John Davis is a recording artist and multi-instrumentalist originally from Cambridge, MA, where he started The Folk Implosion with partner Lou Barlow in the summer of 1993 (he left the band in 2000.) He relocated to Durham, NC in 2013 to begin working with producer Scott Solter on a muckraking cycle of songs about corporate corruption in the food industry and related issues like (im)migration, mass incarceration, public health, and the stock market. The result is, El Pulpo, due out in October 2017 via Shrimper/Revolver in the US and Arbouse Recordings in France.
The songs on El Pulpo were originally written in Watertown, MA between 2010 and 2012, after John read the book Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel and many other similar texts (such as Empire’s Workshop by Greg Grandin.) But they were recorded entirely in North Carolina, where a synergistic relationship evolved between the recording studio and the local community because of John’s work as a public school teacher and activist with the Durham Association of Educators. Living in the same town as producer Solter allowed him to record on evenings and weekends while teaching in a school that serves many children of immigrants from some of the countries referenced in the lyrics of this record. A summer recording trip to Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Studios in Kernersville, NC saw John and his backing band drive by Syngenta’s Headquarters for North and South America in Greensboro NC. The presence of a nearby feedstore in downtown Kernersville served as a reminder of the agricultural power of NC’s economy, where 90% of the state’s 100K farmworkers are undocumented, mostly from Latin America.
The album title translates as “The Octopus,” after the derisive nickname union organizers in Central America gave to the United Fruit Company because of the tentacle-like grip it used to turn countries like Honduras and Guatemala into the prototypical “Banana Republic.” But the songs chart the machinations of other Octopi, from Coca-Cola to Monsanto, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Drexel Burnham Lambert, while referencing pop-culture figures ranging from Mean Joe Green and Juan Valdez to Frank Sinatra and the infamous Earl Rusty Butz, Richard Nixon’s erstwhile Secretary of Agriculture.
This dense and experimental-yet-catchy album was executed with the help of over a dozen backing musicians, including Peter Hughes of The Mountain Goats on bass, Andrew Levi-Hiller of Yairms/Alhhla on drums, Wendy Allen of Balustrade Ensemble on backing vocals, Jonathan Henderson of Kaira Ba on stand up bass, and improv trombone player Jeb Bishop. The resulting backing band was named The Cicadas in homage to the noisy insects that are common in the south. It’s a shifting ensemble that has varied from three to nine members onstage. The lineup on a given night depends on the availability of a rotating cast of characters, all of whom are involved with multiple musical projects and sources of gainful employment (they review sports cars, make metal sculptures, test children ad nauseum, teach yoga, serve southern cuisine, agitate for social justice, translate foreign languages, teach drums and bass, and purvey handmade scarves, hats, and mittens.)