Sunday, March 30, 2008
Most of these reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury; two of them ran in the winter issue of Magnet. More tomorrow, but in alphabetical order here, they are: Baby Dee, Erykah Badu, Black Mountain, Burning Hell, Cadence Weapon, Cat Power, Devastations, Fairmont, Forest City Lovers.
Baby Dee - Safe Inside the Day (Drag City)
Life is a cabaret, old chum. Especially if you’re a hermaphrodite harpist in a bee costume who plays accordion on a giant tricycle in a circus, while acting as musical director of a Catholic church by night. Or if you end up back in your hometown of Cleveland working for a tree removal service, while touring Europe with David Tibet’s Current 93 in your spare time.
This kind of life story explains a lot about Baby Dee, whose music immediately conjures up stereotypes of Warholian drag cabaret in 70s New York City. Unlike her friend Antony, Dee’s androgynous voice isn’t angelic—it’s ridiculously melodramatic, especially when she writes herself bewildering choruses with the refrain: “Spill the milk/ steal the meat/ life is bitter and death is sweet/ all the bacon that a boy can eat.” Breakfast pops up as a bizarre life metaphor again when she laments how “father, son and holy ghost/ stole the bacon and burnt the toast.”
Baby Dee is certainly not without talent, especially as a keyboardist; the two instrumentals here are lovely. However, on the high camp of “Big Titty Bee Girl (From Dino Town)” Dee’s vocals sound straight out of community theatre, instead of the restraint and guidance you might expect from co-producer Will Oldham. Baby Dee is an intriguing figure for a variety of reasons, but as the album progresses, one of her titles sticks in the mind: “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities.” (Magnet, Winter 2008)
Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (Universal)
The last time Erykah Badu wrote an album, George W. Bush was not yet the leader of the free world. Eight years later, her vision of New Amerykah is a druggy, discombobulated moral morass on the verge of societal collapse. To her credit, these vivid nightmares are translated into a brilliant music vision.
Badu draws from the deep well of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield here, along with other 70s soul pioneers who had seen the dream of civil rights erode under the weight of economic collapse, political apathy and an influx of hard drugs into the community. Consequently, their brand of soul music started painting with abstract colours borrowed from Miles Davis, rather than the punchy rhythms and horn shots that accompanied earlier messages of affirmation.
Similarly, New Amerykah refuses to settle for easy answers, musically or lyrically. Badu spends much of her energy in an inquisitive mode (“What if there were no niggers, just master teachers?”), while the heavy hip-hop grooves beneath her rattle foundations. Badu rounds up an astounding arsenal of producers: ?uestlove of the Roots, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers, and 9th Wonder.
The two songs featuring Madlib are the trippiest: "The Healer," with its wobbly descending bass line and a clipped cymbal crash that sounds like a burst of white noise; and "My Children," which consists of little more than a monstrous hip-hop beat, African drums and a vocal chant, each element slipping in and out of the beat while Badu sings, “Hold on, my people.”
This isn’t the easy listening hip-hop jazz of Badu’s breakthrough debut album, nor is it the swaggering soul sister of 2000’s Mama’s Gun. Instead, Badu has reinvented herself entirely to address the musical and social climate she awoke to in 2007, and has made a dense, difficult and fascinating soul classic that sounds like nothing else in modern R&B or pop.
And the good news is that, rather than sometime in the next decade, Part Two is expected no later than this summer. (K-W Record, March 20)
Black Mountain – Into the Future (Scratch)
The album title is more than a bit ironic, for Black Mountain’s harshest critics have always argued that there’s a fine line between homage and retro necrophilia. But on their 2005 self-titled album, Vancouver’s sultans of stoner sludge came out swinging with a slab of 70s psychedelic garage rock that pushed all the right buttons, even if it was all too easy to play spot-the-influence.
This time out there are plenty of welcome changes to the band, starting with an increased role for spellbinding vocalist Amber Webb and keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, both of whom ratchet up the spook factor in some of the ghostlier grooves. Yet singer/songwriter Stephen McBean appears to have dropped the ball entirely, giving his band little more than threadbare sketches to work with. His talented comrades—each of whom has a worthwhile side project when not touring the world with Black Mountain—don’t sound committed to the task, especially powerhouse drummer and longtime McBean collaborator Josh Wells, who approaches most of these songs with little more than a shrug.
At their finest, Black Mountain still outshine most of their peers in this admittedly limited genre, but the Future here is full of little more than wasted opportunities. (K-W Record, January 25)
The Burning Hell – Happy Birthday (Weewerk/Outside)
On the portrait found inside this CD, Peterborough singer/songwriter Mathias Kom is pictured against a bleak, wintry Ontario backdrop in a dapper grey suit, clutching a ukulele case in one hand while he’s being pulled to the heavens by a cluster of bright blood-red balloons, Mary Poppins-style. From the slightly bemused look on his face, this happens to him all the time and it’s getting a bit tiresome.
There’s nothing tiresome about The Burning Hell itself; Happy Birthday is a fully-realized debut album, a perfect balance of mirth and the morbid. Like the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, Kom wields a deep baritone and a ukulele and drops tiny, dry and wry punchlines into his songs. And yet underneath the deadpan demeanour are heartbreaking Leonard Cohen-esque songs paying tribute to classic rock dinosaurs and detailing the misadventure of vengeful ghosts, set to aching accordion and mournful cellos played by some former members of The Silver Hearts. Along with his knack for last-call singalongs, Kom also shows off a skill for writing duets—the most gorgeous of which is "Municipal Monarchs," featuring Guelph’s Jenny Mitchell of the Barmitzvah Brothers (now a new addition to the band).
Every song here announces Kom as one of the finest new songwriters in Canada—though don't take my word for it. As Kom himself will tell you on one of the more uplifting tracks here, "Everything You Believe Is A Lie." (K-W Record, January 18)
Cadence Weapon – Afterparty Babies (Upper Class/EMI)
Canadian hip-hop is much like Canadian film—we do better with the weirdoes than with the commercial windfalls. Which, along with his current tourmate Buck 65, is why Edmonton's Cadence Weapon is likely to be the first Canadian hip-hop artist to make a significant international impression since the Dream Warriors (who themselves were decidedly against the grain during their heyday).
Mr. Weapon—also known as Rollie Pemberton—already keeps good company. This, his second album and the follow-up to the Polaris-nominated Breaking Kayfabe, is being released in the US on the same label as Tom Waits; it's coming out in the UK on the progressive 21st century hip-hop label Big Dada; here at home he tours with Final Fantasy.
That kind of introduction gives you an idea of the wealth of influences at work here. Afterparty Babies opens with an a capella doo-wop track titled "Do I Miss My Friends?", which seems apt for an artist who flourishes in the cracks between musical communities. Tellingly, that track is the only nod here to traditions of any kind, either inside or outside hip-hop orthodoxy. From there on in, Cadence Weapon charts his own path.
Afterparty Babies is a rollicking ride through the most inventive strains of late 80s hip-hop (Bomb Squad, De La Soul), neo-electro dance party beats not unlike his neighbours in Shout Out Out Out Out, some tricky turntablism from his longtime accomplice DJ Weasel, abrasive distorted rhythms and playfully glitchy sampling.
Those catholic interests are reflected in his often-arcane list of lyrical references, which include Trudeau's ascot, Aphex Twin, Friendster, James Frey, Ryerson coke dealers, The Globe and Mail, and the perils of wearing pink without irony.
And of course, only a self-deprecating Canadian hip-hopper would write a song called "Unsuccessful Club Nights." Only unlike his debut album, this time out Cadence Weapon drops his tendency for density often enough to make some of these tracks actually suitable for dancing, not just the headier soundscapes heard on his debut.
It's this dexterity that makes Cadence Weapon the great hope of Canadian hip-hop: as a lyricist, as a producer and, as is so rare in this country or in hip-hop itself, as an iconoclast with a taste for the visceral who hits you in the gut instead of stuck there stroking your chin. (K-W Record, March 13)
Cat Power – Jukebox (Matador)
For an established singer/songwriter, covering other people’s songs is more often than not a cop-out—especially when you cut a whole album of them and it turns out to be your breakthrough hit. That’s what happened to Cat Power—aka Chan Marshall—with 2000’s The Covers Record; though it was undeniably superior to anything her nascent talent had released up to that point, it was the way she crawled deep inside and recontextualized songs by Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones and Nina Simone that made it much more than a cheap career move.
Now that Marshall is a pseudo-mainstream indie celebrity—and occasional fashion model—and has earned enough credibility for her own songs that she doesn’t really need to revisit the covers concept. And yet here we have Jukebox, where she tackles iconic songs like "New York New York," Hank Williams’ "Rambling Man" and Joni Mitchell’s "Blue," only to render the chords unrecognizable and the melodies considerably more minor-key, breathing entirely new lives into the lyrics as a result.
To call it her finest album to date isn’t a backhanded compliment: none of these performances attempt to piggyback on our familiarity with the original versions. And this being Marshall’s first post-rehab record, her smoky, sultry voice appears here in full focus, as opposed to the slightly catatonic state heard on 2006’s The Greatest.
That album was recorded in Memphis with vintage soul musicians—and yet the end result was more Sarah McLachlan than Stax Records. Some of those veterans return to greater effect here, including classic soul songwriter Spooner Oldham, and Marshall herself lays off the piano and guitar to concentrate on her vocals.
The song selection frequently draws from music fandom itself: from Bob Dylan’s "I Believe In You," George Jackson’s "Aretha Sing One For Me," Mitchell’s "Blue" and Marshall’s own "Song to Bobby." By immersing herself in the work of others, Marshall once again takes a quantum leap into discovering the best sides of her own talent—which bodes very well for her next batch of original songs. (K-W Record, January 25)
Devastations – Yes, U (Beggars Banquet)
Devastations have the simmering suave nature of Bryan Ferry, the dark and stormy rock atmospherics of Interpol and a dash of Nick Cave, all of which guarantees them a soundtrack spot in some film where it’s always raining and the hero takes late night drives in search of either redemption or revenge. Devastations are experts at conveying mood, which might have something to do with growing up in isolated, expansive Australia and resettling in the European centre of Berlin.
They get full points for production value and the fact that they occasionally catch glimpses of sunlight amidst the gloom and doom, but the songs themselves are plodding and threadbare, the lyrics inconsequential. One of the better tracks here, "Avalanche of Stars," borrows a keyboard riff from Nancy Sinatra’s "You Only Live Twice"; while the aquatic bass, ancient drum machine and pedal steel provide a glorious backdrop, the whole piece still feels like it’s waiting for someone else to bring it all into a tighter focus.
There’s a great backing band here for someone else’s project; on their own, Devastations should farm themselves out for soundtrack work. (K-W Record, February 21)
Fairmont – Coloured in Memory
(Border Community/Fusion III)
Many electronic artists who have built their reputation on techno singles end up choking on a full-length album, especially when they decide to step off the dance floor and lose the pulsating beat to explore different avenues. Toronto expatriate Jacob Fairley, on the other hand, has no qualms about losing his beat crutches and embarking on Tangerine Dream-like voyages into shady cinematic territories, or picking up an electric guitar and whispering into the microphone.
Fairley resides in Berlin these days, but it’s not hard to guess that from Fairmont: the synths sound like vintage 70s gear, the beats are derived from the minimalist clicks’n’cuts movement of the early century, and there are subtle shades of warmth underneath the icy electro exterior, much like the reigning queen of Berlin, Ellen Allien, does in her own work. The glam rock guitars that invaded Fairley’s last release are nowhere to be found; at a time when so many of his contemporaries are branching out into more organic or rockist sounds, Fairley is quite content to make an entirely synthetic record.
But the aesthetic alone doesn’t make this one of the finest Canadian electronic albums in recent memory. His own vocals are barely noticeable and, as to be expected, the beat-friendly tracks rely on repetition and evolution. Yet he still has a songwriter’s ear for melodic hooks and arrangements and knows how to sequence an album: Coloured in Memory never stays in one mood for very long, and the ambient tracks are just as compelling as the beats he’d likely play out for a crowd in a DJ set—which makes it sound just as good on Sunday morning as it does on Saturday night. (K-W Record, March 6)
Forest City Lovers – Haunting Moon Sinking (Out of This Spark/Sonic Unyon)
Beauty lies in the rows of red brick houses in the morning dawn. New possibilities arise every time the streetlights come to life. The small town girl in the big city maintains her poise amidst the bustle, taking carefully detailed notes on her new surroundings and setting it all to lovely melodies that dare to dream beyond all the other bedroom singer/songwriters in her neighbourhood.
On the one hand, singer/songwriter Kat Burns is one in a long line of similar southern Ontario artists with a mastery of minor key melancholy and string-laden songs about leaving those small towns behind. But she’s more multi-dimensional than most, with a band of Lovers who rock out when they have to, are able to step into vintage cabaret mode without a hint of clumsiness, and do a classy dance around Burns’s subtle melodies.
Considerable help comes from bassist Kyle Donnelly (also of labelmates the D’Urbervilles) and violinist Mika Posen. Though Burns often performs solo, this material comes alive in this duo's dynamic hands; even when drummer Paul Weadick backs off, Posen and Donnelly drive the songs away from the more sedate territory of earlier material.
Together with the D’Urbervilles’ debut album and last year’s scene-defining compilation Friends in Bellwoods, Haunting Moon Sinking marks a formidable debut for the new label Out of This Spark. If they keep up this level of quality, they’ll have the best label roster in Canadian indie rock. (K-W Record, March 13)
Thursday, March 20, 2008
It's Bidini's second proper rock'n'roll book, the follow-up to On a Cold Road--a must-read history of Canadian rock music that tells the story of not only the Rheostatics through the 80s and 90s, but that of the bands that came before them in the 70s, when slogging it across the prairie spine in pursuit of rock'n'roll glory still involved plenty of uncharted waters.
Part of that book's charm was its ability to tell stories that we thought we knew, but didn't really--and I'm not just talking about Rheostatics fans, but about all rock fans in Canada who don't think about what happens during the long slogs between gigs, about the horrors and hilarities of the working musician's daily existence beyond the usual biz stories about being shafted by record labels.
This time out, Bidini takes us to places we never think about in the first place--such as what it's like to play Canadian folk songs in a Finnish bar with African women and Azerbaijani piano players. Around the World is about the period of time leading up to the final Rheostatics show at Massey Hall, when Bidini is finding his feet as a solo musician--and doing so in places deep in mainland China and in war-torn Sierra Leone.
The best thing about Bidini's writing is that he always calls it as he sees it; he's not trying to create some kind of overly conscious cross-cultural connection to African hip-hop, or to offer a post-modern analysis of cultural imperialism and white colonial guilt. He's an open-minded , wide-eared Canuck, a rocker first and foremost, one who happens to be an astute observer of the absurdities that bind us together, whether it's a collective obsession that men with skates have with placing a small black disc in a net, or the universal truth of a power chord on an electric guitar.
In Around the World, Bidini finds himself more humbled than ever while facing the impending break-up of his band. As one of his close friends once told me, Bidini is a lifer: he married his high school girlfriend, he still wears ratty old hockey sweaters that he first donned in the early 70s (thankfully only on special occasions--he's really quite a dapper man now), and he's only ever really played in one rock band in his life. Having the rug pulled out from one of the certainties of his life--the Rheostatics--leaves him more open than ever to new discovery, to personal re-invention, to challenging conceptions he's held his whole life. Witnessing that unfold in his writing is a beautiful thing.
I had more in-depth thoughts when I first read the book (I've since given my copy to my brother for Christmas), so don't consider this a proper review. I will say, however, that it's one of the few music books I've even bothered to pick up in the last five years or so. (That it came out around the same time as Carl Wilson's mind-blowing musing on Celine Dion is purely coincidental timing--I'm not going back to rock books, really. They bore me as a genre.)
At the book launch in the fall, Canuckistan comrade Shannon Whibbs told me she had a great conversation with Bidini for Chartattack.com that was, as always no matter the medium, whittled down to a couple of hundred words. Because Bidini and I have gabbed at length countless times before, I thought I'd give Ms. Whibbs the spotlight here instead.
As I'm typing this, I realize that Bidini is playing right now at the Paddock to kick off the Exclaim! Hockey tournament this weekend (an annual event he wrote about in his book The Best Game You Can Name). No doubt you'll see him out and about, on ice and off, at that event all weekend. He is playing April 18 at Call the Office in London. Rheos fans should note that there is a new, downloadable "box set" of Rheos rarities being made available. And he's also been in the news lately for matching fellow hockey rock nut John K. Samson by "winning" the CBC's Canada Reads contest; Bidini championed Paul Quarrington's King Leary. All other things Bidini, music and literary, can be found here--including links to musical works in progress. His debut solo album, The Land is Wild, is expected later this year.
Without further ado, over to you, Ms. Whibbs.
Interview by Shannon Whibbs
Locale: McClelland & Stewart office
SW: After you knew the Rheos were breaking up, you did this solo tour that took you all over the world. What prompted you to write a book about all these experiences?
DB: I thought it would make good fodder for storytelling. When I’m away, I’m writing all the time anyways, in my journal and stuff. I want to see this as a bookend to On a Cold Road; that was about all the time up until a certain achievement, and this is the shadow of that. Having achieved that, it was sort of the top of the mountain and this is the other side of the mountain, and I thought that was worth talking about, through the energy of my trip or travelling.
SW: Did it start and end as you envisioned it, or did it change form?
DB: It changed a lot. I had this wish list. Originally it was gonna be 80 gigs; that was the working title. But we ran out of time. Also, family life [was a factor] too, with two kids. Some part of me envisioned just getting on a train and going right across Europe with my guitar; then I realized, practically and logistically speaking, that that was probably a book that was more suited to somebody with a freer lifestyle. And for the travel in this book, I used up all my coupons, all my domestic coupons, so I had to scale it back a little bit. In the end I wanted to have a full enough view, a perspective of “the world.”
SW: The book is a deeply personal reflection of the break-up of the Rheostatics. Do the other guys know what you’re getting into?
DB: Well, usually with Martin [Tielli], I’ve got carte blanche. When I was doing On a Cold Road, he said to me, “You can write whatever you want about me, it doesn’t matter.” And it really doesn’t—mostly because his memory recall isn’t that great [laughs], and so often he’ll be happy that I remembered half the stuff. Also, because of that book, the guys know that all bets are off; they know me as an honest musician, so why wouldn’t I be an honest writer? Actually, in a way it’s a relief that I was able to write about a breaking-up band that’s never really necessarily going to have to work together—as opposed to On a Cold Road, where I did, to a point, have to be a little bit careful that I didn’t say things that would come back to haunt me. But like any piece of art, the only way it would be a good book, an honest book, was to make it completely honest and real.
SW: I definitely felt that when I was reading it. As a fan, it was really heartbreaking to read. Were you able to achieve your goal in writing about it — were you able to achieve some closure?
DB: Yeah, for sure. For me, the closure came with Dave Bookman’s [on-air] interview [at CFNY] when he surprised us with [The Secret Sessions tribute album.] That was a great moment because we were together and we were all really emotionally moved and there were a lot of tears that night. It was good for that to happen a week before the actual show; you get that all out of the way. If we’d just shown up at Massey Hall, or at the few rehearsals at Massey Hall, and had not been together and experienced that emotional sense of closure, relief and comfort, then it probably would have been a different show and it probably would have been really, really difficult on an emotional level. Because we’d had that time, playing the show was more of a celebration than anything. Personally, and also in the literary sense, this book achieves a certain closure, too.
SW: What are you hoping that fans will take away from the book? Do you think that they will be able to achieve a sense of closure through it as well?
DB: I think so. I can relate that mostly to the response to On a Cold Road. I know a lot of the stories in that book were important to readers—not necessarily Rheostatics fans, but musicians, in the sense that they could see themselves reflected. [For] fans of the band, they got a sense of what we had gone through, personally and musically, as the band was coming together and also [the] Dave Clark break-up [Clark was the first Rheostatics drummer, 1979-1995]. That whole thing was illuminated [in the book] and I think—not that this would be the sole reason for the book—that our fans deserve that because they do pay such attention to the musical detail. And I think there is emotional detail in the literature based on the band. So I think people will get a greater sense of who we are and who we were and that, in a way, informs the experience as a fan and the appreciation of the music.
SW: For me, as a fan, it felt like it helped tie everything up. And when I was reading, I found it to be such an interesting mix of genres, which is great because there are so many travelogues written, and so many memoirs, and so many musical history books, but you’ve kind of mixed them all together in a really amazing way. I was wondering about what sort of readership you were envisioning when you put this book together.
DB: When the first two books came out, On a Cold Road and Tropic of Hockey, there was a lot of back stuff in there about playing music as a kid and rediscovering hockey as a young adult and stuff, but I never really saw it as memoir-ish. There was this whole big memoir wave and people were saying, “Oh, your books are like memoirs.” Growing up, I thought that a memoir was something that an 80-year-old guy would write. I always felt a little bit slighted or cheated when people would call it that. But this book, simply because I’m older and I’ve seen more stuff, is slightly more memoir-ish than the others and that’s just a product of age, I think. Maybe that’s informed a little bit by the maturity of the writing. Because I’m traveling to other places there has to be a travel element to it. Because it’s a reflective look at the band’s history there’s going to be a memoir-ish quality, and it’s also going to be a rock ‘n’ roll book because it’s about rock’n’roll! I would have denied it if I had tried to excise those elements and when you’re writing, you’re not necessarily thinking in those terms, either, that it’s three genres in one. You just write and then it’s over and it’s for other people to call it what it is.
SW: Which leg of your trip had the most impact on you?
DB: They all impacted me in a different way, I’d say Africa because I’d never been there before and I met people with such a completely different perspective, just a different life. And it’s the Africans who have been in contact [with me] the most and are probably the most eager to maintain those connections, too. But of all the places that was where I felt like I was truly far away and it felt like real travel writing, going off the beaten path.
SW: Have you found that your travels have impacted your songwriting since?
DB: It’s hard to say because it really hasn’t been that busy musically, but I wrote some stuff when I was over there and these things tend to produce themselves down the road; it might not necessarily make an instant impact. It’s also not as if the Rheos were a straight rock ‘n’ roll band. There were also African elements [in that band], so it wasn’t as if all of a sudden I started making African music and wearing jazz hats and playing a drum. But I have a song on the solo record that’s almost done, which is a long 14-minute song about a guy I met in Africa.
SW: I was trawling around on your website yesterday and I was able to listen to the MP3 of the performance of “Horses.”
DB: [laughs] It’s insane, eh?
SW: It was so great to have an audio to go with the visuals in the book. It was so powerful. I’m trying to imagine you standing there, taking it all in, going “what the hell?!”
DB: Yeah, it was mindblowing, astonishing. One of the things I did find with this book was no matter where you go and no matter who you’re playing with, you’re able to achieve that centre of just pure, musical exchange and musical communication. And I knew for them, that I was a guy playing a guitar and there were guys playing drums and people singing and it wasn’t really so absurd. I didn’t want to project to them that I thought it was really absurd that a white guy was coming to Africa and playing just for them! For them it seemed natural, so in effect, it seemed kind of natural for me, too. At one point this one woman stood up and closed her eyes and put her hands up in the air and started singing this song this hoser anthem that I wrote at King and Parliament and in my parents’ house. When you’re used to playing it in Canada, it was awesome to see that moment of musical translation and seize on to it. It was really beautiful.
SW: How did that and your other musical experiences in Africa effect your perception of how music is made in North America and how it’s structured?
DB: In Sierra Leone, people there are making music in spite of the fact that they have nothing. It’s a destroyed city with no money and no infrastructure or anything like that, but yet people have to play, against all odds. You do get the sense of the pampered-ness of music [in North America]. On a certain level, there are people here playing who live day-to-day and doing it because they have to do it, but it totally makes you appreciate it more. In the Studio D in Sierra Leone, they couldn’t record unless they had money to buy fuel to run the generator. Here, it’s like you go home, you plug in your computer and you tune up and play and you have a song. It’s much harder over there, so it gave me a new appreciation, for sure.
SW: The section about Africa is one of the most intense ones, and some of the stories were just horrifying. Are you hoping to raise more awareness, through the book, about these issues?
DB: Oh yeah, for sure. And not only that, just to tell stories for people who wouldn’t normally have their stories told. The other thing about Africans is that they’ll tell you the story just as if you and I were sitting around talking about hockey. And for them to have absorbed it for it, to come out the other way—completely calm and a sort of natural sense of oneself—it’s pretty amazing. It would have twice the book if I’d told every story.
SW: Regarding another section, that great stream-of-consciousness thing [wherein Bidini constructs a mammoth sentence of rock’n’roll memories that lasts over two pages; it's on pp182-184 for those following at home] in the China section, which ends with “In my life, rock ‘n’ roll has meant everything to me.” What brought it on and did your editor mention anything about it when you handed in the manuscript?
DB: She didn’t touch it, which was amazing. And of course, that was one of those things that you write in four minutes and it just pours out of your wrist. It was really fun to write and when it was done I was like, “Wow. That’s done.” I fiddled with the last line a little bit, but I really didn’t have to touch it that much. It was a blast. I’ve read other books before like this—I guess Roddy Doyle’s books are like that a little bit, in The Commitments when they’ll be arguing about who’s better, Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding— and it just evokes all kinds of memories of those songs and thoughts of those songs. That was kind of the intention, so that you’re reading it almost the way that you listen to a radio dial sort of spinning up and down, all these melodies and these thoughts. At the end of it, you’re so charged and so excited about being a music fan that you’ve shared in that kind of connection, too.
SW: That’s how it made me feel. You get the sense in reading the book about just how much you love rock ‘n’ roll.
DB: For sure. A lot of music criticism and a lot of music books tend to be a little bit bloodless. There’s always exceptions, but [there’s always] a bit of a distance, y’know? Fuck distance! It’s okay to say you love it if you love it and to prove that you do. I always have to kind of bring myself back a little bit remembering that rock ‘n’ roll is important and exciting and fun and huge in a lot of people’s lives and to portray myself as being one of those persons, it isn’t necessarily not more literary or lacking poise. I’m just going to celebrate it, right?
SW: When you travel to new and foreign places, you often go in to these experiences with preconceived notions of what you’re going to find. Did you have some of these notions of your own and were they kind of shattered when you were over in, say, China, or even Finland?
DB: Yeah, and Russia, too. I was certain—well [traveling companion] Al [Piggins] was certain—that we were going to get killed in Russia. The first time I was there I thought that as well. It was completely demystified. That’s why we travel — to have those stereotypes and misconceptions smashed. It’s the same thing with Africa; I thought it was one of those trips that I might never return from—which is a reason for going. But people talk about the fucking bugs, and they talk about how dirty it is and how you’re going to get really sick. In Sierra Leone I had a really bad three-day cold, and I saw like, four mosquitoes, and I didn’t see any guns. I saw some shady characters, but it was an easy place to be. Even though it was very sad—and a lot of parts of Africa where I was, people’s lives are very tragic— it was just really fun. I hadn’t prepared myself for fun because I was so on edge about what it was going to be like. Then you get there and people just want to have a good time. Finland was probably exactly how I thought it was going to be until our last show, in Eastern Finland and everybody was crazy and fun.
SW: I like your whole section comparing Canadians and the Finns and realizing that we’re not nearly as similar as we’d like to think.
DB: Fuck, Canada’s changed a lot. Canadians have really come out of their shell.
SW: What’s next for you in terms of your solo music?
DB: That’s something that’s going to come out eventually. I’m working on it with Don Kerr and The Scribbled Out Man guys — Paul Linklater, Doug Friesen — and Don is producing it in the studio. But Martin [Tielli] and I are doing a lot of stuff, too. We’re doing the soundtrack for this film and trying to figure out what to do, how we’ll go about it. And we did this Five Hole thing [based on Bidini’s book Five Hole: Tales of Hockey Erotica]: it was me, Selina [Martin], Martin Tielli, Ford Pier, and Barry Mirochnik doing the music for this [theatrical adaptation] that happened in Calgary and that was really fun. We did six songs for that and it’s going to go tour on the road as well. It’s going to go across the country in ’08.
It’s funny, before Massey Hall [closed the chapter on the Rheos], I’d done so much [solo] playing, it was really kind of weird: I’d done the Five Hole thing, I’d done these trips, I worked a little bit on my solo record. It was cool because it wasn’t like it was out of form, y’know, playing a big show like that or even the lead-up shows, which I was proud of. It was like, “Cool. Band breaks up, but…” It convinced me that music doesn’t die; it just exists in different forms.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
There are few female voices I find as luxurious as that of Kate Fenner's, and yet while that's what immediately commands most people's attention, that's only one of her many gifts.
For much of her 20-year career, she's been breathing life into the lyrics of her inseparable collaborator Chris Brown. That is no small feat—Brown is an incisive poet who addresses issues of community and justice at every turn, both metaphorically and directly, and only a master interpreter like Fenner can truly make heady words such as his sing with the clarity and emotional resonance they deserve. Though Brown is no vocal slouch himself, he's been blessed to have Fenner at his side since they were both Leaside teenagers in the eight-piece soul revue Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. (Who, by the way, may be reuniting for this year's Hillside Festival--details are being finalized.)
Fenner's association with such a prolific writer as Brown meant that her own songwriting muse was slow to develop—though, it should be noted, not because of any lack of support and encouragement from all those around her, including Brown. Fenner finally stepped up to the plate on 2003's Horses and Burning Cars, recorded with Tony Scherr. It was a tentative first step, though the new album Magnet—written and recorded while pregnant with her firstborn—is a much more mature and realized effort, with lush and sympathetic soft-pop orchestration colouring her lyrically vivid and melodically strong tracks like "Autumn Trees," "Old Man" and "Shopgirl." Scherr covers the latter on his new album.
Fenner and Brown also nurture a social nexus of Central Canada's music scene—everybody knows these two, from the Barenaked Ladies to Broken Social Scene, from Propagandhi to Sarah Harmer—and both have worked hard to build bridges between Toronto and their adopted town of New York City (they moved there as a duo in 1997 following the dissolution of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir).
Since Fenner put out her solo record (and Brown followed suit), they've been performing less as a duo; her pregnancy factored in to that (contrary to popular perception, they are not a couple), and Brown formed the Citizens' Band with Tony Scherr and Anton Fier, with whom Fenner sits in when she can. The ties still run deep, however; Brown produced Magnet and wrote three of its songs.
I first met them when my terrible rock band opened for the Bourbons at the Commercial Tavern in Maryhill, Ontario sometime around 1991. We—or my competitive bandmates, anyway—were cocky and wanted to "blow off the stage" anyone we played with. Not only were we laughably unable to do that beside such a powerhouse band, but they were the most generous and genuine group of people imaginable, who not only taught me lessons about how I wanted to play music, but about what kind of person I wanted to be as a musician.
I'm still humbled by their talent and generosity; they actually drove up from NYC to play a 20-minute set for free at my book launch in 2001, where they stole the show beside the likes of Blurtonia and Neko Case. I'm eternally in debt to them for that alone, never mind the canon of powerful songs and performances that have soundtracked much of my life. Fenner once covered Mary Margaret O'Hara's "Help Me Lift You Up"; both she and Brown have been doing that for me and many of those closest to me for years.
So yeah, I'm hardly objective.
For a great piece on Chris Brown, read my co-author Jason Schneider's Exclaim piece here.
Kate Fenner and her band play the Rivoli in Toronto on Wednesday, March 19.
March 16, 2008
Locale: phone conversation from her West Village home
How often do you play these days?
Not as often as I’d like to. But [son] Lucien’s in a pre-school program now. It’s been tricky: the baby thing with the music thing. I do sporadic gigs in the city and a couple of gigs in London, England. And now we’re actually promoting the album, which hasn’t happened yet. Before I was trying to figure out what to do with it and what my plan was. I didn’t even hit my mailing list.
It’s been five years, correct?
Yes. Three of those were baby, and I did what I could with the last one. This period of my life is so fruitful and great and beautiful in all the ways that kids bring, but as a mother, I can’t be the person that I thought I was. I can’t be wandering around schlepping poetry books, drinking too much wine and smoking. Your whole life changes. But that was the person who wrote from pain and was perpetually brokenhearted. So how do I find the next writer in me? That part is really hard and challenging.
When you look at people who struggle with addictions and then they write a clean record, they often find it challenging to write under totally different conditions and processes, and it’s tough to adapt.
Those parallels are fine with me. From the moment I was 13, I knew I was going to be the kind of person who was going to write poetry and drinks their coffee black (laughs). I had it all set up and worked towards it. I also find that being around a new person, it’s hard to take yourself so seriously. It’s 90 per cent about them all the time, so to plumb my inner thoughts and turn it into something is harder than I thought.
Hearing other new parents talk about this time, many struggle with it in different ways. Some say that it actually makes them compartmentalize, and because that time alone is so important to them, they’re actually more productive because they know they only have a couple of hours here and there.
That’s the practice I need. But for me, it’s anti-cynicism and anti-irony to have a child. In some ways, the ways I got used to thinking are not available to me anymore. I can’t say, ‘Oh, global warming—we deserve it, we did it to ourselves.’ I have to think about a hopeful way about the future. Before, you could find me the saddest movie, the saddest poem and I would love it. Now, I can’t take the knock. I can’t go there. I need the energy to do this other thing, which is this constant propping up and being an enthusiasm machine that you have to be as a parent of a toddler. People used to say, ‘I can’t believe you read all this stuff—it’s so depressing!’ And I’d say, ‘Depressing? It’s not depressing!’ Now I don’t fault it for being what it is, but the nerve is too raw. I can’t go there and then turn around and go to the park and jump around like a lunatic.
That requires a whole other level of compartmentalization.
Yeah, and that’s the one that’s kicking my ass.
But you were speaking of not being able to be cynical or ironic—and those aren’t two words I ever associated with your work before.
Those might be the wrong words. Hmmm.
If anything, it was the opposite, and that’s what I always enjoyed about what you and Chris did. Things were written with a knowledge of the shit of the world, and it was knowing there are no ideal solutions, but let’s at least start to talk to each other about solutions. There was always that optimism, or at least demanding that the listener consider optimism.
That was largely due to Chris. He has a lot of hopeful energy. I can go along with that, and I can be the thing that adds a sadness to that, just because of the quality of my voice. When we work together, it’s easy to go between the two worlds, because singing a lot of stuff that Chris writes is about finding the love for humanity. Left to myself, however, (laughs) I’m not really sure!
It’s all "Autumn Trees" and no spring flowers, eh? I’ve enjoyed this record more since I first heard it and processed it and wrote about it. I think it’s a big step up from the first one, where you could hear an artist beginning and taking first steps. I know that first one was a very heavy record to make. Was this one easier?
Definitely. A lot of it was made when I was either pregnant or had a newborn. I could look at it more clearly. The first one, I was very addled and in the middle of having all these feelings. Later, when I could reach back and look at it, I was horrified that I was so raw. I feel like I left myself hanging out there.
This one, I was trying a different kind of writing. ‘Shopgirl’ I wrote for and about Tony [Scherr]. We both had trouble writing a couple of winters ago. We spent this day together, and I went to visit his ex-girlfriend with him, who works at a hardware store. We were talking about my mom and some stuff on the way home, and we went to separate and I said, ‘I’m going to try to write a song for you.’ He said the same thing. So I went to pick up some groceries, came home, and he had left a song called ‘Black Sheep’ on my answering maching. I thought, shit, so I sat down and wrote ‘Shopgirl’ in an hour and left it on his answering machine. It was so thrilling to know I could write that way. You could really use your empathy and your other gifts and have it be a story. I hadn’t done that before; I had only ever talked about myself.
And that’s such a narrative song, with a clearly male protagonist—or a lesbian one.
Well, she is hot! And they are currently living together; I don’t know if it’s because of that song (laughs). So now, I’d like to explore that kind of thing. It’s growing up a bit and getting away from yourself, using your experiences to look at larger thing. Chris is obviously a much more practiced songwriter in the way he can be invisible yet very personal at the same time in a single song. That’s what you want.
I’d have to think about his songbook, but I don’t know if I know a lot of narrative songs there.
Not narrative; his subject is always himself, and if he’s in there it’s because he’s sad about something… for everyone.
When we last spoke on the record, in 2003, you told me that you work very quickly, and Chris can ruminate forever on something.
That’s still true. I don’t have the confidence to take something that seriously for too long. That’s another way I need to grow up. Most of the songs that are mine on that first album, were written out of fear. The new one, too. ‘Old Man,’ on the new record—that was written as I was walking out the door listening to Rufus Wainwright’s Want One. There’s a song on there about his dad. I literally had my coat on, and I started wondering what a song I wrote about my dad would be like. In ten or fifteen minutes, I had written all the lyrics, found a guitar and used the same four chords I always play, and there it was. I still feel like I’ve never learned the craft.
It’s so self-deprecating to say, ‘Oh, one day I’ll grow up and learn how to do that.’ But so many great songs come out of this process rather than ones that are belaboured and are more of an exercise. It’s certainly possible for someone certainly overcook a song.
That’s true. I’m interested in changing—that’s what I’m saying. A song like ‘Autumn Trees’ comes from going to the museum a couple of times that week and walking in the park. That song was also a challenge. Eric, Lucien’s dad, suggested that I write a song about Egon Schiele. So I did some research, I had some books in the house, and found out he was really an asshole, so I started focusing on the bits about his wife.
But to go back to what I was saying, before I had so much time to fill the coffers with other people’s thoughts and visions of beauty. Now I’m much more trained on my son and getting him to the park and getting him down for a nap and getting greens into him. Now is when I’m going to need a better system, because I don’t have that kind of freedom.
There’s a line on the album: “Don’t let them see how hard it is.”
That line is actually about Chris. It’s something he says. He told me, ‘It will be clear that it is important. You don’t have to show it’s important.’ I guess I’m all about: ‘Is everyone getting this?’ Subtlety is not my strong suit.
I do think ‘Old Man’ is a great song, especially lyrically, and encapsulates a lot of conflicted feelings people have about people close to them.
Thanks. Now I just need 20 more like that and I’ll feel like a human being.
You only need 10 for an album, though.
We only scraped by with nine on this one; one’s a cover.
Why that Paul Simon song? [“Some Folks Lives Roll Easy”]
I just love it. I’d worked with Jason Moran on this beautiful piece called The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things by Joan Jonas, who is a seminal video performance artist from the 70s. We’re about to go to Berlin to perform it, but it started at the Dia Theater upstate. I loved working with him; he’s such a beautiful player. I knew I wanted to do a Paul Simon song—I’m a bit of a fanatic—and that was the one that was most amenable to his playing. He did such a beautiful job that I want to take my voice out of it!
On your first record, you were quite explicit about the fact you were referencing Alice Munro, Joni Mitchell, John Berryman. As your writing grows, do you feel like it’s less important to point that out?
I did that partially because I was either quoting them directly—and I couldn’t get away with not saying that—but it was also a lack of subtlety thing again. ‘Do you know what I’m talking about?’ It was a case of taking myself too seriously. I got a little blurb in the Voice that called me a schoolmarm or something, a little dig at little miss poetry girl, which was embarrassing. I was sufficiently humbled.
Last time we spoke on the record, in 2003, you told me the following: “When I got off the Hip tour at the beginning of 2001 [she and Brown toured as auxiliary members of The Tragically Hip that year], I just wanted to stop singing. I thought, I’m done. It had never occurred to me that I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to. I’ve always felt that I had an obligation, that I started it and I have to finish it; I’ll keep singing until I fall over. But at that point I thought, I don’t want to do it. And as soon as I said that, I thought, I can’t stop yet. There are couple of things I have to do first: one, I have to write something, and I’ve always wanted to do an album of standards – well, not standards, but older music. Once the songs started to come, I thought, oh, here’s part of the job that has to get done.”
What struck me was that realization in a person’s life that they don’t have to do this forever, even if it’s been your whole life up to that point, and yet you’re still not ready to let go just yet.
And I feel like I’m in that exact same state still. I actually just thought that the other day, because I was nervous about this gig in Toronto. When I think of the artists I admire, they just keep making shit no matter what’s going on in the world. The fact that I don’t do that made me think I’ve been wrong all this time: maybe I’m not actually an artist, I should get a job, be a normal person, be a good mom and a good friend to people. Is that the worst thing in the world? Then I think: kind of, it is the worst thing in the world! I need to have really tried. And after all these years of ups and downs with success and recognition—usually somewhere in the middle—I still feel like I haven’t tried hard enough.
I would hope that any artist always feels that way—not in a defeatist way, but if you aren’t always trying harder, then really, what are you doing? You’re resting on laurels or you’re lazy.
Going back to Joan Jonas, it was so interesting to watch her work. I had known her for many years. My friend was her assistant. Here’s this woman who was a pioneer not only in her field but as a woman artist. She’s in her 70s. She never married, never had children. She was part of the whole New York scene and dated Richard Serra for years. She is still driven by this ponderousness: ‘I wonder what would happen if I put this thing next to this thing.’ She does this at rehearsals, which can last eight hours. The first time we did it I was pregnant and I thought I was going to die.
But it’s a character thing to always be asking questions, these beautiful questions. I’m blown away by that. It’s not something you can learn to do. I just wish I had that disconnect from other people and [worrying about] their reaction. When she initially asked me to do this piece, I had to tell her that I was pregnant and that I would be quite pregnant by the time of the performance. She said, ‘Oh, um, okay, well, we’ll see, maybe it will work.’ Then when the Dia asked us to reprise it last year, she said, ‘Can we get you pregnant again? Because that ended up really working out.’ (laughs).
One of my favourite lines of Chris’s is on this record, which is that “the curious do not get old.”
Yes. There’s that old adage about being liberal in your youth and conservative when you’re older. And when you have a family you start battening down the hatches and thinking, ‘What’s good for us?’
Maintaining that curiosity takes a lot of work and mental energy, and yet it’s so vital.
O my god, yes.
Monday, March 17, 2008
The first thing you notice about Scherr is his face: it's a rugged, square-jawed visage that from a distance gives off the impression of a boxer or a Brooklyn Dodger; up close, he's all teddy bear eyes and sly grins, and as soon as he opens his mouth you discover he's one of the warmest, friendliest guys you're likely to encounter on stage or off. Similarly, his guitar playing--particularly his slide work--can appear jagged at first, and it's because he steers away from most linear guitar solo conventions; on closer glance, you can hear Scherr pushing at edges and mistakes until they sound like they were supposed to be part of the master plan all along.
That approach extends to his songwriting, which draws from the jazz standards that he cut his teeth playing, though the songs rarely sound conventional--for better and occasionally worse; as seasoned a performer as he is, he's still young as a songwriter. As the New York Times put it in a live review, "Some of Mr. Scherr’s songs started as if in the middle, suggested by a few chords and a scrap of a lyric; some seemed chopped off after a chorus or two. Singer-songwriters usually don’t treat their babies this way."
And yet his biggest success to date has come via someone else's cover of sorts: his friend Leslie Feist adapted his song "Sacramento" with new lyrics and titled it "Lonely Lonely," which appears on Let It Die. You don't have to search too hard on the web to find a lovely live duo recording of Scherr and Feist at the Rivoli circa 1999. But neither that recording nor Scherr's own recordings help the fact that his work is best enjoyed in the moment, on stage.
Some other famous names with Scherr connections: he played in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards in the mid-90s [he also plays on the Fishing With John soundtrack], and continues to play with some of those players in SexMob. In the late 90s he met a songwriter named Jesse Harris and a performer named Norah Jones at NYC's Living Room, and has played on albums by both of them. He produced an album of country music by SCTV's Rick Moranis. He plays with Teddy Thompson and some other guy named Willie Nelson. And to top it all off, he plays bass behind one of his biggest guitar heroes, a man whose albums he always bought on the day they came out, and a man of whom Scherr does a hilarious impersonation: Bill Frisell.
Scherr's second solo album is called Twist in the Wind, and it's out this month on Smells Like Records (run by Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, home to Lee Hazlewood reissues and early Cat Power albums). He's playing the Dakota in Toronto this Thursday, March 20 with Chris Brown and the Citizens' Band (where he plays bass alongside drummer Anton Fier); and March 25 at Joe's Pub in NYC.
We spoke for an hour about a variety of topics; a clipped cell phone signal and a faulty minidisc player conspired to make most of our conversation more ephemeral than I had intended. Scherr spoke of how lucky he was to connect with the people he has in Canada: Leslie Feist, Sarah Harmer, Ron Sexsmith, Martin Tielli--artists he finds very brave in their approach in ways that he believes many American singer/songwriters are not. He told stories about not only what a thrill it is to play with Willie Nelson, but what it's like to sit on the tour bus with him and trade new songs. He spoke about the freedom he's found since befriending Chris Brown and Kate Fenner, who egged him on to be more than just a sideman. And he went into great detail about living in the musical moment with Bill Frisell: no rehearsal, no set list, pure intuition.
Here, however, we mostly get the scoop on his beginnings and his development.
March 12, 2008
Locale: cell phone in New York City, driving to the Abrams Brothers' CD release show at the Living Room so he can lend them an upright bass
It seems that for you, music is as much of a social thing as it is a professional one.
I don’t play with anyone I don’t love. Everybody that I’m involved with in my life, musically at this point, is someone I’m really close to. That makes a huge difference in the quality of the music when you’re on the road. Chris and Kate really changed my life. They introduced me to all the people in Toronto that I’m close with. They shot me off into another direction when it comes to writing songs. They were mainly responsible for that.
That was in 1997? When they moved there?
Yeah, they had just moved to New York. We met right away. I played every week in a band called SexMob, and they kept coming and listening to the band. Chris kept sitting in on clavinet, and Kate would be in the corner writing in her book—writing and writing. She struck up a conversation once, she really liked the music. We became close friends. For several months I had no idea they knew each other! Which is inconceivable now. They’re still very close to me.
You grew up in Connecticut and went to school in Texas. When did you move to New York from Texas?
In the late 80s, around 1987.
When did you fall in with the Lounge Lizards’ crowd?
That would have been probably about 95 or 96. Before that I was playing a lot of jazz gigs, very straight-ahead stuff. The Lounge Lizards was a good, healthy change. That’s what really led me to SexMob and discovering how I really wanted to play the bass. I enjoyed playing bass all my life, but I realized at that point that I wasn’t meant to be a straight-ahead jazz musician.
How would you describe what you did in Lounge Lizards?
That was a band that taught me the value of repetition. It was interesting music because my job in that band was to play just a simple bass line over and over, but have it feel like it was moving towards the horizon some way, and lead the band gently in a direction without ever playing any fills. It was about having a voice on the instrument without playing a lot of wanky stuff.
That’s not unlike any classic soul or funk music.
Yeah, it’s present more in terms of the feeling and the sound rather than someone trying to show off. Then SexMob was similar in the sense that it was all about the more social end of music. If you go see hotshot jazz guys play, a lot of times there are only guys in the audience, you know? SexMob would play and for some reason there would be all these girls in the audience. Somehow, that music was sexy and fun. The joy of it and the irreverence—people caught on to that feeling and celebrated it. I realized that that had been missing for me for a while. That continued when I started singing more and playing guitar.
Was rock music—for lack of a better term, but as something that can loosely describe what the Citizens’ Band do—was that on your radar in the 80s and early 90s?
Fundamentally, I’m a rock musician. I come from playing in garage bands. I grew up playing guitar in bands with my brother Pete, who plays bass. This was when I was 12, 13, 14. All my early experience playing with people was playing rock music. We were nuts about Jimi Hendrix, and then we got into Miles Davis. I still love all that, but I’ve come full circle through meeting Chris and Kate and a lot of other folks. Before I met them, I never conceived of having my own band—or if I did, I couldn’t conceive of what it could be. Now I’m convinced that playing guitar and singing is my music. I play bass happily with a couple of bands still—Bill Frisell, SexMob, Chris and Kate—but records that have my name on them are going to be vocal records with slide guitar on them.
Were you writing songs at all before you met them?
Not at all. It was their support and the fact that my life was changing and the fact that I had been a sideman long enough. I was realizing that there was something missing. They encouraged me in a very personal way. I was going through a lot of things, and they got me writing about it. It wasn’t directly about it, but it was about how I felt at the time. We’d be sitting around and Chris would say, ‘Come on, I just wrote one verse. Whaddya got?’ They were very kind and patient. They still are. They’re my best friends.
Did you meet them at a low point in your life?
It was a challenging point in my life. I had a lot of responsibility. Basically, I was playing a lot less at that point and doing other things. They were the first new friends that I had met in quite a while. They took me in somehow. They were safe to be around.
Other than their altruism and generous spirit, what was it about their music and writing that attracted you?
The funny thing was that originally, my friendship with them developed considerably before I ever thought I’d play in their band—or before there was a band to play in. They were doing duo gigs at the time … It’s amazing to think of what we were all doing 10-12 years ago and what we’re doing now—and why. The purpose is getting clearer and clearer.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
The D'Urbervilles opened the bill in the intimate Tranzac room, and despite the initial lack of drunken abandon on the audience's part at 9.30PM on a Friday night, they delivered a powerhouse performance--again--that was made for the history books. As my co-interviewer Helen Spitzer pointed out to me, singer John O'Regan couldn't contain his giddy grin of pride for the entire set: the man was clearly ecstatic, and he had every reason to be.
The debut album We Are the Hunters is fiery and ferocious and wastes no time during its 30-minute duration, packing punk rock soul into every groove, the rhythm section boasting innate restraint while O'Regan and Tim Bruton's guitars alternate between intricate disco picking, new wave textures (I swear I actually heard a bit of Bauhaus last night) and AC/DC-size riffs, all served by the melodicism that O'Regan honed in Habitat, the sadly now-defunct duo with Sylvie Smith (who is now in The Magic with Bruton).
Early in their career, the D'Urbervilles garnered endless comparisons to the Constantines--and though there are certainly some similarities, the D'Urbs are better dancers. And Hunters is easily the best rock'n'roll album to come out of Toronto (and area) since the Constantines' 2001 debut, so those geezers better watch their backs (their new album, Kensington Heights, is due in April on Arts and Crafts).
The D'Urbervilles have plenty of dates out east with the Forest City Lovers (bassist Kyle Donnelly plays in both) and then out west on their own: they're all listed here.
This interview was spun into two articles: Helen Spitzer's eloquent Eye Weekly piece here; my local-boys-do-good story for the K-W Record/Guelph Mercury here.
The D’Urbervilles: John O’Regan, Kyle Donnelly, Tim Bruton
Interviewed by Helen Spitzer and Michael Barclay at Bacchus Roti, Queen St. W
March 5, 2008
H: Do you think the long gap between the first EP and this album is a good thing in terms of your evolution as a band, playing together, what you sound like together?
K: When we did the EP we didn’t really have any sound that we thought was our own, like each song had a different thing going for it. The gap helped us a lot to write more cohesive songs.
H: John, your voice has really changed immensely. It’s deepened in tone and it’s more nuanced, your singing. It’s just that much more, in a year.
J: Wow, I’m not gonna be able to get my big head out of the door now. Some of the songs definitely we spent more time on the vocals with. When we recorded the EP we were still practicing in my bedroom in Guelph, with no P.A. So these guys would be hearing the lyrics for the first time when we played the songs live.
T: Or when we recorded them.
J: Like oh, that’s what he’s singing. A lot of the songs we’d been able to play a long time, so that gave me more of a chance to work out phrasing and make everything super exact. And on some of them were really intense, like on “Hot Tips” for example. I remember we spent several days trying to get that little high vocal melody at the beginning.
K: We actually knew what he was saying on that one because he came up to us and said, ‘I’ve got a great idea for song lyrics: cold cash for hot tips, like Crime Stoppers.’
J: They had it on the board outside the OPP station on Wellington Street in Guelph, it said “cold cash for hot tips.”
M: And it just sounded like a naughty rock’n’roll song.
T: The guys in We’re Marching On thought we were saying “hot tits.”
H: Yeah, that’s where we’re going here.
M: I was wondering if you think Habitat affected your singing.
J: I don’t know, I always felt I sang differently in that band. It got me more accustomed to being more isolated, because there was less to hide behind. There’s always something with boys and singing and being self-conscious about it in rock bands. Doing [Habitat] made it more okay. It’s weird that people view vocals differently. It’s fine to be in a room with someone and say, ‘Hey, check out this guitar riff!’ [makes obnoxious rock guitar sound]. But with singing, it’s like…
M: ‘Hey, check out my soul!’
K: ‘Did you hear what I did with that note?’
T: ‘What a sissy!’
H: For me when I listen to this record I get more of the emotional tenor of what you’re singing about. Whereas I felt on the earlier one there was more of the new wave robotic thing, more like LCD Soundsystem—which I know you were listening to at the time.
K: Forest City Lovers came up with a nickname for you, which was Johnny Staccato. [all laugh]
T: That would look good on a bowling jacket.
J: Playing with the same people for a while, you figure out what you like and don’t like and what works. On the older songs, you can almost pinpoint the kind of sound we were going for on each song—the country song, the rock song, the bass song, the slow jam. Those were the titles for a long time, too, because I was lazy about writing lyrics. Tim’s playing improved a lot too, and gave us more of a style instead of just throwing shit at the wall.
H: Tim, I’ve seen big developments in your playing—especially with The Magic.
M: Did anyone lend you any 80s guitar pedals on this record?
T: They did. John Dinsmore lent me a lot of stuff. I was like a kid in a candy store.
M: What I like about it is how much you do with clean sounds, whereas a lot of other bands would just slap on the distortion as a crutch or stick to herky-jerky rhythms.
T: I prefer to think of texture rather than some sort of overdriving factor. It’s not something you hold on to: it’s something you hear for a minute and then your focus shifts back to the drum and bass.
H: Like on that Payola$[-esque] song you do, or like Spoon—who do a similar thing and pull back all the time and let your brain fill in the blanks.
J: I don’t know if it’s risky to namedrop bands, but I listen to Spoon a lot more than other new music. I like seeing how far you can get with the skeleton structure of what there is, and recognizing that you don’t need to add any more.
H: Was that a conscious conversation in the band?
J: It was, throughout both the writing and the recording.
T: It’s really easy in recording to say, ‘We have 128 tracks on this song—let’s use them all.’ For us, it made a lot of sense when we liked how a really simple element sounded, and we wanted to explore the air around that.
K: If someone were to tab out one of our songs, they’d be really boring to play.
J: That’s true of the whole album.
K: Tim’s guitar lines on their own need something else. It’s not just chords; everything is intertwined.
T: There are no campfire songs.
J: That was one of our big goals.
M: You wanted to pour water all over that campfire.
J: If the album gets huge, you won’t walk into the Brass Taps in Guelph in a year’s time and hear some first-year guy at an open mic covering these songs.
M: That to me is what they have in common with old soul music or disco or James Brown, where they aren’t guitar lines or bass lines or chord progressions—it’s about the whole band as a rhythm section. And, uh, well, that’s why I love your band.
T: I’m glad you noticed that!
H: What do you think we do for a living?
M: Lyrically, you step up to the streets all over this record. You assassin down the avenue, you’re scoping the streets, the last line on the album is “Take back the night…”
T: You know that scene in Saturday Night Fever at the very beginning? That’s what I think of, where he’s walking down the street in his new Italian boots, with ‘Stayin’ Alive’ rockin’ on the soundtrack. And he stops at the window and lifts up his boot to the one in the window, and his might even be a little bit shinier. Then he puts on his paint smock and he’s back at work.
M: John, what’s with you and the streets of Oshawa, the streets of Guelph, the streets of Toronto?
J: With any lyrics, you’re telling a story and leave it open enough that people can attach their own meaning to it. A conscious part of the album is that most of these songs were written from when we were 19 to 22, when you’re out on the town late at night. A lot of it is trying to write stuff that is honest to our experiences and play that up a little. You’re out at 1.30 in the morning and you’ve seen your friends play an awesome show and you’re going to Mega Pizza. I know for ‘Belladonna,’ the last song, a lot of that was coming from the disparity of how you could have just been at a house show on Grange St. or just seen The Burning Hell play at Family Thrift Store while drinking beer in the back of Ray’s van and it’s a hilarious time and it’s the best show you’ve ever seen and you’re with 40 friends. You walk literally ten steps down the street, and you’re at the Cowboy Bar and being screamed at by some guy in tight pants and boots calling you queer. Being out and around that all at once, you see all these separate communities clashing.
T: Just standing at the four corners [of Wyndham and Macdonnell], you see all kinds of things happening at the same time.
M: It’s a split-screen movie.
J: You have the hip-hop kids at Van Gogh’s, the cops sitting there waiting, and there’s always two girls on the corner having some kind of life crisis on the curb. Everyone’s been a kid and gone through all that, and that’s the common place we’re coming from.
M: There’s an element of subversion in these lyrics, though, an element of stealth, like you’re getting away with something.
J: That’s definitely part of it. I find Guelph is a more highly politicized place, especially coming from Oshawa.
K: We used to practice in Jonno’s bedroom, and the Guelph Union of Tenants and Supporters, GUTS, ran a soup kitchen underneath.
J: While we’d be practicing they’d be making vegan stews and chocolate cakes to take out to the streets. They fed us many times.
K: They’d set up a soup kitchen outside the Guelph Legal Clinic.
J: Streets are public, but they’re also contentious—and that’s probably a bigger issue here in Toronto than it is there. You see these YouTube videos of people on bicycles having battles with cars.
K: Although during the march for Nicole Freeborn in Guelph there were cops lined up in front of City Hall; it was weird seeing Guelph become a police state for a day.
J: One of the women in GUTS was assaulted at a demonstration, and then there was a protest held a couple of months later that was pretty intense for Guelph. Streets should be a place for free and public expression, but in a lot of ways they aren’t.
M: What I like about these lyrics is that it’s obvious there are political subtexts there, though it’s never completely overt. I know I’ve heard you talk at shows about First Nations rights in Caledonia. Am I reading too much into “The Receiver” to hear that there?
J: Not explicitly, no.
K: We did play a song about that called “White Noise.” But we’ve only played that twice.
J: That’s one of the things I like about lyric writing in general. I love when you have an album you listen to a lot, but then a year later something has happened in your life and you put the album on again and there’s that moment when where all the sudden you understand the song on a whole other level. Of course, you might still be misinterpreting what they’re talking about. I like to leave it open enough that it’s not just: here’s the political song, here’s the love song, here’s the party song.
H: I wanted to go back and get some history. Have all of you known each other since you were seven years old?
J: No, just me and this guy (Tim).
H: Is it the kind of situation where you decided to be in a band together before you played instruments?
T: Before we played instruments well.
J: I was definitely in the open-mic-night, banging-a-bongo-drum Guelph pseudo-hippie phase after first year [university]. I had learned guitar in high school, but not really. It wasn’t until I went away that I started playing more and seeing bands. When I came back to Oshawa that first summer, I really wanted to start a group.
T: I was still in Oshawa. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I still don’t. I went to high school some days. Some days I didn’t. I played a lot of guitar. A lot of things I was working on then became parts of the EP.
H: So moving to Guelph was a conscious decision.
T: University seemed like a good idea at the time, and I definitely wanted to move away just for a new experience. I knew some people who went there already. It had some cool urban stuff that Oshawa didn’t have, and some country stuff too that appealed to me.
K: I had heard of [now-defunct vegetarian restaurant] Café Aquarius when I was still in high school in Whitby. And the Barmitzvah Brothers as well.
H: Could each of you tell me what some of your pivotal Guelph musical experiences were?
K: The first band I saw in Guelph was during frosh week when I went to see The Crappy Roommate, which is where I met Richard Laviolette; we’ve become good friends since. A big one was the Constantines/ Weakerthans show. That’s where I met Colin, our original drummer. Tim introduced me to him there. Another big one was Controller Controller and Raising the Fawn and LAL. I was watching that with these guys before I was in the band with them. Then it was all of Stuart [Duncan]’s shows at Ed Video: Final Fantasy, We’re Marching On and SS Cardiacs was a big one. Then all the shows at Grange St.
T: Kyle just said most of my favourites, like the Final Fantasy/ WAMO/ SS Cardiacs show. That’s where I met Leon Taheny, who’s an amazing drummer. And Jamie from Ohbijou came out of the crowd playing trumpet. I had seen Cuff the Duke in Oshawa before, and that had floored me, but not in the interactive way that this band was really keen on. I remember seeing For the Horseradish as well, and they were very involved with the audience and not just being stationary. As for the D’Urbervilles, I remember getting goosebumps when we played Peter Clark Hall [at the University of Guelph] with K’naan and Controller Controller.
J: We had won a Battle of the Bands against the Salt Lick Kids and Knock Knock Ginger.
K: It’s funny, because the first year we saw Controller Controller in September, the next year we opened for them at the university, and the year after that we were touring with them.
T: That show we played with them, that was the most people I’d ever stood in front of before, other than high school parliament or something. We only brought six EPs to sell, and there was a line-up. We told them that if they gave us their name we’d make some more; there were 90 names.
K: But only three people came the next day while we stood in the rain waiting.
T: We played five songs that night, and that’s when we got the idea that that was the ideal set.
J: Definitely for me it was the Constantines and Of January May, which was at the Trasheteria. I remember being totally floored by both bands. That was early in my first year of Guelph, when paying seven bucks and being so close to the band was totally new for me. I was sill in the high school mode of saving up all your money and going to the Molson Ampitheatre twice a year to see someone like Weezer. Going to this show was, holy crap, the first time I thought that I could do this in some capacity.
M: So that never happened at the Velvet Elvis in Oshawa?
J: I was underage.
K: There was the Dungeon, which was an underage punk club. I went there a lot to see shows, but Guelph and Oshawa had very different music scenes at the time. There were only punk bands in high school and it was always six-band bills.
J: We went to see Cuff the Duke at the Velvet Elvis once and they kicked us out right after the openers. Another big show for me was the Bahai Cassette at the Family Thrift Store [in Guelph]. That totally blew my mind—the idea that you can be in a band and present something that wasn’t necessarily polished. Not that they were bad, but they kind of meant to be and they didn’t care. I realized that being in a band was not only something I could do, but something I could do without being a virtuoso and spending my whole life mastering the guitar fretboard.
H: What was the gap between the D’Urbervilles starting and that first gig in the University Centre Courtyard?
T: Jon had gone hitchhiking across Canada that summer in July. I convinced him to let Colin play drums with us and write songs. Within three weeks we played a couple of shows in Oshawa.
J: I still had an acoustic guitar, a borrowed amp, and no bass player. Our
friends were very nice to come to those.
T: Then by late November Kyle joined us.
J: That was right after the Arcade Fire show at Vinyl; that was huge for us too. That was the first time I saw the Barmitzvah Brothers.
H: I remember the UC Courtyard Show and being so excited and coming up to you and telling you how awesome it was and you [shrugged and] said, ‘Ah! We just formed!’
J: That was our first show with Kyle and our third show ever. And my first with an electric guitar.
T: We’ll call that day one.
H: How did you get that gig?
J: I organized it. It was Buy Nothing Day and I was doing some organizing with Students Against Sweatshops. We had the space that day, so I thought we should get some bands—and I didn’t know many.
T: That was the first time we met Stuart Duncan too; he did sound.
J: When we played that show, I told everyone, ‘Okay guys, Stuart is doing sound and he works at the radio station so we have to be really good. If Stuart thinks we don’t suck, then it will be great.’
K: It took us about a year before Stuart told us he actually liked us.
H: I always felt your band got this point from the sheer mass of people rooting for you. When I’ve spoken to you, I never got the impression that you had any kind of master plan.
T: For the first year and a half our only goal was opening for Cuff the Duke.
J: And impressing Stuart. One of the other goals we’ve always had has been to do a big tour, which we’re about to do. We’ve been really fortunate to meet some really great people, at CFRU and everywhere else.
K: When we played early shows in Toronto at the Speakeasy, Jamie from Ohbijou would come to all those shows and we’d only know maybe two other people in the crowd. He tried to get tons of people out to those shows. He was also putting the Bellwoods compilation together at the time.
H: You’re also part of that period of time when a bunch of Guelph bands and Toronto bands grew up together and formed this community, which includes Bellwoods.
T: We snuck into that somehow.
K: Like the Social Arts Club [the very loose collective started by We're Marching On and associates, which released a compilation in 2005]. I remember when our name first popped up on the list of their bands on the website…
J: Oh, I remember that day!
T: We were so ridiculously excited.
J: Then they stopped calling themselves that almost immediately. The first We’re Marching On show in Guelph was another big moment for me.
H: What do you think people’s problem with the name is?
T: I get called Tim Burton a lot.
J: And the lead singer.
T: Which it can be argued I am. I do lead off the record. But Jon always get O’Reagan.
K: And my name is always pronounced right but there’s usually an extra ‘n’ or ‘l’ or an ‘a’ in there somewhere.
H: But I don’t get the “Doobervilles” thing.
K: If you see it written in lower case, the B jumps up more than the R.
H: But your own publicist sent something out with “D’Ubervilles” in the subject line.
J: Oh, she’s dead!
K: Stuart called us the D’Ubervilles for the longest time. But at NXNE they labeled our gear with tape that said “Gerbervilles.” We’ve also got the “Dumbrellas” and the “Doober Dillies.” That last one was the same gig in PEI that we played with “For City Lovers.”
T: I think there’s about seven mispronunciations I’ve heard. The “D’uborvilles” I thought was kind of classy.
M: What about the “Doukhaborvilles?”
J: Part of this band’s career was a battle once we realized we needed a website. When we got one, we watched it slowly climb the Google charts, slowly passing each Coles notes reference and high school essay on the actual book until we actually beat them all.
K: That’s when we realized we didn’t suck.
J: We were in the Thomas Hardy Historical Society newsletter once.
T: They wrote me an email to tell me we were in there.
K: Thanks for telling me, guys.
H: Do you know that the plot of the book revolves around a misunderstanding about her name?
J: Yeah, Durbeyfield.
H: Who here has actually read the book?
J: Just me.
K: I bought a copy after I joined the band, figuring I should know what we’re about. But after we played Lee’s Palace with We Are Wolves, a friend came up and gave me this really old copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
T: I have no plans to read it.