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Black Lab Biography

Last updated: 06/30/2010 12:00:00 PM

Paul Durham is a seeker. A seeker of knowledge, of love, of himself. It's not surprising, then, that Black Lab's frontman speaks of his music in terms of finding something. "The characters in my songs are immersed in trying to find some redemption, usually from the experience of loss," he explains. "They are trying to find some meaning in it, find resolution and transcendence - sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing."

In early 1995, after years spent searching for his place in music, Durham disbanded the self-named combo he'd formed in Berkeley, Calif., and set out on a new course. Longing for a direct, dynamic sound, he ultimately teamed with bassist Geoff Stanfield, guitarist Michael Belfer and drummer Bryan Head to create a passionate rock amalgam that manages to whisper one moment and roar the next. For Durham, Black Lab's debut, Your Body Above Me (DGC Records), is a key find on his journey to discover his musical self.

The Twin Falls, Idaho, native found his songwriting voice behind a lawnmower. "From about the fourth grade I worked summers mowing lawns," he recounts. "I liked it because I could sing super loud and no one could hear me. I'd do it four or five days a week and I'd have all this time to pass. So I'd just make up songs."

Around the house, Durham would sing along with his mother's folk and opera records. By junior high, his gifts as a vocalist had begun to draw attention. Church choirs in Twin Falls were vying for his services. He told the choir directors, "I want to sing in your choir, but I don't want to go to your church service." The shrewd young man soon found himself a member of two such vocal ensembles. "I was able to sing in two choirs every Sunday morning without having to sit through the church services," he continues. "I guess that was my first deal in the music business."

Many of the churches in Twin Falls are Mormon churches. Durham was raised as a Buddhist. "My mother practiced Buddhism," he relates. "She had this statue of Buddha right near the front door. The Mormons were constantly coming to the house, trying to convert us. My mom would say, 'I'm sorry, we're Buddhists' - and then she'd say we eat our young or something. They would leave after that."

Other things, too, set Durham apart as he grew up in rural Idaho. One was his height - he was six-foot-four by the time he was 16. Another was punk rock. "There wasn't much to do in Twin Falls but skate and dye our hair and listen to the Misfits and rock out," he attests. "We'd drive to Boise or Salt Lake to go to record stores or hardcore shows."

But after dislocating his shoulder (for the fifth time) while skateboarding, Durham was forced to find another diversion. His right arm still in a sling, he picked up an acoustic guitar. "I couldn't strum real fast," he says, "so I started learning Bob Dylan songs. Then I started writing songs that were like Bob Dylan songs. I never could afford an electric, so I just kept writing folk songs."

Just before Durham entered high school, his father said to him, "This is when they start keeping track of your grades, in terms of getting into college." Durham reflects: "I don't even know how my dad knew that. He'd never been to college and generally had a pretty negative attitude toward the whole idea, but it got me thinking - I started to view school as a way out of Twin Falls. I went from being a C and D student to getting straight A's."

He particularly excelled in the sciences and went off to Whitman College on a scholarship to study physics and spin records on the school's radio station. There he encountered Plato in a Western civilization course. He remembers: "I suddenly realized I didn't want to be a scientist - to spend my life rolling balls down frictionless incline planes - I wanted to study philosophy."

Unhappy with Whitman's fraternity-centered campus culture and no longer interested in the physics program, Durham chose to transfer to Oberlin College.

"I wanted to find a place as whacked out as possible," he says. "Growing up in my town, I'd felt like a freak my whole life. I had this feeling that at Oberlin, I might feel normal. And I did. It was culturally so radical, and there were people there who were truly weird. But they were all really smart, too. The extremes of intelligence and weirdness made me feel really normal by comparison." When he discovered the co-ed showers at his co-op housing, he was certain Oberlin was the place for him.

Planning to become a philosophy professor, Durham soaked up the social theory of Michel Foucault and radical feminism of bell hooks (when he heard about a seminar she was teaching, open only to women's studies majors, he added the major and got in). But it was Durham's honors thesis on Nietzsche that would impact him most.

"Nietzsche was this academic star, this prodigy who became a head professor and then quit," he informs "He'd come to the conclusion that the university was about studying life, not living life. So he left in order to write, and just live. I'd read half a dozen books of his, written hundreds of pages. And that idea just worked on me. Meanwhile, I was recording four-track demos of my songs in my room, which I'd been doing all through college. Finally, this question began staring me in the face: 'What do I want to do most in life?' I couldn't argue with myself anymore - it was music."

In 1990 Durham finished his degree and moved to Berkeley. He supported himself as a substitute teacher in inner-city Oakland, Calif. Almost immediately, he started recording demos with a bass player he'd met. The two began working with a producer and soon thereafter Durham formed his first band. More demos were produced, gigs were played, people began responding to the music, but somehow, Durham did not find the project creatively satisfying. So, he went to Israel.

He illuminates: "I had a Jewish girlfriend who got this job leading youth groups on summer trips to Israel. I'd never traveled outside the U.S., and this seemed like a good opportunity, so I went with her. I met a friend of hers there who taught Jewish mysticism. I studied with her, and it was very much along the lines of Zen and the physics stuff I'd been interested in. I ended up in an orthodox yeshiva and, after a couple of months, had decided to convert to Judaism.

"But then, towards the end of the summer, I'm walking the streets of Jerusalem and these song lyrics are just pummeling me. It was like my last term at Oberlin all over again, the songs just taking over. I realized I wasn't going to become an orthodox Jew; I was going to do this music thing. So I went back to Berkeley and just threw myself into music."

But this time, it would be a new music. "That earlier band had never felt right to me," he confesses. "I was so grateful these amazing players wanted to work with me that I overlooked the fact that we weren't playing the kind of music I wanted to play. Our sound was sort of rootsy and jazzy; when we were onstage, I'd want to call up the energy I'd felt back in Idaho going to punk shows. But all I had was an acoustic guitar and these folk songs - it just didn't rock."

So Durham fired the band. "It was a horrible, devastating time for me," he confides. "Those guys were my only friends because I'd gotten so focused on the band. Everything else in my life had just drifted away."

Drifting back into the picture at this point, however, was Geffen A&R exec Jim Barber, who'd earlier had an eye on Durham. With a newly recorded demo under his belt, Durham relates, "I just started working on songs and gigging with different players. Then I met Geoff Stanfield. He was the first person who played the way I wanted to sing, and things finally started to make sense. So we just bagged everyone else and started over."

A San Francisco native who had played with Pieces of Lisa and fronted the band Asthma, Geoff recalls, "I heard Paul's stuff and thought he was a great singer and a cool songwriter. When he said he wanted to do something heavier and more moody, I was ready to go."

Michael Belfer - who's originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario - came along next. Many on the San Francisco music scene remember him from his tenure in the Sleepers, a punk group that included future members of Sonic Youth, American Music Club, Wire Train and Romeo Void. "When I listened to Paul's tape, I didn't initially see how I fit in," Belfer admits. "What I do is much darker, more atmospheric. But that's where he insisted he wanted to go." Durham remembers: "On the phone, I'd talked to Michael about Echo and the Bunnymen and Radiohead, but when he plugged in, what he played was completely unique. It was lush, but at the same time heavy and brutally simple."

For Your Body Above Me, Black Lab called in Bay Area drummer Michael Urbano, who, because of other commitments, would not become a permanent member of the band. Once the record was done, however, Stanfield knew exactly the right drummer to help put the songs across live - Bryan Head.

Originally from Southern California, Head had recently moved to San Francisco after five years in Japan wheeling and dealing with the local Mafia, playing experimental jazz and touring stadiums in a Kiss tribute band called Dynasty (complete with costumes, makeup, fire and blood). Head was drawn to Black Lab by Paul's songwriting and because, as he says, "It's a real band, where we all sweat and fight about getting it right." Durham adds: "When we first got together with Bryan, the rest of us noticed our bodies were moving up and down a lot. We just kept looking at each other and laughing, like, 'This guy is heavy."

Your Body Above Me was recorded during the winter of 1996-97 at San Francisco's Toast Recording and released Oct. 21, 1997. The band co-produced with Grammy Award-winning engineer David Bianco (Tom Petty, Throwing Muses, the Posies). Asked why they decided to go with Bianco, Durham responds matter-of-factly, "He's engineered some of the best-sounding records ever." He continues after another moment of reflection: "We wanted to produce the album ourselves, to make sure we captured our live sound, but we also wanted someone to kick our asses. After talking to Dave, we knew he could facilitate that."

Of the record's title, Durham explains: "I was haunted by the phrase the whole time we were mixing. It was embarrassing, this extremely intimate thing, but finally I just said, 'This is it. This is the title.' Now it seems appropriate to call the album something romantic, since at its core Your Body Above Me is a collection of love songs." Among these are the searing "Wash it Away," the epic "Gates of the Country," a story of sexual emergence called "Time Ago," and "All the Money in the World," which began as an early PJ Harvey demo and, through Paul's obsessive fandom, eventually became a Harvey-Durham collaboration.

These songs, though deeply personal, have a universal quality. Durham reveals of his writing: "I take an experience and try to find the seed, the thing in it that's more basic than me. If I tell you a story about my life, what is it about the story that's going to be interesting to you? I boil it down and stare at it and then try to build a little myth around it using melody and rhymes."

Belfer says of Your Body Above Me: "The material is very layered. Some of it is subtle, but the combination of different textures means you'll find something new every time you listen to it." Durham asserts: "Everything just fits. The songs come alive the way I always hoped they could."

In fact, Black Lab's live shows, including supporting gigs for bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Cracker, have more than confirmed Durham's conviction that this is the music, the creative truth, he was searching for all along. "Being onstage with these guys is so natural," he affirms. "I get to rage as well as croon. Playing live seems real to me in a way it never did before - I finally feel like myself up there."