Thursday, November 30, 2006

Spiral Beach

Quick side note first: in my Baby Eagle post, allusions were made that Bry Webb of the Constantines might be up to some solo material. The rumours are true: his band is called the Paramedics, and they play their first official Toronto show on January 12. Info is here.

This week's NOW magazine has a cover story on Spiral Beach, written by the illustrious Sarah Liss. I'm tickled for the band, who I instantly fell in love with when I saw them for the first time last March, and Ms. Liss does a fine job of capturing their character, despite the absence of singer Maddy Wylde. (But who wrote that god-awful headline?)

I'd be lying, however, if I told you I wasn't mildly miffed: I was supposed to do a piece on them this week for chief competitor Eye, but NOW has a long-standing insistence on exclusivity when it comes to their cover subjects. Bastards! But this just means we'll wait until the new album is actually out [they were supposed to be recording this fall]. In the meantime, this seems as good a time as any to print this interview I had with drummer Daniel Woodhead in August, for a short article that ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record back then.

As a way of introduction, here's what I wrote in Exclaim about my virgin experience:

Spiral Beach

In a festival of hustlers, Spiral Beach was refreshing, even if only because these recent high school graduates are far too young to be jaded. An unconsciously 80s fashion sense made them look like they stepped out of a John Hughes movie, probably one made before they were even born. Their collective individual talent is terrifying considering their youth, but they put their music school chops to work on giddily unconventional new wave songs somewhere between the Sugarcubes and the B-52's. Each one is a bonafide rock star able to make their cojones sound casual, making Spiral Beach as playful as they are awe-inspiring. MB

Their youth is what most people find so attractive right now, and why not? They're viciously skilled and totally confident on stage, which is refreshing at the best of times, never mind at an age when most people are terrified to break out of their shell. Every one of them is an attention magnet, but they pull it off in spades. That giddy energy is probably what sells people on their proggier tendencies: they love a left turn like nobody's business, and they do this without belabouring the point. Their ten-song debut CD doesn't always live up to their potential but at least half of it stands as my favourite pop music of the year (sorry, I'm out of superlatives now that it's listmaking season).

Part of their success is also due to the fact that their parents are well-established in the Canadian folk scene, which leads to odd sights like old-timers Bernie Finkelstein and Richard Flohil giddily rubbing elbows with kids barely old enough to get into the club. No doubt all that wisdom will help them navigate the treacherous waters ahead--the sharks are swimming. I missed their Pop Montreal show in October, but rumour has it that O Patro Vys was stuffed with suits and professional chin-strokers.

This interview took place just as the industry hype started rolling (or at least before the band became fully aware of it). It's interesting to hear Mr. Woodhead admit to patently uncool formative musical influences, and to tacitly suggest that the Talking Heads aren't as daring as Spiral Beach is. (OK, he doesn't really say that, but it kind of sounds like it.)

Spiral Beach just got back from their first-ever tour, opening for the Hidden Cameras across the U.S. They met the band at Guelph's Hillside Festival (where I was an MC and introduced their set), just before this interview took place. Their next Toronto show is this Saturday at the Horseshoe, opening for Tokyo Police Club. Get there early!

Spiral Beach, Daniel Woodhead

August 10, 2006

locale: phone interview from his Toronto home.

The first time I saw you was at the Drake during Canadian Music Week.

That was the 16th show at the Drake in a year. I don’t know how many shows we did that year, but probably half of them were there. At first we did an Elvis Monday: free bands and free food. The guy Will(iam New) who runs it invited us back a few times, so we figured we might as well play every week. Then just by coincidence, every other show we’d play turned out to be at the Drake.

Where are you all from originally?

Toronto. [Bassist] Dorian [Wolf] lived in New York until he was seven and then moved here. The rest of us lived close together as well, in the same neighbourhood. Me and Dorian went to school together, then I went to another one.

When did the band start?

These four started at the beginning of 2003. Me and Airick and Liam Titcomb, he was in the band with us before his Sony deal. To an extent it’s the same because Airick and I do a lot of the writing together. But it’s a different group of people. There were about five different names before.

Did any of them leave anything behind?

I got a t-shirt made up for Bilge.

How old were you both when the first band started?

Airick was 11. He and I never listened to pop music until we started the band. We listened to a bunch of people our parents knew, also Arrogant Worms and Moxy Fruvous, and both of those are half-comedy bands. We weren’t really into music, until we discovered that we could do that too. It seemed easy at the time, maybe because of the music we were listening to.

A lot of names come up when people talk about Spiral Beach. A lot of older people hear things from the 80s.

Yeah, I know, it’s kind of strange. There are a lot of bands that sound 80ish, lots of newer bands. If there’s an 80s influence it’s probably through newer bands that sound 80s. I don’t mind when people say it sounds 80s, that doesn’t matter. Or that it sounds like Talking Heads—they’re a good band! I know myself, structure wise, that some of the melodies and chords do things that Talking Heads wouldn’t do. I’m not really bothered if someone thinks we’re a Talking Heads rip-off band, but I don’t think people believe we are. [ed note: the youngest member of Spiral Beach was born the year Talking Heads broke up. Chew on that for a while.]

I grew up in the 80s, and I realise in retrospect that a lot of bands from that time tried to rewrite the book in terms of verse-chorus writing. Somewhere along the line things got conservative again and people wrote normal sounding songs. One of the things I like about your approach is a return to that experimentation and yet it’s all still pop.

That’s an important thing: making sure people want to listen to it. I listen to some music that is abrasive and rude on purpose, but I don’t think it’s cool to be doing that. But I like when we throw in some extremely noisy stuff in the middle of a happy song. I’d rather do that than make a noisy song that no one can listen to.

People aren’t as afraid of noisy interludes these days.

If you listen to mainstream pop stuff, some of the beats are heavy—and I don’t mean the 80s snare drum reverb thing. The crunk’n’b stuff is great.

There’s also the ostensibly classic rock bands like Wilco who have all sorts of noisy bits in their songs, and then there are people like Deerhoof, who are always out on a limb and yet always pop.

As far as new bands go, there’s a band we’d want to sound like. Not that I think we sound like them, but if I was comparing us to something we’d want to actually do, it’d be Deerhoof. Although they’re more far out.

The lyrics are not conventional either. Is it boring to sing about normal stuff?
I do the lyrics, which is weird because I play drums and not really any other instrument.

Don’t you play keyboards on one song too?

No. Oh wait, there was one older song that we stopped playing because it was too quiet. For young bands, when suddenly the dynamic changes and it gets quiet, usually people stop paying attention. If we were playing the ACC [Toronto hockey arena] it would be different. In a little club, people want to hear bangin’ music. We scrapped that song because it was always the low point of the show. That might change. It’s not like we want to play loud music all the time. But what were we talking about…


The songs are usually about not specific things, but what everybody has songs about: vibes, having the right emotion to go with the lyrics or whatever. It can be pretty vague. But they’re not supposed to be intentionally poetic. I think that’s kinda stupid. Unless you’re Leonard Cohen, most people can’t get away with having the lyrics stand alone—and they shouldn’t have to, either. It’s essentially dance music, to get people into it physically.

Do you go for phonetics, just the way certain words go together?

A lot of it is rhyming, for sure. I’m usually more worried about the next rhyme than following a story. They’re not stories, although some of the newer songs are more so.

How old is this record now?
We just did a new pressing, so it’s kind of confusing.

Haven’t you changed the cover each time?

Yeah, we have three covers so far.

Are people collecting all of them?

I kinda hope not, because it’s kinda silly to buy the same CD three times over. We actually finished it at the beginning of November last year, and we had a CD release at the Drake. When that sold out we made new ones with new covers, and we’re probably going to make another cover as well. This record was very slow to do, which is bad in my opinion. Too many overdubs, too much time spent on not-important things while we were doing it.

That usually happens with a band’s first record.

We have some EPs that are older, but they were done in a similar way, we just didn’t work on them as much. When we do a new record in the fall, we’ll spend less time on it and be more efficient. Last summer we didn’t do much, just record every couple of days and do a take.

Not that many people know who Spiral Beach is, but everyone who does is very excited about it. I’ve heard rumours of major labels sniffing around.

Really? I haven’t. We were talking to Paper Bag a bit, but nothing serious and I don’t think that will happen. At this point, not a lot of people have been talking to us about record labels, and it doesn’t seem essential at this point. In Canada, at least. I don’t think we need a label for anything other than distribution. If we could get distribution through a label without actually signing to them, that would be much better.

The rumour I heard was from a friend who was hanging out with an A&R guy at Hillside. My friend was enthusing greatly, and the A&R guy said, “I’ve seen them a couple of times, I don’t get it and it will never sell.’”

Well, that’s cool. Better they say that now than later. Major labels—I don’t have something against them in principle, but I know a couple of people who have been totally screwed over by them. For distribution, they can put CDs anywhere, and we can’t do that. At this point, we’re delivering CDs by hand to stores in Toronto. I think if we did something with a major it would be just for distribution. But you never know.

You grew up in musical households, and you know people your own age who had or have deals.

Liam is the best example of that. He had a huge deal and they spent so much money making his record with the guy who produced Madonna and Michael Jackson, and now he has no deal and he’s recording in his bedroom. Not that his career is over, or anything. He’s 18.

Just for the record, how old are all of you now?

We’re 17 to 19.

How does that work in the Toronto club scene?
It’s usually fine. The only thing has been at NXNE and CMW showcases, but I know they have to be tight there with all the chaos going on. Normally they’re fine with it.

The Barmitzvah Brothers always had horror stories about Toronto when they were underage.

Yeah, we’ve been friends with them forever. I think somehow they had it worse than us, I don’t know why. They told us that too.

Then again, they all looked even younger than they actually were.

They’re older than us, but they kind of look younger, it’s true.

How was Hillside for you? [the festival took place two weeks before this interview]
It was really good, it was crazy. Everybody was there. All these people I know from different places. There were people there who were my parents’ friends, and people there I listen to but I’d never met before. I was talking to Ian Blurton, and how cool is that? Although him being there was kind of weird, he was a bit weirded out. His band is much more of a club, downtown rock band.

You don’t see him in daylight very often.

No! But his band was really good. I thought they were one of the best bands there.

I heard that you had gone for years, and that you were Dish Ninjas before.

Yeah, last year all four of us were Dish Ninjas. That was sweet. It was fun, to a point. It’s an easy job, and it’s beside the main stage, so that’s cool. It’s funny that we were all back for another year, but playing this time.

I saw that you played a bunch of folk festivals this year. Hillside is a very different festival, but when you go somewhere more folkie like Blue Skies [folk festival outside Kingston, ON], how does that go over?

We were there last week, and that’s the most hippie one of anything. It’s like, extreme hippie. It’s almost too much to take sometimes. Everyone is just so happy.

Are you the loudest band there?
Not this year. Last year we did a main stage set and it was really loud and good. This year we did a totally not-electric workshop, which totally failed. We had decided beforehand not to plan it, and that didn’t work at all. When we got there, people were expecting us to play our songs, and we were expecting to play with some old people there with acoustic guitars and jam. But people wanted us to play ‘Voodoo’ or something. We just sat around and eventually got around to playing some songs. We also tried to do some clapping pieces like Steve Reich, which didn’t work at all. It was fun being there, though.

Don’t the hippies love to clap? Why wouldn’t that work?

They were good at clapping. We just didn’t know what we were doing. I was just having a really bad day, anyway.

Was Hillside the first time you played with the Hidden Cameras?

Yeah, and I’ve only actually ever seen them at Hillside. I’ve never been to one of their shows, which is weird, because they’re from Toronto. Mike [Olsen] the cello player had come to one of our shows, and maybe some other guys too. We know people who know them.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006



The name looms large over Canadian rock'n'roll, for a multitude of reasons.

For a certain generation of Canadians, Sloan were the first homegrown band they fell in love with: the band who would send them scurrying to track down import EPs and 7" singles, the band who jumped from obscurity to a major label American deal while running their own respectable indie in the process, the band with myriad built-in dramas (girlfriends in the incestuous Halifax scene, constant threat of break-up, label battles), the band that inspired a genuine love from average fans unlike many of their peers.

Their mid-90s albums still hold up well: take the best tracks from 1994's Twice Removed, 1996's One Chord to Another and 1998's Navy Blues and you have as brilliant a pop album as this country's ever produced. Since then, the band's been in a bit of a tailspin, falling out of fashion as those kids got older, and scoring their best hits when they aimed for the middle of the road--like the nonetheless excellent 2002 single "The Other Man" (which, and this cat has long been out of the bag, is actually about Chris Murphy getting between Feist and the Apostle of Hustle). Fairweather fans are well-advised to check the 2005 singles comp A-Sides Win for further evidence.

Nonetheless, Canadian critics--many of whom came of age during Sloan's golden era--for the most part gave them a free pass, even on 2004's turgid Action Pact. That album reeked of placation: to rock radio, to lughead expectations, to major labels, to America. And Canada, for that matter, as Chris Murphy's shameless nationalist pandering could be heard in the single "Rest of My Life," where he sang about wanting to live the rest of his life in Canada. Come on, even the Rheostatics and Tragically Hip don't stoop to that, and Sloan of all people always seemed to consciously avoid that kind of writing in the first place (which can be done well: ask Sloan's old friend Joel Plaskett). It all sounded like a resignation, and not just because of its classic 70s rock aesthetic, but because the songs simply sounded limp. If it had actually kicked ass--like much of Navy Blues--it would be a very different story. Nonetheless, we still got to read most critics buy the party line at the time: the band has never felt more united, we needed a change of scenery and more direction (which is why they recorded in L.A. with Tom Rothrock), this is "getting back to basics" or some such nonsense.

So no one was expecting much from their new album, titled Never Hear the End of It. On its overly meta opening track, "Flying High Again," Jay Ferguson sings, "Right or wrong, you know we'll never disappear." And here we have evidence as to why they shouldn't: they still have it in them to make amazing radio rock that aims right for the heart of both the mainstream listener and the hardcore vinyl geek. Granted, the main criticism of Sloan is still valid: it too often sounds like mere pastiche. But just because they get the sound down perfectly doesn't mean they can't add their own songs to the canon, and the shocking thing about this ballsy 30-song set is that their batting average is ridiculously high, particularly in the album's first third. The vocal arrangements soar, Andrew Scott is still one of rock's best drummers, and even the most trivial songs here still beat out most of their recent discography.

I interviewed Andrew Scott for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record in early October. The album had just come out and they were already on tour in the Maritimes. I've known Chris Murphy for years via the Exclaim Hockey league and other connections (and played on stage with him in a cover band for such gatherings); Jay Ferguson and I have mutual friends and he's always impeccably charming whenever I meet him. Both of them are hosts on CBC Radio 3 when time permits. Further disclosure: my old roommate Victor Wolters did lights for them on the Action Pact tour--which I have to say in the most unbiased way possible, was the best light show I've ever seen in a rock club, working brilliant and subtle choreography with very simple flourescent lights.

O, and they appear on the cover of this book.

But Scott is always a mystery to many. He's the most reclusive member of the band, and the least likely guy to still be playing in a rock band at his age. That's what made our conversation more interesting to me--especially because this is the kind of record that he obviously wanted to make, perhaps even more so than his bandmates. And for a guy who makes it sound like he puts his head down and lets others steer the ship, he's also very opinionated on the topic of Action Pact.

I hadn't listened to the new album since doing this interview, but going back to it today I like it even more than my first impression. It's undoubtedly a new lease on life, and more power to them for it.

Sloan play Toronto's Kool Haus this Thursday, November 30. It's a make-up date for an earlier show that was postponed due to Murphy's throat infection.

Sloan, Andrew Scott

September 26, 2006

locale: phone interview from hotel room in Prince Edward Island

How are you approaching the set list with so much new material? How do you fit that in with all the greatest hits?
We’re concentrating mostly on the new record, to some people’s chagrin. But we’re not doing it for you—we’re doing it for ourselves. We’re throwing in the odd oldie here and there. We’ve also employed a fifth musician for the first time in our long, storied career. We got this guy Greg MacDonald who’s playing keyboards for us, and he’s fantastic. He’s this ultra-musical person from Vancouver.

Was he in a band out there?

Chris knows him better than anybody. I don’t know if he was actually playing in a band at the time, but he was keen to jump aboard when we asked him to do it. He’s a great singer and great musician.

I imagine you were being a bit facetious when you said it was to the audience’s chagrin that you’re playing so much new material.

Well, not fully. Our record is so new that a lot of people, especially out here [in the Maritimes], we’re playing a lot of university shows, and a lot of those people just know the hits, so to speak, and not necessarily the albums, especially this new one. So a lot of people are standing there wondering, ‘what song is this?’

This comes right after putting out a hits package. Was there anything you learned from putting that together that influenced how this one was made?

It was a combination of a number of things. It was a time-saving maneouvre for us. The time was right to do something like that. It was an attempt to put out a release in the States that people could latch on to for people who had never heard of us before and could get a taste of what we’re about. If it worked, great, if not, I don’t know. It gave us the urge to go and make a new record quickly, and make a big long one and get a whole bunch of new songs to play, because we were all getting a bit tired of playing the old ones.

You in particular, I would imagine—last time you didn’t have any songs on that record. I heard you saying at the time that you were a new dad and didn’t have much to write about at the time…

Yeah, I had had songs that I was offering to that record, but I wasn’t thrilled with the state they were in and nobody else was either. And they all had a ton of songs ready to go, and we were under the gun time-wise because we recorded in L.A. with a producer. There were constraints that we had to consider, so I decided to not bother trying a few of my songs just for the sake of getting them on a record.

With the exception of Jay—whose voice is always distinctive to me—I have a lot of trouble distinguishing voices on this album. How many songs do you have on this record?

I have eight, but a lot of them are really short. I own four of the one-minute-and-ten-seconds-or-less songs. Those were really fun to make and I think they make sense in the context of the record. They’re these connector vignettes that we planned on doing and we made them up on the spot and recorded them.

I think those kinds of songs make this record work.

Me too.

I think if it was a double record of five-minute songs…

You would never hear the end of it. Literally.

You’re not the only one writing those shorter songs, so why was that? Were you getting bored with repeating choruses?

I don’t think it’s that. It’s just doing what we do a little differently, which you have to do if you want to try and continue to get better as a band and make better records one after the other. It was a conscious decision. It wasn’t like we decided to come up with exactly ten songs around a minute long. We just wrote a whole bunch of them, and those are some of my favourite songs on the record.

The sequencing of the record works really well, and some sections work as suites, not unlike The Who or the Fiery Furnaces.

Again, a very conscious decision.

How does that work with different writers? Do you check to see who’s writing in the same key, or what?
It was very thought out in terms of what songs would run into each other. If one ended in A minor and one began in A major, those two would go together. We played around with them in their earlier states and knew which ones would work and which wouldn’t.

Even lyrically there are some threads. “Something’s Wrong” comes right after “Right or Wrong.”

Yeah, right. That’s more of a happy accident.

Every time a new Sloan album comes out, I read countless articles where the writer says the same thing: they apologize for the last record, they say the band has never been more unified in years, and this album marks a new direction for the band. And yet this is the first time I think that’s been true in almost ten years! How do you feel about that cycle?
The press is going to be whatever it is. It’s not for us or from us. People who listen to our records have a different take on them than we do, and that’s the case with any band. What’s written about you is uncontrollable. But I think this is the record we’ve had to make for a long time, and I’m really glad we did. We were humming and hawing about the notion of making a double album, and whether we’d have enough good material to fill it out. We were lucky that everybody wrote so much and we came up with 30 songs—and that’s edited down from probably about 55 of them. With four of us writing, the onus isn’t on one guy to come up with all the material.

Action Pact struck me as the most divisive record of your career. Some people loved it, and…

Oh yeah, and some people just hated it. That’s usually the case with our band, though, is that people either love us or hate us.

But this was fans who were divided, people who already liked the band.

Yeah, I know. That one really pissed ‘em off! I don’t know, there’s some success to that too. If you can make people mad with a record, you’re doing something right. That record was an obvious attempt at something that failed. Like every successive record for us, we just say, ‘Well, back to the drawing board.’

When you say that the album has been trying to make this record for a couple of years, what reasons prevented that from happening before?

I’m just talking from my own personal point of view. I always prefer weirder records that have more art potential as opposed to a commercial reach, so to speak. For a while there, we were really trying to get our records played on the radio and trying to sell some records, and considering how much longer are we going to keep this thing going, and what do we have to do in order to make that happen? It’s not like there’s a formula. You can’t predict anything. You can think that you do what you do and cross your fingers and hope it’s going to happen, but it’s not necessarily going to. Now, even more so in the world of record buying, it’s a question of who’s buying records and who’s not. It’s a confused Titanic, the whole music industry.

So why not do what you love, then.

Yeah. I’m glad we just decided to fuck that whole thing of striving for commercial success. You’re not going to be satisfied anyway. Even if Action Pact did sell a million records in the States, it would probably backfire in some way or another. There’s some comfort in being an underdog all the time.

Comparing the process of the last two albums, I find a lot of Canadian bands in particular will go to the bigger American city and make an expensive record with a name producer, and it’s not any better than a record they do make closer to home.

Yeah. And you’re lucky if you ever hear from that band ever again, in the case of a lot of them. This one, we did it totally ourselves, recorded it at our rehearsal space, did it on a couple of laptops. Our soundman produced it and engineered it with us. It was such a comfortable environment.

And not even creatively, but even just the sound of it—it sounds as big as the L.A. record. The advantage of that old model doesn’t seem relevant to me anymore.

For sure. You can make a really good record in your basement.

With 30 songs, there are obviously a lot of musical tangents you could have gone on, and yet the record is remarkably consistent. Were you tempted to throw some curveballs, or was it a question of focusing on strengths?

It was more focusing on our strengths. Some of the songs will be considered curveballs to some fans, like the ones who were pissed off at Action Pact. These people get so caught up in it that there’s always something that they will be dumbfounded by.

With a band that’s been around as long as you have, there will always be a conservative element of the fan base who want you to do one thing.

Of course. And because we’ve never been huge, they still claim us as their own. They still think they own us and nobody else is allowed to touch us.

To me it sounds quite consistent all the way through, with the exception of one acoustic songs that sticks out—in a good way.

That’s a really great song, and it suits the album. The whole notion of consistent records never occurs to me. I like compilation records, or ones that go from one thing to the next.

At one point in the process did you come up with the title?

That was a pulling teeth we had on the plane to Winnipeg one day. For me, I’m not reading too much into the title of any record. The Times They Are a Changing by Bob Dylan—'well, I guess that’s just what it’s called.’ Or Let it Bleed—hey, good title. If it were up to me, I’d close my eyes and point at the newspaper and whatever two words they landed on, that would be the title. But there are some people in my band who actually take a bit more care and pride and come up with a title that has some sort of connected meaning to this or that. It’s always going to be some kind of pun, but I don’t mind it. If it’s something I hate, I’ll stand up and say that it’s terrible. If it’s something I can live with, that’s fine, just count me out of the equation.

What’s it been like learning all these songs again for the live show? According to the YouTube stuff [behind the scenes footage from the studio that the band posted in the lead-up to the release] most of the band might not even have played on specific songs on the record.

A lot of them were, but that’s always been the case with us. With the exception of Twice Removed and Action Pact, which are the two records we used a producer for. We’re a weird band of weird people. We’ve been doing it together for a long time, and we know what’s going to work and what’s not. On my songs, I generally play everything. I’m not doing that to consciously exclude anybody else. But it’s my little art project on this collective art project, and I just like to do it my way. Then we play them live together as a band, and they take on a different live, which is nice. I don’t want our live show to be a carbon copy of the record.

Were these rehearsals the most gruelling, with so much new material to learn?

No, not at all. It’s so often the case with us that we have to learn how to play the record afterwards. It was nice having Greg come along and really add some body to the sound of everything. We’re pretty at ease with one another now, and we know what to expect. It was an enjoyable pre-production period.

You’re playing Oktoberfest in Kitchener, and to the best of my knowledge, you’re actually sharing the stage with another living Canadian legend: Walter Ostanek. How will rubbing shoulders with this icon compare with, say, the Rolling Stones?

Well, it will have a different sort of feel. There won’t be as much fanfare, for sure, for old Walter. There won’t be half as many crew members milling about. The Stones is such a giant circus when you play with them. We don’t spend any time with them, they don’t know us, they didn’t ask us to come and play with them. It’s one of these political lotteries that managed to get us on three Stones shows in one year. It’s great, you can’t say no to them, and why would you? It doesn’t get any bigger than that.

Walter Ostanek, though! That’s big! Can we expect any collaboration?

Hey, I’ll happily get him up to play accordion on a couple of our songs. We’ll make it so.

Some of them are really short, so he can learn them at soundcheck.

Most of them are two chords, so it will be perfect. We’ll let what happens happen.

post-script: Chris Murphy was felled by a severe throat problem, which cancelled the Oktoberfest. We’ll have to wait and see if these two Canadian icons will meet again.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Now that it's list-making time again--and I'm usually called upon for about four or five different permutations of this exercise--one album I keep returning to is Beirut's Gulag Orkestar.

Here's what I said about it in my review for Exclaim magazine this past July. I'd provide a link, but their website--in particular the reviews section--remains a national embarassment (long-promised changes are apparently afoot).

!!! (mark of excellence)
Gulag Orkestar
Coming out of a melatonin dreamstate, it's never clear where you're going to land. One minute you're outside a Brooklyn bodega with a Casio keyboard, the next you're singing melodies to fill the New Mexican sky. But you keep coming back to that small Eastern European town by the sea, standing on the corner armed with your ukelele, fighting to be heard amidst the brass bands that parade around the village. If you are 20-year old Zach Condon, this would all be par for the course. Countless American college students backpack around Europe and return thinking they're all cultured and shit, but precious few make great art out of the experience. Condon comes off like Morrissey singing Balkan opera, and everything is illuminated once he lifts his voice into a codeine croon to make you swoon. He gets valuable direction from more experienced traveler Jeremy Barnes, who anchored the drum set for Neutral Milk Hotel and later traipsed his accordion around the European countryside as A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Though the band name and album title suggest war-torn landscapes, Condon's music is ultimately uplifting, lifting the fog of resignation with the sound of hope. (Ba Da Bing!) –Michael Barclay

I wrote another short piece that will be included in the magazine's year-end issue, which hits the streets tomorrow. Not that Gulag Orkestar sums up 2006 in any discernible way. Quite the contrary. Gulag Orkestar is so wonderfully out of time--as evidenced in the opening brass fanfare that bleeds into loping piano chords that plod into a dub drum fill before it all gets tied together by young Zach Condon's wordless warbling. It could be disastrous, but instead Condon forges a cohesion from this detritus, a perfectly realised album that should exist in its own little world.

Which, of course, it doesn't. Because Condon is a North American upstart whose never visited the Balkans--an area which inspires much of his music--and takes his name from a wartorn city that once again found itself in the crossfire this summer, he's wide open for attack from the same quarters that think Paul Simon, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel are all one step away from being colonialist slavemasters. Of course, they drew from non-European traditions, which complicated matters further. What initially surprised me about reaction to Beirut was that no one seemed to mind that Condon was apparently pillaging Balkan brass with no direct contact with the culture itself. Even if you have a hate-on for Simon Gabriel Byrne (which I most definitely don't--all three loom large in my musical education), you have to admit that they've given back generously to the cultures that inspire them.

That's changed somewhat now that more and more people clue into the influence of Eastern European music, as I discovered in this article in The Guardian that Chromewaves directed me to.

I don't think Condon has to apologize for anything, really. Easy for me to say, naturally, because I don't have a culture to pillage (though the fact that there's an American band called Canada does get my back up a little--even more so coz they're quite bad). For me, Gulag Orkestar is such an evocative, imaginary sonic world that succeeds precisely because any kind of authenticity is the last concern of the creator. This is where beautiful hybrid music gets created, where boundaries are bled, where communication begins.

The conversation below was conducted for Eye Weekly, for this article back in September. I missed the Toronto show because I was at Pop Montreal; I missed the Montreal show because I was at the opposite end of town chatting with old friends at the Laura Barrett/Habitat show. Hopefully he makes his way north of the border again soon.

He's not terribly forthcoming--this reads a bit like a standard phoner done on a cell in the middle of a tour. I do, however, prod into some of the issues discussed above. Otherwise, it's mostly short answers, lot of small talk, but some small insight for Neutral Milk Hotel geeks. But if you want to peek further into his psyche, I'd highly recommend reading his guest post on Said the Gramophone from earlier this year. And also thanks to them for the heads up last week regarding their Swan Lake post (beautifully written, by the way, as always).

Beirut, Zach Condon

September 19, 2006

locale: phone interview from the road

How was playing in Moscow last week?

That went really well, actually. I was surprised at some point in the concert that some people were singing along.

Is that the first time you’d played anywhere close to Eastern Europe?

Definitely. That was actually our first time out of the country, other than me travelling by myself.

What can people expect from the live show? Tell me about the band.

It’s settled into place now. It’s an eight-piece band playing the same range of instruments heard on the album: trumpets, pianos, ukeleles, accordions and drums. It’s a ramshackle orchestra.

How are the rock club soundmen dealing with it?

Uh, they don’t. They really don’t know what to do with ukeleles. We’re starting to figure out tricks to get them to make you sound right.

Is ukelele the hardest thing?

Oh yeah. If you put a pick-up on it, it sounds like an electric guitar, which is the last thing I wanted.

My understanding is that when you left high school, that you took not one but several trips over to Europe. Is this true?

Yeah. There was this repeated history where I would drop out of school, run over to Europe, try to go back to school again, and then go back to Europe.

How many times did that cycle repeat itself?

Just twice. But I did drop out of three or four different schools.

Where did the trips take you?
Mostly France, a lot of time there. And Germany, Prague, Amsterdam, London. I never really made it that far east, which is the ironic thing.

What was it about Europe specifically that fascinated you? A lot of people explore different parts of North America, and for a while Asia was the new Europe for a lot of post-teenage travellers. But now everyone seems to want to hustle over to Europe again. Why do you think that is?

For Americans, it represents a place where cultures are still intact, but it’s modern. It’s aged gracefully, whereas America did not: it turned into Elvis sitting on the toilet bowl pretty quickly. Europe kept its traditions and its class while watching TV.

Any political theories about American longing for Europe?
I think that everything we did wrong with our system, the Europeans tended to do right. I used the health care system a couple of times there, and it was awesome. It’s hard to explain. I don’t have any great philosophical reason for it, but it feels more comfortable and natural over there for me.

I’ve read that you got your first healthy dose of so-called “world music” while over there. Do you think American audiences—specifically indie rock kids, I suppose—can be a bit xenophobic when it comes to those influences?

Incredibly so. It’s as if the only instrument ever created was the guitar, and they’re cynical about electronic music and world music. I don’t listen to any indie rock, but I listen to a lot of the other two. In France, kids will have a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album, but right beside it they’ll have an Ethiopiques album. It’s just another form of pop music there. We are a giant homogenized country.

I find it interesting that you approach Balkan music here without an academic approach, and more of an honest emotional one—and as a result it sounds more real to me.

And that’s what doesn’t resonate for me with a lot of tacky modern world music for me, that professional musician approach. It’s not conservatory music.

But what’s funny is that if you had done something like this even five years ago—or, by extension, if you had done this with African or Brazilian music—all sorts of issues of cultural appropriation and authenticity would come up. Have you encountered any reactions like that?

I wouldn’t have found an audience back then, because it’s too lo-fi for a traditional world music audience, and it’s too foreign for any indie audience back then. It’s spiralling outwards, especially since ‘indie’ is less indie. Its credibility is at stake and people care less about it.

In terms of this not being your cultural background, it’s interesting and refreshing that people are listening to this with an open mind. There are keyboard pop songs here and a definite dub reggae drum sound…

That drum sound started as an inside joke, because I listen to a lot of dub music, and anyone who knows me well enough knows that too. The joke being that I was using it with fairly Balkan sounding songs.

But it doesn’t sound like an obnoxious worldbeat mash-up song.

I could never stand doing that.

Did any of this weigh on your mind at all when writing the arrangements, was there any kind of impostor syndrome?

No. This might sound a bit new age-y, but it was like meditation. The less I thought about it, the easier it came out. It was a situation where I had a panic attack of writing, and I didn’t think about it much until the songs were done. The only real thoughtful stuff I put into it was mixing it and making the sound quality old, grainy and messy.

Other than simply the scales and the sound, what drew you to it emotionally? aesthetically?

It’s the kind of thing that you almost have to see live, or at least on video, to understand the aesthetic going on. It’s really enthralling music, the thrill of seeing 20 trumpets on stage blasting away this epic melody. And it has this dark beauty to it. You can only spout off clich├ęs about it at that point, but it’s impossible to deny the melodic value of that stuff. At the same time it’s so drunk and eager.

When I think of 20 trumpets playing together, it’s either a big and clean and punchy, or full of tremolo notes with everyone doing their own thing that creates this whole other thing, like New Orleans brass. It’s the difference between classical choir singing and gospel choir singing, with these other tonalities in there that give it this extra push.

I love how the whole thing sounds like a rickety machine that’s about to fall apart, but it doesn’t.

Does it ever do that live?
It comes crashing down all around us sometimes, but it’s been working out recently. We got our stage chops now.

In many of the songs, there’s this pervasive feeling of hope in a wartorn landscape—again, communicating more through the melodies than any actual lyrics. Was there a specific emotional tone you were trying to convey on the album?

At the time I was listening to a lot of Sigur Ros, and that’s just gibberish. I didn’t want him to sing real words, because the melodies are so pretty. For some people that really comes across, and others are frustrated when they can’t understand lyrics. To them I say that I was supposed to sound too drunk to pronounce them.

If I was listening to Balkan music, I wouldn’t be able to understand that either.

That’s the other thing. It’s meant to sound a bit foreign. I was just listening to that new Serge Gainsbourg tribute record, and I love his stuff, I’ve been listening to it a lot recently. But everyone on this thing was singing in English, and it sounded awful to me: the songs were boring, the melodies fell flat on their face.

But you are writing some lyrics in English here. How do you approach them?
I don’t write lyrics so much as I write a short story about a city or a place and then allude to it in song. ‘Mount Wroclai’ is about a city underneath a volcano in Poland.

Why the name Beirut? What image did it conjure for you?

It’s an image of a modern Arabic city, way off the map, and there was something quite enchanting about that. I named it that when I was 15 and had just started recording. At the time it seemed so bold to name it that. Now it’s become a bit embarrassing, because people want to know if there’s a political side to it.

You have to admit it was a weird summer to launch a debut record credited to Beirut.

When the record was getting ready to come out in Europe, I brought that up [to the record company], and they said, ‘Well, you’re just going to have to deal with it because everyone knows you by that name.’ They told me about Kristin Hersh releasing an album right around the time of the Indonesian tsumani called 50 Foot Wave.

I have two images of Beirut the city: one is as the Paris of the Middle East, and the other as a wartorn, bombed out city—either in the early 80s or now.

That adds to the image of it as a foreign, beseiged city. The whole thing seemed romantic at the time.

Couple that with the word gulag in the title…

I’m just out to offend people, aren’t I?

What’s the reason for the gulag?
It’s a lot more frivolous than one might expect. The phrase ‘gulag orkestar’ means a band of prisoners. I was thinking literally of an Eastern European prison band.

But gulag is Russian in origin, no?
Yeah, and orkestar is Serbian for orchestra.

In the songs that I don’t hear lyrics in, what’s communicated to me is this feeling of hope in a wartorn landscape. They sound like songs you sing the morning after the bombing, to rouse everyone to continue on. And much of the record has a similar tone to it, so was there something specific you were going through with the entire record?

It was just the time I was going through. I had just come back from Europe and had nothing going on in my life, and I was feeling nostalgic. So… yeah. That’s about as far as it goes.

The album was recorded in both New Mexico and Brooklyn. How did your move affect things in the process?
I was actually finished the record in New Mexico. Ben Goldberg [of Ba Da Bing records] asked me if I wanted to orchestrate it any more. At that point it was exactly what you hear, minus a few drum tracks and stuff. I basically told him that I didn’t want to touch it, and that it would drive me nuts if I went back and did anything again. I called up Jeremy [Barnes of A Hawk and a Hacksaw] to come out to New York with me and play drums on a few tracks and fill in a few violin licks. Overall it was done at that point. I didn’t redo any vocals or trumpets or anything.

You’re playing all the trumpets, are you?

I hear some really low brass on it though, and I don’t see any other brass credits in the notes. Is that you as well?

Yeah, it’s euphonium.

I know you didn’t know Jeremy Barnes before you played a show with him, but did you know A Hawk and a Hacksaw?

Yeah, of course, I’d been hearing about him for a while. My friends told me that a guy from Neutral Milk Hotel [Barnes was their drummer] lived [in Alberquerque, New Mexico, Condon’s hometown]. Furthermore, everyone was pointing him out to me because we both seemed to be doing similar music. It was this weird fluke that two guys alone in their bedrooms in Alberquerque had been making gypsy music. So of course someone put us both on the same bill together, and we clicked immediately.

He lived in rural France for a while didn’t he?

Yeah, in the south.

What was [Barnes's Neutral Milk Hotel bandleader, now recluse] Jeff Magnum up to? Didn’t he do some eastern European field recordings?

That’s right, I found out about that after the fact too. It seemed like everyone was veering in the same direction after they did Elephant 6. I talked about that with Jeremy, who said that the sound they were going for in their heads was already being made. They’d spent all that time thinking they were geniuses, creating something that no one had ever heard before, and then Jeff went out to Bulgaria and recorded this folk festival and they all said, ‘Alright, we give up. We’ll try this stuff now.’ They all went their different ways, and that’s what happened.

Surely they must have absorbed that music subconsciously sometime beforehand.

I certainly heard that music subconsciously years before I heard a real brass band. I heard it in Tom Waits music and all sorts of stuff I really love.

I’ve always been drawn to this music too, and only really discovered what it was a few years ago. And now there are bands like Man Man and Devotchka, both of whom I’ve interviewed in the last year, and both of them mentioned Emir Kusturica films.

It’s like what I was saying earlier about having to see it visually to make it click, Emir Kusturica did that perfectly. That brass band chasing people around with those drunken melodies and people tied to trees, the band is always there in the background.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Swan Lake: Dan Bejar

Today, the final installment of our three Swan Lake interviews. You can find chats with Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer way back when.

Dan Bejar is known to most as the man who calls himself Destroyer. It's a name that initially seemed like a send-up of glam rock cliches, or at least a KISS cover band, but over time the one thing that Bejar has been bent on destroying is people's expectations. Through his association with the New Pornographers and on his own varied discography, Bejar gives off the air of someone who really doesn't care what anyone might think of what he does, a confidence that confounds critics and audiences as much as it attracts them to his devil-may-care artistry.

Swan Lake is no exception, and it's a license to confuse even some of the most loyal Destroyer fans. Part of the reason I was initially a bit skeptical was because for me, the low point in the Destroyer discography (and there are a couple, balanced by some of my favourite albums of all time, by anyone) is the Notorious Lightning EP of 2005. This is where he hired Carey Mercer's Frog Eyes to be his backing band while touring the synth-heavy misunderstood masterpiece Your Blues, an album I loved. While that material could easily be re-interpreted in a variety of ways, I didn't find any--well, okay, most--of the Frog Eyes arrangements to illuminate anything in particular about the Your Blues material. Au contraire, there seemed to be a certain delight in thrashing it to pieces.

Spencer Krug was recruited to join a later version of this band, which made me all the more curious what would happen when the three of them started something from scratch. While Frog Eyes is the dominant influence among these three strong personalities, Bejar's songs here are unmistakable, even at their most abstract ("Shooting Rockets"). In some ways, the opaque nature of the recording reminded me a bit of his much-maligned (by himself as well) debut album We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge, which would be completely unlistenable were it not for fleeting glimpses of later brilliance; indeed, some of those songs were later adapted for the New Pornographers. A similar microscopic eye is required here, but the payoff is much bigger, considering the experience and talent involved.

Time for qualifiers: I sent these questions off to Dan before I spoke to either Carey or Spencer, and at that time I obviously hadn't discerned what the division of labour was on the album. And I also don't feel great about this interview because despite having been a fan for five years now, this is actually the first time he and I have spoke on the record. Early on he refused all Canadian press (except, I believe, one Discorder article and a chat with Mr. Zoilus--can't find any links either way), and I had to decline interviews for both Your Blues and Rubies due to my own time constraints at each time. For that reason alone, I wish I'd put more thought and research into this before I sent it off to him; at the same time, I knew that I had to squeeze three eloquent men into one 800w piece.

Note: Radio Free Canuckistan is taking a brief break for Yanksgiving. I'll be in North Carolina meeting the Fockers.

Dan Bejar

November 7, 2006

Via email

Is it true you tried to enlist Spencer into Destroyer when he played piano in a building you lived in? Did you hear his original material at that time, or was he just mucking about?

Absurd! We lived together at the E.18th house for a year, and at the end of that year as far as I was concerned his main musical interests were Charles Ives, Texas Swing and ska, in that order. I deemed his tastes insane (and rightfully so). [Jason] Zumpano had already been playing keyboards in Destroyer for a year, before I'd ever met Spencer. I had no idea that Spencer had any interest in writing songy songs till way later when I heard rumour of these bizzarro four-track genre pieces floating around Victoria/MileEnd (in Montreal)/EastVan (there should be a word for the city that those three things comprise), which I guess were the earliest Sunset Rubdown recordings.

What drew you to Carey as a kindred spirit? What is it you share in common?

I like the volume at which he plays his guitar. And, of course, we're both painters. His lyrics are pretty funny, vivid. So are mine. He has a kind of total disregard for melody, and total insistence on it at the same time, which is something most of my favourite singers and guitar players have/do.

What would you pinpoint as the main strengths and attributes of Carey and Spencer's writing?

Kinda tough, don't really wanna do that. It is enough to know that they are there, often in spades.

To my mind, Carey sounds the most different here from his "day job"-whereas I could see both your songs and Spencer's being Destroyer or Sunset Rubdown songs, respectively. Would you agree?

Can't say I agree. I find Spencer's stuff on Beast Moans more croony and soulful, less rigorous than the Shut Up record. As for my stuff, “Freedom” would sound totally out of place on any Destroyer record released in the last five years. “Rubella” has a bit of a This Night vibe I guess, which obviously makes me really into it. But “Widow's Walk” totally sounds like Swan Lake me, and “Shooting Rockets” is a hilariously brutal example of extreme Swan Lakeness, though I doubt anyone's ever heard more than the first minute of that song, and therefore might be hesitant to agree or disagree.

Did you all write together or bring material to the project? Was any part of the recording done piecemeal in isolation, or were all three of you present for the whole thing?

Are there any other players here, or do the three of you cover everything?

Firstly, all I did on this record was write four songs, play them on acoustic guitar, sing 'em, play one electric lead on “Rubella,” and sing back-up vocals on Spencer and Carey's songs, in the spots where they asked me to. I threw in my two cents once or twice during mixing, but fact of the matter is that most of the work went down in Victoria after I'd gone back to Vancouver. The rest of what you hear is all Carey and Spencer. It would be too much work to delineate which of the two did what where, because it's pretty equal and it's all over the place. If you're familiar with their other records, you can probably tell, for the most part, what Carey's guitar sounds like, or what a prototypical Krug keyboard part is, but even that can be tough in spots. Same goes for the mixing, drum building, etc. In that sense, my songs were extremely collaborative, in that I wrote them and those guys made them. Also, I hear Carey all over Spencer's songs, and vice versa.

Did making this record illuminate anything in your own work that you hadn't realized before?

Those guys, especially after having to learn all those Your Blues numbers, seem to think I gotta lot of songs in the key of B, or maybe it was E. Anyway, I never realized that till it was pointed out to me in their usual brutal manner. They also like to point out how numbingly simple my songs are, which is something I've been suspecting for a while now.

Do the three of you share any good/bad work habits?

I'm known to pace in the studio, but I can't remember if those guys did any pacing or not. I'd have a hard time identifying my own habits in the studio (aside from taking the occasional sip of beer), let alone theirs.

At least two of you are known for placing importance on lyrics, but it's very hard to distinguish words the way the vocals are mixed here. Was there an intention to that? Did you consciously not want to make lyrics a focus?

It was pretty intentional. At least for my songs, I think it was intentional. The lyrics being way up front was old news as far as a Destroyer song goes, so I think those guys thought it was time to try something different, and I was totally into it. That being said, if you are referring to the indecipherability of “Shooting Rockets,” the vocals are treated and somewhat buried in an attempt to veil the gurgling sound that I mistook for singing, at the time.

I read recently that you were going to reissue (his 1996 debut) We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge. Is this true? I've read you make disparaging remarks about it in the past, so why did you want to? Part of the reason I ask is that is that in some small way, Swan Lake harkens back to the home recording experimentation of that era. Is there any parallel in the approach for you?

I think the Bridge is out, though I haven't seen it in any of the shops here in Malaga. Maybe I used to be a little embarrassed of it, I felt like I had moved way beyond it even by the time it came out. But I'm way over that now. That's what I sounded like when I was 22, whatever. It's fine. Let it be in print. As for Beast Moans sounding like a screwy toybox one-man-band basement record, I'd concede that neither record is too scared of cleaning up loose threads, but the threads themselves seem to me very very very different. And obviously there is a level of musicianship that is impossibly different. Maybe on both records you get to hear the sound of music taking place in a room, which is pretty rare for anything recorded in a studio these days. But in no way do I think that Beast Moans is the sound of a PZM [microphone] plugged into a 4-track. I'd say if anything there is maybe a little overlap between the way some of the songs on Beast Moans were approached and some of the songs on This Night were approached.

I hear your schedule is filling up with all sorts of new projects: something with [girlfriend] Sydney [Vermont], something with Mr. [Stephen] McBean [of Black Mountain/Pink Mountaintops], something called Bonaparte. What are all these bands, who are they with, what differentiates them all?

Bonaparte has a record that's been sitting on the shelf for ages, and I think will finally come out in the spring on Soft Abuse. That band's kind of on semi-permanent hiatus, though, and has been for quite a while. It was a rock band that Syd wrote songs and sang for. I played guitar. Steve Wood played bass. Krista Marshall played guitar. And Josh Lindstrom [now of Awkward Stage] played drums. Hello Blue Roses is just the two of us, and I think pretty soon Syd will have an enough songs to fill up an album. We're gonna try and record it ourselves. Maybe it'll come out in 2007 as well. If you're referring to McBean's 'old man' band, Pimbod and the Total Boners, that just entails me learning how to play “The Oven Is My Friend” some time between now and 2009. Besides, I thought I got kicked out for spelling Pimbod wrong once in an e-mail!

How do they effect the future of Destroyer? Which has always been in flux anyway, but are these more collaborative or could you see your main focus shifting away from something with the expectations of a Destroyer album?

None of these above projects you mention involve me writing a single song, so that side of things is still pretty focused. They do spur on my interest in becoming a shit-hot guitar player/studio wiz.