Friday, April 02, 2021

Soundscapes RIP

I’ve been inside dozens, possibly hundreds, of record stores in my life. Soundscapes is the only one where I’ve wanted to own every single thing on their shelves. 

The staple of College Street in Toronto for the last 22 years announced this Easter weekend that they’re closing their doors. Greg Davis opened Soundscapes in 1999—the dawn of file-sharing. Music soon became irreparably devalued, a process that only continued to accelerate. But Soundscapes was where the true believers rallied. It was a destination. When I didn’t live in Toronto, every visit to town had to include a trip to Soundscapes. Every gig I saw at Ted’s Wrecking Yard was usually preceded by a trip across the street to Soundscapes. I still remember the first CD I bought there: the Weakerthans’ Left and Leaving, right before my own band’s gig at Ted’s. Soundscapes was open late, a late-night record shop, to which one might drive downtown in the rain. Am I right, Steven Page?

The curation at Soundscapes was impeccable. Unusually, it was all-new: this record store did not have a used section. You can find a lot of what you’re looking for and more at Sonic Boom, but that store’s Amoeba-style warehouse approach can be overwhelming. Not that I’m complaining, it’s just not always what I want. Rotate This was and still is a vital hub, but that store’s reputation always depended on being the hippest place in town—invaluable, but a vibe of its own. You want International Anthem vinyl or the new Kikagaku Moyo on import? Go to Rotate. You want Exclaim’s and Mojo’s current picks on CD? Go to Soundscapes.

Soundscapes was small, brightly lit, welcoming. Attention to detail marked not just the new releases but the reissues and classic records that should always be in stock. If you were a 60-year-old who’s heard it all, there was always some new collection of R&B Beatles covers, and clipped-out record reviews next to the listening stations to help you with new artists. If you were an 18-year-old who just discovered Irma Thomas and Aphex Twin, those records were always there, too, and easy to find. If you were a local musician, you’d find all your peers in the stacks at the back—and often at the front. Soundscapes was a place where music felt alive, where every shelf felt like a history lesson—about either the last seven months or the last 70 years. The store played an invaluable role in Toronto's exploding music scene at the time: Three Gut Records, Broken Social Scene, Feist (who lived upstairs when she was writing "Let It Die"), Great Lake Swimmers, Fembots, Blocks Recording Club, and others.

The staff were super helpful, especially last man standing "Flipped Out" Phil Liberbaum. Some of them were sorta famous. Steve Lambke of the Constantines was a frequent sight behind the counter, even at the height of his band’s success. John Crossingham of Broken Social Scene was guaranteed to talk your ear off on a slow afternoon (he's probably writing a 10,000-word store obit right now UPDATE: here it is, it's beautiful, please read it). Colin Medley, who’s now one of this country’s finest video directors for the likes of U.S. Girls, worked there for years. Folk singer Isla Craig, of Bruce Peninsula and other projects, worked there. Ubiquitous drummer Jay Anderson, ubiquitous jazzbo Mike Smith.
I'm told Derrick Vella of local death metal heroes Tomb Mold was there also. Julie Fowler, Craig Dunsmuir, Iris Fraser, so many others. My friend Sylvie Smith of the Magic (no, not that one) not only worked the counter but designed many of the gorgeous window displays promoting local artists’ new records. At one point I knew enough people who worked there that I was invited to the store’s Christmas party (the playlist was amazing, of course). Although, you know what? I'm now old enough that I'm not entirely sure that even happened. But dreaming of a Soundscapes Christmas party is not out of character for anyone who spent a lot of time (and money) there.

I’m also not sure I ever went to an in-store, but looking at the list of people who played, I have no idea why not. I did, however, host my own in-store: Greg graciously allowed me to host an event for the revised edition of Have Not Been the Same, where Shadowy Men’s Don Pyle, Julie Doiron, and Alison Outhit had a lovely panel discussion. If the store were still to be open when I finish my current book, about the early 2000s, Greg himself would be on a panel, because he’s almost as essential to the story as the musicians I’m talking to.

We’ve all heard about how bookstores and record stores are cultural hubs, where clerks can help change lives, yadda yadda. That was all true of Soundscapes as well, but it really did feel like a community where you ran into friends in the aisles, or you randomly found yourself chatting to someone in one of Canada’s biggest bands. When writing The Never-Ending Present a few years ago (its third anniversary is this week), I learned that when Gord Downie played his first-ever solo gig, months before the release of Coke Machine Glow (20 years ago this spring), he insisted the tickets be available exclusively at Soundscapes. Diehard Hip fans from across the GTA had to high-tail it to the tiny Little Italy shop to see what weird adventure their hero was up to next.

Soundscapes wasn’t just a place to find music, it was a place to read about music. The magazines were the best (Wax Poetics, The Wire) and cheapest in town. I was told that Greg barely marked them up because he considered them a loss leader: the more people read about music, he figured, the more they were likely to come back and buy it from him. Soundscapes was the first record store I’d ever been to that had an extensive book selection (this was before Sonic Boom’s Spadina location). Looking for that exhaustive new Can bio? It’s at Soundscapes.
My recent trips were usually to buy books and magazines—and still the occasional CD, as recently as a few months ago. When Have Not Been the Same first came out in 2001, our publisher had never heard of Soundscapes; I insisted that they reach out to Greg to stock it, which of course he did. I didn't really care where else the book was stocked: Indigo? Of course, whatever. As long as it was at Soundscapes.

I'd guess that most of the store's visitors in the last 10 years were there primarily to buy tickets without exorbitant Ticketmaster fees—the loss of live music last year likely hurt the store almost as much as plummeting CD sales. I’m pretty sure that one day the taxman is going to ask this freelance writer why, for years, the majority of my business expenses consisted of Soundscapes receipts.

This closure hurts—a lot. (As much as all the other horrible shit happening right now? Suicides, evictions, loss of livelihoods, mass malfeasance? No, of course not. But grant me a minute of myopia here before we return to our general grief.) It’s not that I should be surprised that a store selling physical copies of music is endangered, Covid or no Covid. I’m also not surprised that an inept provincial government—one that claims to be business-friendly—managed to blunder its pandemic response in ways that irreparably harm every business but the box stores. This closure hurts even more because it’s likely a domino, the first before a cascade of closures render my corner of the world unrecognizable. One down, two to go: Soundscapes is one of three downtown record stores that, until now, have been essential components of music fandom in Toronto. I hope that will continue to be true for future generations. I’m not counting on it.

Thank you, Greg Davis, for creating a space that felt like home to many. Thank you, Soundscapes staff through the years, for your warmth and gab and helpful pointers. And thank you, Rotate This (my local) and Sonic Boom and all the smaller shops—hang in there. We love you all. 


Raise a glass for the late-night record shop.

And be sure to read John Crossingham's thoroughly excellent appreciation of Greg Davis as a person, and how and why his curiosity set his shop apart. It's here.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Crocks N Rolls: Five Bucks at the Door

Frank Loffredo
photo by Brent Linton

The Story of Crocks N Rolls

Directed by Kirsten Kosloski

I once co-wrote a book about Canadian music from 1985-95. It talked about a lot of people, a lot of places from coast to coast. After watching Kirsten Kosloski’s new documentary Five Bucks at the Door (link to full film below), I realize I could have set the entire book in Thunder Bay, at a bar called Crocks N Rolls. The main character, as it is in the film, would be the club’s owner, Frank Loffredo.

If you were a touring Canadian musician in the late '80s and early '90s, you played at Crocks N Rolls. You had to. The distance between Toronto and Winnipeg is 21 hours. Sudbury and Winnipeg: 18 hours. Hell, even between Sault Ste. Marie and Winnipeg is 14 hours. You have to stop in Thunder Bay

You’d be happy to see it. And the approximately 300 freaks and weirdos who live there, surrounded by thousands of hockey players and hunters, were more than happy to see you. Frank Loffredo is the guy who ran it, booked it, and literally slept there to keep it going. His wife (and mother to their three children) worked late shifts at the bar before getting up at seven in the morning for her day job as a nurse. Loffredo wanted to create a community, a refuge for both local outcasts and travelling artists, located at the tip of fabled rock’n’roll roadway Highway 61. He succeeded.

Kosloski grew up as a nerdy, shy kid who taped CBC’s Brave New Waves late at night and listened to it on the bus to school the next day--so she’s already someone after my own heart. The first night she goes to Crocks N Rolls, when she’s 16, her life changes. The fact that she was allowed in is itself a miracle: all-ages shows in bars were hardly the norm anywhere else in Canada. (I had to grow a beard to have a similar experience in Toronto, at the same age.) There, she sees all kinds of freaks: NoMeansNo, Bob’s Your Uncle, Jr. Gone Wild, Change of Heart, Bob Wiseman, Rheostatics, the Inbreds, 13 Engines, Furnaceface, Acid Test. Years later, she interviews them all for her film.

Even if I didn’t write a similar book, can I possibly be objective about this film? I’m between the ages of 45 and 55, had my life changed by Brave New Waves, went to see way too much live music, and my main goal in life when I was 25 was to tour Canada. Which I did--but Crocks N Rolls happened to close the very week my band left on tour. So we drove from Sudbury to our next gig… in Regina (ouch). But the fact I never entered its doors doesn’t diminish the effect this film has on me. This is as nostalgic as I can possibly feel about a place I’ve never been to.

This film is clearly a love letter to the wonderfully weird side of Thunder Bay (which is a welcome respite from the avalanche of horror stories out of the city in recent years; for better or worse, that aspect of the city is not addressed here). The queers, the punks, the metalheads, the jam bands, the tree-planters: all were welcome, with girls to the front. But it’s also an ideal microcosm for every Canadian city that isn’t Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. If you’re lucky, your town had that one club, or one arts space, or one radio station or record store, that acts as a hub, a lifeline and a pipeline to the outside world. Some use it as a launching pad for escape; some use it to empower a local existence. God bless those like Loffredo, who stick around, who make something happen, who don’t give up on the place that they live.

Kosloski brings the story to life not just with candid chats with Loffredo and the artists mentioned above, but with a wealth of photos and original animation. She also puts herself in front of the camera, a technique I normally find grating unless absolutely necessary--which she is. She’s the heart of this story, even more so than Loffredo; without her testimonial, his story would be far less effective. And her (perhaps too long) tribute to Brave New Waves is perfect (and therefore not a single second too long): the national radio show helped her imagine a bigger world, and Crocks N Rolls brought it to her directly. I grew up in a suburb of the biggest city in the country, and even I know what it feels like to find those lifelines. She makes a strong case for how much more important those things are when the next town is an eight-hour drive in any direction.

I loved this film. If you’ve read either Have Not Been the Same or The Never-Ending Present, or listened to Brave New Waves during the Brent Bambury years, or watched Bruce McDonald's trilogy of Roadkill / Highway 61 / Hard Core Logo, I can guarantee you’ll love it as well. (You’re also likely to be a dear friend of mine.)

I have a few minor quibbles: there’s some minor repetition in the storytelling (not uncommon in current docs), and there’s some Thunder Bay inside baseball that’s not fully explained: Who is that guy? Why was his band important? But to be fair, those locals don’t resonate for me only because I know all the other talking heads extremely well, some of them personally. If you came to this film cold--as a mainstream music fan, as a non-Canadian, or even as a Canadian under 40--the composite portrait is still effective. And while obviously it would be great to have had more video footage, Kosloski does a fantastic job with photographs--and the fact she doesn’t have much video makes the whole time period seem further away than it actually is, therefore more exotic. (The amazing photos, by Brent Linton, are in vivid B&W.)

It’s such a tired cliche of historians talking about events from 30 years ago to provide qualifiers about how “of course, this was pre-Internet”--but it’s a tired cliche that’s entirely necessary, especially here. This really does seem like ancient history now. As Sook-Yin Lee points out in the film, it’s ephemera in dire danger of fading away entirely. 

So thank you, Kirsten Kosloski, for capturing Crocks N Rolls. It’s unlikely we’ll get films or books or oral histories about similar venues across the country unless it’s the Commodore Ballroom or Massey Hall, but maybe that’s okay.

Maybe the story of Crocks N Rolls says it all.

A Calgary Herald story by Eric Volmers is here.

Watch the whole glorious goddam thing here:

Thursday, March 04, 2021

2020 catchup

Yes, I'd like to forget 2020 as much as everyone else. But in the first two months of 2021, as I pored over various lists posted by my favourite writers and outlets (shout out to Bandcamp, the venerable Said the Gramophone and the always-fascinating Aquarium Drunkard), there was a lot I'd missed. And next to nothing interesting came out in Jan/Feb this year anyway, which allowed me to spend more time with this music.

The list I made in November is here.

Here are 10 records I only recently discovered that blew me away:

Alias Ensemble – A Splendour of Heart

I’m not on the Daniel Romano bandwagon, by any means, though I should be: we have many mutual friends, people I admire in turn admire him, and in theory I should be a fan of his various projects—but I’m not, for entirely subjective reasons. Yes, it’s impressive that he released at least 10 records in 2020, and I wish I could say they struck some chord with me, but they didn’t. This is an exception, perhaps because the lead vocals are all tackled by Kelly Sloan, or perhaps because it bears no resemblance to the indie rock, retro-country, or punk rock that Romano normally pinballs between. This is British Isles folk music, which is also not normally my thing, but this record is so goddam charming it’s impossible for me not to fall in love with it. If I had to compare it to anything contemporary, it would be Dublin band Lankum, though there’s a lot more sunshine on this record than there is on that Irish band’s incredible 2019 album The Livelong Day. Kelly Sloan is a stunning singer, the harmonies are even better, the string playing (and accordion) is all very strong, and on top of all that the production is perfect, neither slick nor raw.




Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy and Happiness

That title pretty much sums up how I feel about this record. A comeback record by a guy I’ve never heard before, this is laid-back, synth-y R&B with a Shuggie Otis vibe that sounds entirely out of time and place. The “Long Hot Summer”-ish synth bass on “Hurt” just kills me. Song title of the year: “My Mind is Out of Its Mind.” Great profile in the New York Times I stumbled upon after falling in love with this music.




The Garrys – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

A new soundtrack for a silent film: this has been a trend for decades, and it’s mostly been a pleasant experiment in the moment—you had to be there. This, however, by three women from Saskatoon working with a 1922 Dutch documentary about the occult, easily stands on its own. Elements of Dirty Three, spooky Sadies, and the Morricone side of Godspeed are all run through an Echoplex, with some trombone and accordion thrown in for good measure.



Matthew Halsall – Salute to the Sun

British hippie space jazz with harps and kalimbas and, yes, even some fucking rainsticks, with song titles like "Joyful Spirits of the Universe" and, I shit you not, "Mindfulness Meditations." Part of me should hate this with a passion, but it's really goddam gorgeous and I was listening to it constantly in December and January. Though obviously inspired by Alice Coltrane, Halsall's smooth trumpet is a much gentler instrument than Pharoah Sanders's saxophone, for better or worse. In a year like the one we just had, I'm perfectly fine with gentleness. Now excuse me while I meditate.



Nyssa – Girls Like Me

How did I miss this? Totally up my alley, quite literally (she’s in my Toronto neighbourhood). Nyssa is a modern pop singer with serious old-school vocal skills, the kind that would have once put her in Pat Benatar/Annie Lennox territory. Her songwriting is full of pop hooks, big choruses and is illustrated with home electronics (with some pedal steel on the side) that could easily be scaled up to Springsteenian stadium level in less subtle hands—but they're inherently more charming because she never succumbs to the super-obvious and corny grand gesture. It's the kind of record I'd love Lady Gaga (I'm a fan) to make. "You're not going to get what you came for," she sings. Nyssa has been in bands since she was a teen, from the community that spawned Frigs and Ice Cream, but from what I can tell this is a entirely self-produced affair. Fans of US Girls should take note; there's plenty of social critique in the lyrics here, not surprising on an album that opens with the line: "Start this story with a dead girl / that's what makes it just like the others." Would love to see Nyssa on a double bill with Winnipeg artist Boniface, whose record earlier in 2020 mined similar sonic territory of classic-rock-through-modern-pop sounds. As a guy who lived through the 80s, I'm wary of twentysomethings in period-specific clothes, but everything here is pitch perfect and rings true—clearly part of a continuum and entirely contemporary. And outside of Dominique Fils-Aimé, I feel unlikely to hear a better vocal performance among this year's potential Polaris Prize picks.


Population II – A La O Terre

Psychedelia from franco Quebec par excellence, somewhere between Kikagayu Moyo and Dungen, if that means anything to you. Yes, the guitarists are both excellent, as they’d have to be to pull this off, but it’s the rhythm section here that really makes this work. I’m also wondering if I prefer non-anglophone psych because then I can ignore the lyrics, which are usually downright embarrassing in English.



Shopping – All or Nothing

Is it time for yet another revival of early ’80s post-punk pop? The genre got mighty tainted in the last 20 years, with too many watered-down replicas of the Slits, ESG and Gang of Four paying more attention to fashion than tunes. This band has a monstrous bass player and British-accented women singing like the second coming of Delta 5. But also: great songs. I’m prone to liking bands like this on aesthetics alone (see: Bodega), but I do believe this is a step above.



Teenanger – Good Time

This Toronto pop band sounds like a 21st-century version of Queen Street West in 1984—Pukka Orchestra, Martha and the Muffins, et al—and that’s fine with me. Even better: the mixing and mastering job on this record sounds like a million bucks—which nothing in Canada ever did in the ’80s.



Widowspeak – Plum

Enchanting, dreamy pop with an anchor of a rhythm section that ensures the songs don’t drift away, like a more muscular Mazzy Starr. “The Good Ones” is positively sublime. 



Sven Wunder – Eastern Flowers

To satiate my recent hunger for Turkish psych music, I spent 2021 waiting for new albums by Altin Gun (Dutch-Turkish) and Gaye Su Akyol (actually Turkish) and then found this record by a Swedish guy (not remotely Turkish) whose other 2020 record was comprised of Japanese music. Make of that what you will, this is a great record.



And 10 more that really stuck out:


Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela – Rejoice!

What, did we have to wait until both giants were dead before this album saw the light of day? Anyway, regardless of timing, this is utterly—and entirely predictably—awesome.


Analog Players Society – Tilted

With Donny McCaslin (Bowie’s Blackstar) on sax, the Bad Plus’s Orrin Evans on piano, bassist Devron Douglas (Ravi Coltrane) and drummer Eric McPherson, this is an inspired one-off where they tackle three songs: one by Monk, one by Joao Gilberto, and one original. I’m a bit confused as to the nature of this project, which usually revolves around a different duo entirely, but this is certainly an inspired collection of gentlemen.  



The Chicks – Gaslighter

I’ve never listened to a full Chicks record before now, for whatever reason, though I’ve obviously admired them for various reasons from afar. This, however, hooked me right away; sonically, it sounds much less like mainstream country than I expected, and it’s also not a super-glossy pop record. I’m totally projecting here, but it sounds like three women who don’t give a shit what anyone expects them to do anymore. “Julianna Calm Down” and “March March” are the tracks that did it for me.



Chouk Bwa & the Angstromers – Vodou Ale

A few years ago, I loved the debut by Mbongwana Star, a Congolese band working with Belgian producers. Last year I loved the Ugandan band Nihiloxica's record, which was recorded by U.K. producers and came out on a Belgian label. Now there’s this Haitian band also working with Belgian producers. Do I need Belgian producers to make this music accessible to these North American ears? Not sure, but I do like this record quite a bit.



Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes – Heritage of the Invisible II

This Panamanian-Canadian trumpeter and NYC percussionist use samples, field recordings and electronics to take a little trippy trip as a duo away from their regular gig in Irreversible Entanglements.



North Americans – Roped In  

Meditation music from acoustic guitarist Patrick McDermott and pedal steel player Barry Walker, with contributions from like-minded peers Mary Lattimore on harp and guitarist William Tyler. It’s music for dreaming of the continent’s open roads that we’re advised not to travel right now.



Eric Revis – Slipknots Through a Looking Glass

Sparse and funky jazz on acoustic bass with plenty of tickles and tinkles.



Roots Magic – Take Root Among the Stars

Italian jazz band, who sound Mingus-y to me, tackle songs by Skip James, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and others.



Skinny Dyck – Get to Know Lonesome

Homespun Albertan country music recorded to ¼” tape in a Lethbridge living room. The name is gimmicky, but the music most definitely is not.



Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

I’ve been lukewarm on this critical favourite until now. This is a very strong record, though I think it sounds a lot better if you’re listening to it in the American South; it sounds like the soundtrack to a North Carolina road trip I haven’t taken in a few years now. See also: H.C. McEntire’s Eno Axis.


Monday, January 04, 2021

Best of 2000, 20 years later

My friend Aaron Brophy likes to revisit his year-end lists from at least a decade back, and alternately either boast about his amazing, timeless taste, or wonder what the heck he was thinking.

20 years ago I was hired by Philip Bast at the Kitchener-Waterloo Record to write a weekly CD review column. I did that until 2019, reviewing three to six albums a week.

In 2000, I was living in Guelph, working at Exclaim, writing for Eye Weekly, and working on a book called Have Not Been the Same

In 2020, I'm writing a book about events 20 years ago, so I've been living in a bit of a time warp.

Here’s the 10 albums I submitted to Eye Weekly’s year-end poll in 2000. Commentary is new.

1. Sarah Harmer – You Were Here (Cold Snap)
A classic record, to this day. I knew that the day I heard it, after buying a copy from her after a show at Ted’s Wrecking Yard on College Street, a copy that was a CD-R with a hand-drawn cover. I was a huge Weeping Tile fan and was thrilled that Harmer finally got her due. Is it the best album of 2000? It’s one of my favourite albums of all time, so there’s that. Will have a lot more to say about this in the book.

2. The Weakerthans – Left and Leaving (G7). O hell yes. I first saw this band a couple of months before this album came out, at Exclaim’s anniversary party, and these songs blew me away. So did songs from 1997’s Fallow, which everyone in the room but me seemed to know by heart. I bought a copy from Soundscapes before my own band played a show at… Ted’s Wrecking Yard. The year 2000 was very much about Ted’s Wrecking Yard for me. I wrote an essay about this album’s anniversary here.

3. Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador). I listened to this album more in 2020 than I had since the year it came out. That had nothing to do with its anniversary, and everything to do with therapeutic listening during enforced isolation. 

4. Bettie Serveert – Private Suit (Parasol). I have a lot to say about this, one of the most underrated rock records of the last 30 years, and one I revisit annually. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the world who feels that way. Wrote about this here.

5. Sleater-Kinney – All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars). This isn’t even among my top three favourite S-K records now, but it sure sounded great in 2000—in part because so much other rock music was terrible. “You’re No Rock’n’Roll Fun” still gives me chills. I have never seen this video!

6. PJ Harvey – Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea (Island). I had some kind of hipster hang-up at the time about whether this was the best PJ Harvey record to date or whether it was just the PJ Harvey record you were most likely to put on when other people come over for dinner. Does it matter? Still sounds amazing, top to bottom.

7. Neko Case – Furnace Room Lullaby; Carolyn Mark – Party Girl; The Corn Sisters – The Other Women (Mint). It’s amazing to me that these three albums came out the same year as New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic. I still know every lyric to each of these songs. In the political climate of 2020, I re-latched on to Neko’s “Mood to Burn Bridges.” Feeling disconnected, I found solace in “someone singing my life back to me” in “Guided by Wire.” For 20 years leading up to my midlife crisis, I’ve had a Corn Sisters lyric by Mark in my head: “Is it a groove? Or is it a rut?” In April, I watched an online hootenanny hosted in isolation by the incredibly social Carolyn Mark, during which she played Party Girl’s “Don’t Come Over, Baby.” It was perfect.

8. Crooked Fingers – s/t (Sonic Unyon). Much like Sleater-Kinney, this is nowhere near my favourite album by one of my favourite artists of all time. But again, like Yo La Tengo, this one sounded particularly good in 2020: “Crowned in Chrome,” “New Drink for the Old Drunk,” “Broken Man,” “Black Black Ocean,” “Under Sad Stars”—because it was just that kind of year.

9. Jess Klein – Draw Them Near (Slow River/Ryko). This is the one album on this list where I thought: really? I remember liking it, but I don’t remember loving it and I definitely haven’t listened to it in 20 years. But guess what? It’s pretty great. Really solid songs, great voice, great band. In the same vein as Harmer, but American. 2000 might have been the last year I listened to a lot of roots rock, which is why Klein would have fallen off my radar. She’s still active, and new stuff sounds pretty good.

10. The Gruesomes – Cave In (Tyrant). This might have been the first of my favourite bands from my high school years to reunite and not suck, and so the surprise element no doubt vaulted this onto my top 10. Listening to it now for likely the first time in 20 years, it is a great record, and probably even the Gruesomes’ best. The songs and performances are all killer (and there’s finally a studio version of “You Were Not Using Your Head”). I just don’t listen to garage rock anymore; I barely did in 2000, either. But if you do, and/or if you were ever a Gruesomes fan and have somehow never heard this, I highly recommend it.


Other favourites I wrote about in my year-end column for the K-W Record:

Asian Dub Foundation – Community Music (London/Polygram). I’d totally forgot this band until two years ago when I wrote a book about the Tragically Hip—which is a weird connection, but I read an article where drummer Johnny Fay talks about rocking this record on the tour bus. It also came to mind when I dug the Melt Yourself Down record this year. In many ways this record sounds either of the moment or incredibly dated, depending on your POV. I still think it sounds great. I had no idea they were still active; they put out a new record this year, and haven’t changed a bit. If Rage Against the Machine can have a revival, this band sure as hell can—and should. It’s not like what they were singing about has improved one iota. 



Bjork – Selmasongs (Warner). I was in a deep Bjork period of my life. Does this oft-forgotten soundtrack to Dancer in the Dark hold up? Probably much better than the movie, I’m guessing. After hearing about the antagonistic working relationship she had with notorious sadist Lars Von Trier, I reconsidered all portrayals of extreme suffering on film (not the first or last time in my life Bjork changed my worldview). The production is a delightful blend of the digital clicks and cuts she’d soon dive into and the orchestration heard on much of Post. I often forget that in the same year Kid A came out, Thom Yorke duetted with both PJ Harvey and Bjork on their albums, both of which are better than Kid A.

Blue Rodeo – The Days in Between (Warner). I loved this band for about 10 years of my life (1987-97), but have followed only from a respectful distance since. This album was probably the last one I enjoyed—or listened to more than thrice—and revisiting now I can see why. Was this the last time Keelor and Cuddy brought their best work to the band instead of their solo records? Trina Shoemaker’s production brings just the right amount of atmospherics. It sounds great today. Still: best of 2020? This was a nostalgia vote for me.

Deltron 3030 – s/t (75 Ark). The sound of the future? Nope, but definitely the sound of 2000, when Dan the Automator seemed to be everywhere (Gorillaz, Primal Scream, Handsome Boy Modeling School). Del the Funky Homosapien has great flow as always, though I don’t know about this as a concept album: the main appeal for me, then and now, is the music. (And yet: I’ve never listened to the accompanying instrumental album.) Kid Koala features prominently. His own Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is not on this list; it baffled me at the time. Now it’s clear he was charting his own path. I don’t think I’ve listened to a new Dan the Automator record since 2001, though I had a soft spot for his 2006 Mike Patton collab Peeping Tom (which I haven’t listened to since).

DJ Serious – Dim Sum (Sound King). This was a Toronto DJ whose debut featured MCs Brass Munk, D-Sisive, Arcee, Asicks and Lil Jaz. This being Canada, with a woeful hip-hop infrastructure, it came out on the same label that put out rock bands Danko Jones and Bionic and promptly got lost. Musically, it’s on the same wavelength as California’s Quannum crew, a mix of ’80s electro funk and early ’90s jazz-influenced tracks. It was definitely out of step with the Choclair and Kardinal crowd, and is now out of print and unavailable to stream except on this YouTube rip. I’m sure I haven’t listened to this in 20 years; it totally holds up. DJ Serious released a follow-up, Cold Tea, in 2005; I’ve never heard it. His studio output has been silent since.

Steve Earle – Transcendental Blues (Artemis). I don’t think Steve Earle gets enough credit for his five-album run between 1995-2000: Train a Comin’, I Feel Alright, El Corazon, The Mountain and finally this one. It’s flawless. Dozens of killer songs in that run. Where’s the box set? It should be mentioned in the same breath as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Prince, you name it. He’s released at least nine albums of original material since, but I’ve only paid sporadic attention—maybe because it’s hard to measure up to this, which still sounds fabulous, especially loud. “All of My Life”—what a goddam anthem. “Another Town” is the greatest song the Pogues never wrote (see also: “The Galway Girl”). There’s too many more here to list. I’m not sure Earle’s production skills have ever sounded better. No idea why this wasn’t in my top 10.

International Noise Conspiracy – Survival Sickness (Epitaph). I put “Smash It Up” on so many mix CDs for years, but did I ever like this whole record? None of these other songs sound remotely familiar—although the title track certainly hits home these days. Garage rock was not my thing; I was posing, craving a political rock band so much that I imagined this was this one for me. It wasn’t. Little did I know at the time that this band’s predecessor, Refused, would prove to be so influential on a lot of the aughts’ aggressive music. 

Jurassic 5 – Quality Control (Interscope). I saw this band open for Femi Kuti’s North American debut at the Roxy in New York City in 1999: one of the most unforgettable nights of music in my life. This band was maligned at the time, considered some kind of retro hip-hop Sha Na Na or some bullshit, at the time of Timbaland and Jay-Z, but I loved it. Still do: I’m a sucker for genuine interplay between MCs, which is all but unheard of in this day of one-off collabs. (Quick: try to name one modern rap act with more than two MCs and not named Migos.) Related: Cut Chemist put out a good record a couple of years ago that I only just discovered.

King Cobb Steelie – Mayday (Ryko). One of my favourite bands of the ’90s, for both musical and personal reasons. This was a final bid for glory on Rykodisc, with pop songs and guest vocalists (Michelle McAdorey, Tamara Williamson), before they resurfaced four years later with an indie instrumental album before fading away. Produced by Laika’s Guy Fixsen, Mayday sounds amazing—though definitely dated. There’s something textbook turn-of-the-millenium in the drum machine sounds here, as heard on the title track; it’s a post-triphop groove that was ubiquitous for a while with the KCRW crowd and then vanished. There’s an entirely unnecessary scratch solo (by DJ Serious! see above) on “Below the Stars”—remember when rock bands felt they needed turntable solos to be somehow relevant? “Home” is still a great single, with a synth bass squiggle that now reminds me of Charanjit Singh’s Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat. Weirder moments like “Fast Money Blessing” have aged very well. This is an album ripe for rediscovery—or at least half of it. This band’s discography would be served well by a collection of greatest non-hits. And there have been rumours of a reunion.

Paul Macleod – Close and Play (independent). This one hurts. Paul Macleod was one of the most brilliant performers and songwriters I’ve ever known; he was a staple in the Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph area, where he was never short a weekly gig. He performed often with Danny Michel, collaborated with the Rheostatics, and joined the Skydiggers as a sideman (at a time when he was writing better songs than they were). He always seemed poised for great things, which never materialized—a common story for hometown heroes everywhere, but I truly believe Macleod was exceptional. This was his first of only three proper studio records that I’m aware of (2007’s Bright Eyes Fade came out on Busted Flat; I’ve never heard 2014’s Gauge). He made it with Hawksley Workman, and it’s full of the same energy Workman brought to his own material as well as early records by John Southworth, Serena Ryder and Tegan and Sara. The songs are perfect Beatle-y pop. Macleod was an amazing singer. But no one heard this record unless you bought it from Macleod at a show. That’s not as big a tragedy as the fact that the Macleod I knew is no longer with us. I only knew him as an acquaintance and have very fond memories; I didn’t know his demons, which eventually took hold of him, hurt someone else, and landed him in court shortly before he died by suicide in 2016. It’s an awful story. I wish I could listen to his music now without thinking about it. I can’t. Hopefully someone can.

Listen to “Cruelty.” I mean, holy shit, what a song. 


Or “Giants.” 

New Pornographers – Mass Romantic (Mint). Kind of shocked this didn’t make my top 10, though it was released in November so maybe hadn’t fully sunk in. I was definitely in love with “Letter From an Occupant,” because who wasn’t? I wrote about this anniversary here.

Outkast – Stankonia (BMG). 2000 might have been the last year I felt remotely connected to mainstream hip-hop. I do love Outkast because they’re genre-busters, game-changers and genuinely odd. I also can’t love Outkast because I’m too much of a white Toronto prude. But this album is bloated: way too long, populated by skits, and dragged down by tracks like “We Luv Deez Hoez.” And as much as “B.O.B.” still slams (musically), the chorus is downright gross: “bombs over Baghdad” is not a great metaphor in any context, least of all as a pre-9/11 sentiment for not finishing a fight or not following through on a challenge.

Radiohead – Kid A (EMI). I don’t know that I ever loved this album—but not for the reasons people hated it. I like it just fine. If anything, it wasn’t weird enough. The fact that it was remotely divisive speaks to the intense conservatism of the time. (I’m debating whether I even care enough to read Steven Hyden’s new book about it.) I probably put it on my list so that I wouldn’t seem out of touch. Total posturing on my part.

The Salteens – Short Term Memories (Endearing). This was when I still had great affection for peppy indie pop populated by handclaps, trumpets and bop-ba-da’s. Come to think of it, I was in a band not unlike this one at the time. This Vancouver band had really catchy songs, heavily influenced by Sloan, and a really strong rhythm section. This is a really good record, better than most of its peers other than the New Pornographers. Not one I’d listen to today, though given the chance I’d probably join a band like this in a heartbeat.

Amon Tobin – Supermodified (Ninja Tune). Pretty sure I was a complete poser when I put this on my year-end list. Some of it is great and totally holds up—sexy, even; some of it sounds like a dial-up connection.

Travis – The Man Who (Sony). Woof. Really? I’m glad working for Brave New Waves saved me from becoming a guy who likes Travis.

Records that should be on this list that I got into shortly afterwards:

Belle and Sebastian – Fold Your Hands

Destroyer – Thief

Be Good Tanyas – Blue Horse

Gonzales – Uber Alles

White Stripes – De Stijl

And Royal City’s At Rush Hour the Cars, made by some good friends of mine, and which I might have left off the list for nepotistic reasons.

Albums I should have appreciated more at the time, relevant to current research:

Dears – End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story

Godspeed You Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists...

Peaches – The Teaches Of 

Album all my friends loved and I still don’t get: 

Blonde Redhead – Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Bettie Serveert's Private Suit

“Little works of wonder in a nostalgic mood”

I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager my life savings that this will be the only piece celebrating the 20th anniversary of Bettie Serveert’s Private Suit. It came out the same year as the Weakerthans' Left and Leaving and PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City Stories from the Sea; its aesthetic is somewhere in between and, to me, it’s as strong as either of those records. It’s a record about which I became evangelical, playing it for anyone who entered my house or my car. I’m pretty sure I played a track from it every week for a year on my campus radio show.

Unlike a lot of records from 20 years ago, even ones I adore, I pull this out and play it at least three times a year—usually during a long drive alone. Carol van Dijk’s voice is as comforting as the face of an old, dear friend. Peter Visser is one of my favourite guitarists of all time: capable of subtlety and squall, generous in his textures and acutely melodic in his solos. The rhythm section is perfectly complementary, either playing it straight or weaving in and around the vocal and guitar melodies. But the songs: sweet Jesus, the songs. More on that later.

If this Dutch band—the greatest since Shocking Blue!—is known to North American audiences at all, it’s because of their 1993 debut Palomine, which came out on Matador and fit in perfectly beside records by Pavement and Yo La Tengo. (I first saw them tour with the latter, in 1997, on a bill in Toronto where the opening band featured a very young Leslie Feist on bass.) Two more records on Matador followed, their evolving brilliance in sadly inverse proportion to general interest. This was nerdcore indie rock for people who watched mediocre Hollywood films hoping that Janeane Garofalo would magically make them better.

I don’t even like Palomine; it’s fine, but it’s baby steps. I fell in love with 1995’s Lamprey, and not just because one song features a passage that sounds like it directly samples the Rheostatics’ “Self-Serve Gas Station”—not just the melody, but the entire recording. (It’s a really weird coincidence, as I’m pretty sure there’s no way they heard that record—despite van Dijk’s Canadian citizenship, because she left Vancouver Island at age 7. Listen to “Crutches” at the 2.25 mark, and compare it to the Rheos at 4.23). The next album, 1997’s Dust Bunnies, was straight-up brilliant, shedding a lot of the straight-up grunginess of the first two and focusing on songcraft. I became so obsessed with the melodies and chord progressions that I sat down and learned the entire record on the piano by ear—not a normal habit of mine.

But by that point, no one cared. People still cheered loudest for the songs from Palomine. They were dropped by Matador. The drummer split. Private Suit was released to no fanfare, was barely reviewed, and wasn’t easy to find in stores (though it did have distribution here). Hence my lonely evangelical crusade. They didn’t tour North America to promote it, outside of one show in New York City at the CMJ Festival. I drove 10 hours there to see it.

How’s this for an opening line: “I took a Tylenol and an hour’s drive / and somehow found a reason why I’m still alive.” The chorus to that song is, “It’s good to be unsound.” Yeeeeeeah—let’s just say I come back to that song often. Throughout, van Dijk’s lyrics slay me. “Callous on the sore where you hurt before / are you happy now that you don’t feel it anymore? / Placid are the skies when you dream at night / are you satisfied? … Tell me what are we looking for, if all we really want is each other?” “Auf Wiedersehen” is one of the greatest breakup songs I’ve heard, a nonchalant acknowledgment of frozen stares and lost passion. Every song here is just as great.

This is all set to van Dijk’s magical melodies and Visser’s glorious countermelodies, with bassist Herman Bunskoeke an essential part of the glue. Van Dijk is also underrated as a rhythm guitarist. This is the only Bettie Serveert album with drummer Reinier Veldman, but he fits perfectly—not surprising, as he played in a band called De Artsen with them in the late ’80s. He adds jazzy textures to the string-laden swinging 6/8 time of the title track. PJ Harvey sideman and producer John Parish is the producer here, at a time when he was starting to branch out and work with Goldfrapp, Giant Sand, Sparklehorse and others. 

Private Suit has a definite Euro feel to it in ways that are hard to articulate, other than to say it’s definitely not from an English-speaking country. Yes, there are nods to the Velvet Underground (a comparison that the band embraces, having released a live album of VU covers, which was the first record I ever ordered online), but there is an outsiders’ lens on North American indie rock that’s refreshing; they spent a long time trying to ape it, and now they’d successfully moved on while retaining the best bits. Private Suit is also easy to like: it’s a pop record with a down-to-earth singer and an unusually great guitarist. “Recall” is the kind of song I kept hoping the Cardigans would one day evolve into writing but never did.

Most music fans have a record or a band like this in their lives: something intensely important to them that seems like a lost cause to the larger world. Sometimes it’s the artist who lives around the corner, sometimes it’s a band on the other side of the world. Bettie Serveert must do well enough in their native Netherlands, because they’re still together and have released six albums since Private Suit, some of which are better than others (the follow-up, 2003’s Log 22, might be the weakest). I saw them in Montreal in 2004, touring the solid release Attagirl; they were fantastic, unbelievably good. (Reviewed here.) I have a vague memory of seeing them at the Drake in Toronto in 2010, touring a just-okay new record and being bummed out that the crowd didn’t seem to be listening until they played Palomine’s “Kids Allright.”

I’m just as bad as that audience of disinterested douchebags, because I’ll be honest: I lost the plot and stopped paying attention over the years, perhaps because this one record burned so brightly for me. That just means I have more Bettie Serveert records to explore, now that I’m in this wormhole. Maybe I’ll even learn them on piano. I’ve got the time. Better late than never. 

Also: happy belated birthday to my old friend James Rocchi, who in the '90s told me he once woke from a dream about living above an Amsterdam coffee shop where he would meet Carol Van Dijk and smoke cigarettes and talk philosophy. One can dream.

Hey, but don't worry about me,
I'll be sitting by the seashore,
Laughing at the lifeforms,
Whistling down the breeze.
So don't worry about me,
'Cause you can't please everyone.
And I'm thinking to myself,
And I'm not the only one,
We all gotta learn
To give some in return,
Like little works of wonder.

The album is streaming everywhere. They're not on Bandcamp. I can't find video footage of any songs from Private Suit (lots of Palomine, though) other than some not-great ones of the title track. But, oh, look, here they are a couple of weeks ago, gorgeous and sounding great as always, Peter rocking a Chapel Hill T-shirt, playing a Cure song in a garden:

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Gonzales vs. Enya and Christmas

"Last Christmas I gave you my art / and the very next day you didn't press play / So this year I made a record for you /  [long pause] holy shit, from a secular Jew!"


Yes, Jason "Chilly Gonzales" Beck, the Montreal- and Toronto-raised pianist who once declared himself a Jewish supervillain and president of the "Berlin Underground," has released a A Very Chilly Christmas, a solo piano album of minor-key Christmas carols along with covers of David Berman, Wham and Mariah Carey; it's accompanied by a considerably less sombre mixtape with Toddla T (the source of the above quote). But that's not all: the current resident of Köln has also written a book-length essay about a woman who once sang in Elvish.


Enya: A Treatise on Unguilty Pleasures has been published in German, French, and in English by Rough Trade UK and Canada's Invisible Publishing as part of their Bibliophonic series. It's only partially about Enya; it's also about ego, namely Beck's, and about music as social function, like the lullabies that populate Enya's blockbuster albums and Gonzales's Solo Piano albums. It's a variation on Carl Wilson's game-changing Céline Dion book, Let's Talk About Love, though much more informal—and funny, though just as earnest. Both books aim to reclaim their subjects from punchline purgatory. For me, Enya seems to be an easier case to make: see also Jenn Pelly's excellent piece in Pitchfork this year. 


2020 also marks 20 years since the debut Gonzales album, Uber Alles, which launched a series of events that enabled the success of his friends Peaches and Feist. We talked about that in a separate conversation, but you'll have to wait for my book to read that.


My 2008 conversation with Gonzales is one of my favourites; it can be found here


This conversation took place last month, but because I don't want to think about  Christmas until it's time for partridges in pear trees, I present it to you now, during Hanukkah. 



November 6, 2020


Does the world needs Enya more than ever now?


It seems so. When most records come out, we’re constantly reminded of the personality of the artist and their singular point of view, especially in rap songs. All the words we use to describe music have so much to do with the artist’s POV. We forget that music before that had no POV, it had a collective POV, and Enya is closer to that than many other artists at their level. I love the idea of what folk music is, a kind of music where you don’t hear the word “I”—and you don’t hear the word “I” in Enya songs. Her melodies don’t have a lot of twists and turns and signatures. I struggle with it, because my ego is so ever-present in my music and I try to put it to good use. But I’m fascinated with music in which there isn’t that, where the composer isn’t present—to paraphrase Marina Abramovich.


Solo Piano wasn’t intended to be functional hipster dinner party music, but you’re often quoted as being fine if it’s accepted as such. There is a letting go of your own work. Background music serves a social purpose. In the same way Enya’s does.


Yeah, and it makes me think of my background as a bar pianist, or a lingerie store pianist, or these more humble background-music jobs I had.


Where was that? In Montreal, or Toronto? Berlin?


A lot in Toronto. A bit in Montreal. I did a lot of it when I graduated from McGill and moved back to Toronto, before my band Son kicked off. That was a two- or three-year period of constant jobbing, including at a Yorkville lingerie store called Andrew’s, where I was the pianist. It was really interesting. The owner was like, ‘Hey, I know it’s not Carnegie Hall here.’ Part of me was like, ‘Believe me, I know.’ But at the same time, it dawned on me that I didn’t need it to be Carnegie Hall. For about two years in Berlin, before I could make a living as Chilly Gonzales, from about 1998 to 2001, I had a job playing in a restaurant around the corner from where I lived. It’s a great job to have when you don’t speak the language in the country to which you’ve moved.


When some people might approach me and say, ‘Hey, are you okay with your music being used as background music?’ I speak of the moment when Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk used Solo Piano to get his baby to sleep. I thought, not only is my music useful, it’s useful to one of my heroes. That was a really nice moment. I do think it’s possible to make music that works on all those different levels. And a third level, which is playing sheet music. That is the most intimate way of interacting with the composer, because the music is literally coming through you. 


[In 2014, Gonzales published Re-Introduction Etudes, sheet music for lapsed pianists. It became a bestseller. I was just given a copy for Hanukkah, and I'm hard at work.]


Close headphone listening, or listening while doing dishes, or as a sex soundtrack—there are so many wonderful activities in which music can play a role. It’s quite humbling to own up to that. Music that can only be appreciated when you listen closely to it—I mean, who has that kind of time these days? I don’t. A lot of albums I find interesting, like that last Fiona Apple album I thought was really interesting, but I didn’t have any social use for it, personally. For my taste, it’s too much, it demands too much of my attention, and nor is it the kind of music I would put on when I need energy—that’s when I’ll use rap music and listen very closely and get a vicarious energy through what the rapper is saying, and the beat.


The balance of ego and generosity: for any musician, unless you’re a prodigy and then become a superstar, there’s an inherent humbling at every step of the way, whether it’s the early humiliation of playing your original material to nobody, or serving a function, whether it’s jobbing in a wedding band or teaching music to disinterested children.


Or playing in a punk band! Which is another functional thing I learned, when I joined the Shit [in 1995 with Peaches]. That was my introduction to “the hang” being most important, not just between the band members themselves, but with the audience. If you go to a great all-ages punk show, there is a huge amount of egoless solidarity. Or a rave. I’m jealous of that yes-or-no success threshold for stand-up comedy, because it’s so clear: if it works, people are laughing. My DJ friends, I’m envious of them—even though I tease them by telling them they’re not musicians—because through the playing of music they are also creating a social function that mirrors what folk music did back in the day.


The only genre where that isn’t the case is the one I’m in, which is personality-based, artist music, where we’re all hoping to be taken seriously as these forward-thinking, free artists. It’s a real trope, one I sometimes fall into, and one I make fun of by calling myself a musical genius. I try to take the piss out of the whole idea of what a genius is. When you’re a folk musician, I don’t think anyone thinks in those terms. The [idea of the] musical genius was more or less invented in Europe, somewhere between Beethoven and Liszt, and continues to this day to Kanye West and “stable genius” ex-president Trump—it feels good to say that! I think Enya is much closer to that. I highly doubt she thinks of herself as a genius, or even wants to be called one.


But we’ll never know, because she never speaks! I take issue with part of your thesis. I don’t know that the guilty pleasure still exists. I feel that’s been chipped away for the last 20 years. Do people still feel guilty? 


I would say so. So much of my book reflects the fact that my young musical adulthood was in the ’90s when there was a divide. That’s why I’m talking about Pavement, which is almost quaint to think about. I think there has been generational change. In my anecdotal milieu, people talk about it in terms of TV shows, in terms of liking bad TV. Or they say, ‘These are the novels I read when I’m on holiday, they’re a guilty pleasure.’ Or with food. In a way, the concept is still there.


Maybe in music, through whatever the poptimism movement was supposed to be, I’m not sure, which I think involves not putting mainstream pop music in a different category. In a way, that’s still playing into the same idea. It’s saying, ‘We’re not going to exclude pop music from cool stuff anymore; we’ll include it.’ Which means there is still stuff on the other side of that line—what, exactly, we don’t know. But it has to do with only young pop people who dare to work with cool producers get included in that. So a very mainstream pop person might be considered cheezy, and they only get included in the cool club when they work with Ariel Reichstad or whomever.


Perhaps the last uncool thing is, for lack of a better term, white-trash stadium country music. There are a bunch of class and racial reasons why that is.


I know a lot of people who look down on David Guetta and that world, very mainstream dance anthems, which tend to be more earnest. The less winking there is, you have to see if you pass some kind of smell test for the gatekeepers. So yes, I agree that the guilty pleasure is not as pronounced and obvious as the era in which I was struggling with it. I’ve gotten over it, and I bet you have too. I quote Dev Hynes who, when asked about his guilty pleasure, challenged the premise of the question. He said, ‘I’ll say Cyndi Lauper, but it’s not guilt, it’s just pleasure.’


I don’t think I’m radical by saying, ‘I’m enlightened! I can enjoy what I enjoy and never apologize for it ever again!’ That’s not the point of my book. It’s more of a journey for me to find out who I was. I had so many false stops along the way. First I got hoodwinked by virtuosity, then I got hoodwinked by trying to be cool. I went through all these phases. Some people have said I’m very hard on all the musicians I used to like, and therefore I’m hard on myself by admitting to being taken in by charlatans—and I don’t mean Charlatans the band. But now, I can be sitting in the hotel bath after the concert, with a joint, and I’ll think, ‘Ah, in the last three minutes of that one song I tried to somehow impress people rather than connect with them.’ I still fall into that trap. I’m by no means pure. I still fear the gods of music and their judgment more than ever, because I know I can easily slip.


My first love was ABBA, and I never turned my back on that. That went through years of not being cool depending on what circles I was in, then they had a couple of revivals, but that music has always given me intense pleasure, and it has my entire life. Did you read Carl Wilson’s Céline Dion book? 


I’m aware of the book, and I read it after I finished mine. We actually went to McGill at the same time. He wrote for the school paper. His gang was in a slight rivalry with my gang, in a weird way. Since then, we’ve been writing each other on Twitter and I asked for his address so I could send him a book. But yes, his book is wonderful. It’s a different topic, in a way, but comes down to a lot of the same issues. When you say you like something, where is that really coming from? Is that a deep-seeded pre-taste mindset? Like, when you fell in love with ABBA, was that before you knew what musical taste was?


I was 10. 


Right. So there’s something incredibly pure and innocent about your love for them. The fact you never turned your back on them, means that you were probably a more secure person than I was. Especially in my teens, I had a lot of issues of not being sure about what I liked. Whereas [frequent collaborator of 25+ years] Mocky, when I met him when he was 19 or 20, his taste was fully formed. It’s the same today. His music evolves, he finds new music to love, but his criteria is solid. It might have to do with personality. 


There was something shape-shifty about my personality back then. I was so desperate to be liked and to fit in, that it took me a while. When I moved to Berlin [in 1999], it gave me that last push, where if I was actually going to continue doing this, I had to have the balls to put all these things together that, on paper, seem like they won’t work. Of course they work, because they’re all me. I can put the sense of humour together with my studious musicality. I don’t talk often about why I love rap has so much to do with my dad, and his capitalist-revenge-fantasy mindset. Essentially, my father has the attitude of a rapper. He grew up very, very poor and wanted to prove that he could be upwardly mobile.


What was his profession?


He started as an engineer, and he’s now a huge real estate business man in Canada. He’s retired now, but he was the CEO. It was a real rags-to-riches, Get Rich Or Die Trying kind of story. That’s what I think makes me love rap so much. The other side, I love the reassuring, feminine-style music with maternal voices. I know now where those twin obsessions come from. The Enya book is more about the mother’s side, but if you scan my lyrics there are a lot of references to my dad, and his effect on my aesthetics and my personality.


It took me a really long time. I try to be gentle. I try to have some sympathy for who I was then, and how I could allow myself to say, ‘I’m going to reinvent myself as someone who likes Pavement.’ That was a conscious decision based on not being able to own my own taste yet. I was a late bloomer. In [2002's] ‘Salieri Serenade,’ I have a lyric that is key to my harshness, in which I say, “I’m going to persecute all musical prostitutes / I know a ton of ’em / I used to be one of ’em / So now I make fun of ’em.” That’s where I’m at. I’m telling my conversion story. Much like you might read those books like, ‘I used to be a white supremacist and now I’m out of jail and organizing in the inner-city.’ It’s one of those kind of memoirs.


One of my favourite lines in the book is that, ‘Art suffers if you like everything. Taste is what you hate.’ Framing your taste in the negative. 


That gives you power. When you like everything, the power of those choices becomes diluted, because you’re theoretically open to everything. It’s fundamentally coming from a position of weakness: ‘Well, who am I to say?’ We all know people like that, who don’t want you to say bad things about anyone. They think that to say anything bad is, in itself, not constructive. But it can give you power. Enya’s refusal to have drums is linked to her refusal to go on tour. My refusal to use electronics on stage is akin to me refusing to go on a TV show and give a music lesson to a cheezy host. That’s inspired by artists like Enya. You hear, in her music and in the way she runs her career, that she’s built these fortified walls, and everything inside her fortress is lovely and protected. The walls keep out beats and pressure to go on tour.


And interest in her personal life. 


Exactly. I noticed it living in France. Maybe because French music always focuses on the lyrics first, they’re a very literary culture. That’s why there is not a lot of groovy French music. Not a lot of exuberant, simple pop. Gainsbourg was such an anomaly because of that, because he could just write a song where he says “toot-toot-toot” over and over again. He had a feel for what sounds good. Generally, the French are on the outside looking in at British and American styles of music. I would meet these French musicians and they just loved everything. They would be like, ‘Reggae! I can play that. Bossa nova! I can play that.’ I was like, ‘Well, you must hate something. It doesn’t make sense to love everything.’


I want to talk about texture, because this is fascinating to me. I was Enya agnostic; I didn’t think enough about her to hate her. You and I are roughly the same age. I liked “Orinoco Flow” well enough at the time, and I, like you, had access in high school to a Roland D-50 where that string sound is right there. As I got older, the sound of the Roland D-50 became kryptonite to me, the DX-7 as well. Textually, I just find them grating. I have friends who recoil at the sound of a tabla, or the guy in your book who, like me, hates the vibraphone. Certain textures prevent me from entering into the world of Milt Jackson or Enya, aesthetic decisions that are independent from all the other issues you’re talking about. 




Also, I’ve always loved Julee Cruise, which might be some bullshit hipster association with David Lynch, but after reading your book I wondered: why do I love that Julee Cruise record [1989's Floating Into the Night, featuring the Twin Peaks' theme, 'Falling'] but I don’t care about Enya? Is it just because there’s no Roland D-50?


I could have written a book about that Julee Cruise album too, to be honest. Or Cocteau Twins or Beach House or Lana Del Rey. There’s a lot of music that’s similar, but Enya just felt right—even though I’m not that big a fan of her music compared to some of those others. I probably listened to Julee Cruise more than Enya, when all is said and done.




But it’s fascinating that a piece of technology—whether it’s physical, like a vibraphone, or electronic, like a DX-7—can carry these associations for us to the point where we can be blocked [as a listener]. As a piano player, when you play covers on the piano, you divorce them from all of that. Sometimes people get a clearer shot at what the music is capable of when you remove those [production choices].


Case in point, I just did a Christmas album and I do a version of ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham. As people start to hear the album, people are really singling that out, saying, ‘I never knew what a beautiful, bittersweet little lullaby “Last Christmas” is.’ Because they’re picturing [Wham!’s] Christmas sweaters, they’re hearing the SPX90 that’s doing the reverb on George Michael’s voice—a very specific ’80s reverb that everybody knows, consciously or unconsciously. I took away the drum machine, the cheezy synths. People couldn’t get a clear shot of what the melody and harmony was until they hear an instrument like the piano—which of course is not an instrument of pure reduction, pure atomic musicality, not quite the instrument that shows us the Platonic world of forms, but it’s the closest we have. It divorces all reference to the real world, and you end up in this abstract world and you get a different version of ‘Last Christmas,’ which is the opposite of how it usually works with Christmas carols.



 If I ask you right now to think of ‘Silent Night,’ you don’t think of one particular recording. You think of some Platonic version that only exists in your mind, and you will now hear all future and past versions that exist in the real world, whether it’s carollers on your doorstep, or the version of it on my album. It’s always being compared to this abstract, ur-text version of ‘Silent Night.’ With ‘Last Christmas,’ it’s the opposite: all we have in mind are the references. So I’ve taken that all away and showing what was lurking beneath the whole time. It’s an interesting reaction that surprised me, how much people are able to re-evaluate a song like ‘Last Christmas’ when it’s played on the piano with very little stylistic liberties taken. I play a lot of songs in a minor key, interpolating them with other carols. But with those two—Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ being the other—I play them so straight, so respectfully, because I wanted to make sure there was no chance people thought I was making fun of them. On the contrary, I’m venerating them.




Is that not a common trope: to take an overproduced song, strip it down to acoustic guitar, and now it’s so-called “real music”? Like Ryan Adams doing his Taylor Swift thing, or any acoustic cover of a pop song going back to at least Frenté.


That’s different because there are voices. The voices will always colour it. The voice is another stylistic exercise. On the piano you get closer to the purity.


What I find more interesting about your record is the seasonal affective disorder element of it, by making the traditional carols minor. That completely changes the meaning of the song. I’ve seen you do that exercise live before, where you take a well-known major-key song and make it minor. It’s usually ‘Jingle Bells,’ isn’t it? 


I do a few. ‘Happy Birthday,’ ‘Frere Jacques.’ It can apply to any happy song.


In the context of this record, I find it much more fascinating. This could be hold music for a suicide hotline. 


I recorded and planned the release before the pandemic, but it turns out events are making it seem more prescient.


The decision to do that to the traditional songs is more illuminating than a straight-forward ‘Last Christmas.’ 


The more well-known and universal the song is, the more it has lived in the collective unconscious. The more liberties I can take. Then there were exceptions. I wondered what trap I could fall into by doing standards. How can I bring these more recent pop songs, which do have the word I in them, and by playing them on piano I could minimize the I. In my version, I try to make you not think about Mariah Carey or George Michael, and let you hear the pure musical intentions. I don’t think you get that with the trend you’re talking about, a trend I really don’t like, of the bossa-nova versions by Nouvelle Vague, or when Richard Thompson did a very earnest version of ‘Oops I Did It Again.’ I feel you’re just replacing one trope with another by that point, because you’re framing the song in a very personal style. That’s why I try to play those songs as impersonally as possible, to avoid falling into that trap. I’m not trying to make it my own; I’m trying to make it your own. 




A bit off topic, have you heard the Karen O and Willie Nelson version of ‘Under Pressure’ that just came out? 




I think it’s one of the best covers I’ve ever heard. It’s two acoustic guitars, and she sings most of it and he sings the Bowie part. I’ve always loved that song but was too distracted by the greatest male vocal duet in history to notice the lyrics. With this version, they’re both incredible singers for different reasons. 



 That’s a good example of where with ‘Last Christmas,’ you’re distracted by the kitsch, in ‘Under Pressure’ you were distracted by the voices. That song has an unusual structure, instead of a typical A/B/A/B/bridge structure. I have played that on piano many times; it was a commonly requested song when I was a bar pianist, when I often faked my way through any request. As you’re playing songs, you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ When you play a Pet Shop Boys song on piano you realize how complicated it is, how many key changes there are, and extra bars you didn’t realize were there. The sophistication is so hidden and buried in music like that, and ‘Under Pressure,’ when you sit down to play it, you think, ‘Where is this going?!’ There is very little repetitive scenery to anchor you. You can permit yourself to do that when you have two of the greatest male voices of your generation. I’m curious to hear how it sounds stripped down with those two legends.


In the Enya book, you talk about your friend the 4 Non-Blonde fan claiming that band’s hit song is ‘so bad it’s good.’ I wonder if that concept still exists.


Reality TV occupies that space for a lot of people.


Sure, but just talking about music here. I once had to learn ‘We Built This City’ for a wedding band. One of the most horrific recordings of all time, but having to learn how to play it, I gained a lot of odd respect for it.


Have you heard the Diplomats do that? They’re the last gasp of New York hip-hop in the early 2000s, led by Cam’ron, and with my personal favourite rapper, Juels Santana. They didn’t have that many hits, but in the rap world they’re untouchable, very ahead of their time, stylistically, visually. Their music is quite epic, and they have an epic version of ‘We Built This City.’ I’ll send it to you, as revenge for you telling me about the Karen O and Willie Nelson cover. 




Back to the evolution of one’s taste, do you disown things you once loved? Can you listen to Chick Corea today? 


I will get a minimal nostalgic thrill, but I don’t like it in the way I like music today, no. I do hear that it displeases the gods of music. I feel strongly about that now. Of course we all put our personality and our ego into the creative things we make; that is the modern definition of the artist, since we’ve had a word for it. People created stuff before, but they didn’t have a sense of ownership over the things they made. There was a feeling of craftsmanship involved, of social function.


Maybe it’s my age, or the phase I’m in, or the year we’ve had, maybe it’s the pleasure I get from doing projects like the Gonzervatory, that more and more I start to think I’m never going to surgically remove my ego. It’s too late for that. But I can try to get closer. I’m never going to be perfect, I’m too fundamentally selfish. But until my dying day now, I’m going to try to push a bit closer to all these different signposts, whether it’s what I see in Enya and how she runs her career and protects her songs to the degree that makes me feel ashamed about how I sell my songs in multiple different ways, and so it inspires me.

I use the word ‘balls’ a lot in the book, but I hope I grow Enya-size balls in the coming years. Reflecting on folk music of the past and reading about how music was made, and understanding the role of craftsmanship, making sure my ego can find its proper place in what I’m doing and not necessarily totally dominate.


Chilly’s cojones. That’s what you’re looking for. 




Tangent: I was listening to Nina Simone’s To Love Somebody today, for the first time. I’m a big fan, but I’d never heard that entire album before. It struck me what a lost era it is, when an artist of Simone’s stature would put out an album of covers featuring total newbies like the Bee Gees or Leonard Cohen and entirely rewrite a Beatles song released that same year. Or how people like Joni Mitchell had two or three years of hits via covers before they put out their own music. 




That’s what I was hoping to do with Let It Die, which was to remove Feist’s songwriting ego and focus on her being useful as a voice interpreting songs. That eventually led to her being able to write her own songs again. But when she was blocked, instinctually one of my solutions was to suggest to her that she’s putting the songwriter-as-artist thing on a pedestal, and she was feeling she wasn’t living up to it. So I said, ‘Maybe we’re attacking this the wrong way, and remove this from the equation rather than trying to find a new way to scale that mountain. Let’s bypass the mountain.’


As I think about this more, and writing the Enya book came at an interesting time, when shooting for [2018] Shut Up and Play the Piano documentary had wrapped, as a postscript to everything that happens in the movie—the movie is about me getting away from constantly seeking attention at all costs, to then discovering there is this other side that people will appreciate through Solo Piano and then trying to harmonize all that. Starting the Enya book, along with the entire story of the movie and where I’m headed is: how can the ego find its proper place and not dominate, but be in harmony with the gods of music? It’s not realistic for me to entirely excise my ego from the equation, but if I can live in harmony with the gods of music, that would be wonderful.