Thursday, July 12, 2007

Miracle Fortress

The Polaris Prize nominees were announced on Tuesday, and amidst no small share of grumbling about inclusions or exclusions (Apostle of Hustle was robbed!), the one item that made me the happiest was the inclusion of Five Roses by Montreal's Miracle Fortress. Though I like several of the albums on the list, there are few that I love as a song cycle, a sustained mood, a real album--which is the whole point of Polaris in the first place.

This record snuck out quietly a little more than a month ago to zero expectations--especially among anyone unimpressed by Think About Life, the other project for the 23-year old Miracle Fortress mainman Graham Van Pelt. Yet Five Roses has quickly captured the attention and imagination of many with its delicate and dreamy pop songs set to a hazy soundscape of indeterminate origin, sounding like the ultimate 70s summit between Brians Wilson and Eno. I've been smitten from the first time I heard it--when it showed up unannounced on a multi-disc player on an early summer Scrabble evening with my beloved, who has since become its biggest and earliest champion.

Here, guest poster Helen Spitzer (the aforementioned beloved) talks to Van Pelt for this article in Eye Weekly about living and creating in Friendship Cove, the (soon-to-be-shuttered) loft/living/studio and performance space he shares with poster artist Jack Dylan and others in Griffintown, a historic English-speaking working class factory district in Montreal. He also explains how he's always been a solitary man since growing up in the Shakespearian small town of Stratford, Ontario, and how attached he is to the album format--something that is evident in everything that went into the minor masterpiece that is Five Roses.

Miracle Fortress, Graham Van Pelt
Interview by Helen Spitzer
June 13, 2007
Locale: phone interview from the Friendship Cove in Griffintown, Montreal

Helen Spitzer: What does your Miracle Fortress look like?

That’s privileged information. I don’t want to give that out on the phone. Especially to a journalist.

HS: Good point. But really, where does that name come from?

Actually the Miracle Fortress looks like a big pile of equipment that is arranged in a circle, that I used to get into and play onstage when I did solo shows. I climbed in behind this drum set and three amplifiers and a whole bunch of keyboards and samplers and tried to play everything at once. It was a glorified one-man band.

HS: You don’t do that anymore?

I’m still doing a little of that at the beginning of sets that I play, but now I’ve got a backing band that helps me [for the rest of the set].

HS: Who’s in the band?

Jordan Robson-Cramer plays in Sunset Rubdown and Magic Weapon, and Adam from Telefauna and Jessie from SS Cardiacs.

HS: To me, this seems to be a really joyful record.

Yeah, that’s weird. I guess it kind of is. It just kind of happened that way. Some of the lyrics are pretty personal and kind of dark. The songs that ended up being keepers were these really fluffy pop washes that I ended up really liking. It wasn’t something that I had planned on. There was no blueprint for it.

HS: I wasn’t suggesting it was unrelentingly happy or anything. For the most part, the lyrics seem to be an internal conversation and I’m curious what that’s about.

Well, a lot of it is private. Issues I’ve always dealt with, that I ended up writing lyrics about because I wanted to deal with. There are songs about the inability to express myself and songs about troubles with religion. And then songs about goofy relationships in the sun: sunshiny summertime flings or whatever.

HS: What are your issues with religion?

Not even religion, but just weird spiritual experiences that I’ve felt, or had growing up. Not really being able to interpret them and not really wanting to tag it as religion, or anything, but I don’t know what to do with it.

HS: What were those?

Oh, I dunno, a lot of pretty private stuff. But there were definitely moments when I … I don’t know how to go into this, but just like sort of confusing awakenings and stuff like that.

HS: Like being aware of a presence?

Yeah, stuff like that. It was more psychedelic experiences. I would be really bad at describing it here, though. That’s a tough question

HS: The record is also really sentimental. And I don’t mean that in a negative way at all; it’s something I connected with immediately.

I wanted to try something that was less ironic, and kind of grandiose, and try to do something that was a little more personal. If you abandon irony you end up with sentiment, and then you either try to mask it for the sake of your own decorum, or you just subtly deal with it. The sentimentality in the songs is scary or personal but I left them there instead of trying to hide or something.

HS: So what’s your motivation for abandoning irony?

At the time I had been doing a lot of really tongue in cheek music and doing things that were really intentionally over the top. And fans were acting over the top and ironic and I wasn’t really relating to it very much anymore. I guess I wanted to see if I could be one of these artists who could revive a bit of seriousness.

HS: Or just sincerity.

Yeah exactly. I don’t know if I was particularly successful, but I think I’d admired those artists most, the ones who could put themselves out there in an honest way. And there’s tons of great stuff that comes out of being silly and goofy.

HS: So how would you characterize Think About Life?

It’s changing a lot but it definitely started out as a joke band that became serious. And now we’re actually writing songs and treating it with some respect, instead of this recklessness that we used to approach it with.

HS: So you continue to be involved.

Oh yeah. We’re recording new stuff and have an EP coming out at the end of the summer. It’s in a transitional phase right now because it’s going away from being totally non-serious and almost like ironically sentimental or childish to [something else]. We’re trying to keep some of that childish awe but actually take the project seriously. Which is weird.

HS: My first impression of Five Roses was that it was the sound of someone falling in love.

I did write a lot of the songs in one of those sweeping, early periods of a relationship, so it was very exciting. That was where most of the songs came from. There was definitely that kind of sweetness that came from experiences coming from very early in a relationship.

HS: Alluding to what you were saying earlier about an internal monologue, you seem to be cautioning yourself to be careful with your heart.

It’s true. It’s clearly a biographical piece of work. And working solo in the studio for three months or whatever, not having any outside input, you spend your time with your inner demons. I was just talking to myself the whole time, singing to myself. It was weird putting this character into a record that was actually me. Sometimes it’s very awkward to listen to.

HS: Did cautioning yourself work, though? Was that good advice?

[Laughs] Like I said, it was stuff that was written in a very early phase of a relationship, and the relationship itself didn’t end up working out. But I can still treasure the instances and experiences that were happening.

HS: The real sentimentalist in me was really rooting for you. When I listened to the record, I thought, “This is the love of his life!”

[Laughs] That’s how it felt at the time, yeah.

HS: Tell me about when you came to Montreal. You moved directly from Stratford, Ontario?

Three years I’ve been here.

HS: Who were the first people you connected with musically in Montreal?

The first people I met were the AIDS Wolf guys and this band called Les Angles Morts. I went and saw Torngat the first weekend I was here. AIDS Wolf started practicing at the house I was living in, which was totally obscene and pretty terrible to have to endure as far as volume was concerned, but great. But they were big influences from the get-go, just being really gung-ho and putting on a great show. Eventually you meet everyone because it’s a pretty small little community.

HS: It’s just like a small town.

The English-speaking community is all concentrated into two neighbourhoods that aren’t really bigger than your average small southern Ontario town. Every second person is a musician or promoter or label guy.

HS: The longer I was in Montreal the more unrealistic perception I had of the rest of the world.

Yeah, totally. It’s kinda heaven.

HS: What do you think of Griffintown?

It’s okay. It kind of forces a certain lifestyle on you that you either adapt to or resent. It’s very, very boring and quiet here, as opposed to anywhere else in Montreal. You have to either immerse yourself in your work, or go completely crazy. It’s good if you have a project on the go or a deadline or something. But when you’re not really doing anything it can be a pretty big drag. I have to like vacation out to the Mile End and crash on everyone’s couches just to socialize,

HS: Really?! You’ll take a break from Griffintown and go sleep somewhere else?

Yeah, you have to. There’s nobody here and there’s nowhere to go and as far as business, there’s no street [life] here.

HS: I had a sense there had been people moving there recently.

Yeah, people are moving here but they just stay up in their condos on the 17th floor or get into their underground parking garages.

HS: So tell me about your sordid past in Stratford!

There wasn’t a lot going on there. I just was doing music on my own. It’s actually how I learned to do a lot of the studio stuff that I do.

HS: What were your musical beginnings?

My parents got me a guitar. I wasn’t into it initially, but after a while I started getting obsessive started reading a lot and really wanted to test myself, and try out every genre that I heard. And see if I could create the same genre I was hearing and listening to.

HS: I’m dying to know how you achieved the sound on this record. Certainly, there are elements that you can point to as being derivative, but at the same time that it’s so bright and sunny it also has this detached, icy feeling. It’s a very consistent sound, yet it evolves over the course of the record. It’s constantly surprising.

There’s no one trick or one piece of equipment that I ran everything through to achieve the effect that I was looking for. I was very into a lot of recordings from the 60s or early 70s, solo pop musicians that I was really admiring at the time: people like Harry Nilsson and John Cale and Brian Eno, especially early John Cale records. I was listening to the tone and the way the instruments used to sing back then, the carefulness with how engineers back then would record instruments.

I tried to impose the kind of restrictions that they would have had. Like if you want to get a reverb sound, don’t just record whatever and then throw a reverb plug-in or something. I wanted to really use the sound of a big room, and record things naturally. I was trying to find the subtlety that engineers used back then, as opposed to recording a bunch of instruments and then fixing it in mixing.

It was all about taking care to get the right tone out of the instrument you were using, or finding two or three instruments that blended really well together and then play them really carefully so that they all kind of sit with one another and form this kind of chorus. Brian Wilson did this on Pet Sounds, blending two or three different instruments very carefully in time so that what you get is this new instrument, like an accordion and a chime and a saxophone or something, coming together and creating this voice that’s totally new and different. Instead of EQing or compressing your sounds, try changing them by blending them in an interesting way.

HS: You were talking about going for natural reverb and using the space that you were recording in. Did you record everything at Friendship Cove?

Yeah. I have a big room that’s really dry and dead sounding, and a big room that’s totally drywall and concrete and really live. I use the “live” room just to get a lot of the big singing reverb and I use the “dead” room to give the keyboards some air without making them too washed out.

HS: Tell me about Friendship Cove.

I had my bed in one of the rooms and I’d roll out of bed in the morning and have it all there in front of me.

HS: How many people live there?

There are four of us that live here. And a few more bands use it as a practice space.

HS: I understand you spent a lot of time sequencing the album.

Definitely. We came up with a lot of sequences and finally arrived at one. During mastering I was moving all the songs around, dramatically. It feels like one piece of music to me now. Even if I’m not listening to it, I imagine it in the order that it got sequenced. I always do this to any album. I never listen on random. I never do anything like that.

HS: I hate random. It’s just wrong.

Oh, completely. It is an art form. Albums are arranged as pieces of music too. I mean, you wouldn’t put a song on random?! You wouldn’t like, hear the chorus first and then want to go to the breakdown and then hear the first verse or something.

HS: Well, unless you’re Venetian Snares. I am now wondering if they’re working on iPods that do exactly that.

So shuffle up a song in 10 second segments? (laughs)

HS: Do you think that the iPod’s kind of messed with how people listen to albums?

Not having first hand experience, I don’t really know. I’ve never been able to afford one. I get this certain joy out of holding a record and taking it out and putting it on, and looking at the artwork while it plays and reading the lyric sheet. I really notice it missing when I’m just throwing an MP3 on. And the fidelity, actually. I didn’t used to notice it but I really do now. I’ve really started to feel the high register missing. It messes with reverb and it messes with cymbals, and I find the bass gets mushy too.

HS: So you enjoy the entire tactical and visual experience of an album.

I guess because I was getting into music just before all the IPod and MP3 stuff started to happen, so I was trained on albums, and going into a CD store and flipping through everything.

HS: Were there other people who played on the record?

No, I played everything on the record, for better or for worse. It’s just easier if you can do it. I’m just too impatient to call up a drummer friend and schedule a day and have him over. Especially when you’re doing pop music where the playing is pretty basic. I do like playing with other musicians and I really like collaborating when I’m improvising, but on the recording end of things, if I’m writing a pop song and arranging it, it makes so much less sense to have to schedule around other people. I like to do things really fast.

HS: So you’re self-taught in all the other instruments you play, like drums?

No, I took about four or five drum lessons when I was in high school. Same thing with guitar. I did try. I should have stayed in them longer. I did all of my improvement during those lessons and it’s been kind of frozen since then.

HS: Do you have any difficulty translating this to a live show??

Plenty! [Laughs] For one thing, doing stuff with other musicians who have different playing styles, you have to get used to hearing what someone else’s guitar technique is gonna be compared to your guitar line. Which is often better than what you did, but it’s all different. Also doing stuff that electronic stuff in the studio and then trying to get a live act to do it, you have no control over the very subtle tone changes, for example, that you can do to a kick drum sample. Having the songs come to life can be a bit jarring at first.

HS: And you have to consider the live setting itself. As a member of the audience you’re not going to hear the subtlety, regardless.

I’m more just worried that they’re gonna be terribly bored if I’m playing these slow, cerebral songs with very particular and precious arrangements. I’d much rather turn it into some kind of rocking thing that people actually want to stand there and watch.


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