Seattle Duo The Argument Makes Music of Married Life
The Argument, Seattle songwriters Brangien Davis and Daniel Spils, talk music, marriage, and releasing one song at a time
By Tim Appelo
October 28, 2016
The minute musician Daniel Spils of the band Maktub married Brangien Davis, Seattle magazine’s former arts and culture editor and owner of a lovely, low-vibrato singing voice, they went on a dream-home hunt. “I wanted a bunker basement for a recording studio,” says Spils. They found it in a 1939 rectilinear brick home by Paul Thiry, Seattle’s first great architect. After clearing the bunker of trash and one dead cat, they made the basement sonically cool; festooned it with mikes, sound curtains, keyboards and a dozen instruments; then wrote and recorded an 11-song self-titled debut album named for their band, The Argument (theargument.us).
“It can mean an argument between people, or the argument for a good life,” says Spils of the name. The album is like a scrapbook of what the couple has been talking about in their nine years together, Davis adds: their trips to Spils’ home state of Alaska, troubled relatives, things they’ve seen on PBS and stories they’ve read in The New Yorker. Spils wrote most of the music, while Davis penned most of the lyrics as well as a literary essay for each tune that reveals the tale behind it.
“We should’ve called it Hunker in the Bunker,” says Spils of the time they spent creating the album. “It’s marriage rock, DINK rock—double income, no kids,” jests Davis.
On September 6, they began releasing one song and essay per week online. “We thought, ‘We’re not gonna book a rock tour, and do people even buy CDs anymore?’” says Davis of their strategy. Spils adds: “Instead of people trying to guess what your song’s about, Brangien’s essay pulls back the curtain, openly reflecting on the music.”
A former coworker of Davis’, who is now a DJ at Everett’s KSER-FM, recommended the album to Lon Palmer, who started playing it on his indie-pop show Poptopia Parkway. Palmer calls it “intelligent singer-songwriter pop fare like Aimee Mann, Sheryl Crow, Liz Phair or Mates of State.”
“Braniel,” as some refer to the duo, can be catchy and serious at the same time, as in the New Wave pastiche “Stringlyjack.” Davis says, “That was inspired by a New Yorker story on this kid who had this disease, Lesch-Nyhan, where he was compelled to bite off his fingers, and I have a little compulsion of picking at my fingers, so I related.” The stringlyjack is a device like a scarecrow with broomstick arms to keep the kid’s fingers away from his teeth. “If I’m free it ends in heartache/’cause I’m my own Donner Party/my sweet, sweet stringlyjack/lock me down and hold me back,” sings Davis.
“Ogallala,” inspired by Ken Burns’ documentary about America’s shrinking aquifer, is “like the musical equivalent of stepping into a jungle clearing to find a waterfall, soothing and cleansing, while the message addresses our need to care better for our environment,” says Palmer. “I love the marriage of melody and melancholia on “Emphasis” [about Davis’ recently perished alcoholic cousin]. I imagine the story will be relatable for others who wished they could have gotten through to somebody before it’s too late.”
Plans are afoot for a live show/reading in a nontraditional musical environment. “It won’t be at the Crocodile,” says Spils. “The album is available on Spotify, iTunes, Napster and Amazon.” And in February, The Argument, with a booklet of lyrics and essays, debuts on CD and vinyl—something the couple had never planned to do. But hey, marriage is all about being open to experiences you didn’t expect.