I wanna take you higher

Local rocker Stuart Davis uses his art to investigate humanity – his own and others’

by Matt Graham

The first thing Stuart Davis did when I walked in for our interview was give me a hug.

This could seem like a bit of a put-on at first, an attempt by a struggling artist to get some good publicity by sucking up to the journalist interviewing him, except that it doesn’t take long to figure out this is how Davis greets everyone.

Prior to Davis’ Friday concert at the Varsity Theater, he paced the floor in a frenzied manner, whirling in all directions. This is quite the contrast with the image of him that appears on his latest album “¿What,” where he is covered with white paint and sits cross-legged in meditation.

Davis is a practicing Zen Buddhist, but his entire presentation shatters preconceptions of the docile, contemplative image associated with that faith.

Before Buddhism, the Lakeville native was a student at the University’s School of Music briefly in the early 1990s, though he dropped out after a year and a half to go to rehab.

This, after Davis spent two days in a drug-and-alcohol induced paralysis that he describes as a descent into hell. “That really sobered me up, literally and figuratively,” he said. “I really needed to get into the game of being.”

While rehabbing, Davis found an assortment of spiritual and philosophical literature – Zen and otherwise – that has acted to shape his music and his life. “I think that there’s something unique that’s happening right now,” he said. “For the first time in history, we have access to all the worldviews that have ever existed.”

Davis sees himself as part of an emerging “integral” movement that seeks to unify existing ideologies not by acknowledging their differences, but by focusing instead on where they are in agreement.

Consequently, he said, people don’t know how to respond to what he says on his records. Some people brand him as a maker of reactionary “Christian” music while others get upset at him for not being Christian enough. Still others, he said, have a hard time seeing what’s “spiritual” in lyrics about deviant sexual practices. But to Davis, it’s all the same.

“We’re spiritual beings,” he said. “It’s a native dimension of our normal humanity.”

But no matter how weird his lyrics get, no matter what kind of sonic experimentation he tries, nothing gets in the way of a catchy melody. Davis is a versatile musician whose most recent album owes a heavy debt to the electronic sounds of techno and hip-hop. However, he performs most of his shows solo with an acoustic guitar and occasionally jams with local musicians. On Friday, he was accompanied by a drummer and a bass player, performing straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll versions of his songs, old and new.

While his 12 albums display the polish that comes from a painstaking devotion to studio craftsmanship, Davis maintains that he prefers the spontaneity and unpredictable nature of live shows. “That renews me over and over,” he said.

Although music in many ways is the centerpiece of his life, Davis keeps himself busy with other activities. The soon-to-be father of two founded his own record label, Dharma Pop, which is staffed entirely by volunteers. He has also devoted his free time to inventing his own language, “IS,” which he calls “an experiment in perspectives.”

Davis produces about 50 new words a week, most of which have no translation, to the language, and he hopes to have a dictionary out within a decade. Davis said he always has been interested in the assumptions inherent in each language and the ways in which they determine perceptions of reality. Rather than “building from the bottom up,” bit by bit, as Davis said all existing languages have been, he is trying to build his “from the top down,” to enable a larger conceptual framework. It’s a challenge, Davis said, because “basically what you have to do, in part, is build a culture.”

Like everything else, it’s all part of a process, an effort by Davis to “become as fully human as I can.” He calls art a “Trojan horse” for spiritual concepts, but it’s clear that Davis is more interested in penetrating his own walls than in taking down anybody else’s, though others are welcome to come for the ride if they like. “I’m just trying to live into this through the art.”