Daniel Higgs was the singer of Lungfish, a band from Baltimore with an easily distinguishable and reformatory sound, and one of the most important acts on Dischord Records from the late 80s till the mid 2000s. I own a Hungarian fanzine from the 90s in which Daniel claims to love one of our most exciting and unique bands, Úzgin Űver. So when the opportunity found me to host Mr. Higgs and organize a solo concert for him in Szeged, I felt it would be a once in a lifetime situation to introduce them to each other. Well, almost all of them. Two members of the aforementioned band came to meet Daniel and play before him in Grand Café, a lovely place for film and music admirers.
After Daniel’s memorable, fantastic performance on banjo and voice the three joined forces to jam for about 10 minutes – banjo, various wind instruments and drums. There you go, a dream come true! At least for me. Being a promoter of shows, these are exactly the moments it’s worth doing the whole thing: to make it possible for the most talented artists – musicians – to meet and to witness the birth of music coming from different cultures, and in all cases, from somewhere inside. Fortunately, the cooperation was captured on tape and made available for everyone – watch and hear the video below the following interview.
This recorded conversation – in which we came round different and interesting subjects, I hope – took place in my dining room the next day (05-24-2011) while sipping some coffee and having a lemon cake. I simply felt the need to talk to this charismatic visionary, a theoretician behind music, Daniel Higgs. Enjoy!
endhits: Nice to have you in Szeged, it’s your first time in Hungary. How’s that you’ve never been to Hungary before?
Daniel Higgs: I don’t know. I tried to come a few years ago. A man I know in Budapest – I knew him from San Francisco – tried to get me a concert there, which he did, but I wasn’t able to make it. Because I’d run out of money elsewhere, I couldn’t make the trip. But I don’t know why never before, but I’m glad that I have been here now.
endhits: How about Lungfish, why didn’t you have shows over here?
D.H.: We didn’t know how to get here. The furthest we came East was Poznań in 1993 in Poland. And that’s just as far as we went. And then after that we didn’t tour that much, especially in Europe, we didn’t come back to Europe for 13 years.
endhits: Really? Why not?
D.H.: There is no specific reason. We wished to come back, but we didn’t really know how to do it exactly. We had no direct invitations at the time. So without invitation it’s difficult to know how to begin, you know. And we were a somewhat disorganized group, I mean we’ve played all the time, but for us to come to Europe was major. It seems less major now, but back then, it was really a big deal to get everybody together, make sure they had their valid passport, and then the air fair and all that. So I don’t know why we never did, but…yeah, we never did.
endhits: So I was thinking maybe we could revise a little bit of history, because you have a nice history behind you and then we can move on to present times. So you mentioned yesterday that you started playing music when you were 28?
D.H.. That’s when I started playing strings. I started singing in bands when I was 17 years old. I started with Lungfish when I was 22. So still early in my musical life. But I was in a few different bands when I was a teenager – nothing that you would’ve heard of, I don’t think. That’s how I began, and then Lungfish was the first, I would guess, as really a serious band I was in.
endhits: What was your musical background and taste back then? Was it the punk scene that you rose from?
D.H.: I was into that to a degree, and the first band I really got into, when I was around 11 years old, was The Beatles. I enjoyed other bands before that, but that’s the first band where I felt like the records held a mystery that required me to listen over and over again and always enjoyed listening to the records, but the lyrics especially were really challenging for me; and I was writing songs at that age, and my mother listened to the Beatles with me, so we had many discussions about the lyrics and that led to conversations about pretty much every subject. So then, when I was later teenager, I got into some of the punk rock, I think the band that really grabbed me next was Devo. I was very into Devo for a year or two, which is a long time when you are teenager. And then after Devo the next band that really grabbed me was Black Flag. The first record I heard was Jealous Again with Chavo (Ron Reyes) singing. But I’ve never saw them with Chavo, I only saw them with Henry Rollins. Because they only came to the East Coast once without Henry, that was with Dez (Dez Cadena) singing, which I heard was an incredible concert but I didn’t know about it at the time. And then in our early bands, no one in the bands I’ve played with was an accomplished enough player to really be a mimic of the music we enjoyed, which was a strength and a weakness. And as the band started playing faster and faster – I remember we wished to play faster to keep up with the current tempo but we actually couldn’t do it – we could not play that way, even though we wished to, so in the end, technically we were not able, not as a band. I’m sure we could’ve figured it out but instead we just made our own sort of songs with our own natural tempo and our music was not radical. Now it doesn’t sound so radically different maybe, but at the time it was a little… we were kind of different sounding than the other groups. One band in particular I was in was called Reptile House. We played a lot of shows and so it wasn’t an artistic statement – it became an artistic statement but it wasn’t conceived of that way which is because we were very limited and all we could make was our own songs that sounded peculiarly like ourselves; and then the same thing happened with Lungfish. At the beginning of Lungfish we sorted out some of the influences that were… you could hear in the music… it’s in some of the earlier recordings, but after maybe a year or two we really found our own way. And then stuck with that and let it develop all the way to the end.
endhits: And it really was kind of a unique sound…
D.H.: Yeah, we didn’t sound exactly like the groups on Dischord Records – the recording sound, sonically, is sort of the same because we recorded in the same studios as most of those bands, but you know, the songs, the structures and melodies and everything, and the lyrical content is very different than most of the groups. Although there were a lot of bands on that label, it’s a pretty varied label actually, on the surface it all seems similar, but you don’t have to go very deep to see that many different ideas are happening there.
endhits: You put all your albums out on Dischord.
D.H.: Yes, all the Lungfish records came out on Dischord. The first one was a split release with Simple Machines on another label but it was still Dischord also.
endhits: For us, Eastern Europeans, it’s so exciting to hear about the Dischord scene. So please, tell me a few words about this whole thing, about the world of Dischord Records. How did you get into it and how did you get to know Ian MacKaye?
D.H.: I first got into it… When they were still teenagers they started a label. They were 19 years old, Ian and Jeff Nelson, and Baltimore is 40 miles from DC so they started putting out 7 inch records and a few of them made their way up to some of the record shops in Baltimore and… I forgot if I got The Teen Idles one first or the Minor Threat one first, I don’t remember, but I think The Teen Idles was the first one… but I got one of them or both and I was just astounded that these bands from the next city had even figured out how to make a record. That to me seemed impossible, I didn’t know how they did that. And I knew they were roughly my age and I heard Minor Threat, I saw them many times live, I was just blown away by the existence of the record itself because that never had occurred to us to make your own record. It never occurred to us that it was even possible. So that’s how I was introduced to them. Reptile House did a 7 inch record with Dischord, a split we had on our own label. That’s the only record we’ve ever made, a split with Dischord and Ian recorded it with Don Zientera – that’s how I met Ian. And then when Lungfish started and after we were together a few years, I was living in San Francisco at the time so I don’t really know how… I wasn’t there for the conversation that wound up with Lungfish being on the label. We were the only group that’s often said that wasn’t from Washington DC or the suburbs on the label. There isn’t a real reason why, except that it’s Ian’s label and if he wants to break his own rule, he certainly can do that. But the community in DC felt kinship with us and we felt it with them so it didn’t seem that strange to be on that label.
endhits: And then you put out 11 albums on Dischord with Lungfish.
D.H.: Yeah, I think 11.
endhits: Was there an evolution in sound, the concept and everything from album to album?
D.H.: Yeah, I think it became more and more focused all the way to the end. I think the last Lungfish record (Feral Hymns, 2005) is the best example of what we were always trying to do. I don’t know if it’s the best album, but I think it is the most precise Lungfish album of the whole bunch.
endhits: Is that the reason why you finished the band? That you achieved your goal with Lungfish?
D.H.: Not just the reason, but it feels nice if that’s the case to me. I’m very happy with the final record and if that is the last Lungfish record, I think it’s a very good final summation of what we were trying to do.
endhits: Are there any chances of getting back together maybe?
D.H.: That’s certainly possible – but highly unlikely.
endhits: But you told me about a project with Asa Osborne.
D.H.: Yeah, The Pupils. We might do that again. That seems possible and highly likely. But it hasn’t happened yet, so who knows. But I think that will happen, maybe next year, I don’t know. We talked about it, we’ve played a little bit together.
endhits: How did it feel to play together again outside Lungfish?
D.H.: With Asa? I’m used to it. We spend a lot of time together anyway, we listen to records together, play together sometimes, we always share music we are making separately, we always hear each other’s music as it’s happening, so we were very close musically and in every way.
endhits: What do you think of the new Zomes album (Earth Grid, 2011)?
D.H.: I’ve only heard it once, but I enjoyed it very much and I’ve heard him play a lot of these songs live a lot. I did a 3-week tour with him in the US just a couple of month ago so I need to spend more time with the record but I know the material. I’m into it.
endhits: And how does it sound live?
D.H.: The Zomes? I think it’s great live.
endhits: Is he alone?
D.H.: He’s alone. He had a trio a couple of years ago but now he is just doing it alone. I think it’s great live and because it’s live to me anyway it becomes clear that it’s very good dance music. It’s not good for rap, it’s dancing. But it’s good for relaxed dancing and you can, of course, dance to the records but live… if you have the music it’s actually hitting your body in a larger way ’cause the music coming out of the speakers – it doesn’t even have to be a really good speaker – is just somehow smaller even if it’s louder, the waves are smaller, I don’t know. It feels good live.
endhits: You have played together in the Czech Republic recently.
D.H.: Yes, we did one show together in Prague.
endhits: And was there any cooperation between the two of you?
D.H.: Not during the performance, no.
endhits: And now you’re doing solo shows. How long have you been doing this?
D.H.: About 8 years now.
endhits: And you have also put out albums.
D.H.: Yeah, more than I should probably. (laughs) Well, I get a little hasty just to get it out. I keep getting another one out.
endhits: But they are all different: there are improvisations for banjo, then there are more vocals-oriented albums, the last album was Say God, which is mostly voice. Are you reciting poems on it?
D.H.: Yeah, they are poems that I’m singing. That’s all I’ve ever been doing anyway and that’s what Lungfish is basically.
endhits: So you do sing poems.
D.H.: Yeah, but the difference is that I write poems and some I know I consider that I will sing them, others I don’t worry about how they may be recited in a song. I’m not concerned with the rhythm and my lyrics and poems that I sing are more often with rhyme. The rhyme, of course, helps you remember the words. It’s a mnemonic device and it sounds nice. The lyrics and the poems are not very different, because sometimes a tension has been given to making it easier to sing. So the shape of the words and the rhythm and the rhyming. The poems that remain silent just on the page are even more free.
endhits: How would you define your poetry?
D.H.: I would define it as a devotional poetry. If I have to call it something that’s what I would call it. There are poems and prays and thanksgiving to the mystery that is immediately alone being in the reality – when you stop to think about it, it’s pretty bizarre. What you or I are and where we are in this dimension etc. So, and even the older poems, I think, are the same but they were less. My older writing was more confused, my newer writing is less confused but it may be more confusing. But for me it’s clearer. I think people hear that it is clearer, but intellectually it’s not clear necessarily. But before, I didn’t know what I was writing. I was clawing at it through the words, trying to get to the words.
endhits: And are these poems put down in writing and released in form of books?
D.H.: Not much, a few. I have some books, I’m working on one now, but most of the poems that I have, have been shared through music on records. I do have one book I’m working on right now.
endhits: And how about an album?
D.H.: I have an album (Beyond & Between, 2011). I’ve recorded one in Spain.
endhits: Have you already made a new one?
D.H.: I just did on this trip, so that will be out sometime this year I hope, maybe in the fall. (It was released on the 12th December, 2011 – endhits). And it’s on the label, from Barcelona La Castanya Records.
endhits: What is the music like?
D.H.: Well, it’s myself with the banjo and the voice but I was accompanied by a percussionist named Marc Clos, who is a classically trained percussionist. He played timpani and marimba, vibraphone, and a lot of frame drums – kind of Moroccan frame drums. He’s an incredible player. It was a simple record but it was really nice rhythmic complement. I haven’t heard it since we made it, but I think it’s good.
endhits: How will we be able to get it?
D.H.: Well, from La Castanya I guess, I know they will try to distribute it in Europe. It would be a small pressing, like most pressings are these days, I’m not really sure, hopefully if I come back next spring I’ll have some with me. (Update: “La Castanya is releasing Beyond & Between worldwide on LP+MP3 and Digital. From January 2012 Dischord Records will distribute the LP in the USA, and a number of different distributors will deliver the record around Europe.”)
endhits: Yes, that would be nice! You don’t have merchandise, though.
D.H.: I just never got it together, even in Lungfish we were really bad at it. I guess we didn’t have our priority straight…or we did have…
endhits: Have you ever had T-shirts with Lungfish?
D.H.: No. We did a T-shirt in Japan. We went to Japan and we thought we didn’t want to do a T-shirt – but, to me, it felt they couldn’t accept that. So they actually made a shirt for us in Japan. But we haven’t made too many of those. We liked the idea… When we were younger we made our own T-shirts and maybe they looked stupid or something, but we always wanted to encourage that rather than all this… You know the merchandise is just a product that is created simply to sell, especially T-shirts and stuff. The record is different.
endhits: But a T-shirt can also be promoting something good. I mean, you can promote a band that you really like.
D.H.: That’s true, spreading awareness. That’s a very good point. If you wanted to do t-shirts purely just to spread awareness, it would be a lot cheaper. With us, it was more a matter of laziness, but we would play and we would give everything we had to our set, and you know we just didn’t feel like having sit at the table and sell stuff, even if it would have helped certainly, financially… but you never know. But I’m into making books and records.
endhits: Do you like to record music?
D.H.: Yeah, I like it. It’s a struggle, I prefer live way more. It’s a struggle because you’re capturing one version of the song out of many thousands of time you’ve played it and then you have to accept that it will be at least heard as the definitive version, it’s very difficult to know when you have captured that version. So yeah, it’s difficult. But I do enjoy the process at this point and I’m more relaxed with it.
endhits: Do you record easily nowadays? You said earlier that you recorded a whole new record now in Barcelona. Is it as easy as that?
D.H.: Yeah, it happened in 3 days, it was pretty easy. I record a lot on my own just with a cassette recorder and every now and then I go into a studio. I like to record with a cassette recorder, it’s a small hand-help that I just never get tired of the magic of it – you can see the real. It’s still a mystery. I had it explained to me how a magnetic tape works and I do not grasp it; I grasp the language, I understand what they’re telling me how it works – the negative-positive charge on the tape – but what I still don’t get is how the sound I make is captured. Somehow it’s impressed on the tape and then we revergitate it and I hear at least a very close approximation of the sound I made, it comes back out. To me, it’s very high magic, but that’s true for most of the modern appliances, they are pretty incredible, especially the electrical stuff which most of it is, whether it’s stored in a battery or coming out of the wall… You know the scientists don’t even know what electricity is yet, they still don’t know. I mean, we have a name for it and we have applications we can control it – but what is it? Nobody knows. They call it energy but that’s a blanket term. The energy is not really a clear description. We’re surrounded by it, by deep mystery. I think it’s exciting.
endhits: And what do you think the future of recordings are? The world is changing so rapidly and recorded music has changed so much…
D.H.: I met a man who said that the wireless connection, for instance, to the internet… which is sort of this, you know, what is it… it’s the ever growing library of humanity, the internet, which allows anyone at anytime to intercept with any other node, it’s incredible. But we need to use devices to tap into it – that’s the portal, we need a door to enter the internet, whether it’s a computer, a smart phone or whatever… But he said that there is an endless free energy supply all around us. We’re made of it, it’s in the air, it’s in the ground. Nikola Tesla was investigating this and Wilhelm Reich from a different angle. They say Tesla was on the verge of being able to extract this ever-present energy so that people could use it. And there is no way to meter it – so the big money people weren’t really interested in it because once it’s available it will be free, and endless supply. There is no business in it and maybe no harm for the environment, who knows, we haven’t tried it yet. But anyway, this man told me that any of the man who was involved in this sort of research, that they were very close to tapping into this energy field all around us. And when that happens your access to the internet will also be equally immediate, because… he didn’t tell me if there will be a technological implement… but he said in the near future – and he made it sound very close that if you wish to access the endless banks of knowledge, or the navigational system or for personal communication, you will merely just… you will will it and it will appear either in your mind or in your perceptual field. So, for instance, if I wish to speak with you but I’m in Baltimore and you are in Szeged – we could skype and look to each other on the screen – in this new way there will be no screen. So when you and I wish to have a conversation, we will have it exactly as we’re having it now, the only thing it may not be able to supply is the sense of smell. But they are working on force field type… resistance field technologies, they are actually… we’ll be in the screen. It’s kind a terrifying but I…
endhits: Are you terrified by the whole idea?
D.H.: No, I’m not terrified. I fear for the children because they’re the ones who are the most at risk to become mindless slave drones, just standing digital credits to stay alive in a totally boring pseudo imagination, but also maybe they’re the most at risks to benefit from it. I’m less afraid all the time. I think things are bizarre now… but they have always been bizarre. It’s just a new bizarre way. But I said to him: How will we know, at this point – again, say we contact one another, we enter into a merely artificial reality that is indistinguishable from authentic reality in almost every way and it will abolish space and, perhaps, abolish time – like maybe I want to talk to Abraham Lincoln after I talked to you… And I said to him: How will we know if we’re awake or if we’re dreaming? That was my first question and he said: Who cares. And that really made my head do some circles… So yes, it is an exciting time, for sure. But the future of recording, who knows. If his idea is somewhat close, I mean the future of recording will be that there is no future. I mean, we’ll be able to attend concerts that happened all through recorded age. Or the musicians may be able to link with the audience and record music into the audience’s mind so that they have a fixed record in their mind of the event. Like last night: you and I, we were both there, I played and you were in the audience; I don’t remember at all, I never remember at all, I have very distinct impressions. We are not recording it; of course, our memory faculty is getting some kind of a recording of it but it’s different than mechanical recording because you record impressions, feelings and things that you are not even aware of. Like the way the light felt while music was playing…
endhits: Do you remember that it was very hot?
D. H.: I remember it was very hot. I always sweat even if it is not that hot. So yeah, the future of recording is just as open as the future of our civilization. In our lifetime something we live, what they say, is the typical amount of years, so for me that’s maybe… if I make it that long, another forty years maybe, who knows, if they come over some panacea that I could live to be two hundred or you might be one of the first to live two hundred or your children might be… I read somewhere some biologist was saying that the human body is built – it’s engineered – to last for two hundred years on Earth. So we are falling very short of its potential. But still, I thought it is interesting that he said two hundred years as opposed to five hundred or a thousand… Because two hundred seems like a long life but it also doesn’t seem like insane, you can grasp it. But it’s still more than twice than a typical lifetime now in, whatever they call, modern world.
endhits: Do these things, we are speaking about, inspire you in your poetry, in your art? Do you write about these thoughts?
D.H.: Sort of – not directly. I maybe write about it indirectly. Writing is a communicative act, of course, you don’t always have a counterpart listening immediately. And I do write about communication, I do write about writing and I sing about singing and I play music about music. I’m witnessing and I’m part of them in our society but I don’t often write directly about them, they are too confusing for me to write about. I don’t have an opinion. It’s too immediate and it’s happening now. I wouldn’t know what to write about it. I like to talk about it though. And one of the very nice things about touring that it is not just a concert; I spend all day in the car with Libor (Daniel’s driver on his European tour – endhits), so that’s a relationship happening, and then we stop and get gas and I have instantaneous exchanges with people, with many of them we don’t share the same language but then at the concert I’d meet a lot of people before I play, in one state of mind, then I sing – of course, that’s an interaction – and than afterwards I’m in a different state of mind. I had a lovely conversation about the internet with two young men last night after the show. So, in a way, it’s part of it all but I rarely address directly in the songs themselves. I feel like the music is… no matter what else is going on socially or in our civilization, the music just sort of keeps on going: before the faros, before the Sumer, all through the dark ages we know nothing about, but you know, there was somebody playing one of these old whatever instruments they had back then. So that’s my cheap concern. The historical continuity of music is older than history and it maybe goes beyond the end of this history. And music is universal, every culture’s got it. And if they don’t, I think it is still somehow a musical choice to not make music. But I don’t really know of a music-less culture… but it may have existed.
endhits: What are your impressions about last night?
D.H.: Well, I loved the first group, Majorca07, as they call it, so I had a very nice experience listening to them. Well, I liked the café a lot, good light, nice view… I would have to say, one of my favorite shows of the tour. I felt very connected with the audience. I felt a quite, relaxed audience but I really felt their presence and I felt like I was understood and I enjoyed playing very much. It got a little out of control here and there, but it always does, that’s part of it.
endhits: That’s what makes it real…
D.H.: Yeah, I’m not the total master of my own music. So I thought it was a great event.
I’ve had 24 hours now in Hungary and I definitely wish to return. I want to go to some other cites, and return here. I have seen a lot of countryside from the highway. Are there mountains in Hungary?
endhits: Yes, there are, in the North.
D.H.: I don’t know why but mountains help… You know, flat land is just more difficult to engage with, no matter where you are. I mean it’s true in the US. I’m learning to do it, but the broken horizon is just more attractive, gives to the eye more to do.
endhits: What are your future plans?
D.H.: I go back to the US after finishing here. I have five more concerts. I’m not exactly sure, I have a show in Montreal, they just start up again in the US, I cross the country a couple of times a year by highway and I play some shows. Then I come back here in the fall. I would like to go to Asia, I would like to go to Africa… Africa seems like the furthest, the hardest one to accomplish. I would like to go and play and hear some music there. Go anywhere! I look forward to travel in the US – it’s not even about traveling itself, I don’t have a travel lust, I just want to go wherever people want to listen and be heard. I want to go and hear too, I would like to hear music from other places. So my plans are vague, but they’ll come together in due time.
endhits: One more thing that came to my mind is that last night you were jamming with two musicians from Úzgin Űver (who now played as Majorka07), the band that you’d known before. Is it the only Hungarian band that you know?
D.H.: Yeah, I may have heard maybe some Hungarian gipsy music.
endhits: How did you feel during the jamming?
D.H.: Oh, I enjoyed it! After hearing Gyula (Gyula Majoros) play before I played… I was just really… the way he plays… I don’t know how to describe it… I just get it. I think that he is just a really accomplished communicator with the instruments that he has chosen to play. So then when I was going to play with him… I don’t know him well, but I hold him in high regard. But I found it very easy to play with them and I enjoyed what we did. I mean, we’ve never played together having just met. I’d definitely like to play with them again. I think his playing and my playing are sort of an automatic fit and I’d like to sing more too, I think he is a great singer also. Yeah, that was a bonus. In the East, at least, I haven’t played with any other players. Even though it was only ten minutes, it was really nice. I’m really glad that it happened.
endhits: I wish it had a follow up!
D.H.: Time will tell certainly, but now it has begun, so it is certainly possible!
endhits: Thank you very much for playing in our town. I really hope that you will come back.
D.H.: I plan to. Anywhere near, it is part of the plan, for sure!
photos by vader & mono foto