The actual article ran in Eye Weekly yesterday.
Side note: after last night's show at the Tranzac, my most-anticipated 2007 release--other than a certain album by a certain band that shares a drummer with Sno Angel, which I had the pleasure of hearing parts of a few weeks back--is by Toronto's Phonemes, whose long-delayed debut full-length should be out on Blocks Recording Club sooner than later. You can hear older material here.
November 29, 2006
Locale: cell phone interview in Tuscon traffic
Seeing as how you now have a group of Canadians, why did this band play New York City, Chicago and Spain, before playing Montreal or Toronto?
On paper, none of that stuff ever makes any sense. Itineraries never add up. We squeezed in those two U.S. dates in between our European dates and when I was moving to Denmark for a few months. Every country has some kind of momentum, and for some reason there were some festivals in Spain that really wanted the choir. You can’t be everywhere at once, so we figured we’d get everywhere eventually.
What do you think excited the Spanish so much in particular?
I don’t know. Could have been that I have a new non-agent agent, someone who’s getting me shows but isn’t an agent. Ever since then, things have been going really well over there.
Had the Voices of Praise ever toured before?
I don’t think so.
How did they react to the Howe Gelb style of touring?
They vowed to bring smaller luggage next time. I think they had a good time, and I’ve had the best time I’ve ever had on the road.
Yeah. It’s like having a small town out there. There’s about 17 of us, with crew and band and choir. The shows play themselves effortlessly. They’re so simple and fun and exuberant and sweaty. It’s a jubilation of sorts, a small pocket of celebration of humanity. Right after that, I go out alone, totally solo, and somewhere in there I do the four-piece Giant Sand thing. Between all three factions it’s the full sonic gamut.
Who is the backing band? Is [drummer] Jeremy [Gara] with you on any of those dates?
No, because fortunately Jeremy got that gig with Arcade Fire after we recorded the album. They’re doing so well so his time is limited. He managed to give us those couple of U.S. shows. These days we have Andrew McCormack [of Wooden Stars], who lives in Toronto, and he sounds great. Lots of fun to play with. There seem to be some possibilities for some swingin’ jazz with him, but I don’t know where the songs will go yet.
My understanding is that this germinated at the Ottawa Bluesfest in 03, at a church show with Jim Bryson.
Jim and I were surrounded by gospel choirs.
You were bookended, weren’t you?
There was one or two before us and one or two after. Later, after I’d left there, I felt like I was hammered by the sensation. The sonic aftertaste was resounding, and I was in my hotel room at the Lord Elgin, which was half a block away from the Baptist church. I couldn’t shake it. Even though it didn’t make any sense my instinct was to go back to the church, even though I knew the show was over for the day and no one would be there. But I had a whiskey and went back over there, trying to talk myself out of any logical explanation. When I got there, there was one unannounced late night event, another gospel choir. The hunch paid off again, and I took it in again. It was there that I approached the director of the church to see if he thought a collaboration was possible without religious material, just using the sound and the vibe. That’s when he gave me the green light. He said, ‘Yeah, if you keep it positive.’
Unknown to me at the time, that unannounced set was the Voices of Praise. I didn’t realize that until they assembled in the studio later, that they were the last band I had seen.
They were also friends with Jim, somehow.
The director, Steve Johnson, had gone to high school with Jim. It was all happenstance that later, when I mentioned it to other people—especially Dave Draves, who was playing with Jim that night—that Jim knew someone who might know a gospel choir, which turned out to be the same folks that I had seen.
What was your exposure to gospel music before? Because this sounds like quite a revelation to you.
It was fairly minimal. I was arms-length to it. I’d never seen it live.
Surely you’d heard it on record.
Yeah. It wasn’t impressive to me on record. Certain sounds don’t translate to recordings. Some bands blow you away live, but things get too contained in a studio, trying to fit into that small two-track stereo scenario that doesn’t have the same thrust of movement as the live ordeal.
I got to the church early that day to find a piano I could use for my set, because there’s always a piano hidden in a church somewhere. There I found the director of the church and asked him if I could use it. After I’d set it up, the first choir had arrived and were rehearsing, and I was riveted. The overtones of the human voices and how they were meshing just kept getting mightier and mightier. Later that night there was a choir with 35 people in it, and it was mindblowing. I couldn’t move. My feet could move, but I couldn’t leave.
Did it resonate with any of your own spirituality?
Those beliefs are singular. I don’t think they can be put into any accurate wordings. I never think words cut it anyway. Sometimes they come close to portraying our feelings, but they never accurately represent. Whereas music does. From the moment your ears form in the belly, that part of your sensory perception develops before any other. You can hear the sound of human voices, the white noise of the blood rush. That gets exaggerated in development, and music becomes way more powerful and accurate than any kind of description, be it lyrics or explanation or reason or logic. My spirituality, I allow it to be wordless.
Do you feel that most when you’re on stage, in a communion with the audience?
When I’m getting dizzy, I know I’m on to something. When that occurs, I stick around and investigate and allow the flow—whether it’s flowing through me or I flow through it or whatever. But in terms of explaining it to anybody, I don’t feel the need to do that. I can’t align with anything organized anyway.
Did you have any conversations about common ground with the choir?
In the beginning, before he signed on to this thing, Steve asked to see my lyrics to know what he was getting into. That was kind of funny, because I’d never even thought of that before. I handed him some of the lyrics, and I wondered about them myself. Sometimes I don’t know what these things mean until way later. That’s a fun part of the process, re-examining myself. I used some old Giant Sand songs that could’ve or should’ve had a choir. That’s how I found my first live group, was looking for backing singers. I’d been meaning to accumulate a choir for a while.
Was the Giant Sand material chosen for lyrical purposes? Or musical?
Both. There’s something about how those songs were assembled that I thought they could benefit from a choir.
Which songs are those? “Chore of Enchantment,” obviously.
That’s one of the later ones, and it was never really released anyway. It was written during the time of the album Chore of Enchantment, but we didn’t really put it out.
Was that on the B-sides companion release?
Yeah. The Rock Opera Years, we called it. “The Robes of Bible Black” was an old one. Those lyrics came to me in a weird dreamstate of half-asleep, half-awake. I’ve never really written anything else like that, where the words tumble out. “Get To Leave” I always thought was a positive spin on when the time comes to end this life. There’s another one, but I can’t think of which one it is now.
The Rainer Ptacek songs are well suited to this, and I think those are my favourites on this record.
Good. Because he woulda been there. He woulda been part of this thing. He helped lead me there from the beginning. Those two songs are among the earliest things he did, and “The Farm” is the last thing he did. The earlier songs were almost just one chord, which is really fun because you can really get into the rhythm and the thrust of it without worrying about how the song is constructed.
Was the other material stuff you had lying around, or was it written specifically for this project? A lot of it deals with themes of redemption, afterlife and inspiration.
They’re just core issues. Most things that take up our time here are just diversions. It always comes back to survival and what you think right and wrong is and problemsolving how to get through life. The only thing you know for sure is that it’s going to end, and what happens then? So playing the hunch and trying to get through everything no matter what’s clobbering you—everything else is a diversion.
When I started coming up with this material—when I realized that this thing might actually happen, and that wasn’t until I was on the plane there for the first time—I had nothing arranged. I had been in touch with a woman named Susan Odle, who was a folksinger. When I told her my idea that night after I’d seen the choir—I’d just met her there, and then I ran into her again—she was really helpful in keeping that idea alive.
Then I sat in with Jim that night and Dave was playing keyboards with him, and Dave told me that we had met before, that he had stayed at my house when he was on tour with Julie Doiron, and that he had a studio. I think it was Susan that emailed me his number, so I kept in touch with Dave about the studio. Dave told me that Jim knew a fellow he went to high school with, so that was it.
I bought a plane ticket—I guess you could call it a leap of faith. This was December 2003. I didn’t know what I was going to do or what I was going to play or if the choir would sign on. I had no musicians lined up. That’s the way most of my life has been: I decide I’m going to do it, and if anything more happens, that’s great. There I am on the plane, and I started getting excited and three songs wrote themselves on the plane. When I landed, more kept coming in the hotel room there. Then I went to the studio and I loved it—perfect for me.
That’s where I met Jeremy. Supposedly he had placed himself there. He was playing guitar, not even playing drums, and Dave mentioned that Jeremy played drums if I needed someone for this project. I thought, ‘Might be a good idea—that’s how I found [John] Convertino [longtime Giant Sand drummer, co-founder of Calexico]. He was put in front of me, and I figured it was an omen.’ And man, I loved the way Jeremy played. I was excited about the new material, but then to sit down with him—that is the way I work, mostly. Just to sit down with a drummer and play guitar and get the songs on the first take, just going with your gut.
That’s how it all started to happen. Then we met Steve and the choir and they started piling in, and that studio is tiiii-ny. It was cold and it started to snow, and it was all very exciting.
I understand that most of the bed tracks are you and Jeremy, with the choir added later.
How do you think it would have sounded if it was all live with the choir?
Yeah, well that’s the thing! That’s there for next time! As you get older, you get into this business because it’s non-routine. Routine becomes your enemy in a way, or you can’t handle normal routine because you’re used to the rock’n’roll lifestyle where everything is different. But things eventually fall into routine anyway, and that’s why folks get jaded or disgruntled or not as exuberant and fascinated as they get older, because they’ve seen it all before. When something happens to wake you out of that, you just embrace it. And this cut through the routine and everything I knew.
What does the image of the snow angel convey to you?
We did most of the tracks those couple of days in December. Right near the end it started snowing, and I’ve spend too many years in the desert, so when it’s cold or even rainy, it makes me happy. The snow is just over the top. I started going outside the studio and playing in the snow. At first we were playing basketball. I remembered being a kid in Pennsylvania and making snow angels, and the whole image made sense to me, as a good summation of the project. Then I thought, what if I get everyone in the choir to make snow angels at the same time, and then get someone on the roof to take a picture? Then when you look at it on a CD, it won’t look like everyone’s on the ground, it will look like they’re standing up and flying around. But I didn’t have the heart to ask them to lay in the snow when it was –20 or something. I only admitted to that idea way later, on the road. I still have that to look forward to someday.
You grew up in Pennsylvania, then?
I was born in Pennsylvania, and then in ’72 when I was 15, our house got smashed by a big flood in the river. Hurricane Agnes had moved up the coast. That’s when I started spending time in Arizona with my dad; he had moved out there already because he was divorced and remarried out there. Then I just stayed.
I was reading on your website about your collaboration with [the Austrian electro-acoustic band] Radian. I know your method is to be always be recording and whatever comes out whenever—this album was in the can for three years—but is there an album’s worth of Radian material in the can?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure! I’ve spent a few days at a time on different occasions with those guys. I know they work slowly, which cracks me up. When I first heard their stuff, I thought it was very random. I asked them one time, ‘How do you guys know what song you’re playing?’
That’s not normally a question musicians want to hear!
(laughs) And they just said that they work out everything meticulously and play it the same way each time. That blew my mind a bit. There’s no telling when that thing will come out or when they’ll be done with it.
Or how you’d do it live, because it sounds like the polar opposite approach to your live shows.
That’s part of it. Just the fact that it can happen at all in the studio means that it can happen.
That was a wonderful thing about the choir, too. For someone as scatterbrained as me to take on—without a manager—the logistics and details of assembling a tour to Europe—several times—of nine people in a choir and four people in a band, all from Canada, all from a place that I’m not, and all the travel arrangements—oh man, the insanity of all that.
In fact, on the first leg of the tour, things got easier because we had an art grant from England that paid for the flights. But I had arranged a few warm-up shows in Europe before that, and we had no vehicle and no tour manager. I had a sound guy, and it was just me organizing everything. It started in Brussels, and then we all took the train to the two German shows and then on a plane to fly to London. It was hysterical.
There are moments when my brain just shuts off, when there are too many details it’s handling. The only thing that made all that happen was the excitement of never having played with them live before. The only song recorded live was ‘Get to Leave.’ I thought, once we get going and playing live, it’s worth anything.
It sounds like the planning took several years off your life, but the shows added many more.
(laughs). That which taketh away also giveth? Is that what you’re trying to say? I believe in the church of reverse psychology!