The roots that bind Ben Davis to Danny Kathriner go back a few decades. Back in the late 1980s, Davis' band Wagon was a darling of Washington University undergrads and an early exponent of the as-yet-unnamed alt-country movement. Kathriner joined up on drums and vocals and the band decided to try to make an honest go of it: Regional and national tours, production deals and a major-label debut soon followed.
"When we first started out it was very Jayhawks-like; we got compared to them a lot because of the harmony," Kathriner recalls of the band's sound. "Not intentionally — we both came out right about the same time."
A few more albums followed, but once the core members scattered from St. Louis, Wagon "kind of petered out," in Kathriner's words. It's a familiar story for many bands who struggle to rise above the grind of mid-level tours and paltry record-company support.
Now, some 22 years after Wagon's debut album, its two lead singers are reuniting for a duo called, simply, Davis Kathriner. The pair has released a digital-only album, Losing Habits, and while the songs recall some of the Americana-infused folk of Wagon's output, the songs bear traces of love and loss that once accrues over a few decades on Earth — elements that a band of college-aged kids could only muster by guesswork.
When Davis and Kathriner performed in Wagon, the pair used to split singing and songwriting duties down the middle, with each singing his own compositions. This time Kathriner sings lead on almost every track. Davis doesn't sing a note, but he wrote all songs but two on the album.
Davis, who is based in New York, says via email that Davis Kathriner scratches an old itch; as a music producer and supervisor, Davis works in the industry but had put aside his own songwriting. In reuniting with an old partner, he knew that he could trust Kathriner to understand and embellish his songs.
"With Wagon, Danny and I traded vocal duties, generally singing the songs that we wrote, and there were times when the lack of consistency outweighed anything positive that came from the variety," says Davis. "With this project, we talked early on about having Danny do the lead vocals to give the album that consistency.
"There is also a selfish reason I did not sing on this album," Davis continues. "I would rather listen to Danny sing than hear myself."
For his part, Kathriner is quick to credit his bandmate. "It's mostly Ben's genius, really," he says. "In some ways I'm sort of a sidekick."
Kathriner still works as a songwriter — he and Chris Grabau co-lead the ruminative folk quartet Cave States — and notes that his time working with Davis, then and now, inspired much of his own songwriting.
"We do have similar songwriting aesthetics, but I would say I learned more from Ben about songwriting than really anyone else," Kathriner says. "He's very concise with his lyrics, very melodic."
One of the album's early standouts is "Breakfast Table," the kind of song that practically writes the definition of a kitchen-sink drama. A long-married couple enumerates the slights, doubts and misgivings that gradually corrode a relationship; the breakfast table of the song title becomes a battleground, a vacuum and a confessional booth all at once.
On the track, Kathriner partners with guest vocalist Laura Cantrell, a celebrated singer, songwriter and radio DJ whose guileless voice is an ideal vessel for the song's slow simmer. While the song is technically a duet, it's hard to tell if the protagonists are in conversation or are simply talking past each other.
For Kathriner, Davis' lyrics hit at a central, if little-discussed, truth of marriage. "If you've been married for any length of time, I think anyone can relate to that sort of lull in the relationship. Marriage is a big commitment, and you grow apart, and then you grow back together. It's a constant cycle of in and out of love.
"That's that song," he continues. "I think that song captures that moment in the relationship when things aren't going so well."
It turns out that Cantrell was a fan of Wagon way back when — the band played on her radio show on WFMU, the beloved Jersey City free-form station. "With 'Breakfast Table' and Laura Cantrell, the collaboration initially came out of wanting another perspective on the writing," says Davis, who showed her an early draft of the song. "I snuck in the singing question after she and I started to talk about the song, and we're so grateful that she joined us on the record."
Wagon had its brush with major-label success back in the late '90s, and Kathriner and Davis are far too wise to expect anything approaching that experience with their new duo.
"In some ways it was easier because you have fewer personalities to deal with — sometimes less is more, especially with the song-crafting process," says Kathriner. "We don't have any lofty goals to do any kind of touring; we're not that kind of band."
But if age has made the expectations more realistic, it has also sweetened the results.
"The most rewarding thing was just getting together again and writing with someone who you really admire," says Kathriner.