Today: Another diversion from all that heavy Torontopia reading.
The last track on the latest Constantines album, Tournament of Hearts, is a barely-there whisper of a song, featuring little else but Steve Lambke's voice, guitar and vibraphone (from what I can remember, anyway... I've misplaced my copy recently). There are quiet moments on every Constantines album, mostly belonging to main vocalist Bry Webb, but this one was a particular revelation: a real coming-out for Lambke as a songwriter, not just a belter as he was on previous Cons contributions.
Some of that vibe continues on his solo debut as Baby Eagle, but he also picks up a Dylanesque harmonica (actually, better than Dylan, whose harmonica is the sole reason I can't listen to those early records), some country two-steps and various other ornamentations courtesy of the royal couple of Winnipeg singer/songwriters: Christine Fellows and John K. Samson of the Weakerthans. Like Lambke's voice, whose limitations he's well aware of, the album is slight at 24 minutes long, but it's a promising first step.
This interview was a bit rushed in the middle of a busy post-Thanksgiving, post-Pop Montreal week, and not as insightful as I had hoped; I wish I had a chance to spend more time with the lyrics instead of asking obvious surface questions about the music. The article it was for runs next week in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, a paper whose reach includes Lambke's hometown of Cambridge--hence the spin of some of the questions.
Baby Eagle has a whole whack of dates in the next month opening for the red-hot Jon Rae and The River; they play tonight at the Casbah in Hamilton. For more dates check here.
October 10, 2006
Setting: the Three Gut House
When did this come out?
It came out October 3 on Outside. But I first burned CDs in January, and since then I re-did one of the songs, but it’s essentially the same. And it’s been mastered.
What were your initial intentions? Were you looking for distribution?
Outside expressed interest, and it seemed foolish not to take them up on it. One of them came to a show and bought a CDR and took it from there. But the reason it took so long was because of the Cons stuff, just touring all the time.
Did you want to wait until the band had time off to release it?
That just happened, really. Right now we’re taking time off and writing and not playing so much. It worked out well, but it wasn’t a real plan.
When did you first start writing material like this? The last song [“Windy Roads”]on the latest Constantines record [Tournament of Hearts] is very much like this, very sparse. I also remember the song you wrote for the 60-Second Song compilation for DROG Records [back in 2002].
I’d always been doing a bit of stuff without any intent to make a real record. It was in the back of my mind, as was playing shows by myself, because I love seeing people do that. I was accumulating a bunch of songs and recording demos on GarageBand.
How far back does that go? Does it predate the Constantines?
Not so much. Mostly it’s been the last few years. I ended up talking to Christine [Fellows] and John [K. Samson] about it and they were really enthusiastic about working together, so we figured out a time when that could happen. There wasn’t a lot of intent behind it.
Did they talk you into it?
The idea came up and it seemed like it would be fun. Christine is such a great, inspiring person. We had talked about it and it didn’t seem like it would work because we were all on tour last fall. But we passed through Winnipeg early last summer, and when we were hanging out, she pulled out the calendar and said, ‘Let’s make this work.’ But even then I went to Winnipeg without a clear idea of what would happen. I had all the songs, but I was totally open in terms of arrangements, and I didn’t even bring an instrument. I just borrowed and used what was at hand. I thought, maybe I’ll just do something by myself, or maybe we’ll all play together—there was no plan for a release, so there was no pressure. If we got a couple of good songs out of it, that’d be great. But we got a bunch that felt like a record.
Was there something about clearing your own headspace by leaving town?
For sure. Being there was amazing. We recorded at their house and I stayed there. We worked hard; I didn’t go out at all for the six days I was there, except for one night because the Arcade Fire was in town. We just had campfires in the backyard in the evening. It was a positive, creative, inspiring atmosphere. The drummer who’s on there, I hadn’t met before. He plays in a band called the Paperbacks, and I guess John is helping to produce their record. And Keith played mandolin, and he’s played on a few of Christine’s records, though I’d never met him before.
I imagine when you were demo-ing the songs—I’m not sure how much layering went into it at that point—but did you picture these acoustic guitar songs being more country, or more ornamental, or what did you think would happen to them genre-wise? Could these songs have gone anywhere?
Once we got into it, the fact that it’s all acoustic felt natural. The only electric instrument on there is bass guitar on a couple of tunes. They are simple songs, so they could be treated different ways. Some of the demos were a little weirder, just goofing around with home studio reverbs, which is a fun way to make music. Some of them are more ‘out’ than what happened on the record.
Had you been performing these songs, or did you start doing that after you made the record?
That came after. I didn’t do that until last January. I’d done a few things, but nothing like a real show.
Didn’t you do that immediately? I remember you playing in Montreal around the time of the election [it was actually the night of the English leaders’ debate, and I missed his set because of it, showing up right after he finished].
Yeah, I toured with Jessie [Stein] of the S.S. Cardiacs. We planned on that sometime in the fall. She was in between bands and was itching to do something, so we both went out solo. I was really nervous about it, so it was great to not be doing it in front of hometown faces and friends, to get a few shows under my belt. I still get really nervous playing in front of people I know, but that tour was really fun.
Was that out east?
Yeah. It was only five or six shows: Moncton, Sackville, a couple in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa.
Did people know what it was? Was your name and the Constantines association on the bill?
Not to any great extent. Jessie has a bit of a following out there, so S.S. Cardiacs were the main attraction. Response was really positive. Performing solo was something I’d always wanted to try, so if people weren’t paying attention, it was fine, because I was learning. It’s different, just technically—singing with just yourself and your guitar. You have to be further away from the mic than when you’re in a loud rock band, and I had no idea. Just stuff like that.
Thinking of your songs in the Constantines too, you often belt it out and stop playing the guitar, letting the rest of the band carry it.
I’m curious about the role of acoustic music in your own development. Did you grow up playing acoustic?
I grew up playing electric. We had an acoustic guitar in the house and I’ve always listened to different music. My parents listened to country music. Even when I was playing in full-on punk bands, I was listening to different stuff.
Because this is the article for a local paper, what were the bands you were in while growing up in Cambridge?
There was Captain Co-Pilot [a hardcore band with fellow Constantine Dallas Werhle and journalist Vish Khanna], and a whole mish-mash of things before that who didn’t play many shows—usually one show and then we’d break up. Nothing worth mentioning, I’d say! It was all essentially just three of us with different drummers.
Captain Co-Pilot was when?
It would have been… 96 to 98, maybe. Then the Constantines started in 99.
What was happening in Cambridge at that time? Were there any acoustic people in that scene?
There was. The only place where anything was happening was the Refugee Café in Cambridge. Lots of different things happened there, not just rock bands. It was an all-ages venue, kind of a hippie café, people doing spoken word and reading poetry and stuff. It was really cool. I was very much on the fringe of that whole thing.
Did you play often?
We played there a couple of times. That’s probably the first time I met [future Constantine] Whil (Kidman), who would play there solo all the time. It was a cool place, because there was nothing else in Cambridge at the time.
When did you move to Guelph for school?
The first Constantines record is now five years old.
And the band is seven years old.
Now seems to be the time when the Woolly Leaves record [Kidman’s acoustic solo project] comes out, and this one too—do you see the band going in different directions at all, not just in terms of other projects, but in terms of the material written for the band?
We’ve started writing the next Constantines record, and that’s everyone’s priority. Whil’s record came out a few weeks before this, but it’s different in that his record is the culmination of something he’s been working on for a long time. And even specifically that record: some of the tracking for it was done a long time ago.
But he performed solo even before he joined the band.
Yeah. I met him a long, long time ago. But once in 2001 the Constantines played in Cambridge and Woolly Leaves opened; it was a duo then, with a drummer. It was great. We played a couple of shows with him, in Waterloo and Guelph. It did used to be more of a rock band. It was more inspired by Pavement and Built to Spill, with lots of riffs. It was still very… ‘sensitive,’ but more of a rock band. It gradually got quieter and quieter until it was what it is now.
Could you see your project going on a reverse trajectory, and becoming more of a band on its own?
In my mind I’m toying around with the idea of playing shows with people, but I haven’t done anything about that yet. The one thing I really do love about it is that I can play a show whenever—there’s no apparatus involved with it at all. That’s immensely satisfying. At the same time, I realise it would be better if other people were involved. It takes someone really special to pull it off alone, and I often doubt if I have that.
How many dates do the Constantines do a year?
Last year it was about 100. This year it will be a bit less, but still about 70.
So that still leaves lots of time.
What is everyone else doing with their downtime?
Dallas plays bass in a band called Deloro, with a couple of other artists in town: Dave Armstrong and Tony Romano. Those guys write the songs, and then the band includes Dallas and Dave Clark on drums, the new guy in Jon Rae’s band. They’re great. I think they’re kind of making a record, kind of just hanging out. Doug is just being Doug. Bry does his own thing, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.
Why, is he secretive about it?
No, not at all, but he’s in Montreal now. He mentioned that he and [Mike] Feuerstack [Snailhouse] might do something together. I don’t think he has real plans for anything, but then again neither did I.
Post-script, November 30: Bry Webb does in fact have plans. They're called the Paramedics, and they're playing a show here.