I've known Nathan Lawr for the better part of ten years, since he was a wide-eyed youngster who caught his first big break as King Cobb Steelie's drummer on the Junior Relaxer tour in 1997. After that, he sat behind the skins for Jim Guthrie, Royal City, the Fembots, the Hylozoists and many others. But in 2003 he shocked even some of his closest friends with his debut album The Heart Beats a Waltz, where he proved to be an incredibly melodic songwriter and a great singer as well.
Though he has many enthusiastic fans in Toronto's musician community, he still toils in obscurity and puts out amazing albums that can't seem to get him arrested anywhere else. Because I'm on a terrible computer right now after drowning my laptop--as well as being in a pre-CMJ flurry--I'll say little more and refer you to this review of his latest album A Sea of Tiny Lights, as well as this review of his last album Secret Carpentry.
I'll share my thoughts of last night's Springsteen show next week, long after it's likely relevant. But I will say this: when I saw him in 1999 he was ecstatic to be back with the E Street Band; in 2002 he was no doubt still excited and had new material to boot. Was he excited at all this time? Maybe it's just because it's my third time seeing him, but it seemed a bit rote. Don't get me wrong, it was still amazing--the new material is very strong, and hearing the one-two punch of pianist Roy Bittan's finest work on "Candy's Room" and "She's the One" had me screaming in ecstasy. But he's showing his age; last time he was all over the stage, and now he has trouble jumping up for a song's final note. Maybe it's for the best: last night's strength was the songs, not the spectacle.
Side note: not that my Springsteen piece in Eye this week is full of original ideas, but it sounds like Robert Everett-Green of the Globe and Mail read it before writing his review this morning of the Ottawa show.
And no, the Arcade Fire didn't show up at the Toronto show. But in the interest of a cheap segue to get us back on track, I should point out that it was Nathan Lawr who first invited the Arcade Fire for a weekend of Ontario shows back in the spring of 2003, playing the Rivoli in Toronto, the tiny Black Mustard in Guelph, and Call the Office in London--where the Arcade Fire played one song for the one person left in the audience and called it a night.
So back to Mr. Lawr, who has some shows of his own this weekend: Thursday at Supermarket in Toronto with Andy Swan and Kate Maki, Friday at the Spill in Peterborough, Saturday at the Velvet Elvis in Oshawa. More details here.
June 6, 2007
Locale: phone interview from his home in Sudbury
My favourite song here is “There’s a Devil,” mainly because of the instrumentation: the distorted Wurlitzer and what I’m assuming is Jeremy Strachan’s horn arrangement. Was the live orchestral EP you did before or after the second record?
It was right after my first record.
Where do you see orchestrations fitting into what you do? Or do you prefer not to do it too much so that you can play it live?
When I was making the second album, I didn’t have the financial resources to dream of doing something that elaborate. So I went the total opposite direction, and tried to make it as stripped down as I could. I applied for an OAC grant for this one, hoping to do something in between: orchestrated while being lo-fi in a way. That was the idea on this one. Even now I feel like I didn’t really hit it. I’m already thinking of a fourth record.
Who’s on this record? I haven't seen the art yet.
Kristian Galberg on guitar; Shaw-Han Liem on most keyboards, though I play some too; Evan Clarke on drums, except for a couple of songs; and Simon Osborne on bass. Produced by Andy Magoffin, and Dave MacKinnon engineered some of it. Paul Aucoin plays on a song, Jimmy Guthrie sings on a song, Kate Maki sings on a couple of things. That’s about it.
There’s a lot more piano on this record than I remember. Are you writing more on it?
Yeah, because we got a beautiful old Heintzmann for 200 bucks. It’s a gorgeous thing. I play it all the time. All the new songs I’m writing now are all on piano. Every song on the album that has a piano was written on it. I did a bunch of demos, and Shaw-Han copied what I did.
As a drummer who learned how to play guitar and is now writing on piano, what do you like about it?
There’s that Frank Zappa quote that piano is just an elaborate percussion instrument. To get your mind around where the notes are on a guitar is rather abstract. Maybe it’s because I had piano lessons when I was young, but it’s easier for me to understand chords and scales because of the way it’s laid out. It’s more tactile as well. It’s the perfect combination of drumming and guitar.
You and I have talked before about what it’s like to go back to school and be invigorated with new ideas, but how does your musical education continue and expand?
It’s interesting that you ask that, because I’ve been doing this radio show at the campus station, and I’ve never listened to as much music as I do now.
That says a lot, actually, knowing what a voracious music fan you are.
(laughs) It’s true! There was a while when I wasn’t listening to much other than my own music, when I was working on it. But that can be detrimental. Suddenly I’m appreciating music I haven’t in the past, and hearing stuff that I never thought was possible. Have you heard this
Tinariwen CD? I can’t believe that stuff. Had I not been doing this radio show and consciously gone looking for interesting music, I wouldn’t have found that.
This all ties into moving away from Toronto as well, and getting away from the mindset that everything you do is going to be scrutinized by critics and peers. That can be overwhelming. Opening up new doors in the music I’m listening to has opened up new doors in my own music and let me relax in a lot of ways. All these records that I love, they don’t sell any records and most people I know haven’t heard of them. So if people don’t react to my music the way they react to the Arcade Fire doesn’t mean that I’m a bad musician or a loser (laughs).
Is that easy to think in Toronto?
It’s definitely easy to think now, when I’m trying to find a label and don’t get a response. ‘I guess I suck.’ But the more music I listen to, I realise that you have to do what you do and if people like it, they like it. With my new record, I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done, but even my parents say, “Oh, I don’t know…”
I’m guessing most of your Toronto musician friends would assume you’d be more isolated living in Sudbury, not suddenly discovering more music.
I really think the internet blows that idea out of the water. I don’t go to record stores anymore. There’s only one in town and they have some stuff, but if they have to order something it takes them two weeks to get it and it costs me $20 because it’s an import or whatever. So I go on iTunes. I’m more in touch with musicians I play with now, in many ways, than I ever was when I lived in Toronto.
Just from the internet, email chat and all that stuff. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I talk to people all the time.
You have to go away for them to miss you.
(laughs). You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone, it’s true.
‘I’m not going to call Nathan. He lives right around the corner. I’m sure I’ll see him.’
There’s a weird truth to that. In Sudbury we have a rule that anyone can drop by at any time, and people actually do. I lived in Toronto for a long time, and I don’t ever remember people dropping by for the sake of it. I don’t know what that says about Toronto vs. Sudbury.
I want to ask about some of these songs, particularly “Righteous Heart.” What’s with the freshwater shark?
Okay, have you ever heard of a guy named Alberta Slim?
Sounds familiar. You don’t forget a name like that after you’ve heard it once.
Royal City met him when we went to the Yukon. He was 98 at the time. Aaron [Riches] and Simon [Osbourne] went to have breakfast with him. He’s like a Stompin’ Tom guy, except he’s an incredible yodeller. I was reading some things about his life when he died. He was moving all over the country to be with his lady and wrote all these songs that became famous. The line in my song about the apple blossom hills refers to famous song of his called “Apple Blossom Time in Annapolis Valley.”
The song is sort of about him, but it morphed into something else. There’s a line about the San Francisco earthquake, which I was reading about: “Furniture and chimneys went dancing through my room to a seismographic subterranean tune.” It refers to a story I read about a famous Parisian opera singer who was in San Francisco when the earthquake happened, and he describes waking up in the morning and thinking he was in a weird nightmare because all the furniture in his room was bouncing up and down and moving across the floor.
Long story short, the freshwater shark line—there is indeed such a thing. But it’s such a weird image. The line is, “Lord above me, there’s a freshwater shark below me.” The idea is that you can never tell what’s coming your way. I have a fear of deep water, and when I’m swimming in a lake I’m always nervous about what’s going to be down there. The only thing that saves me is that I know there’s nothing down there that can do me any harm. Maybe a loon will bite me in the balls, but what are the chances? But if there was a freshwater shark, that would change everything.
Where do these sharks reside?
The metaphorical sharks? Or the real ones? The real ones are in Australia. I saw it on a nature show, where people were surfing and wakeboarding in this river thinking they were totally safe, meanwhile, there were sharks lurking in the depths. It’s the truth!
A carnivorous shark?
A real fucking shark! They come in from the ocean and can breathe in freshwater. That blew my mind.
Tell me about “Footsteps,” which is a rather morbid tale of desert torture set to a rather upbeat tune.
That is about James Loney. I read an interview with him. He was saying that the most difficult thing about his situation was that being a devout Christian was that he was obligated to maintain his love and appreciation for his captors. When he was trying to figure out a way to escape, whatever plan he devised had to include not harming them. He was talking about how that is the greatest challenge, not the discomfort. His benevolence blew my mind. And the fact that he was rescued, but the details of that are still mostly unknown. When he returned to Canada, he didn’t talk to the press very much.
One of the hardest tenets of Christianity for a lot of people is turning the other cheek and loving your enemy. I can imagine it’s even harder when you’re in captivity.
It’s profound in the deepest of ways, and it affected me a lot.
And musically, it’s quite happy!
It’s fun to juxtapose that kind of thing. I don’t want to be too much of a downer. I do want to talk about dark things, but not in a dark way. “There’s a Devil” is about that Gus Van Sant film, Elephant, which is about Columbine.
I wanted to ask about “If You Don’t Believe Me,” which has a line about people coming to cut our throats and how maybe we deserve it. What kind of a chickens-coming-home-to-roost song is that?
It’s exactly what you think it is. It’s a protest song, I suppose. I mean, really, what the fuck do you expect? How come we can’t put two and two together, and why is this such a taboo thing and not more openly discussed? Why do administrations—our country and the United States and Europe—refuse to acknowledge that conditions that are created because of the economic system in this world… [trails off] I think it’s clear. There’s a certain amount of religious antagonism as well. The people who do those things [throat-cutting] are not exactly reasonable… but I think that any kind of military violence is inherently ridiculous, and nothing can justify it in my mind.
How do you go about putting that in song?
Well…. I don’t know. (laughs)
The sentiment in that song is kind of clear, and yet I feel I have to ask, so it’s not hitting me over the head with anything, and it’s not so oblique that I can’t tell what it’s about.
In some ways, that’s one of my most successful songs because of that. It addresses what I want it to without being heavy-handed about it, and it’s loose-ended as well. I did want to take my songwriting to another level, because I do feel that my songs in the past have been too obtuse. At the same time, I hate it so much when songs are just: “I feel like this.” You gotta cloud it up and cover it over to be interesting.
What are your other musical activities?
I’m doing Fembots stuff occasionally, and that’s about it. We’re going to go do a writing retreat, the Fembots and I. I do the odd studio thing here and there. I play on that new Wil record. That’s about it. I’m not that busy, and I don’t mind it.
I hear [Lawr’s girlfriend] Kate [Maki] has a record coming out this year.
Yep, it’s pretty much done. She did it in Ottawa with Dave Draves and Howe Gelb. She’s looking to release that around Christmas time, and go to Europe.
Are you going to be involved in that?
I don’t actually know. It’s sort of up in the air. Part of me thinks that she should go do her thing and I should go do mine. There’s something to be said for playing music together, and there’s something to be said for having different experiences. We’ll cross that bridge when it comes.
Or just get another jamboree tour together. [They toured together with Ruth Minnikin and Dale Murray, ex-Guthries, where all played their own songs and backed each other up.]
We’re also talking about that, but we’ll probably do it under a band name this time. Though Dale is really busy, and hard to pin down. He’s doing Cuff the Duke, Nathan Wiley, and Matt Mays, and they’re all time-consuming.
How are you putting this record out?
I really wanted to attempt to find a label, but I’ve had no luck whatsoever. I’m giving it until the end of the summer, and then if nothing happens I’ll just do it myself, like I did with the other ones—which I was hoping to avoid. I’m not sure what kind of response I was looking for. But nothing I’ve done since my first record has generated that kind of response. I don’t why. I think I’m getting better! It doesn’t make any sense to me. But obviously I’m not the first artist to think that.