After over 10 years in the local rock band (and Best of Baltimore winner) Arbouretum, frontman Dave Heumann strikes out on his own with an accomplished solo album, debuting in October 16 via Thrill Jockey. In anticipation of its release, he talks with us about changing things up, keeping things honest, and that unique brand of Baltimore authenticity.
So after a decade of success with Arbouretum, what made you want to break out on your own?
Arbouretum has been the mainstay of what I’ve been doing for over 10 years. We started with this sort of loose thing where different people [were involved] and then it evolved into more of a crystalized thing, where it’s been the same four guys since 2009. At the end of 2013, we had been promoting our most recent record, Coming Out of the Fog and doing a lot of touring and everybody wanted to step back and take a break from the machine.
Write a record, record it, promote, tour.
People had other things [in their lives] besides being in the band. But I can’t just lay idle. I have to do something. I had these ideas that had been building up; I didn’t know if they quite fit the Arbouretum vibe, so I put them on the backburner. Most of the songs weren’t fully developed, but [with the band on hiatus] I decided to get to work on finishing them, flushing them out, getting together with some people and recording them, and that’s what we did last summer. Over the course of many months, I filled in the basics at home with guitars, synthesizers, and vocals.
Is that the typical process, even in the band dynamic?
How I like to work is: I get an idea of a melody in my head and I’ll pick up an acoustic guitar and try to figure out where it’s going. I’ll record that on a tape recorder, or in this case, my phone, and get a bunch of those saved up. I wait to see which ones get in my head while I’m cooking dinner or whatever. If there’s something that gets in my head a lot, I realize this song wants to be noticed. It wants to be something. It wants to make an appearance in the world. That’s when the harder work begins, saying, 'Well, what’s it going to be about? What kind of instrumentation does it suggest? What kind of arrangement is best suited for it, and how long or short do I want it to be?'
After so many years of working with a band, was it difficult to do all of that by yourself?
It’s kind of a mixed bag. I felt comfortable calling the shots because, from the outset, it was a 'Dave Heumann' project. It was like, 'Well I think this should go 12 times around before we change,' instead of it being open ended like, 'So how many times do you think we should do this before we change?' [But] if I make a mistake, that’s totally on me, because I don’t have a band to run something by.
The final product has to feel really good. Like an expurgation of sorts. Like, hell yeah, I did this.
I liked putting myself out there in the open—this project is named after me, like my actual name—so I don’t have anything to hide behind and nothing to really limit me. I don’t get the feeling that I’m creating a brand or anything. With a band, you kind of think, 'Oh yeah, that band.' Like Rush: they’re the guys with the drummer who plays all that crazy stuff and the singer who sounds like Idol, you know? I feel removed from that with this. Like I could do anything.
You can be your truest self or reinvent yourself any second.
I’ve kind of followed the 'What Would Neil Young Do?' approach, perhaps more than I should have—you know, like, he’s kind of rebranded himself so many different times in different ways over the years—but there’s solidity to that. You have to be honest with how you do things. If something feels like it’s a sham, don’t pursue it. If something feels like you’re forcing it, don’t pursue it. You just have to trust that your ideas are going to be the right ones. Like I am going to go with my gut on this, and it’s going to work out, and if it fails, at least it’s going to work out on another level, because it’s still honest.
Would you do it again?
Sure. We’ll have to see what happens. I want to do music stuff all the time. If its not a possibility to do something with Arbouretum for whatever reason, this allows me to go back and forth like, okay, I’m in Arbouretum mode now, or I’m in Dave Heumann solo mode now. I’ll do that if it makes sense—however it makes it possible to have a life as a working musician.
If you can, there’s no reason not to do both.
What I do like about Arbouretum is that we’re very singular. There’s no one else who really does that thing that we do, whatever it is. If you go see other bands, their show isn’t going to be what our show is. It’s not going to feel the same way. We’re not all virtuosic musicians, but the chemistry makes it work. There are just places I can go with this project that I can’t with Arbouretum. Like some of these songs if done as Arbouretum would weaken our credibility or dilute the potency of the band, but it’s totally fine to do it and call it 'Dave Heumann.' I don’t think we could’ve done a song like 'Ides of Summer' or 'Switchback.' They’re inherently more lighthearted. As an Arbouretum song, it’d be like, 'Oh, these guys are going soft.'
'Soft' is a word that comes to mind with these songs but not in a negative way. More so in that they just have a certain warmth to them.
The emotional range is different, lyrically and vocally, but for the most part, the melodies come from the same head. It’s the same kind of tempos I like working with. In Arbouretum, I’m more inclined to leave myself as a person out of it, but with this, it can be more like a diary entry. Which is not to say that all the songs are personal, because they’re not.
You also have some intermittent instrumentals, which you did on two Arboretum albums.
'Morning Remnants' is just something I woke up with in my head one day. 'Leaves Underfoot' was something Walker [Teret, Arbouretum band mate, also of Celebration and Lower Dens] and I did while sitting around recording some folk songs. We decided to jam a little bit, we recorded it, and then when I was starting to put this record together, I thought this has a really cool vibe. It was an unconventional choice.
In terms of Arbouretum, you guys came out of a hiatus at this summer’s Scapescape music festival in Station North.
It was the first time we’d played together live since our last tour in December 2013. We went from then till October 2014 without playing together at all, and then we started showing up at band practice again. Since then, we’ve been working on new songs.
That was obviously going to be my next question.
Yeah, we’ve been back together, writing and playing for nearly a year, and its slowly moving along. We have a bunch of songs now in various stages. We actually got a dry-erase board to start charting their progress on the various burners of this stove we’re working on. It feels great. I love playing with the guys in Arbouretum. We worked hard on getting that [Scapescape] show together and it worked out better than anyone probably would’ve expected it to. We all brought our A-game to that performance.
And you’re playing Bombadillo, too, at Druid Hill Park on September 26.
Yeah, I’m excited about it. We get to play with some great people. We’re going to be playing new songs, and different ones from the back catalogue, too.
What’s it like attending these big, mixed, Baltimore shows like Scapescape and Bombadillo after being in the local music scene all these years?
I started playing shows here a long time ago, before Baltimore ever really got on the map in any kind of national sense, and it’s gone through lots of changes—different scenes coming in and out, musicians moving into town, some staying, and some moving away—and throughout all of it, there’s been some excellent music being made. It’s a great place if you’re going to be in an American city making music. We have a lot going on.
It seems like now more than ever different music scenes are melding together around the city.
There isn’t anything central, genre-wise, that really ties us together, but there is this thing of like: people who go to shows in Baltimore want to see you experimenting. They want to see people being creative. The last thing you want to do is sound like someone else. No one will come see you perform if they’re like, 'Oh, they’re pretty good, but they sound a bit like Radiohead.' No one wants to see that shit in Baltimore.
There’s definitely a desire for authenticity.
Exactly—authenticity. People want that. There’s this enthusiasm—this spirit of free expression and being unabashedly yourself in your pursuit of it. That’s the driving force here, which, in the 20 years or more that I’ve been playing shows and going to shows in Baltimore, hasn’t changed at all.