Instead, it was Bu Hanan that was falling apart. Writer's block crippled Wright as he tried to pen Prayers and Tears' follow-up. Hart began touring as a multi-instrumentalist with bands like The Polyphonic Spree, and he was rarely at home to collaborate. Daniels, who'd made Sharp Teeth with everyone's advice and two-dozen collaborators, began working on its follow-up in isolation. Bu Hanan's once-close collaborators became mere artistic acquaintances, old friends growing apart.
And then they started moving. After finishing last year's Fear of Flying, Daniels headed to the Pacific Northwest and married the ex-girlfriend who had been, at times, the torturous topic of his earlier albums. Lazara had grown weary of the Bu Hanan homestead's atmosphere and collegial clutter, and he started living with his girlfriend in Carrboro as they prepared for a move to Minneapolis. The farmhouse was traded for a smaller ranch house about a mile away, and—when Hart was on tour—Wright lived surrounded only by the collective's scattered coterie of gear, reminders of expired hopes.
"It was an exhausting year, the year before I left. We weren't doing a whole lot that was new," says Lazara from Minneapolis of his relationship with the collective and, specifically, his bandmate Wright. "We weren't touring and weren't playing a whole lot, and there weren't new songs to be recording. We tried writing together, and that was a disaster."
Wright felt the same pressure, but he contributed to Daniels' Fear of Flying, offering editing advice and overall enthusiasm for an album he said he liked better than Sharp Teeth. He was the only other Bu Hanan member to work on Flying. Hart was on the road constantly, and Lazara just didn't seem inspired by it.
"I would have liked for Alex to have been more involved, but there have been times in the past when I've seen him work on music that his heart's not really into at the time," says Daniels. "It seemed like he wasn't as excited about [music] as in earlier years. I didn't want to get him to do anything he wasn't into."
Now, though, without the pressure of living with his bandmates, Lazara seems renewed about the recording process, and the momentum is gathering again. Before Lazara left for Minneapolis, he and Wright hit the recording stride for which they'd been searching for three years. In the dim little wood-paneled house about a mile from the farmhouse they all shared, Wright and Lazara completed the basic tracks—vocals, guitars, bass, drums and some keyboards—for the follow-up. The two crammed as much collaboration as they could into Lazara's last week in North Carolina. In July, Lazara took the sessions and his recording rig to Minneapolis, and he's finally ready to finish the record. He's looking for strings and a small choir to add flourishes to work he says he already likes. And, when the time comes, he says he hopes to tour with Wright again.
"In general, the guys were frustrated by my not being able to get stuff out, but I was very pleased that, before Alex left, we got together a few nights a week to work on music. I would have been upset if he had left and we had been distant," says Wright, who moved to Raleigh a few days after Lazara headed north and has funneled his momentum from those sessions last summer into another new batch of songs as he awaits the album's next step. "And out of an appreciation for the fact that Alex didn't get on my case when I couldn't write songs, I'm not getting on his case about when things are getting done."
Meanwhile, Hart, who plans to move to Los Angeles permanently later this year, released his second record as The Physics of Meaning last year on Chapel Hill's Trekky Records. When he's not on the road as a sideman playing someone else's music, he's leading Physics across the country in his minivan. Having been in Ashland for five months, Daniels says he's met very few musicians in the area, but he's been writing a lot of songs (primarily about his new pet rabbit, Bunners) and collaborating over the Internet with Richmond jazz band Fight the Big Bull.
"I'm really excited about, after Fear of Flying, doing a record that is more collaborative," says Daniels. "It reminds me of being in high school jazz band."
And, this time, the band won't have to share an old house together on the edge of town.
David Karsten Daniels plays Local 506 Saturday, Jan. 24, with Bright Young Things and The Prayers & Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers at 10 p.m. Tickets are $7.