For a lesson on how musicians grow, look no further than local act Skim Milk’s three releases. Sam Davidson’s instrumental project made its debut in 2014, with an eponymous effort that’s pleasant background music, impossible to classify by genre but also not especially rich in terms of its emotional content. The following year’s Ghosts of Jazz is just bigger all round, with stronger melodies, more adventurous soloing, and a greater sense of improvisational freedom. And now, with the just-released Fingerprints, Davidson has expanded his world yet again.
Yes, the overall aesthetic is still cool, and Davidson’s reverb-laced approach to production can be opaque; Skim Milk comes by its name honestly. But the Brasstronaut multi-instrumentalist is happy to agree that he’s making progress.
“With the first album, I was going for that relaxed, ambient aesthetic,” Davidson tells the Straight, on the line from his Burnaby home. “With the second album, Ghosts of Jazz, it was really about trying to draw from more, like, R&B roots and funk. And now, with Fingerprints, it’s more about identity,” he continues. “It’s about me coming to terms with my own influences.…And it’s called Fingerprints because it’s about all the people and all the points in my life that have put their mark on each of these songs.”
Davidson is still working with loops and samples, but says his quotes are now more deeply “encoded”—like the snippet of 17th-century recorder music that inspired his new disc’s title track.
“What I like to do with the old music is go through it and find those elements that are used in a way that is still kind of contemporary,” he explains. “So it’s just a little loop, and then I wanted to dress it up with some subtle electronics, and then I got my friend Terri Hron, who I’ve been collaborating with for a long time, to play some legit recorder on it. She worked in a consort in Amsterdam for 11 years, so it was really good to have her bring these elements of the Old World and the New World together, using the Fingerprints of the original composer, Jacob van Eyck.”
Davidson is an exceptional clarinet player and a skilled manipulator of recorded sound, but there’s a third element that helps define Skim Milk’s identity: his use of the EWI, an “electronic wind instrument” that’s responsible for many of the music’s more intriguing textures.
“I think of it as kind of a supercharged recorder,” he says. “It uses a very basic woodwind fingering setup that’s kind of transferable, in a way, to all the wind instruments. And it’s pretty limitless; it just takes a bit of time to figure out how to use it musically, I think. Especially dressed in reverb, it can be a very ambiguous texture that kind of gives a glow to things, in a way.”
That glow will be especially appropriate at Skim Milk’s next performance: on a Planetarium double bill with ambient postrockers Plasteroid. “This whole idea came about because of Owen Connell from Plasteroid,” says Davidson, noting that for the night he’ll debut a new, drummerless Skim Milk, in which he’ll be joined by guitarist Tom Wherrett, bassist James Meger, and trombonist Ellen Marple. “We went down to the Planetarium a few weeks ago and met with the manager and the projectionist, and we got to do a walk-through of all the different things that they can do.…They have programs for pretty much anything imaginable in terms of space and space exploration.”
So what will we be seeing when Skim Milk and Plasteroid convene under the digital stars?
“It’s programmed so that over the course of both sets you’re basically going to see every aspect of our solar system,” Davidson says. “It’s really just an amazing chance to get a glimpse of the vastness of the universe that we live in.”