Daniel Bachman faces a conundrum: The guitarist cherishes the harmonious music that built the bedrock of his career, but he’s ready to explore new boundaries.
Much of Bachman’s lush tunes are winding, meditative instrumentals of naturalistic observations emoted almost entirely through his acoustic guitar. But lately, he’s reacting to the anxieties of the world less by way of guitar playing and more through discordant drones and custom-made instruments.
His deep reverence for Takoma Park guitar legend John Fahey and Virginia guitar virtuoso Jack Rose, among other rootsy, Americana musicians of the early 20th century, is foundational to Bachman’s core as a musician and has won him attention as a torchbearer of this tradition. But he doesn’t want to be stuck applying new coats of paint to the past.
“Even my friends that work in archival stuff — playing old tunes and interpretations of tunes — it’s always about pushing it forward,” Bachman says. “It’s all about having your own voice. You don’t want to get stuck playing dress-up.”
On a recent Saturday night at the Takoma art space Rhizome, Bachman offered a taste of where he wants to push his music. He abandoned his usual setup of guitar and microphone; instead, he started out seated on the ground flanked by his friends and fellow musicians, Forrest Marquisee and Ian McColm. The trio conjured sounds out of an array of oddball objects including metal bells, a dish that was used to swirl a lead BB to imitate cicada sounds, and an octatone, a unique, hand-cranked wooden contraption handmade by Marquisee and played with a violin bow, which emits atonal moans.
Bachman’s eyes remained closed, as if lost in meditation, as he alternated between playing field recordings of nature sounds on a cassette player and manipulating a shruti box. The Indian instrument akin to an organ looks like a briefcase accordion and delivers a guiding hum around which the other instruments orbit.
As the music crescendoed, Bachman sat up and situated himself on a stool, pulled back the reins on some of the noise and armed himself with a finger slide and picks to incorporate the melodies of a lap guitar to blend his past works with his current passion.
“These sorts of shows [with Marquisee and McColm] are what bring me most joy now,” Bachman says. “I really am into beautiful music, and even harsh, abstract stuff can be really beautiful and emotional sometimes.”
After spending the past 11 or so years on the road logging about 200 days annually playing coffee shops, churches and other venues across the world, the 29-year-old seems most at ease in his current dichotomy: He has pushed pause on making music his primary career, but he’s never been more inspired to make it.
The Fredericksburg, Va.-born musician has lived across the East Coast — making pit stops in Philadelphia and Durham, N.C. — but his music is distinctly Virginian. Bachman recently moved to Charlottesville — which he enjoys for its more radical spirit — to continue his passion project of research into historical music recordings and folklore at the University of Virginia’s library while working as a landscaper during the day.
The defining work of his catalogue is 2015’s “River,” a love letter to the sights and sounds of the Rappahannock, which ran near where Bachman grew up. Each track finds his fingers nimbly dancing along the fretboard in combination with deft, twangy picking that envelopes the album with a rushing flow of urgency.
Compare that with this year’s “The Morning Star,” which is filled with harsher wails that bring to mind scanning a radio dial in rural areas, and hearing static blend with faint sounds of preachers, when a melodic guitar pierces through. His 12th full-length album was, outside of two tracks, almost entirely improvised, and includes Bachman’s own recordings of ambient nature sounds. In one particularly arresting moment, the outside world bleeds in when an ambulance siren comes and goes as Bachman keeps on plucking.
The guitarist knows that some of his listeners expect him to churn out more of the same, but he feels much more at peace with the music he is making now that he’s part-time.
Even though his music is almost entirely wordless, some hints about his feelings on living in more rural parts of Virginia in the current political climate are evident through how he presents his music — or doesn’t. After a Richmond bookstore called the police on a woman who verbally confronted Stephen K. Bannon, former adviser to President Trump, Bachman canceled a show at its Staunton branch.
His current day job involves a lot of hands-on work in the outdoors, but he hints at the convergence of the serenity and beauty he has found in nature and where it will lead him in music.
“I’m most inspired by living in the Blue Ridge Mountains now. There’s definite downsides to working outside in your life,” Bachman says. “But I’m around birds a lot, and one place I work is by Shenandoah National Park, and the other place is on a beautiful mountainside. That kind of stuff makes me feel best these days.”
Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. at Old Town Books, 104 S. Union St., Alexandria. $10.