Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Awkward Stage

I've been a huge fan of Mint Records for years--15, I'd say--though I have to admit that I haven't been terribly thrilled with many of their new signings in... oh, say, the last five years--which is an eternity in the music scene. There have been promises made: I quite liked a few songs of The Organ until the sameness of their album started to grate and it was obvious they were going to milk the one trick they had for at least three whopping years; I also think Immaculate Machine have a lot going on, but they don't quite do it for me yet.

Okay, further caveats: Post-Shadowy Men project Atomic 7 are amazing. The Buttless Chaps are a great live band, as are Novillero, but the albums don't do much for me lately. Fact is, much of Mint's rep still rests on the New Pornographers, Neko Case and Carolyn Mark (the latter, I'm convinced, is finally about to get her due, thanks to an increased European touring schedule and her ridiculously entertaining Hootenanny project).

Which is why it was with as much relief as excitement that I greeted The Awkward Stage, a project for perennial sideman Shane Nelken, whose most visible gigs have been with A. C. Newman and Sparrow (both Zumpano spin-offs, if you will); he was also in Vancouver Nights, one of the overlooked gems of Vancouver's thriving pop scene (their debut album featured songs by both Newman and Dan Bejar, as well as Nelken and singer Sara Lapsley). (Destroyer fans take note: his song for this band--one of my favourites of his--is the free MP3 download at the link above.)

The album cover intrigued me immediately: it's one of the rare instances where the cover image actually conveys much of the music inside. As we can see, Nelken is older, greying, and a bit of a nerd (the inside image has him wearing velcro shoes with his tux), which combined with his resume would accurately suggest that he's into the Costello/ Lowe/ Hitchcock school of pop songwriting. And Carl Newman didn't hire him just for his looks: Nelken has a similar melodic sense to Newman, though his music is much less dense and more lyrically-focused (or more literal, anyway) than Newman's, making it a different beast entirely.

As we can also see from the cover, he's clearly hung up on some teenage issues, and the album wades through fading trails of adolescent angst and their modern manifestations that haunt us every day of our advancing age.

In other words, this is music that's perfect for 35-year old men. I'm sure others will enjoy it too.

The Awkward Stage are on their first cross-Canada tour now: check here or here for dates. They play a free show at the Horseshoe in Toronto tonight at 9.45 (on a very strange bill--they're followed by the metallic thunder of Bionic). There's an equally free in-store at Six Shooter Records on Queen E. (very east, past Pape) at 6pm. If you don't live in Canada and are bound for CMJ in NYC next week (as am I) you can see them on November 2 at Union Hall in Brooklyn as part of the Mint showcase.

If you don't have time to wade through my conversation with this very amusing man, you can hit up the highlights in The Awkward Stage article that ran in Eye Weekly here.

Awkward Stage, Shane Nelken

October 12, 2006

Setting: phone. He was driving to the second date of his national tour in Red Deer, Alberta, and was calling from a mechanic’s where his van had just broken down

You play most of the instruments on the album, so is this a band or is it just you? Did you play around Vancouver before?
I played some shows around Vancouver, but it’s always been a rotating cast of musicians, whoever is available. For the next month, however, this is the band.

Which is who?
I have Josh Lindstrom on drums. He plays in Precious Fathers and Battles and Bonaparte [the latter is a new Dan Bejar project]. Shaun Brodie plays trumpet and various percussion instruments and glockenspiel. He and I played together in A.C. Newman. Then I have two very talented girls: Janine Leduc on piano, and Faye Mallett on guitar. They both sing harmonies with me.

To the best of my research abilities, you’ve been a member of the following Vancouver bands: A.C. Newman, Vancouver Nights, Tennessee Twin, the Come-Ons, the Buzzards, the Blue Lodge Quartet, Ronnie Hayward Trio. Did I miss anyone?

Sparrow. There’s probably quite a few others, but I don’t know if any of them are worth mentioning.

Did you contribute songs to any of those bands?

Yeah, to almost all of them, or at least assisted with arrangements. In the case of the A.C. Newman record, I was hired to play whatever and help him flesh out ideas. Sparrow, same thing, I just helped with arrangements. All those other bands I wrote original music for. A lot of the bands I’ve been in have been genre-specific bands, and I was amassing these songs that were songs for songs’ sakes, just melodies and chords. They were the most representational of me, and I thought I should find the time and discipline to make a record like this. I was a little surprised that it came out so poppy. I thought it might be stranger. Maybe the next one will be.

Is that because of the lyrical content? Were you surprised how pleasant the music sounded?
I just thought that once I gave myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted, maybe it would be a bit more bizarre sounding. But these are the songs that came out. And I’m pleased with it overall.

You said this material represents you well. When I read the lyrics, I see tales of anorexics, psychopaths, vengeful circus animals, deluded paranoiacs. What, if anything, do you have in common with these people?

Both my parents are psychiatrists, so that’s where a lot of that comes from. I guess there’s some familiar territory I keep returning to. Living in East Vancouver I come across a lot of psychotics and circus animals just wandering the streets. It’s funny how it just doesn’t phase you, either. ‘Oh, look at that—an emu.’

In some ways, these lyrics read like a Barbara Gowdy short story collection or something.

That might be a bit of a Tom Waits influence, I suppose. I like how he’s cinematic in his writing, he makes little movies. I’m probably represented in all of those songs, even if it’s not a literal thing. Observations about myself or other people work their way in there.

Do you relate somehow to dancing elephants? Is there a parallel there to the role of a sideman?

Yes, I do, quite a bit, I relate quite a bit to a sedated, repressed circus elephant. Aside from a weight problem, there are other reasons, too. From time to time I definitely feel the links of the shackles coming loose and I feel ready to tear up a pre-school. That’s definitely in there.

Is Carl Newman the whipmaster?
Possibly, he may be partially responsible for those feelings. No, I played for Carl a demo of ‘The Morons Are Winning’ and he was a fan of that. It’s probably the song most like one of his own on the record. He was probably an influence, at least on the falsetto chorus. Our sensibilites are similar to begin with, which is why he hired me. I don’t know if he’s heard the whole record. I haven’t heard from him in a while; he moved to New York.

With your extensive resume, who have you learned the most from, either from their mistakes or their successes?

I really try and learn from everybody. I can even learn from people I give guitar lessons from who know nothing, from the questions they ask. I’ve definitely learned a lot from people like Carl Newman, Kurt Dahle and Neko Case. Everybody I play with I think I can learn from. No matter how good you get, you can always learn something from the people you play with.

Now you’re a bandleader, though, and you can tell everyone else what to do.

That’s right. I’ve definitely learned what not to do on tour, how to get hated.

Care to share?

I did a couple of tours with Ronnie Hayward across Europe that probably shed years off my life.

How so?

Oh, my goodness, if there was a worse way to do something, he would find it. It was basically like doing a gruelling nine weeks with a schizophrenic grandparent. That’s pretty much what I would liken it to. He was really nasty. One thing about touring---for people who’ve never done it—is you realize whether or not you can do it immediately. The people that can’t do it, it’s just a nightmare. For the people who can do it—things that are happening to me right now with this van breaking down—you just gotta be able to roll with whatever comes and not get too upset. There are some people who behave in a way that when things are lousy, it’s like they’re the only ones who are undergoing it. They’re the only ones it’s happening to. As long as you try to keep positive and deal with whatever comes along the best you can. It’s these things I even miss when I’m not on tour. Vans breaking down and weird things happening.

Really? You could just hire someone to sabotage your van at home randomly, and it would be like being on the road.

Exactly! I should try that.

One of my favourite lines on the record is in the song “I Drive,” the chorus of “Love must test out its mettle alone on a freeway.” I like the concept of your love being tested not when you’re actually with the person, but when you’re alone.

Well, thanks. That was a song that was written on tour with Carl Newman. I was driving the RV late at night. It’s a feeling I’ve had all my life when I’ve toured, that if something were to happen to me right now on this lonely, god-forsaken stretch of highway, that it might be weeks before anyone even found me. I’m driving and knowing that I’m responsible for all the lives of the people sleeping behind me, and trying to stay awake. The thing keeping me awake were loved ones back home: my girlfriend, my dog, whatever. It’s very lonely at times, knowing that if something were to happen, no one would know for a while.

How is your love doing on this tour? I know it’s early.

So far it’s good, other than this little snag we’ve hit. I’m standing in a dealership with my fingers crossed. We all get along great. I selected people based on their musical ability and people I thought could be very complimentary in the van.

You sing that you have “a thousand teenage hearts in my engine revving.”

Most of the songs were written around the time they were recorded, but that one I’ve had around for a while. It was tricky. For a while I wasn’t sure if it translated. You never feel more than you do when you’re a teenager. Everything is so intense when you’re young, whether it’s being in love with someone, or feeling the world is out to get you, or jealousy. The song was loosely based on a friend of mine I was really close with, who ended up in this teenage abusive relationship. This guy totally closed her off from her friends and her family and any support system and I never really heard from her again. The initial idea was that it was written from his actual viewpoint, as a viciously jealous teenage boy, but in the end I don’t know if it translated that way. Basically it was the idea that the feelings are so intense when you’re that age.

It’s the awkward stage, as we say.


That theme runs through several of the songs, as well as the brilliant artwork, which colours my impression of the record. What’s your relationship to your teenage years? Are you in a prolonged adolescence or do you have profound nostalgia for them? Are you working through all the issues from those years still?

I’m 34 now, and it’s evident that I will always be working through those issues. I really feel that youth was a war. People who pine for those years, I just don’t trust them. Every year away from my youth is glorious! I love getting older, I really do.

So never mind Mr. Springsteen, you’re saying these are the glory days.

That’s right. I did have a tough time growing up. I was miserable, like so many people. That’s the more common sentiment. There are a lot of pop songs that over-sentimentalize being young, but the reality of it is that it’s a nightmare. Those are the years that really shape you, they’re very psyche-warping.

Have you been to high school reunions?

No, I haven’t. And to be fair, if I was to go to a high school reunion, I’d probably just go to the field behind the school and take hits off of a coke can bong and shotgun pilseners off a chicken wire fence—that sort of thing.

Did you grow up in Vancouver?
Yeah, for the most part. I was born in Winnipeg and moved to a suburb of Vancouver when I was 9. I’ve been in Vancouver ever since.

Were you one of the White Rock kids? [ed note: this is a suburb of Vancouver that’s spawned many of the city’s musicians; contrary to appearances, it is in no way meant to reference white supremacism]
No, those were the more privileged ones, like Carl. When we stopped in at his mother’s house on tour, she said, ‘Oh, that’s where Carl kept his pony.’ I was like, ‘You were the kid with the pony!’ He said, ‘Well, it wasn’t exactly like that.’ ‘Well, how else could it be? Did you have a pony? Yes, you did. You were the kid with the pony!’ I was the kid without the pony. Most of us were.

Your characters are not only rooted in adolescence, but the pitfalls of prolonged adolescence.

Definitely. That’s the reason behind calling the band The Awkward Stage. There’s a song that didn’t make the album called ‘The Awkward Stage’ that includes the lines: ‘Forget your age/ forget you’re clever/ the awkward stage lasts forever.’ Those feelings of shame never totally go away. As we get older, we learn to accept a lot of the things we can’t change about ourselves, but we’re just one bad experience away from those feelings of shame and humiliation: the businessman who drops his briefcase and papers spill out everywhere, he’s probably instantly transported to that gym class where he gets pantsed or something. It’s always there.

Your parents are psychiatrists, you say?

My father is a psychiatrist, my mother is a psychologist family counsellor.

The phrase “awkward stage” refers not only to teenage years, but also those weird moments at the beginning of a relationship when you’re not sure what’s going to happen. It doesn’t apply to age, necessarily.

It applies to performing as well, as I’ve proved a few times.

It’s hard to imagine a more scathing character portrait than Hipster Darling.

It’s an amalgam of a lot of people I’ve known, including myself. I am fascinated with celebrity obsession, and that being our measuring stick for human worth and just how damaging it is. I have it to a degree as well, and I try and work on it and realise how empty and vacuous that pursuit is. I know a lot of people, and a few of them are girls—I’m really trying to guard against the much-plundered songwriting territory of the tortured female. It’s just so easy. But it’s also rife. Those lines do come from people in my life that I’ve known.

One of the things I like about the song is that there’s an equal amount of sympathy and scorn. The narrator obviously lends an ear to this woman, it’s a friend, and much of the song is taken up with the refrain, ‘I love you, hipster darling.’ There’s obviously some empathy there. But there’s also some absolutely vicious lines in there.

It’s true, I know. It comes from a very real place.

It’s certainly universal—we all know people like this, but were you at all worried about how people would respond in the insular Vancouver scene?

I know who has inspired those lyrics, and I wonder if others question. But usually the characters like those depicted in that song are not too self-aware. They’re usually pretty deluded, so I’m not sure if they’ll pick up on that. But I have felt that singing that song.

I understand your current job is at a crematorium.

It is. My touring drummer, Josh Lindstrom, he and I met playing as the rhythm section in Sparrow and became friends. He had been working at the crematorium for close to four years. When I got back from tour with Carl Newman I needed a job. I was actually calling Josh for a musician’s phone number, I needed a flute player. During the course of our conversation, he told me that they needed to hire somebody. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but my interview went well and I’ve been doing it for two years now.

It wasn’t a career you set out for.

No. Music’s been my career, and it brought me there. I had no idea I would ever do this.

Does it require a certain temperament or sense of humour to enter the profession?

It probably does. You have to do a lot of things to normalize the job and detach a bit. I always wonder if this job isn’t effecting me on some sub-level. It is surprisingly how quickly it becomes ‘just a job’ and I have to snap myself out of it. I don’t want to get too complacent about it. I want to remember that these are all people. I’ll be initialling the log book and then I’ll look down and see thousands of my signatures and boxes of log books, and it strikes me that these are all people.

It’s a very sacred thing to do that then becomes ritual.

There are certain ceremonies that really snap you out of that. A lot of the Buddhists really value what you do. You’re the last person to touch the casket and send their loved ones into the next life. They give you these envelopes full of what translates as ‘lucky money,’ which are red envelopes with basically a tip. I usually buy a lottery ticket with it, with the idea that if I won I’d make a donation to their temple. So far, no luck.

The afterlife figures into the album title, Heaven is For Easy Girls. Do easy girls really go to heaven, or do they end up like “Hipster Darling,” with their shimmer ever dimmer?

I think they end up in heaven. Nobody appreciates an easy girl like a lonely pervert.

I was thinking of how disappointed a suicide bomber would be if he found that heaven was full of easy girls instead of virgins that are supposed to be waiting for him?

Exactly—see how much better things would be? No 9/11! If only we just let the sluts have their day!


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